Monday, September 29, 2008


One would think that time-honored customs in far-flung corners of the world would be exempt from the advertising mania of global corporations, but no. Even in Thailand, whose beautiful custom of greeting others with a "wai" is simple and elegant, fast food giants take advantage to sell more of their products. Could anything be more arrogant and disrespectful than the silly sight of Ronald McDonald greeting one with a Thai "wai" while dressed in his gaudy clothes? It's an embarrassment.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Small Business Capital

I received a letter from a friend in the States, who bemoaned the loss of the small "Mom & Pop" stores of his childhood. With a melancholy pen, he mourns the extinction of small shops by the encroaching mega-chains, even into the small towns of America. Living in Thailand, even in a huge city such as Bangkok, one cannot escape the world of the small business man or woman; tiny shops line every street, and many stay open all night. Motor bikes with sidecars holding nothing more than cold soft drinks compete with noodle stands for Thai baht. The entrepreneurial spirit is not only alive, it is thriving. It is sometimes difficult to imagine how some of these shops manage to survive. However, as I learn more about Thai culture, I understand that the basis of business ownership is about simple survival, not about making a huge profit in order to buy a large house and two cars. Most of these folks make just enough to get by, and in Thailand, that is the main point. The man who sits next to his table on the sidewalk all day long, selling bananas at fifty cents a bunch seems as jovial at dusk as he does at dawn when he sets up. The photo shop owner, whom I awoke from a nap on his floor when I entered his small shop, may see only a few customers a day who buy a roll of film for 100 baht ($3). Sometimes I am the only customer in a barber shop for hours.

Of course, there are giants of capitalism here, as in any major city: Huge malls, multi-floor mega-discount stores and fast food icons. The difference, however, is the accessibility of the small shops. They line the streets of every neighborhood, so that they are not far from local consumers. In America, we rely so heavily on automobiles to take us to centralized shopping districts, that we must travel relatively long distances just to buy a loaf of bread. When was the last time I walked anywhere in the States to buy groceries? Only in those small towns and villages where I by chance lived near them. Here, no matter where one lives, it is but a short walk or bike ride to get most of the necessities for basic living

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Saturday Mornings in the Moobaan

On Saturday mornings, I generally arise by 6:00, as I haven’t figured out a way to get the message through to our cat Guido that there is a difference between the weekend and every other day when we get up by 5:00. Six o’clock is a luxury that I manage by ignoring his persistent cries outside the house until the garbage truck rolls by. The two together are just too much for me to sleep through. I do not need an alarm clock.

But, I have found that this is the best time to experience life in this Thai “village” of 10,000 souls (and who knows how many ancestral spirits). While Kat enjoys the opportunity to sleep in, I feed the pets and throw in a load of laundry, then hop on my bicycle and pedal a half-mile or so to the newspaper vendor to buy an English language daily, either the Bangkok Post or The Nation. I ride through layers of different flower blossom fragrances that float on the heavy humid air, their sweetness enhanced by the lingering effects of the rain t
hat came a few hours before dawn.

As I leave my “soi” and approach the main street through the moobaan, few human sounds are heard—the birds are stirring, and the morning dog ritual of howls, snarls and yips can be heard. An occasional cigarette cough or scuffling of flip-flops float through from behind the hedges, but otherwise it has the sleepy feel of the weekend. As I ride toward the village center, I see sidewalk vendors readying their grills, smoke waftin
g above the street as patrons wait patiently for their breakfast. A few cars pass me as I silently sail by closed shop fronts.

Nearing the newspaper vendor, I see saffron-robed monks walking barefoot along the street, following their daily path to receive alms and give blessings. A man kneels on the sidewalk in prayer with his gift for the monk, who stands before him chanting. A toddler standing on the rear passenger pad of a bike, her arms around her father’s neck, instinctively presses her palms together in the “wai,” a sign of respect as they pass a monk. The heady smell of incense curls from spirit houses as offerings are left for ancestors.

I pay for the paper and ride on to the main shopping street, and as I approach, the sights and sounds intensify until I am in the center where there is a bustling as people hurry to buy the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and breads from sidewalk vendors or open air grocery stores. I finally arrive at my ultimate destination, the center of modern Thai society: 7 Eleven, the 24 hour convenience store. Known by Thais simply as “seVEN,” (emphasis on syllable two) it is the most common store in Thailand; one sees them virtually everywhere. To illustrate the ubiquitous nature of the store chain, there are two within a block of each other on the street. I withdraw money from the ATM outside the store, then go inside to get milk, pay the utility bill, and buy a phone card (I have learned that one may also pay for plane tickets here). This early weekend ritual adds to my enjoyment of living in the “moobahn,” and I linger just a bit to take it all in before retuning home to sit under the tree, sip coffee, and read about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

White Quest

Wandering the aisles of the local supermarket, I came across a section of personal products that promotes a physical attribute desired in the tropics: White skin. Many Thais avoid direct sunlight as much as possible (shielding their face with umbrellas, purses, newspapers and if nothing else is handy, their hands), as it is fashionable to have light skin. Dark-skinned Thais are considered “country” or “outdoor” people, which indicates a sort of class-consciousness: Working indoors reflects a higher status job than working in the sun. Models have exceptionally light skin, which helps drive the desire for a lighter dermis.

The supermarket shelves stock such items as Healthy White Lotion, Whitening Sun Protection, UV Whitening Milk Repair, Whitening Cream, Nivea Bye-Bye Melanin, Pond’s Flawless White Facial Foam, Whitening Deep Repair (for men), and for the ecologically-minded shopper, Tea Tree Natural Whitening Complex.

We humans are so humorous in our quest for what we consider the ultimate physical appearance. Next to the whitening lotions and creams are the “Protective Tanning” oils—for westerners, of course, who want to be darker like the Thais.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Urban Wildlife

I find that foreigners either enjoy the company of geckos (known as “jink-jokes” in Thailand) or are repelled by the idea of having them share an abode (Thais naturally coexist with the little creatures). Coming from a temperate climate where lizards are rare, we welcome the mosquito-eating reptiles that scurry from behind picture frames or plants to gulp down the annoying insects, but have to admit that it is rather disconcerting to find the severed tail of one on the couch or in the jaws of the cat.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Religion and Politics

Imagine if you will, a front page story in your capital city press, in which it is reported that “Lately, many astrological forecasts have spelled trouble” for your national leader (president/prime minister), and that “at social functions, the prime minister hands out tokens of a Buddha image known as ‘defeating the enemies.’”

As the Thai PM struggles with low morale in the face of mounting calls for his ouster, the press reports (on page one no less) that in the past, a well-known astrologer said that “the stars showed that he would find himself in great trouble and it is highly likely that he could lose his position as prime minister.” Upset by the forecast, the PM “was seen attending a ceremony worshipping Bahu, the god of darkness.”

This may seem quite odd to those who are not familiar with Chinese astrology, but then again, what religion does not have strange beliefs as viewed by others? Being from the U.S. where the founders wanted to ensure the separation of church and state, I am weary of the very common practice of political leaders claiming the moral high ground due to religious beliefs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thai Heat

Living in this tropical city requires a shift in the way one thinks about errands. Bangkok is the world’s hottest city, and with its high humidity, it is simply impossible to make a “to do” list. If the list is any longer than two entries, upon returning to the house, one simply collapses into a whimpering soggy blob.

On a rare day off (akin to a “snow day” except this was for a state of emergency called by the prime minister), I decide to “get lots of things done.” I should know better.

After repotting some outdoor plants and hanging newly framed photos around the house, I remove the laundry from the washing machine and hang it out to dry. A new faculty member wondered why there are no electric dryers in any of the homes; not only does it take longer than simply hanging them on a rack, it also costs money! Despite staying in the shade and the use of two fans, I take my second shower of the day, a simple rinse in cool water straight from the water tank. I rarely use air conditioning, and am not sure why exactly. Maybe it is because I am in and out so frequently that it doesn’t seem practical. But I also feel that a fan cools me sufficiently. There is also something rather exotic and a bit sensual about the Thai heat: With windows open, I can enjoy the birds, the soft jingle of wind chimes in the tree and the rumble of thunder as a storm approaches. Or, maybe I’m just cheap, although I like to think that by resisting air conditioning I am reducing my carbon footprint on the environment.

I pedal my bicycle to the main road just outside the moobahn entrance and stop at a furniture shop that is a simple structure: Awnings cover an array of beautiful handmade chairs, tables, and desks. I buy a rosewood coffee table, which will be delivered today along with the small hardwood table we are having made for our spirit house to sit on. I check in with my friend Marc, who is on his way to have breakfast, so I travel a few blocks to a western-style café that serves a wicked good omelette, and have a mocha “frappacino” while waiting. As do most restaurants, the café has two types of seating; indoor and out. I choose indoors where it is air conditioned, not because I prefer it, but I know that Marc does. Coming from Arizona, he suffers from the humidity. Besides, it is nearing noon, the hottest time of day, and I can feel the sweat running down my spine.

After breakfast, I ride to a nearby grocery store, “Get It,” to—appropriately--get an ironing board to replace the small Asian-style board that we inherited. I am simply too tall to iron comfortably on such a board. Not only do I buy the board, but the cashier rewards my patronage with two free gifts: Laundry detergent (I had just bought some along with the board), and a pack of Oreos. I suddenly realize what a fantastic trick it would be to ride my bike back home while attempting to balance a full sized ironing board. I stand in the street with, I suppose, a rather bewildered look on my face, trying to size up the situation. Do I walk the bike the entire mile in this heat? Do I lock the bike up and flag a taxi, then return for the bike later? Not wishing to give in to flagrant western whining about inconveniences, and with a bit of stubbornness, I decide to use a bungee cord to strap the board to the handlebar edgewise so it is more or less balanced, grasp the board under my right arm, and, with a bit of anxiety, wobble off toward home, keenly aware of traffic behind me, but the drivers seem aware of my predicament and give me a wide berth as they pass.

Once home, I fumble with the board as I try to dismount. A gardener notices my quandary and hurries to help me so I am able to get the bike and ironing board through the gate. Dripping wet, I put the board into the laundry room and set it up. It is then I realize that the legs are not even…the board wobbles erratically. With a heavy sigh, I contemplate what anyone would do in America: Return to the store and demand a replacement. But as I stand there in the heat, sweat running into my eyes, and a thunderstorm fast approaching, I think of what that would mean in terms of effort. I shrug, fold a piece of paper four times and shove it under the short leg and say to myself, “What the hell…it’s Thailand,” and go inside for my third—and not to be last--shower of the day.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Unrest in Bangkok

After several days of impasse, police fired on demonstrators around government offices in Bangkok, killing at least one. The Prime Minister, whom the protesters want out of office, has declared a state of emergency. Rumor has it that the military has taken control of the situation.

Kat's school closed today, as did about 400 other schools in the city. Ours is still open (9:29 AM Bangkok time). We are in no immediate danger, as we are many miles away from the situation. Bangkok is a huge city, covering over 2,000 square miles, larger than Rhode Island, and we are far out near the city limits. None of this is affecting us.

We are fine, and expect to stay that way. This happens every so often in Thailand, with generally little harm to anyone. It is unfortunate that there was violence--this is unusual here. Let's hope that's the end of it.