Wednesday, July 7, 2010

June 28- July 7th

Always in search of new things to do, Adam was pleased to inform me around 2 weeks ago that one of his friends, Lucas, had told him about an organization here in Thailand called Grapevine... of which he is part. He further told me that they are a Christian ministry group, full of firangs (foreigners) from all around the world. Many of them had heard about Grapevine through speakers that come to their ministries in the States, sparking their interest and causing them to decide to spend months of their time at home raising enough money to fund their 6 month (or longer) stay in Thailand, VOLUNTEERING at Grapevine to try to help those in need in Thailand through Christ. Though that is their main focus, they also host a variety of events that give Adam and I a chance to hang-out and make new friends. With this in mind, we decided to head to their building (conveniently right down the road) to partake in their first Souper Tuesday. This cleverly named event offers a few hours of "chill" time, followed by a soup dinner and then a short Bible study and songs. During this "chill" time, Adam and I played quite a few games of which we had never heard, and made new friends... firangs and Thai alike (who are always glad to help us with our Thai!).

One of the friends we made there, Paul, agreed to take us to Paragon, the huge mall in central Bangkok. The trip there takes about an hour by bus, which we were thankfully able to get air-conditioned... and as I said before Thailand never fails to offer interesting things to see. For example, whether by choice or due to the rainy season I am not sure, but they have a huge amount of waterways that stretch through vast amounts of the city... unfortunately, many of them are not natural rivers so they end up becoming stagnant. However, one of Adam's professors, a renowned Asian engineer developed these turban type devices that spin and circulate the water which helps to keep the mosquitoes at bay(though we have still been bitten by quite a few...). Another interesting thing that we passed was the street where all the protesters were, which was evidenced by the destroyed, burned buildings.

Upon arriving at Paragon, we were rather intimidated by how huge it was. We headed to the second story of the basement floor which is an absolutely enormous food court, where we were pleasantly surprised to find Thailand's only Mexican restaurant, which thankfully fulfilled our desire to have our El Tap fajitas (for now...). After lunch, we went a couple stories up to browse the gigantic book store that somehow led us to a movie store, where we bought the first season of Lost to pass some of our time. Once we had Lost, we looked through the movies they had playing (I forgot to mention they have an Imax theater, along with normal theaters of course, on the top (7th i think?) floor of the mall).

At a loss as to what to do, we decided to head back to JJ's market, which is a massive local market that spans for 30ish blocks that sells almost anything you can imagine. Once we had gotten a little oriented (... remember this place is huge and is basically just a maze where you have to weave in and out of alley ways etc. which gets extremely confusing very quickly) we headed to the pet section where they offered everything from dogs to flying squirrels... sadly we can't have a pet here or we were going to buy a kitten and get him a little Thai passport so he could come back to the US with us (sounds funny but that is really how you do it lol). Slightly depressed by the sad shape most of the animals were in, we ventured off and found a plant section! From previous blog entries, you know that we buy a plant every time we go to the mall (our dorm has quite a few now...) and with Adam's love for exotic fruits, he just could not pass this opportunity up so we decided to buy a lime tree/bush thing and a Mango tree for our balcony, now properly named Sprite and Mr. Mangoes, respectively.

Lugging all this back to the dorm was no easy task, and left us worn out until the Tuesday for the next Souper Tuesday and the 7th, which was Grapevine's celebration properly named "4th of July on the 7th" where we had American food (finally!) and hung out with our new Thai and firang friends. After watching some fireworks and playing Slamwich, we headed home to get Adam to bed before his next class.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 21-27

With my first weekend over, I was now faced with what to do to occupy my time while Adam is in class. Sadly, not knowing a country's language and what locals often do during the day severely hinders one's options...

Still hesitant to do anything by myself, I decided to delve into studying Arabic to keep me busy... devoting up to 5-6 hours each day to it. (Sadly, I do not have anyone here that speaks it, so if you guys know anyone that would want to chat with me and help with pronunciation etc., let me know via facebook!!!) Needless to say, that much studying every day was quickly beginning to wear me out. I had to find something else to do for part of the day, after all, I am going to be returning to school almost instantly upon getting back to the US, I need to have some fun here! With this in mind, I made the decision to venture out into the city in order to buy some things for the apartment. To do so, I left the building and crossed the treacherous overpass to get to the other side of the highway so that I could catch some form of public transportation (which are almost all fraught with danger!!!). I was finally able to catch a SongTow (sp??), which is the truck-like vehicle I described in the other post that has a covered back and makeshift benches in the bed of the truck. As with most transportation here, it was extremely crowded leaving only the...( I dont know the technical term for it but it is the back door thing on a pick up truck basically that hangs down)... anyways, I stood on that thing for the trip, racing down the highway... an interesting experience to say the least.

Once I finally arrived at Future Park (the mall), I needed to rest so I headed up to the fifth floor and uploaded all the pictures I had taken up to that point... sadly Adam and I bought the best internet package our dorm has to offer and it is still to awful to allow us to upload any pictures. Thankfully, the internet here was superb and I was done in less than 30 minutes, but what to do until Adam's return? Hrm, American desserts sound excellent after incessant amounts of rice, let's head downstairs to Tops Market, the grocery store, and buy the ingredients for some non bake (wtb an oven) chocolate peanut butter bars! Delighted with my spark of genius, I was able to find everything I needed to make them (with some substitutions, of course--- for example, straight up crackers with sugar sprinkled on them instead of graham crackers... and yes they were as gross as they sound). Hands full of groceries, I took a taxi back to the dorm and immediately began my first cooking experience in Thailand, which resulted in a delicious reminder of home. In other cooking news, Adam, growing evermore tired of rice, has thrice cooked delicious stew, consisting of one potato one carrot and half an onion.

Other than cook, the weekdays were relatively uneventful; however, this weekend was quite exciting! We decided that it was high time to see a movie in the theaters instead of sitting around watching movies we had seen countless times. Feeling ambitious, we set off to the movie theater right near Future Park, about 20 minutes from our apartment. After being here for a week, I felt like I had a relatively good idea of how the movie theater would look... poor, rundown, offering more nasty seaweed flavored chips. How wrong I was (except about the seaweed chips of course)!!! This movie theater tops anything that I have ever even heard of in the United States. Sadly, they would not let me take any pictures there, but this two story behemoth was jaw-dropping to say the least (I plan to try to ninja take some photos on one of my next excursions). Suffering from shock, Adam and I stumbled about looking for where we had to buy our tickets. After a few minutes, we found the queue... but to add to the confusion there was not simply one queue, but two. We deduced later that the second queue was for those wishing to purchase "Emperor seats" and "Honeymoon seats," each was of course more expensive, but why? Well the Honeymoon seats, as you might guess, were basically two person couches. The Emperor seats were also amazing, complete with leg rests--- not to mention the theater you get to go to with them, which houses only around 20 people, nice huh? Surely they must cost a fortune! Wrong, they were around 500-600 Baht-- about 15$ which is indeed more expensive than in the US, but well worth it in my opinion. Not convinced? Neither was I, want to know why? Let me describe the default seat characteristics that even the cheapest of seats come with. First, they are all extremely comfortable with thick red cushions lining every inch of the seat. Next, every seat reclines a great deal to allow for maximum comfort with the least amount of strain on the neck. Finally, they all have a ton of leg room, allowing even my long legs to stretch out. With all these comforts, along with comparing them to US theaters, I was more than happy to buy a cheap seat. Knowing that the cheap seats were this nice; however, I fully expected to pay a decent sum for them... surely more expensive than the US... wrong again. These beautiful gifts from God were a mere 120 baht, about 4$ (compared to the 8ish $ we spend for subpar seating in the US). But, before we were able to get our hands on the tickets, we had to reach the front of the snail-paced queue. A little flustered by the time we were at the front, we quickly discovered what takes so long... every person has to select which seat in the theater they want, which movie time, and which type of seat. As usual, our lacking Thai skills led us to primitive sign language and anxious pointing, but we got the job done. Tickets to Karate Kid in hand, we headed to our theater, but were stopped midway and told that the other movie did not end until ours began. What to do? Well the ingenious Thai movie theater designers had already thought about that! They had a luxury waiting area where movie goers could wait and relax in amazingly comfortable furniture until their movie started. Finally, after all my anticipation had grown, we were let into the theater to discover the one flaw... 30 minutes of commercials and movie previews... thankfully I do not mind those too much. Surely after 30 minutes of previews, there could be no more delays? Nope... we were quite silly not to expect it! The salute to the king!!! Everyone in the theater has to stand to honor the commercial that plays before each movie, which shows pictures and video from throughout the king's life. These images all clearly try to portray him as a hero, with happy children singing cherubic songs in the background. The commercial goes so far as to insinuate that the king brings the people clean water via rain, seemingly asserting his divine powers. Though it was slightly bizarre, the children's tune was quite soothing and put me in a better mood :D. Sadly, the movie was not the best, but the theater and the experience were incredible... for the next several weeks Adam and I have decided to visit this place at least once a week, maybe even seeing a movie in Thai with no subtitles just for the experience (and the previews make it look hilarious even though we have no idea what is going on lol...) Furthermore, we decided that we must experience their Imax theater... which is sadly an hour away but must be incredible based on their normal theaters. This excursion will occur July 29th... which is when The Last Airbender comes out in Thailand.

I am happy to report that Thailand is proving much more entertaining than I had expected and continues to offer new surprises every day. I am definitely glad I came to experience it, and I am still awed by how cheap everything is here.... allowing us to do so much for so little!

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Steven Henson
ستيفن هينسن

Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 20th

After such an exhausting day, I was looking forward to being able to rest. Needless to say, that did not happen... with Adam around there is never any rest for the weary. He quickly informed me that one of his friends, Bow, was expecting us at the main canteen (their version of a cafeteria). Little did I know that she was expecting us at 8am the day after my sleep schedule was turned upside down by a 12 hour time shift! Luckily, Adam is quite the morning person and we were able to get to the canteen at the scheduled 8 am in the morning. Once there, however, Bow was no where to be seen... we wandered around aimlessly for 10 minutes pretending to know what to do. Finally we decided to sit down and hope that she would be able to find us amongst the other students at the canteen.

Moments later I was surprised to be approached by one of Bow's friends, Coke, who was able to call Bow, who told him that she was on her way. Now knowing that we were in the right place, we decided to eat while we waited for Bow to get here. Unfortunately, all the menus here were in Thai and I had no idea what to get nor how to get it. Since Adam had been here for two weeks already, he had learned how to say several different types of food, which he ordered for himself. Meanwhile, Coke was able to help me order some vegetarian fried rice and water to quench my never ending thirst in this inferno of a climate. Once we had sat down and began to eat our meal, another of Bow's friends arrived on the scene... Boy. After greeting each other, the four of us engaged in friendly conversation until we finished our meals which is conveniently when Bow arrived. The five of us fed and anxious to explore, we set out on our day's journey: the exploration of Bangkok.

In Thailand, there are several different modes of transportation that students frequent: taxi,
bus, van, motorcycle, tuk tuk (sp?, pictured below), and similar to a pick up truck with roof
thrown over the back. We decided to take as cheap a route as we could (which is not hard to do in Thailand btw...) so we left the canteen and walked 5 minutes to the campus van station. Here, students (and their friends) gather to take vans to various major attractions for both locals and tourists alike. To get to Bangkok, we had to take the van to Victory monument, which took approximately one hour. Thankfully, similar to Morocco, the long drives here never leave for a dull moment, there is almost always something new to look at out the side window (and make you truly appreciate how lucky you are to live in the United States). Nevertheless, no matter how enjoyable the ride, cramped space and little leg room always leaves me anxious to get out of the vehicle. Sadly, once we got out of the van, I learned that we immediately had to catch a taxi (the most expensive form of transportation here) to take us to our ultimate destination: the Grand Palace.

The Grand Palace hosts a remarkable amount of different important historical elements of Thailand, leaving me itching to get inside, but as we were trying to get in quickly, Adam and I were shocked to be stopped by the guards (wielding rifles). Thank God we had Bow, Coke, and Boy there to interpret for us! They informed us that we could not enter the Grand Palace for one simple reason... we were wearing shorts! This common practice in American society is apparently considered quite rude here in places of education, government, or religion. Their solution? We had to go into this locker room type building and put down a 200 Baht deposit to rent someone's sweaty pants to put on, leaving us to look idiotic carrying around our short pants!

Finally ready to see what warranted such respect, we proceeded to enter the grounds of the Grand Palace only to be stopped once again (thank God for Bow, Coke, and Boy for translating once again!!!) at another guard post. Apparently students and natives of Thailand may enter this area free... but not me. So I had to turn around and go to wait in this ridiculous, condescending line pictured below. After paying an obnoxious 350 Baht, I was definitely ready to
enter and see what all this fuss is about! Little did I know that this was almost exclusively a Buddhist temple, not a palace. All along the walls were floor-to-ceiling paintings that depicted the history of Buddhist/Thai legends involving war and magic. Coke, who knew quite a bit about this history, was able to explain to us most of the stories behind these pieces of art (some below, rest on facebook!!!).

After absorbing this artistic timeline, I was expecting the tour to be over, little did I know that it had just begun! When the path of beautiful art ending, it was only to be replaced by a huge
courtyard which encompassed buildings of every size and shape, all dedicated to Buddha. Sadly, they quickly grew monotonous and blended together. However, one impressive characteristic was that in one of these temples sat an idol of Buddha which the king himself visited each year and changed his clothes (Again, all the pictures here are on Facebook also).

Once we finished here, we ventured to the main Thammasat campus in Bangkok (which was also an enormous campus!) where we found some much needed drinks to rehydrate us after a day of walking the scorching sun. Once our thirst had
been quenched, Bow, Boy, and Coke took us to a nice little restaurant that was hidden away in the upstairs of an obscure building in the maze of markets. With our translators at hand, we were able to order an interesting Indian style vegetarian meal which was quite good but sadly did not fill us.

Nonetheless, Bow, Boy, and Coke were not about to allow a little hunger to get in the way of the rest of the tour... so we set out again to visit a few more sites in Bangkok. Sadly, most of these were Buddhist temples that required me to pay for access since I was neither a student nor a citizen, but all in all they were good experiences... though a little overpriced.

After visiting these temples, we decided to change things up a bit and go visit the floating markets. The main way to get to them? By boat! Since we obviously did not have one laying around, we had to go find one of the many entrepreneurs trying to sell rides up and down the river. Now, these entrepreneurs were indeed very interesting. Since we had Bow, Boy, and Coke with us, we were able to get a good deal on the prices. How do I know? While they were trying to sell us the rides, they showed us a brochure of the different "packages" or deals they offered to people and their prices for each deal. Understandable, right? Not exactly, amidst their
excitement to get us as customers (or their lack of caring... not sure) they neglected to hide the other brochure. Expecting to see different options, I quickly read through it with an eerie sense of déjà vu... the only difference between the two brochures were the prices listed, a difference of 800 Baht...nearly 30$!!! I quickly gathered that those brochures must be the ones that they show to blissfully oblivious tourists to wring them for every possible dollar. With a sharp taste of disgust in my mouth, I handed over my money (the cheapest deal thanks to our native friends!) and boarded the sketchy contraption pictured to the right. Though I instantly noticed a hole in the
boat, the atmosphere was nice and I immediately knew I was going to enjoy the experience. Around 5 minutes down the river, we came upon another boat that had stopped in its tracks... at first we did not know what was going on; however, as we approached, we soon realized they were feeding a massive conglomeration of enormous fish. We soon learned that this river is absolutely full of giant fish, which explains why all the fish in the markets are so cheap (they are also probably cheap due to the less than pleasant levels of pollution in the river...). Sadly, as we continued to drift down the river, we were reminded of the dire level of poverty that plagues this country as we saw countless shacks that were surely on the verge of collapse (pictured below) and in fact we saw a couple that had indeed collapsed... However, it was still quite exciting to be able to see all the exotic types of fruits that we buy in the USA hanging naturally, ready to be picked, from trees in every direction we looked. Once we finally arrived to the "floating market," Adam and I
were disappointed to learn that it consisted of only about 5 boats selling cheap tourist-type gifts. Nonetheless, our spirits were instantly revitalized when we saw the huge Buddhist pyramid-thing that we were quickly approaching.

Once we had arrived, we were allowed to get off the boat and climb (little did we know that each stair was around 1-2 feet high... making for an extremely exhausting climb), but once at the top- it was instantly obvious how worthwhile the climb had been. We could see so far in each direction... allowing us to take in a great deal of Bangkok--- which from here resembled downtown of any big American city, which only added to the awe-factor... an extremely old stone pyramid like structure in the middle of downtown Bangkok... remarkable. After absorbing the magnificence all around us, we once again hopped on a boat and continued to the docks.

Once we were again on dry land, we caught a taxi and headed home. However, our drive home was far from boring since Adam decided to practice his Thai with Bow. He would read random phrases in Thai out of his Thai book and they would have to tell us what he had just said... let's just say that did not go so well, lol. They could not understand a word at all if he did not pronounce it perfectly since Thai is a tonal language. What this means is that many of their words are spelled or pronounced the same, the only difference is the way in which they are said. For example, in English we use a rising tone to indicate a question whereas a normal tone often indicates a simple statement. In Thai, a word, for example nahm, can be said with a rising tone or a normal tone (there are a total of 5 tones in Thai) each of which denotes a completely unrelated meaning. Therefore, when Adam was trying to pronounce phrases, if he got the tone of one word incorrect in the sentence, the native speakers often had no idea what he was trying to say (in which case they would read what he was trying to say and then say it correctly in Thai-- which almost always sounded nearly identical to what Adam said but made the difference between comprehension and cluelessness.

After this amusing ride home, Adam and I stopped at a lovely street diner (in American terms, this would not be considered lovely at all since its basically a stand with a tarp thrown over it, literally right next to a speeding highway) where we eat our cow pot pack man sabee raht (vegetarian fried rice) every night for almost under 1$. With full stomachs, we returned to our apartment and again easily found sleep after another laborious day in Thailand.

شكرا على القراءة
Steven Henson
ستيفن هينسن

Friday, June 25, 2010

June 18-19th

After a grueling 28 combined hours of traveling (29 if you count the drive to Nashville), Bangkok was finally visible out of the window of my plane. As anticipation grew, I glanced over at the plane's digital map, which informed me we still had 45 minutes of flying left... ¿qué carajo? I asked myself if this city I was seeing was indeed Thailand, surely it could not be so expansive? My confusion was soon resolved by the captain's announcement, informing us that it was indeed Bangkok. As we gracefully soared over this behemoth of a city, the distinct flashes of lightning could be seen all around us, a constant reminder of the presence of the rainy season. Though the weather was not wonderful, it was 11 at night and all I cared about was getting off the plane! However, I soon learned that one should be careful what they wish for...

The first thing I noticed upon walking off the plane was the ridiculous heat that almost knocked me off my feet, I have never felt anything like this before! Due to the fact that it is in the middle of the rainy season, humidity was at its peak which simply exacerbated the situation (you are almost instantly covered in a mixture of sweat and condensation upon leaving any air conditioned building). Furthermore, the air quality here is surely dangerous, easily observable by just glancing around at many of the natives wearing face masks.

Gloomy enough for you yet? Well it gets better! Today is the first complete day I have spent in Thailand... it's essentially impossible to describe how different of a world it is here. After getting ready, Adam and I decided to go to Future Park, an enormous mall with every kind of random gadgets and restaurants you can imagine. We left our apartment and walked across the interstate overpass... Adam wanted to take me to some of the local transportation, blissful in my ignorance, I agreed. Next thing I knew I was on the back of a red-vested man's motorcycle, zipping through campus. Since they were on a campus, they restrained themselves slightly-- nonetheless it would certainly be considered reckless driving by the gestapo of a police force at TTU. After arriving at our destination, Adam had a conniption with our two motorcycle drivers in Thai because they apparently were trying to overcharge us (normally its around 10-20 baht for our journey but they wanted 50 baht each! ***Note: ~32 baht = 1 dollar***) Trying to avoid a fight, we finally paid them their 5x higher than normal wage and grumpily stormed off to the van depo (for lack of better words) to wait for a van which regularly takes passengers, mostly students, to Future Park and several other locations.

Once at the mall, we sampled some of the local cuisine at a restaurant there. We ordered vegetarian fried rice, which was quite excellent in itself but once we got the bill, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the entire meal cost less than 2$!!! Satiated, we went to several other appliance stores in the mall to purchase various things for our apartment, including bizarre plants:
and, of course, for all of you that know Adam, you will not be surprised to learn that we had to also buy rugs to cover the bland tiles of our dorm.

After returning to our dorm and laying the carpet, we decided to continue exploring so we went to one of the local markets, lets just say health inspectors would have a heart attack if they saw this place!

Trying to navigate this labyrinth was no easy task! After finally getting un-lost for the 3rd or 4th time, we found our way out of the market (but not before sampling some of the excellent fruit drinks they have here!) As we walked along the edge of the market to catch a taxi home, Adam found quite possibly one of the most disgusting stands ever... a roasted bug stand. Being the bad vegan that he is, he just could not resist the urge to get his protein, so he bought a bag of roasted grasshoppers with soy sauce.
With his bag of bugs in hand, we returned home to finally get some much needed rest. Don't worry though, Adam couldn't sleep till he had tried his grasshoppers!!! After nearly vomiting with just one bite, he decided that it was best to feed the rest to our carnivorous plant... With such a long day under our belts, sleep was not hard to find.
شكرا على القراءة
Steven Henson
ستيفن هينسن