Sunday, May 30, 2010

If You're Going to Order Coffee... might as well be entertained while it is being made! Weekend market, Saphan Sung, Summakorn Village, Bangkok.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Laundry day

A fence is a handy drying rack for tablecloths. Luang Prabang, Lao PRC.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Live in Thailand

Here are my top ten. What would YOU add?

10. Animism, Hinduism and Buddhism interweave into a culture that is gentle, accepting and friendly.
9. You never have to check the weather: T-shirt, shorts, flip flops all year round.
8. Taxi drivers are happy with a 60 cent tip.
7. You can never NOT be near a Thai restaurant.
6. Grocery store clerks "wai" you (Pay respect with palms pressed together) for buying a carton of milk.
5. Noodle carts are considered part of the traffic flow.
4. Beaches!
3. "Traffic" can be used as an excuse for anything.
2. You draw more attention than an elephant.
1. You never have to pay for a steam bath!

Add your own!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Attitude Street

An informational sign in Hong Kong that really tells you where to go!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ancient Serenity

A peaceful scene in the ancient capital in Thonburi, on the grounds of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) near Bangkok.

Bangkok Burning

There is a feeling of helplessness and despair in Bangkok. A pall of smoke from buildings torched by retreating "red shirts" blankets this usually happy, bustling metropolis as the Thai army today invaded their stronghold in the downtown financial center. Friends use the word "sad" to describe their feelings about what has happened to this tourist mecca known as "The Land of Smiles," and Thais are uncharacteristically grim. It's a word that once was rarely uttered about this beautiful country, but now seems fitting.

For more than three years there has not been a stable government, and the polarization resulting from political infighting has rocked this country where saving face is normally deeply woven into its cultural fabric. What has happened? I'm only a visitor, but from what I've seen in my five years as a resident, it seems to stem a great deal from two things: far too many people in Thailand are much poorer than need be in this relatively rich developing country. Add to that a greater awareness of this discrepancy by the poor enhanced by media reports and cell phone communication, and the country was ripe for such a series of devastating events.

When the generally well educated elite realized that former prime minister Thaksin was corrupt and immoral, they organized demonstrations to remove him and put pressure on the government to outlaw his political party. Successfully taking over the international airport and closing it for a week was enough to effect change. Is it any surprise, then, that the opposition party, composed largely of rural poor and urban blue collar workers who supported Thaksin did the same to downtown Bangkok? No doubt they were certain of success as well, as the government seemed powerless to stop them. Bankrolled by Thaksin and other wealthy Thais, the red shirts grew more confident by the day, as the government seemed unsure of what to do. But when tourism dollars began to shrink, and wealthy business owners saw their shopping malls and banks shut down, it was obvious that the government had to do something to shore up its image.

With neither side willing to compromise, the stage was set for disaster, and when the tanks rolled in today, the nightmare got worse. The army got what it wanted: the shopping district is now under army control, but at a huge expense. The second largest shopping mall in Asia is burning, as are TV stations and shops. People have died, and the red shirts have dispersed, presumably to all parts of the country. Despite his central role in this terrible two months, Thaksin may be right when he said, "
A military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas." A desperate prime minister used the only tool he thought left to him, that of military violence against his own people. And I fear that the resulting resentment will linger for quite some time as it has in so many other countries where police or military use force against a stubborn group of angry citizens. This resentment could spawn far worse events than what has happened lately, and for a long time.

At the moment, I feel very different about the country that I have come to love and consider my second home, in many ways similar to the disappointment I feel about my home country where people have fallen prey to fear mongering and xenophobia, resulting in near hysteria concerning various issues. Perhaps there is a connection in all of this, a strand running through many countries of the world. It's a strand of distrust, and most of it is not a product of reason, but rather unchecked emotion, whose flames are fanned by those who care little about the people they use for the fuel.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bangkok Red Shirt Standoff Continues

Today by order of the Thai Ministry of Education, all schools within Bangkok must close for the rest of the week. For me, it means that our instructional days at the high school are finished; for the middle and elementary schools, they will continue next week as usual. Our high school exams will begin Monday, rather than this Friday. Online lessons and reviews have been posted by high school teachers, and the International Baccalaureate seniors are still required to come take their exams. It puts such an awkward spin on the end of year routine: Graduation has had to change its venue, and the last week of instruction or reviews are left hanging with final exams upcoming. Our faculty is required to be at school to work on report comments and, if not giving a final exam, to post final grades. For me it means I might actually finish marking all of my lab reports. Kat's school, however, is not within Bangkok, so does not have to abide by the mandate.

An ultimatum deadline by the government for the demonstrators to evacuate their last stronghold came and went yesterday. Apparently, behind the scenes negotiations have been ongoing, and now both parties have agreed to talk in hopes of ending the violence. A neutral senator has agreed to mediate. It remains to be seen whether it actually happens. People are weary of the demonstrations that have turned Bangkok into the opposite of its natural atmosphere of positive, smiling interactions, and tourism has decreased by a third.
Some colleagues who live downtown have not been able to go home for several days now. The red shirts are overwhelmingly seen in a negative light, and they are increasingly desperate and unorganized. In the land of "saving face," the best solution will be, if possible, one that is win-win, and one that takes no more lives.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bangkok Unrest

Lately, we have been getting messages from friends stateside about the media reports that use words like "War zone," "anarchy," and "civil war" to describe the crack down on protesters in Bangkok. One relative suggested that we "grab the nearest weapon and get to the airport!" Kat, in an aside to me dryly noted that the only knife she needed was one to butter her croissant. While I certainly do not wish to downplay the seriousness of the situation a la Marie Antoinette, we are fine. It is a strange phenomenon: Citizens are concerned, of course, but despite what one might think, that everyone is locking themselves indoors or huddling around TV sets, that simply isn't the case. One would not have a clue that anything out of the ordinary was happening by the looks of things where we live: everyone is just carrying on normal routines. I went to a party last night downtown (No, not in or even near the "fire zone"), Kat is at a beach resort with girlfriends, and the weekend market was bustling as usual. But, there isn't much else anyone can do anyway.

While the violence is confined to a small area of Bangkok (about 1 sq. mile--Bangkok is about 620 square miles in size), and about 20 miles from where we live, we know that it can spread, so we stay tuned into news reports on the computer, the US Embassy reports to our email addresses and of course by our friend cell phone network.

The prime minister has ordered that all schools in Bangkok close tomorrow, and while no one is sure if that applies to non-Thai schools, my school, as well as many other international schools will not be open, just in case. This of course is for the safety of students and faculty who live or travel downtown to get to school. We may not have school for a longer period, but that won't be known until tomorrow at the earliest. That gives me more time to grade lab reports.
Kat's school is not in Bangkok, so it will stay open. As a colleague at another school that is staying open noted wryly, "If any kids are shot on their way to school, at least it will be for a good cause!"

This is a problem for us, as seniors are taking their final exams, and the rest of the students begin theirs on Friday. The seniors are expected to take theirs, as most are externally graded internationally. I assume all schools with students in the International Baccalaureate or AP programs will still give their exams. Who knows? Maybe we will get an early summer break. At least the airport is open. Last time it was the other political party ("yellow shirts") that closed it down. The red shirts instead want to disrupt the elite hotels and business district with all the big malls. And they have, big time.

It's anyone's guess how this will all end. It has no precedent here in terms of the strategies used by the protesters and the government. It will likely change how urban resistance is played out in the future, at least in Thailand, but possibly elsewhere. The British found out about fighting an enemy that didn't play by the rules of war during the American revolution, as did the Bush administration when it declared "mission accomplished" before getting mired down in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll see what the Thais have learned from history as well. Perhaps they are in the process of adding another chapter to the futility of war.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tastes Like Chicken

These unfortunate amphibians will likely end up on the grill by the end of the day. Local weekend market, Summakorn Village, Bangkok.

Life in the tropics: The International Teacher- A New eBook

Life in the tropics: The International Teacher- A New eBook
Check out this online book for educators who are considering a career teaching overseas!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Take Your Pick

In Thailand it's considered impolite to dislodge food particles from one's teeth without hiding the toothpick and the user's teeth. Thais and acclimated foreigners sit in restaurants after a meal with one hand covering the manipulating hand and the diner's teeth while the cleaning is in progress. Unenlightened visitors not only pick at teeth in the open,even with their fingers, but also then keep the pick in their mouth for a time afterward. Thais disapprove, but politely dismiss the cultural taboo as the product of a person lacking in manners or education.

While discreet covering of the mouth is the norm, nose picking and expectorating seem to be national pastimes. It is not at all unusual to see businessmen in suits or grandmothers minding their shops busily mining their nasal passages, or mightily hacking up half their mucous lining to be spat unceremoniously into a flower pot, the street, or if in a hurry, simply ejected onto the sidewalk, where along with dog scat and bird droppings, it becomes part of a bacterial minefield for pedestrians.

How interesting our cultural norms are; accepted in once place while frowned upon in another corner of the world!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cavemen in Asia?

Interesting interpretation of the Ramayana mythology, painted on a temple wall in Laos.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tropical fall

Even in Thailand, leaves fall and lend color to the landscape. Koh Hai.

Monday, May 3, 2010

New Candidate for Most Spoiled Child

A few months ago, I described here what was then the most spoiled child I had ever known. As of today, I must revise that and hand the award to another young person. Earlier this evening, Kat pointed out a scene that stopped me dead in my tracks. A young girl, approximately four years old, was on a bicycle with training wheels. Preceding her was a nanny who pulled the bicycle with a rope. Next to the child walked another nanny, holding a small tray on which sat a cup of yogurt. Every few steps the first nanny stopped pulling, which allowed nanny #2 to scoop some yogurt into the child's gaping baby bird-like maw. I didn't want to stare, but couldn't help it. Nothing in my 60+ years of existence on this planet, and nearly 40 years of teaching could help me think through any possible reasoning a parent might have that would set this practice into motion. Can you?

Barbershop Quartet

Makeshift barber shop at Hua Lumpong railway station, Bangkok.