Time to go home

Street seamstress converses during a sewing break

Street seamstress converses during a sewing break

Sadly, it’s time to pack up my things and start the long journey home. Although United says my seats aren’t “upgradeable,” I’m hoping I can sweet-talk the ticket agent in letting my buy an upgrade. I need it.

Anyway, the final day here went well. I think the Internews folks enjoyed themselves, although some were no doubt overwhelmed with information. But, it’s a great group who do great work and I’m going to miss them.

This place has everything from CS4 to "sexy movie" to all manner of lenses and computers
This place has everything from CS4 to "sexy movie" to all manner of lenses and computers

Before I pack up the laptop, I’ll quickly run through this last day. This morning I again woke at 3 a.m. (refreshed and ready to roll!), so I got some work done. After breakfast (check the Flickr feed!), I took a long walk to do some shopping at the giant tech mall. It is filled with low-cost goodies, like Adobe CS 4 for $5. That’s not a typo.

I thought about buying it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I also almost bought a camera for my wife, and thought about a nice new lens for my DSLR, but I decided to keep my money. Who know what I’d be getting? And forget about returning anything.

Along the way to the mall, I got a slightly better sense of Bangkok and what a gigantic, sprawling city it is. It’s also a complete mishmash of seemingly incongruent sights and sounds. The sidewalks are filled with entrepreneurs, from those selling street food, to shoe smiths, to seamstresses. Just behind them are gigantic malls, filled with things to buy — often Western brands. On the streets, brightly colored taxis pay no attention to whatever traffic laws might exist.

See the little thing in the middle? That's what I was riding in (not that one)
See the little thing in the middle? That's what I was riding in (not that one)

Once I was finished looking that knock-off IT goods, I risked life and limb by taking what amounts to a motorized rickshaw back to the hotel.  I was already dripping with sweat and didn’t need another 30-minute walk in the hot, humid, polluted air.

After lunch, it was time for the presentation. People seemed to be engaged and I had a fun time. We spent most of the time embedding YouTube videos into Google Maps, and then embedding those maps into a blog entry.

Riverboats passing in the night
Riverboats passing in the night

Then it was time for a relaxing supper cruise on the river that courses through Bangkok. The breeze and the company was welcome.

But now, it’s time to go. Thanks, Bangkok.

The streets of Bangkok

Street soup
Street soup

One of the more challenging aspects of Bangkok to capture is the smells of the city. First, the heavy pollution and exhaust is pervasive, though also subtle. I wouldn’t say it feels like you’re sucking on a tailpipe and smoking 10 packs of cigarettes in one go. But, the warm, humid air is heavy with pollution.

Walking down the street, a variety of smells assault you. Passing over a grate in the sidewalk, you’re confronted with the rotting stench of sewage. But then, just steps later, you pass by the sweet smell of fresh-made cakes, the spicy aroma of chili, or the tender taste of grilled meats.

And, since the vendors all use open barbecue fires, the smell of burning charcoal wafts through the air, bringing some kind of odiferous harmony to the auto exhaust, sewage and street food. It’s quite the juxtaposition of odors.

I'd love to see this street food in D.C.
I'd love to see this street food in D.C.

The number of Thais cooking and serving meals along the sidewalk is simply astounding. There’s a timeless quality to it, as if this has been going on for centuries — which might well be the case. And, of course, it’s not just hot food that you’ll find, but also drinks, fruit, peanuts and more. It puts D.C.’s pathetic pretzels, hot dogs and cases of overprice water and sodas to shame.

The prices can’t be beat, either; less than a dollar for hot, freshly made dinner.

Oh, and one more thing. I love that I’m discovering new fruit here. I already mentioned the dragon fruit in a previous post. Yesterday, I came across these little purple buggers. At first I thought they might be figs, but they aren’t. They have a hard, bitter outer shell that is deep purple (and stains). Inside is a white flesh, sectioned sort of like an orange, but with the texture of a fleshy grape. (Someone said they look like little brains. Don’t let that scare you.) They are absolutely delicious. They’re called mangosteens and apparently they don’t travel well, so if you want them (and you do), get thee to the tropics and go nuts.


I don't know what these are called...
Mangosteens are the (purple) bomb

Training session

Journalists and program leaders in training

Journalists and program leaders in training

Yesterday I held my first training session and I think it went well. We mostly talked about and demonstrated Twitter, Google Maps/Earth, and simple tips for effective video.

The class comprises journalists and program directors from Internews’s Asia offices. As always with these sorts of things, people come in with various levels of knowledge and skills, and so while some might find portions tedious because they are already familiar, for others it’s all new and, perhaps, a little confusing.

But these are fun people who do serious work. Some of them risk their lives to spread journalism in journalism-unfriendly countries. Here, though, cheekiness reigns. The 50 or so people were divided into 9 teams, and each had to come up with a team captain, a team name and a team color.

Teams shoot short videos with Flip cameras
Teams shoot short videos with Flip cameras

Do this activity at GE or IBM and you might get colors like “blue,” “red,” and “yellow.” Not here. “Burnt orange,” called out one group. “Azure!” shouted another. “Rust!” And the best? “Transparent.” Oooh, nice journalism pun!

After we finished the in-class training, the nine teams hit the streets to record some short stories. Some were sent to the nearby red light district, others headed to a local bar, while still others paid a visit to the wild Komodo dragons at a nearby park. 

After collecting our stories, it was time for some cold beers and hot food. At the next session, we’ll upload the videos, embed the videos on a Google map and place the map on our blogs. And then we’ll go on a dinner cruise.

Thailand notes, day 3

Thai buffetFirst things first… another amazing dinner. The entire crew met at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, which supports poor Thai people through sex education, family planning, etc.

Not only is it good public policy, the food is divine. The buffet was overflowing with spicy shrimp soup, beef and potato curry, grilled seafood, satay, fried bananas and more. Absolutely fantastic.

The restaurant itself is pretty cheeky, too. It took me a few minutes before I realized the lanterns were all made out of condoms. There were also condom statues, such as a superhero made of condoms and a Santa made of condoms. Brilliant.

Condoms make the best light
Condoms make the best light

Clearly, the sex trade is of big concern here. Many prostitutes line the streets at night, and the red light district isn’t far from my hotel, though I’ve not gone over there, despite assurances from my female colleagues that it’s worth seeing.

Obviously, Bangkok has a reputation for sex tourism, which can color one’s observations on the street. You see plenty of pairings of Western men and Thai women. To assume they are all prostitutes would be cynical; plenty of Westerners live here and surely there are normal couplings. Then again, to ignore the realities of the pervasive prostitution would be naive. It actually kind of bothers me that I find myself trying to figure out which couples belong to which category. It’s rather sad.

Speaking of sad, here, like anywhere else, there are plenty of homeless people. However, what I’ve been particularly struck by is the use of children to beg for money. I’m talking about tiny children — 2, 3 years old. They have blackened feet and sad, tired faces. I thought about taking one little girl’s picture and tried to ask her if that would be okay, but she didn’t understand and I didn’t feel right about taking the photo.


Condom lanterns - safety first!
Condom lanterns - safety first!

Adventures in street food

Beef satay satisfies the soul
Beef satay satisfies the soul

By the time dinner rolled around, I was starving. Where to go? I needed to get out of the hotel, so I asked the concierge for suggestions. He named a couple of places and handed my a small map. Off I went.

After strolling around for a while, I decided that a restaurant wasn’t what I was looking for. In fact, I’ve already got dinner plans for my remaining two nights, so if I wanted to engage in culinary urban warfare, Bangkok-style, I needed to gird my guts and head for the real stuff.

I shall call her, Lady Larb
I shall call her Lady Larb

Oh sure, there are plenty of restaurants, though it seemed easier to spot the Italian, Korean, Chinese and pizza parlors than any authentic Thai establishments. And I’m sure they would have been perfectly tasty. But where’s the adventure in that? The street food here is so obviously part of the culture. Ignoring it would be like going to a baseball game and getting eggplant Parmesan. It just wouldn’t be right.

Even so, it took me a while before I grew confident enough to pony up the bahts. Eventually, I saw some beef satay stacked up on a tray. “I’ll take two,” I told the chef. He grabbed two sticks, stuffed them in the plastic sack and took my 20 baht.

As I walked down the street chewing the dry, tasty morsels, I wondered if I should go back for more. He had plenty of other offerings. No, I decided. Let’s try some others.

Soon, I passed an old woman with trays of fried rice, ground meat and other items. I smelled the familiar smell of chilis and citrus. “Is that larb gai?” I asked.

Larb gai is my brother's metric for Thai authenticity
Larb gai is my brother's metric for Thai authenticity

“Larb gai,” she answered. I’ll take it. She spooned some rice into a styrofoam tray and heaped a helping of hot ground chicken atop it. “Twenty-five baht,” she said.

I hurried back to my hotel, too hungry to stay out any longer. Back in my room, I opened the tray and scarfed it down. Damn, I thought. I should have gotten something to drink. That woman knows how to make larb gai spicy.

By the way, for those keeping tabs at home, my 45-baht meal equates to about $1.15. Who said the dollar is doing poorly?

Thailand notes, day 2


A beautiful Asian elephant

Today was my first full day in Bangkok and I spent it in a bit of a haze. After a short and fitful sleep, I woke up early and got to work on my presentations, which I continued to tweak and adjust throughout the day. I met with the folks for whom I’ll be presenting and worked out details. I’m rather excited about the presentations. I have to admit — and I’m ashamed to admit that this spouse of an Aussie — I was unable to place the accent of one of my contacts. Turns out she’s from the New South Wales/Victoria border.


After watching Obama’s press conference (does his halting speech [when not making a speech] bother anyone else?), I looked over the lunch buffet, which was even more amazing than the breakfast bar (think chocolate fountain). Still stuffed from breakfast, I decided to give myself a break and wait for dinner.

The wait was worth it. Since I hadn’t gotten out of the hotel all day, it was time to do some exploring. I headed out into the night with a single mission: find some street food. It was a task made all-too-easy by the numerous vendors and all-too-tough thanks to my inability to identify anything.

I got no more than 10 feet down the sidewalk when I noticed a hulking mass behind me. I turned around only to see an elephant. “You want a ride?” a small elderly woman asked me. (She wasn’t the only one tonight who asked me that, I should mention). I demurred, though I did take the opportunity to snap a few shots. Of the elephant.


Colorful taxis
Colorful taxis

The street the hotel is on is a crowded one, and not just because of the cars, which are as colorful as a handful of Skittles. Seriously, the taxis look like they came straight off the set of a Vin Diesel movie. 

Lining the sidewalks are innumerable vendors of all things sex, knock-offs, media and t-shirts. Beggars, too, and usually with a small child draped over their laps. Unlike in D.C., though, these beggars have a Zen-like way of asking for money. They press their palms against each other and nod. I know it’s the customary greeting here, but it’s still strikingly humble.

At the same time, a surprising (to me) number of destitute are missing limbs. A one-legged, one-armed man was lying prone on the sidewalk, dragging himself down the sidewalk like an inchworm. He’d push his change bucket ahead and then use his hand to pull his body along.


Crowded sidewalks
Crowded sidewalks

It’s notable how many Westerners there were walking around tonight. Most, it should be said, were men. Funny enough, many of them had petite Thai girls with them. I’m not drawing any conclusions. I’m just saying.

Speaking of which, I found two groups of people incredibly friendly with me as I went for my stroll. The first were young (and some not so young) women who were lounging against lamp posts and waving through the windows of massage parlors.

The second group were men, crouched in front of the innumerable haberdasheries. I’m not sure why there are so many tailors around here, but there are. And they all want my business.

In the next post, I’ll write about my adventures with street food.

Baht tipper

Thai Baht

That's $250, or about 8,800 baht.

So, my mind was a bit fried last night. Traveling around the world will do that to you. Anyway, the cab ride was 500 baht… about $18, I think. (One baht is about 3 cents.) Now, and here’s the thing, all of the Thai currency — or, at least, all of the Thai currency I have — is in paper form. So, you have a 20-baht bill, you might be inclined to think that’s worth something.

Ok, so the cab ride was 500 baht. I gave him a 100-baht tip. I figure, 20 percent.

I check into the hotel and porter brings up my bag. He gets to the room and I rummage through my wad of bahts and hand him a 20-baht bill. He thanks me and leaves.

I’m starving, so I call down to room service and order some pad thai. Then it occurs to me, how much did I tip that porter? Shit, it’s like 60 cents! Sigh.

Shortly thereafter, room service arrives. I tip the guy 100 baht. It’s a guilt-tip. I even think, can I give this guy another 50 baht and have him give it to the porter? I start to ask, but it’s clear the guy has no clue what I’m saying. In an effort to avoid a Curb Your Enthusiasm debacle, I just thank him and he leaves.

Quickly, I turn to Twitter and ask for help. Am I tipping too much? Too little? Within seconds, friends and strangers reply with the answer. The 20-baht tip was a bit low, the 100-baht tip was a bit high. The cabby probably didn’t expect a tip.

Ok, so I’m learning. This morning I leave 40 baht on the breakfast table. It’s probably not necessary, but screw it. I’m tipping and I’m erring on the side of too much.

By the way, the gallery of meals continues to grow:

First breakfast

Landing in Tokyo; Bangkok

Flying into Tokyo was nothing like I expected, although come to think of it, I think I was imagining flying into Hong Kong. I recall reading somewhere that plans have to make a sharp turn when flying into that city, to avoid all of the skyscrapers. I must have inserted Tokyo in place of Hong Kong.

In any event, I was surprised as we flew in to see all of the farms stretching from the sea to the airport. Although, from the air, it looked like many other towns surrounding an airport — think Cleveland or Chicago — I could discern the various Japanese pagodas and expertly-tended fields. Seeing a few baseball diamonds made me smile, as well.

I was both pleased and a little disappointed to see all of the English signs at Tokyo’s airport. I mean, it was helpful to be sure. At the same time, I really wanted to feel like I was someplace else. Tokyo’s airport is definitely different — it’s very clean, bright, and, well, Japanese — but still.

The short layover eliminated much possibility of exploration. So, on to Bangkok. The flight was uneventful. A Japanese man sat two seats over and looked askance at me when I took pictures of my food. So it goes.

Upon landing in Bangkok, I made my way through customs without any trouble. It was near midnight local time — noon the day before my time, but I’d been traveling for more than 24 hours already — and so I was ready to get to the hotel. Taxi drivers barked at me from a balcony, but I followed fellow passengers to the official taxi line.

My driver, Ali, didn’t speak much English. So he turned on the radio and I just looked out the window. At first, the radio played what I can only presume to be local Thai music. But soon, he changed it to a classic rock station. I don’t think it was just for my benefit. He quickly started singing along with Jackson Browne (Oh won’t you staaayyyy, just a little bit longerrrrr????) and James Taylor.

As I looked out the window, I could see what a mishmash of new and old/rich and poor this city was. Shacks — they appeared to be Thai strip malls, really — lined the highway so close to the shoulder that I wondered if cars ever crashed into them. 

Then a silver station wagon with neon ground lights zoomed past. “Ambulance,” it said. It looked more like something out of The Fast and the Furious than a medical vehicle. Meanwhile, I was taken with the sheer number of advertising signs in English hawking products of multinational companies. There’s something sad about the unending encroachment of the West. Sort of like how all of the videos on the flights were American or British. Perhaps that’s a function of it being an American airline. Still, the flight was from Tokyo to Bangkok. Why no local programming?

Nonetheless, as my driver wended his way down the highway and I noted the complete lack of seat belts inside the car (and the prolific number of dogs outside), I found myself looking forward to exploring this city. So much to see. So much to learn. So much to eat. And then, as we coursed through a narrow street lined with food carts and people — like a Bangkokian version of Bourbon street — I did a double take. Was that an elephant walking down the street?

Yes, it was. Maybe elephants here are like handsome cabs in New York City, except without the Irish brogue driver. (Well, I guess the driver could have been Irish, I admit, I didn’t stop and ask him.) A few minutes later, a second elephant.

Ok, I’m in Thailand now.

Going to Thailand: 21 hours on a plane (well, two planes)

The first thing I noticed about the 777 was that I could stand up straight in it. Woohoo! for big planes! The second thing I noticed was that I would have much preferred to be in Business Class or First Class. Yeah, well, so it goes.

I got to my seat and was happy to discover that nobody would be sitting next to me. Also, every seat had a little video screen embedded in the headrest of the seat in front of us. The surprising thing — to me, anyway — was that the quality of the video screen was so terrible. I mean, it wasn’t unwatchable, but considering the iPhone I had in my hand, I have to wonder why airplane entertainment systems are so third rate. Even the map of the flight, which I became addicted to, looked more Atari-age than Google-age.

My assumption going into this trip was that we’d be flying across the U.S. I was looking forward to seeing the Rockies and the Grand Canyon from the air, as I’ve done many time before. But, to my surprise, the captain told us our trip would route us through Canada, the arctic circle, over Alaska and into Russia.

Russia? I hadn’t expected to be thinking about the KoreanAir passenger jet that was shot down years ago, but there it was. I sure as hell hope we have airspace clearance.

Anyway, the view as we flew north was spectacular. (Um, no photos… sorry). The cracked ice sheets made it look like we were flying over Io. In Russia, the snow-covered hills and mountains of Siberia were stunningly beautiful. The outside air temperature at 30,000 feet was negative 71 degrees. I found myself thinking that a splashdown here would definitely NOT have the same happy outcome as the Miracle on the Hudson.

It was also around this time that I wondered just where we would go if we had to make an emergency landing. It wasn’t just theoretical, either. Just before we approached the international date line, a woman behind me collapsed. Passengers and crew members rushed to her aid. The captain came out of the cockpit. The woman was having a diabetic seizure.

“Orange juice! We need orange juice!” one of the attendees called out. Apparently she got her medical training from watching The Godfather, Part III. But, armed with OJ and oxygen, they got the woman stabilized and back to her seat. Then they gave her lots of juice and pretzels. (Later, I would get so hungry that I thought about staging my own diabetic seizure in hopes of earning a few ounces of those precious pretzels.)

With that crisis averted, I took to looking over my fellow passengers. I noticed a blonde woman an aisle over reading Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburnt Country.” It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and the perfect accompanyment to a trip of this length. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that for the entire 14 hours, the woman never even cracked a smile. Clearly, she was brain damaged.

The Asian guy in front of my was watching the airline video as well as his own portable video player. I couldn’t tell what either video was, but the multitasking was impressive.

As for me? I read Michael Wolff’s unbearable “The Man Who Owns the News,” listened to some episodes of Fresh Air and tried to get some sleep.

Speaking of Fresh Air, I thought of three things as I listened to various interviews:

  • Laurence Lessig says many blogs “aren’t worth the electrons they use.” I think he was specifically referring to this one.
  • I really don’t understand why so many journalists refer to the Heritage Foundation without pointing out its conservative agenda. It’s hardly a neutral source.
  • It pisses me off that health care is linked to employment. That is royally screwing us. Think of all the people who could be entrepenuers if there was government-back (and required) health insurance.
  • I wonder if Barack Obama has saved the Democratic Party from losing the black vote. It seems to me that Republicans could make big in roads with the black community through its socially conservative/religious views. Then again, it is a party that can’t see why the confederate flag would be a problem.

Of course, this isn’t about politics. It’s about going to Thailand. It’s just, over 21 hours of flying, the mind gets to wandering. Next up: landing in Bangkok.

Notes on Thailand, Day 1

It’s strange to begin a trip at noon on Sunday and arrive at your destination on what is essentially 1 a.m. Tuesday. But, that’s what it’s like to fly from D.C. to Bangkok. It’s about as long of a trip as it is to Australia, although the nice thing about this is that I got in late, so I could go right to bed.

During the flights – there were two of them, one from Dulles to Tokyo (direct) and a second from Tokyo to Bangkok — and on my cab ride from the airport to the hotel, I jotted down some things of interest. So, here goes my notes from day 1 (or is it days 1-3?).

I flew United, which was good for my miles, though probably less so for my stomach (see my Flickr feed of “Food from my trip to Thailand — which I’ll continue to update), and continue to be somewhat impressed by United’s use of the Internet. I don’t fly enough different airlines to know how they all make use of the Web, but being able to check in, select my seat, print my boarding pass, etc., all ahead of time is great. However, it is annoying how many different little upgrades they offer. I bought Economy Plus for some extra legroom (being 6′ 5″, I need it!), but $40 for expedited security? What, like a terrorist would be too cheap to buy that?

Potbelly Express does brisk business in hot peppers
Potbelly Express does brisk business in hot peppers

While waiting to board the flight, I got a breakfast sandwich at Potbelly Express and noticed a shelf of hot peppers. “Who would buy a jar of hot pepper from a fast food restaurant at an airport?” I thought. It seemed a ridiculous notion. Literally 10 seconds later, a man next to me in line said, “I’ll have a jar of those hot peppers. They’re really good.” I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but if there is, he must enjoy fucking with me.

Thai Baht
Thai Baht
Japanese Yen
Japanese Yen

Anyway, I took my sandwich and plugged into the power bar, so I could be at tip-top power for my flight. (That ended up being only moderately helpful… my two MacBook Pro batteries each lasted barely 90 minutes.) And, I also took the opportunity to get some Yen and Baht, though I probably needn’t have bothered… especially with the Yen, as the Tokyo airport accepted U.S. dollars — and I didn’t even buy anything. Still, the money is beautiful.

Once we boarded the 777 — my first trip on the new Boeing — the trip officially got underway. More on that in my next post.