Changing Landscape

This morning I went for a bicycle ride, enjoying the breezy weather and using the opportunity to see what’s changing in Wattana, the larger district in which Tawn and I live.  This area, with its large expat and middle-class Thai population, is forever changing.  In what used to be the outskirts of town forty years ago, well-off Thai families built their weekend homes here along the canals and fruit orchards.

The canals and orchards have long since passed with condos, restaurants and spas taking the place of the 1960s style modern Thai family homes.  One of these homes, located in the property to the north of our condo, has just been torn down.  The condo’s management has checked with the district office to see what is planned for the property but no plans have been submitted yet.

Interestingly, most of the demolition was done by a team of a half-dozen laborers.  It was only shortly after the point shown above that a machine was brought in to tear down the final walls.  The result, weeks and weeks the sound of breaking glass, cracking concrete and tearing wood.  Made it a bit hard to record audio for some training programs I was working on.

Something I noticed from our side of the property was that a poster of His Majesty the King, something that pretty much all Thais put on a wall in their house or place of business, was still attached to the wall even as demolition commenced.  Is that kosher to do?

At the end of our soi (the small alleys that branch off the main roads) another large property has been cleared and construction fencing erected.  According to the sign posted on the front of it, a seven-floor condo is being built there.  More neighbors.

Riding through the Wattana neighborhood, I spotted several interesting things.  On Sukhumvit Soi 33, which is in an entertainment area geared largely for the Japanese community, I noticed this massage parlor.  Based on the various massage services offered (“Lady of the Night Massage”?) I would assume that it isn’t the most legitimate place to find practitioners of traditional therapeutic Thai massage.

My riding took me up along the train tracks that run parallel to Petchaburi Road.  For four years now the Airport Express (“red line”) elevated rail line has been under construction.  Bear in mind that the airport itself opened three years ago.  Word is that it will be running either in April or August of next year.  As most of the physical construction is complete, the frontage roads that parallel the tracks of the traditional railroad (the red line being built above the right-of-way for the regular train) has been rebuilt after having been shut down during construction.

There is a lot of housing built adjacent to the train tracks.  I’m sorry for the people who live there; I’m sure the noise of construction was terrible and the noise of the trains not much better.

I was able to follow the train tracks about 8 kms to the east of my house to the Hua Mark station (just shy of halfway to the airport) before the paved road runs out.  I then turned around and pedaled back, overshooting my house and going to the main in-city Makkasan station, located at Asoke Road.

This is the Ramhamhaeng station located at Sukhumvit Soi 71.  Oddly, there are a dozen parking spaces under the station, wholly inadequate for any actual parking needs.  Also interesting: at all of the stations there are escalators that will run only in the up direction.  The tracks are four to five stories above ground but passengers will have to descend manually.

When I made it to the main Makkasan station, I pedaled into the construction gate and asked the guard if I could ride around.  Not surprisingly, he didn’t think that would be a good idea despite the fact that the roads are all paved and perfectly safe to ride on.

Some other sights: the Terminal 21 building, about which I wrote a few weeks ago, is making quick progress now that all the foundation and underground work is done.  I’ve started shooting weekly pictures of the progress so that in the end I have a record of this building, which is rising at the corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke Roads.  Anyone need another nine-story mall, cinema, office building and service apartment?  Good, you’ll be glad to know a new one is being built for you.

Passing another construction project on Ekkamai Road, I was tickled that the contractor made an effort to put the sign in English.  Normally I have to practice reading Thai but this one was very clear.  The project is to “make new restaurant.”  Now, we’re not going to tell you what restaurant it is.  That’s a secret.

Reflections on Hospitalization

Friday morning I had a followup chest xray and appointment with my doctor at Bangkok Hospital.  After my third dose of radiation this month I learned that everything has cleared up nicely.  No more antibiotics or other pills for the time-being.

This xray shows my lungs at the start of the infection, the inflamed and congested area in the left lung indicated by the circle.  How anyone can read these things is beyond me, but someone can and that’s the diagnosis they made.

I had expected that my stay in the hospital, my first since being born, would have elicited some insights about mortality, death, the brevity of life, etc.  I expected to sit down and write a few of the “open when you are 18” letters to my nieces with all sorts of nifty insights drawn from the experience of staying alone in the hospital.

But, really, none came.  Maybe I’m just deceiving myself.  Maybe I’m just naive.  But over the past decade I think I’ve already arrived at a realization about my own mortality.  I don’t dwell on my eventual death, mind you, but I am very conscious that my life, and the lives of all those around me, will come to an end.

The summer before I turned sixteen I lost the first of my four grandparents.  My paternal grandfather had a protracted battle with what began as prostrate cancer (yes, I recognize that that is likely the battle for my life I’ll face and I do get screenings) and I cried deeply after losing him.

The same thing happened with two of my early relationships.  When they came to an end, I was devastated, too, certain that I would never love again.

From all this, I’ve recognized the pattern.  All things come into being, grow in maturity, age and decline and eventually die.  People. relationships, possessions – it seems to be true of everything.  And at some level I have made peace with that, so nothing new to report from staying in the hospital.

Of course, I hold out the possibility that I haven’t really learned anything yet, that I am kidding myself when I think I’ve recognized and made peace with this reality that all things go away.

Archive Photos – An Aviation Buff from the Start

When I mentioned in the previous entry that I grew up with air travel in my blood, I wasn’t kidding.  Here’s some documentary evidence.


Dated Easter 1980, when I was nine-and-a-half years old, this picture shows my sister and me flying unaccompanied on a flight from San Francisco to Kansas City.  Traveling on employee passes, since my father worked for United, this was probably one of our earlier flights flying solo.  The plane is a Boeing 727-022.  Check out the funky wallpaper!


A sneak view into First Class on the same flight.  Different wall treatment up front.  This was in the days when United operated a nonstop between SFO and MCI.  In fact, twenty years or more after discontinuing the nonstop service, a few months ago United once again resumed nonstop service on this route using United Express partner aircraft.


After the nonstops went away (following deregulation) the name of the game was Denver Stapleton, one of United’s two largest hubs.  In the years leading up to the opening of the new airport in Denver, United’s operations were so overcrowded they would park a second row of airplanes behind the row pulled up to the gates, leading to domino effects of delays if one of the planes in the back couldn’t leave on time.  Here’s a Boeing 727-200 with Continental’s DC-9s behind.  This was in the days when United, Continental and Frontier (the previous version of it) all had hubs at Denver.


In 1992 as United was phasing out its Boeing 727-022 aircraft, it donated this one, its first 727 (note the registration number N7001U on the engine) and in fact the first 727 ever produced, to the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle.  One of her sister ships (N7017U) was donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where it remains on display to this day.  In preparation, mechanics repainted the plane to its original paint scheme, hand-taping all of the logos and detail work.  I had the opportunity to visit United’s Maintenance Operations Center in San Francisco and walk around taking pictures of this plane.


The Global Soul

Travel, especially travel by air, is in my blood.  My father worked more than thirty years for an airline as did his brother.  After high school I worked for a while for an airline.  Tawn worked for a few years for an airline.  My first flight was when I was a month old and I haven’t stopped since.

You may be aware of the new George Clooney film, “Up in the Air” about a man who is addicted to the frequent flyer lifestyle.  I can relate.  For many years before I moved to Thailand, I was one of those “100k” flyers, booking more than 100,000 miles a year. 

While it was very wearing, I have to say I still enjoyed it.  The sense of escape, of adventure, of moving, of going somewhere new and different. 

Recently a friend posted the following short film, a twenty-minute bit called “Frequent Flyer” that interviews some of the seriously obsessed frequent flyers.  These are the people who aren’t flying a lot for business necessarily, but are flying a lot in order to fly a lot and in order to achieve “status” with a frequent flyer program and the perks that go with it.

Frequent Flyer from Gabriel Leigh on Vimeo.

While I’d like to say that they are crazy, I recall a few times that I would go out of my way to earn miles in order to meet a status deadline.  When you have to fly so much for work, you don’t want to miss out on the benefits that come from having an elite tier of status – upgrades, lounge invitations, priority standby for flights, etc.

There was one time when, shortly before moving to Thailand, I realized I was going to be a few thousand miles short of the 100,000 mile threshold.  At that time, shortly after jetBlue had entered the transcontinental market flying SF and LA to NY, United and American (the dominant carriers on the route) offered ridiculously low fares to get people to fly them. 

A single roundtrip from SF to NY would get me across the finish line in terms of miles, so I paid about $200 for a Saturday afternoon flight, spent the night at an airport hotel near JFK, then flew back on the first flight Sunday morning.  I earned about 5,000 base miles plus an equal number of bonus miles, about half the miles needed for a free domestic ticket.  If you want to read the full story, it is here.

Author Pico Iyer wrote about the concept of being a global soul: someone born in one place, raised in another and living in still another place.  At some level I relate to that concept.  Maybe not quite as global as some people but still having the experience of living and working in countries and cultures besides the one I was raised in.  It makes for many disconnects and strange senses of belonging and yet not belonging.

One of the frequent flyers being interviewed in the short film above said, upon arriving in Japan, “This is one of my favorite parts, fresh off of a transpacific flight, a bit bleary-eyed, and somehow it is more fun knowing I’ll be leaving in a matter of days.”

There are times when I feel exactly like that.

To close, let me share with you some photos of a proposed expanded international terminal at Los Angeles Airport.  I like the bridge connecting the terminals, under which airplanes can taxi.


Free Ride on a Fruit Cart

Nearly everywhere I go in this city, I keep a camera handy.  That’s one reason I don’t have an SLR and instead go with a smaller point and shoot camera: I need to be ready to take a picture the moment one presents itself.

The other evening, walking with my Thai tutor back towards the Asoke Skytrain station, I watched as a fruit vendor rolled past us in the street, his son sitting on the shelf under the cart.  “Oh, he’s selling children and fruit!” my tutor exclaimed.

Allusions to child trafficking aside, it was a pretty funny image.  When he stopped to sell some pineapple to a tourist, I snapped a photo.

The young man hitching a free ride didn’t seem amused.  I wouldn’t be if I was riding around in the bottom of a fruit card, either.  But not a bad deal, if you think about it.  With ice in the display cases, it was cooler than being out on the street, and with dad doing the pushing, you could just enjoy what little breeze there was.

Still, it reminds me that I was fortunate to grow up in better circumstances than this.  I hope the young man finished his studies and has the chance to go to university.

Riding Around

A week ago Saturday, before I was ill, I was out riding my bicycle around Krungthep and enjoying the relatively cool weather.  After visiting the train station to see the steam locomotives, I pedaled around various districts, snapping shots of interesting things.


The four corners of the intersection of Rama I and Payathai Roads are fill with Siam Discovery Shopping Center, Siam Square Shopping Center, MBK Shopping Center and the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, our just over a year old museum of contemporary art.  A large public plaza lies in front of it.  There are currently several pieces on display including this metal shack that has the names of major world cities spray painted on it.


Another piece, ostensibly a meditation on consumerism, is made of these giant sheet metal origami gems spilled out of a huge wastebin.  It is actually fascinating to see how they are constructed and how effectively they resemble cut-glass gems when viewed from a distance.


Heading further west down Rama I Road (which turns into Ploenchit and Sukhumvit Roads if you continue to the east) I encountered this caravan of tuks tuks heading to the royal plaza of Sanam Luang in celebration of His Majesty the King’s birthday, which was that day.  They are decked out in Thai flags and the yellow flag featuring the royal crest of King Rama IX.


Not far away, in the Chula neighborhood located back behind National Stadium, are these narrow soi which shop houses lining them.  I found the line of this roof fascinating with so many repeating shapes and textures and colors.


Another neighborhood near the train station, just on the edge of Yaworat, Chinatown, is clearly a Chinese community.  This single block was in the midst of some festival with locals making merit and offering gifts to the gods.  Evidence that the Chinese, while very integrated into Thai society as a whole, still maintain some distinct cultural practices.  Very vibrant area and fun to ride through.


Also near the train station is the entryway to a “Turkish bath,” as these dens of illicit pleasures are sometimes euphemistically called.  This is actually on a pretty main thoroughfare and each time I drive by this wood carving catches my eye.  I think it is tremendously kitschy, something out of the 1970s in a Trader Vic’s sort of way.



Good news.  My doctor arrived this morning about 9:30, very impressive for her day off.  After reviewing the chest xray from yesterday she is satisfied that the infection is largely gone.  I’m to be released by about 1:00 this afternoon after paperwork, etc. are complete.  She has prescribed me a course of antibiotics to continue taking after my release with a followup appointment and chest xray this coming Friday.

Thanks for all your patience and well-wishes this week.  Regular programming will resume tomorrow.


Third Sunset in the Hospital

As I write this I can look out the window and watch my third sunset from room 1001 at Bangkok Hospital.  More than twenty-four hours have passed with no fever and this morning my doctor, who came in on her day off to see me, asked me to stay one more night to continue the IV antibiotics and to take another chest xray to see what’s changed since Wednesday.  She’ll come back Sunday morning, also her day off, to look at the results and we’ll see where to go from there.

The nurses seem optimistic that I’ll be discharged then.  But they were saying that during my temperature and blood pressure check at 10 pm yesterday, too.  Ten pm is a busy time.  One nurse is injecting my antibiotics and another is recording vitals.  To me, it was just a blur of activity.


Tawn’s toe is better.  It is now just a bit bruised and the plumish purple has largely receded.  He’s been here all afternoon and charms all the nurses.  That’s his nature.

A few more observations of hospital life:

After a day and a half of nonstop IV drip (saline) and 10 cc in-line injections of antibiotics, the veins in my left arm started to feel painful.  At first I couldn’t figure out what it was but after an hour or so, decided to trust my instinct that something was abnormal and spoke with a nurse.  Sure enough, the veins were irritated from the higher volume of liquid, bruised and abused.  By the time they pulled the IV out, there was a nice red splotch tracing its way from the point of entry to the crook of my arm.

When it came to putting in a new line, Tawn told the nurse about the problems finding a vein during admittance.  She assured him that she would send the most beautiful nurse on the floor, gesturing to one of her colleagues.  Then Tawn said to the other nurse, “You may be the most beautiful, but I need to make sure you can also handle this special case.”  With great self-confidence she looked at him, smiled, and cattily replied that she was the best in the ward on both accounts.


Sure enough, Annie Oakley was right.  She spent about thirty seconds tapping the back of my hand and examining it, then swabbed it and struck a suitable vein in one single, smooth and painless prick of the skin.  As you can see, I’ve not let being in the hospital keep me from working.  This is my version of Sion’s treadmill desk.


Food here continues to be quite decent.  This morning I was served boiled rice, not quite Chinese style jok which I received the morning before.  This is really just watery rice.  My friend Ken really doesn’t like it so I think of him and our trip to Lampang a few years back every time I eat it. 

What really tickled me, though, was the message on this packet of chilies in vinegar: “To keep chilli fresh longer, No preservatives added.”  Anyone care to explain to me what role the vinegar serves?  It isn’t a preservative?

This afternoon Tawn and I headed downstairs to Starbucks.  I wore cargo shorts and a polo shirt in an effort to blend in to the crowd.  I’m not wearing my hospital kung fu pj’s to Starbucks!  I thought it would be funny to shoot a little video about me “sneaking” out of the ward but decided it was a bit more effort than I wanted to invest.

Okay, that’s all for now.  The night sky is now black and the city lights spread out around me.  Thanks for reading.


Under Steam Power

Going back in time to Saturday morning, before I came down with this lung infection:

Three times a year the State Railways of Thailand pulls out a pair of their old steam engines, fires them up and operates a round-trip from Hua Lamphong Station in Krungthep to the former capital of ancient Siam, Ayutthaya.  The three dates are the birthday of His Majesty the King (December 5), the anniversary of the opening of the first railroad service in Thailand (March 26) and the anniversary of the death of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn Day, October 23), under whose guidance this first railroad service was introduced. 

Setting out about 7:15 on a cool Saturday morning, I made Hua Lamphong Station my bike ride destination.  I arrived there twenty minutes later and, it being a holiday, found the station pretty busy with people traveling to and from the provinces.  Rail travel is heavily subsidized (State Railways has never turned a profit) and so the masses travel its more than 4,300 kilometers of tracks to get to and from their homes in the provinces to their work in Krungthep.


The station itself has a graceful, European style and the exterior is done in Thai Art Deco.  While railway operations in Thailand started in 1897, this new station didn’t open until 1916. 


There were lots of excited passengers waiting for the ride, taking pictures and looking on with fascination.  Families were climbing onto the front of the engine to pose as people took their pictures.  The railway officials seemed largely unconcerned with the people on the tracks.  The train on the right in this picture actually arrived and departed while I was standing there and it just moved very slowly and honked its horn a few times.  Nobody was injured.


Shooting a black steam locomotive is tough.  Trying to set exposures is challenging.  I also noticed afterwards that the pictures almost uniformly look better in black and white than in color.  There’s so much texture.


At eight a.m. the national anthem played as everyone stood at attention.  Then, a moment later, the signal man blew a whistle, waved his green flag, and the train slowly pulled out of the station.  Had I not been on bicycle, I would have ridden it to one of the stations at the north end of town which connects with the subway.  That would have given me twenty minutes or so of a ride without committing to an entire day out of town.



Maybe in March I can coordinate better and take the ride.


Reporting Live From Bangkok Hospital

Sometimes a short staycation is just what the doctor ordered.  Literally.  On my return to the doctor, much as I expected, there wasn’t any significant improvement with my lung infection so I’m doing two to three at Bangkok Hospital.  Thankfully, I bought expat insurance a year ago which covers hospitalization expenses at a pretty generous level.  Didn’t think I’d have the need for it anytime soon but there you go… better to be prepared.

Counter.jpg First off, though, a milestone passed last night.  My SiteMeter counter hit 100,000 unique visitors since September 21, 2006, an average of 115 a week.  The highest week was August 24, 2008 with 726, the week I wrote the featured post “Things I Wish I Had Know When I Started Working.”

While this blog serves primarily as a means to keep my friends and family up to date on what’s going on in my grand adventure in Thailand, I’ve been fortunate to receive so many other visitors.  To those of you who are here, who have stayed, and who actively participate in the conversations, thank you!

Having never been hospitalized before, I was eager to have a new experience to blog about.  So far all I can say is, it’s tedious!  Today was a public holiday so Tawn was with me part of the day before returning home to run some errands and subsequently stubbed his small toe, getting a hairline fracture in the process.  When he returned to the hospital he visited another doctor to receive treatment.  The plum purple toe is slowly losing its swell and hopefully he’ll be back in easy walking condition soon.  So now we’re both ailing!

As for me, I had to deal with a ongoing problem I have – elusive veins.  After poking around several times and not finding an active vein into which to run the IV line, a very sweet and apologetic nurse handed me off to someone else, who was able to strike oil on the first try.


Labels and stickers are on so I’m now officially the property of Bangkok Hospital.  Apologies for the Sharon Stone-esque shot.  The nurse did not cross her legs.

The “deluxe” rooms that the insurance covers were fully booked so they moved us to a “superior” room at no additional cost.  No kidding, this place is nearly as large as our condo!

I have an amazing view of the city and enjoyed a fantastic sunset.


The doors are locked to the balcony, though.  Will have to check tomorrow and see if they’ll let me out to take more pictures.  There’s a rooftop helipad just to the right of this picture.  If there’s a lifeflight arrival you know I’ll be filming!  =D

The food service is provided by Sodexho and I receive a menu for the following day.  Two choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the genres of Thai (oddly labeled “Oriental” food), Western, Vegetarian, Halal (labeled “Arabic”) and Japanese food.   I’m going with Thai meals as they are tastier and half the cost of the western meals.  Not clear what the prices are for the vegetarian, Arabic and Japanese meals but maybe if I stay longer I’ll experiment.  Here’s lunch as a sample:


Fruit plate for dessert, a clear soup with dark leafy greens and braised beef, ground pork with broccoli (which needed some fish sauce added for flavor) and a fried white fish with onions, green onions, carrots and cilantro in a sweet and sour sauce.  Huge amount of food and actually, not too bad!

A quick observation: I’ve been on an IV nonstop, a litre of saline slow dripping into my arm with injections every eight hours of this liquid antibiotic.  When they plunger it into my veins, I can feel it making its way up my arm, relatively cool (I guess they refrigerate it) and like an extra wave of blood heading for the heart.  Not painful but a very unique sensation.

Anyhow, I’m here for at least a few days.  No excuse not to stay on top of my blogging, I guess, as I have plenty of free time.  Ciao.