Tuesday, September 2, 2008

This Is It

So I've been very sick the past week or so, with insane sinus pressure, a very sore throat, and lots of coughing. Today I finally feel better, but I leave Thailand tomorrow morning, very early. I feel sad to leave. After the past few weeks, which were slightly crazy, I thought I'd be ready to come home. But today on the boat, walking through the streets, smelling all the food, and yes, even seeing that dead dog in a cart, I felt regretful that I have to go. Despite all the things about Thailand that are exhausting and annoying, I love it here. People are so friendly, the food is so fresh and everywhere, the weather is--well, really hot, but--intense, and so on.

I will be back for sure, but I know I'll have some culture shock readjusting to life in the U.S. again. As Owen said, everything is a little more dull in the States. It would also feel different if I felt like I actually had a home to return to. Before I came to Thailand I moved out of my apartment, so I'm going back to where Andrew lives in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. Better than--and not as dull as--Riverside, but is it home yet? Not really. I guess I can wander through Thai Town when I'm feeling lonely for the odor of fish sauce and when I want to see people wai a shrine. But it won't be the same.

Friday, August 29, 2008


These past few days I've been reestablishing myself in Bangkok, trying to figure out what to do, where to go, how to get over this sickness. I've developed a strange routine that involves an expensive mall, lots of air-conditioning, and an occasional trip up the river. These things I know how to do. I know how to take the Skytrain to Siam Paragon for an expensive lunch or to see a movie or to hang out in the bookstore. I know how to reboard the Skytrain to go to the river, where I can take the boat for 17 baht either to the backpacker ghetto (which I am so sick of) for cheap food or to one of the pretty sites along the river.

Today I hung out in the hostel for awhile and read, after eating my free breakfast of watermelon (daeng mo), pineapple (sapbarot), and bread (kanom-pan). I finished the Hemingway last night, so I begrudgingly picked up the Dickens' that I've been trying to make it through for the past few weeks. When I first got here I was tearing through books. 600 pages? No problem. Give me four days, max. This Dickens' book is about 750 pages of tiny print. Not only that; it's Dickens. Which means that, yes, there's humor. Yes, there's social commentary. But my god! Why spend page after page on so much character development! Come on, Dickens! I know she's innocent! I know he's shady. Let's get on with the narrative! Bleak House is its name, in case you're itching to go read it.

I left the hostel to return to MBK, a big shopping center/mall thing with everything you could ever not want and then some. Yesterday I had bought an iPod charger, against my better judgment, and of course it doesn't work. So today I thought I might be able to at least try to get my money back. Well, after walking around the maze that is MBK I finally found the place where I bought the charger and the woman played double dumb. Yesterday her English was pretty good, today when I asked her "Pud pasa angrit dai mai ka?" she responded "Mai dai." Nope. No English. I tried to explain that the charger I bought from her yesterday didn't work. She told me that I didn't buy it from her. Nope. She doesn't sell that kind, she said. It was clear to me that yes, she did sell that kind, in fact, her hand writing was the same on all the stickers on all the (most likely defunct) electronic chargers, including mine. Trying to maintain Face (critical in Thai society) and to have a mai bpen rai attitude, I smiled and walked away defeated.

Grumbling along, I decided to walk over to the REALLY fancy mall, Siam Paragon, to waste some time. I thought maybe I'd go see a movie, but there wasn't anything playing that I wanted to see. So I just sat on a chair on the fifth level, watching movie previews and staring at the wall. It felt pretty good.

I got back in the Skytrain and decided to go to the river to catch the boat to go see Wat Arun, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bangkok. It's really pretty, and cool because it doesn't have the sort of opulence that Wat Pho and the Royal Palace have. For decoration there are ceramic plates in the shape of flowers. The Buddha images are not super fancy. Plus, you have to walk up really steep staircases to climb up on the stupa (a.k.a. jedi, pagoda). Everywhere I turned, however, there were Japanese or Italian tourists blocking my path, snapping photos of one another without actually looking at their surroundings. I have a lot of venting to do about the world's tourists, as I'm sure you've read, and this just continued to annoy me as I tried to circumambulate the area.

I got back on the boat and decided to head back the way I came, toward the Catholic cathedral, Assumption. I got there about 15 minutes before the evening mass started, so I sat in a pew by myself in the back to watch how Thai people enact their Catholicness. There were a few Westerners who came in for the mass, but not many because it was in Thai. The Westerners bow on one knee when they see the altar, whereas Thai people put their hands together and wai the altar. During the service when we're instructed to greet each other, rather than handshakes everybody looked around the room and wai'ed each other. I really liked that. You don't have to talk to each other, you don't have to shake hands awkwardly, or, if in the Unity Church give each other big stranger hugs, you just silently acknowledge each other with a wai. I like it.

The church was beautiful. There was no choir, but a lone woman in the front had a microphone and sang acappella so beautifully that I couldn't help crying like a baby. It was one of the prettiest things I've ever heard. I think the songs were traditional Catholic hymns translated into Thai, but the way she sang them was heartbreaking. I have to admit that no matter how incredible a Buddhist temple is, a Catholic cathedral always trumps it for me. It's probably personal and cultural associations, but the buildings themselves are almost enough to make anyone a believer.

I'm not sure what me retelling my day has to do with routinzation. I guess I just feel like sharing these simple experiences with someone. Being alone is a really interesting experience, especially when you're alone in a place that isn't your home. I wonder who people think I am from a distance, when I sit alone in the Skytrain and watch the advertisements for pizza and Bergamot. If I were with someone else I wouldn't wonder so much. But as it is now, it's just me, hoping I'm making the most of this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Scholastic Progress?

This has been a strange summer. I'm in Thailand for scholarly purposes. The first six weeks I was here to learn Thai and Pali, living near the monks at Mahidol, Salaya, learning about Thai culture, primarily as it relates to Theravada Buddhism. The next couple weeks were mine to spend how I wanted, and I chose to go to Hanoi in part to renew my visa and in part because I've always wanted to see Vietnam. Next, Owen came to Thailand and we headed down toward the ocean to spend a relaxing week or so swimming in the gulf and riding a dirt bike around the island. As you know, the relaxing week was prefaced by a not-so-relaxing train wreck, though when we actually got to the island the weather, water, and everything was perfect. Now that my skin is peeling and I'm coughing the Bangkok Cough, I'm supposed to be back to my scholastic endeavors, but I feel sort of lost. I had planned on researching Thai temple festivals when I got here, looking at how absurdity and humor play into these annual celebrations. However, in the "rainy" season (I only say that in quotes because it's rained less these past two months than it did during the six weeks I was in Thailand for the "dry" season six years ago) they do not hold annual temple festivals, so there are no performances to observe. If tomorrow is Friday, which I think it is, I'm planning on attending a comedic play at Chulalongkorn University to see how Thai humor is expressed visually, since my language skills aren't quite advanced enough for me to see how it is expressed verbally. But I'm not sure what this will have to do with my research intentions.

So I'm thinking about going back to my original plan, which was to do a mini-ethnography of the Catholic Church here in Bangkok. I've been told by several Thais, that Thai identity is shaped by language, Buddhism, and the king. It is interesting to me to see how Thai identity can be maintained without one of those three elements. Does the lack of Thai language skills make someone less Thai? What about being a Christian, or disloyalty to the royal family? I read about a union organizer in Bangkok who was fired because she protested the law that everyone must stand when the tribute to the king is played in movie theaters. The company that fired her was afraid that she would give them a bad name. I think I'll try to visit some of the cathedrals in town and start to hopefully talk with some people. Also, I should visit the Seventh Day Adventist Church here, to continue my research from last quarter, but I'm not sure I want to. I really liked the people I met in Redlands, so maybe it will be a good opportunity to see how it's done here.

Anyway, I'm still trying to get over this sickness, so I don't feel guilty for spending extra time on the internet, for watching The Hills at the hostel, or for reading the Hemingway that someone left behind at the hostel. I feel I deserve a few days of relaxation and comfort, time to let myself process the last two months, which feel to me like several tiny little lifetimes stacked on top of one another with little coherence between them except this same pair of eyes taking in and digesting what I can, and letting the rest slide away or lie dormant in my mind until something in the future decides to conjure them up.

The Hills

Since I've been feeling sort of sick lately I decided to take it easy last night and watch movies on the hostel's communal television. First I watched Best in Show, followed by the Princess Bride, which brought out an international contingent of fans from every crevice of the hostel. Apparently Inigo Montoya's vow to avenge his father's death is known and loved across the world. After the Princess Bride two Australian women, who work as tour guides throughout Asia, confessed to me that they had just purchased bootleg copies of the Hills from Sukhumvit. The students that I've taught at UCR all enjoy watching the Hills and I've always sort of wondered if it's really as bad as I imagined it would be. It is! In fact, it's worse! I love it! It may seem sort of masochistic to enjoy watching untalented, stinking-rich 19 year olds snag highly-prized jobs in Los Angeles, but instead it's pleasurable. It just sort of reaffirms the fact that life doesn't make sense, the good are not rewarded, the meek shall not inherit, etc. etc., and all that's okay. Justice is a fantasy, whereas the Hills is Reality, in its most artificial incarnation. Yeah, it's totally PoMo.

Tonight we're going to watch a couple more episodes. Maybe I'll pop open the bottle of Japan Airlines' wine that Owen left here and the three of us will all happily toast the lives we'll never lead, represented by the shimmering blondes of the Hills. And, of course, under my breath I'll utter a second toast to train wrecks.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Train Wreck, part 2

When I got off the train I felt sort of guilty for not trying to help other people. Owen was still in the train, as were most of the other passengers. I learned, through another little catastrophe I experienced a few years ago, that while Fight or Flight are commonly thought of as the two responses to trauma, Freeze is an equally important third reaction. For some reason my brain kicked in the Flight response, while many people on the train were stuck in a Freeze daze. As I watched the diesel pour out of the tank and onto the ground I got more and more nervous that there could be a fire, and at worst an explosion. Finally more passengers came out of the train. The train conductor was holding the door open at that point, making it easier for people to push their way out.

When Owen got out we examined the tracks, the torn-up earth, and the debris, to try and determine what has caused the derailing. In some places the tracks were bent and warped, wavy almost. I assumed the tracks had been laid down incorrectly, which had caused our little train to crash to the ground. Up the tracks a little way a large crowd of people had gathered where there was a road. After debating whether or not to walk around the train and try to keep following the tracks toward Chumphon, Owen and I decided instead to go toward the crowd of people. Maybe they could help us figure out what to do next. As we walked down the tracks there were individual cards from a deck of cards. I picked up the joker, nervously laughing that it would be a good memento of the fact that I had just survived a train wreck. A train wreck! We had just survived a train wreck.

We began to approach the crowd when we realized the true cause of our derailment. A mangled car, really just a mass of twisted metal, was laying in a heap on the side of the tracks. We had hit a car or truck. A group of people knelt on the ground, and I assumed they were helping someone who had been in the truck. A man's legs hung out of a window. They weren't bloody or dismembered in any way. But they were already showing the gray hue that indicated the person they belonged to was no longer alive. Out of another window hung a man's torso. Likewise, his skin had already begun to turn a different color. Neither man was bloody or bruised, just dusty. We continued walking. As we walked past stray items that had flown out of the car on impact--clothing, bottles--Owen turned to me and said "That joker card came from the truck. That deck of cards was in the truck."

We stood by the side of the road for awhile, with townspeople and other train passengers, not sure what to do next. I felt parched, as though I hadn't had a drink of water in months. I don't know if it's a common reaction for people to feel thirsty after fearing for their lives, but it felt like I'd been walking through the desert. I also had a bitter taste in my mouth that began the moment the train struck the truck, a taste that I can only compare to battery acid; a taste that still lingers in my mouth today, almost exactly one week later.

We figured that the tracks were bent not because the State Railway of Thailand sloppily laid down tracks, but because our train had bent them in its swaying and collapse. We could see, from where the truck was, that our train had dragged for quite awhile on the ground after hitting the truck. It seemed to happen quickly, but we must have been on our side for quite awhile before the train finally gathered enough earth underneath it to stop its velocity.

Slowly people arrived with bottles of water. I felt so thankful when townsperson after townsperson offered us bottles of water. Owen and I tried to find shade to stand in and watched as the emergency workers showed up. I don't know exactly what happened at the truck in that next hour or so. I don't know if they had to cut into the car to try and free people, but I think I heard the sound of a chainsaw or some sort of power equipment. As we stood waiting for a way out of the town, we watched the workers bring in three bodies, wrapped in white sheets and cradled as though in hammocks. The bodies were rushed toward the truck. There didn't seem to be any family members nearby, or if they were nearby they were incredibly quiet and reserved. Death is a strange thing to see in front of you. It happened so quickly. In an instant, I imagine. And these three men were gone from the world, just like that. So fragile.

I've been trying to figure out how exactly the accident happened. I imagine that the driver of the truck just didn't look before crossing the tracks. Maybe there was loud music playing in the truck, or maybe he got the timing wrong. But I do know that there was no honking of the train horn, no screeching of the brakes, just a sudden intense boom, hard enough to knock over a train, and then the dusty silence of what comes after.

Everyone in the train was more or less okay. The baby in the back of of the train car sat quietly in his grandmother's arms while we waited to be taken to our next destinations after a townsperson arranged a bus to take us to the next train station. Some of the tourists were crying, shaking, and calling home. They took us away from the scene in the back of pickup trucks, crammed in tightly so that the sweat was pouring from one person to the next. I felt the bruises on my arm and legs, and the Irish girl whose knees touched mine in the truck had scrapes on her shins from leaping to the ground as soon as the train started to fall. Like me, her Flight impulse prompted her to run out of the train as quickly as possible.

Owen left this morning, but for the rest of our trip when we'd have a beer we'd toast to train wrecks. And now I think about the people who died so quickly that day, wondering what their families are doing, wondering how the town is recovering. I wonder what the State Railway of Thailand, who released absolutely no statement to the press about the train wreck, did with our crashed train cars, how they fixed the bent tracks, whether or not they smoothed out the soil that our train dragged for a couple hundred meters. I will never know any of these things, so I'm just sitting here in Bangkok, fighting my new sickness and wondering when the taste of battery acid will leave my mouth.

But we're alive. My fragile life and Owen's fragile life are preserved a bit longer. I want this experience to change me, to help me focus, to motivate me to live my life fully as possible. I'm not sure that it will, at least not on its own. But I guess I can try to use it as inspiration to change, as an excuse to focus, as a reason to be motivated.

By the way, as soon as I could I got rid of that joker card. I crumpled it up and threw it in a trashcan in the little town north of Chumphon and south of Bangkok that will be imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Train Wreck? Really?

I haven't posted in almost two weeks and there's a lot to write about. Unfortunately I've come down with some sort of wicked cold/cough/sore throat, so I'm not sure how long I'll last at this computer before I need to go have a coughing fit somewhere private.

The day after I got back from Vietnam I met Owen at the Bangkok airport. The next day we walked around Bangkok, exploring Chinatown and taking the boat up the river to see Wat Pho and the backpacker ghetto, eating lots of good snacks along the way. We went to sleep early to prepare for our train ride to Chumphon the next day, and what a train ride it was.

Our train left Hua Lumphong station at around 8:00 am. It was pretty much on time, which, as I found out on our way back to Bangkok, isn't always normal. Also, it was a small train. I had been prepared for a long train with dining car, sinks, etc., but this train had only two identical cars. Owen and I were in seats 9 and 10 in the first car.

The train rattled through central Thailand for awhile. The sights were nice--rice paddies, water buffalo, banana trees--and eventually the entire train filled up with people. There was a baby who kept crying in the back. I played peek-a-boo with a little boy two seats in front of me. The French couple to my left bundled on their clothing because the combination of air-conditioning and fans made the climate inside the train brisk, to say the least. The little boy I played peek-a-boo with left the train with his mother and his little sister. The train continued on.

I like to brag about my neck pillow to people, because it was overpriced and I want to get every cent out of it, and because it's a really great neck pillow and has helped me sleep in all sorts of situations. I loaned Owen this neck pillow while I sat day-dreaming in my seat. Everything was quiet. Calm. Peaceful. The train moved along on the tracks. The world passed by us in streaks of green out the window.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, almost a boom, from the front of the train. The train began swaying side to side and everyone around me started looking panicked. For some reason I have a vivid memory of seeing the train conductor's face looking at me in fear, but there's no reason to have that memory. He was up front in his driver's seat. I was in my own seat. At least, until the train fell off the tracks. After swaying from side to side the train fell all the way over, onto the other side from where we were sitting. I couldn't hold myself up so I fell with the train, hitting the ground under the seats of the people on the other side of the train, who were now below me. Boxes and bags began falling and, as I wondered if this was possibly the end of my life, I thought enough to cover my head so that anything that fell on me at least wouldn't crack my skull.

After dragging through the dirt on its side for quite some time. The train stopped. And it was suddenly hot. The lack of air-con made the train, surrounded by the soil it dragged with it, stuffier, almost dusty seeming. Everyone sat for several moments, not knowing what to do. I began to get up, telling Owen we should get out of the train, trying to find my shoes, shaking. And, because my bladder was full, I had peed a little. Yep. Get in a train wreck and you just might pee your pants. I'm just glad I wasn't in the bathroom when the train derailed.

The conductor came into the train looked at us, and motioned for us all to get up and get out of there. He was urgent. I don't remember if he was yelling at us in English or Thai, but as everyone sat there dazed, I knew that we needed to get out. Owen saw his bag across the way. I couldn't find mine and was struggling to walk in the sideways train, barefoot, looking for my shoes. I grabbed my purse. I found my shoes and strapped them onto my feet. Owen spotted my bag at the front of the train, behind a man and a woman who were just sitting there on the side, stunned. I asked in Thai, which was suddenly very clear to me, for the people to hand me my backpack. Kaw grapow mai ka? Breathing felt strange. The air felt strange. Everything seemed so quiet. And dusty. I carried my backpack and my purse to the front of the train and shoved the door as hard as I could. Because the train was sideways, gravity was working against me with the door. But I pushed it open and walked out of the train. People from the other train car, which hadn't slid, but just fell over after our car crashed, were leaving their car.

There's a lot more to this story, but I have to go back to my hotel and check out. I'll try to post more later.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Leave Your Country?

This is a question that I want to ask the hundreds of backpackers from Europe, North America, and Australia who go from hostel to hostel, drinking absurd amounts of beer, only mingling with one another, and eating Western food for every meal. I am staying in the Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel, which is cheap, comparitively, at 125,000 VND per dorm bed (about $7.25), and the way people travel at these hostels is sickening. They have no respect for local norms and etiquette, they are afraid to try local food, and they are generally ignorant of pretty much everything outside of the Lonely Planet guidebook and what their Australian hostel owners tell them.

Yes, I'm being harsh. But I'm sick of it. When I tell other westerners that I'm from the U.S. they get this look on their faces like I'm evil, when they're the ones dressing completely inappropriately, yelling drunkenly down the street, and slugging bottles and bottles of booze without any respect for how people actually live in the country that they're actually in. This is not Disney World! This is not an amusement park designed for Western consumption, though so many treat it this way. I'm repulsed. I'm repulsed by the Canadians who sew the Canadian flag patches on their North Face backpacks so that people don't mistake them for Americans, even though they're the ones behaving completely horribly abroad. I am repulsed by the British people who only visit British/Irish pubs in Vietnam. And I would be repulsed by the Americans, except for the fact that there are so few of us traveling these days, with the plummeting value of the dollar and the fear our government has instilled in us. But I would like to hold up a mirror to all these non-American Western others to show them the ugly ugly faces they display to Southeast Asia. It's disgusting. And it's across the board. I've witnessed rude Spanish people, offensive Brits, obnoxious Australians, scantily clad Canadians, oblivious French, and Dutch people who refuse to eat anything remotely associated with Asia.

Why leave your country? Just sit in your living room with a group of international students (meaning those from Europe and N. America) from your local university, turn the heat way up so your face gets glossy the way it does here, and drink yourselves into stupidity. You can play the same bad Western music, eat the same boring Western food, and pretend you're so so worldly. Just don't expose the rest of the world to your inconsiderate antics and nauseatingly oblivious behavior. It makes us all look bad.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ha Noi, Viet Nam, day one

I arrived on Hanoi last night at around 8:30 and awkwardly walked around the Hanoi airport, trying to figure out what to do with myself. Yesterday in Bangkok it rained all day, and of course I had lost my umbrella right before it started pouring. I've been carrying that umbrella around with me every single dry day for the past month, so I had to lose it just before the rains.

Despite the rain I ran some errands in Bangkok yesterday. I got in from Nan at 5:30 in the morning and finally, after searching fruitlessly for the bus that would take me where I needed to go, I took a taxi to Pra Athit. This is where I needed to be to catch the airport shuttle later in the day. I had a tasty breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, and headed out on my errands. I've reached an intermediate level of accessing Bangkok. There are still hundreds of bus lines I don't know about, and parts of town I've never been to, but I know enough to get from the river to pretty much anywhere, by boat, bus, Skytrain, and subway. The battery on my digital camera has been dying rather quickly, so I took the boat and Skytrain to Siam Paragon to try and buy a second battery. Luckily there were about four stores inside the mall that sold my camera, its battery, and the knock-off versions of its battery (much cheaper!).

I walked through the Chulalongkorn University area again, just because it's fun to look inside the fancy boutiques, check out the fancy coffee shops and cafes, and see what all the rich Thai university students do for fun. I decided that I should get a haircut. Now, I got a haircut in Salaya, but it was just as though someone lobbed a few inches off my existing hairstyle without doing anything to modify it. Also, young Thai school girls are often required to keep their hair a certain length, and my cut was coincidentally identical to that. And it was noticeable; Rung laughed at me and some Thai people pointed at me and snickered. Haircuts near Chula were expensive, though, so I took the Skytrain back to Banglamphu and went to the 100 baht haircut place. It's a pretty cool haircut. It's the one I was envisioning in the first place: short in the back, longer in the front, with some longish bangs on one side. And how much was it, you ask? Less than $5, that's how much.

Wow, I'm blabbing about my haircut, but what I really want to write about is Vietnam. I'm in love. I've been here less than 24 hours but already I really REALLY really really like Hanoi. Today I had breakfast at the hostel (tasty baguette and a banana) then walked toward the lake for some coffee. I had heard that people in Vietnam are generally less friendly than people in Thailand, but I don't think this is true at all. Maybe I've just been less inclined to feel frustrated, or more smiley than normal, but people have been very friendly.

After I walked around the lake, I walked across town to the Temple of Literature, originally built in the 11th century as a Confucian temple. Much of it has been recreated and remade since the U.S. war destroyed a lot of Vietnam's ancient structures. But it was really pretty. I met a little girl there and we "talked"for awhile, meaning she spoke Vietnamese to me like I was a baby, a developmentally delayed person, or a doll. I responded with sound effects, smiles, and exaggerated facial expressions. She ate her yogurt near me and I shared some rambutan with her. It was a precious experience.

After leaving the Temple of Literature I took a xyclo (pronounced sick-low, also known as rickshaw or pedicab) to an incredible vegetarian restaurant. Unlike in Thailand where Buddhist monks like their pork, in Vietnam Buddhists are supposed to eat vegetarian, but there is a tradition of cooking mock meat dishes to make meat-eaters feel at home when they're guests of vegetarians. This meal was delicious. Spring rolls, greens rolled and stuffed with tofu and mushrooms, fake grilled beef, soup. I was in heaven.

I walked back to the hostel after gorging, and I'm planning on letting my food digest before heading out toward the lake again for some ice cream. This city is so photogenic. I want to take a picture of everything. It's hard not to romanticize it when it's beautiful in that way that is particular to things that are slightly run-down and colorful.

I saw a display of photos today of all these mangled body parts. It was some sort of public health announcement, but completely gruesome. A woman's exposed brain, a baby's arm ripped off, a huge gash on the side of someone's face. A disembodied hand. There are still some propaganda posters here and there, but Vietnam is quickly being swept along in the tide of globalization and capitalism.

I am excited to be here. It's even better than I'd imagined. I can't wait to share my photos, too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The North

I now understand why some people never go to Thailands islands and beaches, why they hop on the first night train to Chiang Mai and beyond. The north is amazing. The most amazing greens carpet every inch of surface. Rather than endless highways and 7-11s there are rice paddies and temples.

Mahidol arranged for us to take a trip up to Nan to stay at a monatery/school that has connections with Mahidol. The school is funded by the princess, that is to say that it is public. They provide boarding to middle-school age girls who may be orphaned or at risk of being trafficked. They are the sweetest people, and very very giggly. I've never heard such a group of people laugh as loud and hard as they did.

Our first day we got in a van with three monks, and two young English teachers (Thai) from nearby towns. They took us to probably 8 to 10 wats that first day, where the experience was overall the same: walk into the main temple, do prostrations, and meet the abbot and have a short conversation with him over cool glasses of water. We also went to an art gallery that displayed art from the Nan region. It was nothing amazing, but it was right on the river, the Nan River, which has flooded recently. It is a smooth, brown, slow river, leaking onto its banks and causing some people to pack up their belongings in preparation for a more threatenting flood.

The people in Nan come from many different hill tribes. We met some girls who were Hmong and Tai-Lue, but most of the girls were from one hill tribe or another. Human traffickers (as well as missionaries) reach these hill tribes faster than nearly anyone, though there are organizations sprining up to help the communities protect themselves against traffickers.

We were treated so kindly by everyone: three hot meals a day, a floor to sleep on in the princess' lavendar room (for when she makes visits), and a bucket for a shower. Aside from the English teachers, no on really spoke much English, and being thrown into the language has been difficult to recall all that I've learned.

As soon as I can get my photos off the camera I'll load them up, but I can tell you some highlights right now:

The novices (monks younger than 20) tend to their own rice paddies at some of these temples, so I got to go explore the rice paddies. It was really nice to walk through rice paddies and see what lives in them (little crabs), how the rice grows (it's gently planted in the soft mud), how farmers move around the fields (there are raised areas for walking on), and what it feels like to let your feet sink into that mud (like velvety deliciousness).

We went to a temple yesterday where there is an brass elephant that will grant wishes. You make a wish and then try to lift it with your ring finger on your right hand (if you're right handed). If you can lift it once, then you try lifting it again. If you can't lift it a second time it means your wish will come true. I was doubtful, obviously, but after paying homage to the triple gem, my parents, my friends, my enemies, and even myself, I decided to try my luck with the elephant. I easily picked it up the first time. No problem. It was easy as pie. The next time I tried I couldn't lift it at all. So strange! I don't normally believe in that kind of stuff but who knows. It didn't work for Kelly--she couldn't lift it all--but it also worked from my friend Thamawat (one of the English teachers) and it gave him goose bumps to think about it.
It was pretty cool. I can't tell you what my wish was. It's against the rules.

Thamawat (chue-len=nickname --Wat) was a novice from the time he was 12 until he was 20, and then he was a monk from the age of 20 to 28. He recently risrobed. It's interesting to listen the interpretations of a layperson like him considering he was on the other side of the curtain for so long. He was very nice about speaking some English with me and also allowing me to fumble through some Thai.

Now I am back in Bangkok after a night bus, waiting around to catch another bus to take me to the airport to take me to Vietnam. The air here is not pleasant. The humidity is pregnant with pollution, rather than pure water. I like Bangkok, but it was nice to be able to breathe for a little while.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rice Mud

Sorry I've been MIA the last few days/week. I am currently in Naan province in the north of Thailand, staying at a monastery/school for at-risk girls (they are orphans, their parents are dead or unable to care for them, or they are at risk for human-trafficking). Anyway, I can't write much but I just wanted to say how beautiful it is up here. It rains all day, but just barely, and it's so cool and green.

I got to walk in the rice paddies today. The mud between my toes was softly delicious.

Monday, August 4, 2008

What Wakes Me

This morning it was a loud man's voice, coming through the speaker mounted just outside my door. It was four a.m. The man's short sentences were punctuated and divided by traditional Thai music. It was some sort of dhamma I assume, but I don't know for sure. My Thai is still limited to simple conversations about location and food (mostly food). I didn't fall asleep last night until after 2. I don't know why, but I toss and turn on my small hard bed. I adjust the fans so they blow just right. I cover myself and then uncover myself with my towel-blanket. I try to do a breathing meditation, which usually eventually works to help me fall asleep.

So when the man came on the speaker at four o'clock this morning, I was not only surprised (this has never happened before) but I was certainly irritated. Not even my earplugs could drown out his kind lecture. So I thought I should try and destroy, or at least disable, the speaker. I approached it and thought I saw a volume button that said "pull," so I pulled it and suffered a jolting electric shock. Not enough to hurt a lot, but enough to make the hair on my arms stand on end when I remember what it felt like.

Finally, at around five, the man stopped speaking and I was able to go to sleep. Needless to say, I rebelled by turning off my alarm and sleeping through breakfast.

I miss the bell. They haven't been ringing the wake-up bell lately, and I'm afraid that this broadcast is the new alarm clock for the monks. It lasted from the time they're supposed to wake up until they go to the hall for chanting, whereas the bell, which was a genuine bell, not a recording of a bell, only rang for a minute or so. If this weren't the last week of classes it would present a much bigger problem than it does. I can survive a few nights of little sleep, but not more than that.

Did I tell you all that I finished Moby Dick? After trying for several years to read that beast, I decided that I would make myself do it in a week here in Thailand. I started it over from the beginning, and read the whole thing in just under eight days. I'm not sure I understand the hype, but I liked the ending. After I finished it, I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, just to stick with the 19th century nautical theme, and I really enjoyed it. I'd like to read more Jules Verne. Then I read Pastoralia by George Saunders, Innocent Erendira by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I'm just a few pages from finishing Dubliners by James Joyce. Next it's Charles Dickens' Bleak House and a history of Thailand.

Aside from the books mentioned above, I've read Cloud Atlas (one and a half times), The Ground Beneath her Feet (excellent book), Mimesis and Alterity (also excellent), Carnival, Hysteria, and Writing, and Simulation and Simulcrum. I think there are some others that I read, but that's all I can remember now. Reading is so much fun.

I bought a ticket to Hanoi yesterday. I've wanted to go to Vietnam since I was thirteen years old and became obsessed with Miss Saigon. I know it's not the best introduction to Vietnam, but for a girl who loved musicals it was certainly a powerful one.

Georgina sent me a ton of music, which is GREAT. I'm going to load it onto my mini-disc recorder so that I can listen. It's nice how much I've missed music. I think music and I are mending our fickle relationship. We just needed a little break.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Weight of My World

Is no longer on my shoulders. That's right friends, family, I have purchased myself a fanny pack. I never thought I would do it. I look ridiculous. But it feels great. In England they're called hip packs or belt packs or even bum packs, but never EVER are they called fanny packs. Hopefully the reasons why are obvious. It holds my camera, wallet, a handkerchief, and some tissue for all those bathrooms that don't provide it.

I am in Bangkok again before my last week at Mahidol. I'm exhausted. I've had some trouble falling asleep lately and I'm not exactly sure why. Last night we got a triple room with air-con and cable television. I thought hooray! I can fall asleep watching tv! How relaxing! Yet each program that came on was so fascinating that I couldn't sleep. I watched a movie with Nicholas Cage, Red Rock West (which reminds me a lot of a Denver band's name), then Splendor in the Grass with a young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood came on. It was great. Finally, I fell asleep some time past 3am when a fake newscast about aliens turned out to be boring.

Anyway, I wrote a bit in my journal about the burnt rice fields and other things, so maybe I'll just put it here.

They burned the rice fields. I didn't yet have the chance to walk the perimeter and scare frogs into the channels of water. This must not have been the year to harvest rice. This rainy season has been dreadfully dry yet my body perspires without my knowledge, soaking my shirts, staining them with salty continents. The smell of the burnt rice fields hung in the air for two days only, before the fumes of the highway and the steaming ground sucked up all the smoke and turned it into the fleshy soil beneath the palm and papaya trees.

I'm romanticizing things a bit.

The coffee shop inside the Tesco Lotus provides buttery cookies shaped like letters of the roman alphabet. They are buttery without tasting exactly like butter, just as the hot chocolate is creamy without tasting exactly like cream.

Here in Bangkok there is anything you could ever want, Thai, Western, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, anything. Last night we took a cab to a bar to Silom--an area that I would not suggest exploring too much--called Roadhouse. Kelly's friend who has been living in Thailand for three years suggested it to her. We pulled up to an enormous American-style BBQ restaurant and sports bar. I couldn't believe I was in Thailand when we walked inside. It felt like Riverside, California, and most people inside were definitely not Thai, but many were also not American. There are a lot of British and French people in Thailand right now. Their economies must being well, compared to ours. We couldn't stay at Roadhouse. Beers were triple what they cost anywhere else, and the food was also ridiculously priced; Fish and Chips for 350 baht, which is a LOT of money in Thailand. I'll give you a comparison: yesterday for lunch I had Pad-Si-Iu for 25 baht and for dinner I had noodle soup for 30 baht. The exchange rate is about 33-34 baht per dollar. 350 baht is a lot of money. $10 fish and chips is high even in the U.S.

I may cut off my hair this weekend. I'm tired of it. Rung has suggested a bob. I'm a little hesitant to get it cut in Thailand because many girls sport the Thai-mullet, which might be cool in Thailand, but is definitely not attractive to me. I think there's a photo of one here http://babas.typepad.com/photos/my_gap_year/img_5200_small.html but my computer won't load it.

I think I'm going to head to Phnom Penh overland with Luke and Kelly after we get back from Nan on the 11th. I will renew my visa there, then fly back to Bangkok and meet Owen on the 17th.

Oh, also, for anyone who reads this, I'd love it if you can email me mp3s. I've been fiercely craving musically, mostly Jose Gonzalez, the (old) Beatles, and whatever else sounds good. Anything, actually. Email them my way!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

One Week of Classes Left

I've been here for about five weeks now. We only have one more weeks of classes and then we're loosed upon Thailand. I may go to Phnom Penh for a few days before Owen gets here on the 17th, then it's a 29th birthday celebration for me in Bangkok. I can't even think of what I'd want to do. I should imagine something amazing, but all I want right now is a bagel with cream cheese. I don't even really like bagels.

They burned the rice fields by my house. Apparently it is not the year to harvest rice. I have lots that I want to write about this, but I am completely distracted by the American speaking on Skype next to me. He's relating how it was to see the new Batman movie in IMAX here, which I did last week.

Anyway, here are some more photos.

Me and Rung in Bangkok

The band we saw in Bangkok last weekend.

Us, again, watching the band.

Ugh. This computer is cutting in and out and it's taking forever to upload photos. Now I log off!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Apartment Khunpa

Yesterday I attended an Indie Rock concert with a girl from Mahidol. Her name is Rung (rooo-ng), which means rainbow. I think I mentioned her in a previous post, but she is my new--and only!--Thai friend. We left Salaya at 10:00 am, taking a songtaew to the bus stop for the 124 bus, which goes directly into Bangkok, near the river. When we got into Bangkok we visited the National Gallery. There was a very very small collection of traditional art (I think a lot of traditional art remains in temples and palaces, where it--you could say--belongs). But the contemporary art section was pretty good. I have a few photos that I'll try to post in the next few days. Something I've noticed here in Bangkok is a sort of Occidentalism concerning American Indian culture and representation in Thailand. I've seen so many American Indian t-shirts, car decals, and yesterday (at the museum) paintings. I wonder how that came about.

Anyway, at around 1:00 pm we caught another bus to Jatujak market (which I've written about before) where the Indie Rock band (Apartment Khunpa) was scheduled to play. We got lost about three times, but eventually found where we were supposed to be, and after walking around the market for a few hours, we returned to the subway station where the band was setting up. Oh, also, I got to eat a ton of tofu yesterday. Many street vendors sell fried pig of all kinds (did I tell you about the waffle I bought, only to find it was stuffed with a HOT DOG???!!! AUGH!) but I found a street vendor that also sold friend tofu. Yum. So we went down into the subway to listen to the band play. Rung wanted to sit front and center, and because my eardrums protested I stuffed them with toilet paper to block out the noise.

I have to run, but check out the band's website below.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm ready for my close-up Mr. Kon-Tai

I just wrote this in an email, but I must reiterate. It is 8:11 pm in Thailand, despite what my blog tells you. I sat in my room, arguing with Moby Dick, then decided to take my homework to the coffee shop inside the Tesco Lotus. After eating some kao pad sai kai gap pak (fried rice with egg and vegetables) I ordered a ridiculous chocolate smoothy drink and proceeded to do my Thai homework. A student who lives near Namthong Sikalai where I live came into the coffee shop and we spoke in very very slow English and very very slow Thai. I told her, in Thai, twice, that I lost my umbrella at the coffee shop yesterday. She then asked the coffee shop if they had it (which they did! umbrella recovered!). Then, check this out, my new friend, whose name is Ruung (it means Rainbow. adorable), got really distracted. Behind me was a Thai superstar! A famous singer. She looked like it too. She was very pale, and thin, and was surrounded by an entourage of tattooed men. The whole group looked to be half farang, and maybe they were. Sadly, the more "Thai" you look, the less beautiful you are. Most actors, if they're protagonist actors, look Chinese or European rather than darker like Khmer people. "Suai diiiiiii....." Ruung sighed. "She is so beautiful." I didn't know what to say. I was excited to be near a Thai celebrity, but why? I don't even know who she is.

I went back Namthong for suad-mon, which is the chanting/prayers that occurs at 6:00 every evening. I've been trying to relax myself by doing this. It's chanting for 35 minutes and then sitting meditation for ten minutes or so. I try to breathe in relaxing feelings, letting-go feelings, and breathe out all my attachments to the positive and negative things I create in this world. I've been having a lot of anxiety about myself as a grad student and the negative things that occurred this past year. But instead of only elevating my good accomplishments, I've been breathing out my attachments to any of them, trying to see the essence of these things as empty. It feels good.

When I step out of my room, of my Tesco Lotus Namthong Sikalai home, I feel a transformation. My tongue gets heavy with foreignness. My body begins to emit a bright light that shines everywhere I go. I glow with whiteness. I beam out otherness. People stare. Why shouldn't they? They stare and talk about me and honk and laugh. There's nothing funnier than a white girl on a bicycle, unless it's a white girl walking alone. HILARIOUS. All my movements, whether I'm walking, scratching a mosquito bite on my leg, or riding my bicycle, are amplified into a performance. This life is no longer mine, but I am an actor in the lives of the people around me. This is their home. This is their life. I'm an awkward extra, a member of the chorus, struggling to dance correctly, trying to smile even though I don't know the words to the songs. I'm the comic relief. A clown. But I don't feel human. And it's not that I feel endangered at all, it's just that I feel completely, vastly out of place.

This is a very different experience than I had in Thailand the first time, and a different experience than most farang have. To really know what it's like you have to leave Bangkok, leave the islands, come to a small town that has nothing special to offer but the usual markets and temples, convenient stores and food stalls. You have to go where all the signs are in Thai script and no one understands more than three words of English. It's overwhelming and exhausting. It's a privilege.

But it's certainly lonely.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ko Samed and More

Here is the view of the pond in front of my little room at Mahidol University. It was raining really hard out and I thought it was pretty. You can sort of see the rain.

And now, onto Ko Samed. Ko is pronounced Kaw and it means island. We caught a boat at around 6:30. This was a family sitting in front of us.

This is the view from the guesthouse on Ko Samed. You can see the ocean out there if you look through the palm trees.

We rented motorbikes and rode about halfway around the island (the other doesn't have roads or the roads are too rutted and sandy to try to traverse).

Restaurant on the beach.

The beach. The water was perfect.

The best way to demonstrate how white the sand is.

This dog was sleeping on a shrine at the base of a huge Buddha statue (see below).

I wanted to see if there was a temple on Ko Samed. There was, indeed, but the monk who we encountered was sort of sketchy. Monks aren't really allowed to handle money or talk about it, but he asked us to give him money. Anyway, we did our prostrations and moved along.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

More Photos!

Alright, so these aren't new photos, but hopefully I will get those uploaded soon too. I really should've brought my laptop with me, despite the weight of it and its ridiculously incapable battery. I believe I finished the last photo post with Suk 11. So let's continue.

On the roof of Suk 11 there are chairs, tables, plants (of course) and old bicycle rickshaws. Thailand has a mad love affair with the engine, so now you never see bicycle rickshaws on the streets. They are all retired on the roof of Suk 11. You see motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks, regular taxis, air-con and fan buses, subway trains, and trains, but never a bicycle driver to hire.

Self-portrait on Suk 11 roof, with bicycle rickshaw. There's a shower stall behind me. Why? I don't know.

Lemon soda. Mmm.

My first weekend in Bangkok I decided to take the skytrain and the boat to the backpacker side of town, Banglampu, home of the (in)famous Kao San Road. The boat is a nice way to get around Bangkok. The Chao Praya river runs through the west side of Bangkok. Everything west of the river is much more "Thai" than everything on the east side. When I ride the bus from Salaya to Bangkok it is strikingly obvious when we've crossed the river. The population becomes instantly spectled with non-Thais.

On the boat with my fellow farang.

I don't remember this bridge being here when I was in Bangkok in 2002-2003. But I didn't spend any time on the river then.

A view from the boat.

Another view from the boat.

The beginning of Banglampu. Tuk-tuk, sad dog, and street vendor. With the smells to match.

Som Tam and meat vendor, with farang. Som Tam is so tasty. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Som_tam.

In Banglampu everything is in English. This fruit shake is a hefty 60 baht ($1.80). I'm not being sarcastic, either. That's a pretty high cost for street vendor food. Normally it's closer to 15-35 baht.

Ah, farang! Kao San road in its mild, daytime manifestation. Cheap clothes, cheap Buddha images (imported from Nepal, oddly enough), internet access, fake ID stands, booze, Western food (McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, AND Subway!), and anything else a Western/Australian traveler might desire while traveling in Asia.

The same day I went to Banglampu I went to the huge weekend market on the north side of town, called Chatuchak or Jatujak, depending on how you transliterate Thai into English. This market is incredible. I wrote about it in an earlier blog.

Alright, I think that's going to do it for now. I have all these photos and more uploaded on flickr. From now on I think I will just give those photos captions and let you all look at them there. Here's a link to this first set of photos. http://www.flickr.com/photos/25403345@N03/sets/72157606153612284/show/ If you put your mouse over the photo, an "i" appears. Click on the i and it will show descriptions of the photos.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

That Devil That! When the Bus Gives Birth

I spent the weekend in Ko Samet, an island about 3 hours south east of Bangkok. The beaches are like flour--completely white with sand so fine it squeaks against your feet. The weekend was fun: lots of body surfing in the waves (the water was the perfect temperature), meeting some new people (although, the older I get, the older I am when I travel. Ha. Most backpackers are the age I was when I went to Thailand for the first time and I can't really get into the loud music and over-the-top drunkenness. But I guess I wasn't into those things when I was 22-23 either. Maybe I'm not old, just quiet--? Too bad there isn't a backpacker culture--meaning affordable--for people who would prefer listening to the waves than techno, who would rather fall asleep to the sound of the crickets than repetitive reggae bass lines) , eating high-priced island food, and--once again--sweating my face off. Overall it was a good time, though I think I spent a bit too much money. I'll try to get the photos loaded soon to make everyone immensely jealous.

Many of the guest houses in Thailand that cater to foreign guests show movies in the restaurant area. The guest house I stayed at on Ko Samet, Naga, (for info on the three-headed snake, Naga, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C4%81ga#In_Buddhism) shows movies three times a day. Last night at 6:00 it was Fight Club and at 8:30, the Bourne Ultimatum, or, as the sign outside the guest house read, and which I prefer, "The Boultimatum." So the Boultimatum began, and all the ex-pat teachers on the rains retreat holiday, the tourists, the German backpackers, and me, gathered to watch the movie. Since the restaurant was open to the outdoors and had horrible acoustics, it was necessary to turn on the subtitles. When the subtitles began, it was obvious--not so much painfully obvious as HILARIOUSLY obvious--that the movie was a pirated copy that had been subtitled by someone whose first language was not even remotely in the same linguistic family as English. It was as though Babelfish had translated the Thai subtitles into English, then back to Thai again, maybe once to Japanese, Spanish for good measure, then back into English. "What the hell!" was translated to "That devil that!" And Jason Bourne instructs the soon-to-be-sniped reporter to "Get off to the when the bus gives birth! He/She not get on. He/She doesn't listen to It" (It being Jason Bourne). Operation Blackbriar was translated into "Operation Black Girlfriend." Needless to say, this provoked outrageous laughter at the many cultural faux pas made inadvertently. "Black Girlfriend is Dangerous! Does he/she know of Black Girlfriend?" The French guy and his English friend in front of me, and me, were laughing so hard I think we all had tears pouring down our cheeks. I couldn't handle it. It was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long, long time. I want to find a pirated copy of that film on Sukhumvit just to bring it home to show everyone how hilarious the subtitles are.

Anyway, I am back in Bangkok for the night. Luke and Kelly are still on the island, but I thought it would be nice to head back into the city where the food is cheaper and where for 50 baht less a night than my rustic island Bungalow (lizard excrement covered my mosquito net) I can sleep in an air-conditioned room and take a hot shower when I wake up. I can't even imagine! A hot shower! I am staying at Suk11 again, which I prefer to Banglampu (the area we've been staying in lately when we come in to Bangkok), even though it isn't as old. I like its international quality. Women in full burqas, delicious Indian restaurants, people from every side of the planet you can imagine, and of course, all the Thai staples. And Suk 11 itself is a nice retreat from Bangkok's insanity. Its gardens, its quiet little cove.

I'm fourteen pages away from finishing Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I really like it. Rushdie weaves all sorts of post-colonial, post-modern, post-Bakhtin theory into his novel, so it doesn't feel so much like a mindless indulgence as a support to all the theory I've been reading in grad school. I strongly suggest it. And if you're not interested in any of that theory--and who can blame you if you're not?--then you should know it's also about rock and roll and pop music and super-stardom.

Classes at Mahidol are going pretty well. My Thai vocabulary is slowly increasing, though there's still an endless journey ahead. Maybe in another life, or in this one if I decide, I'll be a linguist. I'd like to know several languages fluently. Thai, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese. Is it too late to start? Being here is nice but I have begun, once again, to question my future. What kind of career am I searching for? Is academia really for me or am I awkwardly stuffing myself into something I won't ever fit inside? I want to study sound effects in Thai movies. I want to study representations of midgets (little people?) in popular culture, globally. I want to study the way people slide in and out of cultural identities, the way they defy locational and temporal logic, the way everyone is displaced from some place. And I don't want to write papers about it that people will read in scholarly journals (or do I?); I want to create something out of it, something that means something and that allows me to be creative. I want to put myself into it as much as academics' subjects unwittingly are put into it (or do I?).

Monday, July 14, 2008

As Many Photos as I Can Load Caption in Twenty Minutes

My plane for Tai Pei left LAX at 1:15am on China Airlines. There were hundreds and hundreds of people crammed together because part of the seating area was being remodeled. Also, there was a kitten caught somewhere in the roof. Its mewing was desperate and heart-breaking. Here I am waiting at LAX.

Tai Pei International Airport. I didn't see much of Taiwan. My layover was three hours. I slept for about eight hours of the flight, which is more than I thought I would. I should thank my lucky neck pillow. The flight from Taiwan to Bangkok was another three hours or so.

My first squat toilet of 2008! This is in the Taipei Airport. They have both Western and squat toilets. Of course I chose the squat.

If you can't read it, the cup says "Bless you for being so thoughtful and generous." See, coffee does love me. Taiwanese coffee is the kindest coffee you'll meet.

BKK. Bangkok International. The airport is only a few years old. I boarded an Airport Express Bus that would (should) have taken me to Thanon Sukhumvit, Soi 10. Alas, it dumped me out early because the traffic was too intense. I took the Skytrain the rest of the way to the hostel.

Here is the front of Suk11, the hostel recommended by Georgina, where I stayed my first four nights in Thailand before I went to Salaya, where the university campus is.

Suk11 is like a little haven in the chaos of Bangkok. There are tons of plants, little ponds, etc. Very pretty.

Alright, my time is up. But you've seen the first few days of my trip. I just need to catch you up all the way to week three.

What a Blog Should Be

I have been in Thailand now for two and a half weeks, which is plenty of time to adjust to the time change (I am fourteen hours in the future), not quite enough time to adjust to the food (stomach cramps and their accompanying pleasures), and barely enough time to learn a few awkward and mispronounced Thai phrases (I say “no pork!” when they’ve asked me “should we add shrimp?” or I smile, shrug, and shake my head when someone asks me a question in Thai that goes beyond “how are you?” and “what is your name?”).

Thai class is fun. Our teacher lived in Austria for thirty years before she returned to Thailand where she teaches English to Thais and Thai to us at Mahidol. She speaks impeccable German, incredible English, perfect Thai (of course), Italian, and probably eighteen other languages that she has not told us about. She is patient. I’ve learned (though not yet been able to memorize) questions, prepositions, passive voice, helping verbs, and other things that I can barely name in English. I can say “I am surprised by the dinosaur on the boat” and “are you excited to eat ice cream and iron your blouses?” and other useful phrases such as these.

I’ve written about the food a little bit, but I think it deserves more attention. In the U.S., when we go to Thai restaurants we get the basics, right? Pad Thai; red, green, yellow, and panaeng curry; Pad Si-Iu (if we’re feeling adventurous); and for dessert mango with sticky rice. Easy, tasty. We love it. We love it so much it makes us want to go Thailand where we can eat Tofu Green Curry to our hearts’ delight, right? And if you stay on a Euro-Australian-American trail of Bangkok’s Kao San road to Ko Phangan, and maybe stop in Chiang Mai or in a charming little meta-authentic long-neck village up north, you can probably eat all the Tofu Green Curry you could ever want. But you should know: this is not what Thais eat.

I cannot name any of the dishes I’ve been served here on campus. They are good, yes, but much meatier than anything I’ve ever eaten. Today, for example.
Breakfast: grilled pork atop white rice served with a little bowl of sweet, salty, star-anise flavored porky juice to be spooned over meat. One glass of cold water.
Lunch: very spicy fish that had been deep-fried to a crispy/chewy texture that one must rip at with the teeth. Big bowl of soup with oyster mushrooms, a green vegetable, and huge pork bones with lots of fat on them. Pork bones were covertly served to three dogs drooling under the table: Dzem-Sai, Pet (means spicy in Thai), and Bo. Pork Larb (pronounced like Lob with an umlaut), which is ground pork and spices. For dessert papaya, big green things that taste sort of like grapefruit, and watermelon. You’ve heard already about the blood cubes in previous blogs, so I won’t describe any other meals. I just wanted to show you what Thai food is ordinarily, and that curry plays a small role, and when it does play a role it is never tofu, and never simply curry.

Despite my focus on the gastronomical, there is much more to talk about: where I live, for example. I live in the dorm block about 2km from campus, designed for the monks who come to study at Mahidol. There are seven or eight buildings and Kelly, Luke, and I have our own building, building 5. Or, in Thai, Rong Haa. When I step out of my room and look over the railing, to my left is an enormous, new Tesco Lotus (http://www.tescolotus.net/) a British superstore comparable to a Super Target or Walmart, with a level dedicated to computers, scooters, a movie theater, a food court, and several restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and ice cream parlors (I think there are three ice cream parlors, including a Dairy Queen). When I face the fore I see a pretty pond, lined by well-groomed bushes and flowers, with fish, turtles, and frogs croaking, splashing, and flopping against the water. Beyond the pond, past the two guards’ stations, there is a highway. It is loud, fast, and disconcerting. But I do not hear it from my room. To my right and behind me there are yellow-green rice fields, lined with coconut palms and mango, banana, and papaya trees. Rice fields are beautiful. The color, the texture, the moisture. I want to walk the perimeter of the fields and watch the lizards scurry around, fearful for their lives. I want to stare at the enormous centipedes as they gently wobble by. I want to wade through the streams and forget about the Tesco Lotus and the highway, pretending that there is somewhere in the world where people slowly wait for their rice to ripen rather than rushing from place to place to buy buy buy buy buy. Alas, that place is not Thailand. At least not central Thailand.

Every morning at 4:30am the bell behind my back window begins to ring, waking the monks for suad-son (chanting and prayers), then their alms-rounds. For those of you who may not know, in Theravada Buddhism the monks will not eat after noon, and their breakfast meal is obtained at 6:00 by walking door-to-door asking for food. They are not seen as beggars; rather, to give a monk food is incredibly meritorious and may help you secure a better rebirth in a future life. A monk is the highest person in Thai society. For every Thai word I learn, there is a more formal word to use when speaking with monks. To say hello to everyone but monks, you say “Sawadii Ka”— Ssawadii krab if you’re a man—but to say hello to monks you say “Namasakan” (derivative of the Sanskrit/Pali Namaste or Namaskan). The word for dog is maa, but there’s a different word for dog when you’re speaking with monks. Luckily they are all very young and forgiving, and politely correct me when I dare to speak in Thai. Mostly they practice their rough English, and I help correct their pronunciation and word use.

Every evening at 5:30pm the bell rings again. At 6:00pm the monks assemble together again for evening suad-son, which I have joined twice now. For about thirty minutes we sit on our knees and chant in Pali. It’s beautiful. Not one voice sings off-key. Throughout the chants there are times when we all bow down to the ground, and the monks chant into the ground. This makes a deliciously muffled sound of the chants in various rhythms and meters vibrating against the floor. For fifteen minutes we do sitting concentration meditation. Samatha, I think it’s called. My mind wanders to every agitated and anxious place it knows, untamed by my years of neglecting it. When I practiced meditation more often I could reach a state of calmness. Now, however, my mind feels fixed and rebellious. I must remind it how to sit still.

Which reminds me—I don’t talk much. I have begun to try to do things more on my own, to give Luke and Kelly space and try to speak Thai on my own (Kelly is virtually fluent because she spent all of last year here). So this weekend when they went to sleep in Bangkok, I stayed behind and tried my hand at communicating, and when that was a flop, at silence. The brain can chatter on forever about anything. It can find worthless anxiety to cling to, it retells itself horror stories, it insults and compliments, it writes poetry then smashes it to pieces, it remembers movie lines and criticizes culture. The brain is critic and beloved. And it refuses to shut up. But the more I let it work inside me, the more it exhausts itself it lets me enjoy the moment from time to time.
There have been a few times of awareness that feel almost blissful. Last night I was reading in my room, when I heard fireworks outside. I felt giddy by the sound, so I ran as fast as I could to the other side of the second floor, and looked out in the direction of the sounds. Nothing. So I leaped up the stairs, two at a time, and ran to the other end of the third floor, chasing skittish lizards who believed me to be a predator, until I saw the tiny bursts of color in the distance. The sky here at night is a reddish-gray, and the blue, red, green, yellow, and white fireworks were modest, but exciting none the less. When the show ended, just moments later, I began to hear splashing sounds from the pond. So I ran back over to my side of the building and squinted over the railing to see if a dog was taking a swim. The fish were flinging their bodies out of the water, then smacking their scales, fins, and gills against the water as they fell back in. Over and over. Sometimes several would throw themselves into the air at once, sometimes they’d do it one by one. The Tesco Lotus’ parking lot lights reflected off the pond, while its fans, air-conditioners, and traffic hummed. The scene was beautiful and sad. I want the rice paddies and the ponds, but they are accompanied by glowing signs and corporate jingles.

More to come.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Photos! And a nickname!

I'm not sure if I mentioned this yet in a post, but most Thai people get a nickname that is one or two syllables and easier to say and remember than their given name. Na-ta-lie is not too hard to say, which is why I pronounce all the syllables when I say my name to people who do not reside in the United States. Regardless of how easy or hard my name might be, I need a nickname. Kelly wanted to call me Kai, which means "egg" because our Thai teacher, Ajan Matarot says that I am like a "freshly peeled egg," a German expression that means bright-eyed and well-groomed. Yes, a surprising descriptor for messy me. Jake back at UCR apparently calls me a "good egg." So, Kelly thought Pii Kai (big sister Egg) suits me. But it's sort of weird to be called an egg. So today one of the monks suggested Naa Naa, which means field. I like that better. Plus, I get to keep the N part of my name. Naa Naa it is.

All the photos I have go back to the day I left LAX, so I guess I'll just start at the beginning and narrate as I go.

Alright, so the computers here are reading my files strange, so instead of posting lots of photos in order, I'm just going to post one from yesterday. More to come.

Meat. The little ghosts flying over the raw meat are plastic bags attached to strings, attached to fan blades to keep flies away. There is an abundance of raw meat. Raw fish. Raw de-feathered ducks (with the expression still on their faces).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Day Trip to Bangkok

For 8 and a half baht I take a bus from my town, Salaya, to Bangkok, about an hour away. At first the bus is reasonably empty. I get a seat near the window and admire the photogenic sparkling chrome of the sealing, with old dusty fans spinning in circles above our heads; I admire the lights above the drivers head--yellow, red, green, blue. Only the yellow one lights up when a passenger pushes the stop button, so I don't know what the other three are four. The bus begins to fill. A teenage girl with baggy camouflage shorts and a long t-shirt sits next to me, and as the bus fills up we're pressed against each other and the place where our legs touch is sweaty--probably from me. I try to stick my arm out the window, but the window is a bit too far in front of me so it is an awkward position. My bag rests on my lap, the cool water bottle inside reminding me I should've brought a straw. Most Thai people don't drink water the way Americans do, pouring the water directly into our mouths from the opening in the bottle. They drink it with straws. Likewise for soda from a can. And beer they drink with a bucket of ice near by, dropping ice cubes in the beer cube-by-cube to keep the beer cool before they finish it. It is rude to show the bottom of your bottle to someone, so even though I'm hot and thirsty I don't drink from the bottle on the bus.

I take the bus to the end of the line, by the river in Banglamphu, the backpacker side of town. It is 9:30 when I arrive so many of the farang are eating yogurt with muesli, scrambled eggs and toast--things that you just don't find in Salaya. In Salaya for breakfast you eat chicken on rice with a bowl of chicken broth to wash it down. You drink instant coffee or ovaltine. Banglamphu is comforting for the foreigner, myself included. However, instead of eating a $4 Western breakfast, I opt for pad si-iu (commonly known in the U.S. as Pad See-Ew), which I now know translates literally to Fried Soy Bean Sauce. The word "pad" means fried, so Pad Thai--fried Thai. Kao Pad--fried rice. Etc. Pad si-iu comes with egg and veggies, so I get many of the same ingredients of a Western breakfast for less than one dollar.

Americans LOVE to talk about how much things cost. The American professor and I sat during lunch yesterday and chatted for an hour about how much things cost. Why is that so satisfying? It really is, though. "My plane ticket to Japan a few years ago was only $500 round trip," I brag.
He replies "Yeah, I got a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Bangkok for $500 a couple months ago."

Anyway, it's time to sign off. Banglamphu is waiting for me to become disgusted by it yet again, and I may take a boat down the river to go to the big bookstores at Siam Square. I am ravenous for books here, and I consume them at an alarming pace. And since we're on the topic of money, the books are my most expensive indulgence here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thus Week Three Begins

I decided to brave the computer lab. Good thing I did. I had no idea that I could, for free, access the internet for as long as I please, load files onto the computer, etc.

Unfortunately today I have to go meet someone in the library in five minutes, but I just wanted to check in with all my fans (ha!), to let you know that I'm still alive, still eating nauseating portions of pork (yesterday for lunch there was green curry with--I kid you not--coagulated blood cubes in it.


Sunday, June 29, 2008


Last night I slept for almost twelve hours. I spent the day walking, walking, walking. I took the Skytrain to the weekend market on the north side of town, where I walked through aisles and aisles of clothing, furniture, food, coffee, ice cream, handicrafts, plates, underwear, and animals. It was so hot that the sweat coated my entire body and I had to stop and rest several times just to get my body to dry off. Traveling alone gives me a lot of time to just sit and people-watch, which is what I do with about half my time. The other half of the time is spent reading, eating, and walking, equally divided between the three. The weekend market is a good example of everything that Thailand is. Thailand is not anything you might romanticize it to be, but it is also everything you'd romanticize it to be, if that makes sense. I just finished reading Michael Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity and I think I have a refreshed view on what makes a place "authentic." Authentic Thailand isn't hill-tribe people weaving baskets, but it is hill-tribe people weaving baskets as a performance for tourists. Culture is performance. Does that make it less authentic? Is there anywhere where culture isn't performance, in a post-modern world? If it's not performance we don't call it culture, or we don't call it traditional culture. It's pop-culture. And pop-culture is performance. I guess this interpretation relies on the idea that culture hasn't always been performance, that in a bygone era culture was the authentic, rich layering of music, language, food, gesture, and craft, and that culture wasn't "done" to please anyone other than those who belonged to the culture. Whereas now culture is performed to affirm and reaffirm the expectations of those who have come to indulge in foreign culture. But that makes it no less authentic. Authentic culture is this performance: it is the assimilation of expectation with necessities of livelihood, tradition, and innovation. It is always modernizing and expanding. There is the culture of a backpacker's ghetto, and this is the same in any country. There is the culture of the red-light district, which likewise is the same. There is the ex-pat culture and the service industry culture. But then there is temple culture--people performing rituals and making merit to secure better rebirths, and the tourists who stroll about gobbling up Buddha images because they feel spiritual.

It's all authentic. Me and them and the tourists and the Starbucks (of which there are many). The reconstruction of traditional culture is authentic culture, and the destruction of traditional culture is also authentic culture.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bangkok in My Nose

After eighteen hours in the air and four hours of layover, not to mention a two hour bus ride that ended prematurely when the driver said traffic was too bad to continue, and asked us to take the train the rest of the way, I made it to my hostel in Bangkok. I'm staying at Suk 11 off of Sukhumvit, which is sort of the international business part of town. There's a large Arabic-speaking community, an Indian community, and of course the Euro-American ex-pat community, consisting mostly of middle-aged men (I rarely see female ex-pats. Why is that?). Suk 11 is one of the more adorable hostels I've ever stayed in. The owners have let a virtual jungle grow throughout the place. There are tons of plants and vines hanging everywhere, and little gardens all over the place. On the roof there are more plants, and little tables perfect for writing in my journal or reading the books I brought to keep my mind working academically. The roof is also decorated with old rickshaws, some of which still have air in the tires.

I haven't really known what to do with myself since I've been here. Today I walked around and sweated. Pints of sweat, I'd say. It doesn't feel that hot, mostly just humid, but the sweat pours down my body. I don't know why Thai women don't sweat the way I do, but I feel gross and clumsy with my sweat-soaked shirt and pants. I finished a book today. I sat in parks and watched people, plants, and turtles. I saw a turtle in the queens park that had a giant catfish stuck on its back, sucking off its algae. The turtle seemed disgruntled by the presence of the fish.

I ate lunch at a small food stall. Pad Thai for 45 baht, which is just over a dollar. The dollar has lost so much value since I was here last, but food is still relatively inexpensive. When I was last in Bangkok there was one Starbucks in the Sukhumvit area, whereas now there are about eight. However, there is also an increasing number of street vendors who sell fresh coffee. Today I bought a super-sweet iced coffee from a street vendor for 18 baht, probably a tenth of the price of a Starbucks coffee.

Anyway, enough about me and my eating habits in Thailand. It's strange being in Bangkok alone for this long (only three days, but still), and I don't really know what to do keep myself awake until 10pm so that I can adjust to the time difference. Last night I promised myself I'd stay up until 9, but I crashed just after 8 and woke up at 5:30.

I don't have a way to hook up my camera to the computer yet (I'm at an internet cafe right now), but as soon as Luke and Kelly get here, which is tomorrow, hopefully I can post some pictures online. Hopefully I will be more articulate tomorrow too, and have some interesting things to relate.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Tonight at 1:00 am I board a plane at LAX to Thailand, via Tai Pei. From July 1st to August 15th I will be learning Thai and Pali. Then, from August 15th to September 10th I will be conducting research and traveling. I will post photos and diaries of my time in Thailand on this blog.