Saturday, August 16, 2008

See you next summer!

Well, this is goodbye -- thanks for following along! I'm home, safe and sound, and just working on one or two technical kinks with the blog before tying it up with the proverbial string and moving on to other projects. Sawa-dee-ka and maybe I'll see you next summer!

Closing thoughts: Two lists

Woman selling fruit at Ampawa floating market.

Things I will definitely miss about Thailand
  • all the wonderful people I met here
  • the smell of incense at streetside shrines
  • Thailand’s lavish use of purple and gold in decorating
  • yummy Thai dishes, especially green curry, som tom, and mango sticky rice
  • the delicious (and cheap!!) tropical fruits, especially litchi, guava, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit, passionfruit, and of course Thai coconuts
  • being greeted with cute bows and ‘sawa-dee-ka’ or ‘sawa-dee-khrap’ all the time
  • Buddhist monks in orange robes on the sky train and the side of the road
  • the beautiful tropical flowers growing even in the city
  • two words: Thai massage
  • that indefinable sense of adventure that accompanies even the simplest activities in a foreign country

Things I definitely will not miss
  • the humidity and mosquitoes
  • drinking pepto bismol every day
  • not being able to read nearly everything I see
  • not being able to communicate with most people I meet
  • having strangers take photos of me or with me just because of the way I look
  • feeling like my feet are smelly and dirty because of having to walk barefoot all the time in temples over the same sweat-and-bacteria-streaked floor as thousands of other people
  • not being able to rinse my mouth with tap water after brushing my teeth
  • being far away from loved ones

Flight home

The island geography of Hong Kong,
as seen through my plane window.

Well, as I type this now, we have only about four hours left in the air! I guess that means I’ve been traveling for about twenty hours by now, but I think the way the layover was scheduled made the return journey feel less arduous than the first trip. We have been hitting all kinds of turbulence on the flight from Hong Kong to New York, and trying to sleep on planes is still one of the more miserable physical experiences I’ve encountered, but I will say again that Cathay Pacific is amazing. The staff are so sweet and attentive it almost feels unfair, and you are never far from fresh glasses of water, cups of tea, bowls of soup and packets of snacks (four kinds!) – never neglected in dehydrated darkness for hours at a time. Once 6pm EST (5am Bangkok time) rolled around, I began to I feel like I’m getting a second wind that will hopefully last until I get home around midnight tonight.

Closing in on Hong Kong -- the city from the air.

Three of the major things I had planned for the return journey – Skyping my family from Hong Kong,* buying a particular grape konjac snack at Muji, and getting work done on my final BIOCEP presentation – didn’t work out so well, but I’ve certainly been living it up with the extensive menu of movies, TV shows, and music that the airplane provides for entertainment. So far, I’ve built my own iTunes-esque playlist (classical Indian music!), kept tabs on the Olympic medal count (question: do we primarily rank countries by number of golds or by total medals? because if the latter then we are so kicking China’s butt), and munched on several packets of oddly-appropriate** Cathay Pacific snacks while watching The Other Boleyn Girl (Eric Bana looks less like Christian Bale in this one than in other movies), The Last Samurai (just as good as I remembered it being), and 21 (which had so many shots of Harvard/MIT/Cambridge/Boston I felt homesick!).

*couldn’t get the much-vaunted free wifi to work.
**because I ate Scottish shortbread cookies while watching Mary Queen of Scots being beheaded in the first, Japanese chocolate wafers and green tea while watching the second, and pretzels shaped like hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds while watching the last. And it wasn’t even on purpose!


I also had a great time of it in Hong Kong. In addition to hitting up the ever-popular Muji store in the terminal that services Cathay Pacific, I broke the promise I made to myself last summer that I would never drink the foul-tasting variety of tea known as pu-erh tea ever again. I'm not sure what made me do it... I think I was seduced by the classy tea-connoisseur ambiance that surrounds many of the tea stores in Hong Kong into trying something exotic. I love buying tea in Hong Kong because they somehow combine the English fervor for elegant presentation of tea with the Chinese passion for unique varieties of green, white, oolong, and others. The rose pu-erh tea was miles better than the sickly-sweet iced pu-erh I'd reluctantly consumed in Taiwan, and made a nice prelude to the other Hong Kong snacks I enjoyed during my layover.

Rose pu-erh tea -- a risk that paid off.

Side note: I think posts like this make pretty clear that the amount of blogging that goes on is directly proportional to the amount of time I have to do it, rather than the amount of interesting things I actually have to say… Blogging this trip was a real challenge because of technological constraints – picture uploading was maddeningly slow when it worked at all, which was infrequently, half-written blog posts would be lost because the server connection was reset (or something like that), some posts just failed to show up at all – and also because of the ultra-packed schedule we had. I have no complaints about how busy they kept us. For a conference that only lasts two weeks (rather than six or nine), such business makes sense, and I think I might have been disappointed if we had been given more spare time. Still, it cut into my blogging and that made me sad, because one of the biggest kicks I get out of traveling is the thought that I can share it (in some small way) with the people I care about who aren’t there with me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Final day in Thailand!

The Bioethics Museum at UNESCO Bangkok.

Our last day in Thailand was bittersweet, as final days usually are. We began the morning with our last official BIOCEP presentation ever, at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific regional headquarters in Bangkok. For those of you who don't already know, UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and is an organization with branches operating in countries all over the world.

According to the website, UNESCO Bangkok promotes international co-operation, sets standards and disseminates information in the fields of education, the natural sciences, the social and human sciences, culture and communication in the Asia and Pacific region. The organization's mandate is the promotion of peace and human development through its operational strategies in education, science, culture and communication and information. UNESCO programs focus on promoting education for all; supporting the expression of cultural identities; protecting and enhancing the world's natural heritage; engaging in a new social contract between science and society at all levels; developing and promoting social policies; promoting the free flow of information, press freedom and the development of a pluralistic media; and strengthening communication capacities in developing countries.

A display about cloning, with models of Dolly and her clone.

The UNESCO representative with whom we met, a Dr. Darryl Mercer, is regional advisor in Social and Human Sciences in Asia and the Pacific (RASHSAP) and an affiliated professor at teh UN University Institute of Advanced Studies in Japan. He gave us an excellent presentation, probably the most philosophically rigorous of the whole program, and one which I think would have been well-placed at the beginning, rather than the end, of BIOCEP. Oddly enough, I had had the pleasure of perusing some of Dr. Macer's books online before coming to Thailand, in an effort to prime myself on philosophy and bioethics in the East Asian setting. He lectured a bit on his own work -- particularly his effort to beat back the notion that "bioethics" is a modern invention rather than a pre-historic human concern, and his project of framing ethical impulses in terms of the imperatives of love -- and the work of UNESCO projects in the Asia-Pacific region, especially efforts to bring bioethics discussion and education to all parts of society in the region's developing countries. I really liked the way his talk described the multiple modalities of bioethics, emphasizing discussion-centered or collaborative bioethics (an enterprise that is neither wholly descriptive nor wholly prescriptive) that can take place outside the ivory tower and without extensive training in moral frameworks and advanced biotechnology -- a real need in areas like Thailand where the overall educational level is still quite low.

Hailing a taxi as we left the UNESCO headquarters,
we caught sight of a bunch of masked police officers
writing a ticket on a speeding (or illegally-parked?) moped.

After a quick tour of the Bioethics Museum, one example of the institute's work to bring bioethics to the children of Bangkok, and a wrap-up session with Brian and Coco covering our suggestions for future BIOCEP sessions, we were cut loose to finish up our papers and enjoy our final day in Thailand.

Bangkok Central, as seen from one of the escalators.

Our first stop was Bangkok Central, one of the city's biggest shopping malls. There was a big exhibition on green technology on the lowest level, which I was able to partly explore, sampling a variety of locally-produced snacks and drinks at a kind of "market" in the mall's center. However, the gustatory highlight of the afternoon was definitely lunch at a fancy restaurant on the seventh (?) floor, with snazzy blue-and-white decor and a nice view of the city below. There, I ate my final plate of my beloved som tum, and then was introduced the the ambrosial substance known as mango sticky rice. Why, oh why, did I wait until my final day in Bangkok to try this amazing dessert?? Janice and I split first one, then a second plate of the stuff. Expensive, but so worth it. I would go back to Thailand just for this dish.

Then we all took off for Starbucks, laptops in tow, and settled down to put the finishing touches on our respective papers/outlines/drafts for BIOCEP. Pantee and I had just a few more changes to make before our outline was done, though the internet connection at the mall was not great and I wasn't actually able to submit the paper until much later that night. After stashing my laptop in Pantee's car, we abandoned ourselves to one last wonderful afternoon of shopping for outrageous deals at the inexpensive Thai stalls in a nearby shopping center.

From left to right: Angie, me.

Having shopped up an appetite, the gang reconvened around six to pile into cars and meet up at a popular restaurant in downtown Bangkok. About halfway there, the heavens opened up and it began to pour, and a few minutes later the traffic slowed to a literal standstill. Still, five girls in a car will usually not find themselves at a loss for conversation, so we all chatted happily away as the car inched its way toward the restaurant and the rain pounded down outside, turning the lights of the city into neon smears of pink and green trickling down the windows.

The last dinner with the gang!
From left to right: Pao, Risa, Melissa, Me, Jen,
Yoon Joo, Sanchai (alias: Sunshine), Heny, Pantee, Janice.

We had, as always, a complete blast at dinner, joking and laughing and probably being too loud. No one wanted the fun to end, but most of us were leaving in the early hours of the following morning and still had packing to do. Around 10 or 11 we reluctantly said our goodbyes, then piled into one of the Thai students' cars and made our way through the puddle-strewn streets back to our empty suitcases in Salaya.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Boat cruise

Lights on the river.

Tonight was not the last night of the program -- indeed, we still have two days of lectures and hospital/lab tours to go -- but it was Dr. Loike's last night in Bangkok, so the BIOCEP crew definitely needed to celebrate.

Dr. Loike + me

We did so by taking a dinner cruise down the Chao Phraya River. After stuffing ourselves with the most lavish spread of amazing food I've seen my entire time here -- including the most heavenly taro ice cream ever -- we oohed and ahhed as the temples and palaces of Bangkok floated by, their glittering rooflines recapitulated in the water below.

Roomie love!
Jen + me

This would be such a cute shot if my
hair weren't all over the place.

My good friend Pao finally wore me down and
I did the Asian finger pose. Don't hate.

Mostly, though, we spent time with each other. Although we still had two days of BIOCEP left to go, a feeling of nostalgia pervaded the evening. This was accentuated by a mock "awards ceremony" we held on the boat's upper deck, as the "social crew" of Gwen, Liz, and Carrie listed superlatives for each member of BIOCEP (mine: "Least likely to look disheveled in a jungle in Thailand") and we all thanked Brian, Coco, Dr. Loike, and the Thai students for all they had done for us.

The "awards" are read out!
Gwen + Liz + Carrie

We took many pictures, hoping to capture the memories and fun we'd all had together during these two weeks in Thailand. I'll miss it!

Me + Risa

Liz + me

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day!
From left to right: [back row] Risa, Kelly, Janice, Jen;
[front row] Pao, his A-ma (grandmother), his A-yi (aunt).

This Tuesday was the Queen's birthday, which also made it the day of the year Thailand devotes to celebrating mothers all over the country. Because of the holiday, our classes were canceled for the day, but we still had a full schedule planned with the help of our amazing friend Pao...

Pao's grandmother's street.

As you can see from the photo that tops this post, our first stop of the day involved stopping at Pao's grandmother's house in Chinatown to wish her a very happy mother's day. I had been quite interested to see Chinatown, but hadn't counted on the beautiful displays I saw through the window of Pao's car as we made our way downtown. The main avenue of the city was strung with thousands of tiny twinkling lights, and many storefronts had cleared their windows of merchandise, displaying instead large portraits of the queen and sprays of flowers and fruits. We had a nice time at Pao's A-ma's house, though communication was limited by the fact that she spoke Thai and Cantonese, while our (student) group spoke English, Mandarin, Japanese, and Hebrew (between the four of us). Pao served as translator.

My wish is finally fulfilled! A pink taxi at last.
On left, entering taxi: Janice.

We visited for a while, then departed for further adventures. Pao parked his car and we hopped into the first of a series of taxis -- finally, a pink one! Because it was the morning of Mother's Day, the street was crowded with flower vendors. These workers wake up hours before sunrise, pick up their flowers, and set up shop on the street stringing them together in garlands for sons and daughters to eventually buy to give to their mothers.

The flower vendors.

Our first stop of the day was Wat Pho, also known as the temple of the reclining Buddha. This is one of Bangkok's most famous cultural sites, and we were determined not to leave Thailand without having paid a visit.

Wat Pho.

Because of the holiday, the temple was relatively empty, which only added to the sense of serenity and peace of the place. This quiet and sense of space, taken in conjunction with the coolly overcast skies and fastidious cleanliness of the compound, made it one of my favorite temple visits -- one which retained the sense that it was once built (and for many still functions) as a place of worship and contemplation, and not simply as a colorful cultural artifact to be swarmed over by sweaty crowds.

Topiary at Wat Pho.

We walked from place to place in the serene grounds, admiring the traditional architecture (note the similarity to buildings at the Grand Palace). Not only is Wat Pho one of the oldest and largest temples in all of Bangkok, it is also home to one of the country's largest Buddha images: the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is more than 150 feet long and nearly 50 feet tall, and the temple in which it is housed is not so much a building as a cage for this magnificent sculpture.

The face of the reclining Buddha.

One of the things I liked best about this enormous Buddha was (oddly enough, considering my usual aversion) his feet. While the Buddha himself is covered in plated gold, his feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, depicting 108 scriptural scenes in Chinese and Indian styles.

The sole of one of Buddha's feet!
Click this to make it bigger and look at these designs --
beautiful illustrations of stories from the Buddhist scriptures.

Having walked down one aisle, admiring the length of the Reclining Buddha, you round a corner by his feet and then proceed along his back. At this section of the temple, you can buy a small batch of ceremonial coins, which you drop one by one into little hammered bowls made by the monks with particular resonant qualities. When people drop coins in the pots along this hallway, it echoes softly through the temple and sounds almost like rain.

Row of hammered pots.

The other thing for which Wat Pho is famous is as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. Having paid our respects to the Reclining Buddha, we meandered through the grounds a bit more, winding our way closer and closer to the massage school and service area which still functions out of Wat Pho.

Some more of the grounds.

One of the neatest things we passed were a series of tiled chedi built to house the ashes of people in the community, whose names were inscribed along its sides. One was decorated with a fresh garland, so large it must have been custom-made that day. This, I imagine, was the way one person who could not spend the day with his or her mother nonetheless found a way of honoring her memory.

A custom-made Mother's Day garland adorns one of the
ceremonial chedi tombs at Wat Pho.

Before long, we had arrived at the massage school and were eagerly lined up in a quiet air-conditioned room smelling of eucalyptus and menthol. The massages here were more expensive than the ones on the beach at Koh Samet, but still far cheaper than massages in the US. And the quality of these massages -- wow. I have no words to describe how incredible it was. I felt like I was floating on a cloud for hours afterwards.

The massage area.

Sad as I was when the hour-long massage wound to a close, I was excited about the next stop on our list: lunch. My expectations were more than exceeded, as Pao ordered a delicious spread of dishes, most of which were vegetarian and none of which I would have known to order for myself. Jen, Janice, Risa and I were delighted.

At our fantastic lunch!
From left to right: Jen, Risa, Janice.

The fun wasn't over when lunch ended -- we were off for dessert at a nearby cafe.

The heavens open!

It's lucky that the cafe was so close, because on our way there, it began to pour! The rain that had been threatening all day came down in sheets as we scurried down the alley to the cafe.

Police motorcycles.

Along the way, we passed some police motorcycles. I paused too suddenly to photograph them, almost creating a collision with Risa, who was running behind me down the street also trying to dodge the rain. I couldn't help it -- I've always got my eye on the cops and nurses of whatever country I'm visiting, because I know they would be topics of interest to my mom and dad (respectively). The combination of police + motorcycles amped the dad interest factor too high not to stop and click away.

A tea selection to make my mother proud.

At last, we arrived. At the cafe, they had a lovely selection of Twinings teas that would have warmed my mother's heart. I had to take a photo of it for her, but my actual order was something rather different...

...tamarind ice cream!

Tamarind is a unique fruit, which grows on trees in crunchy brown pods. The pods are allowed to dry, then are cracked open to access the gooey, sour-sweet fruit inside. My ice cream was delicious, and I also sampled some of Jen's passion fruit sorbet and Risa's young coconut ice cream (which had been the other two selections I had most seriously contemplated). The cafe experience itself was lovely -- lace-topped tables in a cute and trendy setting which overlooked the city's main river as the rain sprinkled its surface.

The mall.

Eventually, the rain eased up a bit, and we picked our way back between the puddles to the main road, where we caught a taxi to take us to a mall by Pao's home. Janice, Jen, Risa and I had plans -- to get our hair done!

Now, those of you who've followed along since my days in Beijing or Taichung know of the disastrous hair-related decisions I've made when traveling abroad. I promised my sister before I left for Thailand that I would not succumb to the temptation to cut my hair while I was there, and I'm proud to say that I kept my promise. The stylist kept her scissors and her chemicals far away from my head, but Jen and I did indulge in a shampoo and blow-dry just to keep the other girls company. After that, we had time for a bit more shopping before dinner.

Group at the restaurant.
Left to right: Janice, Me, Risa, Jen, Pao.

Pao took us to a beautiful waterfront restaurant not far from the mall, where we all showed off our freshly-coiffed hair. The coolest thing about the restaurant experience -- aside from the food and drinks themselves, and the beautiful view -- was the Mother's Day ceremony that began about half an hour after our arrival.

Unflattering shot of me with candle.

Candles with little paper drip-guards were distributed to every person at the restaurant, and before I was sure what what happening, we were all on our feet with every table raising their voices to sing the Thai national anthem. None of us except Pao knew the words, so we were content to stand with our candles held high, watching as the tables of mothers and children around us hugged each other and sang.

Everyone stands to sing the national anthem.

Soon I noticed that we were actually all standing and singing in unison with a scene on the TVs mounted to the ceiling of the restaurant's main pavilion, which meant that pockets of people all of Bangkok -- and perhaps all of Thailand -- were at that very moment also raising candles and their voices to celebrate all the mothers of Thailand, and most especially their Queen. It was a pretty powerful moment.

The river at night, as seen from our table.

After the ceremony, all we had left to do was order our food -- which was fabulous -- and enjoy the scenery. The lights glimmered on the river as boats cruised by, filled with mothers and children out to celebrate the special day. I ordered a papaya smoothie (which came decorated with a purple orchid blossom), a plate of stir-fried water primrose with chili sauce, and a big plate of rice (which did wonders to blunt the extreme spiciness of the other dish!). A good rule of thumb in Thailand is to order everything with an emphatic "NO SPICY." This doesn't mean that your dish won't be spicy -- it will be -- but you might manage to come out of the experience without having burned your lips and tongue off entirely.

The official restaurant tuk-tuk.

When the meal ended, we reluctantly left the restaurant and were surprised to find the official restaurant tuk-tuk waiting to convey us back to the main road to hail the last of the day's taxis. I must say that while my tuk-tuk ride in Ayutthaya was nothing less than hair-raising, this one was actually quite pleasant. When I stumbled out of the last one, I vowed never to get back inside another one... which just goes to show that in Thailand (as everywhere else) you should never say never!

Tuk-tuk ride to the street!
Right to left: Pao, Risa.

Arriving back at campus, I fired off an email to my own mother, to wish her a very happy Thai Mother's Day. It was the perfect ending to a fun-filled day.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thai puppet theatre

The entrance to the theatre.
Note shrine to current Thai queen in upper right,
as well as glass box housing one of the Thai puppets at lower left.

Our activity for the evening was a trip to see traditional Thai puppet theatre in Bangkok's Pathum Wan district. After a bit of shopping at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar across the street, and dinner at a restaurant famous for its som tum (green papaya salad, which I ordered with a big plate of jasmine rice and a mango smoothie), we found the theatre and headed inside.

One of the puppet masks -- this one full-size,
to be worn by an actor.

Many masks and replicas of puppets were on display, and we were greeted at the entrance by one of the puppets! At Brian's urging, a couple of us stepped up for a photograph.

We are embraced by one of the demons. From left to right: Jen, Janice, me.

The performance itself was awesome. The play -- which recounted the Hindu legend of the birth of the elephant-headed god Ganesha -- combined elements of three distinct Thai puppet styles. The largest part of the action was depicted by puppets of the style known as Hun Lakorn Lek, a kind of performing art developed by Krae Sapthavanich, based on the older style of Hun Luang. These puppets are about three or three-and-a-half feet tall, decked out in elaborate costumes similar to those used on full-size persons in theater art performance and mask dance. The puppets are carved out of hard, light wood, made of different parts tied together by 16 strings. Each puppet in the show we watched was manned by a team of three puppeteers, dressed in traditional black clothing. The gender of the puppeteers was determined by the gender of the character they portrayed, though the voicing of the puppets (both male and female) was left to a panel of four men at the side of the stage. The movements and expressions of the puppeteers were exquisitely choreographed to reflect at all times the emotions and actions of their puppet -- it was true artistry, beautiful to behold.

The head of Ganesha.

The performance also incorporated elements of Thai shadow puppetry (Nang Yai), as well as traditional mask dancing done by a full-size actor (e.g., when one of the demons changed size). The careful and precise movements of the hands, head, arms, and neck were identical between puppets and full-size performers -- I believe this is because the puppets were meant to deliberately mimic the extant style of palace mask dancing back when the art form first developed, though I'm not entirely sure. Music was provided throughout by a small group of performers playing traditional Thai music at the side of the stage. When the ceremony ended, incense was lit at a shrine to Ganesha located where the voice actors had been sitting, and many in the audience filed up to the front to perform a kind of ritual worship. I went up to look but tried not to interfere with the people paying their respects.

A mask with many faces -- either a demon or a god.