Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown

Although I have a 1-year visa for Thailand, I still have to “renew” it every 90 days, which is typical here for most kinds of long-term visas. To do so, I just need to cross over a border to any country outside of Thailand and cross back into Thailand. There are a number of companies here that provide “visa run” services where you ride buses or mini-vans to the Cambodian or Laos borders, you cross the border, turn around and come back in to Thailand and get a new visa stamp. It’s a bit wacky, but I guess it helps the Thai government know that you’re still in Thailand and minding the rules.

My first 90 days was up at the end of January, so rather than using one of the quick visa-run options, I decided to use this as an opportunity to see another country that I haven’t been to before. I’ve always wanted to see Kuala Lumpur, so I decided to go to Malaysia. It was just a one week trip, with a few days in Kuala Lumpur and the other few days in Georgetown on the island of Penang, but a fun trip and a nice break from Bangkok.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur (KL, as the locals refer to it) is the capital of Malaysia, and has a population of around 1.5 million people. Uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t do a whole lot of research before going there, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got there. But that made it a fun and very interesting surprise. Case in point: I was a bit shocked that virtually everyone there speaks very good English. After 3 months in Bangkok where it’s very hit-and-miss on the English speaking, this was a welcome treat for me!

KL, and Malaysia in general, is an interesting mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay people, cultures and food. It’s a wonderful melting pot, and walking around in KL you definitely see, feel and taste all the different cultural aspects. In many ways, KL reminded me a lot of Singapore; in hindsight, that makes a lot of sense given their similar histories. But in general, KL is a very clean and very well organized city. There are probably three main things that KL is best known for: the Petronas Towers, hawker street food stalls, and shopping/markets.

View of KL from the skybridge of the Petronas Towers

View of KL from the skybridge of the Petronas Towers

There are a lot of rules to ride the escalators. I obviously broke one rule by taking a picture of it...

There are a lot of rules to ride the escalators. I obviously broke one rule by taking a picture of it…

Hawker Food

One of the very popular forms of eating in KL is at hawker food stalls along the streets. In Bangkok, street food is typically cooked/sold by people with wheeled metal carts on the sidewalk/street. In KL, the street food is more permanent; that is, there are stalls along the street with permanent kitchens, and tables/chairs are set up either in the stalls or more often in the sidewalks/street at night. A given stall may house several different “restaurants”, so when you sit down you may have several different menus to choose from. I ate nearly all of my dinners and late-night snacks at the various hawker stalls around KL, and it was some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted. It’s definitely a mix of Indian curry and spices, Chinese noodles and vegetables, and I’m not sure what the Malays brought to the menu but it all mixed in spectacularly.

Street hawker food stall, with all the dishes shown at the top in giant pictures for easy ordering.

Street hawker food stall, with all the dishes shown at the top in giant pictures for easy ordering.

Typical street hawker food stand, with tables/chairs set up in the street.

Typical street hawker food stand, with tables/chairs set up in the street.

A cook at the hawker street stall, barbecuing something.  Probably chicken feet, as those seemed to be pretty popular there.

A cook at the hawker street stall, barbecuing something. Probably chicken feet, as those seemed to be pretty popular there.

Chinatown / Night Market

I spent one evening at the Petaling Night Market, which is in the Chinatown area of KL. It’s a huge night market, with stalls spread through a large number of streets and alleys throughout Chinatown. In many ways it’s not too different from most other night markets in Asia: hundreds of vendors selling t-shirts, fake designer handbags, fake designer watches, electronics, etc., but this market had a little different feel to it. Perhaps it had to do with it being in Chinatown, so there was a bit more of a Chinese aspect to the market, or perhaps the hawker food stalls mixed in made it somewhat different. In any case, it was a fun night of roaming the streets and occasional snacking on different food.

The Golden Triangle

One area of KL is called the “Golden Triangle”. This is where many of the large modern malls are located, as well as many of the bars and nightlife. One particular street here is called Changkat Bukit Bintang, and was one of my favorite night spots. For several blocks, this small street has side-by-side bars/restaurants on both sides of the street. Each one is the size of a typical shophouse, and most have an inside air conditioned area as well as an outdoor patio area facing the street and incorporating the sidewalk. Each bar is a little different – the traditional Irish bar, some mellow jazz bars, some up-tempo dance bars, some whisky bars, some “chill” bars with couches and comfy lounge furniture, etc. It was fun to just walk down the street and drop in to various places for a drink, wander off to another place a few meters down the sidewalk and have a completely different experience. I have to say, for that many bars all together, the crowds of people were all very cool – no drunk, rowdy people that I saw – and the Malaysians working at the various bars and restaurants could not have been nicer people to talk with.

Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers are twin skyscrapers, home to the Malaysian national oil and gas company Petronas. When completed in 1998, they were the tallest buildings in the world and held that record until 2004 when the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan took over the crown. Today they are the 7th tallest buildings in the world, although still the tallest twin towers. They’re each 88 floors, and over 450 meters tall. Architecturally, they incorporate a number of Islamic designs and influences. The footprint of them is essentially two intersected squares creating an 8-sided star, which is common in Islamic architecture, as well as each tower having 5 tiers, representing the 5 pillars of Islam, and the spires on the top of each tower are similar to the minarets on mosques.

View of the top and spire of one of the towers.

View of the top and spire of one of the towers.

View of one of the towers showing the footprint of the building.

View of one of the towers showing the footprint of the building.

The towers are clad in stainless steel rings around each floor. Although I’ve seen tons of pictures and documentaries on TV about the towers, seeing them lit up at night in person is something that you just have to experience because no film could possibly capture the look. Those stainless steel rings create an incredible reflection from the lights at night. My first couple of nights in KL, walking around town I could almost always see the towers in the distance, and they stood out like amazing beacons.

Detail of the stainless steel rings on the towers. These are what make them shine when lit up at night.

Detail of the stainless steel rings on the towers. These are what make them shine when lit up at night.

On my third day in KL, I finally went to see the towers up close and take a tour of them. We first went to the skybridge at the 41st floor that connects the two towers. It was a little freaky walking through the glass skybridge that high up and looking at the giant towers on either side, but it was a spectacular view and the engineering geek in me was fascinated by the construction and how they achieved a skybridge connection like that while still allowing for independent movement of the buildings, particularly during an earthquake (as with most of southeast Asia, earthquakes in Malaysia are not uncommon). Amazing!

The skybridge connecting the two Petronas Towers

The skybridge connecting the two Petronas Towers

We then went up to the 88th floor of one of the towers, which is an observation area. That’s the highest point of the towers that is occupied, and has a 360 degree view out the windows of KL and surrounding area, as well as of the adjacent tower. Needless to say, it was a pretty good view… 🙂

I had heard that one of the best places to see the towers at night was from the rooftop bar at the nearby Trader’s Hotel. So that night I went there to check it out. The rooftop bar/lounge/pool is kind of in a glassed-in dome on the top of the hotel. But as soon as you walk in, your eyes are immediately drawn to the gleaming Petronas Towers a short distance away. I snapped a few pictures from the camera on my phone, and although it’s a pretty good camera (shout-out to the Nokia 920 Windows Phone…woop woop!!), it still doesn’t do any justice to the way it actually looked in person.

View of the Petronas Towers at night.

View of the Petronas Towers at night.

Penang / Georgetown

Ideally I wanted to spend some time on some of the islands/beaches off the eastern coast of Malaysia, but this time of year is the rainy season there and a lot of places are closed. So I decided instead to spend a few days in Georgetown, on the island of Penang in the northwest corner of the country. It turned out to be an interesting place to visit.

A typical colonial building in Chinatown area of Georgetown

A typical colonial building in Chinatown area of Georgetown

Georgetown is a surprisingly large city, with many, many tall apartment and condo buildings. There are three unique areas of the town that I spent the most time in: the colonial district, Chinatown and Little India. Penang has the highest concentration of colonial era buildings in all of Asia, and much of it is in Georgetown. I have always loved the colonial architecture in southeast Asia, and Georgetown was no exception. It was fun to just walk around thru the streets looking at the old buildings. The colonial district, Chinatown and Little India all kind of bleed together, so walking around you find yourself turning a corner and going from a lot of traditional Chinese shops to suddenly Bollywood music playing and all kinds of shops selling saris, Indian spices and just about anything else Indian. I love those kinds of surprises when exploring a new place!

Kek Lok Si Temple

About 5 kilometers outside of Georgetown, up a winding road on the side of a hill, is the Kek Lok Si Temple complex. It’s a complex of numerous buildings, and is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. It was built relatively recently, in 1890, but has had additions throughout the years. As with many of the Buddhist temples I’ve visited throughout southeast Asia, it’s built into a hillside and you have to climb hundreds of stairs throughout the complex to see all of it. Luckily, for the highest point of the temple complex, they have a cool cable car that you can ride to get you to the top. And given how hot and humid it was the day I was there, I had no problem taking advantage of the cable car!

Part of the temple complex from one of the courtyards.

Part of the temple complex from one of the courtyards.

A pathway leading from one building to another.

A pathway leading from one building to another.

Statues in one of the temples of the complex.

Statues in one of the temples of the complex.

Buddha images in one of the temples. The Buddhas were donated to the temple by the current King of Thailand.

Buddha images in one of the temples. The Buddhas were donated to the temple by the current King of Thailand.

One of the pagodas at the temple complex. Architecturally, the pagoda design is Burmese at the top, Thai in the middle, and Chinese at the bottom.

One of the pagodas at the temple complex. Architecturally, the pagoda design is Burmese at the top, Thai in the middle, and Chinese at the bottom.

Another view of the temple buildings.

Another view of the temple buildings.

The day I visited was about a week before the Chinese New Year, so the temple was decked out with thousands of red and yellow paper lanterns hanging throughout the buildings and walkways. While stunning to look at in the daytime, I would have loved to see the complex lit up at night.

At the very top of the temple complex, there is a huge 36.5 meter high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, who is the goddess of mercy.  The statue is surrounded by giant concrete columns with a roof over her.  It’s a pretty awe-inspiring sight, just based on the scale of it if nothing else.

Pagoda, pond and waterfall at the top of the temple.

Pagoda, pond and waterfall at the top of the temple.

36.5m high statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, at the top of the temple.

36.5m high statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, at the top of the temple.

I spent several hours one afternoon wandering through the temples, watching the local Buddhist people there praying and giving offerings, and looking at all the architectural details of the buildings. You kind of lose yourself while you’re there, and forget that you’re really just a few minutes’ drive from a relatively large and modern city. But it was a great way to end my time in Georgetown, as well as the end to my Malaysian adventure.

I barely scratched the surface of seeing Malaysia. I still want to go back and spend time on the east-coast islands, the central jungle part of the mainland country, as well as do some trekking through Malaysian Borneo. Those will have to be another trip, but I’m looking forward to planning it soon!

Holidays and Beer Parks

Christmas in the Land of Smiles

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a number of my family and friends from back home in America asked me what things were like here in terms of Christmas, and whether the Thais celebrated it.  Like many things in Thailand, the answer is “it depends…”.

The population in Thailand is about 95% Buddhist, 4% Muslim, and less than 1% Christian.  So one might think that Christmas wouldn’t really be understood or celebrated here.  And that is essentially true.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t get just as much into the “Christmas spirit” as we do in the West.  From mid-December through January is the peak tourism season here, with tourists being primarily from Europe, Australia and other Western countries.  And because many of those tourists are Christian, the Thais have learned a bit about our Christian holidays and have somewhat adopted many of the traditions (at least from a retail perspective).

In late-November or early-December, you see “traditional” Christmas decorations go up at most of the malls, hotels and large office buildings.  By “traditional”, I mean Christmas trees, strings of colored lights, strings of garland, large oversize boxes wrapped in colorful wrapping paper, Santa Clause pictures and cardboard cut-outs, elves, reindeer, etc.  Christmas music is also often playing at the malls. 

Large Christmas tree display outside Terminal 21 mall

Large Christmas tree display outside Terminal 21 mall

Giant angel, rocking horse and Christmas tree outside CentralWorld mall

Giant angel, rocking horse and Christmas tree outside CentralWorld mall

There are also some “non-traditional” decorations, for lack of a better description.  I don’t think the Thais fully understand how all the various characters tie into Christmas.  For example, along with Santa and his reindeer, it’s not uncommon to also see random cartoon figures.  (Side note: I think a future blog post will be required on the Thai fascination with cartoon characters/mascots).  Or a nativity scene might have some figures that look like Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, but then it’ll also have Hello Kitty dolls, elephants and Thai puppets.  The Thais love – LOVE — celebrating things, so they’ll jump at any opportunity to go all-out with decorations and fun.  It definitely makes for a festive, if not slightly different, kind of Christmas feel here.

Walking past the mall on my way to the gym (hence my casual clothing...), I saw Santa at the mall.  So I HAD to get my picture taken with him!

Walking past the mall on my way to the gym (hence my casual clothing…), I saw Santa at the mall. So I HAD to get my picture taken with him!

Aside from the decorations and fun, the Thais don’t celebrate the actual Christmas holiday.  That is, they don’t do gift exchanges, and it’s business-as-usual for Thai businesses, schools, shops, and government.  Although some of the large multinational companies that employ larger numbers of foreigners do recognize the holiday and give workers some time off. 

Another question I’ve gotten from people is whether the Thais celebrate New Years.  Although they have their own “new year festival” called Songkran in April (see my post from last April about that), they do in fact recognize January 1st as the start of the new calendar year.  There is one small difference, though, in that they follow a Buddhist calendar which apparently is 443 years ahead of our calendar (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I won’t go into the details here).  That is, this year (2012) is year 2555 for them; On January 1, 2013, it will be 2556 for them.  They do use the Buddhist calendar in daily life; for example, my utility bills for Internet, cable TV etc. show dates using the 2555 year.  So there’s another interesting trivia fact that you probably didn’t know before reading this.

Beer Parks!

In order to take advantage of the “cool season” (and the word “cool” is used in a very relative sense here…), starting in late-November or early-December you begin to see large “beer parks” being erected outside malls, large office buildings or other public plaza areas around the city.  These are somewhat similar to “beer gardens” that we have in America for various festivals and civic parties.  They are typically large, fenced areas with tables and chairs for guests, often with a stage for bands, DJs or other entertainment.  And while they sell food, their primary purpose is to sell beer and alcohol.  They open in the evenings around 6pm, and the idea is that for a couple months of the year, the weather is “cool” enough outside to relax with friends in the open air without the need for air conditioning.

Many of the larger beer parks are sponsored by the primary beer companies here – Singha, Tiger, Chang, Heineken – as well as by other liquor companies such as Absolut or Sangsom (Sangsom is Thai whiskey…brutal stuff.  Umm, so I’ve heard…).  They can hold anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people.  The largest conglomeration of them is outside the CentralWorld mall, where there are 4 or 5 of them lined up end-to-end along the large outdoor plaza.  The day I took these pictures, they hadn’t opened yet so they look (and are) empty except for a few of the workers there getting ready.  But after they open and the music/entertainment starts, they’re typically packed full of people enjoying the evening.

The Singha Beer Park outside CentralWorld mall.  Yellow tables, thousands of yellow chairs, and large stage in center-right of pic.

The Singha Beer Park outside CentralWorld mall. Yellow tables, thousands of yellow chairs, and large stage in center-right of pic.

Chang Beer Park outside CentralWorld mall.

Chang Beer Park outside CentralWorld mall.

The Absolut beer park outside Siam Paragon mall

The Absolut beer park outside Siam Paragon mall


Loy Krathong and the King’s Birthday

Loy Krathong

The Loy Krathong festival is held on the evening of the full moon of the 12th lunar month in the Thai calendar, which generally falls in late-November.  There seem to be many different interpretations of the history and meaning of the festival, but most people consider it a thank-you to the water goddess for the end of the rainy season and a successful rice harvest.

The word “loy” means float, and “krathong” means crown.  As part of the festival, thousands of vendors set up little tables along the street where they’re making and selling these “floating crowns”.  They’re typically made from a base of a slice of banana plant that floats, and are decorated with ornate folded banana leaves and fresh flowers.  They also have one or more candles and a few sticks of incense on them. 

Vendors on the street selling Loy Krathongs

Vendors on the street selling Loy Krathongs

The Thai people take the loy krathongs to nearby rivers and lakes, light the candles and incense, say prayers with them, and put them in the water to float away.  By late-evening, the lakes and rivers are a sea of the floating krathongs, with candles lit and incense burning. 

Loy Krathongs being set afloat on the lake

Loy Krathongs being set afloat on the lake

I bought a krathong from a very nice vendor lady on the sidewalk (I paid about $1.50 for it, including tip) and went to a park in the city that has a small lake.  There were thousands of people crammed around the edges of the lake, lighting their krathongs and sending them afloat on the lake.  The smell of incense was everywhere.  It was a very beautiful experience, with the lake lit up by the thousands of burning krathongs, as well as the full moon above the city. 

Me getting ready to set my Loy Krathong afloat

Me getting ready to set my Loy Krathong afloat

Candles on the Loy Krathongs lighting up the lake

Candles on the Loy Krathongs lighting up the lake

Loy Krathongs lit with candles floating on the lake

Loy Krathongs lit with candles floating on the lake

In northern Thailand, they celebrate a similar festival during the same time, although in addition to the floating loy krathongs, they also light Chinese lanterns and send them up into the sky by the tens of thousands.  And unlike the 1-day festival in the rest of the country, the festival up north goes on for 3 days.  There are so many lanterns being sent up in the sky every night that the airlines have to cancel all flights in and out of Chiang Mai after 6pm for those three nights to avoid the lanterns getting sucked into the plane engines!

The King’s Birthday

December 5 marked the King’s 85th birthday.  As I noted in a previous blog post, the Thai people have an enormous amount of respect and adoration for the King and Royal Family.  Each year, they have a huge celebration in observance of his birthday, and this year was no exception.

In Thai culture, each day of the week has a different color associated with it (Sunday is red, Monday is yellow, Tuesday is pink, etc.).  The day you are born on is your “color”.  The King was born on a Monday, so his color is yellow. 

Leading up to his birthday, there were large posters/paintings/murals of him in front of nearly every mall, office building, road intersection, etc., with yellow banners and ribbons, and often surrounded by dozens of yellow marigold flowers.  In front of many of the malls, they also had a table and chairs set up with guest books sitting there for people to write birthday wishes to the King.

Lighted "Long Live the King" banner on a skywalk across a city street

Lighted “Long Live the King” banner on a skywalk across a city street

Shrine to the King, along with guest books to sign, at a local mall

Shrine to the King, along with guest books to sign, at a local mall

On his birthday, alcohol is prohibited from being sold or consumed, so most of the bars/restaurants are closed, as well as many of the smaller, local shops and businesses.  Hundreds of thousands of people, all wearing yellow shirts and waving yellow flags, lined the streets and the areas in front of the Royal Plaza where he gave a rare public speech.  I watched part of it on TV, and it was actually pretty interesting to see all the pomp and pageantry from the military and royal guards leading up to his speech.  Throughout the city, nearly every Thai person I saw that day was wearing a yellow shirt in honor of the King’s birthday.

A shrine in a city park honoring the King during his birthday celebration week

A shrine in a city park honoring the King during his birthday celebration week

3 Weeks In, Getting Adjusted

This is another semi-boring post about what I’ve been up to the past couple of weeks. I’ve still been very busy with mostly administrative things like getting health insurance, apartment hunting, etc., so I don’t have any fun and interesting travel stories or pictures. But there may be some fun or interesting nuggets of info in this post anyway.

Movie Formalities

I went to my first movie in Thailand. In all the times I’ve been here previous years, I don’t know why I haven’t ever been to one, but I just haven’t. Although as many of you know, I’m not much of a movie buff. I go to maybe 1 movie a year in Seattle (which also means, I don’t really date much in Seattle either…), and the majority of my movie watching happens on the flights from Seattle to Bangkok and back. But for whatever reason, I wanted to go see the new James Bond movie here, and oddly it opened here a couple weeks before it opened in the US.

So I’m in the movie theatre and like at home, they show all the trailers for upcoming movies and a few commercials. Then a message on the screen says “Please stand for the King’s anthem”. Everyone in the theatre stands, and they show a montage of photos and videos of the King from his childhood to present day, with his anthem playing in the background. It was a very different, but interesting experience.

The Thai people have enormous love and respect for the King and the royal family – in nearly every shop/bar/restaurant/house/hotel you go into, you will always see a picture of the King and Queen, usually with a small shrine or offering. It’s well-earned admiration, as the King has done a tremendous amount during his reign to help Thailand, particularly in agriculture and water/irrigation management.

As for the movie, it wasn’t my favorite James Bond movie, but it was still pretty good…

New Homestead

After a couple weeks of looking at many different apartments, I’ve finally found a great place and will be moving into my new permanent apartment on December 1st. Initially I didn’t think I had many strict requirements for the apartment, but after looking at a few apartments you start to add things to the “must have” list. And they might seem silly or petty, but it turns out they’re kind of important (to me, at least). Here are what turned out to be my must-haves (none of which were on my original list):

• A pool that’s not shaded in the afternoon. The Thai people generally do not like the sun or sunbathing like us westerners do, so they typically put the pools on the shady side of the buildings. I don’t plan on laying by the pool every day, but on the days that I do want to do that, I darn well want to be in the sun! I saw several great apartments, with amazingly beautiful pool areas, but completely shaded… Scratch those off the list.

• Balcony. I didn’t think I wanted or needed a balcony given how hot and humid it is – why would you want to stand out in that? Well, it turns out you start to feel a bit Closter phobic (or at least I do) when you’re in a small apartment with windows that don’t open. And the constant air conditioning gets to the point where you want to just get some natural moist air, even if it’s for just a few minutes.

• Walk-in shower. I’ve never liked bathtub/shower combinations, but nearly every apartment I looked at here has them. And more strange, they’re typically raised above the floor at least 6 to 8 inches, so you have to step up/down to get in and out of them. I’m not the world’s most graceful person – in fact, I’m pretty clumsy – so doing that every time I had to shower is just a broken leg or arm waiting to happen. And given that you shower at least twice a day here, sometimes 3 times, I quickly realized that a walk-in shower was a must-have.

You would be shocked to know how drastically those three criteria whittled down the list of available apartments for me here. But luck was on my side and I got what I wanted. 🙂

The Shower Hour

Speaking of showers, there’s a strange phenomenon here that I call the “shower hour”. It’s something that has plagued me for years that I’ve been coming here, but I always thought it was specific to me. As I’ve talked with other expats over here, I’ve learned that it’s thankfully a more widespread issue.

Here’s the issue: if you take a shower, and then go outside within about an hour, your body almost immediately begins sweating from every pore like Old Faithful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cold shower, and you sit around for a half hour in a freezing cold air conditioned room first. If there’s less than 60 minutes elapsed between the time you step out of the shower and the time you step outside, you will be hit by this phenomenon. And it hits you within 5 minutes of being outside…you can try to talk yourself into thinking that you dried off really well, sat around in the cold air conditioned room and are ready to tackle the heat and humidity outside, but it’s of little use.

I didn’t take much biology in high school or college, so I don’t have a good scientific explanation for it. My hypothesis is that the shower fills your pores with water and if you go out in the heat/humidity your body tries to immediately expel that water to cool the body down. It’s just a theory but it’s the best I have.

It basically means that you have to plan ahead. If I’m going to meet people out for dinner at 8pm, I know I need to be out of the shower by 7pm at the very latest. Otherwise I’m going to be a sopping wet sweaty mess by the time the starter salad arrives.

Entrepreneurs & Stuff

I met a guy last weekend that has a business here that builds websites, among other things. I’d asked him for some info on networking events, and he pointed me to some info, including a conference happening in a couple days for Internet entrepreneurs. I quickly registered and attended the 2-day conference (which happened to be on the American Thanksgiving holiday, which they of course don’t celebrate here). While I’m not sure if I would want to start my own business here, or work for a small startup, those are certainly options I have and am considering. It turns out those 2 days were an incredibly great use of time.

It was 2 days packed with back-to-back talks given by local and regional small startups, venture capitalists, and panels of combinations of both. There was a ton of interesting info on the startup scene in Bangkok, as well as surrounding region including Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. Great discussions about what’s holding back the startup ecosystem here, what needs to happen to move it to the next level, who the key players are, networking opportunities, etc. It was probably the best use of 2 days since I’ve been here, and in those 2 days I got a crash-course in the startup scene here that would have taken me weeks or months to figure out on my own.

All in all, it’s been an incredible first three weeks here. I’ve accomplished a lot more than I expected I would have by now, and am even more excited about what’s to come next!

Beginning of an Expat Life


This, admittedly, won’t be a super riveting or fascinating post.  Just wanted to post a quick message about what I’ve been up to on my first 10 days back in Bangkok…

When we last left this blog in June, I had just returned to Seattle for the summer, with the goal of figuring out a way to return to Thailand in the fall on a more permanent basis.  I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that things fell into place such that I was able to put all of my furniture etc. into storage, lease out my Seattle house, and return to Bangkok on November 1st.  The month of October was pretty much a blur to me, trying to figure out all the things I needed to do to move half way around the world, but that’s behind me now and it feels so good to be back here in the Land of Smiles!

I mentioned in an early post on the blog about the Thai people’s uncanny trait of remembering people.  When I walked into the apartment building I’m staying at, the girls at the front desk all giggled and remembered me, the girl at the little market next door said “oh, you’re back!”, and the bartender at a bar that I occasionally go to not only remembered me, but remembered that I usually start with a vodka-Red Bull (and I honestly don’t go there that often).   Those kinds of things really help make it feel like “home” here for me.

It’s the “cool season” in Bangkok during November/December.  They take quite a bit of liberty in using the word “cool”, as it simply means the temperatures are generally in the low-90’s (F) during the day, and the humidity isn’t quite as high as the rest of the year.  Believe me, it’s still plenty hot and humid here.  Although I do see a fair number of Thais wearing jackets and sweaters at night (when it cools down to the mid-80s…).  That frankly boggles my mind sometimes, as I am sitting in a pool of my own sweat.

I’ve met up with several of the expats that I met here last year (expat = “expatriate” = person living/working in a foreign country, which is what I am now!), as well as met several new ones.  They’ve all been incredibly helpful in giving me advice and info on all aspects of getting situated and living here.  There’s no shortage of new stuff to learn, so getting help from people who have already gone thru a lot of the learning pains is a great benefit that I’m very thankful for.

I have not yet spent a lot of time looking for work.  I want to get a few “administrative” things taken care of first, like getting local health insurance, getting a permanent apartment, etc. done so that I can then focus my attention on the job market.  Getting a job here often comes from networking and thru mutual connections, as opposed to sending out resumes.  So I’ve started getting involved in some networking activities, joining the American Chamber of Commerce here that does various social and networking events, looking into other technology-related “meet-ups”, and meeting other expats and spreading the word about what I’m looking for.  I’m only a week into it, and it’s been very eye-opening to see and hear about all the opportunities to socialize and meet new people.

I enrolled in a Thai language class and have had my first lesson so far!  There are a fair number of language schools here, but I decided to go with one that was recommended by an expat friend where they offer 1-on-1 lessons as opposed to a classroom of students.  So I have my own teacher, and we meet as often as I want, either in person at the school or online via Skype.  I learned more in the first session than I probably have on all of my trips here over the past 12 years, so I’m really, really looking forward to the rest of the classes.  While I’m not yet working, I plan to spend a fair amount of time each week on my Thai lessons, as I’m sure it will be harder to find the time for them once I start working.

Next weekend on the 18th of November is the annual Bangkok Marathon.  I can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to run 26.2 miles in this kind of heat and humidity, but they do it.  There is one twist on it, however:  The marathon starts at 3:00 in the morning!  It doesn’t cool off all that much at night here, but I guess even a few degrees difference is well worth it, so it makes sense that they run it in the wee hours of the morning.  They have shorter-distance runs that same night, from half-marathon all the way down to 1.5km.  I’m not much of a runner, but I’m kind of thinking about doing the 1.5km run just for the sake of the experience.  If nothing else, it could make for some interesting material for the next blog post! 


A small slice of my big new city

Life on the Streets of Bangkok

I’ve now recently returned to Seattle for the summer. It was not easy leaving Thailand, but I am happy to be back home with friends and am busy getting the house and yard ready for summer. With any luck, I will have an easy transition back to life here and Seattle will have a fantastic summer with lots of sun.  And with even more luck, I’ll return to Thailand in the fall. In this post, I wanted to just touch on a few of the odd/interesting experiences on the streets that stood out for me during my time in the “Big Mango” (aka Bangkok). This will likely be my last post for a while, as the blog will be on hiatus while I’m back in Seattle. If you see another post from me after this one, that will be good news because it’s a likely indicator that I’m back in Thailand, or I’m on my way there!

This trip, I purposely spent the majority of my time in Bangkok. I rented an apartment there, got a gym membership, and got into a somewhat regular daily routine. I wanted to see, as best I could, what it would be like to live and work there on a longterm basis. It’s one thing to visit a foreign city on vacation, and a very different thing to live there. I spent a lot of time meeting and talking with other expats living and working there – a few Americans, but most of them were from Australia, New Zealand or Europe. They all provided invaluable insight and advice on living and working there, and I’m thankful to count them as friends that I can connect with again when I return.

When I first started coming to Thailand 12+ years ago, I really didn’t like Bangkok. I would stay there for a night or two when I flew in, and a night or two on the way out, and the rest of the vacation was spent elsewhere in Thailand. I didn’t like the smell of the city: the exhaust from all the cars, the cooking oil from all the street vendors, the odd smells of fish and other things being cooked all along the sidewalks, the smell of sewer along many streets, etc. I don’t know exactly when it all changed for me, but now I love being in Bangkok, and even love the smell of it (well, except the sewer smell, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was years ago).

The Street Scene

One of my favorite things to do most days was to walk down the small soi (street) from my apartment up to the main road, usually on my way to the gym or to the SkyTrain (public light rail transit). It was only about a 6-block walk, but it was always filled with an array of sights, smells and sounds that I never got tired of. In the mornings, all the shopkeepers along the road would put out small offering baskets with fruit, rice and water as daily offerings to their Buddha statues. They’d also light several sticks of incense to burn next to it on the sidewalk. The smell of incense wafting down the street from all those shops was a fantastic way to start my day, along with watching the reverent routines of the workers praying as they gave their offerings to Buddha. Now, I’ll also say that many of those shops were massage parlors, and what happened behind those doors the rest of the day and evening may not quite align with the religious and spiritual aspects that I saw in the mornings, but that’s just another thing I love about Bangkok… it’s a giant dichotomy of deep religious observances, while at the same time being the sex capitol of the world.

As I would get closer to the main road, the sidewalks on both sides of the streets were filled with vendors with their metal food carts. Also on the sidewalk, and in the street, were small tables and chairs set up for people to eat their meals – you don’t get much more al fresco dining than that! The food was an interesting mix: one cart had a large vat of cooking oil where they were deep frying various meats, including insects like crickets and cockroaches; another had a giant wok where they were cooking dishes like Phad Thai; another had a huge pot of boiling water that was used to make noodle soups; and others had metal boxes filled with burning charcoal to cook fish, squid, chicken, sausage, and just about anything else you can imagine; and others were filled with fresh fruits they’d peel and cut for you, or vegetables they’d make into various salads for you (the spicey papaya salad is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in life!). It wasn’t always the most appetizing-looking food to me (especially considering I’m vegetarian), but it was always fascinating to watch them cook, serve and eat. And the mix of smells of cooking oil, charcoal, and all the various meats and vegetables came together to form an incredibly good and memorable smell. Every single day, it was the same vendors cooking the same things, and likely they’ll spend every day of their life doing that job. I have great respect for those people and their work ethic…

Me eating fresh pineapple from a street vendor… at 3am. 🙂

It’s amazing how much “mobile commerce” actually happens on the streets of Bangkok. Most well-known, of course, are the food carts but there’s far more than that. There were several carts I saw that were basically a motorcycle where the front part was cut off and a cart welded onto it. One cart drove around selling handmade brooms, dusters and dust pans (which frankly work better than any fancy Western broom you’ve ever used). Another cart was selling all kinds of plastic bowls, spoons, stools and chairs – exactly the same things being used by all the street food vendors. A street food cart vendor doesn’t need a lot of supplies, but the few that they do need are peddled to them by other vendors – genius!

A street vendor cart selling brooms, dusters and dustpans

One of my favorite sights on my street was a lady who set up a little manual foot pedal-powered sewing machine on the sidewalk. Every single day (except a couple of Buddhist holidays), she was there, under an umbrella next to a big tree, with her sewing machine and a bag full of various clothing items that she was mending. For a little extra income, she also had a metal cooler next to her that she sold bottles of water, Coke and Fanta (Fanta soda is huge in Thailand…). I don’t know what was so fascinating to me about her, but I *loved* walking by her every day and smiling and saying hello in Thai (which was about all I knew how to speak). One night, one of the buttons on my shorts popped off. I don’t think I hardly slept a wink that night, as I was so excited to be able to take them to the sewing lady the next morning to have the button sewn back on! I dropped them off on my way to the gym, and she had them done a little while later when I walked back. She charged me 50 Baht, which is about $1.60… I thought that was a bit steep to sew a single button back on, but hey, the experience was worth a hundred times that. I wish I could speak more Thai, because I would have loved to be able to have a conversation with that lady. Despite the communication gap, she clearly was a fun and lovely lady.

The sewing/mending lady on my street.

In the evenings, at a few different locations around my “neighborhood”, there were small bars set up on the sidewalks. They would set up around 7pm, and usually they were just a small wooden bar on wheels, a few strings of LED lights for decoration, a few stools to sit on, and a decent selection of booze (vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, tequila, beer). Clearly, the liquor laws aren’t quite as strict as they are in America! I’ll admit that there were a couple of occasions I stopped by for a drink, sitting fascinated on the sidewalk watching life go by.


No political system is perfect, and certainly the American political system has its share of faults. Thailand’s politics are no different in that respect, but they seem to be much more front-and-center. Almost every single day, the majority of the front page of the newspaper was about politics, and more often than not, the vehement arguments between parties and the claims of corruption (it’s shocking how many people in Thai politics have other family members in other areas of government and politics…). While I don’t want to bore the readers here with politics, I will just say that there’s two big opposing political factions called “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These groups started after the last coup that overthrew the government in 2006. Periodically, these groups will hold large rallies where everyone gathers in some part of the city and sports their colored shirts.

One day I was going to a store and didn’t realize there was a huge red shirt rally going on. It was to mark the 2-year anniversary of another rally that turned violent and several people were killed. I got off the Skytrain and began walking, and was soon engulfed in a sea of tens of thousands of people wearing red shirts. They were having their rally in a large plaza next to one of the malls, and overflowed into several blocks of streets surrounding it. I was walking along an elevated walkway so I could see down to the streets below, and it was mind-boggling to look out over a sea of red in all directions. The mall and several stores that I had planned to go to that day were closed because of the rally, so it kind of ruined my plans but it was far more interesting to witness that instead of doing the little shopping trip I had planned.

The Red Shirt rally stopped all traffic in a major area of the city for an entire day.

A sea of red — tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters at the Central World Mall


In the past 8 months, I’ve had the opportunity to stay in Bangkok during the rainy season (and the floods that shut down the city…although they never really made it to the inner city), the “cool” season which is roughly equal to a Seattle summer, and the hot season which is aptly named and the daily temperature is approximately at the point where human flesh melts into a liquid goo. I’ve also gotten to go to some of my other favorite places around Thailand, see old friends, and make many new ones. I’ve experienced three new countries (Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore), each of which were incredibly memorable in their own way. It’s been phenomenal experience, and I’m beyond thankful for having the opportunity to do this.

What’s next for me? I don’t know for certain yet. I do know for certain that I absolutely want to try to figure out a way to live in Bangkok on a permanent basis, hopefully starting this fall. I have several thoughts and ideas on how to make that happen, but need to do some more legwork on them over the coming months. And I’m very much looking forward to that. Wish me luck!

Kap Kun Krap!


A Weekend in Singapore

In mid-May, I needed to renew my Thailand visa again, which requires me to leave the country.  So this time I decided to go to a place that I’ve wanted to go to for a long time: Singapore.  As luck would have it, my friends Bill and Andy in Seattle have a business partner, Ken, in Singapore so they connected me with Ken before I went there.  He gave me some great info on things to do and places to stay in the city before I went there, and offered to meet up with me when I was there to show me around.  It was just a short, 4-day trip but that was enough time to see quite a bit of Singapore and overall have a great time. 

The Fast Facts

First a little background for those of you that aren’t familiar with Singapore (I certainly wasn’t before I went there).  It’s a group of islands off the southern tip of Malaysia, just 85 miles north of the equator.  Given that location, if you think it might be a little hot and steamy there, you’d be absolutely correct!  It’s a city-state, so Singapore is not only the name of the country, but the city as well.  It was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the East India Trading Company.  It was under British control until getting its independence in 1959.  Today, it’s a very modern city with a big focus on banking and finance.  Singapore has the interesting claim to fame of having the largest number of millionaires per capita than any other country in the world.  And as you’ve likely heard, Singapore is a very, very clean and orderly city…more on that later.

Whirlwind Tour of the City

I met up with Ken on my first day there and we started the city tour.  As we were in the subway station waiting for our train, I was quickly introduced to one of the “rules” of Singapore.  I was taking a drink of water from my water bottle, and Ken stopped me and said it’s ok to carry the water with me, but no drinking it in the station or on the trains, as the police will quickly fine you if they see you drinking or eating anything.  I guess I can understand not drinking soda, coffee, etc. since it makes a sticky mess if spilled, but water??  Oh well, not wanting to cause an international incident, I put the lid back on my water and waited until we were out of the station to quench my thirst.

We walked for a while along the Singapore River, which cuts thru the center of the city, with lots of shops, restaurants and bars along the banks.  We then went down to the marina/harbor area to see the Esplanade Theatre, which is kind of like Singapore’s version of the Sydney Opera House.  It’s a beautiful building, made up of two half-dome-like structures that are covered with glass, and the glass is covered with pointed, triangle-folded shiny silver metal.  It’s a little hard to explain, but the metal keeps the direct sunlight from shining it (though it gets plenty of indirect light), and from a distance the buildings look very much like Durian fruit (a tropical fruit here that has its own unique story that I won’t go into here), although they’re also referred to as the “copulating aardvarks”, since they also resemble that.  Architects get to have so much fun… 

From here, we also could get a stunning ground-level view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino.  It is an amazing structure of three 58-story buildings, with a “sky park” connecting them at the top in the shape of a boat.  I had seen lots of pictures of these buildings in the past, and had watched some engineering shows on the Discovery channel about the construction of them, but seeing them up close was pretty spectacular for me. 

Me along the Singapore River, financial district to my left, parliament building to my right, and Marina Bay Sands hotel/casino in the distance behind me.

Marina Bay Sands with Sky Park on top, Art and Science museum in lower left

Me at the marina area

Looking down at the Esplanade and the two domed building

We then went to the Arab part of town.  As the description suggests, it’s an area of town where the population is primary Arab.  We walked along several streets with tons of small family shops, most of which were selling textiles, fabrics, and assorted clothing-related stuff.  While I wasn’t really into the “shopping” aspect, I did love the architecture of the old buildings, narrow roads and covered sidewalks. 

A cool mural along an alley wall in Arab Town

Our next stop was to the National Library of Singapore.  When he told me he wanted to bring me to the library, I’ll be honest and say that I really wasn’t very excited.  I’m not a big “book” person, and I don’t think I’ve even set foot in a library since probably 9th grade.  But since he was being such a great tour guide, and I didn’t want to be a finicky guest, I said I’d love to see the library.  It turns out, it’s a pretty damn spectacular building!  It’s 16 stories, very modern architecture, and lots of “green” construction components.  We went to one of the upper floors and walked thru the aisles of books.  It’s difficult to explain why it was so cool, but the ceiling was probably 30 to 40 feet high, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the sides looking out to amazing views of the city.  Ken said that he often goes there just to work on his laptop, and it’s a much better vibe and setting than a typical coffee shop or other place.  I took out my camera and was going to try to snap a quick picture of the room, but literally within a half-second of the camera coming out of my pocket, a security guard came running out of nowhere and sternly shook her hand at me indicating in no uncertain terms that pictures were not allowed in the building.  I narrowly avoided my second international incident!

Rounding out our city tour, we ended the afternoon with a walk past the famous Raffles Hotel.  It’s a beautiful colonial-style hotel, built in 1887 and meticulously maintained to look like it was brand new.  The typical tourist thing is to go to the bar in the hotel and order a “Singapore Sling”, a cocktail made famous by the hotel.  I opted not to do that, partially since I was woefully under-dressed for the hotel’s dress code (shorts, flip-flops and tank top are apparently frowned upon there…).

The Raffles Hotel

On Ken’s advice, I had booked a room at a small boutique hotel in the Chinatown area of the city.  While it was probably the smallest hotel room I’ve ever been in – stretching my arms out to my sides, I could nearly touch both walls of the room – it was in a restored old Chinese building and the neighborhood was spectacular.  Wandering the neighborhood was similar to other cities’ Chinatowns like San Francisco or Seattle, but seemed more “authentic”, particularly from the architecture of the 2- and 3-story concrete shop houses side by side along the narrow roads. 

One of the roads in Chinatown near my hotel

After a fantastic dinner at a little Korean mom-and-pop restaurant I stumbled on, I met up with Ken later that evening to do some more exploring.  He took me to the Little India neighborhood, which again as the name would suggest is primarily where the Indian population is located.  We went to a reasonably well-known shopping center there called Mustafa Centre.  It’s a single 6- or 8-story building, and it’s claim to fame is that it’s open 24 hours a day and sells just about anything you could imagine.  It literally is like if you were to stack 6 or 8 Walmarts on top of each other.  Clothing, jewelry, watches, toiletries, electronics, games, cooking utensils and appliances, dishes, shoes, cleaning supplies, etc. – it’s all there.  We arrived there a little after midnight on Thursday night, and it was jam-packed with shoppers.  Unlike Walmart, the shelves are stacked almost to the ceiling with stuff, and the aisles are tiny, packed with stuff on both sides.  Apparently the place has gotten fined frequently for fire code violations, which made complete sense given that I couldn’t see any of the fire exit signs anywhere due to them being hidden behind stacks of stuff on the shelves. 

The next day, I ventured out on my own and spent most of the day at the marina/harbor area.  I started the day by heading down to the Marina Bay Sands hotel/casino.  For $20 you can take an elevator up to the rooftop Sky Park, which for me was well worth the price.  Once on the roof park, you have an amazing view of the city skyline, the harbor, and surrounding city areas.  Further down the roof is the swimming pool and beach club for the hotel.  You can’t get up close to it unless you’re staying at the hotel, but it definitely looks like the view from the infinity-edge pool is almost worth the cost of staying there.  Ok, maybe not… the cheapest room I could find online there was $404, so I opted not to stay there. 

At the Sky Park on top of Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with the Singapore skyline behind me

A little difficult to see, but the swimming pool at the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Across the road from the Sands hotel is the Art/Science Museum.  The building itself is a pretty spectacular piece of architectural artwork.  It’s designed to look like a lotus flower, and it has ten “fingers” arching upwards.  I’m not much of a museum person, but I wanted to see the inside so I bought a ticket for the exhibit.  The exhibit was on the life and work of Andy Warhol.  I’m also not much of an Andy Warhol fan, but as it turns out, it was a pretty interesting exhibit and I really enjoyed it.  So kudos to me for following thru on two things I wasn’t super excited about, and ended up being a fun experience!

Looking down at the Art Science Museum from the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

On my last full day in Singapore, I started out by visiting one of the largest malls (maybe the largest, I’m not sure) in Singapore.  It was interesting to see, although frankly nothing very spectacular or different from other malls.  However, it’s close to a small island off of Singapore called Sentosa.  The entire island of Sentosa is an amusement/theme park, with resort hotels.  You can get to the island on either a monorail from the mall I was at, or from a cable gondola a short distance away, or walking across a long concrete bridge.  I chose the monorail option.  There’s a Universal Studios there, as well as some waterpark things for kids and a few other attractions, although nothing on the scale of Disney theme parks.  There is a decent beach area there, so I spent some time hanging there.  I’m glad I went to see Sentosa island, but it was the first time since I’ve been over here that I really felt like the experience was really lacking due to me being by myself.  In hindsight it kind of makes sense… going to a theme park by yourself, whether it’s Disney or Sentosa or anywhere else, is probably not going to be quite as fun as going with a group of friends.  Duh. 

The Expensive and Clean City

I’ve heard from dozens of people that I’ve met on my various trips here about how expensive Singapore is.  I never really knew what that meant until I got there.  It really is a very, very expensive place to live or visit.  When looking for hotels, it was pretty clear that for a reasonable 3-star hotel that I’d pay maybe $40 to $80 per night for in Thailand would cost upwards of $175 to over $200 in Singapore.  I was lucky to get a last-minute online deal for the hotel I stayed at and paid less than $100 per night, but their normal published rates are over $200.  Food and drinks are equally expensive.  I ate most of the time at small, family-run restaurants in and around Chinatown.  In Thailand, I probably wouldn’t pay more than $5 to $8 for the food and a beer.  In Singapore, the food was consistently between $10 and $15, while the beer was $8 to $10.  I ate at a Subway one day in one of the malls, and for a simple footlong sandwich I paid $10.  Going out to the bars a couple nights, drinks – whether you order beer or a cocktail – are consistently $10 to $15, and that’s at just neighborhood bars.  Double that price if you want to go to a more fancy/upscale bar or club (I chose not to).  If nothing else, the prices made me appreciate even more how cheap the cost of living is in Thailand!  J

Singapore is probably most known for its cleanliness.  I never really knew how to comprehend what that meant until I spent some time there.  It is remarkable that you don’t see any kind of cigarette butts, litter or garbage anywhere on the sidewalks, in the streets, in the bushes along the road…nowhere.  I also couldn’t figure out why the sidewalks looked so exceptionally clean.  Finally I realized the answer when I was in a 7-11 store.  They don’t sell gum in Singapore, because buying, selling, chewing or bringing gum into Singapore is illegal.  So there are no decades-old splotches of gum on the sidewalks that seem to just kind of blend in with every other sidewalk I’ve seen in my life.  And for full disclosure, not knowing about the gum ban, I did bring gum with me and even chewed it a couple times.  I am a rebel law-breaker!

Songkran! The Thai New Year Festival

Songkran is the name of the festival for the Thai New Year.  In early times it was observed based on a lunar calendar, but in modern times it is now observed during the 3-day period of April 13-15.  It’s one of those things where it’s really difficult to truly convey the festival through words and pictures – it really is something that you need to experience in person to get the full effect.  I somewhat “stumbled” on it about 10 years ago when we happened to be here during April.  For 5 or 6 years after that, I planned my annual Thailand trip to coincide with Songkran.  The past 5 years or so, work schedules and other issues prevented me from being able to take vacation during that time, so I was very excited to be back here in April this year to again witness and participate in the Songkran festivities.

The official Songkran holiday generally runs for at least a week, where government offices, schools, banks, and most businesses are closed (larger malls, chain restaurants and tourist things are mostly still open though).  This is a time for people to leave the city and head back to see their families.  In the case of many Bangkok residents, that means heading to the eastern and northern parts of Thailand.  As such, Bangkok is fairly quiet, and it’s a relative breeze to get around town because the traffic is so much lighter than the typical 24-hour gridlock.

There are really two “sides” to Songkran: the spiritual and reverent side, and the fun and frolicking side.  As for the former, Songkran is a time when the younger generation pays homage and tribute to the elder generations, including family, friends and neighbors.  It is a time to express their respect for the elders, thank them for what they’ve done, and wish them good health in the new year.  It is also a time when many people visit the local temples and shrines to pray and bring food to the monks.  Many temples are packed, especially in the early mornings, with local Thais burning incense, praying, and honoring the monks.  Even though I’m not Buddhist, I do enjoy going and watching the people at the temples, and it’s always a very moving and solemn experience.

Another tradition is the washing of Buddha statues.  Locals will bring bowls of water, often with flower petals in the water to add fragrance, to various Buddha statues and wash them, or simply splash or pour the water over the statues.  It is a means of helping insure the Buddha starts the new year off clean and refreshed.  Stemming from this ritual, the splashing of water has spread to include splashing it on people.  It started as simply splashing a few drops of water on people as a symbol of cleansing them, washing away the sins of the past year, and starting the new year off clean and fresh.  Along with the splashing, they also pat a small amount of a scented powder, similar to talcum powder, on the cheeks of family and friends.  Again, it’s just a symbol of affection, respect and starting of a new year.

In more recent times, the splashing of water has expanded well beyond its original intention.  Nowadays, it has become a 3-day waterfight throughout the entire country.  This is the fun and frolicking side of Songkran!  In nearly every city and town, people fill water guns, buckets, bowls, or anything else that can hold water and throw it on anyone walking by.  In larger areas like Bangkok, they close several areas of streets in various parts of the city, and for 3 days and nights it’s literally hundreds of thousands of people – mostly Thais, but with a few of us Westerners mixed in – spraying and throwing water on each other.  All along the roads are stalls with people selling water guns, buckets, bowls, water, and the talcum-like powder.  They mix the powder in a bowl or bucket with water and spread it on your face and arms…which quickly gets washed off when the next person attacks you with a water gun!

Since April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand (with temps regularly 95 to 100 or more degrees), the water feels good during the heat of the day.  But if you don’t want to get wet, you’re best bet is to not leave your home, because if you’re anywhere outside, you’re fair game – regardless of whether you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt or an expensive 3-piece suit.

This year, I spent Songkran in the Silom Road area of Bangkok.  It’s a large 6- or 8-lane road (the concept of “lanes” is a bit fuzzy here…cars and motorcycles just kind of drive wherever there’s room) through the central business district, and it along with many side streets were closed to traffic so that vendors could set up stalls to sell the Songkran paraphernalia and hundreds of thousands of us could walk around the streets in a massive waterfight.  Along with all the water guns, many of the vendors on the streets had hoses connected to water spigots on the buildings and were spraying the crowds.  And to top it off, several of the Bangkok Fire Department trucks were stationed at various points along the road and the firemen were spraying the crowds in the streets with their huge firehoses.  It’s a good thing there weren’t any fires in Bangkok, because with the thousands of people crammed in and around the trucks, there was no way those trucks were going anywhere.

Even with the entire streets closed, by mid-afternoon it was just a solid mass of thousands of people crammed together, barely moving in any direction.  If you needed to get to the side to refill your water gun, it could easily take 30 minutes or more to move 20 feet.  If you’re at all Closter phobic, or don’t like being in large crowds of people, this is definitely not the place for you.  As I’m a relatively tall white guy, I sort of stood out in a sea of thousands of shorter, black-hair Thai people.  You might as well have painted a bullseye on me, because they *loved* to target us tall Westerners with their water guns and glopping the white talcum paste on us!

After a few hours of being in the thick of things in the street, I made my way to one of the side streets called Silom Soi 4.  This is a small, narrow street/alley where all the gay bars are lined up on either side of it.  Leave it to the gays to figure out how to take a celebration that’s already enormously fun and make it even more fun!  The bars were blasting loud dance music, people were dancing in the middle of the street, there were smoke/fog machines, and laser lights and mirror disco balls to add effect.  Most people (who weren’t in the middle dancing) were lined up on the decks of the bars on each side of the street, having water fights with the people on the opposite side.  The people dancing in the middle were kind of free-for-all targets.  It was an insanely fun time!

As I said at the beginning, words and pictures really don’t do the holiday and celebrations much justice.  But below are some pictures I took to try to give at least a little frame of reference.  And kudos to whoever the genius engineer was that invented the waterproof digital camera – mine got put to a real test during Songkran!

All around the city, people in trucks like this with barrels of water and throwing water on other cars and/or pedestrians (like me just after I took this pic).

I've got my water gun and am prepared to go do battle!

The Bangkok Fire Department spraying the crowd with their hoses from their truck.

Me getting deluged from the fire department hose.

After a thorough soaking from the fire department, ready to continue battle!

One of the hundreds of vendors selling bowls with the talcum powder, and behind them stacks of bottles of water.

These girls definitely got a fair share of the talcum powder paste on them. There were times during the day when I'm sure I looked similar to this.

Even Burger King gets in on the water fight action.

A friendly firefighter just starting to spray me with the hose.

Firemen spraying the crowds.

This is a small slice of the crowd, but you can kind of get the idea of how crammed together everyone is...for blocks!

Giving Back… Bali Style

You can spend countless hours online or at little tour operators along the streets trying to find great activities and sights to see when travelling to a new place. But sometimes, the best things happen completely unplanned and unexpectedly. Such has been the case with this trip in Bali.

On the first night I was here I met an Australian woman, Michelle, at a bar and ended up talking a bit with her. She lives here, teaches English and volunteers at an orphanage. I asked if there was a possibility of me helping volunteer at either of the places, and she said absolutely. So a couple days later, she and I met to go to the orphanage. On the way, we stopped at a big grocery store and bought 100lbs of rice, a bunch of crates of eggs (I’d say 8 or 10 dozen), a big bucket of ice cream and boxes of ice cream cones and brought them to the orphanage.

The woman that runs the orphanage is also Australian, and a really great lady. Since the government doesn’t fund orphanages, she runs it with volunteer workers and private donations, mostly of food, clothing and toiletries; she doesn’t really ask for cash. She has 56 kids living there (40 boys and 16 girls), ranging in age from a baby about 4 months old to 19- and 20-year olds. Most are between 4 and 15, I’d say. Most are from families where the parents are too poor to care for them, or the parents have died. There are several with far more tragic backgrounds… Two of the boys have similar backgrounds, where their fathers killed their mom and siblings in front of them. In one case the father then killed himself and the boy was there by himself; the other one the father was put in prison for life so the surviving boy was put in the orphanage.

The kids showed me around the buildings, the rooms where they sleep, bathrooms/showers, laundry area, etc. Everything is very clean, well-maintained and orderly (makes my house look like a mess!). The rooms are full of bunk beds, but not overly crowded, and there’s a closet with a shelf/drawer for each person to have a few clothes. There is no air conditioning in any of the buildings, just a ceiling fan and windows. I was pouring sweat just being in the rooms, so I can’t imagine sleeping there but I think they’re much more climatized to the heat and humidity than I am.

They have a big room with a bookshelf of books, with benches around the sides of the room where they have reading time, and another room with a couple of computers and an art area with easels, paints, etc. I was there during reading time, so spent some time reading English books with the kids. The kids were amazing — all of them smiling and laughing, all coming up and playing with me, having me help them practice English, incredibly polite and well mannered. We were only there for an afternoon, but it was a really incredible experience for me.

The younger kids at the orphanage. The woman in green dress with blond curly hair is who founded and runs the place.

The reading room at reading time.

Of the rice, eggs and ice cream that we brought, the kids seemed to like the ice cream the best.

A few of the boys enjoying ice cream on a very hot day.

Michelle asked if I’d be willing to go back later in the week to help paint some of the exteriors of the buildings, as they’re in pretty bad need of paint. We returned yesterday with paint brushes and rollers, and spent the afternoon painting the exterior of the main building. A couple of the younger boys helped us paint as well, although by the end of the afternoon they seemed to have almost as much paint in their hair and all over them as what got painted on the walls! But it was another awesome day and so much more rewarding than just another day at the beach or sightseeing.

"Gary, since you're tall why don't you stand on this rickety chair and paint the top part..."

At this point in the day, I had lost about 8 pounds from sweating so much...

A couple of my little painting helpers!

Yay, I *finally* got to use the roller!

As I’ve said to many people, travelling to see new places is only half of the fun; it’s the people that you meet that really make it an amazing experience, and I’m so glad to have met Michelle here and gotten connected with the orphanage.

Another Visit to Phi Phi Island

When I was here last fall, I spent a few days on Phi Phi island, which is one of my favorite places in Thailand, and I usually go there every time I’m over here.  This trip, my friends from Seattle, Rande and his wife Kim, were here for a few weeks in March so I went with them back to Phi Phi island.  They go there every year, and in fact were married there six years ago so it’s a special place for them.  As a side note: based on my raving review of my trip last fall to Myanmar (Burma), they decided to go there for a week before heading down to Phi Phi island.  They loved Myanmar!  So if you’re thinking about going somewhere very different, go back and read my Myanmar blog posts and then book your tickets.  J

The beach just outside our hotel on Phi Phi, with Mosquito island in the distance.

My bungalow on Phi Phi island

One of the days on Phi Phi, we took a longtail boat out for the day to cruise around to some of the surrounding islands.  There are actually two Phi Phi islands: Phi Phi Don, which is the larger island that has the village, hotels where we stay, bars/restaurants, etc.; and Phi Phi Leh, which is a smaller island that is entirely a national park and uninhabited.  Phi Phi Leh is primarily famous for being the location where the late-1990’s movie The Beach was filmed (starring Leonardo DiCaprio).  Phi Phi Leh is truly a stunning place, and the beach where the movie was filmed is beyond postcard-beautiful.  Additionally, there are several other bays and beaches around the island that have amazing green-turquoise water, white soft sand, and are surrounded by towering limestone rock pillars. 

Getting ready to head out around the islands for the day!

Coming into Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, where "The Beach" was filmed

The famous "Beach" at Maya Bay (late-afternoon shot, so lighting wasn't very good -- it's much more beautiful than the pic makes it look)

Me being jungle man at the beach at Maya Bay

The first few years that we went there, starting in 2000, there were very few other boats/tourists there.  I hadn’t been to Phi Phi Leh for at least 6 or 7 years, so I was excited to go back this trip.  While the beauty of it is still there, I was a bit let down by the sheer number of tourists there.  Moreover, it’s tourists in large speedboats that cruise over for quick daytrips to the island.  I don’t mind the tourists in the traditional longtail boats, but seeing a beautiful bay full of shiny new 30+ foot speedboats, each equipped with 3 big Mercury outboard engines on them, takes a lot away from the nostalgic and natural feel of the place.  It’s one of those things where people love to see unspoiled places, but in doing so those places get spoiled by the crowds of people.  Progress isn’t always a good thing, I guess…

Coming into another small bay that we had all to ourselves (for a little while)

Me with our boat

A beautiful green/turquoise bay on Phi Phi Leh

Despite the speedboats and other tourists, we had a fantastic day.  We stopped by a beach where a pack of monkeys live and you can feed them bananas or fruit, although they will also happily take your sunglasses, cameras, water bottles, or anything else they can get their grubby little hands on. 

Monkeys at Monkey Beach

Hard to see, but there's a monkey on the ground to my left, just above the flat board on the ground. And the sign is accurate -- they're kind of mean monkeys!

The monkeys picked a beautiful beach to call home

There was a rope swing at Monkey Beach... so of course I had to swing!

There are two other nearby islands, Mosquito and Bamboo islands.  These are basically uninhabited, although I think on one of them there may be a small group of sea gypsies that live there and fish nearby.  The last time I was at Bamboo island, we had the entire island and beaches to ourselves.  This trip we had to share them with other tourists, but the beach and water are still stunningly beautiful.

Cruising by Mosquito Island

Kim and I swimming at Bamboo Island. That's some mighty clear, warm water!

Me with the amazing water around me. And mom would be so proud -- look at all that sunscreen on my face!

Rande and Kim getting ready to leave Bamboo Island... wait for me!

After a fun day island-hopping, we had a great dinner at the hotel.  They had a “traditional Thai” night, where some of the staff from the hotel dressed in traditional Thai dance outfits and performed various dances to Thai music while everyone had dinner.  As always, Phi Phi island delivered another fantastic experience for me!

Rande, Kim and I posing with some of the traditional Thai dancers

Rande, Kim and I at dinner, sporting our new tans from the day on the water