Top Secret Assignment Day 4

Agents E and C continued with their last major assignment, a reconnaissance mission to scope out the markets and wildlife of central Thailand.  Their destination: the Samphran Elephant Grounds and Amphawa Floating Market.

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We drove about an hour west of Bangkok to Nakhon Pathom province, home of the Samphran Elephant Ground and Zoo, a popular sightseeing stop both for foreign visitors as well as Thais.  I guess we could invite the animal rights experts to debate the merits of this type of attraction, in which elephants and other animals are on display and put through their paces in shows.  The upside is that it gives people a chance to interact with and, hopefully, appreciate these creatures and why it is important that their habitats be preserved.

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Agents E and C didn’t have any particular assignments at this first stop, other than to feed the elephants.  It is easy to be awed by how strong and how smart these animals are.  They are also very playful.  One of the adults liked dancing in her pen to the rhythm of the music playing from the magic show in the nearby stadium.  She was doing this on her own, with no guidance from her mahout, or trainer.

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Agent C got on well with one of the baby elephants…

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…but I think she got a little “carried away” by the baby’s mother!

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A unintentionally psychedelic photo when I had the wrong setting on the camera and twisted it while taking the picture.

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One of the babies (nine months old, in fact) hoped to borrow my camera.

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Even Tawn got into the act, getting a big hug from one of the elephants.

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In the elephant show, we learned about the history of elephants in Thai culture, including their use in logging, an occupation that is pretty much extinct, leading to the problem of too many elephants and too little designated land where they can roam wild.

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We also learned about elephants’ role as weapons of war, featuring a silly little skit complete with low-tech pyrotechnics to simulate the Thais’ victory over the Burmese.  Actually, at that point in history it would have been the Siamese’s victory.

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The park also featured crocodile pools and a show with two “croc whisperers” who perform all sorts of feats with the large and lazy reptiles.  No doubt the water is kept at a temperature that fosters a sedate mood, lessening the chance that one of the handlers loses a hand…

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…or a head!

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One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Agent E and C’s visit is that it is the small things that really provide young people with the most fun.  A half-hour spent paddling around the lush landscaping in an aged paddle boat provided an adventure for them and a respite for the adults.  The swan looks like it has had some plastic surgery, maybe a beak job.

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After the elephant grounds, we hopped into the car and drove through a small rain storm on our way to the floating market in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram province.  Along the way we stopped at a roadside cafe that I used to frequent in the days when I volunteered as an English teacher in this province, so as to enjoy several types of fried rice.

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Because there were a lot of other events going on this weekend (including World Cup) the market was busy but not overcrowded as sometimes happens.  As the sun was setting, we rented a long-tail boat and took a tour along the canals and river for a chance to see what country like along the water looks like.

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Along the way, we were able to find many trees and bushes along the banks that were full of the fireflies for which this area is famous.

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Back at the market, everything was bustling as people ate dinner and snacked on local specialties, including grilled prawns and squid that are among the freshest you’ll ever eat.

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The bulk of day 4’s assignment was to try new fruits, foods, and desserts, of which the market has plenty.  We went from vendor to vendor, looking at the many different items for sale, trying to guess what they were, and sampling many of them.  Above, Agents E and C, along with their father, try some fresh young coconuts.

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Uncle Tawn picked up several types of fruit for them to try.  By the end of the evening, the agents had fulfilled their assignment and had tasted (although not always enjoyed) many new edible items.

We headed back to Bangkok that evening with full stomachs, heavy eyelids, and many new memories.

 

Top Secret Assignment Day 3

Agents C and E, the 8- and 10-year old children of my visiting childhood friend Brad and his wife Donna, continued their top secret assignments, learning more about Thailand while gathering intelligence for Agent X back at headquarters. 

While Agent C was concerned that the integrity of the operation had been compromised when pictures of it appeared on my blog, they decided to continue with Day 3’s assignment: to do reconnaissance of the transportation infrastructure.  This involved taking at least five different types of transportation and then drawing pictures of each type and describing them in a “report.”

The assignment started with another code breaking exercise to discover the destination of the trip: Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province.  Last month, my friend Bill and I took a day trip by “the train to nowhere,” a two-part line disconnected from the rest of the State Railways that runs to Samut Sakhon and then on to Samut Songkhram provinces.  Link here.  I decided that this would be a fun opportunity for Agent C and E to see what life was like outside of Bangkok.

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Our first mode of transportation was walking – one common to many people in Thailand – but thankfully we only had a short distance to cover before we could switch to an air conditioned mode of transportation: the Skytrain.  Part of the code-breaking had included unscrambling the names of key stations on the Skytrain line as we connected in Siam and then continued across the river to Wongwian Yai.

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From there we took a taxi – transportation mode #3 – a short distance to the Wongwian Yai railway station.  While waiting for the train, we were able to look at some of the different foods available from the vendors, to get an idea of what Thais eat for breakfast.  We snacked on something not too exotic – grilled toast with a little condensed milk on it.

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We bought our tickets then boarded the train – mode #4 – which ended up being pretty full.  The ride was an hour long and along the way, the two secret agents and I walked the length of the train to see what we could learn about the people who ride it.

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One thing we learned is that crossing from car to car is pretty scary, especially when the train is moving!  Thankfully, there are rails to hold onto and you’d be hard pressed to actually fall onto the tracks.  But it as still thrilling.  We were able to go to the engineer’s cab at the back end of the train and see the controls they use to drive it.

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Along the way, we met some interesting people.  There were lots of vendors moving their wares to market, families traveling with children, and older folks getting from place to place.  They seemed fascinated with Agents E and C, and had lots of questions about them.  One man, seeing my camera, wanted to pose with Agent C for a picture.  It was a little strange being the center of attention when you’re on a covert mission, but Agent C handled it with grace, flashing a big smile at everyone.

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When we arrived in Mahachai an hour later we returned to the walking mode and visited a local market and the city pillar shrine, where preparations were underway for a large festival, before heading to the Ta Rua (“Boat Pier”) restaurant on the edge of the river.  While Agents E and C aren’t big seafood people, they bravely tried several new things while we sat on a shaded outdoor dining terrace and enjoyed the cooling breezes.

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Two hours later we were back at the train station, grabbing our seats for the ride back to Bangkok.

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Before trying our fifth mode of transportation, we needed a little pick-me-up, so Agents E and C (and their father) tried some coconut ice cream served the way street vendors have been selling it for years: in a sweet bread bun. 

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For the final mode of transportation the five of us crammed into the back of a tuk-tuk, the noisy little three-wheeled vehicles named after the sound their motors makes as they run.  We drove around a large traffic circle and five minutes later were deposited next to the Skytrain station for our trip back to the hotel.

After all that transportation, Agents E and C were ready for something new: Thai foot massages!  What a relaxing way to end their assignment.

 

The Clevelands Arrive

My childhood friend Brad and his wife Donna arrived Wednesday with their two children, E and C. 

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We’ve been running around the city and surrounding area, seeing as many sights as we can while keeping in mind that jet lag can be especially disorienting for children.  The first evening we were out at dinner and E and C both fell asleep at the table.  It was all we could do to wake them up so we could take them back to the hotel.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I prepared a series of activities for E and C designed around a top secret agent/spy theme.  When they checked in at the hotel, the clerk gave them a folder with their names on it with “Top Secret” stamped on it.  They opened it to discover a mission overview and their Day 1 assignment.

Agents E and C:

You have been selected for an elite mission.This mission is strictly top secret, although you can use your parental units to support your mission objectives, if needed.

Your goal is to gather intelligence about the language, culture, transportation, and markets in the Kingdom of Thailand and send it to the headquarters of the United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or USNGIA for short.

It turns out that the USNGIA is real but I went ahead and used them since their cool looking logo is readily available on Google.  Agents E and C were assigned Thai cover names: Pi Chai (Big Brother) and Nong Saao (Little Sister), respectively.

Agents Pi Chai and Nong Saao had an initial assignment that involved looking at a map, located their hotel, and answering a few questions about the surrounding area: Where is the nearest park?  What is the name of the street their hotel is on?  Etc.

Their assignment for day 1 was to learn a few words of Thai, which Agent Nong Saao had already done as part of a school report she did on Thailand last year.  “Yes”, “No”, “Hello”, and “Thank You” were enough to prepare them for their visit… er, secret mission.

Day 2 dawned after a good night’s sleep with nobody waking up too early.  The top secret agents had another envelope and another assignment waiting for them:

Your assignment is to gather intelligence about the culture of Thailand and to report it back to headquarters.Complete the following information and include it in your report.

Your destination Thursday is the most important cultural and religious site in Thailand.It is a complex of buildings on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. It served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand from the 18th century onwards.It is also where the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is housed, the most holy Buddha statue in Thailand.

There was a word-scramble (er… “code to break”) that listed the name of the destination: The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

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As part of the assignment, they used pictures to identify some of the mythical creatures represented on the grounds of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  By asking questions of their guide and listening carefully, they would learn what all these creatures were and what they represent.

The creatures include the ones holding this golden chedi, or stupa, above, as well as the towering giants like the one below, that protect the entrances to the temple.

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Another two mythical creatures they needed to learn about were the garuda – the bird-man holding snakes in the center of the above photo, and the multi-headed snake called a naga, which line the edges of the roofs of temples and palatial buildings.

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We saw these mythical creatures represented again and again, such as in these temple murals.

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We also saw an artist attending to the fine details of the temple, keeping the paint fresh and bright.

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The Clevelands posting with a royal guard at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

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Does the cloud in this picture look like a chicken?  Tail on the left, head on the right, with two claws on the bottom.  I think it does and even though I didn’t tag the photo as a chicken, when I uploaded it to Xanga, the Google ad at the top of the screen was for a company that will help you grow your own chickens in the backyard.  It’s a sign, I tell you!

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We saw the changing of the guards, who must be very hot in those outfits!

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As the secret agents and their parents started to wilt under the strong sun and high heat, we wrapped up our Day 2 assignment, headed out for some lunch at a nearby air conditioned restaurant, and then took the boat back down the river to the hotel for some swimming… and to await Day 3’s assignment!

Food in BKK – La Scala at the Sukhothai

It is Wednesday morning and I’m bubbling with excitement, or at least as much as I can bubble before my first latte of the day.  My friends the Clevelands are landing in a few short hours, here for their first visit.  I’ve known Brad since he and I met in three-year old preschool and I was a groomsman at Brad and Donna’s wedding.  Along with their children, 10-year old E and 8-year old C, they’ll be here for five days before they head to China.

It is just like having family visit and I’ve planned a series of activities for the children, all tied into an elaborate back-story about them being top secret agents, to make the trip memorable.  I’ll share more about their trip, the spy story, and activities over the next few days.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d share some pictures from the dinner we had last Saturday at La Scala restaurant at the beautiful Sukhothai Hotel here in Bangkok.  Paul and Nicha, Tawn’s cousin and wife whom we do not see nearly often enough, invited us out for dinner.  In Thai culture, when your elders invite you (and insist on paying!), who are you to refuse?

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A gorgeous spray of orchids against a glass block wall at the front of the restaurant.

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The dining area is an interesting blend of textures and styles.  Unfortunately, we weren’t at this table, but at one with less light.

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A large part of the kitchen is in the midst of the dining room, letting you see the action.  On the left are trays of homemade pasta.  On the right are the homegrown mushrooms used in various dishes.

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A closer look at some of the pastas!

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A big cured pig’s leg sitting next to the kitchen for slicing off prosciutto.  How would you like to have one of these laying about for snacking?

The lighting at the table was very dim, so the quality of these pictures is not great.  Hopefully, they will give you an idea of what the food looked like, though.

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Amuse bouche of potato puree with truffle oil.  Yummy.

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We ordered a pair of salads.  This one is the rocket salad with a balsamic dressing.  Very nice.

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The breads were quite nice, too.  The more I eat at hotels the more I realize if I want good European style breads, I probably need to buy them from the hotels.

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I had ravioli filled with a mixture of chicken meat and duck foie gras.  The sauce is a pumpkin puree with fried thyme leaves and candied walnuts.  The dish was very tasty with some of the thinnest pasta skins I have ever had, but it was just a little too sweet for my tastes.  To be fair, the waiter did make me aware that while it was a tasty dish, it was on the sweeter side.

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Tawn had a dish of pan fried cod served over greens and mashed potatoes with a reduction sauce made from the homegrown mushrooms.  It was beautifully done.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of the dishes Paul and Nicha had, both of which were pasta dishes with a slightly spicy tomato sauce, and both of which were extremely good.

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For dessert, I had fresh berries baked in a zabaglione sauce, topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.  Yummy! 

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Tawn had homemade gelato, including this scoop of espresso that was very rich.

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The restaurant also served complimentary petit-fours, a nice finish to the evening.

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Finally, a view of the beautiful reflecting pool outside the lobby, featuring brick chedis or stupas in a pool of water.  Beautiful, no?

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Me, Nicha, Tawn, and Paul.  There’s a significant back story that I’ve written about once before but can’t find the entry right now.  The short version of it is that Paul mother and Tawn’s father’s are siblings.  She and her husband raised Paul and his two brothers in the US and they were the first people in Tawn’s family we came out to as a couple.  They’ve been super-supportive over the years and we really appreciate it.

 

First Ride on the Bangkok Airport Link

Three years late, the rail line to the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport has finally started running, although on a limited, trial basis.  Last week I headed out for a look at this latest addition to Krungthep’s transit infrastructure.

The new airport, Suvarnabhumi, opened more than three years ago about 30 km east of the heart of the city.  The planned rail service, the so called “pink line,” suffered through interminable delays caused for any number of reasons, not the least of which might have to do with the State Railways of Thailand’s notorious inefficiency.  The SRT, which owns the right-of-way, built, and will eventually operate the pink line, has never turned a profit in its more than half-century of operations.

Nonetheless, I’m excited that another piece in the transit puzzle is nearly put into place as the line started limited trial service almost two weeks ago.

Airport Link Map

The pink line is actually two lines: the darker line is the city line, which will make multiple stops between the airport and Phaya Thai, which is currently the westernmost station.  As you can see in the above map, there were several planned but unbuilt stations, shown with station names in outlined font.  The second, light pink line is the airport link, which will run nonstop between the airport and the Makkasan station (at Asoke and Petchaburi Roads), where the in-city terminal will be located.

If all goes according to plan, passengers will be able to check in for their flights at Makkasan station, receive boarding passes and drop off their bags, then ride on the train to the airport.  Their bags will be carried in a secure storage area and, already ticketed, will go from the train directly into the airport’s baggage system.  It sounds like there will be some delay before that part is operational.

Additionally, the plan is that passengers on the pink line will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain at Phaya Thai and with the MRT subway at Makkasan-Petchaburi.  Sadly, it appears that neither connection is currently built.

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I met up with Bill and Ken, two friends with an interest in things both transit and aviation related, at the Phaya Thai BTS station to give the pink line a try.  During this trial run, only the two end stations – Phaya Thai and Airport – are operational on the pink line.  The train service is running weekdays from 7-10 am and 4-10 pm nonstop between these stations, although some intermediate stops will be introduced next week.  This trial run is free and will last until August, when the full system is supposed to be in service.

Above, you can see the Phaya Thai station of the pink line, the big concrete behemoth on the right, and a ramp that is supposed to connect to the Phaya Thai BTS station on the left.  You’ll notice, though, that the ramp stops about 5 meters short of the BTS station.  I’m curious about this because passengers will have to walk down to the street level, along 100-200 meters of broken, dirty sidewalk, cross an active railway line, and then ascend into the second station, regardless of which way they are connecting.

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Above: Flagman at the active railroad tracks that passengers connecting between the pink line and BTS have to cross, directs cars off the track as a train approaches.

My theory for this is that the two systems didn’t communicate very well, even though the BTS has been running for more than ten years so certainly wasn’t an unknown entity.  The ramp would connect a paid area in the BTS station with a public area in the pink line station.  So someone is going to have to pay to build and maintain turnstiles and a BTS ticket booth somewhere at the connection point.  This is insane because the three rail systems in town are supposed to be moving to a common ticket platform – one ticket, all systems – so the ramp should lead from the paid area to another paid area, not pass through a public area of the pink line station.

Anyhow, we walked across the railroad tracks with no problems and took the elevators up several levels in the new pink line station, being directed by friendly guards the whole way.

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The trains (these are the city line trains being used for the test run, not the airport link trains) are from Siemens and they look nice enough.  The stations along the line are not very impressive, a collage of grey concrete and grey metal.  Only the Makkasan and Airport stations are air conditioned.

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The line was pretty well used when I took it about 4pm.  By the time the train left, the seats were full with many of the passengers looking like airport employees or people who live out in the eastern suburbs.  There were also many local tourists traveling just to see the new train and, surprisingly, a few people actually using the train to get to the airport with their bags. 

Once the line is fully operational, the city line will charge between about 10-40 baht (up to US$1.25) and the airport link will charge 150 baht (US$4.75).  I would assume that the seating arrangement on the airport link train will feature pairs of seats facing forwards and backwards along with storage space for carry-on baggage.

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Notice the wide gap between the train and the platform.  It looks like there is a ledge under the door that can be extended, but they were not doing that.

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The monitors in the station show a video of the route, alternating between Thai and English.  There is also a countdown clock until the next departure – shown in seconds!  I’ve never seen a train station that shows countdown time in seconds.  And, believe me, SRT isn’t the sort of prompt organization that runs things to the second.

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Looking east from Phaya Thai station towards the Ratchaprarop station, the two closest stations on the line.

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The ride itself was very smooth, with the exception of one station midway through the line where there is a passing lane.  We had to slow down significantly to change tracks, breaking our otherwise good speed of approximately 120 kmh or 75 mph.  We were going faster than all but the fastest taxis on the expressway that parallels the tracks most of the way to the airport.

Along the way, there was a nice view of the many new housing development springing up near the airport and the new stations on the pink line.  This line will probably become very useful, less for airport passengers and employees, but more for locals who live to the east of the city and need a fast way to commute into town to their offices.

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It took just about 20 minutes to go from Phaya Thai station to the airport.  I understand that the airport link service from Makkasan to the airport will be about 16.  The train pulls into the sub-basement of the car park structure, connecting directly into the terminal building.  A quick ride up the elevator or moving sidewalks and you are at the arrivals and departures levels.  Very convenient on this end of the line.  In the future, you will be able to walk through this station to the airport hotel, which you currently have to take a shuttle van to.  The station will also have various retail shops, although those are all located on the hotel side of the station, which doesn’t make much sense.

There are some potential cons to the system right now and I’ll have to wait and see how it works once the whole system is up and running, then I’ll talk more about the cons if they haven’t been addressed.  For the moment, I’ll simply say that I’m glad additional transit options are opening and I hope that we’ll see several more in the next few years.

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Speaking of which, one has to wonder where the pink line, which ends just to the west of the Phaya Thai station, will go in the future.  The master plan shows this line continuing, turning north and heading towards the old Don Meuang airport (and beyond) and also turning south and heading to the current Hualamphong train station and then underground, across the river, and southwest to Samut Sakhon province.  Ambitious!

The Power of Half

22210-review_jpg_full_600 This morning I listened to a podcast from the Diane Rehm show from National Public Radio.  In it, the host subbing for Diane interviewed Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen, the father-daughter authors of the book The Power of Half.  The book documents the path the Salwen family took when they decided to sell their house and move into one half its size, donating half of the sales price to charity.

Along the way, they also changed many of their consumer habits and starting making more time for their family and their community.  It is an interesting story and one that illustrates the idea that most of us could probably get by with less than we have, and probably could give more of our time, money, or talent than we currently give.

What amazed me, though, was the range of negative reactions callers to the show and commenters on the website had.  These negative reactions generally fell into two categories:

The first category was complaints that while they had given half of their stuff, the Salwens were so well-off (upper middle class, it seems) that they still have a very comfortable life afterwards.  They’ve never really known “need” so we shouldn’t see them as a good example.  Plus, Jesus taught that we should only do good works in private.  No need to make such a public splash about it.

The second category was complaints that the Salwens are out of touch with ordinary people and that in these tough economic times, there are many people who can’t afford to give half their stuff to charity (which Kevin Salwen specifically said at the start of the show they were not advocating that people do).  “Flippant,” “insensitive,” and “disconnected” were some of the words used to describe the Salwen family.

There was also a small category of people criticizing that the primary recipient of the family’s charity is an organization that fights hunger in Africa.  “There is great need in our own country!” some people complained.

Now, this really amazes me.  This family examined their own life, realized they enjoyed a cushier lifestyle than they needed, and acted on that realization.  In my mind, that’s a good thing.  Who are we to criticize that?  As near as I can tell from listening to them, it was done with the best intentions and the only reason they have publicized the story is to encourage others to think about what they could potentially do without in their own lives – a message that I think doesn’t hurt the vast majority of Americans, even ones who are in financial tough times, to hear.

What is it with this bitterness?  If you don’t think the family deserves praise, then don’t praise them.  But why do some people feel a need to attack them and tear them down?  Spend half of the time you would have otherwise spent attacking them and use it to do something that betters the world!

 

Construction Continues Unabated

This week I spent about six hours over the course of two days dealing with the Ministry of Labor, renewing my work permit.  That, about US$100, and the non-immigrant visa I received last summer while in the US, was enough to clear my way for another year of legal residency in Thailand. 

I guess in the big picture this is a small price to pay to live with my husband, but it seems to me that people shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops on an ongoing basis in order to live with their spouses.  Jumping through hoops initially for immigration purposes, I can understand that.  But every year from now to eternity?  Rubbish.

Anyhow, at least I received a full year on the work permit instead of only ninety days at a time, which is usually the case.  However, with the type of visa I have, I still need to do a border run (leave the country) once every ninety days, despite having a full year visa.  Try to figure that one out.

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One sign that life is back to normal in the City of Angels is that construction continues unabated.  In the picture above, you are looking northwest at the Asoke Road / Sukhumvit Road intersection towards the new Terminal 21 mall.  I wrote about this construction project in November, when they were laying the ground floor after a year of work on the foundation and understories.  Six months later they are on the ninth floor, which is as high as the mall portion will go.

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Another view from the Asoke Road side.  Pretty soon the street will be shaded in the afternoon, once they add just a few more stories.  The back portion of the property will have highrise component which will include a service apartment complex and office space.  Do we need another mall in this city?  Probably not, but at least it is further east than most of the malls, which are in the Siam Square area.  This provides an option for those of us on the Sukhumvit corridor to avoid going all the way into the city.

I’m actually surprised by the amount of construction going on in this city, especially new condos.  A few weeks ago I drove from our house at Sukhumvit 53 to the Nissan dealership at Sukhumvit 101/1.  This is about six stations down the Skytrain line, only three of which are currently operational, the remaining ones scheduled for operation at the end of 2011.  Around every single station, both the current and future ones, there are three or four large construction sites where highrise condos are being built.

Can there be that much demand?  It must represent investors’ confidence in Thailand.

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From highrises to sidewalks, inane utility work continues in Bangkok like it does in much of the world.  Why is it that there never seems to be any coordination among respective agencies?  A new sidewalk is built and neatly paved and then as soon as that is finished, a utility department comes along and digs it up.

The same is true along Asoke at the entrance to Soi Cowboy, where there was a large backhoe parked on the sidewalk for several days (anyone want to walk in the gutter?) as about five meters of the sidewalk was dug up and water mains were repaired.

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I felt bad for these guys, the ones doing the actual work.  What a messy job.  As you can imagine, there’s not much rhyme or reason to the way utilities are laid out in this city.  Sometimes they don’t even bury them, but lay them on top of the existing sidewalk and just spread some asphalt over the top, a snake running along the sidewalk, waiting to trip you.