Seoul and the South/North Korea Border

I’ve sadly been a bit out of touch with this blog for a while. Partly that’s because I haven’t been doing much travelling, and have been focused on work and have gotten into a bit of a routine in Bangkok. But after a 9-month hiatus, I think I am ready to tackle the blog again, and hopefully with a bit more regularity.

Seoul

At the end of October, I had to go to Seoul, South Korea for a few days to meet with customers for work. Although I didn’t have much time to get around and see much of Seoul, from what I did see I really liked it. If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a mix between Singapore and Bangkok. It has the lively shopping areas and street food like Bangkok, but with the structure, order, cleanliness and reservedness (is that a word?) of Singapore.

Near where I was staying is the Meyeong-dong area, which is a large shopping/tourist area with dozens of criss-crossing narrow walking streets and alleyways with shops on either side.  At night it’s full of locals and tourists walking, shopping, and eating at the tons of restaurants and street food carts along the roads.  While the area had a lot of large name-brand clothing stores like Guess, Louis Vuitton, Forever 21, Polo, etc., I have never seen so many make-up and skin care stores.  Literally every block had at least 5 to 10 make-up/skin care stores, and every one of them were busy!  Very strange….

In the shopping area of Meyeong-dong

In the shopping area of Meyeong-dong

Street food vendor in Meyeong-dong area

Street food vendor in Meyeong-dong area

The North Korea Border

After the customer meetings, I decided to stay for the weekend and go on a day trip to the border with North Korea and the De-militarized Zone (DMZ). It was a big group tour where we were all loaded onto a couple of buses, which isn’t normally the way I like to tour things but that’s the only way you can go see the DMZ. It was about a 2-hour drive up to the border, and the guide on the bus spent that time educating us about a lot of things related to the Korean war, North Korea, and what we would be seeing that day. I’ve never really learned much about the Korean war, so it was all very interesting information for me.

Our first stop was at a military camp near the border in the Joint Security Area (JSA). The camp is run jointly by the US Army, the South Korean military, and the United Nations. From there, we got on UN buses with a US Army guide who took us a few miles further up to the border. We walked thru a large 3-story building that was eerily empty. It was built for the purpose of allowing families who had relatives in both the North and South Korea to meet in designated rooms there, under the joint supervision of both North and South Korea. However, it was only used once shortly after it was constructed, and after that the North has never allowed to leave the country for those kinds of visits (at least not at that building).

Beyond that building is a group of about 4 to 6 little wooden buildings painted bright blue (the United Nations color of blue, to be exact). They are just single-room buildings, and one of them was used to sign the ceasefire of the Korean war. We went inside it to see the inside and the table at which the negotiations and signatures happened. In the middle of the room, you can literally stand there with half your body in South Korea and half in North Korea (sort of…).

The UN buildings in the Joint Security Area

The UN buildings in the Joint Security Area

Inside the building in the JSA where the Korean War ceasefire was signed.  He looks like a mannequin, but that's an actual South Korean military guy next to me.

Inside the building in the JSA where the Korean War ceasefire was signed. He looks like a mannequin, but that’s an actual South Korean military guy next to me.

Beyond the blue buildings is the North Korea side, and a large imposing building. The curtains were closed on all of the windows of the building, but occasionally a North Korea military person would open one of the curtains and look down on us with binoculars. It was very creepy, to say the least, but fascinating at the same time. We were allowed to take pictures of the building and the North Korean military guys in and around it, but we were specifically instructed not to flip them off or do anything provocative as they like to take pictures of that kind of behavior and use it as propaganda against South Korea, the US and other western countries.

Looking across the JSA to the North Korea side.

Looking across the JSA to the North Korea side.

We then went to another part of the JSA where there is the “bridge of no return”. This is a bridge across the river that demarcates the North/South border. At the end of the war, prisoners of war were brought to the bridge and given the choice of whether to stay in the country they were in, or cross the bridge to the other country. Once they crossed the bridge, there was no going back. Particularly thinking about North Koreans who were captured in the South, and still had family in the North, that had to have been a heart-wrenching decision to cross that bridge back to the North.

The "Bridge of No Return"

The “Bridge of No Return”

An area where they had monuments to all the countries that helped fight in the Korean War.  This was part of the one for the US -- very cool.

An area where they had monuments to all the countries that helped fight in the Korean War. This was part of the one for the US — very cool.

Tunnels

Next we drove to another area where there was a tunnel discovered that the North Koreans had been digging under the DMZ after the war ended in an effort re-invade the South. There have been a total of 4 tunnels discovered since the 1970s. We went down into it, and it’s an amazing feat of engineering. I don’t remember all the stats on depth and length, but we walked down a 45-degree sloped decline for a good 20 minutes to get to the tunnel, so it’s very deep below ground. Then we walked thru the actual tunnel another 20 minutes or so until we got to a poured concrete barricade that the South had installed to seal the center section of the tunnel. When the tunnel was discovered, apparently the North Koreans painted parts of the inside rock walls black and rubbed coal along them, and tried to justify the tunnel by saying it was a coal mine.

Inside the tunnel under the DMZ.  I'm 6'1" tall, and the tunnel is only about 5' 8" tall, so I had to walk hunched over the whole time.

Inside the tunnel under the DMZ. I’m 6’1″ tall, and the tunnel is only about 5′ 8″ tall, so I had to walk hunched over the whole time.

Interesting statue at the tunnel.  It symbolized the desire (by the South) to have a united Korea.

Interesting statue at the tunnel. It symbolized the desire (by the South) to have a united Korea.

Our next stop was on top of a hill with a set of binoculars where you could look out over a valley and pretty far into North Korea. Several things that were fascinating about this. First, you can very clearly see where the border is, as there is not a single tree or shrub on the North Korea side – they have clear-cut every ounce of wood for heating and cooking as far as you can see; the hills and mountains are absolutely barren, whereas the South Korea side is very lush and green with trees. At this site, you can also look directly at one of the “propaganda villages” on the North side. From a distance, it looks like a small city with office buildings, apartments, etc. In reality, it’s just built that way to make it look like the North is prosperous. The buildings are all concrete, with painted-on windows and doors, and there is just a skeleton crew of people that live there to keep it clean, turn lights on and off periodically so it looks like things are happening there, etc. It was very, very bizarre to look at.

Looking into North Korea.  Where the trees stop is where the border is. White buildings in middle of pic is the "propaganda village".

Looking into North Korea. Where the trees stop is where the border is. White buildings in middle of pic is the “propaganda village”.

Northernmost Train Station (in South Korea)

Our last stop was at the northernmost train station in South Korea. It’s a beautiful new train station that doesn’t seem to get a lot of use. The South would love to be able to use it, as it’s an important connection for getting goods between them and mainland China. However, the North effectively stopped allowing trains from crossing there into North Korea back around 2007, so today that station is as far north as you can go on a train in South Korea. Our guide made a really interesting point: South Korea is geographically a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by ocean. But with the lack of any ability to move goods over land to the north, South Korea is effectively an island, with the air and sea being the only options for it to move goods and people to/from outside the country. Fascinating!

At the train station, waiting for the train to Pyeongyang

At the train station, waiting for the train to Pyeongyang

Cartoon Mascots, Elections and a Trip to the Hospital!

This post is another collection of a few short topics that have absolutely no relation to each other, except for the fact that I thought they were interesting and indicative of how different these things are to their counterparts in the US.  Cartoon mascots, political elections, and a trip to the hospital – this post covers all the interesting stuff!

Cartoon Mascots

I don’t think this is so much specific to Thailand as it is to Asia in general.  But there is a huge fascination with using odd cartoon caricatures as marketing mascots for various brands.  I’m used to seeing them used for kids’ things, and especially for food products targeted at kids.  But here, they are used for just about anything, regardless of what age group it’s targeted at. 

Beyond just using the cartoon mascots in print, online and TV advertising, they are also made into physical little stuffed “dolls” on keychains, anywhere from about 1 to 4 inches big.  People hang these from their cell phones, purses, backpacks, and briefcases.  It’s funny to see an 80-year-old woman on the train with her cell phone and a little stuffed tomato doll with funny eyes and mouth hanging from her phone, or a 40- or 50-something businessman in a suit, with a little stuffed teddy bear doll hanging from his briefcase handle.  I used to laugh every time I saw those kinds of things, but it’s so common that I’ve completely gotten used to it.

Here are a few pictures of some of my favorite mascots I’ve seen around the city.  If you have an observant eye, you might notice that even though they’re all for completely different things, the mascots are uncannily similar in many ways.

I think this is a mascot for a Chinese dumpling place.  Cute little guy.

I think this is a mascot for a Chinese dumpling place. Cute little guy.

This is the mascot for my cell phone company, AIS.  Love his little tuft of hair.

This is the mascot for my cell phone company, AIS. Love his little tuft of hair.

This was my *favorite* mascot. These banners were in the train stations for about 2 months and I LOVED seeing them everyday. It's a little guy for milk, and he's got a little kangaroo-like pouch where he keeps all his vitamins and minerals!

This was my *favorite* mascot. These banners were in the train stations for about 2 months and I LOVED seeing them everyday. It’s a little guy for milk, and he’s got a little kangaroo-like pouch where he keeps all his vitamins and minerals!

Bangkok Elections

Bangkok recently held elections for the Bangkok Governor position.  The Governor is essentially the same as what we in the US would consider a city mayor (albeit for a very, very large city).  Having said that, I will note that there are actually only two Governors in Thailand – one in Bangkok and one in Pattaya.  I don’t fully understand yet how the entire local governments work at the city level, so I’m not sure what all the other cities in the country do for local executive government. 

There are a few aspects to the election process that I thought were interesting.  First, the governor’s term was set to end on January 10, and the law requires that an election is held within 45 days of that.  However, the current governor resigned his position one day prior to that, on January 9.  The laws say that if the current governor resigns, then an election must be held within 60 days.  After resigning, he began his re-election campaign.  So by resigning, rather than waiting another day for his term to officially be over, he stretched the election “season” to be 15 additional days.  Interesting.  Either way, it’s a far, far shorter election season than in the US.

There were a total of I think 25 candidates in the running for the Governor position, although similar to the US, there are just 2 primary frontrunner parties so realistically it’s a race between 2 people.  Once all the candidates have registered, the election commission assigns each candidate a random number between 1 and the number of candidates (25).  I’m not entirely clear on the reason why, but I think it’s just to make it easier for the press to reference them, since most of the newspaper articles would say “…Mr. Sukhumband, the #16 candidate, held a rally today at a fish market…”. 

The candidates do the normal campaigning, holding rallies in the streets, in parks, at markets, or anywhere they can get a large crowd.  I don’t think they are allowed to run advertisements on TV or in the paper, but I could be wrong on that (I don’t watch much Thai TV, and I just read the English Bangkok paper online).  They do put up campaign signs along the streets, but rather than the small little signs that are used in the US, the signs they use here are all huge – about 6 to 7 feet tall and about 4 feet wide.  They have these giant larger-than-life pictures of the candidates, their randomly-assigned candidate number, and a bunch of stuff written in Thai that I couldn’t understand.  The giant signs are tied to just about every electrical pole, light pole, street sign pole, tree, or any other vertical thing large enough to support them along the roadways.  Below is a picture of two of the signs from the two main candidates on the street just outside my condo.

Two of the typical election campaign signs along the road.

Two of the typical election campaign signs along the road.

The election was held on Sunday, March 3.  It’s interesting that they have election day on a Sunday when most people are not working.  I know there have been discussions for years of switching to that model in the US – it would be an interesting experiment there.  I think the polls open around 6 or 7am, and close at 3pm, so it’s a relatively short amount of time that people have to vote.  But, it shouldn’t be a problem for them because no one should be hungover from the previous Saturday night.  Why?  Because on an election weekend, all alcohol sales and consumption are illegal, starting at 3pm on Saturday and going until 6pm on Sunday.  Needless to say, Bangkok was probably as quiet as I’ve ever seen it on that Saturday night before the election – streets empty, bars closed, most sidewalk vendors gone.  Almost eerie, it was so quiet. 

Oh, yes, and I won’t keep you in suspense any longer… Candidate #16 (the incumbent) won the election.  Probably the most surprising part of the whole election process for me was that within two days after the election, every single one of the thousands of campaign signs were gone from the streets.  Very efficient post-election cleanup!

A Trip to the Hospital

I had a small cut on my finger, which healed but somehow became infected under the skin, and the infection spread very quickly until my finger had swollen up huge, red, and incredibly painful in just a few days.  It got to the point where it was clear it wasn’t going to heal on its own and I was going to need some professional help. 

In the US, I would have gone to my normal doctor’s office, or to a local clinic to have it taken care of.  They don’t really have those here.  Doctors generally all work at the hospitals, so if you need to see your doctor for anything, you go to the hospital.  Same with dentists, although there are some separate dental clinics here.

Since I haven’t been to a hospital here yet, I just picked the one that’s closest to me – Bumrungrad International Hospital is about a 10-minute taxi from where I live.  It’s a very well-known hospital, and I believe is the largest in the world in terms of the number of international patients they service (over half a million per year!).  Many of the international patients come here for “medical tourism”, where they have various procedures done  because they can be done at a fraction of the cost of most western countries, and the staff are highly skilled (over 200 doctors there were trained/practiced in the US, and most of the rest were trained/practiced in other western countries).  Many of the procedures are for medically-necessary things like heart bypass surgery, but they also do a brisk business in elective things like various kinds of plastic surgery. 

The hospital itself is amazing.  The entrance/lobby is a huge atrium that looks more like a 5-star hotel, with comfortable lounge chairs, lush plants, restaurants like McDonalds and Starbucks, and other small shops.  You’d never think you were in a hospital.  From there, the service and experience easily matches the quality of the aesthetics.  I had gotten there shortly after 7pm, and the outpatient part closed at 7.  So they said “No problem, just go to the emergency area”, which I did. 

I walked into the emergency area and was greeted by 3 staff, was given a 1-page form to fill out (literally nothing more than my personal and contact info like name, age, phone, etc., emergency contact, whether I was allergic to anything, and date/signature).  They then took my picture, had me sit on a couch, gave me a bottle of water, and about 2 minutes later brought over a laminated card with my name, picture and patient number on it and said it was my permanent Bumrungrad patient card – they instructed me to “just bring it with you anytime you come into the hospital and it will expedite the process.”  Keep in mind, this “process” had taken maybe 6 minutes at this point…

 So then they take my blood pressure and temperature (all normal – yay!), and bring me into an office with a surgeon.  When he first saw me, he said something like “wow, you’re a big guy”, and made a few jokes about my size, asking me where I work out, how I gained muscle, etc.  Flattering, yes, but not really what I was there for.  He looked at my finger, asked a few questions, and said it was abscessed and needed to be punctured to drain the fluid.  They then whisk me to the operating room, put me on a gurney, and within about 2 minutes I’m surrounded by 6 nurses and the surgeon.  He joked that since he thought I looked like Superman, and the Man of Steel wouldn’t need any painkillers, he didn’t think I needed any.  When my eyes about popped out of my head, he said, “Just kidding!”.  He preps my finger, gives an injection to numb my finger, and then does his procedure, with all 6 nurses continuing to stand around my bed, helping where they could. 

When he was done, he asked if I wanted to come back in each day to have them change the bandages and clean and disinfect the wound, or if I was ok doing it myself.  I was fine doing my own home doctoring, so he explained what I’d need to do at home to change the dressings every day, how to take several prescriptions for pain, swelling and antibiotics he was giving me, etc.  They then led me out to a nice couch in another waiting area, where I waited for about 5 minutes.  Then they called me up to the desk and handed me a shopping bag full of medical supplies (packages of gauze, tape, cotton balls, tweezers, saline solution, antibiotic cream, and various prescriptions).  I literally could have opened my own mini-pharmacy with that much stuff.  Every item had a label with my name on it, and very clear English directions on exactly how and when to use every item in that bag.  Then they gave me the bill.  I’ll refrain from publishing publicly the final bill, but rest assured it was a fraction of what it would have cost me in the US, especially if I’d gone to an emergency room.  I’ll put it this way: I had enough cash on me to pay for it… and I don’t carry a lot of cash on me.  🙂

From start to finish, I was in and out of the hospital in about 55 minutes, with a level of care that I was completely comfortable with, and a “customer service” experience that would practically put Nordstrom to shame (for non-US people reading this, Nordstrom’s is a department store known for their exceptional customer service).  While I hope I don’t have a need to go to the doctor/hospital very often, it’s reassuring to know that I can get as good or better level of care here compared to home, and maybe even a few laughs out of it!

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

I’M BACK!!

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! 

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A small slice of my big new city