Khon Kaen

So I haven’t written an entry in a couple of days. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything or even that they haven’t been fun things. I’ve been in Khon Kaen. While I’d be lying if I said that it was the vacation destination location of the year, it ended up being very nice and, in fact, I think I could safely say that it has been my favorite location thus far.

While Bangkok has its charms and the majesty and drama of the Wats rival anything I’ve ever seen, this glimpse into the daily lives of a couple tens of thousands of students at Khon Kaen University has been great! I’ve really enjoyed meeting friends of Emily…some of her students…even a missionary from the church that publishes my favorite podcasted sermons! Plus…I got to rent a motorbike! Yes, you read right, my 5 year two-wheeled drought has finally lifted. We zoomed around the streets around the university like nobody’s business. Not to worry, though, when it came time to go to the other side of town, we took a Sawntau (truck-bus thing) rather than risk our necks on the lively streets of a Thai city…wisely so, as it turns out. The streets around the university were like a ghost town compared to the streets once we got in town (it was finals-time for the students, so there wasn’t a lot of activity).

Something that impressed me greatly was the openness and generosity of the students. Unlike America where open and active friendships between instructors and current students are discouraged, they are encouraged at KKU. I found that the students were wonderfully open and loving people, eager to meet me and practice their English. Not only that, though, but at any point whenever the two NAU teachers need help or advice or company, they’re bound to find at least one of their students who is willing to throw out any plans they had at the time and jump into the situation with a gusto! This was especially evident to me with the help that we received when renting and returning the motorbike.

Anyway, my time in Khon Kaen was somewhat uneventful…peaceful and slow compared to the business of Bangkok. I got to:
• Try Lao food (which, to my untrained tastebuds, is suspiciously similar to Thai food)
• Forage for something resembling a western breakfast at 7 Eleven
• Negotiate a fare with a tuk tuk driver just to have him stop and admit to us he had no idea where we wanted to go
• Discover a taste for Som Tham (I’ll be learning how to make that one, so gimme some time before asking about it, hopefully I’ll be able to share the experience).
• Read about the legends of Hanuman while waiting for Emily to grade papers

I think the only thing I didn’t get to do was try homemade coconut ice cream. Apparently it’s an experience that isn’t to be copied anywhere else. I’m no so convinced, but we’ll see.

Khon Kaen

Dave and I spent our last 3-4 days in Khon Kaen. I had to work, so Dave came to the office with me every day. After work we rode around on a rented motorbike, watched tv, and went to all of the restaurants I like. Dave got to meet many of my students and most of my coworkers. It was a lot of fun to show Dave around.

Dave said yesterday that he liked Khon Kaen better than Bangkok. I have a renewed appreciation for Khon Kaen as well. The people here are great. In Bangkok we had to be suspicious of anyone who was being too friendly. Here, everyone is friendly and they aren’t trying to scam us! The pace of life here is pretty relaxing too.

We’re leaving for Phuket today. I’m excited about Phuket, but I’m getting sick.

American Cuisine

A guest entry from Dave

I know, I know…I’m in Thailand, what am I doing writing about american food???

Well…for the longest time Emily has said that her greatest craving is for Mexican food. So, on Sunday, we decided to go to the Hard Rock Cafe because we heard they had good nachos. After wandering Siam Square a bit to find the place (it was tucked back a little ways) we finally found it.

Sitting down, the restaurant was a breath of fresh air. The environment was familiar, rock music was playing, and the menu was unthreatening. We finally settled on a plate of nachos and shared a bacon cheeseburger. The food arrived and it all looked soooo good. The tortilla chips were mildly overcooked…just the way that Emily and I like them. The cheese was crispy and oozed goodness…the oil from the cheese forming a pool on the plate, upon which the nachos rested. The bacon cheeseburger had wheat bread, grilled with butter on the burger-facing side. The bacon was just right (a rarity here in Thailand) and the meat was almost like what you would find in the US.

If you look at my pictures of Thailand, you’ll notice a day missing from the narrative. That day happened to coincide with our trip to Hard Rock Cafe. After only 3 days in Thailand (for me), all of that grease and fat and junk hit us like a Mack truck. We weren’t exactly sick…neither of us felt nauseous or made frantic runs to the bathroom; but following our meal, all we could do was grab a taxi, go back to our hotel room, turn on a movie, and flop on the bed to recover. I can’t speak for Emily on this, but I could feel the coating of grease as it made its way through my digestive tract (gross, I know!). It wasn’t until that evening that we were able to rouse ourselves and wander down to the lobby of the hotel change the view just a little bit.

It was that day that we decided that we want to take cooking classes and cook for ourselves in America. The very next day we bought a Thai cooking book so that I can study and practice for when Emily comes back.

King and Hero

A guest entry by Dave

The current King of Thailand (Bhumibol Adulyadej) has been on the throne since 1946. He is higly regarded for his artistic endeavours as an accomplished jazz musician. You can find his CDs at all music stores here. He is regarded as a great man and a wonderful leader.

I read all of these things before coming to Thailand but didn’t really understand the depth of those feelings in Thailand until I came here. You’ll notice the color yellow in many of the pictures that I’ve taken during my time in Thailand. The Thais have a color associated with each day of the week and the King was born on a Monday. Thus, the King’s color is yellow. The crown prince and heir was born on a Monday as well. Talk about lucky!

Anyway, everywhere you go, you’ll see pictures of the King or small shrines built in his honor. The military tied yellow ribbons to their guns and tanks to indicate loyalty to the King during the coup. Yellow shirts with the King’s seal are almost the de-facto mode of attire…you can’t go wrong with the color yellow! Thais will typically wai (sign of respect) images of the King as they pass by.

It is illegal to disrespect the King or any of his images. Travellers beware! You do so at great personal peril as not only will the authorities want to have a word with you, but you’re likely to run afowl of the general citizen as well!

Of Coups and Men

A guest entry from Dave:

So I promised an entry on the coup and here it is! I found out the morning that I was due to leave Flagstaff to start my journey here to Thailand about the coup. Of course, it was a little disconcerting that the very same day that I was due to travel to a country, the military would seize control! I was lucky enough to be bringing a work laptop with me so at each layover I would connect to the internet and see what the news sites and the US embassy had to say about the situation (I’d just like to say that the embassy was extremely slow to put any information on their site and it was usually two stages out of date). In particular I found that, when I reached Taipei, there were a large number for westerners (and I include Australians in that) that were desparate for information…I became very popular very quickly!

So anyway, I reached Thailand knowing that the coup was going very smoothly and feeling pretty comfortable that the military was doing everything in its power to keep the peace. Of course, I was a little nervous, never having been in the midst of a coup before, but I wasn’t particularly worried. Arriving in the airport, I don’t think I saw any soldiers. Other than brief glimpses as we drove to the hotel, we didn’t see any soldiers until Emily and I went to Siam Square (a shopping district with 4 malls). Having grown up in the military, it didn’t feel particularly weird to see a small group of soldiers standing off to the side, holding their M-16 rifles at ease. What surprised us, though, was that so many of the Thai people were walking up to the soldiers and taking pictures with them. On the base you left guarding soldiers alone! Many of the soldiers seemed very young and enjoyed the attention, though. This, more than anything else, helped us to be very comfortable with the situation here.

On Saturday we wanted to go to Viman Mek Teak Mansion (amazingly beautiful, by the way) and our tuk tuk driver dropped us off outside a Wat whose name I don’t remember anymore (we didn’t go inside). Honestly, I think we made our driver mad when we wouldn’t let him take us to a scam, but that’s a different story. Anyway, there were a couple of tanks outside the Wat and tourists, both Thai and Farang, milling around everywhere. It had the feeling of a parade or exhibition! People were posing with the soldiers all over the place, taking pictures, and generally treating it as an attraction in and of itself.

That has really been our our experience with the coup. The Throne Hall picure gallery shows some pictures of soldiers outside the throne hall posing with a number of tourists, including some really cute scenes of children with the soldiers.

As a side note, Emily and I were watching BBC World News last night and they had a piece about the coup. They had a news correspondent standing in front of the throne hall by tanks we had seen just a couple of days before. The tanks had been cleaned of the flowers and signs and all the tourists had been cleared out of the shot. The scene that they manufactured looked a lot more menacing and scary than the reality of the situation. It was a sobering reminder of what business the news companies are actually in and the simple fact that they’re not always objective in their coverage of events.

Back in Khon Kaen

Dave and I flew from Bangkok to Khon Kaen today. I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to coming back to Khon Kaen. I really enjoyed spending time in Bangkok. I loved having a bathroom with a bathtub in it and I loved not dealing with ants. More than that, it was great to not have to work hard at communication. I was amazed at how many people in Bangkok speak English. I really didn’t need to speak any Thai at all. I got confused looks every time I tried to speak in Thai. I eventually stopped trying altogether.

Now that I’m back in Khon Kaen, I’m happy to be here. It was fun to show Dave around KKU and introduce him to my friends and students. We arranged to meet many of my students for dinner tonight at J-Pon. Everyone was excited to talk with David. They had a lot of questions! Dave also got to try some good som tam. He said he really liked the food tonight. It was better than the food we got in Bangkok, and it was A LOT cheaper! Each of our meals cost about 50 cents.

Dave also rented a motorbike for our stay in Khon Kaen. We drove a little bit around campus. It was fun!

Sounds of Buddhism

A guest entry from Dave:

So, I have to say that Wat Pho has definately been my favorite destination thus far. Wat Phra Kaew was beautiful and spectacular but it had a feeling of a major tourist destination. In contrast, Wat Pho felt much more authentic and serene. The experience started with the reclining Buddha. You kind of walk around it in a U shape, starting with the head facing you and walking around the feet and exiting by the back of the head. As we walked in, there was a strange ticking noise and I thought it might be the Buddha expanding with the increasing heat of the day, but as we walked around the feet I found out what the noise was. There’s a series of many jars along the wall and people will walk along, dropping a single 0.5 baht coin in each jar. I haven’t verified this with anybody, but I assume that it is a Buddhist actvity to make merit. From there we just wandered around. What Pho is an active temple and, I’m told, massage school. We chose to pass up on a massage, but it was interesting because some of the statues we thought were dirty were simply illustrating massage techniques.

My favorite thing alltogether had to have been the chanting. We walked through a small courtyard and found a temple with a golden Buddha in it. Outside a group of nuns were chanting. I have no idea what they were saying or what purpose it served, but it was easy to be entranced and charmed by the peace and authenticity of the moment. I didn’t get any pictures of the nuns because I didn’t want to interfere with what they were doing, but I’ve attached a short video of it. It’s kind of big because I don’t have any way to compress the video here, but I think it’s worth it…

Wat Pho Video

Our Bangkok Activities

We’ve been keeping pretty busy in Bangkok! Dave arrived on Thursday afternoon, and we went to an aquarium on Thursday evening. The aquarium is in a shopping mall near our hotel. We weren’t expecting much, but it turned out to be a good aquarium! They have penguins, sharks, otters, etc.

The next day we decided to hit a couple of wats (temples). We visited Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is one of the king’s residences. It was built in 1782, when the capitol of Thailand was moved from Ayuttaya to Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew is the temple inside the palace grounds. It has many beautiful buildings and sculptures. One of the buildings houses the emerald Buddha, which is a small buddha sculpture made of jade.

From Wat Phra Kaew, we walked through the amulet market in search of a restaurant. We turned our noses up at every one! Finally we found an indoor, air conditioned restaurant that looked clean. We ordered som tam because I really wanted Dave to try it. Unfortunately, the som tam had A LOT of shrimp in it. Dave hates shrimp.

We also visited Wat Pho, a temple that has a very large reclining Buddha. Dave & I agree that Wat Pho was the best part of our Bangkok trip so far. Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace were very busy. There were tourists everywhere and it was a little stressful. There weren’t many people at Wat Pho. It was very peaceful. Also, there was a large group of Buddhist nuns outside singing.

The next day we visited Viman mek Mansion, which is a huge golden teak mansion. It is also one of the king’s residences. It sounds like the king & queen still use it. The guide told us that the queen was there the night before we visited. The grounds of Viman Mek also had an elephant museum, a cloth museum, photographs, a clock museum, etc. The elephant museum wasn’t as interesting as it sounds. Still, Viman Mek was beautiful, and it was a really nice day.

You can see pictures of our Bangkok adventures here: http://www.munra.net/photos/main.php?g2_itemId=2104

Taxi & Tuk-Tuk Driver Scams

If you’ve read Dave’s post, you already know that Dave & I both made it Bangkok safely and found each other at the airport. I found out last Wednesday that the new airport was already open for some domestic flights. I knew Dave’s plane would land at the old airport, but I had no idea where my plane would land. I read that transportation is a major problem at the new airport because taxis aren’t allowed on the land yet. I was envisioning myself landing at the new airport and having no way of getting to the old airport to meet Dave. Luckily, my flight landed at the old airport. I was so happy to see those old, dirty buildings!

My friend Wallapha gave me a ride to the airport in Khon Kaen. I was expecting her to try to talk me out of going to Bangkok, but instead she told me that I was extremely lucky to go to Bangkok at this time. She said Bangkok would be very safe because theives wouldn’t dare stealing from tourists with so many soldiers around! She was right that there was nothing to worry about. Bangkok feels very safe and the soldiers are actually really friendly! Dave wants to write about the coup later, so I won’t write about our experiences with tanks and soldiers now.

I do want to write about the taxi & tuk-tuk driver scams we’ve encountered. We read about common scams in Lonely Planet. The most common one is that someone tells you that the attraction you’re visiting is closed and then offers to take you somewhere else, usually a store. This happens to us at least 4 times a day. Usually it is by our taxi & tuk-tuk drivers. We tell them where we want to go and they tell us that the place is closed. Usually they say that the site/museum/restaurant/shopping mall is closed because of the coup. They then offer to take us somewhere else to do some shopping. We always say no, but we had a misunderstanding with a taxi driver today. I wanted to go to the Hard Rock Cafe for some nachos. The taxi driver said that it wouldn’t open until 6. He offered to take us to another restaurant near Hard Rock Cafe. He ended up taking us to a seafood restaurant that was nowhere near Hard Rock Cafe. We had him drop us off at a shopping center across the street from Hard Rock Cafe. On the way, someone asked us where we were going and said that the Hard Rock Cafe wouldn’t open until 2 pm. We finally arrived at the restaurant and it was open. The nachos were delicious too!

Traffic in Bangkok

A guest blog entry from David:

First of all, I’d just like to apologize to everybody for not keeping you in the loop. As you can tell, I made it here all safe and sound, no problems at all. I’ll write about the coup and conditions here in Thailand later but, for the time being, suffice to say that life here seems to be as per normal.

A couple of years ago I visited my parents in Italy, they’ll attest to the fact that the first time I saw three Italian cars share two lanes, I was amazed. Well…the naievete of that reaction is heavy upon me now!

Traffic in Bangkok is…hectic. The thing that amazes me, though, is that it works so well…as we ride along, people are splitting 3 lanes with 5 cars and 3 motorbikes! Motorbikes will slip between cars, trucks, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis) willy-nilly. So many times I thought a motorbike was just about to get squished between two vehicles and I was going to witness a grisly reminder of how much better things are in America — yet they always squeezed through and everything’s good! Truth be told, it actually gets kind of fun! Like watching a demolition derby, but you’re rooting for the cars to miss each other instead. The odd thing is that I’ve never felt scared or unsure that we or anybody else would survive on the roads…until…

…last night we caught a cab from MBK (a local super-mall) back to the hotel and caught a ride with a cab. This guy drove a taxi but like a tuk-tuk driver (in Emily’s words) he was jerking and weaving. Emily and I shared a lot of nervous glances to one another, lemme tell you! His manual-transmission skills were…limited. Just when I thought that we’d rolled the dice enough times and we were sure to take out one of those hapless motorbikes, we pulled into the hotel…