Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thai Beauties: Flowers, Pt. 2

One of many types of Virburnum *

We began a series on Thai flowers a couple of months ago (New Series: Flowers) that deserves a new installment, so here today are more blooms I've photographed around the Land of Smiles.

There was a nice comment left earlier this month on the Morning Walk In Bangkok post saying "I like how the Thai people's living circumstances, no matter how grand or humble, always include flowers and potted plants" - and I heartily agree.

<-- white Petunia blooms *

Granted, many plants we'd struggle and baby along in our own homes thrive weed-like in Thailand with seemingly little care, but they still take that most precious commodity - time - if only for water and minimal attention.

Pots and planters are very cheap there, but you're likely to see most anything that will hold soil or water filled with foliage and blooms, clustered together in groupings in front of homes, storefronts, along the sidewalks - most anywhere.

A large (4 inch) Hibiscus bloom *

I've done basic research with Google but can't seem to find much information online about native plants and wildflowers of Thailand. There are any number of books available, too, and I'll take a look for a good one next time I'm there. Meanwhile, if anyone has a site suggestion that might help me identify some of these blooms I'd be grateful to hear about it, and I'll of course pass that information along. [ * Photo identification provided via comments from my friend Krobbie. Thanks, K!]

Red/white varigated double Amyrillis *

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Welcome (AGAIN!) To The Hotel California

Fads are fads and favorites are favorites wherever you go, and easy access to the internet has made our world even smaller than it was, say 25 years ago. Home made video clips uploaded to the the web from anywhere can "go viral" (as it's become known) and boast millions of views - or hits - in a matter of hours. It can be both amazing and troublesome in the same thought.

While technology can make the transfer of information instantaneous, the information itself can get stuck in the Twilight Zone. A good example are email jokes and syrupy sentimental wishes you may have received to your inbox today that you very well may have seen two years ago, and originally five years before that.

Another good example is the Eagle's song "Hotel California". It was a nice song when I first heard it in 1976, and in the 34 years since then thousands of versions have been done by artists across a wide spectrum: Rascal Flatts, Macedonian singer Igor Dzambazov and American Idol novelty William Hung, to name a few. I'm not sick to death of it, but it dropped of my "happy to hear it begin" list long ago.

Fast forward to 2003. I'm sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Isaan in the Northeast of Thailand, having dinner with a few friends and noticing I'm the only farang there. Everyone around me is speaking Thai. I'm savoring this moment as a young man with a guitar around his neck walks up to a microphone, plugs into his small, care-worn amplifier and begins to pick the opening to a song. Yes, that song. The whole thing. Although he only got a little over half of the lyrics correct in his earnest effort, many others there seemed to recognize what he was pouring his heart into singing and enjoyed it. Truth be told, I enjoyed it, too. It was...creative English, and that alone made it fun.

It's a rather distinctive sounding song and I've since heard it many, many times there; sometimes coming from bars filled with farang old enough to remember it's initial radio play 30+ years ago, and sometimes in bars frequented by locals. I've heard it sung in Thai and with any number of variations to the English lyrics - some more humorous than others.

The most unusual version I've heard so far was one weekend afternoon out at Chatuchak/Jatujak weekend market, where I heard the guy in the clip up top today. He was just finishing it up as I got over to him and asked him to play just the beginning of it again for me. Having just played it he wasn't too keen to launch into it again, but he started his taped accompaniment, and I caught what I could of it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Keeping A Cool Heart #1

There are many articles in books, magazines and online about the value the Thai put on "face" and how important it is not to "lose face" - and one of the easiest ways to do so is to let your emotions get the better of you and lose your cool. It's not just uncouth, it shows a weakness of character and a decidedly UN-Buddhist way of dealing with people who are well over 90% Theravada. It's extremely bad manners and not soon forgotten by the Thai you deal with. It rolls out the welcome mat for bad karma, too.

For example: you make an appointment with someone to meet you for something tomorrow afternoon but you lose your temper before parting that day. They may not let on you've committed this social sin, but they also may not show up for that appointment; avoiding the confrontation, but choosing not to deal with you further.

The problem with that for me is that I tend to have an easier time slipping into my cranky pants if I'm (a) frustrated (b) physically uncomfortable or (c) not rested or feeling well. I don't know about you, but put me into a humid, tropical area fifteen time zones removed from my home with a culture that can seem completely upside down from my "norm" and it's far too easy for me to be dealing with all three of those hot buttons at least once a day. Usually I can count to 10, take some deep breaths and practice what I've heard called restraint of tongue and pen.

My closest friend in Thailand thankfully is now able to joke about the afternoon we were walking in downtown Bangkok and trying to make our conversation heard over the razzing din of a large group of tuk tuks, swarming past us for what seemed like 15 minutes. Pausing mid-sentence, I turned toward the street and angrily screamed "SHUT UP!" at the traffic. Knowing it was a completely futile gesture I thought I might slide it by as silliness, but my friend stopped dead in his tracks.

His face gone sober he avoided my eyes, staring for a few seconds at the sidewalk in front of him before beginning to walk along again. I tried again to pass it off as a joke, but he looked directly at me and said "Why you shout? Not good. Not jai yen. Jai yen yen."

Jai yen yen
means "calm down" in Thai, as in "please calm down" - something I knew by his tone of voice without even having to ask. All three of the above buttons had been pushed repeatedly that day and unfortunately I'd finally given in to them. It was out of character for me, and I'd genuinely shocked him. I apologized profusely and did what damage control I could by explaining why I'd lost control as we walked along, and soon he understood, allowing that he's had days like I'd had, also - and had also lost his temper.

The commonality of it allowed us to get past it, to the point that he also did some cartoon-like mock shouting later that evening: at the BTS train we'd just missed, at the television - giving me a sly sideways glance each time he did it, as a reminder of how ridiculous I looked shouting at the traffic. It's become a running joke for the last few years, and either of us is liable to fake rage and pantomime "shouting" when things aren't going as we'd planned or wanted them to go.

I was lucky that time, and have made a sincere effort to keep my cool heart there since.

[There's a follow-up example to this post on December 2nd of this year, if you're interested.]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thai Smiles, Part 19: Friends

One of the most gratifying situations for me while taking pictures of Thai people is when I'm lucky enough to catch two, three or more friends together somewhere - working, at play, at rest or just visiting. As it can be anywhere their "guard" is usually down, they're more relaxed and more than likely feel there's some safety in numbers!

The kids at the top of today's post were at a temple outside of Surin; part of a school group that was visiting on a field trip the same day I happened to be there. I wasn't quite quick enough to catch their impromptu pose and focus properly, but I like the picture.

The group above was in a sales stall at a night market in Udonthani. The seven you can pick out happily posed in various combinations and each wanted to see each picture right after I took it. This was my favorite of the bunch.

It was getting close to dusk at the beach in Pattaya when I took the photo above, and although the quality of the image is lacking (some serious salvage work saved the very dark image) I think it's a fine example of joyous fun.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Room With A View

OK, so it's not much of a view - but you can call me easily entertained, if you wish. In the afternoon when I know for sure I'll just fall asleep if I lie down to try reading while taking a rest I'll sometimes opt to sit by the window (or on the balcony, if there is one) and observe the area around where I'm staying... and then go lie down and nap; naps being a guilty pleasure I give in to as often as possible.

This is again a panorama of several photos, but this time it's of three horizontal pictures made into a vertical image, giving a nice view of the back side of the building block next to my Asia Hotel room one trip. Click a second time on the image in the window that opens up and then scroll around to see the whole thing.

I like the wooden shutters, the screened back balcony, the small spirit house down in the parking area and the additions-on-additions-on-additions of sun and rain coverage extending out from the building itself, all in the name of making a house a home.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Mod" Is Thai For..........ANTS!!

The remnants of the invasion - not a great picture, but I was a little shaken!

I awoke thinking maybe my hand was asleep; there was a sensation similar to what I've grown up calling "pins and needles" on my hand, and arm, and... good grief - my back and face and scalp! I'd awoken a few minutes earlier with the same feeling, but in my half-slumber just brushed and scratched a little and gone back to sleep. This time I was most definitely awake.

Like the story of Madeline I'd read to my younger siblings goes: "In the middle of the night, Miss Clavelle turned on the light and said 'Something is not right!' " I reached for the switch on the nightstand lamp, and as soon as it lit the area around me I involuntarily shouted.

"AUGGH! Ants!" I shouted - and there were, indeed, ants. Thousands of them, many of them biting. If you looked closely at my pillow it looked like one of those animal stampedes from a National Geographic or Planet Earth broadcast. Little reddish-brown ants. They were still all over my torso, too - and I was still slapping and trying to brush them off when I looked over at my friend, still deeply slumbering on the other half of the bed. "Wake up!" I called to him as I reached over and shook his shoulder. He struggled up from his deep sleep, rubbing his eyes and quickly noting my concerned look also felt the biting and knew something was indeed not right.

"OH!" he shouted "MOD!!" "No kidding," I said as he (always the caring friend) ignored his own discomfort and began slapping me around, trying to rid me of the little pests. We both jumped out of our respective sides of the bed, turning almost in unison to look at our own private - but open - ant farm with near-identical disbelief and surprise, both still trying to get them off of ourselves at the same time.

I grabbed the phone and called the front desk and tried to explain our past-midnight predicament. Of course, the night clerk didn't understand why this guest was shouting "Ants! Ants!" and I heard my friend shout "Not ants...MOD!" from the bathroom, where he'd jumped into the shower. [It's pronounced with a long "o" sound like "commode" and not like the mod in modern]

The clerk came up and saw the carnage we'd created while killing as many as we could, but still there were plenty running frantically around on the sheets. He was concerned and very apologetic, but he had no idea whatsoever what to do about it. My friend came out to talk to him, towel around his waist, while I went in to rinse off what I could of the little bastards myself. I could see the red bite welts raising on his back and shoulders and felt so bad for him. He had a worse reaction to them than I did, but I think I was the bigger baby about them. I do not like things crawling on me.

When I came back out there was still no good solution. There wasn't another room to move us to, it was now past 01:30 and there was no way I was going to sleep there that night. The clerk, still saying "sorry... sorry" offered to call another hotel to find us a room - which he did - while I hastily packed my bags. We were whisked off to another hotel and put into a nice room where we collapsed again into bed, sleeping until 08:00. The first hotel naturally paid for our transfer and second hotel room and adjusted my tab for the ant farm.

The next morning they brought in the bomb squad who cleared the decks for our return the following evening. No smell of insecticide, and not a single mod/ant to be found.

It was an adventure, but one I'd pass on signing up for again!

PS - The hotel found a mango on the ledge outside my second-floor room window while cleaning the room out, and a major nest of the little red devils down at ground level. Case closed.

PPS - No, I won't tell you what hotel it was. Not their fault, and I won't besmirch their otherwise fine record with me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Safe Sex Ads

My homeland is far behind the curve when it comes to safe sex education. Sadly, it's lacking in all areas of sex education - but a simple formed piece of latex less than half a millimeter thick has not only prevented millions of infections, it's also prevented clear and logical thinking on the part of many - often by those who couple it with a fervent religious fanaticism.

I don't have a problem with anyone's faith if it gives them comfort and some moral guidance in their lives, but to infringe on the lives of others by coordinating campaigns that keep others from being educated and making their own choices isn't just irresponsible, it's pig ignorance. I'd say "that's just my opinion" but I can't, in all good conscience; anyone thinking clearly would agree. Leave a comment if you have a rational argument otherwise.

Stepping down off of my soap box let me share an example of an ad that ran on Thai television:

Yes, it's daring on a couple of levels, but why on earth couldn't we in the US have ads that at least said "Hey, these rubber thingies work and can save you a lot of grief - and maybe your life"? Let people make an educated choice.

I've seen several billboards in Thailand with a "stay safe" message - in Thai - showing a row of cartoon condoms dancing, and while my jaw dropped the first time I saw one from my taxi in from the airport I almost applauded right then and there.

Sexually transmitted diseases aren't going to go away - they're going to become more prevalent, stronger and more drug-resistant. How anyone can think "just keep it in your pants" is an effective way of dealing with them is far beyond all logic.

2008 figures show that of the 33.4 million people worldwide living with HIV, 610,000 are in Thailand. It's only my guess, but because of ignorance and shame you can figure there are many more living with it that haven't (or won't) be reported and included in that number.

In Bangkok the prevalence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men is just under 25%. That's one in four, even with educational programs in place. Granted, part of the problem among workers in that trade is the lure of "easy" money, but the long-lasting and usually fatal conditions aren't worth it in the long run. I applaud all who help educate and control HIV in Thailand and around the world.

Be safe, people. Think responsibly, act responsibly and pass the word along.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thai Smiles, Part 18: At Work

A few months back I'd shared thoughts on how Thai find sanuk (fun) in whatever they do, and how if something isn't sanuk it's not worth doing. I still stand by that theory, and it's something I strive for in my own life. Some days it's easier than others, but it helps. Today we see a few more examples of that spirit. None of these people worked an easy job, but all were quick to stop and smile a moment for a stranger.

Standing on your feet all day can be difficult enough, but doing on a constantly moving platform has to be even more of a challenge. This bus guard (above, with the woman who was taking fares) were in near constant motion to steady themselves, but both returned a smile and greeting as they passed by. I shudder to think how my feet would hurt after a similar shift, and the riverboat taxi folks must have it 10 times worse. You can see clips of a riverboat taxi post here.

The sewers and associated gutters and drains in the cities can be - uhhm - fragrant, to say the least. The job of opening them up on a very warm day to clear the muck out of them when they're clogged is a job I'd really have to steel myself up to do - and this guy above had been up to it to his elbows.

People have shared with me that housekeeping in a hotel can be a day littered with unpleasant surprises. Folks often expect a room to be cleaner than they keep their own homes and yet think nothing of leaving messes on a regular basis for the cleaning staff that many of us wouldn't touch with gloves on. Especially if you're staying a few nights in one place, let this serve as a suggestion to be thoughtful about leaving a tip for those who care for the room you'll be returning to later in the day. This woman was cheery every time I ran into her, and I doubt it was the 20 baht note I left for her each day.

The man above drives vans of tourists around to various spots, and was such a pleasant guy we asked him to join us when he dropped us at a simple local restaurant in Ayuttaya one afternoon between temple stops. Initially he declined but my friend assured him he was welcome, so he went and parked the van and came back to sit with us. He appreciated being included, I think. He certainly had a healthy appetite!

A massage guy I had fun joking around with while in Pattaya had his share of boring afternoons sitting around and waiting for customers to come wandering by. I stopped by to visit with him a few times and once even had a credible Thai massage from him.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Replying To A Comment 1

A thoughtful comment containing some valid points was left by reader John on yesterday's post about farang and their rented admirers that I felt deserved a proper answer, so rather than bury it there I decided to copy and repost it here. John said:

"I am going to offer a bit of criticism, not of the specific topic but more generally. It is one I make of a lot of what I read about Thailand and about many people who are frequent visitors to the country. I do not really believe it is intentional, but it does seem to occur regularly when people write about Thailand.

There is a sense one gets, especially if they have never visited the country or have traveled to it only minimally, that Thailand is depicted as an idyllic country of gentle, smiling people who are often intruded upon by boorish outsiders. I am speaking as someone with a deep seated love of the country and with many of its people. However, there are few social ills, be it violence, bigotry, theft, fraud, xenophobia, or jingoism, that Thailand has had any particular success overcoming compared to the rest of the society of nations.

So, I suppose the questions I would ask are: do you believe the ills of Thai society are as visible to you as the strengths? If so, is it a simply a matter of not being interested in the subject and not wishing to write about it?"

The depiction of Thailand as the idyllic country of gentle people is without a doubt perpetuated in part by (1) the rose-colored glasses worn by new visitors, insulated from the realities of true local life by virtue of their organized tours, led by guides who don't show the seamy side of things, and (2) the experiences shared by people who - for whatever reason - either choose not to see the realities or choose not to speak or write about them. I'm one of those who would prefer not to dwell on the darker side, and I freely admit it.

Before I make myself come off as a completely naive cockeyed optimist (oh thanks - now I'll have that song from "South Pacific" stuck in my head all morning) let me clarify my point a little bit. As it reads above the comment submission box "I'm not an expert on Thailand in any way, shape or form; I do this for the satisfaction I get from sharing with others".

Although I've made 13 extended trips there over the last seven years and have 15 or so trusted Thai friends who have given me far more insight into the culture than one would ever get on a package tour, I still have more to learn about the country, the people and the workings of day-to-day life, and I look forward to doing so.

There's no contesting the fact that there are many examples of greed, deception, corruption, violence, depravity and disgusting behavior in the Land of Smiles by the Thai themselves - I've seen more than a few examples of all of the above and have been on the receiving end of it myself. Where I fell short was that I didn't point that out in my original post while wearing my "rose-colored glasses".

As I did write: "They're human beings, people" - and that gives them room to be rude, pushy and boorish, too. I've been shoved out of the way in line (or queue for some of you), felt a hand reaching for my wallet that wasn't mine, had a shouting match with a manager with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth next to his own "no smoking" sign (to my shame afterwards). I've seen more than one child missing an appendage who confessed to my Thai friend that it had been removed so that they'd be more likely to collect money while begging and have learned from sources I trust of other behavior I'd never have thought could happen in Thailand that has and does indeed continue to happen.

John made a good point, and I heard it. Although this was intended to be a blog of a lighter vein, I'd be doing both my readers and my schooling a disservice if we glossed over some of the less savory aspects of this country he and I have come to love. I appreciated the input. I could have made it clear that while it was the boorish attitudes of Westerners I was disgusted with that it may have been behavior exaggerated by the freedom to do so while on vacation/holiday. I does disturb me to see farang acting like pigs and mistreating the locals - for whatever reason. That was my main point.

To answer your question, John: yes, I have (and do) see the ills along with the strengths, but had preferred to write about the "good stuff" while unrealistically ignoring the bad, for the most part. In fairness to all I'll make an effort to be a little more balanced in the future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Farang And Their Rented Admirers

This photo of people entering a hotel is used with no implications intended or implied whatsoever.

Public displays of affection (or PDAs) are considered to be extremely poor manners in Thailand. The topic was addressed in the post "Hello, Young Lovers" back on August 2nd, if you'd like an overview. Today's post scratches the surface of another aspect of affection - what I sometimes refer to as "rented affection"; club workers who, for a fee, will do far more than merely stroke the egos of their clients.

Heterosexual or Gay, it's much the same - prostitution is the World's Oldest Profession. It's been around since before recorded history and will always be with us in one form or another, I expect. When I was doing a 9-to-5 office job I used to joke with my co-workers how
our jobs were just another form of prostitution, too: we were selling our bodies and minds for a fee and doing things we didn't necessarily like or approve of! My guess is if you're honest with yourselves you've been in a similar situation at some point in your life at least a few times. Oh, go ahead... admit it. Nobody's going to know.

One of many "Girlie" bar streets in Pattaya

Thailand has the unfortunate reputation as being a destination for tourists who are primarily visiting for hedonistic reasons. I know of an unsettling number of folks who have never seen much of anything there outside of Patpong, Soi Cowboy, Soi Twilight or Boyztown - those being a few of the better known areas for finding paid company. It's their great loss.

Club workers in that line of work are usually in it for one of two reasons: cash or security. The cash can be part of an immediate need (food, shelter, drugs) for the day, week or month - or a longer-term need, such as savings for a farm or future for themselves and/or their families. The "security" can be in the form of a mate who will themselves provide the financial or emotional security for the future. There are multiple sub-catagories, but these are the two I've heard of the most often. If you stop to think about it, that's the reason
many of us do our daily jobs, whatever they are. Same same, but different!

Nevertheless, we expect to be treated with some respect while on the job. This is an area of thin ice to be walking on when it comes to prostitution. Although the Thai view of sexuality is far less restricted (read: far less uptight) than it is in the West, most workers I've interviewed don't tell their family and friends back home what they do for a living. More on that another time, too.

What's disturbing is to be out somewhere and be faced with (more often than not) Western males who feel they're free to act inappropriately and make displays of "affection" while with a Thai. Given a little (or a LOT of) liquid courage many seem to believe they're actually as irresistible as
they think they are, and that their advances should be not only welcomed, but received with a certain amount of gratitude. It's rampant in the clubs catering to gay and straight people of both genders, but I've noticed it's both more prevalent (and distasteful) among male customers.

For the workers who can't keep up the
mai pen rai facade it's a humiliating experience, and it always makes me feel a little ashamed for all involved. For example: a 19 year old heterosexual male being escorted out of a bar and down the street by a gay man old enough to be his grandfather. The young man is smiling (as is his job) but it's often a strained smile. The older man often buys into the deception along with the hours, and far too often with it a sense of entitlement, and that's a large part of the problem - "You're mine" as if they're a puppy or a new watch.

They're human beings, people. There are bad folks everywhere and I'm certain there are thousands of stories about customers being taken advantage of, cheated, lied to and the likes - but face it: the workers may
very well have learned it from their customers.

I'm going to draw some heat for this post, but I welcome your constructive comments. I'll be writing a lot more about this, the workers and their stories as we go along.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Same Same, But Different! Part 6: Random Items

An illuminated sidewalk sign for the ABBA musical

The current generation has seen so many developments in communication. When I was younger the phrase "small world" meant something different than it does in today's crazed e-world of the internet, cell phones that record video and computers that allow people to chat in real time to places they would never have dreamed of going 20 years ago.

The intermingling of peoples and cultures has naturally followed along with the progress of communication, and because of that you're likely to see surprising similarities in some of the strangest places. Although brands have gone from local to area-wide to country-wide to world-wide it still surprises me to see a name or logo that I'd take for granted stateside in a country almost halfway around the world.

If you click on "Same Same" under Labels in the column to the right you'll see a pieces on 7-Eleven stores, Coke and other sodas, KFC and gum, among other things.

Here are a more few photos to add to a mix - things that have surprised or amused me over the last few trips; things like...

a safety sign from a construction site that looks fairly normal until you notice it forbids the wearing of slippers on the site,

The Michelin man, also doing the Thai wai, but not selling junk food as we saw a few days ago, and (below) a bag of Lay's BBQ sparerib flavored potato chips - so "American" that the bag features the Statue of Liberty.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Day Away

I'll be attending a memorial service for a member of my family today, so there will not be a regular post.

Back tomorrow.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bangkok Skyline Panorama

The tallest building in Thailand is the Baiyoke II tower at just over 1,000 feet, including the antenna on top. At the 84th floor level, around the top of the building's 85th floor "crown" is an outdoor observation deck that rotates, allowing you a 360-degree view of Bangkok. I'm not one for heights, but I sure love this place.

One of these days I'll get around to organizing photos from a half-dozen trips there during daylight hours, when I've taken more than my share of the standard tourist photos. You've seen one of the night photos from a restaurant below this observation deck back on 20 August ("Down and Back")

The image today is actually six images, stitched together. It doesn't look like it above, but it's a big picture. If you click to enlarge it you can see reasonably good detail after I cleaned up some of the "haze". The wide river you see winding its way down the left side of the picture is the Chao Phraya, here close to emptying out into the Gulf of Thailand. It's a river area you'll read much more about here in the future.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bangkok's BTS Skytrain: Statistics And Stairs

A Skytrain with the usual ads on the side walls and windows

The 35* BTS Skytrains run over 475 trips daily on a regular schedule - from 06:00 to midnight, seven days a week. During peak hours they're absolutely standing room only, but if you can avoid those times there's usually a place to sit. There are 37 and a quarter miles (60Km) of track between the Sukhumvit and Silom lines - including the new stops across the Chao Phraya river - with extensions in the works as I write this.

The fares run between 10 and 40 baht per trip, depending on the distance you plan to travel, and while that probably seems cheap to most of us it's still more than many there can afford and they take the buses that operate in a far wider web throughout the city. What I mean is you don't see many vegetable vendors riding the BTS. Sometimes the buses or motorcyle taxis can be more convenient, too - depending on where in the huge metropolis you're going.

Night ride on a Skytrain

The cars are 10 and a half feet (3.2M) wide and 71 and a half feet (21.8M) long. The BTS website claims each train of three cars can carry 1,000 passengers, and estimates that each of those trains keeps 800 cars off the road. As jammed as the streets of Bangkok are, that's worthwhile. While I can't vouch for their statistics, I can be sure that they're always there for me within a few minutes of my arrival at the boarding platform - quiet, clean and cool.

Being more out of shape than I'd like the only bothersome part for me are the stairs. Lots of them, over the course of a single ride. It doesn't seem like a lot at first glance, but on a warmer day when I'm trying to get where I'm going without perspiring through my shirt it's more than I like, and I'm always pleased to see escalators going up at some of the higher-traffic stations, like the one to the left.

On average I'd estimate it to be between 30 to 40 stairs from street level up to the ticketing and gate level, and then another 40-plus up to the boarding level.

Once while heading back home at the end of a long day I'd stood looking up one of these stairways and said to myself (but out loud) "Stairs? AGAIN?" and my friend hasn't let me forget it since. Hardly a time passes that he doesn't repeat that same exclamation of disbelief when we head up to a station.

Invariably I catch myself hurrying up the fool stairs just in time to hear the cautionary beep before the doors close and see the train pull out, but mai pen rai - there's always something of interest to see from the platform while waiting for the next train. It's rarely more than a few minutes.

Looking down the stairs from a boarding platform level

You'll notice there's advertising throughout the terminals as well as on the trains themselves. Stairways in high traffic stations have them on the fronts of each step, as you can see here. Trains have them on the solid sides and as screens on the windows, as in the header photo today. Flat panel video screens run continual commercials for movies, TV shows, personal care products, food and beverages - just like you'd see at home. For the first few days they're entertaining; after a while they become background noise... again, just like at home. Same, same - but different!

Security guard - there are BTS and outside services used

It's a very rare day when you don't see a security guard (or three) while entering or leaving a station. Often at the entry gates and almost certainly on the boarding platform, making sure people behave and stay behind the yellow warning lines along the walkways at the edge of the track troughs. They don't employ people to shove people into the trains as in other parts of Asia, but instead will blow a whistle when too many try to crowd themselves in.

I notice we didn't get to all I'd intended to include today, but I hope you'll forgive me for wandering off track when I write about Thailand. There's so much to share, and part of the fun for me is the journey. Hopefully it is for you, too. NEXT installment we'll try to cover stations and areas.

* All of the statistics in today's post are as of they appear today on the BTS site.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Night Photos, Part 8: Late Night Food

Next time I venture into Thailand I'm going to spend a lot more time out and about after dark, taking longer-exposure night pictures. It's a realm of the unknown that I find fascinating. The results are almost always surprising since I usually don't really know what I've captured until I get back to where I can download the images onto something with a larger screen than the camera itself. Sometimes what looks good on the camera is a blurry mess back in my room.

It helps to have something to steady the camera on, and that becomes part of the challenge, too. Usually I'm walking and have to make do with whatever happens to be available: a table, against a pole, leaning on a building or just setting the camera down on a motor scooter seat and hoping the owner doesn't think I'm up to no good. Maybe I'll break down and buy a simple tripod there one of these times.

Here are a few time lapse night photos, casually grouped together as "friends having a late night meal". The top image is a view of people eating outside a 7-Eleven below the Chong Nonsi BTS station, sort of across the street from the Om Yim Lodge.

Below are folks sitting at the metal tables of a sidewalk eatery on Second Road in Pattaya, somewhere along about midnight one night. Below that is an image of friends having dinner beneath the festive lights in Pattaya at the now-closed Amor Restaurant, where I've enjoyed several leisurely dinners myself.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bangkok's BTS Skytrain: An Introduction

The BTS Skytrain sailing along - far above the traffic below

If you've been reading this since the beginning back in March of this year (oh, stop lying - I don't know anyone who's read all of it other than me) you've seen many references to the Bangkok Transit System - or BTS - but nothing more than a Night Photos post and mentions of "we'll cover that another time soon" to explain it. "Soon" has finally arrived.

I've been going back through images from different trips and trying to pull illustrative examples of how the system is laid out, how you can access it, where it goes and what's near the stations it stops at and discovered that while I've been in and around the stations hundreds of times it's usually been while on some mission or another and time hasn't been taken to photograph it very well, sorry to say. We'll try here, though.

There are already many sites that can provide the basics, so rather than re-create the wheel I'll refer you as we go along to some that have been helpful to me in the past: the first being the official BTS Skytrain site. The link I'm including is to the site in English, but if you can read Thai, more power to you!

Informational signs in the stations themselves aren't always where you'd expect to see them - and it isn't all in English - but there's quite enough to get you where you want to go, if you're willing to be observant and look. There are always people working there who have dealt with tourists from many nations, so don't feel you can't get directional help - but again, you have to be willing to seek it out, be patient and keep a firm grip on that "mai pen rai" (nevermind, it doesn't matter) attitude.

I leave extra time to be confused and get lost, and if my Thai friends give me the "where were YOU?" look I tell them "Sorry! I am using 'Thai time!' ". There are always maps and guides available at the service windows that will fit into your fanny pack or pocket, and I'm sure web sites in whatever your native tongue is (Swedish, Finnish, German, French, Russian, whatever) that will give you more detailed information, too.

It's considerably faster to get you from point A to point B than a taxi if you're going any distance, especially during the three- to four-hour morning and afternoon traffic windows, when you can spend an hour sitting in a cab and only go five blocks. I'm not kidding. You can ride the entire Sukhumvit line from one end to the other in about 30 minutes.

Bangkok Transit map, showing the Sukhumvit (light green) and Siam (dark green) lines, as well as the the MRT/Subway (dark blue)and river boat stops.

During non-commute hours if you're out with a friend or two it can be cheaper to take a taxi than pay for individual tickets, but considering most taxi rides can be in the range of 70 to 90 baht (you can check the current exchange rates for your currency here) a BTS ticket between 15 and 45 baht it's more a matter of where you're going and which seems more convenient for you at the moment.

In the next installment we'll take a closer look at routes, fares and tickets.

A Silom line Skytrain heading into National Stadium, the current end of the line near MBK Mall.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three VERY Scary Things

Sunday afternoon and I'm up to my ears in a family project, so here today are photos of three really scary things...

A tiger within striking distance at Nong Nooch gardens in Pattaya

A crocodile feeding frenzy in Samut Prakan

The mascot of a large corporation making a travesty out of the local's gesture of respect.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11th: Remembering A Friend

A photo of Mark, taken in my living room in early February 1990

There are two things about today's post that are out of character for me AND for Bao-Bao's Blog: 1) it has nothing whatsoever to do with Thailand, and 2) it's pretty rare I share much of anything from my personal life. However, this 9th anniversary of my friend's death on 9/11 has been more on my mind than others, so I thought I'd share the following as "writing therapy", maybe taking away some of its power.

Remembering my friend Mark Bingham

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 7:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, a United Airlines jetliner carrying my friend Mark Bingham and 43 others ploughed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, joining the thousands who became innocent victims over an almost incomprehensible week of horror, intensely emotional moments and unbelievable tragedy and loss.

Grief is a somewhat personal thing; everyone deals with it in different ways to different degrees. While I also lost two co-workers who met their fates aboard the first plane that slammed into the World Trade Center tower I was not nearly as close to them as I was to Mark and I came to terms with losing them far more easily. I am still today saddened when I think how I lost my friend Mark.

The day after the initial tragedy I was shocked to hear he was gone. I saw his picture on the news; the "gay rugby player from San Francisco" who had phoned his mother from United flight #93 to say he and some others were going to try to stop the people who had hijacked their plane. From all reports pieced together after that call, it's apparent that they did - but they (and those they left behind) paid a dear price for it.

I hadn't seen Mark since his college days, a decade before - but there he was, in a graduation cap and gown: that big grinning face of his filling my TV screen. For weeks afterward I had those “memory flashes” I usually have after losing someone I’ve felt close to at one time or another in my life. As scatterbrained and forgetful as I can be, I certainly had a number of them of Mark, and for weeks wished I could have had just one more of his wonderfully strong lift-you-off-the-floor hugs. Not so much for my own comfort (although I'd have taken that, too) but that it would mean there'd been some mistake and he was still alive and living life to its fullest, as was his way.

I first met Mark in the beginning of 1990, while struggling through a very dark year of my own life. In an attempt to get out of myself and do some good for someone else (something I’ve always found to be beneficial when I’m depressed) I’d placed a personals ad in the "Gay" section of a local free weekly newspaper under an old pen name, seeking new friends and people who could use a mentor or someone to talk to. Not liking how the paper charged to reply to ads by voicemail I’d opted out of that and listed my post office box instead.

This was years before email was common, and I was surprised when over 100 people sat down and wrote multi-page responses to that 20-word ad. I answered every letter, listened while many talked on the phone (some completely falling to pieces at being able to finally share their "gay" thoughts), met a few dozen in person for coffee or a meal and still count a half-dozen or so as friends to this day. One shared life with me for over six years.

Mark's letter told a story that will be familiar to many reading this today: he felt very alone in his "closet" and said if anyone in his family found out about his homosexuality that he'd probably have to kill himself. We spent many, many afternoons talking about this over the next six or seven months until he went back to college and - my advice no longer needed as often - we began to drift apart. He charged into his future, hoping (as many of us do) that he'd find a way to be "successful at something" as he put it, and I took tentative steps into what would become a relationship with the person I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I am so very thankful that I was able to help Mark along and encourage him to share his secret with people little by little until he felt ready to really tell the ones he feared telling the most. I was so glad to hear at one of his memorials that he finally did, near the end of his college days. I can only imagine the help he must have been to others he met past that, sharing what I had shared with him. I have heard so much about what a positive and supportive man he was.

Within three years of us losing touch with each other he’d graduated from UC Berkeley, having been three-time National Rugby Champion with his teammates there. After graduation he went on to acheive success with his own public relations firm with offices in San Francisco and New York. How strange that it was while coming home after business and a friend’s birthday party in New York that he unknowingly made the choice to board a plane scheduled by a handful of madmen to be a suicide mission. I’d guess most people he left behind would have been less surprised to have had him lost to running with the bulls in Pamplona - as he'd done just months before - or doing something more crazy than simply boarding an airliner for home.

At his memorial, Mark’s former partner Paul described him as being a bit like a Labrador retriever, bounding through life. I had to smile when I heard that, because it so well fit the young man I knew. Oftentimes Mark would ride his bicycle over to visit and I’d always hear him bounding up the stairs well before he’d knock on my door and I’d open it to collect that big hug he was so generous with.

Mark: if what I believe about reincarnation is true, I hope your new life is going more smoothly than the one I was a small part of. Perhaps somehow, somewhere we'll meet again.

I'd like that.