30 April 2012

Thailand, getting There : Apr 29-May1

The plan is:

Leave Des Moines Sunday evening around 5:30pm and fly to Dallas.
Leave Dallas Sunday evening and fly to Los Angeles.
Leave LA in the wee hours Monday morning and arrive in Hong Kong early Tuesday morning (crossing the international date line).
Leave Hong Kong slightly later Tuesday morning and arrive in Bangkok around 10:30 am on Tuesday.

How long is that, really?

Well, we're supposed to be at the airport by 3pm Sunday and arrive in Bangkok at 10:30 Tuesday morning ...that's 43.5 hours. (I don't know how long it will take to get from the airport to the hotel so I'm not factoring that in.) Subtract the 12 hours earlier that Bangkok is and you get 31.5 hours of elapsed time...almost a day and a half of travel. Subtract the 6 or so hours of airport layovers and you get around 25.5 hours of flight time.

Let's just call it "a lot" and leave it at that.

One thing about Thailand being 12 hours ahead of home...I won't have to change my (analog) watch. 8:27 at home will be 8:27 in Thailand...just at the other end of the day.

The trip was pretty much like you'd expect traveling for 40-some hours to be. The worst part was the 14.5 hour flight from LA to Hong Kong. I did manage to sleep on the plane (usually that's the bane of my travel existance)...a couple of sleeping pills and a glass of wine (free on international flights with Cathay Paciffic!) will do that.

Al had made a batch of chocolate chip cookies for me before we left for the airport and I passed them around at every opportunity to save me from having to eat them all myself. On one flight I shared them with Virginia and Felicia, my seatmates for that leg. Felicia had never flown before. How wild is it to have your very first plane trip ever be one to Thailand?

I spent part of the time knitting and part of the time reading from Traveler's Tales: Thailand. One of the pieces was about a temple that cures herion addicts. The part that struck me has nothing to do with curing herion addiction (an amazing process in itself), but with the monks' philosophy on travel. These monks take "vacations" where they carry everything they need with them and go walk-about for a time. It's considered a sort of spiritual pilgrimage. The quote that caught my eye was, "Travel is limiting the comfort of the body to gain freedom of the mind." Then, in a later paragraph, "Travel is transformation...if the trip shook your ideas up, if the experience changes you, then the journey was a success." (The Secrets of Tham Krabok by Michael Buckley)

I don't think I've ever had a trip that didn't change something. That experience is part of why I like to travel to places I've never been. Jury's still out on the changes that will be wrought by this trip.

Another thought sparked by something in Traveler's Tales... There was a brief section on feet in Thailand. Feet are considered the lowest, dirtiest part of the body and it's considered very bad manners to do anything with feet that is normally done with hands, for example, pushing a door shut or moving a chair. There is a Thai expression for the feet, "meu farang", that means 'foreigner hands' because of the way they use their feet for things.

I can only imagine what they'd think of my husband and stepson's habit of picking things up off the floor with their toes. Meu farang, indeed!

I was really impressed with Cathay Pacific. Not only was wine free with dinner, the dinner (in economy coach, mind you) consisted of a salmon caesar salad, sweet and sour chicken with rice and Haagen Daaz ice cream. It was the best airline food I've ever had.

Breakfast was really good too. At least mine was. The choices were an omelette with potatoes and sausage or congee. I don't know how many times the flight attendant had to answer the question, "What is congee?" but I heard her say it lots. It's basically a rice porridge. In this case, it was in a chicken broth with abalone and some sort of fish, some fresh ginger threads and thin rings of green onion. It was delicious I thought. others were not so impressed with their omelette "hockey pucks".

The flight wasn't exactly smooth, though. I don't know how many times turbulence woke me up. That's hardly the airline's fault..

Unlike every other international trip I've done, we didn't do customs and immigration in Hong Kong, the country point of entry...we did that when we got to Bangkok. An I've apparently gotten a lot better at sleeping on planes because I must have slept through getting the forms. When we were all gathering after getting off the plane everyone was busily filling theirs out and I realized I didn't have any. I wasn't worried, though. I knew I could get them at immigration and it was unlikely that the line would be short enough that I wouldn't have time to fill it out..

We cleared the terminal and connected with our transportation...a tour bus with guide, PJ. PJ gave us commentary as we drove the 35 km to Bangkok proper and our hotel, the Twin Towers.

04 April 2012

Thailand - Info Resources

I've been perusing a number of books and websites to try to get a handle on Thailand and what to expect when I get there.

Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (Terry Morrison)
This is a book I used a frequently when I was traveling a lot for work. Anytime I'd be headed for a new country or expecting students from somewhere else, I'd pull out this book and read up on the country. The book is directed at business travelers and talks a lot about conducting meetings, negotiating contracts, and the like. However, there are also sections on general world view, how to dress for various situations, if there are general things you should know, etc. The copy I have at work is more than a decade old, so I got the 2nd edition from the local library and read the Thailand section.

Things I picked up...
  • Punctuality is a sign of courtesy...be on time. (this is quite contrary to my experiences in Central America and some other places...)
  • Eat with fork and spoon unless you're in a Chinese restaurant (then you can use chopsticks). Cut with the edge of the spoon. Use the fork to push food onto the spoon. Don't ever put the fork in your mouth.
  • Monks are not permitted to touch women. Women should never hand something directly to a monk...either put it in front of them where they can reach it or give it to a man to hand to the monk. The giver says "Thank you," the monk does not. This is because giving to a monk is a way to better your own life/future (karma-wise).
  • Always give up your seat on public transportation to monks. (last time I was there, the river taxis had special sections reserved for monks)
  • Greet Thais with a wai. A 'wai' is pressing your palms together in front of your chest in a 'prayer' position....or 'namaste' for you yogis. The higher the hands are relative to your body, the more respect you are showing. Putting the heels of your hands up by your forehead is about as respectful as you can possibly get. A chest-level wai is the common form. Lower ranking people wai higher ranking people.
  • Titles are important to Thais. Khun is the common, short form of address and can be used for "Mr", "Mrs" or "Miss".
  • Politeness and a calm demeanor are highly prized. Always avoid being rude, displaying a temper (or any strong emotion), or agitation.
  • Public displays of affection between opposite sexes are frowned upon. However, same-sex friends can touch or walk holding hands.
  • To beckon someone to you, hold your hand palm down and wave your fingers (held together) toward your body. (this is the same in El Salvador...the crooking index finger common in the US is meaningless there, too).
  • Gifts are never opened in the presence of the giver.
  • Good hostess gifts are cakes, fruit, or flowers...but not carnations or marigolds because those are 'funeral flowers.'
  • Flip-flops are considered very low-class.
  • Wear old shoes when you go to visit temples. Since you have to take them off and leave them outside, they may be stolen.
  • Casual clothing for women should be a light-weight dress or skirt/blouse. Capped or short sleeves are ok...sleeveless is not. Long shorts are ok, except in temples. There will be people renting sarongs there, in case you arrive improperly dressed and need to cover shoulders or knees (men or women).

Travelers Tales: Thailand
There are a whole series of these books, focusing on various countries or regions or traveler demographics. I checked this out from the library and started reading it. It's mostly a collection of short essays about different parts of Thai life and experiences and the first couple I read were very interesting and well-written. The essays are grouped into broader categories.

I started to read this and thought it would be the perfect book to read while traveling. I prefer short-story or essay collections for travel reading. Something about the short bits seems to lend itself to the interrupted reading time...a few minutes while waiting for boarding, a few more during final loading and cross-check, maybe a little longer while reaching altitude before something is served, etc. For me, it's less disruptive to read short things in those intervals than try to repeatedly re-enter a novel.

Long story short, I returned the book to the library and bought a copy to take with me and read on the trip.

Culture Smart! Thailand (Roger Jones)
Another series similar to Travelers Tales only this is more of a pocket guidebook to all things Thai...not essays or stories. This is another book I'll be packing but may also start reading in the meantime.

And, of course, there's always Mr Google. The internet is an amazing wealth of information. The problem is usually wading through the dross to get to the good stuff...and then determining the validity of that stuff.

01 April 2012

Thailand pResearch

As I've done in the past when I have an international trip coming up, I've been doing some pre-trip research (pResearch) about where I'm going, what to expect, do's/don'ts, etc. Here's what I've learned to date...

Misc stats and stuff

Bordering countries are: Cambodia (to the SE), Laos (E/NE), Myanmar (W/NW), and Malaysia (S). Also to the south is the Gulf of Thailand, off the North China Sea.

As of 2005, the population was about 64.8 million with a literacy rate of 92.6%. 95% of the country is Buddhist. According to the CIA Factbook, as of 2009, 9.6% of the Thai population was living below the poverty line. Unfortunately, they don't define what the definition of "poverty line" is for Thailand...they merely note that different countries use different standards depending on their relative wealth. By contrast, for the United States, it's 12%. In El Salvador, it's 38.6%

The "Bridge on the River Kwai" is in Thailand...on the western edge of the country. The river itself runs across most of the country.

In terms of land area, it's about the size of California plus Tennessee...just shaped differently.

Some cultural things:
  • Always stand (hands at sides) for the national anthem, which is played before movies, broadcast at 8am and 6pm daily, and at other times. Also stand for images of the king, which may or may not be displayed during the anthem. And never, ever say anything negative about the king or disrespect or deface an image of him.
  • Never point with your feet, touch anyone with a foot, put your feet up on chairs, or display the soles of the feet to Buddha statues.
  • Kind of in the same vein, don't cross your legs with one ankle on the opposite knee...it displays the sole of the shoe.
  • Don't touch people (especially children) on the head. If you accidently do so, apologize profusely.
  • Always take your shoes off when entering a home or temple. They consider wearing shoes inside to be disgusting.

There are colors associated with the days of the week. The last time I was in Thailand I remember that everyone (and I mean EVERYone) was wearing a yellow shirt on Monday. I asked about it and I was told that yellow is the color for Monday and because the king was born on a Monday, everyone wears yellow on Mondays to honor him.

The colors for the all the days are:
Sunday = Red
Monday = Yellow
Tuesday = Pink
Wednesday = Green
Thursday = Orange
Friday = Blue
Saturday = Purple

Wearing the right color on a given day, even if it is just a small bit of color, is a way to bring luck. Generally, a person's "lucky color" will be the color of the day they were born. I was born on a Friday, so that makes my lucky color Blue.

Black, as in Western culture, is the color for death and mourning. Although, I did find other web sites that said Purple was the color for mourning and widows and that black was the color of bad luck, unhappiness and evil. Either way, I'd say wearing black wouldn't be a good idea.


I always like to know at least a few phrases in whatever language I'll be immersed in...polite phrases like, "Hello" or "Thank you" and necessary phrases like "Where is the bathroom?" or "Not spicy, please." (VERY critical for Thai food, imo).

To that end, I've downloaded a bunch of 'learn Thai' podcasts to my iPod to try to learn these things. So far, it's not going so well...

For one thing, Thai, like most Asian languages is tonal...meaning the pitch is part of the critical meaning of the word. For Thai, there are 5 tones: mid (your normal speaking voice), high, low, rising and falling. These tones are applied to sylables, not words. So a polysyballic word could have a different intonation on each syllable. It's largely responsible for the "sing-song" reputation of Asian languages.

For a tone-deaf person like me, this presents a problem.

One of the podcasts I listened to talked about Thai tongue-twisters. One of them was the same word (spelling-wise) repeated with different intonations to make a Thai sentence that means "New wood doesn't burn, does it?" Without the varying intonations, the meaning doesn't exist. The phrase in Thai is: mai (high) mai (low) mai (falling) mai (falling) mai (high)

The other problem I'm having is just me. Apparently, my brain has language organized into "English" and "non-English". It's like there's this box in my head labeled "non-English" and it's apparently not well organized. Everytime I go rummaging around in the box for a Thai word, chances are really good that what I'm going to come up with instead is a Spanish word ... sometimes French ... maybe even American Sign Language .. or one of the random words in other languages I've picked up somewhere. "Matemshi" in Arabic (it means "Move it!") or "lekker" from South Africa (it means "Cool!"), for example. But I'm just not coming up with Thai.


One of the things I remember most fondly about my last trip to Thailand (2006) was the huge variety of fruit that was available...and a LOT of fruits I'd never seen or heard of before. It's frugivore heaven! Last time, I was there in August and this time it will be May so maybe there will be a different set of in-season fruits to try!

Fruits I remember:
Durian - one of those "you either love it or hate it" things. Put me down in the "Ugh!" category. The fruit is creamy and sort of banana shaped. It smells like rotting onions (blame it on the volatile sulfer compounds it contains). It tastes somewhat better than that, but not a lot. The smell is so strong, even in the hull, that in some places durian fruit are banned from public transportation.
Mangosteen - Loved it!

Jujube - I think these were in the fruit basket the hotel kept stocked in my room. I don't remember much about them.
Longan - I really liked these. They're very similar to another fruit in appearance but one grows in clusters like grapes and the other grows attached to the stem like brussels sprouts. I can never remember which is which. The taste is very similar, the only real difference is that the pit inside clings to the fruit in one and separates easily in the other.
Pomelo - like an oversized grapefruit but less juicy and milder flavor.
Rambutan - I really liked these too. They're about the size of a large egg, red on the outside with lots of neon green-tipped hairs all over. The flesh is translucent and tasty with a single pit in the middle.

Dragonfruit - These are tasty but I didn't have them much...in fact I may have eaten it only once, on the plane on the way to Bangkok. And at the time I had no idea what it was. The flesh is white or bright pink with tiny black seeds dispersed throughout. The outside looks like it ought to be an alien in a sci-fi movie...or something to aim at in a video game...sort of roundish, red and covered with bright green things that poke out like soft spikes.

There were lots of other "normal" fruits too...pineapple, banana, watermelon...but given an opportunity to try something new, I'll pretty much always take the new vs known. Especially in fruit. 

Insects, barbequed bats and grilled cobra...all of which I saw at street markets for sale...not so much. Although I'm not opposed to trying them, fruit just has more initial appeal!


I've been keeping an eye on what the weather is doing in Thailand right now (about 4 weeks ahead of my trip). Today, the 7-day forecast for Chiang Mai calls for daily highs of 98 to 100 (F), lows of 70 to 74, mostly sunny with a chance of rain a couple of the days, UV index in the extreme category, and relative humidity of 50%. Sunrise is 6:21am; sunset is 6:37pm although those times will shift some in the next 4 weeks as the days are still getting longer.

We've been having a really warm spring here in Iowa but not 100 degrees warm. The one thing that concerns me about the forecast is the UV index. The anti-malaria drug I'll be taking will make me more sensitive to the sun. Between the UV index and the meds, there's a really good chance I'll get fried if I'm not VERY careful.