Civil engineering update: Airport Link

For you civil engineering buffs, here’s an update on some of the work happening at the Suvarnabhumi Airport Rail Link construction site.  First, a little background:

The Airport Link is a 28.6 km (17.7 mile) mostly elevated train way that will serve as the eastern half of the “Light Red Line” in Khrungthep’s master transit plan.  The western half of the line is a planned extension north to connect to Don Meuang domestic airport, with no specific time frame in which that will occur.  Started in 2005, construction of the eastern half is expected to be finished sometime in late 2008, with recent news reports puting the construction at a 70% completion rate as of this point.  Both local and express services will be offered on the line. 

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Above: “We apologize for any inconvenience as we build the maintenance complex for the airport train.”  The picture is of the delivery of the first of nine Siemens Desiro class 360/2 trainsets arrives in Thailand.

The express train will run from the Makkasan City Air Terminal (at the corner of Phetburi and Asoke Roads, where you will be able to connect with the MRT subway Blue Line) to the basement level of Suvarnabhumi Airport in 15 minutes.  It is expected that you will be able to check in for flights at the Makkasan CAT, receiving your boarding pass and handing over your checked baggage, just like at the Airport Express terminal in Hong Kong.

The local train will run from the Phaya Thai station, (where you will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit Line), stopping at Ratchaprarop, Makkasan, then at four additional stops before arriving at the airport.  The total trip time for the local service will be 27 minutes.  The initial plans had several additional stops along the lines, including one at Royal City Avenue, a popular nightlife and entertainment district.  It appears that those stops will not be built at this time but just based on my own visual assessment of the construction in the RCA area, it looks like the tracks are being constructed in such a way that a station could be added in the future. 

The Airport Link’s maintenance yard and depot will be in the Soonvijai district, an area on the north side of Phetburi Road from roughly Thong Lor to Ekkamai.  Bangkok Hospital is located just to the west of this area and Tawn’s parents live just on the other side of Ekkamai Road, to the east of this area.

Sunday morning while running errands I stopped to snap some photos of the construction:

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Above: From the Ekkamai Road flyover, looking west.  On the left is the Soonvijai train station with a train stopping momentarily before continuing on to Hua Lamphong Station.  On the far side of the buildings that face the train station is Phetburi Road.  Bangkok Hospital is the white building on the right hand side of the picture, behind the construction site.  The elevated track is clearly visible on the left and the ramp where trains will exit and enter the main line is being built along the elevated track in the center of the picture.  The maintenance sheds are under construction in the center and right side of the picture.

Below: Taken from the other end of the above picture and looking to the east, you can see the construction of the exit/entry ramp where trains will connect with the elevated line (right) via the ramp (center).  The Soonvijai station is on the right side of the ground-level rail line, now occupied as the train has left the station.

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Below: Turning around from the above picture and looking west along the tracks, towards Makkasan Station.  The Royal City Avenue sign that is blocked by construction is a bit deceptive.  Before construction started, there was a frontage road along the rail tracks that you could drinve from the area where the picture was taken (which is essentially the entrance to Bangkok Hospital) to the entrance of the RCA entertainment district about 300 meters to the west.  That road is gone and, I assume, will not reopen.

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Above: A look inside one of the mainenance sheds, where you can see the rails have been laid and the catwalks that will run along the side of the trains have already been installed.

For more information, 2bangkok.com maintains a space dedicated to this project.

 

Honey spill hits Asoke Place

P1020235 This morning as I sat down to the computer, which is nestled among the stacks of boxes awaiting transport to our new condo, I looked down to see a pool of honey at the base of one of the “foodstuffs” boxes. 

It turned out that one of the bottles of unpasteurized honey I had purchased in Samut Songkhram had started to leak, a result of their recycled bottling materials: used brandy bottles are used again (caps and all) for the honey.

Some careful cleaning was done and the cardboard box has been wiped down and is drying.  I’ll reassemble and repack it and hopefully we can continue without any other environmental catastrophes.

 

Last night Ryan’s cousin Kenny was in town with his fiancee Amelia, his brother, and an assortment of friends.  Kenny and Amelia live in Hong Kong now so they are neighbors of sorts.  Didn’t have an opportunity to talk with them at Ryan and Sabrina’s wedding and later found out that their connection to me has multiple links: Amelia was roommates in Berkeley with Mabel, with whom I worked several years at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  There are Berkeley connections, volleyball connections, film festival connections, just all sorts of connections.

The seven of us had dinner at Cafe de Laos on Silom 19, a nice Northeastern Thai / Laotion place that I think I take nearly every guest to.  Afterwards we headed to the Moon Bar at the top of the Banyan Tree hotel for drinks.  Just before midnight it started to sprinkle and the staff evacuated us downstairs and into a sheltered area while settling bills.  No pictures to share, unfortunately.

 

And the party continues

Tam’s birthday is on November 17th, and it has become a bit of a tradition that we do a combined birthday celebration.  This year we opted for something small, since I’m still feeling under the weather with this allergy-cold thing and Tawn and I have been busy packing boxes getting ready for our move.

Dinner was at Baan Rabiangnam (River Tree House) the restaurant owned by Pete.  Pete is the current boyfriend of Tam’s ex, Frederick.  Pete’s very nice riverside restaurant is in Nonthaburi, just north of Khrungthep, in an old house that used to be his grandmother’s.  While a bit hard to get to if you don’t know the way, it is always busy with a regular and loyal clientelle and the kitchen turns out solid, tasty traditional Thai food.

Joining us for dinner were Markus and Tam, Tam’s sister Pune, his childhood friend Issara, and Markus’ friends Tim and Daniel, who were in from Singapore.

Markus tried to “surprise” us with dessert – a plate of ice cream scoops decorated with candles – but was up and down checking with Pete and was practically bouncing with anticipation, so much so that there wasn’t much of a surprise to it.  Nonetheless, it was a nice gesture and we enjoyed the evening.

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Above left: Tawn and Tam.  Above right: Pune and Issara.  Below: Tam and Markus.

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Above: Pretend to be surprised, everybody!  We were singing “Happy Birthday” so loud that it wasn’t until later that we found out the restaurant actually played a recorded version of this song at the same time.  Below: Birthday boys pose for pictures from multiple directions.

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Above: The restaurant has a tradition that if you tip more than 50 baht, you get to bang a gong.  Here, Daniel holds the gong while Tim prepares to give it a whack.  Reminiscent of the 1971 T-Rex song, which many readers may better know by the 1985 cover recorded by super group Power Station.

 

Another year for me and a new Beaujolais for everyone

Two big days: November 15th and 16th.  Here’s just some of the reasons why:

November 16

This year, November 16th is my 37th birthday, and I’m reveling in my continuously decreasing number of grey hairs.  The number is decreasing only because my overall hair count is decreasing.  As a percentage of total hair, the grey hairs are gaining the majority.

Tawn took the morning off work and we were up shortly after six for a taxi ride to the old city, to Wat Mahanparam.  Just down the street from the Democracy Monument, this temple is in the neighborhood where Tawn’s father and siblings lived when they first moved from Buriram province when Khun Sudha was in his teens.

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Above: Stopping for coffee and steamed buns before catching a taxi.  Below: An unusually elaborate altar set up by the taxi driver on his dashboard, to provide him with protection as he navigates the streets of Khrungthep.

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The temple parking lot was filling quickly as it is used as a car park on weekdays, local workers renting out spaces and providing temple coffers with additional funds.  Inside the compound, though, things were very quiet.  We lit incense and candles, offering prayers and placing gold leaf on statues of the Buddha and venerated monks.

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Then we proceeded inside the wihaan, the main Buddha image hall.  After we paid respects to the Buddha statue, we went over to a monk and explained that we had come to receive a birthday blessing.  This is done as a short ceremony where the monk chants, then you chant, then the monk chants some more.  For your convenience, there is a laminated sheet where you can follow along on your part of the chant should you not have memorized it in your childhood.  I could read the card, but not quickly enough to keep up, so I let Tawn do the chanting for me.

We were splashed with holy water – thus the laminated cards – and I poured holy water from a small container over my fingers as the monk said a blessing.

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Afterwards, we chatted for a few minutes with the monk, who was maybe thirty years old.  He was curious where I was from and whether I lived in Khrungthep and wanted to practice his English.  We learned that he is also from Buriram province although his Issan accent is so heavy that I didn’t catch that at first.

Below: Posing outside the wihaan where pre-made donation buckets are available.  They contain soap, toothpaste, an umbrella, robes, and other things the monks can use.  Since most of the urban temple have all the supplies they need, these buckets are cellophane wrapped and are just reused.  You place your money in the donation box, “give” the bucket to the monk, and the the bucket is eventually brought back around to be used again.  A rather practical solution.

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Above: A stray cat with a gnarled ear and blue eyes seems to match the window frames of the temple building.  Below: A beautiful orange Vespa parked by the side of the road.

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Afterwards we walked down the street and stopped by a Chinese temple and then walked through the neighborhood, seeing a local ice house, vendors who sell various Vietnamese foods (this area has many Vietnamese immigrants and families with Vietnamese roots), and then continued up to the Democracy Monument to catch a taxi home.

Below: A rare daytime shot of a traffic-free traffic circle in which the Democracy Monument sits.  Hopefully, Thailand will return to being a democracy on December 23rd, when the elections are scheduled to be held.

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So now you know why November 16th was important.  But what about the 15th?

 

November 15

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In addition to being the birthday of my ex-girlfriend Sandy, the only girlfriend (yes, you read that right – girlfriend) with whom I’m still in touch, November 15th this year had an oenophilic significance.  

Each year in France, the third Thursday in November is a day as highly anticipated as, say, the season finale of American Idol is in the United States.  The reason for this feverish anticipation is that at the stroke of midnight, that year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is released.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a light-bodied red wine made from Gamay grapes in the Beaujolais region of France, just north of Lyon.

In 1951, The French government granted the region permission to release their annual vintages one month ahead of the other regions, creating a public relations opportunity not to be missed.  Beaujolais Nouveau is fermented for only a few weeks after the grapes are harvested and it is most definitely not a wine for the cellars.  Instead, it is best enjoyed in its first few months after being bottled.

P1010867 On Thursday night, the Plaza Athenee Hotel held a party to celebrate the release of this year’s vintage, complete with extensive all-you-can-eat French entrees and desserts and non-stop refilling of your glass.  It turned out to be a fantastic value as the entrees were very lavish, including stuffed quail eggs, pan-seared foie gras on toasts, escargots en croute, a wide selection of French cheese and saucisson, and crepes.

Tawn and I were joined by Russ, Roka and Brian and had a fantastic time, eating and drinking for more than two hours before we finally reached our fill.  Mark the calendars for next year!

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Above: Tawn and the Chocolate Factory, Chris with little chevre (goat cheese) and endive “ice cream cones”.  Below: Afterwards, Tawn and Brian were too tired and too full to leave the hotel.

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Below: A short video showing the scene last night at the Plaza Athenee. About 45 seconds long.

 

The last few pieces before the work really begins

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Above: A handyman uses a scrap piece of marble (from a bathroom shelf that was improperly installed) to make a beautiful entry to the condo.

Yesterday, a friend who works with our designer told Tawn to brace himself: if he thinks the remodel has been a challenge thus far, wait until the last few days and the follow-up after we move in.  This, Eddy assures us, is much more work because the contractor already has his mind on the next project and will drag his feet on getting the details finished.

Certainly, we’ve found that to be the case already.  Light fixtures installed in the wrong places, small bits of tile along the edges of counters being left out and just filled in with grout, incorrect door handles installed.

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Some of it is just the normal stuff one encounters when hiring people to work in your home.  But some of it is sheer… Thainess.  Tawn specifically explained to the electricians which fixtures went where, but we come in later and things are just put up wherever – and some fixtures have been installed in places where no instruction has been given.

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Above: The master electrician hangs one of our lighting fixtures for Tawn to evaluate.  We originally were going to do recessed lighting, but there is only 6 cm (2.5 inches) of space above the ceiling.

Below: Tawn measures the height of the chandelier in the living room.  With the extension on, it is way too low.  Our designer is working with a supplier to cut the extension bar and put new threads in it.

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It looks like we’ll have minimal access to the condo this weekend and will probably not be moving anything in, as originally planned.  However, since Tawn’s parents are out of town in Germany this week, we can go ahead and move boxes of things for which there will be no immediate storage at the new condo, over to store at their place.

This works out pretty well, because we won’t have bookshelves built yet, for example.  Tawn has also decided that all the decorating items need to be out of the condo at first and then he can evaluate them and bring them in, piece by piece.

Below: All the closet doors have been removed and fabric panels are being installed in the fronts of them to soften the room.  You can see that we’ll have a good amount of storage.  Still some question about what to do with that air conditioning screen, which doesn’t really screen the air con at all!

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Above: The marble bathroom countertop has been cut and is ready to be installed.  Below: The day before, this door had a second lock – a deadbolt – installed in it.  This is one of those “Thai things” as bedrooms here usually have a full deadbolt.  It seemed impractical and ugly so I raised a fuss.  They were able to fill the hole pretty nicely and instead installed this handle that has an unobtrusive privacy lock.  

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Bicycle rides and weddings

Sometime Tuesday evening, my left trapezius muscle got a kink in it.  Now, I’m unable to lean my head towards my left shoulder at all.  Movement towards the right shoulder is still good, however.  Don’t know why it happened nor what caused it.  I had just returned home from dinner with Tawn and a few minutes later I became aware of a tightness along the back of my shoulder and the left side of my neck.

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Sunday evening we attended the wedding of one of Tawn’s former United Airlines colleagues, Som-O.  Her nickname means “pomelo” in Thai.  As part of the wedding favors, guests were given these nice canvas shopping bags with a silkscreened caricature of Som-O and her husband, Paun, in which we carried home pomelos and oranges.  Clever, huh?

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The wedding was held at the Police Officer’s Club up near Don Meuang since Som-O’s father is a retired police colonel.  The reception was very large, probably 1,000 guests or so, and there were all sorts of tables set up around the perimeter of the room serving different tasty Thai food as well as a few western and Japanese foods.  Very nicely done.  Som-O is a professional wedding planner, so of course every detail was well attended to.

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Tawn had a good time catching up with his former colleagues.  Some of them he is still very close to, while others have drifted away over time.  Many of them are still flying for various airlines and some rejoined United when UA reopened its flight attendant base in Bangkok a year ago.

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In the morning before the wedding, Markus and I drove out to Minburi and rode 35+ kilometers.  It was a great day for riding, partially overcast and breezy.  Along the way we picked up some followers, a group of boys who were riding their bicycles and decided they wanted to race us.  After a kilometer or so, they tired and gave up.  We also rode past a large Islamic wedding being held at one of the villager’s houses along a khlong, and stopped for beef noodles at a small halal restaurant before returning home.  The area east of the city, out near the airport, has a large Muslim population and makes an interesting contrast to Khrungthep as a whole.  In more than one area, you have a wat (temple) on one side of the street and a mosque on the other.  Above: Workers prepare a rice paddy for planting. 

Below: Short video of the tail end of an obstacle we encountered while riding:

Morning in the Big Mango: a queue of motorcycle taxis wait for customers outside the Sukhumvit subway station and Asoke Skytrain station, next to the small Asoke market.  Amidst the yellow-vested taxi drivers, can you spot a trio of saffron-robed monks sitting on plastic stools and collecting alms from the morning shoppers?

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A room with a view: Twenty-some stories above the ground, three window washers dangle as they ensure the occupants of our neighboring office tower have a clear view.  In the distance is the forest of construction cranes erecting the four towers of the Millennium Condominiums, on Sukhumvit 16-18 overlooking the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre.

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Finally, a sign of the coming move: On Saturday our sofa and ottoman were picked up by workmen to be measured for slip-covers.  This was our compromise position.  Tawn didn’t want a leather sofa in the new house but I didn’t want to buy a new sofa just two years after getting this one.

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To be a foodie or not to be?

Sandelion wrote an entry in which she brought up the issue of foodies versus non-foodies.  At the heart of her post was the question, “What’s the big deal about food?”  I found this to be an interesting question and so wrote the following response.  I’m curious to hear from my readers.  What do you think is the big deal about food, or – if you’re someone who thinks the Food Network is a waste of cable bandwidth – why do you think that food is no big deal?

Here’s the response I wrote to Sandy:

Everybody has their own tastes (no pun intended): some consider food merely nourishment and others consider it something more.  Truth be told, there was a guy I once went on a date with who ranted about how he couldn’t believe that some people made such a big deal about food, being able to remember meals they ate years before.  I didn’t call him for a second date.

I put food on the same level as art, music and literature.  You can listen to a bubblegum pop song with a catchy beat, you can put up a hotel room painting, or you can read a trashy dimestore romance novel – there’s nothing wrong with that.  But there are also pieces of music that truly move the soul, paintings and sculpture that seems to have been created by something beyond human hands, and literature that puts you in the lives of people who are so much like yourself and yet so completely different.  When you experience those things, it is as if you have the opportunity to know what is divine within humanity.

The thing about food that sets it apart from those other creative forms is two-fold:

The first is that food connects us as people.  In almost every culture, the sharing of food is at its root.  Meals are eaten in celebration and in mourning, in welcoming guests and in recalling homelands left behind.  Meals are most often shared (that’s why it is so hard to cook for one!) and so the act of preapring and sharing a meal more complex than hunting down an annimal and eating the raw flesh from its body, is an act one that ties us to our humanity.  It is the thing that sets us apart from the animals.

The second is that food – cuisine – is something that is at its heart, a lesson in detachment.  Clothes, art, DVDs, music, books, and most everything else involves having something, something that can last over time.  Fashions change, but you still have the clothes.  You watch the movie, listen to the song, or read the novel, but you can still own the DVD, CD, or book and see, listen, or read it again and again.  But food by its nature, decays.  The meal, and all the artistry that goes into preparing it, must be consumed immediately and then it is gone.  You can make it again, but it is never the same meal.  To fully enjoy it, you must be present in the moment.  In that sense, it reminds me of the sand mandalas that Tibetan Buddhist monks make.  They are tremendously beautiful creations but also tremendously impermanent ones.  As soon as they are completed, they are swept away.

So that is what I enjoy about food and why eating is such an important experience for me. 

 

Fascinating topic, isn’t it?

 

Taking Fu to the Floating Market

You know it is a small, digital and virtual world when you start receiving guests who are friends of friends, when all the parties have met through the internet and, in the case of the friend and the friend of the friend, they’ve never met in person!

So it was this week as I had a visitor who was recommended to contact me by Curry.  After completing five years studying in Hiroshima, Japan, Fu was traveling around Asia on his way back home to southern Malaysia.  Nice guy and this is his first visit to Thailand.

Originally, Curry had recommended Fu contact me so I could take him to Pad Thai Ari.  This ended up not being part of the plan as Fu was in his final days in the country and was interested in seeing the floating market.  There are several floating markets but the only one that runs every day is the one in Damnoen Saduak (“convenient pathway”) which is near the school in Bangkhonthiinai.

I met Fu at 6:30 so we could beat the crowds and we arrived at the market just after 8:00.  Things were still cool and uncrowded and I negotiated a two-hour ride in a dugout boat.  Tawn suggested that I use this negotiation technique: after rejecting the original quote out of hand, I was to say “phom mai bpen muu” – I am not a pig, a reference to the slang term of someone who is an easy mark.

The lady running the boat tours thought that was funny and decreased the price a bit.

The two hours were nice, the occasional annoying buzz of a long tail boat (which are powered by old Toyota pickup engines) breaking the otherwise tranquil nature of life along the canal.  Of course “life along the canal” means people who sell tacky souvenirs from shops in front of their homes.  Each shop is the same as the next, some selling vaguely “Thai” souvenirs and others selling things that are totally incongruous.

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Above: Sampling some khanom khrug – a rice flour pancake that is a little sweet and a little savory at the same time.  Below: Along the way, I purchased a few bottles of local honey from this lady and her young daughter.

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Above: Even Thais come to see the floating market!

By the time we were wrapping up after 10:00, the Russian tourists had arrived by the boatload and things were less pleasant.  It was a good time to be finishing.

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After taking some pictures from the shore, we headed to Bangkhonthiinai for a quick visit.  I wasn’t sure if the school was back in session after their winter break, but everyone was there (except for the now-retired Ajarn Yai) and so we spent about an hour with the children, practicing basic questions and answers.  Hopefully a good experience for Fu.

Of course, the grapevine works quickly and by that evening I had a call from Ajarn Yai, pretty much along the lines of, “You came to Samut Songkhram and didn’t call me?”

Oh, you can’t win.


 

In other news, our contractor Khun Guang assures us that we’ll have access to the house next Friday.  Still some fixturing after that, but only small things.  That should give us two weeks to get moved in.  Below: Tawn test-drives some mattresses.

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