Friday, December 27, 2013

Happy New Year 2014

New Year Greetings from a Foreign Land,


As nearly a year has already passed since the start of a new life in a new land, I thought a little update is in order.  Just to note, I am having the time of my life here and regret nothing about the move with the exception of leaving friends.


I am loving Thailand for many reasons which include economy of living expenses, Buddhism as a “to each, his own” way of life -not even a religion really-, relaxed no hurry atmosphere, being able to get anywhere in the city within 15 minutes on a motorbike, Thai food, and the intrigue of the very different Thai culture.


In preparing for this move, I learned that many expats become bored with Thailand after the exoticness has worn off.  They become frustrated with “Thainess” and the inconveniences –which there are many- as a trade-off to live here.  These expats usually have never learned the language and have limited their friends to English speakers and never tried to integrate into the culture.  My lesson in reading about this prompted me to get culturally involved as soon as possible.


My connections here have largely been made through Albert who I knew back in Three Rivers decades ago.  He had moved to Alaska to become a fisherman and he and his Alaskan friends have been spending winters in Thailand for many years.  So on my initial vacation trip here two years ago I began to meet some of these Alaskan “part timers” who enjoyed the warm weather, Thai food, and inexpensive living.  As I honed my preferences of where in the country I wanted to live, I found Dave living in Chiang Mai with his girlfriend Nut.  Correspondence with Dave lead me to my present apartment where he and Nut reside also.  The apartment rental price is low, location good, and the landlady is very accommodating.  My unit has a furnished living room, large bedroom with two beds, built-in closets, and an open balcony facing the direction of town with a kitchen at one end and a bathroom at the other end.  I like having the kitchen outside (enclosed on three sides) since the odors of cooking and kitchen heat don’t permeate the living quarters.  It is also always warm enough to shower in the enclosed bathroom.  In fact I have only closed the sliding glass doors from the balcony a few times in hot season to use the aircon since the weather is most agreeable in all five seasons.  Thailand has an added “rainy season” to the winter, summer, spring, and fall.  Short sleeves can be worn year-round except, perhaps, on an early morning motorcycle ride in the cool season.  A light (very light) blanket is only necessary on the coolest nights.


The weather is very tolerable with a minimum of bugs and mosquitoes.  Life is easy not having to dress for anything except warm weather and the occasional downpour that will last a hour at the most (in rainy season only).  Fruit grows wild all around and quite good street food is available everywhere for a dollar.


I ride a motorbike since owning a car would be a burden.  Motorcycles are kings of the road and a 15 minute trip on a bike would take 45 minutes in a car.  Mountains, well high hills, are right at our back door and riding up there is a cool and pleasant outing.  Even 3 or 4 day trips are easy on the motorbike since the weather always cooperates.


In the first months of settling in, I joined a quirky choir I first heard perform outside town.  It was a strange combination of foreign harmonies and words to my ear.  I learned that these were traditional  ancient Bulgarian and Georgian songs sung a’capella and the harmonies were rich and complex.  I last sang in high school almost 50 year ago, but my love of singing still lingered.  I’ve been with the choir for eight months and we’ve performed a couple concerts and even at a TED talk.  The choir, called Global Harmonies, is becoming better known here and I expect we’ll be doing a world tour soon (just kidding).  My friends there speak with many different accents and conversations often break out into Dutch, French, and German.


Learning the Thai language was a priority in order to be able to function in a community other than the expat enclave.  There are many, many Thai language schools around, but most are short term sessions in 4 or 5 levels.  I knew Thai is difficult to learn and I could imagine myself taking one level and being discouraged enough to not take another.  The solution was to jump in with both feet and sign up at the local university language institute for a one-year course, so I’ve been studying there for 7 months.  We are not only learning to speak, but read and write as well, which the other courses do not offer.  Why learn a language if you cannot read it?  The class is also an introduction to Thai culture and we take field trips to museums, temples, craft outlets, and other things of interest.  Next week we’ll be cooking Thai food in class of our favorite foods.  We’ve each been given a recipe and list of ingredients which we’ll buy at a local market, bring back to the class kitchen and prepare using our recipe written in Thai.  We also must present our recipe and explain how to cook it to other classes that will come in to hear it.  They will ask questions which we must answer to the best of our ability.  Next week we’ll be making “sky lanterns” which we’ll launch in the upcoming Loi Krathong festival.


Life in Thailand is very difficult to explain since the concept of “Thainess” is such a cultural departure from anything I imagined or learned about in my one-year preparation to make this life-changing sojourn.  The first exposure to the Thai way for the western visitor is the concept of “saving face” which is taught from infancy as one of the most important personal aspect of a person’s identity.  To avoid loss of face a Thai person can never be made to feel uneducated, inadequate, in the wrong, or even mildly unaware.  This “lose of face” is a personal affront to a Thai person which manifests in what westerners would call outright lying.  To a Thai it is perfectly normal to make up a fantastical story rather than to appear to loose face, so a westerner can never tell if the information is correct or not.  Fortunately some stories are so outrageous that it becomes obvious immediately.  The answer to a question will never be “no”,  or “I don’t know” which makes it difficult to get directions, find something in a store, or even to find out what a Thai really thinks about something.  If a question about preference is asked of a Thai person, ie. “do you like this”, what would you like to do”, the answer will always be “up to you”.


I love my choice, but as always in Thailand things are subject to change.  At the present we have protest demonstrations in Bangkok pro government against anti government.  Apparently this happens fairly often and depending on the outcome sometimes can make changes to expat life in terms of visa regulations, healthcare, etc.


I welcome visitors any time if you can tolerate the long flight, but the best weather is Dec. through mid Feb.   March and April are not recommended since agriculture burning keeps us in a blanket of smoke from forest and rice field burning.


My best to you all

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Refrigeration of Eggs Unnecessary in Thailand

I've been curious about why eggs in Thailand are not refrigerated, so I did a little investigation on the subject.

Old habits die hard but I have managed to overcome this one.  Eggs in Thailand are never refrigerated.  They are never sold refrigerated and no Thai would ever think of storing them in the fridge.  Correction: Some Thais store eggs in the refrigerator as I found out recently simply because there is a place in the fridge door made especially for them, not because they think they stay fresher refrigerated.  These are the eggs in my kitchen.

The reason Thai eggs can stay out is that they are fresh off the farms and not produced in the same kind of mass production facilities as they are in the U.S.  Eggs are not refrigerated in most other countries either, just in the U.S.

I remember as a youngster that we did not store our eggs in the fridge, but in a wire basket shaped like a chicken on the kitchen counter.  That was the old days.  Now in the U.S. commercial eggs are required by law to be sold refrigerated because they are pressure washed which removes the outer layer of protective natural coating and are sometimes as much as three weeks old before hitting the supermarket.  Commercial eggs have a higher likelihood of contamination with bacteria and add to that the fact that the U.S. has become an excessively litigious society.  You can still buy fresh eggs from farmer's markets and fresh off the farm without need to refrigerate, but we have been indoctrinated into believing to "err on the side of caution" on this subject.

Baking is best done using room temperature eggs, so here in Thailand we don't have to let them come up to ambient room temperature, since they are right there on the counter to use immediately.  Even though it is a very warm climate here, the eggs do just fine.  Quail eggs are also very popular here and usually are found as little fried treats at street stalls.

In my independent egg study I have found that once refrigerated, eggs should not be left out to use later but kept refrigerated.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How Difficult is it to Learn Thai?

Thai script is difficult enough to master, but throw in the reading difficulty, word placement, no space between words, no capitalization, no plurals or punctuation and you've got a perfect storm.  To try to illustrate I will translate one of our recent reading exercises in the way you would see it on the written page except the lines would not be separated, only a space between sentences.

yesterdaywednesdaymistertimlearnthaiatschool actuallymistertimlearnthaiperweekgofivedays classroommistertimhaveeverybodypersonhimthinklearnthaidifficult todaygolearnthai teacherwithstudentgoplaysporttogether teacherlikeplaywallyballmuchbuthesametimelikeplaybasketballmorethan intwodaysdayholidaythinkhegotowaterfall waterfallbenearwithwatnaihousingcommunity misterrtimandgovisitwithfriendpeoplethaitwopeople hisfriendofmistertimwantgowaterfallfinishedalsodrinkbeeratwaterfallalso  mistertimthinkholidaythiswillgofun

It reads:
yesterday Wednesday mister tim learn thai at school  actually mister tim learn thai per week go five days classroom  mister tim have everybody person him think learn thai difficult  today go learn thai teacher with student go play sport together  teacher like play vallyball much but he same time like play basketball more than  in two days day holiday think he go to waterfall  waterfall be near with wat nai housing community  mister tim go visit with friend people thai two people his friend of mister tim want go waterfall finished also drink beer at waterfall also  mister tim think holiday this will go fun 

In order to ever to be able to speak this language with any fluency one would have to "think in Thai" which will take many years!

I can now see why Google Translate does such a terrible job.  It tries to do literal translation which doesn't work well.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Quick Side Job

I've been asked to correct the English on a website touting Thai massage.  This little job, I thought, would be easy since inserting descriptive words into an existing text is simple.  When I opened the webpage the following is what I found:

The intellect massages Thai plan have inherit arrive late long ago. At The best, get foresee the
worth and maintain heal keep for serve give with you, long more ago 14 year with warmly greeting
and acquainted in Thai Lanna atmosphere.

If you want to avoid from confusing life for liberates the stiffness and relax, The Best Thai Massage

is the best choice most comfortably for you with the best place in the middle of city as luxuriouy

The best receive support establishment standard massage for the health from Thailand Government.

OK, it is marginally understandable, but needs
more than mere "clean-up".  It needs to be

Most Thai text on signage, brochures,
and websites are at best, backward,
misspelled, wrong words or confused
words.  Most of us find this quaint and
amusing, but in certain cases the meaning
is lost in translation.  If one tries to use
Google Translate, for instance, what comes
out is less than understandable.  This
translation for instance when the boy who
tried to get rid of the pigeons in my attic
wanted to go home and come back another day:

It says: "It will help you have some time.
But if you can make your own bird. 
Then again I would not dare for fear of

So as I rewrite the text with the help of

Nut, my neighbor for the original
meaning, I realize I am removing the
"Thainess", which westerners enjoy
because this "exoticness" is what makes Thailand
so fun to visit.  Am I really helping, or making the
website plain and boring for foreigners?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sixth Month Impression of Living in Thailand

June marks my sixth month of retirement in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I thought it might be a good time to report some random impressions of Thai culture.  Please note that the following thoughts are mine and mine alone and may not align with the thoughts of others.

But first, a few thoughts: Don't even think of bringing a coat to Thailand.  Although Thais wear jackets and sweatshirts while driving around in 80% weather, a westerner would overheat.  Leave regular shoes at home (makes for easier packing).  Sandals and flip-flops are de rigueur for any venue.  Keep in mind that in Thailand "things change".  Don't expect things to happen "on time" or that something about your reservations, start time, or program won't change.  Everything changes and it is best to be prepared and expect it or you will become very frustrated. 

In general, the cultural differences from western society is vast and often frustrating and incomprehensible to western culture. 

Belief System:  Thais are mostly Buddhist which formulates much of their outlook on life.  Human life is not as precious here because you will be reborn into (hopefully) a better life.  I think this may explain their cavalier attitude toward driving recklessly and not wearing helmets, etc.  There is very little worry about anything since you are in the hands of the Buddha and he will take care of everything.  Wearing an amulet (Buddha image) around your neck or hanging from your rear view mirror will protect you from traffic accidents, being shot, crashing your motorcycle or _______ (fill in the blank).  With this attitude you don't have to worry about being careful or particularly mindful about your actions.  This drives westerners crazy as they view such an attitude as not taking responsibility for your actions and sometimes endangering others.

Christian missionaries have converted a fair number of Buddhist Thais, about 10% in Chiang Mai, from their traditional beliefs.  Although I generally abhor religious evangelism invading a country, Christian endeavors have vastly improved education, and contributed significantly to healthcare and were responsible for introduction of the printing press to Thailand.  Being Christian, by-the-way, does not change the belief system much.  You just put a statue of Mary on your dash instead of the Buddha and Jesus will protect you from mishaps.

Education:  Public education in Thailand is abysmal as one might expect in a non-first world country.  Although there are so many ways to interpret "second and third world" that even using the term seems a bit pretentious.  Is it measured by socieo-economic status and per-capita income (the minimum wage in Thailand has just increased to $9 a day) , the number and amount of exports, environmental sophistication?  Public school children soon learn that teachers are not allowed to fail them.  This produces students who realize they don't have to study.  The result is grown people who haven't learned very much and have become lazy about learning anything new.  I have friends who teach here who tell me about the level of learning of their students.  They are taught "What to think" rather than "how to think" which carries through to adult life.  One of my teacher friends who teaches a GED (high school equivalency) course tested his students on the difference between "opinion" and "fact".  100% of the students failed.  After discussion and explanation of the difference, only a few passed the second test.  They have been conditioned to actually not learn.  This makes it impossible to critically think through  problems and come up with solutions so they revert to what they have been told about the world which is often backward and seemingly irrational.  Thais are not stupid as many westerners believe, they have just had poor education and resort to superstition and magical thinking.  If you remember a previous post about having pigeons in the attic and the resulting non-ability to correct the problem would be one example of non-critical thinking.  Another example is when I made a suggestion about how to shade our water tank from the hot sun with bamboo so the water didn't scald you in an afternoon shower, the reply was "it won't work".  Upon further questioning the reason it "wouldn't work" is because they had never seen it done before. 

English is now being taught starting in very low grades and a portion of each day is spent learning English.  Students, however, don't see a need to learn English, don't see a reason to learn it, and the majority probably will never use English in their everyday lives.  The result is high school graduates who can only say "hello, how are you".  Knowing English, or other western language is the key to further education because science, technology, history are not accessible in Thai, either on the Internet or elsewhere.  It is these students who are relegated to $9 a day wages with no way to improve their lives.

Private and Christian schools, on the other hand, produce students of high academic standard and any Thai family who could afford to would opt for sending their children to these schools.  These are the students who go on to college, get good jobs, get good salaries, can support a poor family, and can function in an international society.

Can't Say "No":  Thais are taught that "saving face" is the most important thing in life.  There are cases where a Thai was embarrassed in public and retaliated by killing.  There have been many Thais who committed suicide over being made to feel stupid.  A westerner would be well advised not to argue with or make any kind of remark that might embarrass a Thai because subsequent retaliation can be harsh.  For this reason no Thai will say "no" to any question.  Saying "no" for a Thai is the same thing as saying "I am stupid for not knowing", thus "losing face".  For the same reason no Thai can say "I don't know", or "I'm not sure".  Instead when asked a question, Thais will just make something up.  If you are in a store and ask "where is the milk", if they don't know they will just point in any direction, or it's also common for them to say "we don't have it".  I particularly enjoy when asking a question getting an answer completely off-topic.  This makes it easy to determine they don't know instead of their making up an answer.  Again, westerners, especially new-to-the-country westerners, misinterpret this as "lying".  They complain that Thais would rather lie to you than give the right answer.

After all is said and done, it is misunderstanding and misinterpreting of cultural differences that keep us from enjoying each other. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Learning to Speak Thai

After feeling more settled in my new country/city/culture I have enrolled in a year-long Thai language course (yikes!).  This instruction is from the Language Institute at Chiang Mai University, only a 10 minute moto ride from home.  It is the same location on the university campus as the pool where I enjoy membership.

Learning Thai is a huge challenge for me realizing that information input into the older brain does not stick as well as it used to.  When study time used to be a cursory once-over, now even with repeated forays into the books, these strange symbols meet my eyes with little or no recognition.  It boils down to learning a "code" because Thai letters are completely foreign.  Also there is a disconnect between being able to recognize a letter and being able to reproduce it in written form.

Consider these differences from English:

1.  There are no plural forms for adjectives and nouns.
2.  There are no verb conjugations in Thai.  Tenses are understood from context or references of time.
3.  There are no articles (a, an, the) which strikes the westerner as "pigeon speak".
4.  There is no verb "to be".  "she is beautiful" comes out "she beautiful", which also sounds pigeon.
5.  The subject of a sentence is often not included, but understood from context.
6.  (The Big One)  Thai is a tonal language.  Even if you pronounce a word correctly, if the tone is not right it is a different word altogether.  There are 5 separate tones that are very difficult for the western ear to distinguish.

Example:   The word "mai" can mean any of the following depending on tone.  1. "new"  2. "no, not"  3. ", right?"  4. "mile"  5. "silk"       Chiang Mai literally means City New (adjective follows the noun)

If you get the tone wrong, you could be saying: "not the city", "Chiang, right?" (which could be referring to Chang beer), "Mile City", or "Silk City".

Westerners often believe that if they get the word correct (ignoring the tone)
 that Thais will figure out what they are talking about, but with this example you can see why they can't.

These are vowels with qualifying marks to make them a "short sound" or a "long sound".  Each one is just one letter!  There are 19 vowels, some with both short and long sounds, and 20 consonants.  The sound markings are even more complicated to learn than the letters themselves.

The good news is that people do learn Thai.  The only question is if I can!

Looking at this post almost a month after posting, I should be able to read this page, but can't.  Reason: the photo is upside down!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Chinese/Thai BBQ

My neighbor Nut invited me along to dinner last night to what she called a "buffet".  She has her daughter, son-in-law, and grand child visiting and wanted to take them someplace special.  The place is best described as what we in the west would call a Mongolian BBQ where diners cook their own food on a hot hibachi style grill right at the table.  There is a water reservoir around the perimeter of the grill which is boiling hot.

Pictures couldn't show how large a place this is. There were easily a couple thousand tables in the place and by the time we finished (we lingered quite a while), there were only a few hundred empty tables. There are several "coal preparation stations" where the charcoal is ignited and fans are used to get them really hot before whisking to tables.

There are rows and rows of raw foods to choose from including vegetables, meat, fruit, desserts, and many prepared foods ready to eat without additional cooking.

Drinks are also included in the price which include at least 20 different fruit and tea drinks, coke, and water.
Seafood is also available to cook on the grill of which I saw cuttlefish, white fish, squid, and others.  The prawns, however, are too large for the table-top grill to accommodate, so there is a special area of large grills to take your prawns for grilling.
Dessert also comes in many forms and I tried a few things for the first time.  There is even ice cream with various toppings.  As a side note, I am still satisfied this morning while writing this blog postponing breakfast for awhile.
The procedure for grilling is to use separate plates for raw meat and clean plates for the finished cooked items.  In order not to cross contaminate raw with cooked, you simply dip your chopsticks into the boiling water which surrounds the grill.  This water is also where you place items you want boiled like vegetables, mushrooms, perhaps liver, or delicate fish.  Many people, especially westerners, have become seriously ill after visiting these venues because of not understanding the concept of cross contamination.
Price?  $6


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Motorcycle Day Trip to the Mountains

Believing if I could get up to some elevation I could escape the terrible smoke conditions here, at least for a little while.  My neighbor Dave invited me on a loop day trip that would take us north up into the near mountains and around the back side of Doi Suthep, our nearby mountain, and return to Chiang Mai from the south.
The smoke season arrives every year at this time and lasts until the first rain of the rainy season in about 6 more weeks.  Media reports mostly blame farmers for burning off rice stubble for the problem, but I recently discovered information that attributes only about 20% of the total smoke problem comes from agriculture and actually about 30% comes from Thai's  burning off undergrowth in the forests and in the mountains.

Evidence of forest burning is everywhere you go in the mountains and this sign says "no burning" right at a recent burn site!  Popular wisdom says that the reason for the forest destruction is that the ash encourages the growth of an expensive type of mushroom that the ethnic mountain tribes collect and sell. 

What we found is that at an elevation of 3500 feet, the smoke was almost as bad as down in the flatlands.

It seems such a shame that trying to propagate these mushrooms is endangering the health of the whole population.  Law prohibits burning, but either the authorities look the other way, or they cannot catch the fire starters.

The government has tried a new remedy by sending planes aloft spreading the chemical urea, then dropping dry ice crystals which is supposed to open a hole in the inversion layer so the smoke can escape up and away from being trapped at ground level.  This is similar to cloud seeding to make rain, but of course there are no clouds to seed.  Personally, I believe this effort is just a political ruse to make a show that the government is taking the issue seriously.

The trip was interesting in that we came across a couple stretches of actual cobblestone road and while trying to establish one road connecting to another route was some dirt biking through some very rough and dirt track.  You never know what you'll come across when traveling the back roads such as the very large excavation operation that was literally eating away a mountain which looked like some sort of mining operation.  Lots of water was being used and was draining down into holding ponds where it is pumped back up to a holding reservoir for reuse.
One thing Dave likes to see are the many reservoirs scattered around the mountain valleys and it's always a nice break in the ride to stop and take a rest at these places.  The conservation of water resources is very important because growing rice takes a lot and the dry season is long and, well, dry.  I keep forgetting to take a bathing suit to take full advantage of these refreshing oases.
Back closer to civilization we came across this small river that provided rafting adventures for lots of foreign young people.  There was a small open-air restaurant at the side of the road and rows of lounging platforms down a hundred feet or so on the river for tourists to enjoy the cool waters.  Baskets attached to guy wires would send down food orders to the relaxing guests.  Not a bad way to pass an afternoon.
We passed many elephant camps where shows and elephant riding is available.  Also passed a snake farm, alligator farm, butterfly farm, ATV off-road adventures, bungee jumping, and zip line adventures.  All these activities really capture the younger backpacker crowd that supports so much of Thailand's tourist industry.
As for the smoke, I'll continue to wear my surgical mask until I can see the golden gleam of the temple at the top of Doi Suthep mountain again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Medical Followup

To start with, I am feeling very much better now and my appetite has returned.  I've gained a pound and a half in two weeks and no longer feel faint when getting up from a crouch.  That's the good news.

Yesterday was the day to get follow-up lab tests so that they could be read today with my visit to the doctor.

Starting out early about 7 AM thinking I would be in the first 100 to get a blood draw, I arrived to see a jambed-up waiting mob at the entrance to the lab.  Lots of prone folks on gurneys and wheelchairs were waiting for blood draws.  My assumption is that they don't draw blood in your hospital room.  You have to be wheeled down to the lab for that.  Seems inefficient to me.

After I paid for my tests I approached the line trying to peer over the mob into the lab.  There were people standing inside and the non-ambulatory patients were getting their needle jabs at the entrance and blocking the entrance.  As I was looking, a Thai woman pointed that I should go around the corner, which I guessed must be another entrance.  Yes, indeed, the walk-ins used this door, but the crowd was lined up outside.  From my previous visit I remembered that you put your paperwork into a basket (face down, so when they take the stack out and turn it upside down they are facing up and in order of placement).  I squeezed my way in to the basket and deposited my paperwork.

Within minutes my name was being called and my vials were being dispensed from the automatic machine.  I was about to ask how the line worked when an attendant took me by the arm and escorted me right to the next phlebotomist, effectively cutting directly to the front of the line.  I didn't protest, but I felt very guilty although no one seemed to notice.  Later I deduced, or rather convinced myself, that because I am a "self-pay" patient and not on the government healthcare system, the hospital must "upgrade the money people".

So... my doctor visit this morning was an enlightening experience in light of my ranting how great the Thai healthcare system is.  Several of the tests were not complete from yesterday and on top of that the test for parasites was not returned at all from two weeks ago.  I have to assume I had parasites because I improved just days after completing the antiparasitic meds.

We went over all the readings that were available and she (Dr. Kanatta) reduced the strength of a couple and also promised to email me with the results of the rest of the tests.  She wrote new prescriptions for me, made another appointment 3 months out and sent me on my way.

I paid for my meds (I won't say how many), but I can say that in the US with medical insurance my co-pay was about $60.  Today's bill for everything including the doctor visit was $36.  Quite a savings.

In passing we discussed the smokey air problem here.  I can't see the Doi Suthep Wat at the top of our mountain any more, or even the mountain itself that is practically right at my doorstep.  I see a lot of people wearing surgical masks and asked her what she thought of that practice.  She replied without hesitation "I recommend it".  I countered with "but air can get in all around the edges", to which she replied, "a little protection is better than none".  I will wear one while outside or driving the moto until I can see Doi Suthep Wat again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Four Day Motorcycle Tour of Northern Thailand

What started out as an overnight trip enjoyably evolved into four days in Northern Thailand.  My new Honda motorbike, freshly serviced, was ready for anything the road had to offer and so was I.

My traveling companions were my friends Dave and Nut who live in my apartment building.  Dave is from Alaska and has taken up mapping as a hobby and the reason for this trip was to map and identify roads that are not on any map and/or mismarked.  The Thai people are little concerned with road numbers or maps and it has fallen to us obsessive Americans (and others) to name and correct and add roads to the mapping system.  After all it is to our benefit if we want to travel about and to know where we are going and how to get there.  It is my assumption that Thai's don't care about this because they don't travel for exploration.  Their world is limited to their own neighborhoods and getting the business done of getting fruits and vegetables to the nearest market.  Who cares what the names of the roads are, right?

Dave uses his handheld GPS mounted on his motorcycle to trace his progress through a particular route.  As he rides, he takes pictures of road signs, highway markers, gas stations, and other useful roadside features for the traveler.  He then overlays his route on an "open source" map and makes necessary changes and additions such as "paved", "divided road", etc.  For more on open source mapping see:

Nut is Dave's Thai partner (always called "girlfriend" in Thailand) and is a funny, upbeat, no-nonsense Thai woman.  She is a valuable member of the mapping team able to translate signage, directions, and interact with the Thai people along the way to ask questions and get information about how to get places.  Nut is especially good at ordering Thai food and we always had a variety of really good Thai dishes delivered to our dining tables along the way at very cheap prices.

Our daily progress was always broken by rest stops, coffee shops, snack stops.  This is a coffee shop in the foothills going North from Chiang Mai over a mountain pass.

These mountain roads are exactly what motorcycles were made for!  It is so much fun banking into curves and accelerating out of them in the cool elevated forests.  Too bad I am new to motorcycling, but retirement opens new doors!

We passed many different and beautiful things like this waterfall.

Of particular interest to me was the abundance of agriculture in every open space.  I suppose this catches my eye because I come from the Central Valley in California where agriculture is king. 

Let's see how many commercially grown things I can remember:  Probably the most ubiquitous are the teak trees.  They grow wild and are farmed in groves and even interplanted with other crops.  There are many teak wood houses around always built up on pilings which are beautiful to see.  Bamboo is another common sight here.  It is always the "clumping" kind and large in diameter.  It looks as if it sometimes grows wild, but I saw a plantation of clumps all lined up in rows, so I assume it is a commodity of value.  It is used for scaffolding, branch propping, fences, ladders, and a wide variety of baskets, furniture, and even woven to make mats and used as house siding in poor areas of the forest villages.  The clumps are so dense that it must be difficult to harvest.  Of course rice paddies are everywhere and have several seasons because I see newly planted paddies, mature fields, and cut rice stocks.  Mango plantations are everywhere as well.   Papaya trees were not as plentiful on our trip, but they are seen anywhere people live.  It appears they grow in hard dry ground and almost every house will have at least one tree in the yard. Since green papayas are the main ingredient in the popular salad Som Tom, (which combines the flavors of sweet, salty, sour, and hot) they must be commercially grown elsewhere. Pineapples grow well here.  Many are a smaller variety than we see in the states (from Hawaii), but just as sweet and juicy.  We saw a huge tea plantation which I always assumed only grew at elevation, but this one was only in the foothills.  Bananas and coconuts grow in abundance and make the place look very tropical.  We passed several rubber tree plantations which look like it takes several years of growth before they can be tapped.  Of course there were some things I could not identify, but as I become more integrated into the culture I'll find out more.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Seeing the Doctor

After waiting my turn to see the doctor, he took a medical history and noted the medications I take.  The only physical exam involved a listen to my lungs and a look down my throat with a $2 flashlight.  None of those fancy gadgets we pay so much for in the states.  In fact the office was very minimal, nothing on the walls, and just a desk, computer and exam table.

He ordered a couple blood tests and stool exam and I was out of his office and on my way to first pay for the tests, then get the tests done.  The bill for seeing the doctor and getting the tests was less than $30.  The testing was very efficient.  You present your paid receipt with the ordered tests and an attendant inputs the information into his computer and an automated machine spits out a tray with 2 vials and a specimen cup.  You wait in the queue for your turn to get the blood draw.  All very efficient.  I was sent to a bathroom to give the stool sample and placed it on a tray at "window 8".

My instructions were to return room 10 in an hour and a half when test results should be completed.  I sat in a cool breezeway near a small bakery on the grounds and ate most of an apple smoothie and a muffin, read my magazine and went back upstairs to room 10.

The nurse at the reception desk sent me directly to another numbered room for test results.  When my turn came, it was a different doctor and she spoke very good English, but apologized for her weak language skills.  She called up the results on her computer, but they were incomplete and she explained that waiting longer would not be necessary because it could take hours more if there was a backlog.

She went over my symptoms with me again and suggested I might be afflicted with parasites and that one test result showed anemia.  She did another cursory physical exam (and used an identical $2 flashlight to look down my throat) and suggested we treat for parasites and anemia right away.  When I told her I had lost 9 kilograms in two months, she looked more concerned and ordered another blood test and urine to be done in a followup visit two weeks hence.

I paid the $1.50 for the two meds (apparently her visit was included in the original service charge), I picked up the meds at the pharmacy counter and went home to rest after a long day at the government hospital.

To date, I have finished the parasite regimen and there is no change.  We'll read test results in two weeks and I'll take her my lab test results I had done in Maine in November to compare.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Visit to the Hospital (and Burma)

My appetite has been low since arriving in Thailand 2 months ago.  I've lost 20 pounds and the thought of food still does not interest me although I normally love Thai food.  I have reverted to eating mostly western food I am comfortable with and have to force myself at that.  Figuring something in my system must be out of whack I decided to make a visit to the doctor to see what's up.

Thailand has two medical systems and both provide good care.  One is the private hospital that costs more, but one can be seen very quickly.  The other is a Government hospital which is cheaper, but it is the system all Thai's use and is therefore overcrowded and has slow service.  Doctors don't have private offices here, so for any visit to a doctor one goes to a hospital of which there are several in Chiang Mai

I chose to go to the government hospital for a couple reasons.  One is that it is less expensive and the other reason is that I am not too sick to stand in lines and sit for periods waiting.  I want to experience Thailand as the Thai's do and I got my money's worth with this experience.  Although as I create this post, I await a follow-up visit to go over test results in two weeks.

I arrived about 9:30 on a Wednesday and was immediately overwhelmed with the number of people waiting in chairs and milling around.  All signage is in Thai (and there were a lot of signs with obvious instructions), but after asking around it became clear where one registers and gets a picture taken.  I notice little things like small birds flying around in the lobby, people on gurneys with intravenous drips being wheeled through the waiting area, and numbers being called out in Thai.  I have to confess I haven't even learned my numbers yet.  Next is waiting to approach the window where they direct outpatients depending on the reason you are there.  There were 100 numbers ahead of me so I waited about an hour and a half.  Luckily the calling of numbers was accompanied with a number sign board and Thai numbers are expressed in the numerals I am familiar with. When I arrived at the window, I was directed to another window where the counter person spoke passable English.  There was not another foreigner in the whole place of at least a thousand people.  Thai's have a social medicine system and many were going to the government insurance windows.  My English speaking fellow was apologetic in saying "I'm so sorry, but there are 300 people ahead of you".  "If you could come back around 5 PM we may be able to get you in to see a doctor".  I asked if I could make an appointment for Friday morning because I had to travel to Burma on Thursday to get my tourist visa validated for the second two month permission to stay.  "Yes, come on Friday at 7 AM to my window".  "That's when I come to work", he said.

So on Thursday morning at 8 AM I boarded a 10 passenger van that would take me and 8 other farangs (foreigners) to Mai Sai and the boarder crossing to Burma.  The trip is about 4 hours each way with a 15 minute rest stop and an hour to get the visa business done.  One walks to the Thai exit building to get your passport stamped for leaving Thailand.  Then you walk across a bridge to the Burma side and get your passport stamped for entry into Burma.  Then you walk back across the bridge to the Thai side and get stamped back into Thailand.  The whole process takes about half an hour, then you wait for your van to return to the drop off point for boarding and the fast and furious ride back through the mountains past Chiang Rai and home about dark.  An exhausting day considering the van driver was in a hurry tossing passengers to and fro through the mountain pass.

Back to the hospital on Friday morning at 7 AM.  I wait at my designated window and the office opened at 7, but my English speaking fellow does not show.  A little worried, I went to the other window and pushed my way to the front of a long line and asked "Man not come today"?, pointing to my designated window.  She replied "Not come till 7:30".  Sure enough at 7:30 he comes in and immediately sends me to the 3rd floor "room 10".  When I find room 10 there are two long lines leading to another counter so of course I get into the shortest one.  Soon thereafter I realise I am in a line that has no one at the counter.  Calming myself thinking I should just follow what the Thai's are doing I see that the counter person is taking papers from one line, then the other.  Soon a second nurse showed up to handle my line and within 45 minutes I am handing my papers to the nurse, getting my blood pressure taken and given number 95.  She said "come back at 11", so I drove home to rest for a few hours and returned at 11.  Being the only farang had it's advantages because when I approached the nurse, she immediately remembered me and called me by name "Mr. Daniel, go wait in line for room 5".  As I wait for 3 people ahead of me to see the doctor in room 5 I take the time to see what's going on around me.  Still no farangs... all Thai.  Men all cross their legs "like a woman would in America", no macho leg crossing posturing here!  Everyone is quiet and just waiting.  Nobody is reading or doing any other thing except sitting patiently.  I have brought a magazine and am happy to have something to do.

Next Post: Seeing the Doctor

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More Puppets

The two outstanding puppet shows were the Burmese human puppets and the Viet Nam "water puppets".  The Burma troupe displayed a very inventive show using the puppeteers as the puppets themselves.  They lay on their backs and used legs and feet to portray the puppet figures dancing and bowing to music.  Then they told a story of storks meeting, falling in love, producing eggs, and finally hatching stork chicks.  The storks were people bent over with straw hats to represent the stork bodies and their arms then became stork legs and another person on top used their arm and hand to form the stork neck and head.  Unfortunately the stage was too far away for any pictures.

The water puppets from Viet Nam are apparently famous originating in early Asian centuries when farmers would make ponds along side their rice paddies and perform puppetry to assure a good rice crop.  Now performed only in Hanoi, the puppeteers stand in the water behind the bamboo screen and manipulate the puppets from long sticks under the water.  The dragons, or "Nagas" shoot fireworks from their mouths and can also shoot streams of water at the audience.  This photo shows the troupe after the performance in front of the screen.

Children in the audience had a wonderful time along with the "big kids".

International Puppetry Festival

 This last weekend was the annual puppet festival held at the Chiang Mai University Arts campus.  This event featured puppet troupes from eight SE Asian countries.  Starting Friday evening and going through Sunday evening. There were talks about the history of puppetry in each country, puppet making demonstrations, and of course puppet performances.  Because of other activities I missed Friday and Saturday events, but was pleased to attend on Sunday afternoon and evening.

This was truly a festival with demonstrations and talks given in an air conditioned auditorium and shows and vendors outdoors in the evening.

My visit included puppet shows from Burma, Thailand, and Viet Nam on an outdoor stage under the stars with misting fans cooling the crowd. 

What I did not get to see were the famous shadow puppet shows from Indonesia, which I intend to make a point of seeing next year.

I wouldn't have found the festival if it were not for a huge billboard near the entrance to Chiang Mai University which was in Thai language except for the words "ASEAN Puppetry Festival".  I went home and Googled it to find the information and glad I did.