Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Adventures for the Price of One

Almost two hours southeast of where we live here is a lovely province called Chonburi.  Chonburi itself is perhaps best known for the seaside town of Pattaya.  I've personally describe Pattaya to a friend as Thailand's version of Mos Eisely--you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  We visited Pattaya in March with our good friends the Zufelts, and for some reason I never blogged about that.  And by "for some reason" I really mean "I was being lazy."

In addition to Pattaya, Chonburi is also home to Flight of the Gibbon--a jungle zipline adventure billed on their own web site as "a thrilling voyage like no other on earth."  After paying a reasonable price and signing your life away, you go get all harnessed up, they give you a helmet and a talk about safety procedures, and then you walk up this trail to the first platform.  By the way, I'm totally joking about signing your life away.  You do have to agree to obey their safety rules--and between you and me, when it comes to being up in the jungle canopy and staying safe, I will happily follow whatever safety rules they give me.

I forgot to mention, our good friend Scott was visiting us.  We had wanted to go to Flight of the Gibbon for some time, and we used Scott's visit to finally head down there for our adventure.  Good times, Scott, thanks for coming.

Anyway, we were having a great time.  The weather was quite nice, cooler than usual, but still fairly humid.  To be honest, it's not so bad up in the trees as there's usually a slight breeze, and we weren't exerting huge amounts of energy standing around and ziplining between platforms.  As could probably have been predicted, Sarah wasn't really thrilled about being up so high for the first traverse or two, but eventually she got over it and decided that this zipline stuff was, in fact, quite a lot of fun.  Ben and Maggie took to it naturally and had a lot of fun.  Anne screamed on approximately half of all the lines.

Now, those astute readers of this blog will note that the title said there were TWO adventures.  About halfway through our tour of the jungle canopy, it started to rain.  I have written previously about being in Thailand during the monsoon season, and those of you who have been in this part of the world during the monsoon season know what that means.  Massive amounts of rain.  Ridiculous amounts of rain.  The advantage is that this is Thailand and it's not so cold, so you don't necessarily mind being completely soaked to the bone.  And, as commonly accompanies rain, there was thunder.  Mr. Bass (say it like the name of the fish), the lead guide on our expedition, said that he was recently struck by lightening, so he was understandably nervous, and accordingly cautious.  We rappelled to the ground.  That's where the second adventure began.

We started walking, in the pouring rain, through the Thai rain forest to get to the next platform in the hopes that the rain would let up.  Oh, and did I mention that there was no trail for us to follow?  That's right, we were bushwacking through the jungle.  With the massive amounts of leaves and other stuff on the jungle floor our footing was much more secure than I might have originally surmised, especially since I was wearing my FiveFingers.  We wound our way around, under, and through the bushes and vines, completely soaking wet.  In a word: AWESOME.  Seriously, Mali and I thought it was actually pretty fun.  I think Scott enjoyed it, too.  Maggie said she liked it.  Anne said it was interesting, but a little scary.  Sarah said it was, "Bad.  Terrible."  She cried about wanting to go home at one point--I think that was right around the time we saw the huge millipede.  Ben appeared fairly indifferent.  In other words, they'd love to do it all over again.

The only real downside to it was that poor Ben was shivering.  It wasn't really all that cold, but that kid has no body fat to keep him warm.  It's a problem that I wish I had, to be honest.

By the time we got to the next platform the rain had stopped, and we continued moving from platform to platform along the ziplines.  Fortunately the clouds didn't break immediately, so the temperatures stayed very tolerable.  And I love how beautiful the jungle and mountains are when they are shrouded in the mists.  The downside of that is that we didn't dry out as quickly as we might have liked--on the other hand, we weren't sweating profusely, either, because that's what happens when its over 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 percent humidity.

The other downside of the clouds not dissipating became evident as we got to the final platform--coincidentally the longest line of them all, at 300 meters--when it started raining again.  Luckily none of us were dry yet.  By the time that Mali, Scott, and I zipped across that 300 meter span the rain was coming down just as hard as ever.  With the speed we picked up down that line, the drops felt like little needles, stinging our faces and eyes as we flew through the air.  In other words, totally radical, dude.
Mali, coming in fast through the rain.

I am upset about one thing, though.  The t-shirt they gave me was so NOT an adult extra large.

All smiles!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Menace to (Thai) Society?

I've previously ruminated on my observations about Thai movies and television, so this post is both a follow-on and another commentary about Thai culture/society.  I will give advance warning, however, that as our time in Thailand draws to a close I have allowed myself to become increasingly irritated rather easily.  It's actually a defense mechanism, a sort of denial that I will actually miss this place a great deal.

Thailand's Ministry of Culture of late has been getting their knickers in a twist over a couple of incidents that they claim have eroded the glorious culture in the Land of Smiles.  The first incident was the case of some young women dancing topless on Silom Road (a popular tourist spot in Bangkok) during Songkran, the traditional new year festival in mid-April.  Let me be clear that I am NOT condoning the behavior of these young ladies, especially when subsequent reporting revealed that the girls were underage and this was not the first time they had done something like this.  What I find gloriously hypocritical about it is the fact that immediately adjacent to Silom Road is the infamous area called Patpong, renowned for its bars and, how do I put this delicately...other forms of adult entertainment.  When the YouTube video first appeared officials at the Culture Ministry even said their initial suspicion was that the young women were employees of one of Patpong's finer establishments and had made their way to the Songkran party on Silom Road.

The second major cultural scandal, at least according to the Culture Ministry, has been the wildly popular evening soap opera Dok Som Si Thong (ดอกส้มสีทอง or "Golden Orange Flower").  Like many Thai soap operas, it deals with some uber-rich guy and his relationship with both his wife and his mia noi (เมียน้อย or minor wife).  The danger to Thai culture here, apparently, is that the mia noi uses some pretty coarse language and is quite the schemer, something the Ministry of Culture says that no self respecting Thai would ever do (can you hear me rolling my eyes?).  In addition, the ministry fears that many Thais would not be able to discern that this is entertainment, not reality (again, my eyes are rolling quite loudly here).

Imagine, then, my shock today when The Nation--one of Thailand's two major English-language dailies, widely read by Thai elites and the expatriate community--had an article with the following headline:

Really?  Those brilliant folks at the Culture Ministry, those guardians of all that is pure and virtuous in the kingdom just figured out that there might be some inappropriate stuff on TV here?  Where are these paragons of virtue, these scions of purity when HBO and Cinemax are running an all-day Saw marathon on Saturday, starting in the morning/afternoon when kids have easy access to the tube?  Yes, I know those examples are from premium channels, but really, is it that hard to delay the back-to-back-to-back showings of the Friday the 13th flicks until at least maybe 7 p.m.?

What about the trailers for horror movies, complete with zombies attacking and the occasional blood spatter, shown before films marketed for children?  I’m absolutely gobsmacked that it’s taken the uproar over the soap opera to bring the issue of what may or may not be appropriate for media that is readily/easily accessible by minors.  And don't even get me started on the inordinate number of Steven Segal movies shown on television here...I believe there's something in the Geneva Convention about that.

Fortunately I had this story from *Not the Nation, which sarcastically beat the mainstream media to the punch by four months.  It's funny, mostly because it hits so close to the mark.

Please don't misunderstand me: I love Thailand and I know that most Thais are genuinely decent people who in fact are quite capable of discerning that the lifestyles of the super-wealthy depicted in Thai soaps do not represent reality for most people, just as most Americans understand that many of our television shows are not indicative of the daily life for most people in the United States.  Well, except for Melrose Place and The Wire--I'm pretty sure those are documentaries.  And, like most Americans, I am confident that the Thais that do enjoy these soap operas see them merely as (mindless?) entertainment, not as blueprints for successful, happy living.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to stumble off my soapbox.

*For those of you uninitiated to the brilliance that is Not the Nation, it is a parody of Thailand's news, very similar to The Onion.  Wickedly funny, with bitingly sarcasm and irony that quite often shines a glaring spotlight on the various idiosyncrasies of Thai politics and culture.  Excellent reading, I highly recommend it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Saturday Morning on the Skytrain

Last Saturday I took one of my daughters downtown for a birthday party.  Prior to my departure I asked my lovely wife if she needed anything from downtown Bangkok.  She said, "Krispy Kremes.  You'll be close enough, right?"  You see, sometime back in late 2010 Bangkok opened its very first--and so far only--Krispy Kreme franchise, so if we happen to be in the vicinity of that shop, we'll usually get a box or two.  Or six.

Thing is, I was down near Emporium, one of Bangkok's high-end shopping malls, while Krispy Kreme is at Siam Paragon, another of Bangkok's high-end shopping malls a few kilometers away.  But ever-ready to please my wife, I happily hopped on the BTS, also known as the Skytrain, which conveniently has stops in front of both Emporium and Paragon.

In the fifteen minute ride between the two stations I observed the following:

Prospecting for gold.  And by "prospecting for gold" what I really mean is this dude was digging in his nose.  Like his finger was up the second knuckle.  I think he might have been looking for his wedding ring.  Actually, on second thought, I'm pretty sure that wasn't what he was looking for.

Coiffing the brows.  Combing one's eyebrows in and of itself not particularly unusual--at least that's what my wife tells me.  While I personally found it just a little weird that someone would pull out a small mirror and then comb their eyebrows while on public transportation, what really intrigued me about the endeavor was this person's choice of implement.  It was a toothbrush.  With a sawed-off handle.

Swiping pits.  This wasn't just some random person giving their armpits a quick check to see if they were a little damp.  This was actually a television commercial wherein the cute and perky lead actress wipes her underarms, gives them a sniff, and then extends her hands for her friends to catch a whiff.  And they are all smiling and giggling the entire time.

Man purse.  You see plenty of backpackers in Bangkok.  And when I say "backpacker" I mean it in the European sense, where you've got your average post-college kid wandering around with a gargantuan backpack.  And just to be stereotypical, quite often the male version of this backpacker appears to not have shaved for several days, sometimes is a good six-to-twenty months overdue for a haircut, and is wearing flip-flops, shorts (or capris--excuse me, "manpris"), and a tank-top emblazoned with the logo of either an Asian beer (Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao being the most common in Bangkok) or that most well-known of all energy drinks famed for its Thai origins, Red Bull.  But seeing one of these guys with a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag slightly discomboblulated me.  Giant backpack; check.  Flip-flops; check.  Man who looks like a reintroduction to a razor and barber's shears would be most welcome; check.  Lovely bag casually slung over one shoulder; what the??!!  By the way, somebody slap me for even recognizing the bag as a Louis Vuitton.

Why walk when you can wait.  When I got off the train at Siam Paragon there was a massive queue in front of the down escalators.  Oddly enough, a mere 10 meters or so away from that scrum was another escalator (and staircase) with maybe three people going down to the next level.  I guess what I neglected to calculate, though is that in addition to the 10 meters to get to that escalator, you also have to walk an additional 10 meters to get back to where the first escalator meets the next floor, so you've now done at least an additional twenty meters of walking...what was I thinking?

Conclusion: riding the Skytrain on a Saturday morning is far more entertaining than riding it during regular commute times.  And three dozen Krispy Kremes--totally worth the ride.

Walking: It's Really Not That Hard

Walking.  It's something most of us have done since we were knee-high to a grasshopper.  I love that phrase, "knee-high to a grasshopper," especially since I got tagged with the nickname "Grasshopper" way back in '92.  But I digress.

Walking is the most fundamental of methods of locomotion for most of us homo sapiens.  All over the world, in all sorts of weather, people walk.  Some people walk long distances, others only a short way, but the vast majority of human beings on this planet walk.  It is with that in mind that I make the following declaration:

Bangkokians do not know how to walk.

Sure, folks in Bangkok know how to move by placing one foot in front of the other, first the left and then the right, in a repeated pattern.  What they don't know how to do is walk in an effective, efficient pattern that allows everyone to get where they need to go in a timely manner.

This is something that's been bugging me for awhile, but exacerbated last month as I stayed after work to play basketball in the Embassy's annual tournament and commuted home using the train and commuter vans rather than the normal shuttle vans that run between our place and the Embassy.  Part of that commute involves walking on the elevated walkway around Victory Monument.

Here are a few clues that you might need to be a little more aware of how your walking is affecting the ability of those around you to get to their desired location.
  • If very few people are passing you going in the same direction, you're slow.
  • If nobody is passing you going the same direction, and there's significant space between you and the next person in front of you, you are slow and you're blocking the walkway.  Probably with the three friends you are with, none of whom are even slightly cognizant of the fact that you are all blocking the walkway.
  • If you are constantly being bumped by people walking the opposite direction as you, you're too far in the middle.  Move right.  Or left.  Pick a side.  Just get out of the middle.
  • You've all seen street vendors spread their wares on a blanket along the side of the walkway.  You don't have to stop and look over the shoulder of the other 35 people huddled around that vendor.  Besides, they're counterfeit goods.
While we're on the subject, could everyone just decide which side of the walkway to move, please.  I know street traffic here moves on the left-hand side.  But sidewalk traffic is like Thunderdome; every man, woman, and child for his/her/itself.  Slow walkers stay to the outside and let those of us who want to move faster than 3 kilometers an hour move along the inside.  Thanks.

I really shouldn't complain all that much.  The elevated walkways are literally express lanes compared to the walkways along streets like Sukhumvit, Phetchaburi, and Silom, where the street vendors occupy fully three-quarters of the sidewalk with their stalls.  Maybe I'll stop complaining now...