Saturday, January 23, 2010

11,727 Miles Traveled

Jan 22, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand
Slightly overcast, humid, hot. Rain in the morning.
AM: I once took a class called Third World Cities. We studied a selection of the developing mega-cities and academic things like the “built environment,” “housing types: informal v. formal,” and “colonialism.” We talked about the horror of poverty and how government policies can change lives. But as much as I loved the professor, and the class, and felt like a more responsible person because I got an “A” in the class – that means I must understand third world cities, right? – I always get this horrible jolt back to reality when I see real, live, poverty. And I have yet to leave the hotel.
For eighteen dollars a day, you get a real view. It could have been straight out of my class’ power point. Is Bangkok even considered a “third world” city? Nevermind the serious colonialist undertones of that phrase. We arrived in Bangkok last night around eleven, went through customs and immigration, got our bags, exchanged our money, and got into the official Bangkok airport shuttles around one in the morning (air conditioned vans with leather seats). Out the window, I saw people sleeping on the streets, and I saw huge gold temples and priceless artifacts. My western superiority kicked in, and I thought, look at this! The government should use the money they get from all the tourism, or have stashed away in their gigantic royal palaces to do something about poverty.
Why don’t I feel that way about the United States? A quick drive from Yogurtland in Little Tokyo through the outskirts of downtown back to USC takes you right through more than a few blocks of tent-city homeless neighborhoods. We have so much wealth, and why don’t we redistribute it so that we don’t have that kind of poverty? On one side of the scale, you have the social ill of poverty, on the other side, you have the social ill of significantly increased government intervention in property rights. Which outweighs which?
I would like to retract my previous statement about filtering water to be on vacation. I’m clearly not on vacation.
PM: Today was absolutely amazing. Yes, our hotel is crappy. Yes, my bed feels like a piece of cardboard. But... We saw so many cool things today that it is totally worth it. And we leave tomorrow for a resort where we have four beautiful bungalows reserved overlooking the ocean.
We spent the day using river taxis, which are these long colorful boats with car engines attached. We went to two temples (they're called "Wat" in Thai, and there are nine sacred temples in Bangkok), one of which was an extremely tall tower that had these steep stairs all the way to the stop. It had been decorated with scraps of Chinese ceramics, so the walls had inlaid bowls and cups in them. The other one was the temple of the reclining Buddha, which contained a several hundred foot long and about hundred foot high gold-plated statue of the Buddha reclining. I was walking around and happened to upon Dr. and Senora Hartzell, the former Harker head of school and the head of the spanish professor (who is his wife)! We stopped to chat and we took a picture together. They now work at the American School in Taipei, and apparently love it. It was so cool to see them at this really amazing place.
The second temple (the one with all the steep stairs), was really awesome itself, but was surrounded by really cool things. There was a music class going on, a ton of monks wandering, some puppy dogs (which I unfortunately could not resist petting), and these gorgeous flowers. We watched people approach them and pray, then clap their hands underneath. I was so confused until Anh told me that these flowers are used as a test to see if your prayers are being listened to. People would pray to have a piece of the flower fall, then see if it worked. She clasped my hands together and told me to pray, so I did. I clapped my hands underneath, and seemed to be the only one who the gods were listening to. After three claps, a stamen fell to the group. Then again, they were very vigorous claps and I was probably the tenth person to clap at this same flower... but it feels nice to know that Buddha had his eye on me.

Then we went to the Royal Barge Museum, where they have the barges that were involved in the royal processional. Each barge was HUGE and gold-plated. The Thai seem to love gold. It was really fun, and this is where I stopped to use the bathroom. The bathrooms were very western (unlike every other Thai bathroom outside of the airport), and were actually nicer than an average public bathroom in the US. But, instead of toilet paper, each stall had long hoses like ones you would put in a kitchen sink. Eh, to each their own, right? I was standing on the edge of the museum (it was like a covered dock), looking at all the construction happening across the river. Everywhere you look there are cranes building more high-rise buildings. A construction worker waved at me, and I waved back.
Then we went on a boat (long colorful motorized canoe is a better way to describe it) tour all the way around Bangkok. Bangkok is organized somewhat like Venice. A large portion of the houses here are on canals. We went really quite fast, and perhaps the driver pushed it a little too much, because we were about half a mile away from the last stop when our engine died. We had to jumpstart mid-canal! Highlights of the boat tour include a large wooden temple that said "Slam Dance and Antiques Center," a huge six-foot long lizard sunning itself, all the gorgeous mansions along the water right alongside the informal housing, many of which barely had walls but most always included a satellite dish.
I have seen one solar panel, and it was on one of the nicest houses along the river. Most of the houses seem to be connected to electrical wires, even the ones that are a few feet from falling into the river. Our hotel seems to have consistent electricity, thankfully. To power their boats and cars, Bangkok relies heavily on diesel fuel for energy. Many of the students on the last Biomes trip commented that the air was almost unbreathable, and observed that many people used masks in order to make it a bit better. While there were a few masks, and I did take a huge, carcinogenic breath of exhaust, I felt that the air was really no worse than Los Angeles on an average day.
The river is the primary transportation route. The water is murky, and along the sides of the canals the green and sometimes orange algae grows in thick mats. During one of our boat rides, there were two Brits sitting behind me talking to a local. We saw a ton of fish jumping up (big fish too!), looking for food, and the british guys asked if he ever went swimming in the river. "No no no!" the Thai guy said. "How much," one of the british guys asked, "would I have to pay you to jump in right now?" "500... no... 2500!" the Thai replied.
I agreed that the water did not look fit for swimming, but nonetheless, we saw three different groups of kids jumping from bridges into the water and swimming. One of the groups looked like an organized swim class, where the kids all wore matching suits and stood in a line to dive.
After our little mishap with the engine, the driver seemed eager to dock, so we zoomed back to the area near our hotel. We disembarked and walked back to our hotel, through an area that looks very much like a combination of San Francisco's Chinatown and Los Angeles' fashion district. I'm shocked how cheap everything is, and am horrified that my classmates would try to haggle with street vendors. Why would I try to bargain a two-dollar snack down to a one-dollar snack? Dinner and lunch were both just under a dollar each... but Denny gave us 1,000 bhat (about 30 dollars) for three days of food. Both lunch and dinner have been delicious, and both have been from sketchy street food carts. That being said, Bangkok street food was recently featured in the New York Times for being so amazing. For lunch, I had a dish that was similar to Pad Kee Mao, a wide fried noodle dish with chicken. For dinner, I had a glass noodle soup with chicken and eggs. I also had some tea and probably will try some Thai beer after class.

So definitely not a vacation, but a learning trip doesn't have to be a horribly painful process. I've accepted that there will be painful lessons along the way, especially in India and Tanzania. I'm not looking forward to seeing the poverty that I know is there, and I don't know what I will do with the data I find.


  1. Hi,

    This is Erin, the former Biomes traveler that sent a card to you all at the Shrine in Juneau (does Alaska feel like worlds away already?) Anh gave me the link to your blog and I've been following the group every day that brings a new post.

    You're an amazing writer, and I love to hear about the similarities and contrasts between our experience and yours. Keep writing, as much as you can, because you have a beautiful way of interpreting what sights and thoughts you encounter.

    All the best to you and the gang!

    Erin Sams

  2. I second this motion :). I got your blog link from Erin (above) and have been enjoying hearing about your experiences and re-living my own! Enjoy every moment!

    Lindsey Smith

  3. actually, I'm having second thoughts about saying "enjoy every moment." Why don't I say "appreciate every moment and make the most of it" instead.