Paul in Bangkok

After Paul's Pre-Journal

August 1-5, 2001

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

I was born in North America. About six years later, when the S/S Stavangerfjord arrived in Norway, StavangerfjordI experienced my second continent. Today, after a span of another 40 years, I finally logged Continent Number Three when Korean Air Flight 62 landed at Incheon Airport near Seoul.

Incheon Airport is brand new: It just opened in late April of this year. They built it with a great deal of capacity: Its single terminal building is the largest one in the world. Our 747 had a great approach path for viewing: We did a fly-by, then circled around and came in over the water for a landing. IncheonICN has so much excess capacity at this point, it appears to be practically a ghost airport. Just a few aircraft are scattered among the many gates; inside the terminal building, only a few people wander through the cavernous corridors.

I walked through those corridors from the gate to the KAL lounge. I needed to find out whether my reservation mix-up had been resolved for the next portion of my flight! Because of the language difference, I had some difficulty communicating my concerns to the agent. Everything looked fine to her, and she didn't understand what I was worried about: I had a ticket and a boarding pass. Of course, I now knew that wasn't enough on KAL! Eventually, after tapping on her keyboard, she understood: Despite my boarding pass, I did not have a reservation on Flight 651 to Bangkok. My by-now sleepy heart sank as she described how full the flight was, and how they didn't have room to put more people on it.1

They advised me that I would have to wait until the plane boarded, and then there might be an extra seat, so I decided to check out the lounge's computer room. This was quite nice! There were nine workstations, all with high-speed Internet access and 19-inch flat screen monitors. I Telnetted into my New York account and advised Alf that I might or not arrive in Bangkok at 19:45 ... the next flight was scheduled to arrive at 23:45. As it happened, he was online at the time, so he wrote right back to confirm receipt of this ambiguous news.

At boarding time, an empty seat magically appeared, and so I scurried down to Gate 19 to board.2

My flight to Bangkok was uneventful. We actually arrived about half an hour early, and I was through immigration, baggage claim and customs before we were even scheduled to land. Plainly, things had turned around: My difficulties were all behind me, and everything would be perfect from now on.

Alf and Watcharee were slightly delayed in traffic due to a couple of accidents (not involving them), but they phoned ahead to the Oriental's representative at the airport, and he was waiting for me with a sign (and calling out my name, to boot) as I exited the customs area. He took my bags to the door and we waited for the car from the Oriental. It and Alf and Watcharee arrived within just a few minutes. After all my traveling, it was great to see them!

1 It appeared to me that the entire current population of the Incheon terminal building would fit into a Boeing 747-400, but this was probably just an optical illusion.

2 While my stay at Incheon was fairly brief, I am expecting a six-hour layover there on my return trip. I will have plenty of time to explore its every nook and cranny at that time.

Thursday, August 2, 2001

The Bangkok Post brings culture news from home:

Purple Ketchup

The Colour Purple

You may have thought nothing could be more disgusting than last year's "Blastin' Green" ketchup. Wrong. The Heinz company now proudly presents: "Funky Purple" ketchup. Keri Allison was brave enough to try a bit on her fries at a Pittsburgh introduction. She says kids might like it, but to her, "It looks like crushed Barney," the annoying dinosaur.

Hmmm, I don't think I've seen any ketchup since I left Los Angeles. There were little tubes of pepper sauce on the KAL flights, though, and those were pretty similar. Nothing in Thailand yet.

It's my first full day in Bangkok, and there are places to go and things to see! First, though, The Oriental Breakfast in my room (along with some BBC and CNN and various newsy emails) helped start out the day. Then a little exploration ... and then Alf, Watcharee and I went with some of their friends at the hotel to The China House for a long lunch.

The China House is one of several of the Oriental Hotel's restaurants. It is located in a separate building right next door. As you might suspect, its fare is Chinese. During the first half of August, it's featuring Cantonese cuisine prepared by a visiting team of chefs from the Man Wah Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong (an affiliated establishment). Our special lunch was personally supervised by Henry Ho, the Man Wah's manager. He chatted with us for a while as the staff served us course after course of wonderfully delicious Dim Sum tidbits. There was a special emphasis on seafood, with a dazzling array of different preparation techniques. Our leisurely meal took about two hours.

In the late afternoon, we went to a nearby temple and its affiliated foundation. For transportation, we rode in a tuk-tuk. These vehicles are crazy, which makes them fit with Bangkok traffic perfectly. I never realized that Thailand does that "driving on the left side of the road" thing, but it nominally does. Of course, if there's a free lane on the right, it's fair game, too. Tuk-tuks, being considerably smaller than automobiles, are able to maneuver around and between with quick and abrupt cuts. Motorcycles, smaller still, engage in still more daring swerves. It's like being in the middle of a carnival ride. Miraculously, accidents do not occur every three seconds.

Most of these vehicles belch out huge clouds of smoke as they scoot recklessly through the city. The smallest vehicles (motorcycles) fire the most, with tuk-tuks trying to compete in the pollution derby. I suspect they must have regular emissions inspections here, where exhaust systems are adjusted to provide for maximum particulate output. Large numbers of people (especially those, like out tuk-tuk driver, who are on the streets all day) don surgical masks to keep the larger chunks of airborne hydrocarbons out of their lungs. Anyway, by the time we arrived at the foundation, we were ready for the smoke from the burning incense.

(This foundation does a lot of good work, and Alf and Watcharee visit it regularly and help support it.)

On our way back to the hotel (again via tuk-tuk), we stopped at a Chinese foot massage parlor. There we relaxed for an hour while skilled massage therapists beat us about the feet, neck and arms. Alf says this becomes addictive: He will sometimes go there several nights in a row, to relax before bedtime.

After a short stop in our rooms, we had dinner at a nearby (but off the beaten path) restaurant that featured a wide variety of Thai cuisines. I was startled by the clientele, which appeared to be largely Anglo-American. Apparently word recently got out about the great food and reasonable prices, thanks to a write-up in a Lonely Planet guidebook, and so now the place is not such a native secret anymore. Watcharee did the ordering for us, and everything was wonderful. Once again we had many different dishes ... although not as many as we had at lunch!

By the time dinner was over, it was 10:00 or so, and time to retire to our rooms. I stayed up a bit later than I should have, but it was fun watching the lights along the river.

Friday, August 3, 2001

The friendly invisible hand of fate kept us from going to Pantip Plaza yesterday. From today's Bangkok Post:1

Plaza in bomb scare

A bomb warning forced Pantip Plaza, the country's largest computer and CD centre, to shut down for two hours as police scoured the building for a hidden bomb. No explosive device was found, however. The bomb scare began when an anonymous caller rang up the centre saying a bomb had been planted inside the shopping centre on Phetchaburi road. Phaya Thai police and a bomb disposal team spent two hours searching all the five floors of the building but found no bomb.

Today, however, Alf and I were there. What a marvelous place!2 It is pure heaven for the technologically minded. Everything in the world is available there, and at prices that are just unbelievable. I picked up a bunch of software ... plus some contact lens solution (?). Alf bought several ink cartridges for his Epson printer.

The day began for me at 6:30. I felt wide awake at that time, although I do think I'm still running a bit behind on sleep. I don't notice any strange effects from the time difference; I've just got a little sleep deficit that began with my travels, and I haven't quite gotten back to normal with that yet.

After a fabulous fruit and croissant breakfast in my room, I went across the river for the first time. The Oriental has several facilities over there, too, including Sala Rim Naam (where I would later have lunch), the Thai Cooking School, the Oriental's Hotel School, the Oriental Spa, and the hotel's Sports Center. At the latter place, I spent a little time on the treadmill and the cross-trainer. It felt good to get my circulation going: The Bangkok heat and the hours of dining on wonderful foods need to be offset by some activity, I think. Alf arrived on the hotel boat as I was wandering around the grounds, snapping photos and about ready to cross back over the river.

Our afternoon trip to Pantip was sandwiched (good food metaphor) between meals at two of The Oriental's fine dining establishments. Alf and I had lunch at Sala Rim Naam, across the river. In the evening, we were joined by Watcharee for dinner at the outdoor Terrace downstairs on this side of the river. (She missed lunch with us because she had a driving lesson scheduled.3 Both restaurants serve a buffet, with a dizzying array of offerings. Lunch was all Thai; dinner offered a vast array of marvelous Thai offerings, but it was supplemented by Food Of Other Nations. Everything at both places was just delicious.

Just after we arrived at the Terrace (a bit after 7:30, and a slightly bigger bit after a short nap I'd taken), we had our first rainfall. Although this is monsoon season, it's been unusually dry here. The rain was pretty cool. It came suddenly, and diners who were not under the canvas canopy scrambled to move to other tables. As I understand it, the monsoonal rains don't usually come this late in the day, but the rain didn't seem to care.

My afternoon nap had been short, and I felt very tired when I got back to the room. After just a little bit of reading, I turned out the lights at about 10:15.

1 This very important story (for us, at least) was buried on page 4. The front page carried a story about a mystery solved.

2 Bangkok seems to be the most wonderful place in the world for an increasing number of things; I'm adding more to my list every day. The Oriental Hotel is far and away the most wonderful place I've ever stayed. Pantip Plaza is the most amazing market. And the food, in all of the places where we've gone, is astonishingly good. What next?!

3 I can't imagine learning to drive on the streets of Bangkok! The traffic is completely mad. Plus, she's learning on an old model car with a manual transmission. Hats off to her! With today's session, she has completed a 15-hour training program ... but she's planning to have a few more sessions before taking the test, just to be sure.

Saturday, August 4, 2001

Having gone to bed early last night, I found myself awake very early this morning. It's hard to languish in bed when another exciting day awaits, so I got out of bed and began my Saturday. It's great having the "exotic" papers -- the Post and the Herald-Tribune -- delivered here. I'm accustomed to the usual back-home broadsheets thumping against my door every morning, but the same old local Sun and New York Times have become pretty routine.

Today's news features Bangkok ... and not just in the Bangkok Post, where you'd expect that. Thaksin is HappyThe International Herald Tribune also leads1 with the story of Prime Minister Thaksin's acquittal (by the Constitutional Court's 8-7 vote) on corruption charges. There have been mixed feelings about this case locally. The Herald Tribune notes that many feel the decision is "a debilitating blow to democratic reform and the country's fledgling efforts to clean up its money-slicked political system." The Post, in a front page "Comment," opines that "a black cloud of uncertainty still hands over the rule of law under the new constitution," and it urges the judges to explain their decision. Post is Not So HappyOn the other hand, most Thais are apparently happy with the stability that comes from not tossing out the elected leader and having to start from scratch. A recent poll, taken during the pendency of the court case, gave him a 60% approval rating. The "Thais Love Thais" party that he formed won a landslide election earlier this year.

While I'm not completely up on this story, Thaksin's problems appear to have been created by his failure to disclose all of his financial assets in required candidate filings. Specifically, he apparently "forgot" about $232 million or so.2

This afternoon, we're planning to take a boat up the river so we can explore some of Bangkok's waterfront. I anticipate lots of photo opportunities that might be compromised by camera shake. Consider the blur to be "art," and we'll get along just fine. In the meantime, it's a nice quiet morning at the Oriental.

News Flash!

I just received an email from my friend Olivia, back in Washington, who has remembered something: After we had dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Saturday night, July 28, we put her "doggie bag" leftovers in the trunk of my car. We did not remember to remove them. They will have spent 17 days in the trunk by the time I return home ...

At lunch time today, Alf, Watcharee, and I were all engaged in various individual projects, so we wound up in separate places.3 I went to the Verandah, another of the Oriental's in-house restaurants. It offers a variety of options that sounded good, including (among a wide variety of other things) spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, and club sandwiches. I decided to stick with Thai food, however, and I had a very tasty seabass in a chili and lime sauce. I lingered for a bit, reading some pieces from the latest Economist, and then I came back up to my room. There, I actually caught the usually stealthy staff in the process of doing up my room. They finished quickly and were off.

Now it's 16:30, and in an hour we're planning to hop on our boat. The cooling effect of the water will be appreciated: It's presently about 94 degrees, with high humidity.4 After boating, we'll take the Sky Train downtown and visit a Suki restaurant for a little change of pace. More later ...

1 Thaksin does have to share the IHT's front page with a major story revealing that scientists have been mistaken about where dinosaurs' nostrils were really located on their faces.

2 According to Forbes Magazine, his net worth is approximately, $1.2 billion, so one can understand that it's hard to keep track of each baht. He made his money by operating Thailand's exclusive mobile phone network, under a monopoly power assigned to him through a government contract.

Thaksin's "I forgot" excuse is certainly better than that of a local murder suspect, as detailed in yesterday's Bangkok papers: He claimed that his wife's fatal injuries occurred when she fell down a flight of stairs in their home. The police discovered, however, that the home in question only had one story and hence no staircase.

3 Watcharee went for another two-hour driving session. It turns out these two hours are the ones that complete her 15-hour course ... although as previously noted, she is going to log some additional hours.

4 I've been adapting to the hot weather better than I expected. In western Washington, we don't have heat or humidity. (For that matter, we don't have cold or wind chill, either. Basically, aside from some fairly frequent drizzle, we don't have weather.) I do know that Bangkok can get hotter than it's been so far, however, and I imagine it probably will before I leave here.

Sunday, August 5, 2001

Apparently "feeling his oats" after his recent favorable ruling, Prime Minister Thaksin suggested yesterday that Thailand's Constitutional Court might have too much power. Although the court had declined to remove him from office, the very fact that it might have been able to do so troubled him.

Thaksin Shinawatra said during an informal meal with reporters that it was a mistake of Thailand's legal system to empower a few appointed people to decide the fate of an elected leader who won a majority in Parliament.

Echoing calls from within Thai Rak Thai party to amend the constitution and clip the wings of independent agencies, Mr Thaksin said that Thai laws had many "wrong aspects" that should be changed, particularly the checks and balances of government.

"It's strange that the leader who was voted by 11 million people had to bow to the ruling of the NCCC and the verdict of the Constitutional Court, two organisations composed only of appointed commissioners and judges, whom people did not have a chance to choose. ... In the USA, only a congressional process can impeach a president. This reflects a proper counterbalancing system, which Thailand doesn't have."1

Thaksin opponents are not going gentle into that good night:

Law experts yesterday blasted the fourt Constitutional Court judges who exonerated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on grounds that Article 295 could not be applied in his wealth cover-up trial. Montri Roopsuwan, a law lecturer at Ramkhenhaeng University and a former charter writer,2 said their reasoning was evidence that they were weak in law.

In other news, an unusual package was found in the trash at a Sky Train station last night. This did not happen to be one of the Sky Train stations we visited last night. The story, covered on page 2 of the Bangkok Post's front section, is unrelated to a story on the front page of the Outlook section.

Today we went upcountry to Ayutthaya. Up by bus, back by boat (the "Oriental Queen").

We gathered shortly before 8:00 in the Authors' Wing of the hotel. The Oriental runs this up-and-back trip daily, selling tickets to its guests as well as other Bangkok visitors. The very well-organized package is available in two versions: boat up and bus back, or bus up and boat back. We opted for the "bus up" version. GuideAfter a road trip of a bit more than an hour, we visited several historic sites and then headed for the pier to meet the Oriental Queen. The timing works perfectly, in that the combined bus ride and sightseeing span the same four hours that the boat journey takes. We trade places with the boat passengers, and as we drift down the river, they visit the sites we just saw and then return to the Oriental on the bus.

It being a Sunday morning, there was practically no traffic for the bus. As we left Bangkok, our knowledgeable and amusing guide told us a bit about the city and Thailand, and she gave us a preview of the day's events. The accommodations for our ride were quite nice, with very effective air conditioning, and even a "happy room" in the back of the bus. Our little trio had even more deluxe arrangements, as Watcharee had most thoughtfully prepared some Thai snacks with which she surprised us between stops.

Our first stop was at the former royal palace at Ayutthaya. Ruins at AyutthayaThis had been the capital from the 14th through the 18th centuries, until the Burmese destroyed it in 1767. The ruins were amazing! Alf and I were both snapping photos so fast, the batteries in our respective cameras threw in the towel about halfway through the tour of the site. We were able to capture enough to convey the flavor, however ... at least to the extent that such a place can be captured in a still, two-dimensional medium.

We proceeded to another site, off Ayutthaya Island but still in the now-expanded city of Ayutthaya. There we saw a very large reclining Buddha, as well as dozens of the normal sitting variety. Although this site had been heavily damaged, austere monks continued to use it for centuries. Recently, as donations have increased, its conditions have been improved. In addition to the reclining Buddha, there were many who sat.

Our final stop was the present summer palace for the Thai royal family. This compound dates back about 100 years, and most of its buildings have a western influence. We spent much of our time in one building that was a gift from China. No cameras (or shoes or bare shoulders or really skimpy outfits, for that matter) were allowed inside, Driver Watchareeso you will have to go there yourself to see its contents.

The grounds of the summer palace are quite extensive, but we were able to get around quickly thanks to Watcharee's recently-acquired driving skills. She has become an excellent driver. Alf and I kept encouraging her to floor the gas pedal and see how fast we could do a lap around the grounds, but she was a bit more responsible than we would have been.

The ride back on the Oriental Queen was delightful. We had an extensive buffet lunch, prepared by the staff of the Terrace restaurant at the Oriental. Alf had soup and a few servings of ice cream; Watcharee and I took up the slack and made a couple of trips each to the main course trays. After lunch, Alf and I went up on deck and surveyed the banks of the Chao Phraya as we chugged south; Watcharee went to the boat's upper level, where she read the Daily News and took a brief nap.

Back at The Oriental, I found myself extremely tired. Because it had been rather overcast, I hadn't realized how much sun I was soaking up. Plus, the heat and humidity had been the highest of the week. All of this combined to drain all the energy out of me. After watching some very impressive rain clouds approach from the north, I took a quick nap ... but I was still exhausted when I woke up.

Alf called to say that Watcharee was very tired, too, and she was skipping our dinner outing. We had been talking about going out to one of two nearby Thai restaurants, but given Watcharee's sleep, my tiredness, and the persistent rain, Alf and I decided to go downstairs to the Terrace instead of venturing farther. It is always a good choice, in any event. Indeed, tonight I noticed something that I had missed at our earlier visit to the Terrace: An impressive seletion of sashimi. Eschewing all of the marvelous barbeque offerings, Alf and I both focused on the cold raw fish. They were, of course, as good as any I have ever had.

1 Thaksin's comments of course reflected a slightly anachronistic view of the American government, since the appointed Supreme Court in the United States has also recently assumed the authority to quash the electoral vote.

2 And, apparently, Thailand's answer to Alan Dershowitz.

Next: Part II

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