Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day!

Congratulations to those born on February 29th -- they are only a quarter the age of the rest of us born in a similar year. In a list of those who would celebrate birthdays today supplied by Wikipedia, I could only find a couple of names that were familiar to me: Jimmy Dorsey the band leader, Dinah Shore the singer and Tempest Storm the stripper (Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California and a mentor to Jack London, died on the day Tempest was born). Maybe, astrologically speaking, it's a curse. My Tamil Nadu calendar predicts a so-so day

The big news in Thailand is the return of Thaksin Shinawatra. The former prime minister and head of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party, who was overthrown by the military on Sept. 19, 2006, flew into Bangkok yesterday morning on a commercial flight from Hong Kong and was greeted by a crowd of thousands of fans at Suvarnabhumi airport. His return from 17 months of exile was made possible by the December election in which candidates from the People's Power Party, widely believed to be a front for Thaksin, won overwhelmingly. The PPP's titular leader, former mayor of Bangkok and host of a TV cooking show, Samak Sundaravej, took the posts of prime minister and defense minister. And although most believe he was hand-picked by Thaksin, it is expected that Samak will not defer easily to his puppet master's lead. Thaksin, however, declared to the press upon his arrival that he was finished with politics. But the 58-year-old billionaire, is popular among rural people and the urban poor, who applauded his populist financial and social welfare policies. While the crowds cheered, Thaksin was whisked away to the Supreme Court to face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with his wife's purchase of a prime piece of Bangkok real estate in 2003, while he was prime minister. Now that we have rabbit ears for our TV, I was able to watch these events unfolding live.

Mark Levy arrived in Bangkok this week with his friends Bob and Vivian Vaughan, and he brought gifts for me from Santa Cruz, most notably a chocolate chip cookie. It's been six months since I could walk the two and half blocks down Lincoln to Pacific and around the corner for my bi-weekly cookie fix (it would have been daily but I was trying to lose weight). Mark heard about me from my friend Mel, the wine merchant at Cost Plus World Market, and sent me email about his trip after reading my blog. He also brought pretzels and Twinkies for Pandit the British monk who has never seen them before (I expect to receive oodles of merit for this gift, but Pandit warns me that samsara is merciless). Mark and Bob were teachers at Santa Cruz High School (social studies and art, respectively), and Vivian was at Mission Hill. Now they're dedicated travelers and I was amazed to hear how many times they've visited Southeast Asia. Little has escaped their notice. This time they're making repeat visits to Angkor Wat and the Cambodian beaches, and they are traveling to some of the more unknown southern Thai beaches near Trang before journeying to Kuala Lumpur where they will catch a flight to Bali for the conclusion of their five-week trip. Their short stay in Bangkok was at a cheap guest house near Khao San Road, which Mark called "pseudo-Bangkok." But we laughed over that from our vantage point on the second floor of Starbucks overlooking my neighborhood of Sukhumvit Road where the prostitutes, female and pseudo-female, paced the sidewalk below. I suggested that Bangkok was just a collection of "pseudo-Bangkoks" and that the real Bangkok is illusive.

Perhaps the real Thailand is an illusion as well. Kathe and Michael emailed me Wednesday from Koh Lanta, saying they were tired of beaches and were coming back to Bangkok sooner than expected. When they arrived at Siam Court last night, we learned that their return flight to San Francisco was the following morning, a week earlier than planned. So on their last night in exotic Asia, we took them to eat at Isan House, a lovely outdoor restaurant with music and dancers a short distance away. Michael was suffering from a tricky tummy, sunburn, and wounds on his leg received when he crashed his motorbike on Koh Lanta. Both said they felt "burnt out." Just four weeks before, I had spent a day trying to show them Bangkok's friendly face, giving Michael a blister on his foot in the process. But I think they learned that the city has many interesting faces, not all as tacky as the backpacker's paradise in which they were staying. From here they flew to Chiang Mai where the noise from a bar across the river kept them from sleeping. Next stop was Luang Prabang in Laos which they loved. Because of the difficulty of getting a flight from there to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, they flew back to Bangkok and went first to Koh Chang, an island near the Cambodian border which they found to be overcrowded. Traveling away from the island, they suffered through a long and horrendous journey by van and taxi into Cambodia on bumpy dirt roads. The poverty they encountered in that devastated country unsettled them. Returning to Bangkok, Kathe and Michael stayed here at Siam Court before flying off to Krabi and another island adventure. But the Koh Lanta they encountered was overdeveloped and crowded with Westerners. The heat was intense ("We are not beach people," Kathe told me) and they moved from a remote hotel to one closer to familiar amenities. Finally they decided it was time to go home.

I didn't spend enough time with Mark, Bob and Vivian to discover what it was that brought them back to Southeast Asia again and again. How did they adapt to the conditions described by Kathe and Michael (who, synchronistically, sold his Volkswagen van to Mark in Santa Cruz many years ago)? What happens when complaints outweigh the joys of visiting a strange place for the first (or umpteenth) time?

Coincidentally, I have been following a thread in Andrew Hicks' blog, Thai Girl, in which the attitude one takes towards a foreign place and culture is discussed. Hicks is a 60-year-old British corporate lawyer and university professor who is married to a Thai woman. They have houses in England and in Surin not far from Jerry and Lamyai's home. Thai Girl is the name of a novel Hicks wrote four years ago about a farang-Thai romance. He is currently completing a non-fiction book about his life here called My Thai Girl and I. We met a couple of weeks ago when we accompanied Jerry to hear a rockbilly band led by a Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley/Buddy Holly clone named Peter at the Soi 8 bar.

Andrew gave Jerry a copy of the manuscript of his new book. And after receiving his criticism, he wrote in his blog:
A very good friend of mine whose opinion I respect highly has just read the draft manuscript for me and he tells me that I have failed to get the balance right. The tone of the book he says is negative and jaundiced towards Thailand and this worries me very much.
So he submitted a chapter to his readers, "Things Fall Apart," and asked them to tell him if it was in fact too negative. Most of the responses, he wrote afterwards, "pretty much said that it should go in as it reflected their own experience here and I should tell it like it is." Jerry, in his comment on the blog, said that Andrew had missed his point. "It wasn't a matter of balance missing in the one chapter, there was no balance in the book; it's one long complaint." And he quoted Pico Iyer (from his introduction to Wanderlust, an anthology of stories from
Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't. Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains. "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo"---or Cuzco or Kathmandu. It's all very much the same.
I find this a very interesting distinction. A tourist complains while a traveler grumbles. What am I? Is there another response, "going native" perhaps?

I don't want to criticize Kathe and Michael for their complaints, or the possible grumbling of Mark, Bob and Vivienne as they visit Angkor Wat one more time and find that the ruins are now sponsored by Starbucks or McDonald's. I continue to walk the streets of Bangkok enveloped in an air of wonder. Of course there is poverty (even leprosy), and the heat and the humidity can be seen as oppressive. Why wouldn't the poor try to extract money from rich farangs? You can't blame them for trying. Development of scenic places is the way the rich Thais (and their backers) siphon dollars, pounds and euros from the tourists. Some of it trickles down.

Before I moved here, I used to cruise the forums at,, and Paknam Web. Some of it was pretty depressing. The expats living in Thailand seemed to be a bunch of complainers. The same rants show up in letters to the editor at the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Nothing but bitching and moaning. Behind it all was an assumption of superiority: we in the West are much better at...(fill in the blank). Well I, for one, find much that is commendable here in Thailand, in Asia, in the mysterious East. The culture, the religion and the food, for example. Of course there is a lot that doesn't work, the political system for one. But is it any better in America? At least Thailand is not invading or blockading small and defenseless countries like Iraq and Cuba, or trying to rule the world.

I wouldn't trade one single day of the last six months for the comfort and security of "home."

The well-dressed Thai always wears the right colored shirt for the day:

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meeting the Monks

Yesterday I got to meet the monks I will be teaching at Wat Sri Sudaram when the next term begins in May. Pandit, my friend the British monk (he reminds me that in Thai the word is pronounced "Bandit" and that in Pali it would be "Bandito"), emailed me late last week about a command performance. Since my formal interview a week and a half before at the satellite campus of Mahachula Buddhist University across the river, I've been waiting for the next step, and hoping that the paperwork for my new visa and work permit is well underway. Pandit had little information about what I was supposed to say to the monks. His advice was to "just wing it. Don't feel nervous - its a bit like wild animals, even though they can eat you alive, for the most part they will be more scared of you than you are of them." Good thing I don't get stage fright.

So I got all dolled up in my teacher's costume, and set off early for Pandit's temple. It was amazingly quick this time. A motorbike taxi ride up to Sukhumvit, two Skytrains to Saphan Taksin, and a ferry across the river. I walked up to the main road, told the taxi driver "Wat Baag Naam" (pronouncing Wat Pak Nam they way Pandit instructed me), and handed him the note written by Pim with directions in Thai. Even the taxi was fast, and Pandit was waiting for me outside his building, forty minutes after I'd left home on the other side of Bangkok. At a small stall down a narrow lane near his temple, I got my morning cappuccino and he had breakfast of tea, toast and jam. We returned to his small technology-cluttered cell to discuss future activities of Little Bang Sangha, which he started last year for English-speaking visitors and residents, and the online availability of various movies and TV shows.

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is famous because of a monk named Phramongkolthepmuni who was the abbot for fifty years until his death in 1959. Also know as Luang Phor Sodh, he was the founder of the Thai Dhammakaya meditation school after his enlightenmet in 1914. Dhammakaya is a technique of method that involves both concentration (samatha) and mindfulness (vipassana). (For more information on the current practice of dhammakaya, see the Dhammakaya Foundation website. Another informative site is here.)

Buddhist monks of the Therevada tradition in Thailand eat only one meal a day, and so Pandit and I set off for the dining hall just before 11 (only liquids are permitted the monks after noon). I carried my shoes indoors since Pandit warned me that formal footwear like mine are soon stolen, even outside a temple. Wat Pak Nam is quite large but only about 25 monks processed into the hall (Pandit said the small turnout is because the food is so bad, and many monks cook their own or go outside). While I sat at a table, the other temple guests sat on the floor, and we watched the monks eat for 45 minutes. (At Wat Pah Nanachat, where I was a temporary monk, the monks were served first but we ate concurrently). A large group of servers hustled between the hall and the kitchen, carrying trays and plates. Finally I got my glass of coconut juice and bowl of rice and goodies which included dried squid and some lumps of tofu.

After lunch we checked the internet on the computer in his room to find out the results of the Academy Awards. I saw "There Will Be Blood" the other night and although Daniel Day-Lewis gave a bravura performance, the character he portrayed was despicable and the story lacked the redeeming qualities "Atonement" had in abundance. I would have given the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones for his powerful portrayal of a grieving father in " The Valley of Elah." And though his philosophic sheriff was the moral center of "No Country for Old Men," the Coen Brothers' tragihorror story about a homicidal manic and a drug deal gone wrong, the Oscar-winning film itself was a real downer. Of the nominated films, only the heart-warming "Juno" (which I loved) lacked any death and mayhem. Is this a reflection of America's dilemma in the world?

From Wat Pak Nam to Wat Si is a half-hour ride in an air-conditioned bus. There, in the English Department office, Ajahn Suriya, the chairman, suggested that I could speak to the monks about my study of American history. I quickly scribbled some notes but felt totally unprepared for what was apparently a large meeting of third and four-year students in the English major at the end of the school term. We gathered in a large room across the hall filled with the usual Buddhist altar and a collection of large busts of famous men. After a chanted prayer, I was introduced by one of the students, the leader of the English club if I understood him correctly, and with the aid of a microphone began to tell my story to the orange-robed young men.

I talked with them about my life, about how I dropped out of the University of California in Berkeley to work in the "real world" and how after more than 20 years I found my way back into academic study in Santa Cruz ("It's never too late," was the clear message). I spoke of my studies in philosophy and religion, and of how, once I'd received a bachelor's degree, I was able to continue in the graduate department of history. At first I focused on European history, France in the 19th century when radical religion and politics went hand in hand. But later, after becoming discouraged by the prospect (and cost) of leaving my family to do research in France, I switched to U.S. environmental history and developed a dissertation topic around the movement to save the redwood trees in central California. I saw environmentalism as this century's club with which to beat global capitalism into submission. It was a little difficult telling them why I retired from teaching a few years after receiving my Ph.D. (the quality of the students I encountered was depressing), but my stated reason was a desire to travel: to Central and South America, to Europe, and now four times to India and Thailand.

Most of the students appeared engaged with what I was saying. I looked into their eyes and tried to speak slowly and distinctly, wanting them to understand my English. I explained words which I thought might be unfamiliar. Teaching English to non-native speakers will be a new experience and I'm not yet sure how best to go about it. Finally my presentation rolled to a stop and the questioning began. I was amazed and pleased by their curiosity. We talked about Iraq, global warming, the Vietnam/American war and the American presidential campaign. They wanted to know the best way to learn English and I told them about the abridged books with limited vocabularies that Pim is reading. I also suggested they watch movies in English and read internet news in English, at least for the headlines if not the full stories (this is my own advice to myself for learning Thai). They were curious about about expressions like "what's up?" or "wha sup?" I encouraged them to learn the rules first before they tried to break them with hip-hop English. The same goes for email, chat room and SMS abbreviated English, like "u" for "you." One asked me to explain the difference between "slang, idiom and dialect," and I did my best. I asked about their homes, and quite a few had come from Laos and Cambodia. One Cambodian student asked me how he might get in to an American university, and I told him I would look into it for him.

Afterwards, cameras came out and photos were taken Ajahn Suriya presented me with two books on Buddhism in English. Later he gave me 1,000 baht "for carfare," far more than I would need for a taxi across the city and back. It's my first earned money in Thailand, even if it is only an honorarium. I think I'm going to like teaching English to the young monks, if most of my students are like the ones I met yesterday. One student told me of his fear of trying to speak English. I told him that it was like jumping off a diving board; at some point, you have to take the plunge. I should have told him about my fear that I would be unable to understand them. Not because of their English, but because of my poor hearing. We have to conquer both fears. Afterwards, Pandit and I took a taxi to the ferry, and on the other side of the river he took me to a coffee shop in Thammasat University where Pim met us after getting off work. Before we went back home, he took us down into the basement library, which reminded me of Berkeley's underground library, and he said that one of the perks of being a teacher is that I will be able to use other university libraries to check out books. I'm looking forward now very much to the beginning of my teaching career here in May.

For those of you concerned about the blue line on my computer screen, I keep putting off the inevitable, taking it in for repair, because it's really not all that much bother. But I do know that something is wrong and it could possibly get worse. And so one of these days, I'll face my fears and let go. But not today.

And finally, for something completely different. One night, while walking by the Nana Entertainment Center on my way home, I happened upon a group of preachers intent on driving the devil out of the bars and the hearts of the prostitutes who work there. They were quite the object of amusement. I found the reverend Bible-thumper to be quite scarey.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What Would the Buddha Buy?

Before he was ordained a monk in Burma, the Venerable U Vamsa was a financial consultant in Vancouver, Canada, so he should have a unique view of wealth. "Money," he told a meeting of the Little Bang Sangha in Bangkok last week, "is just a tool. It can fund wars or it can build monasteries." In the West there is a stigma around money, he said. But it is not money that is bad, but "the love of money," according to the Bible, that is "the root of all evil."

Having recently given a seminar on "The Dhamma of Business" to a group of suits, he began his talk on "Wealth: A Buddhist Perspective" by focusing on the individual -- what does wealth mean to me. Despite the poverty of most monks, the Buddha did not shun money. The problem is not money but the "biggies": greed, anger and ignorance. "Prosperity is the result of good kamma...wealth is the ripened fruit of good action," he told the gathering of mostly expatriates. It was beginning to sound like a feel-good talk for the shock troops of global capitalism.

"Poverty is a real hindrance to spiritual progress," Vamsa said. Buddhist monks do not take a vow of poverty like Catholic monks, "but a vow of suffering" (by affirming the Buddha's First Noble Truth). They learn to take only what is needed. They lead simple, sufficient lives. After the economic meltdown in southeast Asia in the 1990s, the King of Thailand outlined what he called a "sufficiency economy," which sounded remarkably like sustainable development, a process that would protect the environment, local traditions and culture, and promote prosperity for all, at the same time (this ideology has now been strongly critiqued). The key question, of course, is: What is sufficient? Just food in your stomach and a roof over your head, or something more? A lawn to mow, designer clothes, and technological gadgets? One person's sufficiency might be another person's poverty.

Having heard Vamsa's critique of western political culture before (this was his third talk in as many months), I knew he did not intend to only show that Buddhist teaching, and the palliative of meditation, should soothe the stressed egos of worried capitalists. That it might do so was the edge of the razor that divides Buddhism as a New Age healing technique from the raw engaged Buddhism of people like Sulak Sivaraksa who want to radically transform economic structures that harm both people and the planet. Sulak believes
We have to ascertain whether or not the whole capitalist system itself — its agents, institutions, structures and culture-ideology — is inherently defective. From a Buddhist perspective, it definitely is.

For Vamsa, we must distinguish between material and spiritual wealth. Is material wealth a boon or a bane? We must ask ourselves: "Is it acquired lawfully, hoarded or shared, are we attached to it, and are we heedful of the dangers?" There are two kinds of desires, and they apply both to the supply and the demand side of the economic model. The first is tanha, or greed-based craving, and the second is chanda, wholesome reflection. "Most demand," he said, "is tanha-based," like our craving for high-priced toys. "Tanha-based supply is not concerned with the social products of consumption. What is the social cost to a bottle of whiskey?" He spoke of the decline of salmon in his native British Columbia, and cited the concept of "blowback," epitomized by failed CIA activities, which can also apply to the unintended consequences of technology.

Why help stressed-out corporate agents to meditate when the companies for which they work are destroying the world?, I asked during the Q&A session after a period of meditation following his talk. Vamsa agreed that the overall economic structures must be changed, but he said that there is little we can do at the micro level. "If enough people can be transformed at the micro level, then the macro will change," he said. I wish I shared his optimism.

The best guide to our economic decisions, according to Vamsa, are the Buddhists precepts which keep you on the right side of kamma. "Do only wholesome things, avoid unwholesome things, purify the mind."

I have been reading Conflict, Culture, Change: engaged Buddhism in a globalizing world (Wisdom Publications 2005), a collection of essays by Sulak Sivaraksa, and I find his thoughts on Buddhism, politics and economics both stimulating and challenging. Now 74, Sulak is a practically a force of nature in Thailand. Along with Thich Nhat Hanh, he is a founder of engaged Buddhism, the movement that applies the teachings of the Buddha to issues of social injustice. For his efforts he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His views on the unhealthy dominance of the military in Thai politics has led to exile several times, and he favors a return to the name Siam for his country.

Buddhism, Sulak writes, "is not really concerned with the private salvation of the individual." Unlike Christianity, Buddhism maintains a belief in the inborn goodness of people. According to Sulak, "even the most flawed people have Buddha-nature, and reconciliation begins with the acknowledgment of common humanity and shared suffering." The teachings of the Buddha deal with "the whole realm of sentient beings or the whole consciousness," and because of this, "the inescapable conclusion is that Buddhism requires an engagement in social, economic, and political affairs."

One rather simplistic difference between Theravada Buddhists and their Mahayana counterparts is that the former focus on meditation and individual enlightenment whereas the later have a stronger social sense, epitomized by the Bodhisattva who refrains from enlightenment until all are awakened. But for Sulak, a devout Theravadan, "meditation alone, which brings about critical reflection, humility, and simplicity, is insufficient to counter the power of foreign capital." Buddhism encourages people to face suffering, not avoid it. When they "contemplate it and attempt to find its causes," they realize that "it is not just they who are suffering. " Gradually they learn the causes of their suffering: "the unjust political, social, and cultural structures designed and implemented for the wealth of corporations."
Economic relations have come to dominate other relations, which forces people to define themselves by how much they own-- money, possessions, and people. But when we define ourselves as part of a web of relationships, the quality of our interactions and our ability to temper hatred, greed, and delusion emerge as the highest values of existence.

Some of Sulak's harshest criticisms are directed at America, the world's only remaining superpower. At the Gross National Happiness conference in Bangkok last fall, he presented a blistering critique of the consequences of globalization. "How many times has the United States committed atrocities in the name of pious principles?" he asks in his book. That the terrorists "chose to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon suggests that they opposed capitalism and the American military-industrial complex, two leading causes of violence throughout the world."
If American leaders come to understand terrorism as a cost and consequence of American imperial practices (admittedly a very big if), and if they shun violence and pursue a policy grounded in non-harming rather than structural violence, the United States can redeem itself. If not, it is likely to face more of the same tragedy in the future. Peace means not only the absence of war but also the presence of metta, karuna, and wisdom.

Ever since I encountered Liberation Theology in Latin America, and later studied the religious socialism that motivated revolutionaries in 19th century France, I have been looking for a spiritually-based politics that could present an realistic alternative to corporate state liberalism that currently dominates the West and the state socialism that failed in the Soviet Union. Buddhism, Sulak writes, teaches that "there is no such thing as the isolated self; our entire reality is made up of nonself elements." To describe this, he makes use of the concept of "interbeing" developed by Thich Nhat Hanh. "For communities of believers," Sulak says, "religion is not just a resource for achieving a balanced spiritual life; it is the essential ordering of all life." Sulak believes that in the sangha, or community, one of the three gems of Buddhism (along with Buddha and the dhamma), there is an example of a democracy that is rooted in moral values like kindness and compassion, and that predates Christianity's influence on economic values in the West. "The global economy props up the ego especial by aking a virtue of greed and consumerism." In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, pioneer sociologist Max Weber showed how Christian theology supported rather than limited or controlled the rising power of the market. Buddhism, if Sulak is correct, may help to reverse that trend.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Thin Blue Line

No, I am not going to speak here of the 1988 documentary by Errol Morris about the murder of a Dallas police officer in which a judge claimed that the police are the "thin blue line" separating society from anarchy. I'm not sure I agree with that. ("The Thin Blue Line" was also a late-1990s BBC sitcom starring Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson.) No, my thin blue line showed up mysteriously on my computer screen a couple of days ago. It's not supposed to be there. And so I will take my precious and irreplaceable MacBook laptop to the Macintosh Center on the 4th floor of Siam Discovery Center and let them fix the problem. I have been told this may require shipping it to Singapore and, at best, should take no more than a week. It will be like sending my child off to Iraq, with no certainty that he (or she) will return unchanged. While it's gone, I will be dependent on internet cafés in the neighborhood.

I've learned that Bumrungrad Hospital reads my blog. After writing about The High Cost of Health, I received an email from Elizabeth Skanes ("Coordination Nurse, Medical Support") who wanted to reassure me that a "preliminary review would indicate that the costs are appropriate." I hastened to assure her that I was not questioning the amount of the charges so much as my ability to pay similar high costs in the future. If a couple of skin biopsies runs $375, then I will think twice before getting more. But since then I have received my new Blue Cross membership card, and if I can maneuver through the paper work, I may be reimbursed for at least a portion of my recent expenses. And Bumrungrad tells me that they will bill any future in-hospital charges to Blue Cross (but I must take care of out-patient bills). So heart attacks, strokes, etc., should be taken care of. Once again, I'm grateful to be in the UC retirement system.

Recently I joined Facebook, yet another social network. This one used my list of Yahoo and Hotmail contacts to tell me who else was a member. Todd Everett, an old friend from my misbegotten music business days, was listed, and I scanned his friends to find any mutual acquaintances. He mentioned Ed Ward. Now Ed was a writer for Rolling Stone in its glory days when I was a PR man for Atlantic Records, and we used to run into each other from time to time at music events. He came to visit me in Santa Cruz after my retirement, and the last I saw of him he was off to Austin to hang out with his friends, Asleep at the Wheel. The next I heard of him was on Terry Gross's NPR radio interview show. Ed, who was now living in Berlin for some strange reason (he explains it, sort of, on his site), had a five-minute spot at the end to display his esoteric musical knowledge. Why are you in Berlin? I messaged him. Why are you in Bangkok? he replied. Touché.

Levi jeans are popular in Thailand. I've seen knock-offs on sale cheap on the sidewalk along Sukhumvit, and in Hua Hin I visited a Levi store in the large Market Village shopping center where new 501s were going for over 2000 baht probably more than they would cost in the U.S. But a couple of weeks ago I bought a pair of used Levis on sale for 150 baht at a Big C store (although the C doesn't stand for Costco, it resembled one). I've also seen used Levis for sale at the more upscale Robinson's. Where were they used, in Thailand or the U.S.? The jeans I bought are fine except for frayed cuffs, and hardly used at all.

Samak Sundaravej, Thailand's newly elected prime minister (and also self-appointed as defense minister), has stirred up a tempest here with his interview on CNN when he declared that only "one unlucky guy" died during an attack on students at Thammasat University and nearby Sanam Luang parade ground on Oct. 6, 1976 (he said the same thing in an interview with Aljazeera TV). The official death toll for the massacre was 46 but it is suspected that many more were killed and wounded. Samak had been deputy interior minister but had been removed from his position the day before the shootings. An avowed anti-communist, on the evening of the massacre he led a mob of right-wing demonstrators, including the brutal paramilitary Red Gaur and the royalist Village Scouts, and many believe he is responsible for the attack against supposedly left-wing students. Immediately after the massacre, there was a military coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister Seni Pramoj. Samak was named minister of the interior in the new government. From 2000 to 2003 he was governor of Bangkok. And when Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup last year and his Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded, Samak became leader of the People's Power Party which included many supporters of the ousted Prime Minister. The two English papers in Bangkok have been very critical of Samak and the members he picked for his new government, but the comments he made about the massacre, in which he undoubtedly had a role, have ignited a firestorm of criticism. Yesterday, historians at Thammasat University held a seminar to discuss what they see as distortions of history by the Prime Minister. This is an issue that probably won't go away until more is revealed about the events of October 6.

Since I don't have cable TV, I can't watch the political events as they unfold here. And I'm also missing live coverage of the primaries in the states. What a pity. I do have a television set, however, and lately I've been using it to watch videos of "Weeds," that wonderful series about people who live in little boxes in an affluent Southern California planned community and who cope with the problems of modern life by getting (and staying) stoned. While I no longer partake of the weed, I have been addicted for a couple of weeks to the zany characters in Jenji Kohan's comedy-(pro)crime-drama. The music is terrific (you can see the songs and singers in each episode here). I've already downloaded the contributions from Great Lake Swimmers and Rogue Wave. Each week, after the first few episodes, someone different interprets Malvina Reynolds' bitter hymn to idiotic consumption, "Little Boxes." And after watching the third season finale, in which a fire fueled by Santa Ana winds sweeps down from the hills to threaten the community (and the dope dealer's grow house), I was pleased to discover a fourth season will begin in June. While it seemed like the end for Nancy Botwin, the widowed housewife turned drug lord, and her children Shane and Silas, not to mention her eight-toed brother-in-law, Andy, apparently Milfweed, Conrad's strain of super pot, will rise from the ashes. Conrad's aunt, Heylia, is my favorite character of many. Her smart-talking dismissal of whites and their cultural stupidities is the moral center of "Weeds." And have I mentioned that there is lots of on-screen, full-frontal nudity. Definitely a family drama for the new millennium.

As of February 11, it is now illegal to smoke in all bars and restaurants throughout Thailand. Although smoking was already banned in air-conditioned restaurants, some public places and government buildings, the ban is now extended even to outdoor venues like the Chatuchak weekend market. Smokers can be fined 2000 baht and clubs and restaurant owners 20,000 baht. No Smoking signs have popped up everywhere and smokers can be seen congregating outside of the Nana bars. I'm not sure if that will help the already polluted air of Bangkok. At least before the ban smoke was confined inside of smoky establishments where the drinkers were usually too drunk to care about the air they breathe.

My lady is learning to read English by perusing the classics. While I had bought for her The Little Prince and the first Harry Potter volume, they proved to be overwhelming, in vocabulary and in length. A friend loaned her a copy of Pocahontas, the supposedly true story of the Indian maiden, and it was the first English book she was able to finish reading. The slim volume is part of the Oxford Bookworms Library, a series of graded stages for new readers of truncated literary works. It was a stage 1 volume and featured a vocabulary of only 400 words. She next completed an abridgment of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, another stage 1 book, and followed it with a shortened version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She is now reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a stage 2 book with a vocabulary of 700 words, and when finished will take up Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a stage 4 book. DK Books in Bangkok, a store specializing in books for students of English, is packed to the rafters with tiny versions of the classics, as well as books based on movies such as "The Death of Karen Silkwood" and "The Elephant Man." I've been unable to find anything similar for students of Thai like myself. A friend loaned me a kid's book with pictures about a king and an old monk and I've been struggling to make sense of it. But then Pim studied English in school as a young girl, and I'm a very late bloomer.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Don't Step on the Clouds

There is a Thai song about Hua Hin and the farang who go looking there for clams, which also happens to be a naughty term in Thai for a portion of the female anatomy. Every time Pim sang a few verses, she would giggle, but I never got the full sense of it. Certainly the beach town 200 kilometers south of Bangkok is full of farang, mostly of the Scandinavian and northern European variety. I saw menus in Danish and Dutch, and restaurants dedicated to Swedish and German food (why on earth would anyone want to come to Thailand to eat their national cuisine?). Many of these visitors need to seriously lose some weight; the beach was awash with cellulite. (Now that might be, as my mother would say, the pot calling the kettle black. But I was wearing sun block.

Hua Hin, or "stone head," was named for the boulders that cluster on the beach by the Hilton hotel which dominates the headlands at the center of the town. Now they are almost hidden by the beach chairs and umbrellas which line the shoreline. It was established in the early 1920s when the railroad was extended south from Bangkok and a large luxury hotel was built (now the Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort). We arrived by train, and the carefully restored train station is an architectural gem. When King Rama VII chose to build his summer palace, Klai Kang Won ("far from all sorrows") just north of the city, Hua Hin's reputation was cinched. Today, jet skis race offshore and horses carry tourists down the beach while children make sand castles and their parents roast in the sun. Unfortunately, the skies were mostly cloudy and the sun in retirement during our weekend in Hua Hin.

So we set off in search of royalty. Since there were no naval destroyers off the coast protecting the no-entry zone shown on the map, we knew the King and Queen were not in residence. First we tried walking up the beach. On the way there we met a man who told us only fields could be seen behind the palace walls. And that if we tried to get in, "they will shoot you." We discovered that there was, in fact, no beach in front of the royal compound, just waves pounding against a stone wall. Behind Pim you can see not one but two guard booths. Later we rented a motorbike and drove on the highway past Klai Kongwon. You can see green lawns, trees, and a small lake, but no house. There were guards at regular intervals along the wall carrying guns. They did not look friendly. Thais take their King's safety seriously.

Traveling around Hua Hin by motorbike turned out to be an excellent plan. We went south to Khao Takiap ("Chopstick" or "Monkey" mountain), a pointy peak at the end of Hua Hin's long strip of white sand. On one side of the hill is a large wat surrounded by monkeys. We climbed the steep steps, taking care to dodge the monkey shit. In the temple at the top sat a monk with a tattoo smoking a cigarette who was (I think) telling a woman's fortune. Outside, I rang the temple's many gongs and we walked down the hill to find a rather new Chinese temple facing the south seas and a large statue of Kwan Yin in the midst of a number of giant Buddhist effigies (and this strange sign). Another monk was sitting inside a small open hall talking on his cell phone. Down below waves from the Gulf of Thailand crashed on the rocks. On the other side of Khao Takiap was a giant standing Buddha and a large number of cats and dogs among the monkeys. Here sat yet another monk waiting to tell someone's fortune.

Below the towering Buddha, we had a sumptuous seafood lunch at a restaurant on the sand: grilled giant shrimp and barbecued crab. The following day we enjoyed giant clams, ate a whole broiled fish (brought to our table on its charcoal brazier) and had some delicious scallops at a restaurant on one of the many old piers north of the Hilton. Saturday evening we picked a central place that featured music, toe-tapping pop song covers sung by two women and a man playing keyboards and guitar. Pim had a squid salad and I opted for a cheeseburger and fries for old times' sake. It wasn't the disco we had in mind where we could dance (one couple tried), but it was festive in a cheesy sort of way.

The Thipurai Beach Hotel where we slept comfortably was on Soi 67 of Petchkasem Road, a little ghetto of reasonably-priced guest houses that were clearly in favor with European visitors, and just south of the posh Marriott, one of many upscale "resorts" (a label that obviously justified steep prices) in Hua Hin. A stone's throw away, across Petchkasem, was Market Village, a large mall (Hua Hin's first, opened in 2006) that featured all the familiar brand names (Levis sold for over 2,000 baht, more expensive than in the U.S.), and chain eateries. On our first night, when rain threatened, we went bowling (after two games we were one point apart, in her favor). Afterwards we had a delicious table-cooked meal of meat and mushrooms at MK. While the stores were clearly aimed at wealthy tourists, the multiplex cinema played only Thai films. The mix of shoppers included many natives as well as farang visitors.

The surf near our hotel was gentle and warm, but the water, not all that far from Bangkok, was a bright, murky green, quite unike the clear, blue Pudsa Bay on Koh Samet where we swam in November. The sand was crowded with beached European whales and the Thai vendors that make their living from them. Am I being unfair? Since coming to Thailand to live six months ago, I've become a bit of a connoisseur of beaches. Phuket and Pattaya were both over-developed disappointments. Koh Samet is small and delightful, but the winner and still champ is Koh Samui, a nice mix of natural beauty and development, which I visited during my trip a year ago. The field, however, is far from exhausted. I've yet to see Krabi and its nearby islands, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, and I have not been to visit Koh Chang on the eastern coast.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Bangkok has gone mad with roses for Valentine's Day. They're on sale everywhere at inflated prices (50 baht -- about $1.25 -- per rose compared to the usual 10 baht). Even the streetwalkers are holding roses in their hands to entice potential customers. I gave my love a card this morning and have promised to take her to dinner tonight. But even better, we are going on the train to Hua Hin tomorrow morning for a three-day weekend in the resort city on the Gulf of Thailand. On this holiday for lovers, The Nation and the Bangkok Post report today, the morality police will "patrol love motels and other night entertainments throughout the country to ensure owners do not allow underage lovers to use the facilities for sex." In Phichit, public-health officials yesterday handed out condoms after a survey showed that a number of teenagers plan to have sex today. An education official in charge of monitoring student behavior in Khon Kaen said his office has called on schools not to promote Valentine's Day, because "otherwise students would be too obsessed with the festival." But a pharmacy owner in a northeastern province told The Nation that many female students bought morning-after pills, while male students bought specially designed condoms yesterday. "I am saying this because I want society to know what really happens," the pharmacist said. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I finally screwed up my courage to the sticking point and rode a bus for the first time in Bangkok. Of course I had Pim as my guide, but after an inaugural trip, I managed to do it on my own. There are a bewildering number of buses, painted different colors, with differing fares. To get to Banglamphu across town in the morning, Pim waits in front of Ploenchit Center for either the blue number 511, which is air conditioned, or the red number 2, which is not; the latter costs 7 baht compared to 13 baht for A/C. There are also tan buses, apparently with A/C, and small green buses which I have been told to avoid, "because you are too big." Some buses are owned by Bangkok Mass Transit Authority and others are private. Most look pretty battered and used. I purchased a bus map in English to help me figure out the routes. When I begin teaching English to the monks across the river in May, I'll need to determine the quickest way to travel the long distance there from my apartment in Sukhumvit.

Yesterday at dusk, on the way home from my second interview at Wat Sri Sudaram, I took a Chao Phraya Express Boat from the pier at Th Wang Lang next to Siriraj Hospital to the Skytrain stop at Saphan Taksin. There are a number of river buses, flying different colored flags to indicate whether they are express or local, as well as cross-river ferries, with prices that seem to vary from about 2.5 to 20 baht. I like the river at most any time, but especially at sunset when the lights come on in the high-rise hotels and condos and spotlights illuminate the chedis, churches and temple towers. My new commute may include a river stretch as well as the elevated Skytrain.

It was the Skytrain that clinched my move to Bangkok. Clean and convenient, it makes travel from Sukhumvit to the river, via the shopping palaces of Siam and Silom, not to mention the journey north to Chatuchak Market, a sweet and swift pleasure. Most journeys are under a buck; I have a card and add 100 baht ($3) once or twice a week. Always crowded, but never unpleasantly so, the BTS (popularly dubbed "skytrain") opened in 1999 with 23 stations and two lines that intersect at Siam. A cross-river extension at the southern terminus at Saphan Taksin is due to begin operation later this year. This will open up the cheaper apartment market in Thonburi for commuters like me. Phra Pandit, who lives at Wat Pak Nam, showed me around his neighborhood where two-story houses, some facing on the klong, rent for 6,000 baht, half what I currently pay for a studio.

There are several train stations in Bangkok but the main one is Hua Lamphong. I have traveled several times from there to Surin, most recently for the wedding, and also to Ubon Ratchatoni when I stayed at the Buddhist monastery, Wat Pah Nanachat. I went to the station last week to get our tickets to Hua Hin. At the advance ticket office there was no waiting and an agent that spoke good English. Two first-class, round-trip tickets for the four-hour journey cost about $50. It's easy to get to Hua Lamphong now since the Bangkok Metro (MRT) opened three years ago. The MRT is a completely separate system from the BTS although they intersect at three stations. The BTS uses cards and the MRT wooden tokens. Fares on the MRT are less and there is a senior citizen discount I appreciate. The MRT route is of less interest to tourists, but I have traveled several times from Sukhumvit to Phra Ram 9 station to visit the large IT Fortune Mall with its hundreds of electronic and computer shops, as well as a large Tesco Lotus store, kind of like a K Mart on steroids. The gigantic MRT stations seem empty compared to the smaller and more heavily used BTS stops. A northern extension on the MRT will eventually cross the river. Construction for MRT and BTS lines to Suvarnabhumi Airport is underway.

But these transportation options pale compared to the excitement of riding full speed down a soi on the back of a motorbike taxi. This is the stand near Siam Court at the bottom of Soi 4, and there is another at the top by the intersection with Sukhumvit. It costs 10 baht for the short trip either way (prices go up to 15 after 10 pm) but the experience of danger is priceless. Women who are modest sit side-saddle behind the orange-vested driver. Some passengers put on a helmet (which is required by law), but most like me spit in the face of the Grim Reaper and grip the seat tightly. Traveling in the wrong lane is common, as is weaving in and out of the line of traffic. Sometimes the bikes speed down the sidewalk to circumvent one-way traffic. When the pavement is wet I think twice about the risk and walk instead.

Your transportation alternatives in Bangkok also include the proverbial tuk-tuk, named for the sound made by its water-cooled, two-stroke engine. Tuk-tuks, also called auto rickshaws, are everywhere in south Asia, from India to Vietnam. Fares are generally more expensive than a taxi (short trips cost a bit more than $1), the rides are bumpy, and I find the view from within the back seat obscured by the low roof. Taxis, which come in a variety of bright colors (most notably pink) are plentiful and cheap. All seem to be Toyotas. The meter starts at 35 baht and a long ride in heavy traffic across the city usually costs no more than 100 baht. It helps to plan your journey with knowledge of Bangkok's one-way streets. A trip to the bus station at Ekamai can take over a half hour from my apartment but only 15 minutes coming home. In the country, the sawngthaew, a pickup-tup truck with two rows of bench seats, is common, but here in Bangkok I have not seen much of them for public transportation...until yesterday. Getting off the ferry in Thonburi, Pandit and I took one to Wat Si. While he sat in the front with the driver (10 baht), I squeezed in the back (5 baht) where there was room enough for midgets but not real people. Pandit called it a Suburu, but that seems to be generic slang for truck bus (kinda like calling all tissues "Kleenex").

I'm off to Hua Hin with my Valentine early tomorrow morning, so there will be no news (and that's good) until Monday.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What Church Would Jesus Join?

Just who is a Christian anyway? This is the question Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu posed during an interfaith sermon in Pittsburgh last October where he received honorary doctorates from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. His audience included Bishop Robert Duncan of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, a leader among theologically conservative Anglicans, as well as many other religious leaders, from evangelical Presbyterians to Muslims , rabbis, and the Catholic Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"Can you imagine that there are those who think God is a Christian?" he said to laughter from a mostly appreciative audience. "Can you tell us what God was before he was a Christian?"

Archbishop Tutu spoke of his friendship with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who has been exiled from his homeland for nearly half a century Although others might be angry, the Dalai Lama is filled with "bubbly joyousness," he said. "You have to be totally, totally insensitive not to know you are in the presence of someone who is holy and good."

He then asked, "Can anyone say to the Dalai Lama, 'You are a good guy. What a shame you are not a Christian'?"

Against this religion of exclusivity, the Archbishop spoke of a human family in which members must love one another even when some relatives are obnoxious. When Jesus said he would "draw all" people to himself, he meant both President Bush and the "gay, lesbian and so-called straight," he said. He spoke of God having a dream, acknowledging that Martin Luther King "might have said something like that, too."

"Please help me, says God. Help me to realize my dream," he concluded, to great applause.

My favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote: "the last Christian died on the cross." But I don't think even Jesus would have joined the Church of Christ. His Gospel vision was bigger than that. I share Archbishop Tutu's dream of a world in which religion will unify people rather than separate them from each other.

Thanks to Marcus for pointing out to me the original article from Pittsburgh about Archbishop Tutu's "big tent" vision of religion.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Kung Hei Fat Choi

"Congratulations and be prosperous" is the English translation of this traditional greeting for Chinese New Year. I went to Chinatown yesterday with Dr. Holly to look for the big celebration to inaugurate the Year of the Rat, but we found the district closed up tight for the holiday. The big parade, we soon learned, had been held the day before. Traffic was sparse but the sidewalks were filled with people dressed mostly in red, a color thought to be good luck. They were going from temple to temple to light candles and incense and gain merit for their ancestors. We stopped first at Wat Traimit and pushed through the crowds to see the world's largest golden Buddha (3 meters tall and weighing in at 5.5 tonnes). We saw monks blessing people with doses of water, and other people collecting their fortune for their new year from different booths and even from a vending machine. From there we walked through Odeon Circle, where a large Chinese arch dedicated to the King has recently replaced an old movie theater, to the Thien Fah Foundatiuon which has provided free medical treatment to the poor since the days of Rama V. The Foundation's temple has a large golden statue of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, or Guan Yin in Chinese. Usually depicted as a woman, this particular sculpture has rather mannish features. On the way out, as we started to stroll down Chinatown's main drag, Yaowarat Road, we ran into Dennis Cooper sitting on a sidewalk bench. I had met the tattooed farang two weeks ago up in Surin where he lives with his Thai wife. He is an old friend of Jerry's who wrote a chapter about him in Bangkok Babylon. After a life of excess, he is currently awaiting a liver transplant. It was Dennis who told us we had missed the parade the day before. So we did the next best thing. We found a packed dim sum restaurant and gorged ourselves on the little delicacies.

Last Tuesday was Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday), one of the few celebrations ignored by Thais, and it was followed by Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, forty days of fasting, penitence, self-denial and prayer in preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter (which comes this year on March 23). For the past few years, as I explored my Catholic identity, I have tried to take this challenge seriously. But here in Bangkok I just can't get excited by anything that involves spiritual flagellation. Right now I feel too unsettled to undertake a disciplined goal. Theravadan Buddhists also celebrate a lent of sorts. It comes during Vassa, or the rains retreat, a period from July through October. Monks spend this time in meditation, and lay people adopt ascetic practices similar to those of Christians, giving up meat and/or alcohol. But if the goal is letting go of the ego and the self-centeredness that fuels it (important in all the world's religious paths), then spiritual effort it seems to me can only be counter-productive. By pursuing perfection we can only strengthen the muscle of I.

Bob Dylan might be the most egocentric performer of all in a profession that heaps rewards on selfish efforts. But, as can be seen in the unhappy case of Britney Spears, fame is a double-edged sword. I have just watched Todd Haynes' unorthodox biopic of Dylan, "I'm Not There," in which he uses six actors to portray the illusive singer at different points in his career. Each character, in a way, tries to be something he is not. The 11-year-old "Woody," played by a black actor (Marcus Carl Franklin), carries a guitar that says "This Machine Kills Fascists" (just as did Woody Guthrie, Dylan's mentor). Jack Rollins, played by Christian Bale, is Dylan during his folk period; he drops out to become a pentecostal preacher. Cate Blanchett is marvelous as Jude Quinn, Dylan during the 1960's when he was an obnoxious druggie (at one point she tells a room full of syncophants that "I'm the only one with balls in here."). The late Heath Ledger is Robbie Clark, an actor who plays Rollins in a biopic of the singer's life, and his struggle with marriage (Charlotte Gainsbourg is emotionally riveting as his abandoned wife) probably represents Dylan's divorce from his wife Sarah. Other sides of Dylan include a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (played by Ben Wishaw) and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere). Different segments are photographically distinct (black and white photography for Blanchett's scenes, reminiscent of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary of Dylan, "Don't Look Back").

I recall buying the singer's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," when I lived in Berkeley in 1963, and I saw him perform live at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival when I managed to get press passes and stood right in front of the stage. Bob and his girlfriend, Joan Baez, were awesome. The next year word came to England where I was living that Dylan had sold out, had traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one. "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" documented the transition from protest folk singer to rock and roller. I loved both albums, and in particular "Like a Rolling Stone," the 6-minute anthem with Al Kooper's great organ riff. The next year Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash near Woodstock and he disappeared from view for a year and a half. Some speculated that he just needed a break from the public who only wanted him to write "finger-pointing songs." Haynes ends his film with this crash, and two of the characters in his version of the Dylan's life apparently die.

When Dylan recovered, he changed his style to country music with "Nashville Skyline" and "Self Portrait." I missed the bite in his voice, and the fierce drive of a rock band that propelled the earlier post-folkie sound. So I became one of many who disliked the "new and improved" Dylan. Since then he has gone through many changes, reinventing himself with each new CD, and he continues to perform before large audiences. But despite the autobiographical Chronicle several years ago, he remains an illusive figure. Who is that masked man anyway (for we all certainly have masks)? And, more to the point, why do we even want to know? In his film, Haynes shows the incredible pressure celebrities feel from people who are under the illusion that they know them. When I was in my twenties I used to dream about making love to Joan Baez and hanging out with Dylan. But I was so much older then, and I'm younger than that now.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The High Cost of Health

I went to Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok yesterday morning to refill two prescriptions and get a dermatology checkup. When I left I was 17,761 baht ($555) poorer (at least I will be when I pay my Visa bill). One of the risks of living abroad is the cost of medical care, but I had always assumed that it was cheaper in Thailand, despite the lack of health insurance. Apparently I was wrong.

The big expense was for two skin biopsies: 11,983 baht (of which Dr. Suparnee got 7,000). My skin is a mess because of years spent on Southern California beaches trying to get a tan. I had biopsies last summer and was even treated for one spot on the side of my nose. So some kind of intervention was not unexpected. The two biopsies, on my shoulder and the back of one calf, took less than a half hour. Jerry said his angiogram last year at the same hospital was cheaper. I go back next week to find out the test results, but I doubt that I will continue to have six-month checkups.

I paid 1000 baht for my time with Dr. Watcharaphong Saechere. He gave me two-month prescriptions for Mevalotin, the Thai version of Pravachol, a statin drug to lower high cholesterol, and Seretide Accuhaler, the Thai substitute for Advair, the spay I have been taking daily to prevent asthma attacks. The hospital supplied two months of both for 4778 baht. Now I have been told that prices are lower outside the hospital pharmacy but that you take the chance of getting a counterfeit version of the medication.

Back in the states, I received excellent health insurance from the University of California upon retirement. I have no idea what Pacificare Secure Horizons gave Dr. Magid for my skin biopsies; I only paid for an office visit. Six-month prescriptions for each medication by mail from RX Solutions were under $100, certainly less than what I've paid here at the hospital. But UC dropped Pacificare last year and I switched to Blue Cross PPO which I hope will pay a portion of any extraordinary expenses here in Thailand. I am waiting to receive my new membership card from home.

Jerry had open-heart surgery at Bumrungrad a couple of years ago, and, although cheaper than it would have been in the U.S., it still set him back over $5,000. If my prostate cancer decides to speed and and try to kill me, I will undoubtedly encounter some high medical expenses which will eat away at my meager savings. This is reality and it must be faced.

Bumrungrad is a first-class medical facility and the ill and ailing come from all over the world to avail themselves of its relatively cheap services. I saw a number of women in full black burka, eyes hidden, their men in white robes and wearing turbans. I wonder if they only see women doctors? All of the patients in the skin care/laser surgery waiting room appeared to be western women. I went to the hospital without appointments and waiting time was minimal. It is the medical equivalent of a supermall with a food court, Starbucks and McDonald's on the mezzanine. If I were sick, Bumrungrad, a short walk from my apartment, would not be a bad place to heal, if I could afford it.

What of the average Thai, though? What I paid yesterday would be a month and a half of wages for Pim. Of course maybe Thais, with their dark skin, do not suffer from skin cancer as we palefaces do. There are hospitals cheaper than Bumrungrad and I may look into them if I want to continue having skin checkups. Jerry's brother-in-law in Surin was treated for a groin sprain of some kind and his bill for almost a week in the hospital was 8,000 baht. He probably makes less than that in a month. But Jerry paid the bill. Without a farang in the family, what do poor Thais do when they get sick?

As I write this, the results from Super Tuesday in the U.S. are coming in. McCain and Obama (oops, I mean Hillary) appear poised to capture their party's nominations. The Bangkok Post featured a story this morning about Americans casting ballots for the primaries at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. Will it make any difference? Will anything change in America? I know, McCain has become an ugly rubber stamp of Bush. And Obama is certainly more a friend to the poor than Clinton, who, like her husband, is beholden to corporate interests. Every election, Americans get to choose the lesser of two evils, Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee (or vice versa). The Democrats presided over the debacle in Vietnam and now its the Republicans turn with Iraq to shame themselves before the world.

I'm reading the excellent A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and his wife, Pasuk Phongpaichit (Cambridge University Press, 2005), in which I learned that the U.S. dominated Thailand economically after World War Two. The authors write that "the U.S. need for a client-state and its support for Thai democracy were at cross-purposes." So American dollars went to the military, strengthening a sector of the government that was inordinantly large and continues to dominate the political process. During the Vietnam War, "three-quarters of the bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and Laos in 1965-68 was flown out of seven US. bases in eastern Thailand." Military aid peaked in the 1960s and 1970s at $123 million. The U.S. apparently got its money's worth.

In "Charlie Wilson's War," film director Mike Nichols shows how U.S. military aid to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan (ironically ?) prepared the way for the Taliban and its support of Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist organization. It is well known that the American right supported Iraq in its war against Iran, then turned against Saddam when he invaded Kuwait. Does the right hand of American politics know what it is doing? Can all of its support for the wrong side be accidental? Now I read that Bush is pushing a budget that will practically bankrupt America, giving his successor problems even more severe than the swamp of Iraq. Is this all an accident?

Perhaps living so far away from American shores is turning me into a conspiracy freak. The country of my birth is no longer the land of the free, the champion of democracy. It is the home of the distracted, drugged and indifferent, the headquarters of global corporate capitalism, in whose name it is attempting to control the world. I truly doubt that Obama will even attempt to turn this around. He can't get elected without accepting offers he cannot refuse from the powerful. I wish all of this were not true, and that I could regain the hopeful optimism I had when voting for Kennedy in 1960. But I fear the worst.

I say this while acknowledging that all is not perfect here in Thailand (or anywhere else, for that matter). The political situation, as the new elected government prepares to take over from the military, is confusing. Will the Army sit back quietly while the politicians it threw out of power last year come back into office? The King's age means that momentous changes will take place in the not too distant future. Despite the strong Thai baht (which means my dollars are declining), the economy is in trouble. There is a huge divide between the richest and the poorest citizens. But because of the strong Buddhist influence, I believe that compassion and generosity are core values of Thai culture. In America, I'm afraid, making a profit comes first.

Second Thoughts: I sound like a stuck record. Perhaps only those who participate in a system have the right to criticize it. Consider my rant the ravings of a foolish old expatriate.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Expedia Doesn't Suck Any More

Back in October, I got quite upset with Expedia, the online travel agency, for refusing to give me a refund after their computer double-billed me for a round-trip ticket from Bangkok to India via Sri Lanka. To me it seemed a no-brainer; the evidence was there in their own computer, two tickets issued (and both delivered to my California address via FedEx) back in July. But I returned the duplicate and called Expedia repeatedly before leaving the U.S., and I emailed them, growing increasingly shrill with my complaint, until all I received was stony silence. SriLankan Airlines was unable to help because the tickets were inexplicably issued by British Airways. So I flew to India and back thinking that the extra money I paid was in the toilet. Then today a refund from British Airways showed up in my Visa account for $489.80, the amount of the extra ticket. So I want to be generous and apologize to Expedia for my nasty words here four months ago. You no longer suck, Expedia, but you certainly are slow in correcting your mistakes.

Here I am, standing outside of the local 7-11, with a typical day's shopping, carrying my supplies in plastic bags, three or four in each hand. You don't get the "paper or plastic" choice here in Bangkok. Without a car, everything has to be carried, on the Skytrain, the back of a motorbike taxi and while walking down the street. Some people lift weights; I get to lift plastic bags which are often quite heavy. In the film "American Beauty," a plastic bag becomes an object of beauty and I've thought of them differently ever since. They may be the penultimate symbol of today's global market place. In India where trash collection is an overwhelming task, they litter the landscape. Here in Thailand the Thais are scrupulously clean. Trash pickups in Bangkok are regular and thorough. But despite their best efforts, plastic bags are the detritus of a swollen population. They clog the klongs and the river. I dump my empty bags down the trash chute in my 15-floor building. I don't know where they end up.

Kathe Hilberman and her friend Michael came to Bangkok last week and arrived late at night, blitzed after a 20-hour plane flight from San Francisco. Letting the weary travelers rest for a day, I met them the following morning at their hotel near Khao San Road, the backpackers' home away from home. They wanted out of Bangkok in the worst way, seeing it as dirty, crowded and noisy, a typical reaction. I saw it as my duty to show them another side of the city I have come to love. The day before they had only walked in circles around Khao San Road, an area favored by farangs that resembles tourist ghettos everywhere, filled with travel agencies, internet shops, lousy restaurants, cheap clothes and pirated CDs and DVDs on sale, signs in English and white faces. I took them to Ricky's on Phra Athit Road for a tasty western breakfast, and then in a tuk tuk to Wat Pho to see the giant reclining Budhha and to marvel over the incredible temple architecture. Then we walked to Tha Thien Pier for a ride on a Chao Phraya river taxi past Wat Arun, Chinatown and the Oriental and Shangri La hotels to the Sathorn pier where we got on the elevated Skytrain for a trip through the cityscape of Bangkok (the variety of buildings you can see from the cars is fascinating). In Sukhumvit, I walked them past the Nana Entertainment Complex, a pale shadow of its nighttime self when seen in the light, and took them to my travel agent so they could buy plane tickets to Chiang Mai the next day. Back on the Skytrain, we entered shopping mall heaven at the upscale Siam Paragon and sampled Asian culinary delights in the extensive basement Food Court. From there we walked to the nearby Erawan Shrine to see how devout Buddhists pray to Brahma, the Hindu god, and thank him for favors received by hiring musicians and dancers to perform. We then walked down Rama 1 Road through Siam Square to giant MBK, the people's mall where shops are small and prices cheap (Kathe got a camera storage chip for less than half the regular price). Our last jaunt (Michael was hobbling on sore feet) was on a klong taxi to the Golden Mount where we climbed up to the top (well almost, the top was closed by construction) for a magnificent view of Bangkok. Afterwards, we took a tuk tuk back to their hotel where they retired for a well-earned nap and I went to a cafe to read and drink cappuccino until Pim got off work at the Banglamphu Post Office. I love giving tours and I think I convinced them that Bangkok was much more than initially meets the eye.

On the weekend, Pim and I went to Chatuchak, the huge flea market on the north side of the city. She was looking for items to decorate her cousin's Thai restaurant in Dublin, Ireland, and I was looking for a replacement for the plant I killed when I left it waterless for a month while I sojourned in India. I do not have a green thumb. Despite my love for nature, I am the Grim Reaper when it comes to cultivating greenery. This little baby, I was assured, will need little water and sun and will thrive despite my neglect. I left it on the balcony during a brief rain storm yesterday before transplanting it and I think it looks happy. Damned if I know what it should be called. George? (Anyone recognizing the breed, please email me.) On the way home from Chatuchak, we stopped in Saphan Khwai at Big C, the closest thing to a Costco I've seen yet in Thailand (Makro is another big-box chain, along with Tesco Lotus which I think is a British import). There I found a pair of slightly used Levis for 150 baht (about $5), and they even fit (though I'm not as fat as I thought). Finding underwear has been more difficult. The problem is that Thais are smaller and size their clothes differently. I've bought L and XL briefs and both were too small. Few stores carry XXL. Finally I got a couple of pair at Tokyu, the department store within MBK, and both sort of fit; one is L and the other XL. Go figure.

Up in Surin for the wedding, I met Wit, a good friend of Jerry and Lamyai's, who invited us to his 31st birthday party at a club in Bangkok. Jerry and he had taken Lamyai to the same club for her birthday and it was a pretty wild scene, he said. Wit is a charming fellow, a gay man who lives with his mother and works at a noodle shop in Silom. On Saturday night he came to get Pim, Jerry and I (Lamyai had to stay home with her mother who is ill), and we took a taxi to the club in a remote part of the city. The noise when we entered the packed room was deafening. A rock band was pounding out covers to hits by Thai bands like Carabao, the Grateful Dead of Thailand. We were led to a table front and center already occupied by Wit's mother and a group of friends. There were bottles of whiskey and plates of food which included fish cooking over a barbecue. Jerry and I opted for beer. Pim kept my plate full of food and Wit's mother liberally poured beer whenever my glass looked partly empty. People were dancing in the aisles and at their tables, singing along with the band and applauding at the start of every song. Jerry and I were the only farangs in the place. Before long I was up and dancing, with Pim and with Wit's mom, as well as Wit and Jerry. When the birthday cakes with candles were delivered, it turned out we were not the only table with someone celebrating. Pim spontaneously gave her shawl to Wit, who had taken a liking to it, for a birthday present (Jerry had given him a bottle of whiskey and I contributed cash for the party and for mixes, soda and water). After the band retired, a DJ took over and the music and dancing continued non-stop until we slipped away for home. I couldn't help thinking about how rock and roll has become a universal language. Led Zeppelin and the heavy metal rockers have left descendants everywhere, and Thais know how to rock as well as anyone else. They also know how to party, I decided the next morning as I popped a couple of aspirins to stop a throbbing head.

The job search is on hold for the moment. Pandit is up in Chiang Mai so I won't be able to see the chairman of the English department at Wat Si before Friday. This week I'll visit Bumrungrad Hospital to get refills of my asthma and cholesterol lowering meds. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I am not thinking of giving up anything unless it might be any remaining identification with the Christian church. Thursday is Chinese New Year's and I'm looking forward to attending the celebration in Chinatown with Pim.

And a week from Thursday is Valentine's Day which the Thais celebrate along with every other holiday on the planet. Red hearts are showing up in the stores. This year for the first time in I can't remember when there is someone whom I want to be my valentine. My heart is overflowing with love. Despite the difficulties of a May-December romance (I remain a secret to her family and friends), we are very happy together. My closet has his and hers sides to it now. The small apartment seems somehow bigger with her in it. She reads to me in English and helps me pronounce the Thai vowels. I buy her a leather bag for her job with Thai Post and a shawl to replace the one she gave to Wit. She cleans the bathroom and irons my tee shirts. I warn her that old men have shortened life spans and that I cannot give her a child. We dance to the music I put for her on the iPod. She brings croissants for breakfast and dips pieces of them in the café mocha I make for her. We hold hands at the movies and afterwards she tries to sing the theme song in English. I don't know what will happen in the future. Pim and I are together now, and that seems all that is important.