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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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. 


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. 


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.


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.



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.


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


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


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


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!


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


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!

Wan Visakha Bucha

Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*.  This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away.  On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.

In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected.  Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka.  It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time


While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian.  (wian = circle, tian = candle)

The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple.  Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead.  Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom. 

The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world.  The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks).  As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight.  It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.


On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:

  1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
  3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)

We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand.  This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.

There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices.  While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.


After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.

I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:

Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture.  I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations.  Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.  

*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.


Temps Hit Nine-Year Low

P1130505 As much as you folks in the further reaches of the Northern hemisphere may scoff at it, Thailand has been in the grip of a high pressure trough which has dropped down from China, bringing with it the chilly Siberian air. 

Temperatures Sunday night hit an nine-year low in Khrungthep: 15 C / 59 F.  The last time we were colder was on Christmas Day 1999: 13.2 C / 56 F while the coldest I could find on record was January 12, 1955 at 10 C / 50 F.

“Oh, that’s nothing!” scoffed one of Tawn’s former colleagues, a British expat still living in our tropical paradise.  “Thais don’t know what cold weather really is!”

Put it into perspective, though.  Our average low temperature in December and January is 21 C / 70 F.  So we’re significantly cooler than the norms and much cooler than I’ve experienced since I moved here in October 2005.  People aren’t used to this and even I closed the windows today for fear I would catch a chill from the cross-ventilation. 

Tawn even reported that one rider on the SkyTrain was wearing earmuffs, although that may be just because the air con is often quite cool on the train.  We would see this at the cinemas, too, but then the digital sound (which is cranked up to 10, by the way) would be muffled.

Thailand In Loei province, in the more mountainous north, the overnight low was 2 C / 36 F.  Provincial governors have been coordinating the emergency distribution of blankets.

And last night a monk in his 70s died from exposure in Ayutthaya, about ninety minutes by car north of Khrungthep.  He had only a knit cap and a jacket to add warmth to his robes, and was discovered in his cell by other monks when he failed to show up for the early morning alms collection rounds.

Speaking of knit caps and jackets, Tawn has dug deep into his closet and is enjoying this opportunity to layer and dress in a more wintry fashion.  Above, a wool vest purchased at Macy’s while in the US.  Below, an ascot and sportscoat keeps Tawn warm while enjoying his morning oatmeal on our balcony.


Oatmeal isn’t the only cozy food we’re eating.  Last night I heated up the Dutch oven and cooked some split pea soup.  I’m perusing other hearty recipes that will help us get past this cold front until the warmer days of the hot season return.  Tis the season for braising!


Lea Loses Her Glass Slipper

Vacation starts tomorrow.  It is nearly 9 pm and I haven’t yet started packing.  “Why not?” asked Tawn when he called from work two hours ago.  Well, there’s been a lot to do.  I already know what I’m going to bring so I don’t feel like I need to pack before getting done some other priorities, like work.

Besides, our flight tomorrow isn’t until 5 pm so I have plenty of time.  Right?

Cinderella Last night we attended the opening night of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Lea Salonga.  This is the stage version of the 1957 television special that R&H wrote specifically for Julie Andrews.  There are a couple of numbers that you can tell were written for her.

Befitting an opening night, the Muangthai Ratchadalai Theatre was packed with celebrities and members of high society.  The lobby had no shortage of TV cameras and paparazzi interviewing people and taking their pictures as they arrived in their fabulous gowns, etc.  Strangely, they did not stop me and Tawn.  Hmmm…

Compared with some of the other R&H musicals (think “South Pacific”, “The Sound of Music”, “Oklahoma” and “The King and I” – but if you’re in Thailand where the last show is banned, don’t think of it), Cinderella doesn’t deliver too many catchy tunes.  “In My Own Little Corner” and “A Lovely Night” are probably the only two I could hum right now.

Despite horrid over-amplification (the technical aspects of stagecraft are still a bit crude here), Salonga’s voice was beautiful.  She really is an amazing singer and able to deliver so much to a character.  If you haven’t seen her, get on over to Singapore where the show will run from January 2-22.

P1120697 Interesting spirit house, right.  The Ratchadalai Theatre is part of the Esplanade “Arte-tainment” complex on Ratchadapisek Road. 

Out back there are several night clubs.  The spirit house for these night clubs is a bit unusual: the statue is the form of a dancer.  In front are the words for the Hare Krishna chant, in both Thai and English:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,

Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare

Hare Rama, Hare Rama

Rama Rama, Hare Hare

I’m thinking that maybe I should do a coffee table book of the interesting spirit houses in Thailand.  What do you think?


P1120694 I work from home.  This can be nice except when there’s construction work going on. 

Currently, four units in the complex are under renovation including the one directly below us.  I have some audio postcards I’m going to share with you one of these days so you can hear my pain.

But this week I got to enjoy a new distraction.  The planters next to the swimming pool shower were emptied, cleaned, and sealed as there has been a leak into the car park below.  So for two days while the layers of sealant were applied, I was catching these whiffs of incredibly toxic smelling industrial adhesive.

I’m not sure whether I suffered any brain damage or not, but I started feeling really good…


Finally, just in case you didn’t believe my previous post about Christmas being celebrated here in the Big Mango, here’s what’s displayed outside Ploenchit Center.


Yes, it is a giant Starbucks coffee cup.  The triple-venti.  Actually, it is a book collection point as part of a charity drive they are doing.  Pretty nifty idea, although I’m curious if there’s even a dozen books in that cup.  One of these things that works were as a PR stunt but who knows whether the impact would have been greater if they had just taken the money on the display and used it to buy books for children instead.

But then they wouldn’t have received any publicity in my blog.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.

There will probably be a few days where I don’t have any posts as I transit through Taipei with Tawn and across the Pacific Ocean.  Enjoy your final weekend before Christmas and try to make time for yourself and your loved ones.  Shopping, wrapping, decorating and cooking are much less important than enjoying the company of those close to you. 


Merry Jolly Mango Christmas

As you peruse these pictures and two-minute video of the holiday decorations around town, just keep repeating this mantra to yourself:

“It’s a predominately Buddhist nation… It’s a predominately Buddhist nation…”

Sure, you may find that really hard to believe given the huge quantity of Christmas ornamentation, but that’s just as much a testament to the commercialisation of Christmas than any conversion of the Thai populace to a new faith.


Above, the Central Chidlom department store on Phloenchit Road.  Below, Central World Plaza on the corner of Rama I and Ratchaprop Roads. 


Here’s a little video, set to cheerful music by Nat King Cole, to help you enjoy the sights of the season here in the wintry Big Mango:

View from the Athenee

Sunday afternoon I met Brian for dim sum at the Conrad Hotel, then we walked up the block to his new condo.  The complex, the Athenee Residences, is part of the Athenee Hotel, a five-star Royal Meridian property on Wireless Road near the US and British embassies.

(Yeah, a little hi-so for me, but what are you going to do?)


Brian’s unit is on the 28th floor and has views to the south and west.  At this point it is unfurnished but it sounds like in another month or two he’ll be able to move in.  It is interesting to look at other people’s homes because everyone has different values and desires when it comes to living space: layouts, size, views, etc. are all dependent on personal taste.

Personally, I’d replace the craft paper window treatments, but that’s just me.

Needless to say, at twenty-eight stories above the Big Mango, he enjoys some nice views.  It was hazy on Sunday afternoon, but here are some shots and a short video clip.


Looking to the west (and zooming in) you get a good view of the US ambassador’s residence, which is on one of the largest, most lush and most under-developed plots of land in the city center.


At the corner of Wireless and Phloenchit Roads is this property, a series of shop houses that are being slowly demolished.  I wrote about this in October.  The open space on the other side of the Skytrain tracks is the British embassy, the front portion of which (demarked by the white wall) has been sold to the Central Group.  Central, a retail chain that owns the Central Chidlom department store which is just out of the upper left corner of the frame, plans on building a mall and office complex here to connect to the department store.

Phloenchit Skytrain station is on the right hand side of this picture and Wave Place, an office/retail complex that houses Home Pro (kind of a weak Home Depot) is the large building in the upper right hand corner of the picture.

Here’s the panorama from his balcony with a little explanation.


On the way home out in the “countryside” of Soi Thong Lor, I found myself behind a pickup truck carrying two bulls.  Why in the world they were driving into Thong Lor Soi 25, I have no idea.  It is a residential alley with no outlet and, to the best of my knowledge, no farms.


The strange things you see in this city!

Photo Shoot at Brent’s

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Health & Cuisine magazine photo shoot at our condo.  The magazine is always looking for people to feature in their “Men’s Cooking” column, so Tawn has used his connections to promote people as potential profiles.

Brent is an expat American who manages Chanintr Group, the company that owns the rights to retail brands like Martha Stewart, Thomasville, and Barbara Barry in Thailand.  With his sense of fashion and style, he was the perfect person to recommend for the column.

P1110197 With Tawn serving doing pro bono PR work for Brent, he arranged the column and photo shoot, setting Sunday morning as the appointment. 

We arrived a bit after 10:00 at Brent’s apartment (left), a high-rise on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River nestled at the end of a small soi between the Shangri-La Hotel on the south and the Oriental on the north.

As one would expect for the manager of a group of home furnishing stores, his apartment is beautifully decorated, tastefully appointed in a comfortable but not stuffy way.   It was a relaxing place to spend a Sunday morning as the photo shoot and interview took place.  Especially after the bottle of pink champagne was opened!

Here are some views taken from Brent’s apartment.  From top left, clockwise: View towards Taksin Bridge with the Shangri-La on the left.  View upriver with the Oriental on the right and the Millennium Hilton (with the “saucer” on top) across the river.  View of the State Tower which has the rooftop bar and restaurant, Sirocco.  View of Assumption Cathedral where we went to a wedding recently and, behind it, Assumption University.

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While there, we were introduced to the maid’s niece, Phrae, who was staying with them during the November school holidays.  She is quite the tom boy, with the aunt constantly complaining about her poor manners.  She’s rambunctious, yes, but it seems fueled by spirit rather than spoil.  Below, Tawn and Phrae play on the balcony.


I think my role was to keep Phrae occupied so we played with her pretend mobile phone for a while and then, when I took some pictures of the view, she wanted to take some, too:


P1110167 Figuring that the only thing I had to lose (beside the camera, if she dropped it off the balcony) was some memory space and some batteries, I let her start taking pictures.  In the next hour she snapped 400 photos, using up one battery and almost filling the memory card.

As she was taking pictures, I decided to let her shoot uninterrupted because I was reminded of the 2004 Academy Award winning documentary, Born into Brothels, directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski.  Briski, a documentary photographer, went to Kolkata to photograph the lives of prostitutes,  While there, she befriended their children and taught some of them photography.  The photos were featured in the films and there were many stunning images.

What struck me was a curiosity of what pictures Phrae would take and how she saw the world around her.  Of the 400 photos, at least half were completely unusable from the standpoint of being very out of focus or terribly overexposed (you can’t take a picture of something shiny from three inches away, use a flash and expect to see anything afterwards).  But there were several dozen that I thought were very interesting.  I’ll post them after I’ve finished this entry so you can take a look and see the world through her eyes.  Here’s the link to that entry.


The Shoot

Let’s get to the real reason for us being there: the photo shoot.  Brent, who spent fifteen years living in Tokyo, is a big advocate of a Japanese breakfast, which he eats every morning.


This healthy breakfast includes brown rice, an egg, some dried seaweed, pickles vegetables, and firm tofu.  Looks lovely, right?

Most of the shooting took place in the kitchen, but some additional shots were taken on his south-facing balcony overlooking the front of the Shangri-La.  The lighting was a bit of a challenge (at least for me – probably not as much of a challenge for the professional photographer), but they shot a series of a “conversation among friends” at which only Brent had any food in front of him.  Strange, huh?


Amazingly enough, Brent makes his own pickles.  He demonstrated for us, using a plastic pickle-maker (looks a bit like a salad spinner) that he bought at the Isetan department store.  The best of all the pickles was the turnip (brown, lower right corner) which are salted, squeezed to remove all the liquid, then soaked in soy sauce.  They pick up such a wonderful smoky, caramel flavor.


Below, Brent slices daikon radish to demonstrate the pickle making process.  We also tried his homemade dill pickles (excellent) and pickled beets (the best I’ve eaten).


You just know that I’m thinking about making my own pickles, don’t you?


Thai Pile Driving

P1100804 I carry my camera with me just about everywhere I go, because you never know what interesting, blog-worthy things you will see.  Case in point: as Tawn and I were driving down Soi Phom Phong (Sukhumvit 39) we saw a group of laborers driving piles for the construction of a guard shack.

No large pieces of machinery for these construction workers.  No pile driver banging away with an incessant “clang”, “clang”, “clang.”  Instead, the scene was all smiles and song. 

I pulled the car over and walked back to take some pictures and shoot some video.  Here, in 90 seconds, is a taste of Thai pile driving.

Neat, huh?


Caught up in the PAD march

Despite Prime Minister Samak’s being removed from his post by the courts, despite former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra being convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion, the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) continues its protests. 

It seems they will only be satisfied when the current government is disrupted and new elections are called – assuming they were sincere when PAD leaders recently dropped their demands for a parliament that was contained a majority of appointees, resulting in a government that would be (ironically, given their name) not democratic.

Another big PAD rally and march occurred today, heading down Phloenchit/Sukhumvit Road from Siam Square to Phrom Phong.  (Come to think about it, this could be called the Mall to Mall March.)  Originally, the march was to terminate at the British Embassy on Wittahyu Road but it looks like they kept on going, stopping only once heavy rains commenced.

As I left my Thai language class with Khruu Kitiya, the head of the protest was just arriving at the Asoke Skytrain station.  Caught up in the excitement (and lack of policemen in their mob control gear) I decided to risk life and limb to bring you, my readers, the story.


Above, the head of the marchers, underneath the Asoke Skytrain station heading into the Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection.  The crowd looked to be about 5,000 – 10,000 strong but the rains about thirty minutes later cut that to just a few thousand.


Above, looking from Asoke station eastwards towards Phrom Phong station (where Emporium mall is located).  By the time the crowd had passed the intersection – a good fifteen minutes – the traffic backed up on Asoke reached a solid two kilometers to Phetchaburi Road and beyond.


Above, a close-up from the previous vantage point, showing the crowds already down several blocks,

After taking the train into town to pay my electricity bill, I stopped at Emporium on the way back for a bite to eat, where I caught up with a rain storm and about two thousand remaining PAD members, who sought shelter beneath the Phrom Phrong station, stopping traffic on both sides of the street, below.


Security guards at the BTS Skytrain and the Emporium mall watched nervously, hoping that crowds would not turn against them.  All in all, the demonstration was very peaceful – other than causing massive gridlock in a city that already has terrible congestion.

Above: Here’s ninety seconds of footage I edited together so you could get a fuller sense of the scope of the protest.