Saturday, October 31, 2009

And You Thought California Traffic was Bad

Quick, what are the first things that come into your mind when you think about driving in Bangkok?  What did you come up with?  Pollution?  Never-ending traffic jams?  Car horns blaring incessantly?  Well, I'm here to tell you to toss out all of your preconceived notions of what it's like to guide a motor vehicle through the highways and byways of Thailand.  Our experience has been a little bit different.

Okay, driving here is not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but it's not as bad as many people might think.  A proper disclaimer is probably warranted here.  We lived in California for six years, during which time I spent an inordinate amount of time driving on the Bay Area highways which schooled me in the fine art of changing lanes and allowing others to merge in heavy traffic.  I refused to allow four years of driving on the Washington, DC area Capital Beltway to undo all of those lessons.  What I'm saying is that my concept of what constitutes "bad traffic" might be distinctly different than yours, which no doubt colors my perception of driving outside of the United States.  With that caveat in place...

There are a lot of vehicles on the road here.  Metropolitan Bangkok has about 15 million residents, so of course there are a lot of people on the road.  Traffic on the surface streets can get very congested, especially after it rains and some places flood, but from what I've been told it's much better than it was even ten years ago.  Bangkok has an above ground commuter train--called the SkyTrain, oddly enough--that has helped ease congestion, and a system of elevated expressways has also moved a lot of traffic off the surface roads.

That said, I find the way traffic here moves to be almost beautiful, when it's moving.  What appears to be chaos is something more akin to flowing water.  I know my parents can appreciate it, as can many others who have lived and driven outside in Asia.  Traffic just seems to flow, like water.  All available space is open for driving.  Sure, there are three lanes marked, but why bother when you can get five cars abreast in that spot?  As one of our neighbors so eloquently noted, on her last visit to the United States she said, "we'd all get there a lot faster if you'd just let me drive in the emergency lane!"  If you need to merge into another lane, you put on your turn signal (usually) and you start moving over.  Most often, as long as you do it with the same flow/speed of the surrounding traffic, you'll make it in without so much as a scratch, bump, or...wait for it...wait for it...a horn honk.

Bangkok's conspicuous lack of car horns blaring was almost immediately noticeable to me.  I've been in traffic that appears similar in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), but in those places they use the car horn like government agencies use their budgets (use it or lose it).  Not so in Thailand.  Horns in Thailand are used almost exclusively when someone pulls an extremely rude or dangerous maneuver, otherwise upsetting the unspoken order.  It's amazing.  Amazingly quiet.

Driving on the left-hand side of the road isn't really as difficult as you might imagine.  It's definitely much easier when everyone else is doing it, though.  I've also found that it's a bit easier when the steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car.  It's also much easier to pay the nice toll-booth people when you are sitting on the right-hand side.  The biggest challenge so far has been getting a feel for how much clearance I have on the passenger (left-hand) side of the car.  It was interesting a couple of weeks ago while I was traveling in the northeast provinces that it suddenly dawned on me that it felt perfectly normal to be on the left side of the road.  Weird, yet cool.

One big challenge that you cannot escape are the motorcycles.  They are everywhere, and they buzz in and out and around the cars, not unlike gnats at a family picnic.  When traffic comes to a stop for one of Bangkok's uber-long red lights, the motorcycles all weave their way up to the front of the queue.  That doesn't bother me, really, but when I'm looking to change lanes or make a turn and I've got one (or more!) motorcycles right next to me, it makes me nervous.  Nervous for them, of course, because the laws of physics dictate that when a motorcycle tangles with a car, even my mini minivan, the motorcycle loses every time.

Ninety-nine percent of the cabs here are Toyota Corollas.  And they are very easy to spot, because they are very brightly colored.  Pink, orange, blue, yellow, green, and some combination of those colors.  Some years ago the government mandated that all cabs and buses convert to natural gas--this has helped reduce the amount of pollution, but with 15 million people, the air quality in Bangkok can still get pretty nasty.  Now, as if a Toyota Corolla didn't already have limited trunk-space, most of their trunk is already occupied by the gas cylinder that makes the car go.  Usually this is not a problem, since most people using a cab in and around Bangkok aren't carrying a ton of stuff, but let's just say the Soderborgs won't be taking a cab to the airport for their next vacation.  Although, before we got our mini minivan, we did load all seven of us into a cab on two occasions, because we quite simply had to be somewhere.  Never again, at least not if I can help it.  Have I mentioned that they aren't so big on the seatbelt/child seat thing here?

The other day on the way home a police car came up from behind, lights flashing and siren blaring.  Following immediately in the wake of the police cruiser (another Toyota Corolla, by the way) was a big, black Mercedes, which was obviously carrying someone important because all the windows were tinted so nobody could see inside the car.  Now that in and of itself isn't all that funny--the funny part was that they both had to stop and pay the toll to use the expressway.  The only people who never have to pay the tolls are members of the royal family--and when they are traveling, the entire road gets shut down until they pass through.  Terribly inconvenient, sometimes.

One last note.  I just want to say how proud I am that Mali did not hesitate to join in the fun.  Within days of getting our car from Japan she was out and about driving around because she refused to let the prospect of driving on the "wrong" side of the road deter her from getting done what needed to be done.  Way to go, honey!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jungle Juice ROCKS

Let's be very clear from the very start--I am not referring to the kind of "jungle juice" that appears as the first ten results when you Google the term.  I am referring to REI's Jungle Juice insect repellent.  This stuff, quite simply, is the best.  "Why is it so good?" you might ask.  "Because it's 98 percent DEET," I would respond without hesitation.  Ninety-eight percent.  I have no idea why it's not 100 percent DEET, and quite frankly, I don't care why, because it works.  And I've discovered, much to my delight, that it stays on even after heavy perspiration, which is a key factor for me while I'm in Southeast Asia, especially during/after exercise.

Now, for all those bleeding-heart-whatever-you-might-be that oppose the use of DEET to repel insects, spare me the sob stories.  My family and I live in a place that has mosquitoes which carry, among other things, malaria, dengue fever, and Japanese encephalitis.  We do not want to experience any of those diseases.  Ever.  My wife and children also have an affliction wherein they cannot help but scratch a mosquito bite until it bleeds.  Somehow that provides them the relief they so wantonly crave (Isn't it silly that I just described the reflex to scratch a mosquito bite as "wanton"?  Someday I'm going to be arrested for misappropriation of the English language--but not in Thailand!).

Back on topic--I have used the REI Jungle Juice in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and now Thailand, and never once while using it have I even had a bug land on me.  I'm pretty sure I've seen a couple of mosquitoes hover too close and then pass out, crashing to the earth only to wake up a few moments later shaking their heads, wondering what hit them and who stole their wallets.  On the other hand, last Saturday I went out to play soccer and didn't use any of REI's magic elixir, and sure enough, I found about fifteen bites on my arms and legs on Sunday morning.  I learned my lesson, and tonight before going out to play again I made sure I protected myself.  Ah, the sweet smell of Jungle Juice...

Much to my dismay, however, I discovered that REI currently does not sell this amazing product online.  I suppose I can go ahead and try some of the repellent that Mali purchased, but I'm afraid I'm just setting myself up for a big disappointment--to say nothing of getting mauled by myriad biting insects!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

All Funned Out

The kids had all of this past week off from school. I had Friday off for a Thai national holiday (Chulalongkorn Day, celebrating the death in 1910 of the fifth king in the current dynasty who is considered by many as Thailand's greatest monarch) I'm not sure exactly why the kids got the whole week off, but they did.  So we took advantage of the day off to go have some fun.  Serious fun.

And where exactly does one go for fun in Bangkok? Why, the Funarium, of course! And what exactly is the Funarium? Why, it's basically a giant indoor playground, and the kids had a great time.

They have a giant slide, which Jane enjoyed with her big sister.

Maggie liked the ball-swing-thingie.

Sarah liked sitting on the air-thingie... did Benjamin.

WARNING: Ben's speed may cause blurred vision!

Mali and Jane had a good time, too!

Not content with only one day of super-exhaustive entertainment, today (Saturday) we went to Siam Park City . Comparing it to Disneyland--huge colorful castle and other clear Disney references aside--would be generous. But, as Mali said on the way home, it's pretty good for Thailand. Anyway, it's got rides and a waterpark, all of which the kids thoroughly enjoyed at multiple levels.

This castle almost looks fake...oh, wait, it is fake.

Jane is helping Mali, that's why she's winning.

Look Mom, no hands!

Mali and Jane loved the waterfall.

As did the rest of the kids!

In Thailand it's never too early to have a giant, creepy Santa.

Mali's favorite part of the place was that we were able to get some delicious ຕຳໝາກຮຸ້ງ--tam mahk hoong--(in Thai สมตำ--som-tam--green papaya salad) for cheap.  Only 40 baht for a good-size helping, and they'll make it to your exacting specifications (I asked for extra spicy).

Not sure if you can tell here, but sticky rice (ข้าวเหนียว) is only 10 baht a serving, and barbecue pork on a stick is 15 baht.  Sure, you can bring your own food, but you don't have to starve if you didn't!


We were at the place for almost seven hours, and we didn't do everything there is to do there or see everything there is to see.  No worries, we bought one-year passes, so we will be going back.  But not this week, or even next week.  I'm exhausted!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Going Back Ain't So Easy

On Saturday I learned a valuable lesson about purchasing stuff in Thailand, even at the stores that appear to be quite Western. Last week I went to Home Pro and bought a small home theater system to use with the new television we bought--Mali wants to watch DVDs on the new big screen, and I do, too, but I also wanted some bigger sound. Anyway, the system I bought was horrible--just a warning, I’d stay away from the AJ brand if I were you and you were living in Thailand. The picture quality from the DVD player was terrible and the sound was, well, I didn’t really notice any sound, it was just that bad. And, even though I had told the salesperson that I needed a system that would run on 110 as well as 220 volts, she had swapped the type that was on the floor sample with a newer model that ran on 220 only. Mali had tried to return the system while I was up in the Isaan, but they told her that they would only exchange it, not give her a refund, so she wanted me to go back and deal with it. So on Saturday evening Maggie and I went back over to Home Pro to exchange the system. I had talked to my Thai co-workers and was resigned to the fact that I was not going to get a refund, but the store credit would be useful.

Of course it couldn’t be that easy. The person in The Power (which is apparently some kind of subsidiary of Home Pro--uses their cashiers but not their return/exchange system) told me that I couldn’t return it unless the system was completely non-functioning. I showed them my receipt, and read to them--in Thai--the conditions for return as printed on the back of the receipt--in Thai--and told them that the condition they were claiming was not printed on the receipt, so would they kindly give me a store credit so that I could go to Home Pro and get some other stuff that we could use around the house.

The lady I was working with had to call her manager, who I’m sure got some story about the crazy farang who was very upset and too-bad-for-us was also quite capable of reading the conditions in our own language and gosh-darn-it he’s got a point and...


They finally came back and said they couldn’t give me Home Pro store credit because they weren’t exactly part of Home Pro, but they might be able to give me credit to use in The Power, which by this time was fine by me. Maggie, to her everlasting credit, was as patient as I’ve ever seen her, especially given the fact that she was missing a movie back home that she wanted to watch with her sisters.

Long story short (too late!), I ended up spending an additional 6,000 baht to get a very nice, high-quality system from a manufacturer that I trust (Philips), and for much less than I would have paid in the States. This system is most definitely a multi-system set-up that will work back in the United States. The picture and sound quality are so much better that I was giddy after I set it up and played parts of different DVDs to make sure it worked.

Now, lest you think that was all just for pure, heathen entertainment purposes, let me reassure you, the purchase of this system added spiritual value. As I mentioned in my previous post, this past weekend was also General Conference weekend—at least it was for us here in Thailand. Because we have high-speed internet access we didn’t have to go down to the church to watch conference. We hooked our laptop computer up to our big TV and, thanks to the new sound system, Mali and I could clearly hear the proceedings over the noise that our children were making. Funny thing, though--I didn’t realize until last night that we actually watched the Saturday morning rather than the Sunday morning session...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"I'm bored..."

I have warned my children several times that there is no excuse for being bored and that if they tell me they are bored that I will put them to work.  Sarah made the mistake yesterday of saying there wasn't anything to do.

We solved that problem.

We'll see if she says that to me again.

Beautiful Fall Colors

I have always loved fall.  The distinct shift from the (sometimes) oppressive heat of summer, getting settled into school (which I, for some obtuse reason, have always enjoyed), wearing sweatshirts, anticipating the cold of winter, and of course the colors.  It has been my privilege to live in several places with distinct autumn experiences.  Growing up in Utah I loved how the Wasatch Mountains took on an orange tint as the scrub oak leaves changed.  Illinois and Virginia have blown my mind with the vivid colors of the abundant foliage--fantastic yellows, oranges, and reds.  Even in California I looked forward to that little bit of crispness that fall brought to the air, and even though the leaves didn't change like in the other places we've lived, colors seemed to be a bit more vibrant (probably the grass finally turning green again, after being brown and scorched all summer long).

The other day I looked out our kitchen window and noted some leaves changing color!

The next morning it was about 26 degrees when I left the house.  Twenty-six degrees...Celsius.  (Now honestly, if you didn't see that one coming from a mile away, I'm going to have to say that I'm just shocked.  That was a gimme, really.)  To spare any of you from looking it up yourself, 26 degrees Celsius is 78 degrees Fahrenheit.  Such has been our experience here so far that 78 degrees is actually pretty cool and feels downright pleasant.

In the spirit of sharing the beautiful colors of fall, I offer the following pictures.  I took these today in between sessions of General Conference when I went for a walk around our community with my beautiful children.  I know, I know, for most of the LDS world General Conference was last week, but because Thailand is 13 hours ahead of Utah watching it live is disruptive to sleep patterns, so here we watch it a week later.  And because we have some pretty rambunctious kids, we thought it best if we watched it at home over the Internet and spared everyone else in our ward the experience of our kids playing, whining, screaming, and whatever else it is their devious little minds could conjure up to disrupt the proceedings.

Without further ado, I present the following colors of fall, Thai-style.





This is one door down from our house.


This is a really cool-looking flower!




Maggie enjoyed taking pictures, too.  Ben just rode.


Love the contrasting red and green.  This is in our next-door-neighbors yard.

This is our side-yard.

Also in our side-yard.

Of course these flowers bloom all year long, regardless of the weather, location, or traffic conditions!

One last shout-out to my daughter Maggie, who actually took the first four pictures in this collage!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

 I am always on the lookout for signs that I find amusing.  For example, this one:

...or this one.

(For the record, both of those were from Eureka, California in 1993 when I was a missionary, if that wasn't already obvious.)

Thailand has it's own share of amazing, fabulous signs.  I don't have a camera with me as often as I would like so that I can capture these amazing signs, but this last week I got a couple.

For example, did you know that the New England Patriots are huge fans of the Thai postal system?  Yup, it's true, as evidenced by this:

Sure, the Pats moved the colors around a little bit to throw off any investigators, but it’s pretty obvious to me that the New England Patriots have very little respect for intellectual property rights.*
*LEGAL DISCLAIMER: That last comment was obviously made in jest and was in no way an attempt to actually impune the good name of the Patriots organization, and I hope I never hear from their lawyers.

Okay, how about this one?

Do you see the common symbol on the bike baskets?  Just in case you don't see it, here it is magnified a little bit:

And just in case there is any doubt:

This symbol is very popular in Thailand.  You can get a Playboy license plate for your car in Bangkok, but not the other provinces.  I'll go out on a limb and say that I don't think the Thais think it means what they think it means.

This last one appears at the rest stops along the highways in Thailand's northeastern region, right next to the ubiquitous 7-Elevens.  All of the toilets at the rest stops are squatters--all, that is, but the one designated by this sign (faithful readers will note that this makes two consecutive blog posts referencing squat toilets--I'll make no promises that it will not become an enduring theme):

I mentioned to the two Thais with whom I was traveling that the sign actually was missing a fourth component.  Starting at the top and going counterclockwise, the sit-toilets are for the elderly, pregnant women, and the disabled, but needs to also include farangs (Westerners).  The problem is, exactly how do you display a farang in graphic form?