musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for November, 2013

Bangkok’s Chaotic Comforts

I returned to Bangkok on Thursday night after spending the previous four days in Kuala Lumpur. I had scheduled this trip (a combination of business and pleasure: book buying for my shop, and CD buying for myself) several months ago, before my friend was hospitalized, so I debated whether to go ahead with the trip or not. My friend remains in hospital here in Bangkok and they have scheduled a biopsy for this week. Not an ideal time for me to be leaving town, but it was only for four days, so I decided to stick with my original plans and go, but not without a bit of guilt.

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I’ll post something separately about the KL trip later, but once again it was fun and productive. Getting around that city is such a breeze thanks to the various train lines that are in operation. I flew Malaysia Airlines again, so I was also able to take advantage of the KLIA high-speed train to and from the main airport. I also used the convenient check-in service at the KL Sentral station, which was a BIG plus, seeing as how I did two bags full of heavy books to check for the return flight to Bangkok, in addition to my bulging backpack.

Upon arrival back at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok there was the usual indecision: taxi or train? With all my heavy bags I thought taking a taxi would be the better option, but it was raining and not far past rush hour when I arrived, so I chose the train instead. I would still need to get a taxi from the Ramkamhaeng station to my home on New Petchburi Road (without the heavy bags it’s an easy walk actually), but in the end I think saved both time and money by choosing the train option. I managed to rustle my collection of bags through the turnstiles, with the help of a friendly woman on duty, and didn’t have to wait too long before the arrival of the City Line Train.

But, after arriving at the Ramkamhaeng station, it was still raining. Not heavy rain, but enough to dissuade me from attempting to walk home and trying to balance all of my bags. I waited for about 5 minutes under the station’s roof, plotting my strategy. I was on the wrong side of the road for a taxi back to Petchburi Road, but with a slight bit of maneuvering and crossing the train tracks (not the airport train tracks, but the regular train tracks), I was able to get in position to flag down a taxi. Except there was another problem: with the rain, traffic was at a standstill, bumper-to-bumper gridlock. I walked a few yards down the line of idling vehicles, found a vacant taxi and told him my destination. Now all we had to do was wait!

This taxi driver was one of the good ones; a pleasant, agreeable fellow who eagerly filled me on this week’s weather conditions in Bangkok. The sun hadn’t come out all day today, he marveled. Luckily, traffic soon started moving and we were able to turn down a side soi, down another street, and then make a U-turn under the overpass and onto Petchburi Road. The meter only read 41 baht when we arrived at my apartment, but I gave the guy a 100-baht note and told him to keep the change. He looked shocked and reached over and patted my arm in thanks. I think he would have hugged me except for the headrest between us! But hey, I was happy that I didn’t have to wait long in the rain, and he was a nice guy, so I was more than happy to tip him a bit extra.

I always enjoy my trips, no matter what the length, but inevitably I relish returning to the familiar comforts of my own apartment. Bangkok may be a crazy, chaotic mess of a city — and with more political protests slated for this week, things are sure to become even more chaotic — but the people are mostly kind and friendly, and living here remains a distinct pleasure.

Now I need to get back over to the hospital.

Monks & Kids & Rocks & Things

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I’m getting closer to cleaning out the photo archives from my last trip to Myanmar. Here is a mixed bag of pictures from that trip;  mostly shots of the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay, plus students and novice monks from Tat Ein village in Shan State. I never tire of seeing those smiles when they pose for photos. Having fun, getting silly, and enjoying the time together. I miss them already. 

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Japanese Sunshine, Shan Style

October was a tough month for me, both financially and emotionally. My good friend is still hospitalized and back in ICU again. Lots of tests and conjecture, but there is still no clear prognosis. Earlier this week they transferred him from Paolo Memorial Hospital to the Bangkok Hospital Medical Center. I take that as a positive sign, at least in regards to the care he’ll be getting. The nurses and a doctor I talked to at Paolo were very kind and keep me updated on my friend’s condition, but BMC seems to have better facilities with which to treat him. I won’t go into specifics on his health issues, but it’s very serious. Right now, I’m just pulling for him to survive this ordeal.

So, lots of hospital visits, plus weekly dental appointments for myself, taking care of a broken filling and another tooth that’s cracked and needs a crown. All of which costs more money. October was also when my annual Thai visa had to be renewed, so that process cost another bundle of baht — and a stack of paperwork, all of which had to be signed and stamped — plus a visit to the remote immigration office at Chaeng Wattana. Man, am I glad that torture is over with for another year. And before the month was out I had to wire some money to a friend in Cambodia who needed some help. So much for trying to save money this month.

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Amidst all those dreary and costly events, I was granted a ray of sunshine — let’s call it Japanese sunshine — in the form of a visit earlier in the month from the lovely Kazuko. I first met Kazuko about three years ago, out in the rolling hills of Shan State in Tat Ein village. Kazuko is one of the main donors to projects in that village, including the building of the primary school. Like me, she’s fallen in love with the villagers, students, and monks who live there and visits often. But she’s got me beat as far as the number of visits, returning five or six times each year. Naturally, she is well regarded by the villagers, so beloved in fact, that they affectionately gave her the nickname “Ma Zabei.”

I missed seeing her when I was in Shan State back in late August, but she managed to make a visit later in September and spent several days in the village. I received an e-mail from her, telling me that she was in Myanmar, but headed to Bangkok afterwards. She also attached a photo and added this message:

All are fine at school! Do you remember him? He is out of monk. He is also remembering you.

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I looked at the photo: Did I remember this kid? I wasn’t sure at first. Owing to the fact that he’d been a novice monk at the monastery, I’d never seen him before with hair! But he remembered me, so I must know him. I looked at the photo again and finally figured out who he was. I’ve never learned his name, but he’s been one of the regulars who I’ve taught in he school the past couple of years, and he’s been a staple at the monastery during that time. The photo below is one I took of him at Kakku earlier this year during one of the field trips that I took with the students and monks.

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But the strange thing is, he wasn’t anywhere around when I visited the village in August. According to Kazuko’s note he’s left the monastery and is now living with his family in the village. But where was he two months ago? No idea, and Kazuko wasn’t sure either. Now that he’s finished his studies at the primary school, is he attending the secondary school? If he was, I think I would have seen him with the other kids after school, but he wasn’t with any of the groups I saw this time, either at the school or at the monastery. It’s all a bit of a mystery. But hey, at least he’s back in the village again. I really need to find out more about kids like this boy and if they are able to further their studies after they finish primary school. In some cases, it’s not feasible or practical for the family. Some of the boys are novice monks for a year or two — or three — and then they leave for other monasteries, never to be seen in the village again. Some of the monks at the monastery are actually from this same village, but it’s not clear to me why some stay longer than others. More tales of mystery to try and solve!

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Anyway, Kazuko finally made it to Bangkok and we managed to meet a couple of times. We met at her hotel in Pratunam one rainy night and with umbrellas in hand we walked a few blocks to Central World Plaza and had dinner at a Thai restaurant there. She had an iPad with her and showed me more photos from her trip, including pics of the mystery monk and other kids from the village. She also showed me some other projects she’s involved with, including a monastery in Bago and a village near Pakkokku. She is helping to fund construction of a new school in that village after the last one literally washed away in a flood last summer. In one photo she showed me, all that’s left of the school are some stone steps. Next time, it was decided, they’ll build the school a bit further from the river! Before she left Bangkok, Kazuko and two of her friends paid a visit to my bookshop. I made sure to take a few photos of the occasion, ones that I can show the kids back in Tat Ein village the next time I visit. Having “Ma Zabei” visit my bookshop will definitely earn me bonus points and added prestige in the Shan State rankings!

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