Friday, March 30, 2012

Anchovies And Other Fish: Waste Not, Want Not

Commercial fishing boats docked in the Tha Mai area of Chantaburi

A couple of evenings ago I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Jean-Michel Cousteau on how he was carrying on the ecological ideals of his father, the late Jacques Cousteau. During his talk he mentioned visiting a commercial fishing operation in Alaska where they primarily dealt with pollock, specifically the Alaskan or Walleye (Theragra chalcogramma).

There were a couple parts of his story about the processing of the fish that were extraordinary and interesting, I thought: One, not only was the flesh prepared for food consumption, and the innards - or guts - made into balls that were shipped to Japan for feeding eels, but even the bones left over after that were dried and ground into a meal that was being used to decontaminate the land in urban areas that had fallen victim to high levels of lead.

One such area was in Oakland, California, on the Eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.  I don't recall the specifics on how it worked, but when it was turned into the contaminated earth, it worked. His point was we should be wasting as little as possible when dealing with tipping the natural balance of things in our oceans.  One of his examples of the other end of the spectrum was footage of a large shark having its dorsal fin cut off for specialty soup before being dumped back overboard to bleed to death.

It reminded me of an area in the Chantaburi area where I stayed a few days this month. From my beach-side bungalow I could sit on my front porch, sip my morning coffee and watch larger fishing boats coming in from the gulf as smaller day-trip boats were heading out. My friend's family earned much of what they enjoy today from years of hard work building a good-sized fishing business, and he was a fine source of information for much of what I saw on that trip.

Anchovies being tended to as they dry in the brutal mid-day sun

While riding along we saw long stretches of what looked like blue table tops set up in the intense sun, covered with something silvery.  Oftentimes there would be people between the tables, doing something with the stuff on top.  "You might want to see this," he mentioned in passing one morning, pulling over to the side of the road by some of these flat tables.  Once he'd stopped and I'd gotten out of the car to look I could see the "tables" were really blue (and occasionally green) colored drying screen on framework that held them up near waist level. This also gave the air a better chance to circulate beneath the screens, too, naturally, as well as making them easier to work with.

Anchovies (and a stray squid) drying on a screen

As you can probably see in the photo above what was on top of the drying screens were anchovies. Smaller than your pinky finger, it seemed like millions of them, along miles of roadway. If someone had a lock on selling that blue screen they're probably living quite well, as are the larger owners of the drying/processing and exporting corporations that send thousands of tons of salted and dried fish out throughout Asia and the rest of the world annually.

Stirring and turning the anchovies for faster & more even drying

My friend explained that while many larger boats fished specifically for anchovies some smaller boats did, too, and some ended up with batches by default while fishing for other things.  Very few were wasted by careful fishing families, he said.  If they weren't used in the production of human food - for example, they'd been held too long for whatever reason - they were still processed, dried and  ground up as meal for chicken feed or some other such use.

And now you'll know how some of these tiny fish are processed the next time you have anchovies on a pizza or in some other dish.  Have a good weekend, everyone.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Night Photos, Part 20: The "Twilight" Zone

Among the clubs, early one evening on Soi Twilight

It's in the low 50s Fahrenheit where I am this morning, but it's reported as being 90F in Bangkok under patchy clouds as I write this.  As chilly and wet as it's been here I think I could deal with a warm humid evening, watching the scenery pass by my seat at an open-air spot on Soi 4 or Soi Dungthawee/Twilight in Bangkok. In fact, it's a compelling daydream.

The top image is a composite of four, and I only point that out again because the man in the lower right isn't an amputee; the blending software did it.  When items in the field of view move it can make some interesting choices.

The relative quiet before businesses open for the evening

Other than a grouping a couple of months ago from the area around the Amphawa Night Market and a batch before that from around the Pinnacle Hotel from last September there haven't been many available light night photos, and although it's only Thursday morning and I still have a laundry list of things to do before a busy weekend ahead my mind is already doing its best to kick itself into "neutral".

Even the employees are taking things easier at this point of the evening - around 19:30 - and the genial camaraderie is always nice to see, I think.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hong Nam Means Water Room. Period.

An example of water in a more scenic surrounding than in a hong nam, just to balance the post today!

Pardon the basic language lesson, but in case there's a true newbie who's stumbled upon the site today I won't make the assumption that everyone knows this: the Thai word for water is nam (pronounced like the "nom" in nominate), and the word for room is hong (as in Hong Kong). If you ask "hong nam?" of anyone in the Land of Smiles they'll know what you're looking for.  The actual toilet itself may be a world away from what you expect, but that's another story. Point is, it'll get you to a toilet.

A friend of mine just home from his first trip there was having a rant the other day about a Thai friend they'd met who had used the toilet in my friend's upscale hotel room in a modified fashion of how he'd have done it back on the farm: he'd squatted on the movable seat that rests on the porcelain bowl, used the hand-held sprayer to clean himself afterwards and left water in several places where my friend hadn't expected to find it. I later apologized for not alerting my newbie friend to this possibility.

While most of my Thai friends are "Westernized" to a certain degree (not that that's always such a good thing, but mai pen rai) how they handle the varied activities involved with the hong nam is always unpredictable.  As an example you're free to look back at the post about footprints on the toilet seat.

This shower had the luxury of a partial
wall, but no raised step to keep the
water in the shower area
For example, in "basic" lodging the hong nam is often precisely that: an open shower with nothing to divide it from the rest of the room, a toilet and a sink with precious little (if any) counter space you're likely to find water most anywhere on the floor and walls.

The floor is angled on a slope so any water that lands on it theoretically drains out behind the toilet - or off into a different corner of the room.  I've never quite understood the logic behind that one, if there is any.  Why would you want shower or toileting water meant for the drain (or toilet itself) to flow across the floor you'll undoubtedly walk across?  Any and all guesses are welcome.

What we non-Thai need to be aware of is that sometimes the friend who is normally quite careful in a more traditional hotel will still get half the floor wet while showering, washing or doing something more private; something of a shock to we who normally wear socks in the hotel room and unwittingly step into the bathroom to brush what's left of our hair, or whatever; especially in the more traditional hong nam, where you need to understand that it's truly a water room, and all bets are off as to where that water might be.

The traditional hand-held bidet sprayer beside most toilets is a step up from what the majority of Thai use in their own rural homes, and that's the bowl, used to splash water and clean yourself while using the traditional squat toilet as pictured above.

Old habits die hard, and we have to accept that the inconvenience they can cause aren't worth raising a stink over, so to speak. I suppose that's my main point today: we are the visitors, they are the natives. Beyond jokingly mentioning that you don't care for a wet floor - which will often be a point taken with grace - my suggestion would be to just deal with it. If wet footprints on the toilet seat bother you, wipe it off before you sit on it.  If you're bothered by water on the bathroom floor, simply figure that it's going to be there and use extra towels as mats or whatever you have to do to be the gracious guest.

I've heard stories of farang who've "corrected" their Thai friends, but why take the chance of embarrassing someone or risk causing them to lose face?  I'd suggest turning your acceptance level to "10" and just going with the flow, so to speak.  With luck, it'll be heading off behind the toilet and not be much of an issue to begin with.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An Unexpected Visit To The Penthouse

Part of the penthouse floors and roof garden from today's story

To anyone who's looked up at a multi-storied building in Thailand it's clear the folks there appreciate breaking up the bareness of a cement balcony or rooftop with some sort of greenery; potted plants, garden boxes or whatever. Some larger buildings - corporate offices and hotels, for example, have extensive grounds, with benches, lighting, flowers, ponds, fountains, shrubs - even trees, when possible. Up above some of the sounds of the city you can almost imagine you're someplace completely different, and that, of course, is the idea.

While staying at the Evergreen Place serviced apartments recently I was reminded of an event I haven't shared about previously, and now that a few years have passed I think I can do so without putting anyone's job in jeopardy.

As you can see in the photo up top, taken a few weeks ago, there's a great quantity of planting that's gone on on the rooftop of the complex building. I'd admired it a number of times while walking in the area, and had often wondered what the view was like from up there. I'd enjoyed the view from my own balcony up on the 18th or 19th floor and figured it must be even nicer from a 360-degree vantage point. The only problem was the elevator and room key card issued at check-in, which only allowed you up to the floor of the room you'd booked.

One afternoon while returning from lunch out with a friend I got into the elevator with who I assumed at the time was a member of the hotel staff. It was a logical assumption, as they were in the the uniform and had an armload of freshly laundered towels, somewhat nicer than the ones in my own room, but I figured they were meant for an executive suite or some such place - a level of lodging I rarely afford myself.

I won't identify them any further than that, but they got into the elevator, inserted their key card and punched the button for the top floor. It lit up, and I figured "oh, what the hell - let's just see what happens if I tag along," figuring the worst that could happen was they'd say "Hey, you can't come up here" if I didn't press the button for my own floor... but they didn't say a word.

It seemed like a sweet deal for me at the time: there must be a way to the roof garden, even if the floor they'd selected wasn't actually where it was, and so when the tone sounded as we reached the top, the doors opened and the person took off to their left with the towels, I held the "open door" button and peeked out of the elevator. It was quiet and not very well lit, as though nothing nearby was going to be used immediately. I could see a doorway to the stairwell nearby and figured it must lead up, and although the fact that it was trimmed in a manner far finer than the rest of them in the building's stairwells I decided to try it.

The possibility of that decision being a mistake came into focus when the elevator doors closed behind me, but I walked quietly to the stair doorway and pushed it open. It was dark in the stairwell, but there was enough light for me to see keypads on both my level and the top one that clued me in that if I entered and allowed the door to close behind me that I wasn't going to get out nearly as easily as I'd gotten in.

I turned to head back to the elevator in defeat, but by that time my eyes had adjusted to the dim light of the area around me, and wow... what a place I'd wandered into. Finely detailed teak and ebony furniture spread out through a large, formal doorway before me; a table for at least a dozen had been set with beautiful china and flatware, the fragrance of large fresh floral arrangements wafting toward me from the three big arrangements nearby.

Suddenly it came to me: this wasn't just a suite at the hotel - this was someone's home! Even though I had no idea previously I felt a little like a cat burglar, and I backed up towards the elevator, pressing the button to summon it back to take me downstairs.

It seemed to take an hour to get up to me. I could hear the cables moving and feel the mechanism rumbling as it ascended, but suddenly there was another sound - the sound of small bare feet, slapping on the marble flooring - and they were running my way!

A small boy - maybe eight or nine years old - appeared in the doorway at the far end of the dining room, a book in one hand, a toy car in the other. He stopped dead in his tracks, and I'm not sure to this day which of us was more surprised to see the other; the small barefooted kid in his sport shirt and shorts or the Big Pink Guy.

"Hello," I said, smiling, hoping he wouldn't start screaming bloody murder and earn me a ride in a police car. "I think I got off on the wrong floor." "I live here," he said, matter-of-factly, as though I should've known that already. "Well, you're a lucky boy to live way up here," I replied, thanking the spirits of the universe that the elevator had chimed and opened its doors behind me. "Bye!" he grinned, waving enthusiastically before turning to run off again. I could hear the slapping of his feet as the doors closed.

An employee I'd become acquainted with while staying there told me that the owner of the building kept the top two floors - three, if you include the rooftop - as their personal residence and they were more than mildly surprised that the security had been compromised enough to allow me up there at all. I assured them that I didn't do any harm and had only been there for maybe five minutes total. They smiled when I told him about my encounter with the boy there. "He can be a little devil," they laughed, but you could tell they felt some affection for him.

While heading down to my room immediately after it had happened I played a few scenarios in my head as to what sort of reaction he got while relating his meeting up with me to his mother or caregiver or whoever, but it was a story I've enjoyed telling... and now you've heard it, too.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Accommodation, Part 17: The Trinity Glow Silom

The entrance - less than 100 meters from the BTS

Once in a rare while I happen upon a jewel of a place that makes me think twice about sharing it, lest I can't get a room there when I want one.  Sometimes it's because of the room features, location, the service or the very folks running it, but The Glow Trinity in Silom can justify boasting everything on that list - and more.

The Bell station at the front door
I'd read about The Glow on a forum maybe a year ago, and since I've often found the area near the Chong Nonsi BTS station such a handy home point in the past it seemed time to make a reservation there and try it out.  It most certainly won't be my last visit there.

In fact, I'd have stayed there a second time on this last trip when plans changed and I found myself unexpectedly in Bangkok for four days, but unfortunately there wasn't a room available.

We've covered a couple of other places also within a five minute walk of the Chong Nonsi station - the Om Yim Lodge and the Sathorn Inn - and while they also have their strong points and remain on my list of places to recommend on their own merits, the three (including today's Glow) are cut from different bolts of cloth. As you'd see if you clicked the links and read their reviews the Om Yim is a small guest house that's rather like staying with friends, and the Sathorn is a basic, affordable, pleasant hotel. I've been happy at both places.

A good sized pool is available atop the Trinity Complex 3 next door

The Trinity Glow Silom - owned by the small Zinc group - is a polished, very well appointed and graciously run urban hotel, boasting features you'd expect to pay more for than you actually do. The staff is smartly attired, speak better English than some of the guests I heard around the place, and are as attentive as you could ask for.

Nicely planned recessed lighting
throughout the room indeed
gives the place a "glow"
Within a couple of minutes at breakfast one morning I'd made a quick list of 20 positive points about the place and only four minor negative ones.  Those of you who travel much would have to agree that's an unusual ratio.  Here are some of the good points:

-- A daybed bench at the window for reading or watching TV
-- 15"x17" room safe at a handy level
-- Approx 30" flat screen TV with a wide range of channels
-- Sony DVD player
-- Philips radio/alarm (with an iPod dock)
-- A good sized, glass top work desk with convenient power
-- Emergency flashlight in the closet next to the safe
-- Respect but awareness shown for visitors
-- Thick, soft towels
-- Nice robes for two
-- Fragrant, higher-quality liquid soaps and body wash
-- Stylish recessed lighting design throughout
-- Four high-speed PCs in the lobby
-- Access to pool and gym 06:30 M-F, 08:00 Sat/Sun

As Dorothy said "There's no place like home," and most every place has a few things that could be different in our eyes, but to be fair I'd only make a couple of minor changes if it were my hotel: there were only five hangers built into the closet (I'm sure more would be provided if you asked), the alarm clock was on the opposite side of the room from the head of the bed (maybe that was intentional, to actually get you out of bed!) the WiFi speed to the hotel wasn't what they themselves would have liked, but fine for all but major up- and down-loading -- and let's just say that according to my source that This is Thailand and faster service would have cost "a fortune".

Spacious room safe, robes, slippers and handy flashlight

Next time I'll request a room that doesn't face the garage, as a row of autos with six months of dust isn't all that attractive 50 feet away, but that's not the fault of the hotel whatsoever and I only mention it as a personal preference and not a ding to the hotel's rating overall.

A view of the work space, daybed and electronics provided

Room rates were more than reasonable and definitely good value for the price, I thought - currently through Agoda between $60 and $70 per night for a very nice room for two, breakfast included.  As with any other hotel it pays to shop around. Most of you know I tend not to overspend on accommodations as a general rule - there are too many other things to do with travel monies, I think.

The bath may look a bit compact, but it wasn't. A tub might have been nice, but the shower stall was more than spacious, and the fixtures were both high quality - and kept spotless.

If there was anything close to a weak link in the operation it was the cafe, which was a some sort of residual arrangement and not operated by the hotel itself, but while it never seemed all that busy I felt the food there was well prepared and more than simply satisfactory, although some of the breakfast items were less than piping hot, to be kind.

The Cafe, where a buffet breakfast was included in my room rate

In addition to being about a three minute walk to the Chong Nonsi BTS station, you also have a Villa Market just steps away, a decent sized outdoor "locals" market where you can pick up a quick lunch, snack, or fruit to stock your room, a branch of the Bangkok Bank where you can cash traveler checks or convert funds and some fine neighborhoods for wandering on a walk, including some on the other side of the BTS station on Naratiwat Road, where you'll find the old cemetery behind the Om Yim from last September's post - an interesting photo spot.

The efficient folks at the front end of the operation included my favorite person from Evergreen Place - a welcome surprise when I arrived at The Glow

The hotel is next door to the Trinity Complex building, home to 300+ individual shops, a la MBK Mall - small stalls, primarily clothing, from the little I walked of it - on three or four floors. Also in the building is office space and long-term serviced apartment space at what appeared to be reasonable rates. There's also a good-sized gym (a portion of which is visible below), a lap pool (above), a children's playground with park equipment installed, and tennis courts available for a nominal fee. I didn't ask what that was.

Not quite half of the gym area available to guests

Nevertheless, despite some construction going on to enlarge the lobby and add a new wing (I don't know when the work was going on - I never heard any noise from it) the overall operation of the hotel ran smoothly. The new wing will give them more rooms, and that's a good thing, I think.

They hope to have a location open in Pattaya by June, and others are already up and running - check their link at the end of today's post.

There's a sign right at the corner of the soi that even the greenest taxi driver couldn't miss

Sometimes anecdotal input will help me decide which place to spend my travel funds, so here's a story that may help to tip the scales for you if you're not sold on the place so far...

I had a minor problem with my room that doesn't even bear mentioning here - partially my fault, to boot - and when I reported it to the front desk before heading out for the day was told it would be attended to as soon as possible.  Most of you know that in Thailand that can mean anything from immediately to a week from Sunday, so I was pleasantly surprised to return to my room not five hours later to find not only the problem resolved, but a note of apology for the inconvenience next to the wooden bowl of fruit pictured above.

As I related the story to my friend the next morning at breakfast we both agreed: that was a fine example of a class act, which is a good way of summing the place up overall.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pomegranates - A Sweet Street Treat

A Thai pomegranate, split open and ready for eating

Ripe Thai pomegranates,
still hanging on the tree
When I was a child and had a bit more patience to deal with them, pomegranates were a special treat I looked forward to each Autumn. I could spot the rich deep red of their skins from fifty paces in the produce section of the supermarket as my mother gathered far more mundane things, resisting my plea to go directly to them. Being of humble beginnings I was allowed only one, and I took my time looking at the color, judging the weight and checking the dried blossom stub of the end as if I could determine the freshness by the remains.

Back home I was made to sit at the kitchen table to open them up, thus keeping the crimson juice from staining the carpet or sofa or my clothes. I didn't care - I just wanted it open.

The tart, ruby red jewels wrapped beneath layers of thin yellowish membrane were worth every minute spent carefully loosening them, gathering a dozen or so before popping them into your mouth where they the tiny seeds inside made a satisfying crunch as the juice burst from the kernels and startled your taste buds.

Having had the privilege of visiting Thailand during every season at least once I'm still (pleasantly) surprised when I note it's the season for a special fruit or vegetable, and this trip just ended I found myself there during pomegranate season.

Ripe pomegranate skins don't turn the deep red we in the USA expect to see, and the kernels inside also aren't the bright ruby red I'm used to, but the flavor is still as delicious as expected and as full of vitamin C and anti-oxidants as ever, so other than the possibility of staining your shirt, what's not to like?

A sidewalk cart near my hotel prepared small bottles of the juice right in front of you each morning, the young man putting a handful of kernels into a press he pushed the handle down on, releasing the fresh juice into a stainless steel cup he emptied into the plastic bottle, capped shut and put on ice.

Pink kernels of pomegranate become sweet juice with one quick pressing

Two bottles were B30, or right about $1US, and that was difficult to resist.  I had it several mornings, and surprised a few friends with it, too.  If you see it while out wandering around, don't miss trying it.

A dollar's worth of juice goes into a take-away bag

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Dog Days" Come Early, And For More Dogs Than Usual

The sun poking through the haze above Nonthaburi signals the start of another hot day.

While the hottest days of July and August are normally referred to as "the dog days of Summer" in the U.S. I couldn't help but think perhaps they'd been on holiday in Thailand the past few weeks, as it was the most hot and humid February I've ever experienced there.  I mean HOT; the kind of heat that makes any level spot with a modicum of shade look like a good place to just lie down and rest as the dry dust raised by traffic and the odd breeze leaves you with a fine patina of grey.

When the window of your hotel room at 06:30 is still warm to the touch from the heat of the previous night and now warming further by the orange orb of sun cutting through the dense, damp layer of haze to the East you can figure it's going to be a day best spent somewhere where the aircon is functioning properly, or at least in the shade by the poolside with a book, watching the pool boy attempt to keep ice in your glass - a fool's errand at best when even the breeze is languid and hot... when the air moves at all.

Still, some of us (I admit, sheepishly raising my hand) can't seem to stay put while on holiday and somewhat foolishly give in to the compulsion to venture out into the heat in an effort to get the most out of a vacation that already passes far too quickly.  One example of that was a visit to Rama II park last July, and though I know we've already covered the folly of being out in the mid-day heat before this story has a slightly different slant to it I thought worth sharing.

A neglected dog who'd taken a daily post near my hotel

There was a comment left on the March 12th post asking if I'd seen residual evidence of the flooding in Thailand, and while I actually didn't see much more than piles of sandbags still held in reserve there did seem to be far more "stray" dogs than usual.  When I asked my friend about this he said that when the waters came through many dogs had been separated from their owners.

Most of us have heard "Incredible Journey"-type stories of pets traveling great distances to be reunited with their human(s), but according to my friend the sheer numbers of animals and the sometimes great distances they'd been carried by the flooding meant that many were still on their own.  He'd read in the papers and heard on the news how there were tens of thousands left high and dry in more ways than one when the waters receded.

One of the challenges was not the fact that they'd been physically moved themselves by the water - or whatever they'd managed to hitch a ride on as it floated by - but that they'd lost their "trail"; the scent you see dogs sniffing along at as they make their rounds in their usual areas.  Now that those markings had been washed away they were unable to follow them, making things difficult for even some not all that far from home.

During my days in Nonthaburi, an area only partially flooded, there were lots more dogs wandering aimlessly around than I'm used to seeing in, say, Bangkok; unkempt, thin, dirty and struggling in the heat.  Many could be seen on their sides in the shade of shrubbery in vacant lots, their chests heaving as their tongues stuck out in an attempt to cool themselves off, looking up at you as you walked by but some without the energy to even lift their heads to question your motives or bark to protect their turf.

I'm not a cat person. Kittens are tolerable but unfortunately they grow up and become cats, so I don't invest any more time than necessary with either of them than I'm socially obligated to to humor friends who for some reason think that being owned by an animal indifferent to their existence is worthwhile.

Dogs, however, are a completely different story, so when I see a dog in distress I tend to make an effort to respond to the situation.  In the case of these lost and somewhat bewildered creatures in Nonthaburi I came up with an admittedly impractical temporary stop-gap measure of helping, but perhaps it's still going on there today.  I'd like to think so.

BigC Nonthaburi
While standing on the elevated walkway over the highway near my hotel one morning, taking photos of workers loaded in the back of open trucks (you'll see those images another day soon) I noticed one of the stray dogs nosing around in a small pile of refuse, looking for food or water.  Seeing I was just a football field from one of those enormous Big C monstrosities I got an idea and headed down the stairs and inside.

There I purchased two dozen small plastic bowls - about 10 inches across and around three inches deep, sort of like you'd see in a traditional hong nam - and two large (4 liter) jugs of water. Leaving the store I back-tracked along my route to my hotel, past construction folks working on a new BTS station and lots of open area where the dogs were scattered around, trying to stay cool.

Keeping what I thought was a safe distance I'd approach one dog after another, set down a bowl and half-fill it with water.  With only two exceptions the animals immediately got to their feet, came to the bowls and went about emptying them, lapping their chops.  One dog barked a warning so I left their bowl further away, but when I looked back they'd come to drink, too.  One was either too weak or ill to rouse himself, and I hope he got to it later.

Using my pocket knife I cut the bottom off of a bottle and left a little more for a dog I'd noticed tied to a motor scooter alongside a stairway that was there in the same spot all day every day I was staying there in Nonthaburi.  You can see him in the photo up above. Evidently he had an owner, but he was still happy to see the water each day I passed by and he became my favored animal, which got him the occasional snack.

Kindness can be catchy, if you know what I mean.  While walking to the 7-Eleven for more water on my last morning there I noticed there was already water in some of the bowls, and some dry dog food next to a few others.  That made my day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thailand's Flooding of 2554/2011

Urban sprawl encroaching on waterways like the commute boat canal shown here is a concern for some. Many old khlongs have been filled in and built upon.

2011 was the wettest of years recorded so far by the Thai Meteorological Department: rainfall was 24% above normal (that's 37.4cm or +/- 15 inches)  and 19% above 2010 levels. If that's the beginning of a trend it's likely to be a disturbing one, as the Thai government - like our own here in the USA - tends to put preparedness a tad too far down their Wish List to be practical. The middle Southern parts of the country seemed to get it first in 2011, beginning in March, but crops were decimated in province after province as the season went on.

Flooding from the rains effected every province in Thailand; some far more dramatically than others. Over two-thirds of the country's 77 provinces were flooded to one degree or another, and although final death tolls may never be known for sure there were well over 600 lives recorded lost, mainly by drowning.

Crops were destroyed wholesale beneath unwelcome swaths of water, miles wide; homes and businesses were ankle, knee, waist or chest deep, depending on where they happened to be, and basic creature needs like food and potable water suffered critical shortages.  Those of you who've been there can imagine how the rat nests of haphazard electrical wiring throughout the kingdom wreaked havoc (dozens died from electrocution alone) and the government conservatively estimated that 1.5 million tons of debris remained as a soggy souvenir when the water receded.

While thankfully most of my friends there were spared irreparable damage from the flooding some are still dealing with the clean-up, black mold and mildew - and are doing it while working six day a week jobs. We truly don't know how good we have it sometimes.

Summer for Thailand in general begins in the middle of February, and those rising temperatures sound the closing bell for tourism's "high" season. The rains normally begin in May, but because of unusual weather patterns last year they started earlier, stayed heavier than usual and lasted later into the year. Therein lay the problem.

It's not just that the area around Bangkok (and the city itself) lies on a flood plane, part of the problem is how that very flood plane that previously filtered the rainwater into the "bare" ground has now been built upon; industry claiming the space and paving it over.

Others (and I find myself leaning toward this thinking myself) maintain that Bangkok, long called "The Venice of the East" has simply filled in and paved over far too many of the canals that once graced - and helped move water through - the city, and water will find a way to seek its own level, whether you allow it a planned "natural" path or not.

It was unseasonably hot while I was there this trip just ending, and many I spoke with shared a genuine worry that the weather would again take another perverse turn and bring another season of heavy rains.  While last year's had nothing on the flooding spoken of in the times of Noah, it would be again be devastating to the people who are just now getting back on their feet from the flooding of a few months ago.

Tourism most certainly doesn't need another kick in the stomach, but you can guess that it will give some vacation planners pause when making plans for this coming year, and that's not a good thing for the industry.

Despite the assurances of the government that they'd be ready for another round of high water and the sincere desire of the Thai to believe them, you can hear doubt in their voices - and see it in their eyes.

[By the way - those wishing to read the full detailed 2011/2554 report from the TMD referenced today can find the PDF here - and there are photos from last year's flooding in this post from last November 7th.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Airline Lounges: Fine Places To Wait For A Flight

EVA's lounge at SFO

Many of you reading this don't fly often enough to earn sufficient miles for membership in frequent flyer programs - and regulars know I'm nothing close to an elitist, so this this isn't an attempt to show off - but there are enclaves where you're far less likely to be trodden upon by the thundering herds of people storming off to their respective boarding gates. Been there and done that, bought the tee shirt and have already sold it at a yard sale.

Three of six free X-Box360 stations
in their own enclave in Taipei
Once there they'll sit on rock-hard seats specifically designed to discourage sitting for an hour or more before filing onto their flight to sit for another dozen hours to Asia. With the under-staffed security and check-in staff being tithed with ever-increasing workloads the time spent in lines (or queues to some of you) continues to increase as well, and the old standard advice of arriving two hours before an international flight can now lead to some dedicated nail biting time as you wait... and wait... and wait your turn.

To avoid starting off a journey stressed I prefer to arrive at the airport at least two hours before boarding, but that's a lot of time to fill before attempting to board amid a crush of people who haven't yet grasped the concept that "now boarding rows 20 to 40" doesn't also include anyone from row 63 who can manage a flying leap into the wedge of people already confused enough by the idea of a line being one person in width.  That's another rant, though, so I'll climb off my soap box.  Sorry.

A portion of the hot and cold food buffet in Taipei

On my first few trips I sat in one of the public dining areas and waited, usually eating or drinking something I neither needed or wanted just to fill time and listen to people's unruly offspring, but I soon learned that there were small pockets of calm where, for a fee not much more than my outrageously priced "snack" and reading material I could sit in comfort: the airline lounges.

Different airlines naturally have different rules and regulations for membership, but some - for a fee - also welcome visitors.  Trust me on this one: it's well worth contacting the airline you're considering or have already booked with to see if you have the option of using the lounge.

After a boarding announcement two dozen Chinese broke away and left this screen

Really... wouldn't you rather be waiting for your flight in a leather lounge chair with free WiFi, newspapers, magazines, hot food and unlimited drinks (some with top shelf booze) instead of dealing with the relative insult of the public waiting areas and the overpriced food and drinks there?  Frankly, even if you did have to pay $25 - as EVA charges for admittance to their VIP lounge - I'd suggest considering it a minor add-on to the cost of travel on your undoubtedly well-earned vacation.

The lounge in Taipei was under the siege of "Linsanity" when I was passing through a few weeks ago, and both of the big LCD televisions were tuned to news of the hoopster they're most proud of at the moment, but usually there's news at one end of the lounge and some sporting event at the other. If you're a reader there are always at least a couple of dozen newspapers and magazines, and a half dozen copies of each.

The staff is attentive, it's safe to leave your bags while you go get another espresso or plate of dim sum, the rest rooms are spotlessly clean and well-stocked, there are ample plugs to re-charge your electronics and if you let them know what flight you're on they'll even come wake you up if you nod off in your comfy chair.

If you fly regularly so there's no charge it's a no-brainer.  If you have to pay for it and don't mind the usual waiting spots, more power to you.  I'm not judging anyone here, and $25 buys quite a bit in Thailand, too.  It is - as are most choices while traveling - up to you, but I'd suggest at least checking out the option.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Home Again, Home Again - Jiggety Jog

While it's been a better month in Thailand than some visits here over the years, my time has again drawn to a close and it's time to gather my stuff together, sit on suitcases to make everything fit and do some final catching up by phone with the friends I couldn't make time for this trip.

My list of friends here in this magnificent place continues to grow, and the camaraderi I share with them - much like the guys above - is something I value a great deal.  Thank goodness for email and skype to fill the time until I'm again Thailand-bound.

As is usually the case I expect to have my internal clock knocked for a loop as I jump a dozen time zones and the International Dateline, but it's my plan to be back posting by Monday from the US of A.  I never look forward to the butt-numbing 20+ hours of travel home, but there's something compelling about being in my own bed, and that's where I'll catch up on sleep this weekend.

I hope you enjoy your weekend, whatever it is you end up doing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The ATM Graveyard

The ATM bone yard, Nonthaburi

As a child, the idea of an elephant's graveyard was a strangely compelling one; the idea that elephants knew when it was "their time" and supposedly trekked off into the jungle to some special place to pass away, away from the rest of their herd.  The idea has been repeatedly pooh-poohed over the years since, but as long as there are re-runs of old Tarzan movies and the likes on television I suppose it'll live on.

ATM machines in Thailand get not only the usual use and abuse they do anywhere else but are also victims of heat, humidity and that good old Thai technology.  It's only natural that they, too, expire - and while they're not able to amble off into the jungle it stands to reason that they have to go somewhere.

From my hotel window I could see one such bone yard in Nonthaburi.  A few of these appeared to be under some repair, but from their exposure out in the sun and rain I'd guess most of these were on their last legs, so to speak; harvested for salvageable parts, at best.

I checked the lot when I'd pass by my window over the days I was there, and while  I did see a screened canopy put into place it was much like the old myth: every day there were a few more, and while you saw them come in, you never saw any go out.

If machines have souls, could this lot also be haunted?  I wanted to ask my friend, but ghosts are a topic not usually welcome with him. I guess it'll have to remain a mystery.

Monday, March 12, 2012

OK, OK... I'm Back (Sort Of)

Lovers walking along the beach at sunset in Chantaburi

After a couple of slightly overscheduled weeks around the provinces I’ve found myself back near the Big Mango, in Nonthaburi. The air seemed a bit better when I bounced through Bangkok again than when I left to head South a couple of weeks back, but that may just be the Pollyanna in me, trying to see the bright side, and despite the cynicism of some there are many bright sides if you look for them.

This trip my health has been more or less problem-free - knock on wood - and while I’ve been getting much less sleep than usual the only complaint I have is that it’s been hotter than I’d prefer, and that in and of itself isn’t a legitimate complaint, anyway; it’s Thailand, heading into their Summer, so what could I expect? One torrential burst of rain down South a few days ago, but otherwise just hot weather.

Most of you already know it’s the everyday experiences that I enjoy the most, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have witnessed and recorded dozens of them again this trip; fodder for future posts when time allows me the luxury of going through the 75+ pages of notes and well over 3,000 images I’ve taken to jog my grey matter when its time to share the stories - like two today of the young couple walking along the beach in Chantaburi. They were obviously in love, and that's always nice to see, I think.

I keep reminding myself that I’m far behind with the regular number of posts, but it’s difficult to sit and write while life in Thailand goes on for everyone else outside my window; I want to be immersed in it as much as I can, while I can. Honestly I could do without the haze and raucous noise of the streets of Bangkok, but the opportunity of interacting with people selling things along the uneven sidewalks running next to them is just too powerful a force to keep me indoors. Besides, there are still so many places to see and things to do here; my “to do” list is still a foot long.

I’ve caught up with a number of friends again this trip, and re-visited some places favored in the past - although some have closed or moved, such as the foot massage place I’d visited for at least eight years, now with a new name and a new owner. That one was difficult to let go of, but worse still was the guy who eight years ago had done the best foot massage I’d ever had and subsequently went on to become a good friend. He’s now in Germany with his partner of a few years, doing the beautician work that had long been his dream. I’m happy for him, but I miss his laugh and company.

I’m currently in the Northern suburb of Nonthaburi for a few days, again venturing into a new area. I had no idea what to expect here, but I’ve again been a bit of an odd duck to the farang/Thai ratio and have enjoyed being in the decided minority. I’ve had that happen in Amphawa, Phitsanulok, Chantaburi and other spots. I like to be far enough from the farang areas that most signs you see in English are for Pepsi, Coke and a precious few other things - although this area has "The Mall", and that's a seven-floor monstrosity with all of the expected Western trappings. 

I'm thankful I could spend a handful of days this trip in an area where I didn’t see a single 7-Eleven, and that takes some doing  here if you're anywhere with a population of more than 500 people... but it’s the Thailand I’ve come to love.

Lots of new stories to share. Thanks for being patient while I took the break.

The same couple at sunset