13 August 2006

Bangkok - Home for Real

I got up at 7:15…the first night I’ve slept all the way through to the alarm. I’ve definitely got a cold. I was hoping I’d get home before it got bad but it doesn’t look like I’m going to make it. I’m trying to conserve my decongestants for takeoffs and landings and the few cough drops I have so they’ll last. My head and sinuses are slightly congested, my throat is scratchy and I have a headache. I took Sudafed and ibuprofen at breakfast but it didn’t really help until I got some caffeine at lunch.

We had free breakfast vouchers at the hotel. Mine had “Western style” circled when I got it but when I was seated, I asked if I could get the “Japanese style” instead. “When in Rome” and all that... The guy acted like that was highly irregular or I didn’t know what I was saying but went along with it. It turns out they weren’t so different. Dave (western style) had Texas toast where I had sticky rice and I had miso soup where he had something we later figured out was creamy corn soup. In common we had slightly runny scrambled eggs, 2 chicken sausages, a shredded lettuce salad, fish (herring?), a fruit cocktail sort of thing and tea/coffee. Other than the eggs/sausage, it really wasn’t very breakfast-like…at least by American standards.

The shuttle to the airport left around 11. We got in one United line only to find out we needed to be in the ticketing line because we wanted an American flight. We had spent a lot of time on the phone at the hotel trying to get that nailed down. First, United had us on the Honolulu flight but we finally got someone who told us there were seats available on American, direct from Tokyo to Chicago, so we got our Honolulu flights changed. United took care of that but wouldn’t have offered us the American flight if we hadn’t dug into it ourselves. We’ll get the same flight schedule from Chicago to Des Moines that we should have been on, only a day later.

Once we got all that sorted out, we went to get lunch at a Japanese restaurant. I had sushi and sobe noodle soup. Yum! Then we wandered around shopping. I got my caffeine and a few trinkets; Dave got some stuff for his kids.

When we gave up on all that, we went to the gate to wait the 2 hours remaining before our flight.

I ended up with a bulkhead seat on the aisle, next to a rather large young lady who kept spilling over the armrest into my seat. But I had plenty of leg room! It was a very long, mummifying flight but uneventful…just the way they’re supposed to be. In Chicago we collected our bags and checked them at United for the flight to Des Moines. We had a couple hours to wait then a skinny-hour flight home.We arrived in Des Moines but our bags didn’t. You just had to know that was going to happen…

12 August 2006

Bangkok - Homeward Bound

Homeward bound! I woke up at 2am and lay in bed until 2:30 when I got up and showered.

I gathered up my stuff and went down to check out. Dave arrived around 3:25 and we took our airport shuttle to the airport. We left around 3:40 and arrived at the airport around 4 (not much traffic at that time of day!)

Checking in wasn’t too bad. With all the added security, later in the day it’s going to be a mess, though.

We went looking for breakfast and nothing that served real food was open. We bought water, dried fruit and a can of honey-sesame cashews. We had to drink the water before going through security to the gate. At the gate, every passenger was patted down and bags opened and searched. Boarding started not too long after we got there.

The flight was basically uneventful (just the way they’re supposed to be!) until near Tokyo. Thunderstorms had us in a holding pattern and eventually we were diverted to another airport for refueling.

All of those amulets in my bag and it looks like none of them were for lucky travel... We got to Tokyo and there were no more flight to Chicago. The people going to San Francisco or LA I think got flights but the rest of us (hundreds of us) were SOL. We stood in the immigration line for over an hour. Hundreds of people unexpectedly have to stay in Tokyo overnight and they have 4 agents to deal with them all. Then we had to collect our baggage and go through customs. Then we spent a couple hours standing around trying to find someone who could tell us what the hotel and transportation arrangements were. Finally, around 10:30 or 11 by my watch, we got to the rooms. We’d been traveling since 3:30am.

The room was very small and efficient and reeked of smoke. There was a cigarette machine in the lobby….something I haven’t seen in decades in the US. The lobby was very grand and new-looking. The rooms we have are old and worn and full of cigarette burns.

The discussion everywhere is flights…when can you get what to where. Dave called and talked to someone. We’ve maybe got seats on a flight to Honolulu late Sunday with a long day in Honolulu then an overnight to Chicago arriving home sometime on Monday. Bleah…

11 August 2006

Bangkok - Grand Palace

At 3am, as I stumbled toward the bathroom, I saw the front-page headline of the Bangkok Post tucked under my door…”World Airline Chaos.” NOT a headline I wanted to see… I decided to just go back to bed and deal with it in the morning.

Apparently, a number of bombs were discovered destined for transatlantic flights to the US from London. The plan was to assemble and detonate them midair. It was thwarted but airline security has gone to 9/11 days and lots of flights (mostly out of Heathrow) have been canceled. We’ll have to gauge the situation when we get to the office…

We went to the office, checked mail and worked with the students for the morning then went to lunch with everyone plus Karen Oerter. We went to a restaurant in a huge mall near Chatuchak Park.

It was an interesting sort of restaurant. When you enter, you’re give a card with a barcode on it that is ‘charged’ with 1,000 Baht ($25 or so).There are all kinds of food stations, mostly organized by nationality…Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, etc. When you see something you want, you tell them and give them the card. They read your card and debit the amount of whatever you’ve selected. You go station to station until you have all you want then take the food to your table. When you leave, you hand them the card and pay for what you’ve debited along the way. Quite an experience… Jeab says her kids love it and she’s there almost every weekend.

After lunch, some stayed to shop at the mall, Ashraf and Sajid headed off to the airport and the rest of us went back to the office. Dave and I finalized shipping our PCs back to the states since we’d heard that laptops wouldn’t be allowed as carryon. We said our goodbyes to the office people then went to the hotel to drop stuff off and headed out to see the Grand Palace.

The last time we tried this, we took the subway to Sukhumvit station, then got on the sky train and changed trains to one that took us right to the river. This time, we decided to take the subway all the way to the end of the line, then walk the few blocks to the river. We thought it might be quicker because we’d start the river journey part further upstream and wouldn’t have to make the 2 changes from sub to train and train to train. I don’t know if it actually worked that way but we got to walk through some interesting streets of Bangkok so it was a win as far as we were concerned.

We found the Marine Department Pier and got a river taxi upstream to the palace. It was 3:15 and they stop letting people in at 3:30 but you can stay and wander the Grand Palace grounds after that.

We saw the Emerald Buddha (made of jade) and some of the grand halls. Mostly we just walked the grounds.

After that, we went looking for the amulet market that Dave had read about…across from the Wat Maharat. I hit an ATM for 2,000 Baht since I was down to almost none and Dave had to buy my 250 Baht admission to the palace. I returned the favor by paying for a batch of amulets from one of the vendors. He got matching “luck” amulets for his team. I got several for various people. 30 Baht each. At another vendor I got some more for 20 Baht each.

By the time we got done with that, it was approaching dusk and we decided to head to the Siam shopping district to look for the government sponsored shops that support the hill tribes and rural people. We got a river taxi to the Central Pier then took the sky train to Siam station. It was near quitting time so the river taxi was packed with people (right), including monks who have a special place reserved for them on the boat (left). We walked around quite a while in the chaos trying to get our bearings with the map. Eventually it got full dark and we finally found the place. I bought some temple bells and incense (690 Baht) and a set of cotton placemats and napkins for my dining room (285 Bahts).

The shops closed at 8 and kicked us out so we got back on the train a stop or 2 from where we got off and headed back to the hotel.

I called and made a massage appointment through the health club…figuring I could really use it before the long, long plane ride home. I opted for the “traditional Thai massage” which is a lot of deep pressure-point work and static stretches. Then I packed up and went to bed at 11pm, setting both alarms for 2:45am with a 3:00 wake up call from the front desk.

10 August 2006

Bangkok - Graduation Day

I don’t think any trials made it to PK during the night. A conversion factor that I think was there yesterday now isn’t. This wasn’t quite so successful a day. People could practice reporting, but not with their own trial data.

Prasert gave everyone in class an electric blue shirt with “AP PRISM Training, Bangkok 2006” embroidered on one sleeve, the Pioneer logo over the left breast and “Technology that Yields” on the other sleeve. We posed for a group picture in the office lobby wearing the shirts.

Jeab made another pitch for the Siam cultural show. Dave and I signed up. Yaobang and Rulik were initially interested but backed out when they found out the price (1,350 Baht, abut $35…that’s with a 10% discount for paying with a Visa card, which we found in other places as well…I don’t know how/why Visa has such an “in” with Thailand.). It includes a buffet dinner, entrance to a “Living History Farms” type display of Thai culture and history as well as a spectacular theater performance.

At the end of the day, we had ‘graduation’ and handed out the dream-catchers. People seemed to really like them.

Dave and I stopped by the hotel to drop off his PC then got back on the sub 1 stop to the Thai Cultural Center station where we met our shuttle to the show with 2 other people. When we got there, they didn’t find our reservation but got us tickets anyway.

The villages were interesting. There were demos of things like pounding rice with a teeter-totter device, processing silk from feeding worms to unwinding the cocoons, playing native instruments, trying food samples, etc. There was free stuff everywhere. At one display where a woman was making fish or cranes or grasshoppers on a stick out of bamboo, visitors could help themselves. Several places cooked up samples of traditional foods for you to try. One place had mini, traditional Thai massage. I got a bamboo grasshopper and would have liked a massage but the line was too long to wait for.

We went to the show and found our seats. The 2000-seat theatre was practically empty…maybe only ¼ full, if that. But the show was spectacular.

If it’s not the largest stage in the world, it’s in the top few. The cast of 150 plus 2 elephants and several goats/chickens did a great job. There was a channel at the front of the stage that was filled with water at one point and used to float boats and things across the stage. One guy jumped in to swim at one spot…got to be a deep spot there as the rest of it was all pretty shallow before the water filled it in. During the ‘thunderstorm’ part of the show, water cascaded from the ceiling several stories up into the ‘lake.’ There were a couple of audience participation bits where people were picked out of the audience. I thought they kind of detracted from the rest of the story but the show overall was definitely a spectacular.

After the show, a shuttle took us back to the subway and we were back at the hotel a little after 10.I did some preliminary packing to see how I was going to get stuff in…to be finished on Friday.

09 August 2006

Bangkok - 3rd Training Day

At the office, I checked mail for answers to thing I asked the day before. The students were on time again, class went well. After an overview of PTM and a demo of entering a trial, they spent most of the day entering trial data. Some system problems kept the total number of trials entered lower than I liked but everyone got something in.

The fruit plates today contained a new delicacy…mangosteen. I’d read about these so I was glad to try them. Yum! They’re my new favorite Thai fruit. The Thais call them the queen of fruits (because of the ‘crown’ at the stem end) and I agree, based on taste! I also tried a dessert at lunch with sticky rice, coconut milk and durian fruit. The dessert was ok. I can see where Philip got the “garbagy onion smell” part. They do taste better than they smell but it was not one of my favorites.

We left the office around 6 or 6:15. Most of them went right to the night market. Dave and I went to the hotel then to a market we hadn’t been to, near the Sukhumvit station.

It turned out to be not what we expected… Or we didn’t know what to expect. We took a left off the station and there were some street vendors but nothing much. It looked like a “locals” street. We went around the block and it got more and more “native.” Then we came to the entrance of a neon alley. Neon lights flooded the alley and it was wall-to-wall clubs of the sort Bangkok nightlife is famous for…Jungle Jim’s, Rawhide, Apache, stuff in Thai we couldn’t read but obviously advertised delights of the feminine sort.

Dave said later that he found a reference to the alley in one of his city guides and that it was called Soi Cowboy (Cowboy Alley) and was, indeed, one of the famous/infamous sex show/club streets of Bangkok…300 meters containing about 40 clubs and bars. When we walked out the other end we were only 20 yards or so from the sub station. Had we turned right instead of left leaving the station, it would have been the first thing we came to.

We got back on the subway and returned to the Suan Lum night market at the Lumphini station. We got off and immediately ran into Tom (from Philippines) waiting for the others. We chatted a while then we went our way while he waited for the others to collect and decide where they wanted to eat supper.

We tried to hit a different section of the market than we’d seen on our previous trip. Mostly we just wandered. Dave was still on a tablecloth mission. He ended up with silk boxers for his son. I got 2 pair of ‘beach pants’…one deep red with gold dragons down the legs and one in a black/white native pattern (450 Baht total, a little less than $12).

We found our way to the beer garden and sat down. Dave got a Tiger beer (in a HUGE bottle) and I got a bottle of water (100 Baht, about $2.50). The ‘garden’ space is huge…like half a football field…and lined all around the outside with food and drink establishments. Each place has its own “girls” to serve you. If you get a Tiger girl, that’s the beer you drink. Don’t select from all of them.

The band stopped/broke not long after we sat down then a bunch of people in fancy dress got on stage and we all stood for the national anthem. After that, the big screens played soccer video.
Dave finished his beer, I my water, then we left. It was after 10 by then.

I must have been adjusting to the time change…I wasn’t ready for bed when we got back so I looked through the stack of Bangkok Post (English language) newspapers that had been tucked under my door daily and I hadn’t looked at. I didn’t really read anything but the Sunday comics section. I went to sleep and only woke up once in the night then slept until the alarm.Tomorrow is ‘graduation day’…we brought dream-catchers to give all the students and I tatted some hearts for Jeab and the other assistant who helped us so much.

08 August 2006

Bangkok - 2nd Training Day

This first day of class went well. Dave and I got to the office around 7:45 to set up and check on things. Students arrived on time and were ready to roll at 8:30. I think it was a pretty grueling day for them but everyone seemed to be getting it. ‘Course all the set up, config, and background stuff doesn’t really mean anything to them yet because they don’t really see how it all fits together.

Dave and I talked a bit on the way to the office about class structure and if there’s a better way to put it together. I hope he’ll have some suggestions after he’s seen the whole thing.
We had lunch at the cafeteria. Pong said it was on floor 2 and an elevator load of us trouped off to floor 2 only to find more offices and no one who could tell us (in English) where the cafeteria was…and no one in our group who could speak Thai. We went down to the lobby and tried to ask at the front desk but they didn’t speak English either. Finally, I just mimed eating at him and he pointed to the building next door.

We got there but it wasn’t obvious if/where there was a cafeteria. About that time, Prasert caught up with us and led us around the other side and up the stairs to the cafĂ©.

We had our choice of many Thai foods. I picked a couple, having no clue what they were. It was all good, but mostly way more hot spicy than I like to eat. Dave, Philip and Yaobang took some stuff that looked kind of like pork fried rice without the rice. Apparently, it was very hot. Yaobang (from China) couldn’t eat it at all. Dave ate it sweating and nose running. Philip, (world traveler and adventurous eater) said it was the hottest thing he’d ever tasted.

Jeab brings snacks into class at regular intervals…plates of cashews, rambutans, guava, oranges or other fruit. Longon…not to be confused with the longans already mentioned…are similar to longans except they’re less round, more pear-shaped and the fruit grows stuck directly to a branch (like Brussels sprouts) instead of in a cluster (like grapes). The flesh is similar in taste and texture to longans but comes in sections, like an orange, instead of one solid fruit like the longans. Sometimes there’s a seed in one or more of the fruit sections; sometimes there’s none. The longons have a little more flavor than the longans…they’re both sweet and juicy but the longon flavor is a little more complex.

After class, everyone pretty much went their own way. Philip and some others went straight to an electronics/IT mall, 2 stops past the hotel. Dave and I dropped off stuff at the hotel, changed clothes and went to the Suan Lum night market.

It was like Chatuchak, only for tourists so the aisles were wider, it was well-lit, clean, airy and smelled a lot better. Quality of goods was generally higher as were prices. Still, bargains could be had if you looked.

I saw stone rubbings like I bought at Wat Pho for 400 Baht going for 100 here. They weren’t the exact same images though…the ones I got, I’ve only seen at Wat Pho.

I didn’t buy anything. Dave got a pashmina shawl for his wife and a wooden vase thing.
There was a huge Ferris wheel there. We’d seen it the previous day from the sky train but didn’t know it was part of the market. It makes a handy marker for finding the subway entrance though. There was also a huge beer garden with a band playing and we found some ATMs and a currency exchange. It definitely caters more to tourists than locals.

A sub ride home (28 Baht if you buy a token, 24 if you use the card), then bed.I slept a little better. I woke up around 1:30 again and repeatedly after that but managed to go right back to sleep pretty easily. I had a nasty sinus headache at one point so I took some decongestants and acetaminophen, which helped.

07 August 2006

Bangkok - 1st Training Day

After waking up around 1:30 and then every 45 minutes or so after that until around 5 when I never went back to sleep, I finally just got up at 6. Good thing. I’d set both my travel alarm and the room alarm for 6:30 but had forgotten to actually turn either of them on.

Speaking of which, the alarm in the room is part of a “master panel” on the nightstand. All the lights in the room are controlled by this panel which also contains a clock. The clock is set from some master timer somewhere and you can’t change it. You can set the alarm time, though. It also controls the AC level (high, medium or low) but you set the actual temperature with the thermostat on the wall.

The room lights were a bit of a puzzle to figure out when I first got the room. I walked in and hit light switches but nothing came on…the room stayed completely dark. I’d been in a hotel in France once where they had to do something in the office to enable the lights in the room…probably to keep you from checking out and leaving all the lights on or something. I started to head for the front desk (since, in the dark, I couldn’t even find the phone) but remembered that someone would be bringing my bag up soon and figured I’d just wait for that.

Meanwhile, I happened to notice a small box on the wall just inside the door that looked like a key card holder so I stuck my room card in the slot and Voila! The lights came on, along with the AC. And they stay on as long as the card is in the slot.

I had breakfast in the “coffee shop” again (free, with the room) and on the way out met Rulik, Tom and Rachel coming in to eat with Philip.

The whole gang met in the lobby at 8:30 with Pong and Prasert to shepherd us through the subway to the office, since none of us had ever been there before.

Dave and I had bought subway passes the day before so we waited off to the side while the rest of the people bought cards. You pay a 50 Baht deposit and then add however much money you want. It works kind of like a phone card…you can add more money to it whenever you need to and whenever you use it, the amount gets debited from whatever your balance is. When you’re done with the card, you turn it back in and get whatever money you have left on it plus your deposit back.

It’s very convenient. Whenever you use the subway, you just swipe the card instead of buying tokens. And you pay less (about 10%) for what you use. For example, if you buy a token to get to the office from the hotel, it’s 18 Baht. If you use the card, it’s 16. Whenever you swipe your card at the turnstile, the display tells you how much that trip was and how much you have left. It’s definitely easier than tokens. You don’t have to wait in line to buy a token or have the right change.

At the office, Philip set up for the agronomy meeting while Dave and I set up in a couple of offices. We caught up on mail and made copies of handouts. We had just finished the copies about the time lunch arrived…pizza, garlic bread, chicken wings and bacon twists. There was seafood pizza and veggie for the Indians and Pakistanis.

When the meeting started again, Dave and I left to head for the river. Jeab said the best way to get there was take the subway to sky train station then the sky train all the way to the end then get a river taxi to go upriver to the Grand Palace. She said a taxi would take an hour and a half (because of traffic) but it would be 20 minutes the other way.

We stopped by the hotel to drop off stuff then back to the subway. It was pretty easy to find our way to the stations and make the connections. At the end of the line, we got off and headed to the river…mostly, right below the station.

We found a boat headed toward the palace. It turned out to be a tourist boat as opposed to a regular taxi. The difference being there was a ‘guide’ pointing out landmarks along the way and it cost more. The tourist boat up the river cost 18 Baht…coming back on a regular boat costs 13.
By the time we got to the palace, it was too close to closing time so we didn’t go in but we did check out Wat Pho while we were in the area. The wat closes at 6 but they started closing the buildings around 4. We could continue to wander the grounds until 6, just not enter the temples where the Buddhas were.

We left Wat Pho and took a ferry across the river (3 Baht…about 7 cents) to Wat Arun (temple of the dawn). There are no buildings to go inside but the chedis (pagodas) were all covered in colorful tile pieces. Not exactly like a mosaic…the pieces were shaped and very 3-D.
We ferried back across the river and caught a boat back to the sky train pier. By then, it must have been quitting time as all the boats were packed with people. The sky train too. Sometimes there were too many people for the train and some had to wait for the next one.

We got on a sky train and, as the door was closing, realized we were heading the wrong way. So we got out at the next stop and went down to the other tracks to go the right way.

We got back to the hotel around 7:15 to find notes under our room doors saying the gang was meeting at 6:30 to go to a nearby seafood restaurant. Oops! We ended up eating at the hotel “coffee shop” again. I had the pad thai in an egg-pillow that Philip had the night before. It looked good, and it was. Just a bit hotter than I really enjoy eating…even though I’d ordered it “mild.” I also had a custard/flan sort of thing for dessert. It was ok.After that, shower, review of the class material for the next day, then bed. I slept great until about 1am then it was the same ol’ wake every 45 minutes or so until I finally never went back to sleep and got up at 5.

06 August 2006


I had my alarm set for 6:30 but woke up at 6 and wasn’t going to go back to sleep so I got up, showered, dressed and went to breakfast at the hotel “coffee shop.” I say “coffee shop” because that’s what they called it but it was way too fancy to be a mere coffee shop. The breakfast buffet was HUGE…one very large service island and 4 or 5 slightly smaller ones. There were your traditional breakfast foods (cereal, fruit, cheese, bread, yogurt and 6 kinds of juices, including watermelon) plus regular meal type foods of the Thai, Chinese, Japanese, American, Hawaiian, etc. persuasions. I had some egg casserole stuff, lots of fruit, some cheese and OJ.

Before going down for breakfast, I looked for an iron in the room so I could press my class clothes…they really needed it. But there wasn’t one in the room so I put everything that needed it in a laundry bag for the hotel staff to press. I had 3 shirts, 1 pair pants, 1 dress and 2 skirts ironed for 835.67 Baht (about $22…includes 10% service charge and 7% VAT). They were hanging, neatly pressed in my closet when I got back. They did a really good job.

I met up with Philip, Dave, Max (former Pioneer agronomist) and Pong (woman from the office who will be in my training) in the lobby to head out for our day of sightseeing. We headed to Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Thailand. On the way, we stopped at a convenience store to get some bottled water. Dave and I got a 12-pack of bottles for 75 Baht (about $2) and a couple of chilled bottles for the road for 9 Baht each (about 20 cents). Gas costs about 27 to 30 Baht per liter (a squidge less than $4/gal). They also sell ethanol, only there it’s made from cassava instead of corn.

The day started out cloudy, which we didn’t really appreciate until we got out of the car and it got sunny occasionally. When the sun came out it got really hot in a hurry.

In Ayutthaya, we stopped to get wat (temple) guides then went to the elephant palace. For 20 Baht you could buy a small basket of sugar cane chunks and pellet packs to feed the elephants. We fed a baby elephant and watched it do some tricks then went on to ride the big ones for 200 Baht (~$5). You climb up a little tower that gets you even with the elephant’s back then you step onto its back and sit in the howdah (padded bench you sit on under a sun umbrella). Your mahout (elephant handler/driver) then takes you out along a small waterway, past some temple ruins, across a street and out to a body of water with some more temples nearby. It’s not a long ride but it is scenic.

The mahouts definitely get the best ride. They’re sitting on the elephant’s head/neck and hardly move around at all. But sitting in the howdah on the elephant’s back you roll from side to side with each step. Pretty much all the pictures I took from the back of a moving elephant came out blurry or of something I wasn’t really trying to aim at because it was so hard to hold the camera still.

When we got off the elephants we were plied with photos taken of us and then the exit through the gift shop. I succumbed to a small black elephant-with-baby carving and a couple of notebooks made of “100% elephant dung.” (450 Baht total)

We saw the ruins of several wats after that. Admission for farang (foreigners) was 30 Baht. Admission for locals is 10 Baht.

Ayutthaya was the original capital of Thailand, until about 400 years ago. While still the capital, the Burmese invaded in 1765 and pretty much burned it to the ground, destroying a large part of the city and all the temples. The wats we saw were all more or less destroyed by the Burmese during that time. They occupied Thailand for 40 years or so until the Thais kicked them out again. After that, the capital was moved to Bangkok in 1782.

We passed by some trinket and fruit vendor stalls and there was not a single fruit I recognized. We tried pamelo, which looks like an enormous, green, slightly pear-shaped grapefruit. The rind is pithier and falls off the fruit better than a grapefruit. The fruit looks a lot like white grapefruit. It wasn’t particularly juicy for all that and it had a vaguely citrus-y taste…neither as tart as a grapefruit nor as sweet as an orange. It was actually rather bland.

There was a pile of durian …larger than the pamelos with a hard, cone-spiked exterior. You have to handle them with gloves. The vendor cut one open while we were there with a small machete. There’s a lot of inedible, fibrous pith inside the spikes that contain 4 or 5 edible sections. They’re a yellowish-cream color and shaped like squat bananas. In the car on the way here, Philip was talking about them and described them as smelling like “garbage-y onion” but said they tasted a lot better than they smelled. The spiky outside of the fruit didn’t have much of a smell and I didn’t get close enough to the actual edible part to say one way or the other.

Pong bought a kilo of longan which she shared with us. Longans look like small, round white potatoes only they grow in clusters like grapes from a tree. To eat them, you put your thumbnails together against the skin and pry it apart. The skin pops right off leaving a smooth, clearish fruit that you pop in your mouth right from the skin. There’s a smooth, shiny, black pip near the stem end that you spit out. It’s sweet and juicy and very tasty!

We also had some rambutan …among ourselves, called “that hairy fruit.” The fruits are sort of egg shaped and sized. The peel is mostly red with a lot of ¾ inch tendril-like ‘hairs’ covering it. The hairs start out red near the base but are a pale yellow-green near the tips. You eat them in the same way you do longans…pry apart the skin with your thumbnails and the fruit pops right out. It’s the same sort of clear-white color as the longan and is similarly juicy and sweet. However, the pit in the rambutan is more almond shaped and clings to the fruit. You don’t want to get too vigorous about chewing off the fruit as there is a thin, fibrous skin over the pit that is kind of astringent if you get into it.

At this vendor stop, I bought a fish mobile made from ti leaves and intricately painted. I haggled the vendor down to 200 Baht for it. Pong said they hang these over baby cribs to entertain the wee ones. I thought I’d hang it in my atrium to swim in the breezes there…if I can get it home without crushing it. It’s a fairly large fish with 3 strands of smaller fish hanging down from it…all in deep red and metallic gold.

Around noon Pong and Max took us to a restaurant along the Lopburi River. Lucky for us, the menus consisted mostly of pictures of dishes so that it wasn’t so critical that we be able to read Thai or understand the English translations of the dish names (if you don’t know what it means, ”tom yam kai” doesn’t make any more sense than the Thai characters for it). Nonetheless, we let Pong order for all of us. We had tom-yam soup with shrimp (tom-YUM!), roasted prawns (the biggest I think I’ve ever seen…complete with head, legs, long skinny pincer arms and eyestalks), some sort of green leafy vegetable with mushrooms in a light brown sauce, and some fish cake-like things. It was all very tasty, even if I have no idea what most of it was.

While we ate, we watched the boats on the river. Mostly they were ‘long-tail’ boats (long, narrow, wooden boats with a car engine mounted toward the back and a long straight drive shaft extending into the water to drive the propeller) but also some dinner-cruise type tourist boats and multi-part barges loaded with sand headed to the city.

When the barge first started past the restaurant, we wondered how it was going to negotiate the turn without hitting the bank on the far side of the turn. Then the back of the barge came into sight and we figured it out. The barges had tugboats at both ends. The front tug would pull the barge chain downstream and the back tug would come into play when the barge needed to negotiate a turn. It would pull upstream on the caboose end to keep it from slamming into the outside bank of the turn. It works. As twisty as the river is, that back tug is kept very busy!
After lunch, we headed back to Bangkok and dropped stuff off at the hotel before heading to the weekend market at Chatuchak by subway.

The Chatuchak market is like the local farmers market only on atomic steroids. It’s in a park that covers 190 rais (35 acres) and the more than 8,000 vendor booths are packed in under a huge roof or spilling out into outdoor aisles. This is where a lot of the locals shop, in addition to tourists, so it has everything you could possibly want from staple home items like toilet paper or detergent to exotic (and endangered) animals (alive or dead for the pot or pets).

At times, it was very claustrophobic inside…the chaos, the press of people, the heat, the lack of air moving, not being able to see much past the next booth. I’m not claustrophobic to begin with but there were moments...

Philip was looking for silk for his wife. Dave was looking for whatever. I ended up with a couple of pillowcases (200 Baht), a placemats/chopsticks set (200 Baht), a scarf (100 Baht) and some incense (100 Baht).

Dave and I had planned to come here on our own before Pong and Max offered to take us out for the day. I was really glad we had them with us. They shepherded us through the subway system (very clean, new-looking and easy to use once we got started) and helped us negotiate the maze of the market. They also warned us several times about the dangers of pickpockets and staying past 6:00 when the main shops close.

The hotel itself is very high end. At least compared to places I’ve stayed before. There is staff everywhere. There’s a guy whose job it is to stand by the elevators and push the call button for you. All the rooms have doorbells outside so that no one has to knock. There’s an orchid on my pillow every night and a small fruit basket on the table with rambutans and some jujubes (look like small granny smith apples…different texture and not so much flavor). The room has a safe, robes and slippers, a fridge with water and beer in it and a number of bottles of alcohol and basket of snacks in the wet bar. The water in the fridge is complimentary…which I didn’t find out until after I’d checked out.

My room has 2 beds…full-sized, maybe smaller…a desk, a couple of sitting chairs and is half of a suite. The bathroom has a separate tub and glass-walled shower stall. The view out the window is of city as far as you can see. Up close, I look down (from the 22nd floor) on the rooftops of what must be homes…parking lots, open lots and a main street.

I was pretty well dead by the time we got back to the hotel. It’d been a really long trip getting there and I only had about 5 hours sleep that night. However, after dropping off my purchases to my room, I met Dave and Philip in the lobby for dinner at the hotel. I was a little hungry but mostly just very tired.

I wasn’t really interested in anything on the menu but ordered something and ate about half of it. The best part of the meal was the water! After sweating so much at the market, I was really thirsty and it was cold and wet! I’d ordered a ginger ale with the meal and drank that but it had a funny smell/taste…faintly like mothballs. Dunno why, but I stuck to water after that.
After supper I got some of the bottles of water Dave and I bought earlier then headed to my room. En route, Philip and I met Ashraf and Sajid, the students from Pakistan, in the hallway. Philip introduced us then they headed down to dinner and I went to my room to shower and crash.

04 August 2006

Travel to Bangkok

Yesterday, I’d gotten a mail message from United about checking in on-line so I did that and printed my boarding pass. At home, I was all packed and ready to sleep in a little the following morning so was knitting at past 10 when the phone rang. It was Dave asking if I’d gotten a call about our canceled flight. I hadn’t. Turns out our flight to Chicago had been canceled around 8pm and United had booked us on an American flight leaving 2 hours earlier.

Good thing he called! I thought I was all set to go and wouldn’t have known any different until I showed up 2 hours late for my flight. We rearranged our meeting time and I toddled off to bed after changing my alarm to get me up earlier.

We met at work, where I left my car for the week, then headed to the airport. Because of the cancellation, we had to go to the United counter to get a voucher for the American flight and then to the American counter to get boarding passes and check Dave’s bag.

At the United counter, they told us I didn’t have a seat assignment for the Chicago-Tokyo flight. No one could say why…my itinerary and printed-yesterday boarding pass all said I did. The agent helping us was a trainee and didn’t really know what he was doing so a supervisor was called. Much confusion ensued. We finally got our vouchers and went to the American counter where they told us they had to have a ‘coupon’ from United that wasn’t in the paperwork they gave us. So we trouped back to the United counter to get the coupon then back to the American counter to finalize everything.

Eventually we got to the security gate and because of the cancellation/reschedule changes; it looked like we had purchased last-minute tickets which automatically flags you for a personal security screening. That took longer for me because I had my luggage with me instead of checking a bag. When I got to the gate, the flight was already boarding so I got right on.
In Chicago, as we were getting off the plane, I suddenly remembered that I forgot to order the coffee before I left the office. Even connecting to the network with my laptop wouldn’t help because the file was on the hard drive of my office PC.

I was trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do about it…I knew it was a fairly substantial order that I couldn’t just get from “stock” when the shipment arrived but I had no idea what it consisted of. I was thinking it was the weekend but Dave (Bless him!) reminded me that it was Friday and people were still in the office. Ann or someone could log onto my PC as administrator and get the file for me.

Once we got to the gate (hours before our flight, there was no one there, of course), Dave went to get something to eat and I called the office. I caught Doug and told him what was up. He said he’d take care of it (Bless him!). Then I called the travel service to see what they could tell me about my seat on the Tokyo flight. The agent I talked to called United and both of them agreed that there was no problem with my ticket, nothing had changed and I did, indeed, have a seat assignment. Go figure.

There still wasn’t anyone at the gate so I wandered down to the United Customer Service desk to see what they’d say. They agreed with Des Moines…I didn’t have a seat; I’d have to get it at the gate. Which I wouldn’t have cared so much about but everyone (except the travel service) said there were only middle seats available.

I went back to the gate and there was someone there so I went through it all again to get my seat. She said I’d have to wait until my name was called. It wasn’t long after that she called the 14 names (including mine) and I finally got my seat. As she handed me my ticket she told me it was an aisle. (Bless her!)

After that, it was board, take off and fly. By the time we’d been served a bag of snack-y stuff then lunch, I’d finished my book and we were only somewhere over the Dakotas. It was going to be a long, loooooong flight… All my other books were in the overhead bin…not impossible to get to but not convenient. I had tatting and word puzzles…

The bright spot at that point was that I had an outside aisle seat with no one in the window seat beside me so I could at least spread out and shift some. That was the highlight of the entire day and flight!

As we came in for a landing in Tokyo, it wasn’t at all what I expected. The airport must be outside the city. I never saw any city on the way in, only neat, precise little rectangles of green fields. They looked like they’d been laid out by engineers with a straight-edge. It looked sort of like landing in the Midwest except that the parcels were smaller and not square. Also, whereas in the US, houses/farmsteads tend to be spread out across the grid, here they were all clustered together in corners. It was the same with what looked like parking lots…clusters of cars parked around rectangle intersections. I don’t know why there were all those cars clustered together where there weren’t any buildings.

We wandered the Tokyo airport waiting for our next flight. Anything to not sit more! We found a duty-free shop with traditional Japanese things. Dave got Ts for his kids and I got a couple of silk hankies with traditional prints on them. Also a small green-tea container. It’s metal with a little lid but the outside is covered in a silk brocade. It has some tea in it but it was the container I thought was cool. Total, 1,500 yen.

On the flight to Bangkok, I had a window seat. It’s dark out so I couldn’t see anything except for a ¾ full moon. I was in the 2nd row back from the bulkhead and surrounded by infants and small children. They were very well-behaved, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I was way too tired to be able to concentrate enough to read so I just had to muddle through the remaining hours of the flight. Then it was going to be the tough decision…bed or shower first??

It was around midnight before I got to my room but I opted for shower first.