A note for Dartmouth students considering the Chulalongkorn Exchange…

May 4, 2010

Hey! So you’ve stumbled across my blog about the Chulalongkorn Exchange program. I hope it helps you decide whether to do the program and what to do once you get here. I learned a ton on the exchange program, most of it outside the classroom. It’s a great sub-in for a Dartmouth term, but you’ll have to be ok with doing five terms straight at Dartmouth and using your displaced off-term to go on the exchange. The quality of the teaching is hit or miss – about half the classes are equivalent to Dartmouth and the other half are sub-par. But again, the exchange program is about much more than classes. If you do decide to go, plan early – you may want to explore SE Asia afterwards, or stick around doing an internship. During your four months of the exchange, here are three quick recommendations:

1) Pick challenging classes. I know you may be inclinded towards easy classes because you want to travel (as we did with Introduction to Automotive Engineering). But chances are you’re like most Dartmouth students and will get more frustrated by a class that’s too easy than one that’s too difficult.

2) Travel! Weekends outside BKK are much more fun and memorable than a weekend in the apartment, and you’ll deepen your understanding / appreciation of Thailand. Where you go is entirely up to you. My favorite trips were the Surin Islands and Kanchanaburi/Erawan Falls (you’ll need to reserve spots at the National Parks early for these!).

3) Spend at least 4-5 days practicing meditation at a buddhist temple, preferably a 7-day or 10-day meditation workshop. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip, and I learned more about the culture in those 4 days than the rest of the trip combinded.  That’s not an overstatement.  It’s one of the rare things that simply can’t be done anywhere else.

I could write a more, but I’ll let the blog speak on my behalf. Please feel free to blitz me and ask questions (even if it’s 5, 10 years out).   And good luck!


Back in the States

May 4, 2010

After over 24 hours of plane flights and layovers I had the perfect welcome home – a dinner at my grandma’s house with family (including my baby cousin!) and with LOTS of cheese! There was a big pot of cheese fondue and cheesy lasagna, plus homemade blueberry pie. Woah. The fridge at home is stocked with gouda, goat, mozeralla, several cheddars, blue, colby jack, brie parmesan and swiss cheeses.  Well, now that its been two days, only the colby jack, and some of the brie and goat remain.

A cheese-centric welcome home dinner with family, the best kind of dinner anyone can have

Ok. That’s it for the blog. Thanks for reading! And congrats if you managed to keep up with all the lengthy posts. Visiting Thailand was a wonderful experience. I’ll miss the cheap food, long cultural history, strong buddhist influence and most of all my Thai friends. It was a once in a lifetime oppurtunity.


– Matt

The Palaces

May 4, 2010

On Friday I had the day free so I went over to Dusit Park, home to several royal palaces. My first stop, the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, was the most impressive, easily more impressive than the capital rotunda in the US. The throne hall was commisioned by King Rama V and finished in 1907. Inside were dozens of breathtaking masterpieces of gold, silver, enamel, beetle wings, wood carvings, embroidery and fabrics made by artisans from the SUPPORT training center, a center set up by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to revive Thai arts. Most of the pieces took 50-100 master artisans over 1½ to 2½ years to make. They were given to the King and Queen as gifts for birthdays and other events, and are rightfully considered priceless national treasures. The throne room spanned the length of the building and had a ceiling covered in thai frescos. Camera’s weren’t allowed in the exhibit, which is unfortunate because the pieces were among the best pieces of artwork I’ve seen in my life. The exhibit’s website has some good pictures: http://www.artsofthekingdom.com/EartsofC.html

Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

watering the palace gardens...

The rest of the palaces were less breathtaking, but still very impressive. They contained countless national artifacts and gifts to the Kings. Among these were silks, gold and silverwork, royal carriages, royal uniforms, ancient clocks, statues, gifts from european monarchs, and numerous other priceless antiquies. I stopped in to the the vimanmek mansion, the largest teak mansion in the world and the palace of Rama V. Inside were the many treasures collected by King Rama V. The mansion is still used to greet foreign dignitaries, and the throne room in this palace is still used by the current king (His Majesty King Rama IX) to hold audience.

Vimanmek mansion

Hey, I kinda like the king's taste in cars

On the last day I decided to do some final exploring before heading to MBK for a wonderful farewell dinner at a noodle buffet with Gene, Boom, Kid and the Thai students on next year’s exchange. I took the river boat to explore some more lesser-known markets and stopped at a well-known spirit house turned fertility shrine. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

A final photo session at Chula

The red shirt barricades

Finished with Finals

April 29, 2010

So I just finished my last final today! Yay! I’ve got two more days left in Bangkok until the long (28hrs or so) series of flights back to Cleveland. This week has been a blur! I feel like it’s just another blink of an eye until I found myself flying back over the Pacific.

The lady who I bought veges from nearly every week this semester at the Samyan fresh market.

Democracy Monument

The start of Khao San Rd, a famous backpackers' haven in Bangkok

Sanam Luang, a massive field near the grand palace and national museum for royal ceremonies. When ceremonies aren't taking place, it's home to many homeless people and smells very strongly of urine as there aren't any restrooms nearby.

On Wednesday I didn’t have any finals so I got up early and went to the National Museum, the largest museum in SE Asia and the home to many priceless artifacts. The museum has a wonderful set of volunteers that give free tours to tourists every Mon, Wed and Fri. Alan, our tour guide, was a American spending retirement in Bangkok. John and Meagan, a father and daughter from Montana on vacation in Thailand were the only others on the tour. The musuem was surprisingly empty – besides a few other Europeans we had it all to ourselves. Alan had a surprising amount of energy for his age, not once taking a seat during the 2.5hr tour.

A statue of Rama

Meagan and John, my friendly companions for the day

The tour took us around the museum to many unique national treasures. Among the highlights were the Phra Buddha Signh, the 2nd most important Buddha image in all of Thailand (2nd to the emerald buddha in the grand palace), a house and bed in which king Rama 4 was born, the funeral chariots for deceased royal family, an ivory saddle for a royal elephant (how ironic…) and my favorite – two giangantic carved wooden doors carved by Rama 2 that must’ve taken years of work.  Pictures were strictly forbidden inside the museum, so I unfortunately don’t have any pictures of any of the really cool stuff.

Phra Buddha Singh

After the tour and lunch, John, Meagan, I and an Italian lady who we met on the tour went over to the South wing which housed tons of buddha images from outside Thailand, most from between the 5th and 10 centuries. We went to see a map showing the trade routes in ancient southeast asia and nearby buddha image which Alan considered to be the most important artifact in the museum – a buddha image from the 1st century from current-day Afghanistan. The buddha image is the only one like it in the world; the buddha is wrapped in a greaco-roman robe, an influence left over from when Alexander the Great came through the region. Afterwards, we headed over to the North wing where buddha images and other artifacts from Thailand were held.

A wheel of law

What was baffiling to me was the treatment of these priceless statues – the statues had no protection around them (not even a plexiglass case) and were open to the heat and humidity, with only a few fans in the rooms to provide comfort for the visitors. Many of the wooden artifacts and some murals we saw were falling apart from the exposure. Any one of these thousand+ years old statues would be the crown jewel of a wealthy museum in the States and would have its own climate controlled environment and a laser-security system. Ironically, the only part of the museum that had airconditioning was a very small exhibit on the evolution of Thai money, arguablly the least important artifacts in the museum. (for perspective, current coinage from around the world was part of the exhibit. Why a 1976 quarter from the States gets similar or better treatment than a small jade buddha image from the 5th century, I won’t ever really understand.) Oh Thailand.

John, Meagan and I headed to the amulet market after the museum. The market was packed with tiny buddha images and other luck charms made from bone, stone, clay, bronze and other metals. Amulets are very popular in Thailand; and image of the Buddha supposedly brings protection. As it was getting to be late afternoon and a heavy storm was rolling in, I bid farewell to John and Meagan and headed back to Evergreen, where Wolfgang was cooking his first schnitzel dinner for us and our Thai friends.

Enjoying coconut ice cream (pronounced "i team") on a bun. (That's what they serve ice cream on in Thailand instead of a cone.)

Today (Thursday), after my final exam, the director of the ISE program and other administrators took us out for a farewell lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant. The food was great and seemed limitless; I tried my first fish stomach soup and deep-fried taro in sugar (delicious!).

Ok. Last time I promised I’d make this a short post. So I’ll stop here. Cheers!

Surin Islands, Songkran and Chiang Mai!

April 22, 2010

Whew! Just got back from a whirlwind of amazing vacations! So many stories and photos to share.  I’ll try to be brief, but that isn’t my strong suit when it comes to this blog. Again, I’d recommend getting a snack and a cup of tea before reading this post.

For the first part of our 10 days off from school we (Nozomi, Laurie, Sean and I) went on a snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands with Gene and her family. Gene has a younger sister named Yok, and both her parents work as veterinarians. The Surin Islands are a archipelago located 55 km off the coast of Thailand in the Adaman Sea. It is a national park, and unlike other islands we had been to that were “national parks”, this one was completely run by the park service and had nothing else on it besides park-owned offices, canteens and campsites.

We took a van overnight to get to the islands, and were happy to escape Bangkok where everything was shut down because of the red shirt protests, including BTS (skytrain), our favorite form of transport. We awoke the next morning at 5:30am to get a delicious breakfast of rice porridge with fish, hot tea and fried dough at a morning market before heading to the pier to catch a speed boat over to Ko Surin. Once on the islands, we got around using longtail boats – noisy little buggers with an unmuffled truck engine attached to a long prop for power. Our home for the next 2 nights were a few tents at a campsite in calm bay facing the Adaman sea. Right off the beach there were some mangrove trees with bay nurse sharks swimming around, and bright coral was visible even from the shore!

In the afternoon we did our first snorkel. Gene had given me a mask with lenses so that I could see clearly without my glasses (score!). When I first jumped in I was floored – there was a giant forest of vibrant, blue staghorn coral and hundreds of tropical fish. I giddily swam around, amazed by how much life there was. We did three snorkels the first day, each with new wonders and surprises. I saw pudgy puffers, a suave sea turtle, large lobsters, skittish squid and a ton of trippy tropical fish. All the snorkel spots were within 30 ft of the surface, perfect for an up close look by free diving. We got back in the afternoon exhausted and hung around on the beach playing cards until a dinner. The weather was perfect for a relaxing on the beach, and Gene, Sean and Nozomi ended up sleeping on the beach since it was cooler than the tent.

The next day was packed with snorkeling. We did 7 snorkels in total. On one snorkel the coral was within a few feet of the surface so it wasn’t necessary to free dive down to get an up-close look at the reef. My favorite dive of the day was off the coast of “Dragon Island”. The blue staghorn coral was teeming with vibrant blue and orange tropical fish which made for a complete contrasting colors overload. We saw two decent-sized moray eels with teeth like a table saw. The coolest thing was a 50 ft free dive down to look under a giant piece of coral which had a school of fish so thick you couldn’t see through it, a 4 ft tall angel fish, and a bunch of giant sea fans as large as large as I am. I love free diving. I could dive down really far, and loved diving just were the reef started to drop off into the depths. Swimming down past the reef and then up towards it on the slope felt like swimming up a mountain, and diving down under spires of coral made me feel like I was in a forest with fish as birds. Sometimes I thought I saw a big fish off in the deep, and although I did see some puffers, it was usually just Nozomi on a deep dive as well.

Between each snorkel we had delicious snacks, including dried whole bananas were were really, really good (Since they were so good, I’m bringing a bunch back for you all to try!). In the evening we did a night dive with flashlights off of our beach. We didn’t venture into deep water because our flashlights weren’t strong enough, but we still managed to see another two moray eels, a big puffer fish and some other cool silvery fish that only came out at night. The fish were a lot less skittish at night for some reason – I could practically have touched them.

We fit in 2 more snorkels in the morning of our last day on the island. We went really far out to an islands practically on the Thai-Burma border. The water was very deep, over 30ft, but it was great sea turtle territory. I saw three turtles on the first snorkel, and other one on the second. By this point I was very comfortable with free diving, so I would dive down within inches of the turtles and admire the patterns on their backs. On the second snorkel I got attacked near the surface by a fish the size of a minnow. I have no idea what it was thinking. I also saw a GIANT grouper about 5 ft long camouflaged into the bottom. I was sad we had to leave such a beautiful place. It was the first island we had been too that wasn’t overrun by resorts and drunken foreigners.

We arrived back in the early morning on Wednesday and slept in late. In the afternoon, Noz, Sean and I met with Toshi and Mo on Silom Road to celebrate Songkran. Songkran is the Thai new year, spread over three days. Tuesday was celebrating the end of the old year, Wednesday was the “transition day” and Thursday was the first day of the new year. It is also known as the water festival, because Thais believe that water washes away bad luck. I’m not sure what the white clay was for, but it is customary to smear it on others’ necks and faces.

Pre-water fight

We armed ourselves with white clay and used water bottles as squirt guns, and withing minutes of walking down Silom were completely soaked and had white clay all over us. Thailand is certainly not a very physical culture; they wai instead of hugging or shaking hands. In fact, I’ve only gotten 2 hugs since I’ve been here : (. So seeing everyone smear clay on each other was a surprising spectacle.

People would drive by on the street in pickup trucks with barrels of water in the back, using buckets to splash everyone around the truck. All barrels generally had a giant block of ice floating in it and many people put ice cubes inside the canisters of their squirt guns to keep the water cold. The ice cold water felt wonderful in the heat. It was great to see everyone participating and having fun, not just first-time foreigners or children, even despite the high tension of the protests and shootings that had happened a few days before.

My favorite moments were when Toshi got relentlessly attacked by a little kid with a squirt gun and a death glare who was taking the whole fight thing way too seriously, and when another kid hailed me over to his pickup truck only to bucket me dead on from head to toe. There was a firetruck there too! A crowd soon formed around the truck, blocking traffic. The hose was so powerful that it disabled a passing tuk-tuk at one point, which had to be pushed out of the way. At one point a group of foreigners tried to attack the fireman, only to have the hose turned on them full stream at point blank range. We left completely saturated and left a trail of little footprint-shaped pool of water as we boarded the skytrain back to Evergreen. Just as we started to dry off, we walked down the alley to Evergreen and were met by the maids who quickly dosed us again with water.

In the late afternoon we (Noz, Sean, Laurie, Wolfgang and me) headed to the train station to catch an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. The train was great! It was surprisingly fast, on time and comfortable (we had beds!), and it was great to wake up to mountains, valleys, fields and a bright orange sunrise outside the train window.

Once we checked into our guest house, we spent the entire day participating in Songkran festivities. Chiang Mai one of the larger cities in Thailand. It has got several temples, many dating back over 700 years. (You can read about it more online…). What is important to note is that the “old city” is a roughly 1-mile square, surrounded by a city moat which was the water refill point of choice for Songkran festivities. Pick up trucks circled around the city, the people in the back exchanging buckets of water with those on the sidewalk. The sidewalk around the city moat was packed with people, and there were concerts, foam machines and free-running hydrants that added to the magic. It was like being on one of those water-park jungle gyms. For an hour I set myself up with a bucket next to a pipe gushing water around the height of my shoulder, perfect for filling my bucket, chucking the water into the crowd and then reloading in a matter of seconds. Towards the end of the afternoon when it started to get colder we appreciated the ice cold water less and less. Noz, Wolfgang and I walked back to our guest house through the old city, just barely managing to dry off and warm up a bit before being dosed again.

We changed into dry clothes and headed to the Chiang Mai night bazaar for dinner, now having to be as agile as ninjas to avoid getting soaked by the many people still participating in the Songkran festivities which lasted well into the night. Most of the stall were closed because of the holiday, but we did see very colorful, vibrant hill-tribe clothing and textiles and several painters at work. After loading up on gifts and exhausted from a full day of water fights and walking, we headed back to guest house and zoonked out.

On day 2 in Chiang Mai (Friday) we rented bikes and toured the city. In the morning we stopped at Warorot market. The market was brought the word “clusterfuck” to mind with the variety and disorganization of stuff for sale. It had a bunch of cheap and interesting foods – Sean and Noz bought some fried bugs (crickets, bee larvae) and I bought some apples (4 for $1!). Next we visited several temples, including Wat Phra Singh, the most important temple in Chiang Mai, before stopping for a most delicious lunch at a street stall. In the afternoon, Noz, Sean and I set out to visit the Chiang Mai National museum and hill tribe museum a few kilometers north of the city, only to discover that they were closed for Songkran or undergoing renovations and wouldn’t be open until September, respectively. It was a long way to bike in the heat, and the ride kicked the energy right out of us, necessitating a pleasant afternoon snooze.

lycee fruit

Bugs! yum!

In the late afternoon we stopped at Wat Chedi Luang, known for its enormous chedi, then biked out to Wat Suan Dok to go to a “monk chat”where you can ask the monks about anything, only to discover it too was closed for Songkran. We returned to the old city for dinner and a relaxing evening at a bar.

So many of my assumptions about Chiang Mai were shattered from biking around – I had envisioned a quaint old city surrounded by agricultural fields, not the bustling metropolis, air pollution and city streets similar to Bangkok that surrounded the city. The old city still had much of its former self intact, with the temples providing an anchor, but much of it had been transformed into guest houses, restaurants and massage parlors.

On Saturday we did a guided hiking and mountain biking trip on Doi Suthep, a large mountain to the west of Chiang Mai. We were dropped off near the base of Doi Suthep for our 1000+ meter climb to the summit. I hadn’t been hiking in 4 months, and I really felt it on the hot, dry, constant uphill climb. In fact, this was the longest I’d gone without doing a substantial day hike since before my first year DOC trip.

We passed two camps of wandering monks who simply live of water in the stream and eat bananas and other less pleasant foods they find on the mountain. Talk about being one with nature!

Further up the mountain we encountered places that had recently burned. Our tour guide, Denoi, said that he hadn’t seen the mountain burn like this for the seven years he has been here leading trips.

Upon reaching the summit we came to a Hmong hill tribe village, although you could hardly tell since road access and proximity to Chiang Mai meant nothing visible was left of the culture. Denoi jokingly bought us “hill tribe noodles”, which were just instant mama noodles, and “hill tribe ice cream” which was shaved ice with a sugary syrup. There were a few cars and motorbikes around and a school with a soccer pitch. What was really cool was that nearly every house had a solar array for electricity! If a poor village in rural Thailand can do renewable energy why are we having such a difficult time in the States?

We geared up and began the long, fast and fun ride downhill. It took a while to get used to mountain biking again – I’d only been riding a few times at Dartmouth. But I picked it up fast and still remembered how to bunny hop (thanks Kodiak for teaching me!). The trail took us down through a new fire that had just started that day, and a bunch of red shirts were around in a pick up truck. Denoi assumes they started the fire because they are the parks firemen and get paid per fire, not per month, so they set fires to keep their jobs. As Sean so bluntly pointed out, “that’s the stupidest thing we’ve seen in Thailand!”. The smoke was mildly irritating to breathe but it was a really a bummer because it obscured the view from the mountain. The smoke was just hanging in the valley, not going anywhere.

We rode down through lycee orchards on a dusty, rugged jeep track. Towards the bottom we did three single track runs over roots and off little ledges. I completely survived the last two runs which I was really pumped about! The road came down to a lake, where helicopters were hauling up giant buckets of water to put out the fire. We ate a amazingly delicious lunch of red chicken curry on the beach before heading back.

After cleaning up, we set out to get massages, which only cost 120 baht ($4) an hour. The massage felt incredible after an intense day of biking and hiking, but I couldn’t help contemplating how a place could stay in busy at such a cheap price. Afterwards, we went to the Chiang Mai gate for a delicious dinner of fried mushrooms, smoothies and coconut bars ($2 all together), and then headed to Saturday walking street where every Saturday evening a ton of vendors set up a market along the street.  I bought some more gifts and amazing flair.

On our last full day in Chiang Mai (Sunday) we rented motorbikes. They cost $5 to rent for the day, didn’t require a license to drive, and we only needed to give our passports as collateral. Apparently, if you get stopped by the cops, there is just a 400 baht ($12) fine. Oh Thailand….

Sean and Noz had ridden before on Ko Tao, but that was it. Luckily, these bikes were automatic and the roads were in great shape, so it was easy riding. I rode on the back of Sean’s bike. We took off to the east of the city to visit the handicraft factories. We stopped at an umbrella painting shop with giant umbrellas, a giant jewelry gallery, a wooden handicraft shop and silk farm/factory/warehouse.

The host at the jewelry gallery must’ve initially thought I was a worthy customer, because she first directed me to $1-2k rings. I guess once I asked to see the most expensive jewelry in the store it tipped her off that I was just there for show, and she then directed me to the $20 silver bracelets and $4-5 pieces of small carved jade. I kept thinking in the store: why would I drop $5k on a tiny piece of metal and stone when I could buy a doughnut machine for the same price? Priorities people. Geez.

At the silk factory we got a brief demonstration of how silk is made. Silkworms make cocoons, which are then collect and boiled in a pot together. While boiling, the threads are collected and pulled out together in a process called “reeling”, making silk thread. Then the thread is washed, dyed and spun to make silk thread.

After lunch back in the city, I took over driving the motorbike. It was the first time I’d ever driven a motorbike, and that morning was the first time I’d ever been on one. It was surprisingly much easier than I thought it was going to be. I suppose mountain biking the day before helped.

We stopped at a 50 baht ($1.50) ice cream buffet to eat was much ice cream as we could in one hour. (yet another reason to love Thailand). The scoops were small, about 2-3 to make up a normal scoop of ice cream. I packed down 26 before I decided that maybe a stomach ache wasn’t worth the awesomeness of the buffet.

With our added weight, we rode out to Doi Suthep National Park where we had biked the day before and drove up the steep, winding, scenic road towards the top. It was a blast driving up the mountain. Our bike was going hilariously slow. It barely had enough power to carry Sean and I up, and we slowed down to 10km/hr on some uphills.

We stopped at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a famous temple of Chaing Mai on the mountain. We climbed the temples supposedly 300 steps to the top (I think there were actually less than this?), which was actually much less straining than I thought it would be. Perhaps hiking up 1000m the day before had changed our perceptions a bit. The temple was crowded and overcommercialized, but still very pretty. It had giant gongs, a great view of Chiang Mai, and a beautiful Chedi and buddha images. A jack fruit tree was growing on the temple grounds. Jack fruit trees are very funny looking – their giant fruit grows directly out of the trunk! On the way out some lady tried to sell Sean a singing bowl – a metal bowl that made a sound like a wine glass when a wooden mallet was run on the outside. Sean was obviously not interested, but the lady kept persisting and dropping the price – all the way from 1900 baht ($57) to 300 baht ($9). It shows just how marked up things are here for tourists, and why bargaining is so important.

We rode up the road further the Phu Ping (yes, it’s pronounced “pooping”) palace, the king’s winter palace. The palace and restrooms were closed, but it was still worth the ride up. We appreciated the cooler temperatures on the mountain which were at least 10F colder than in the city. We rode down in the late afternoon sun, which was very pretty as it set over the mountain.

In the evening we set out to Sunday walking street. Like the Saturday walking street, every Sunday thousands of vendors line the main road through the center of the old city, creating a massive market that stretches from one side of the wall to the other. It reminded me of Chatuchak with its size; it took nearly four hours to walk through the whole market. Most of the stuff was souvenirs and trinkets – wood carvings, scarves, bags, clothes, trinkets, shoes, souvenirs, etc. Sean again pulled his powers of bargaining (which basically consists of saying “it looks great, but I don’t want it”) to get a reversible robe down from a 900 baht to special to a 750 baht “one time only price” then to a 600 baht “give-away” as he was walking away. The bargaining here is fascinating to watch, some vendors are obviously much better than others.

On our last day in Chiang Mai we visited the Chiang Mai Zoo. It was great to visit a zoo in Thailand, just because the animals were so different; a hard to find animal in an American zoo is common here and vice-versa. We saw tigers, jaguars, hornbills, monkeys, bearcats, cobras and many more animals. The highlights for me were a few koalas and a baby panda. The animals in generally didn’t look to happy, and many were rather sick. The zoo seemed to be focusing a lot more energy on advertising than animal welfare. I split with the group to go see an animal show. The highlight of the show for me was an otter that picked up trash and put it in a wastebasket.

Yes, you read it correctly. The make paper out of panda poop.

A hilarious visual aid, in case children have a hard time understanding the mating concept

We stopped again at at Warorot market for snacks and gifts, then headed to the train station. Our train left 3 hours late and got into Bangkok 5 hours past its 5:45am arrival time. So much for the Thai railway being better than Amtrak. At least the train ride gave me plenty of time to read. I was able to bust through “Deception Point” by Dan Brown, finishing it by Tuesday afternoon. The last book I read through in less than a day was a book from the Redwall series back in middle school.

Friday is the last day of classes, and I have three finals next week. They won’t be too stressful, since they all cover only material from the midterm on. I leave for home Sunday, May 2nd in the early morning, and will be back in time for dinner (the time change works in my favor this time!). I’ll write one more quick post after finals, and then a final post just after I get back. Family and friends – see you all in two weeks!

Wat Sanghathan

April 9, 2010

Wow! It feels like a long time since the last post! A lot has happened in the past week, including my stay at Wat Sanghathan, a bomb scare at Chula, state of emergency declared in Bangkok and my final decisions on plans for the summer. This will be my longest post. May I recommended getting a snack and a hot beverage before you sit down to read through it…

Last Sunday we were invited to a wonderful dinner with the Dartmouth Club of Bangkok, hosted by David Karukin ’48 at his house. David has been living at his house in Thailand for over 30 years, and has been either the president or secretary of the Dartmouth club for the last 40 years. He is an incredibly spunky character; he had a wealth of stories to share and looked like he had enough energy to run a marathon on the spot. We met with a bunch of other alums, who were funny and amazing (as always), including one of the first Thai students to Dartmouth whose father was the prime minister during the Japanese occupation in WW2 and was responsible for the name change of Siam to Thailand. Cool huh? The food was served buffet style and was absolutely amazing. Quiche, mushroom vol au vent, scallops, roasted orange duck, stuffed fish with a dill sauce, romaine salad with sun-dried tomatoes with BLUE CHEESE, black forest gateau, apple strudel, the list goes on… I ate too much.

I enjoyed talking with the chef Leonardo, who has been cooking for 42 years, and has traveled around the world doing so. He says South African food is the easiest to cook (just stick a bunch of stuff in a crock pot and let it cook), and that French is the most difficult (although not necessarily the tastiest). He has an aquaculture setup in his house where he grows tilapia and herbs. He also grows potatoes in stacks of tires, with a stack of 5 tires yielding 35 kg of potatoes!

Wat Sanghathan and meditation… The past four days at Wat Sanghathan were the most fulfilling days I’ve spent in Thailand. Life at the temple was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and it was a complete opposite to the bustle of Thailand’s luxury shopping malls and superficial tourist beaches we’ve spent much of our free time in Thailand at. The experience was as mentally intense as a difficult Dartmouth finals period. The first day after meditating for just a few hours I thought there was no way I was going to survive the next day. But when it was time to go, I didn’t want to leave, and I wish I could’ve spent more time there. I wrote over 5 pages in my journal about the experience. I’ll do my best to condense it down here, but I’m afraid this is going to be a very long post. Here goes:

Going into it I had my own thoughts about what the experience would be like. Kelly Erickson ’11, who traveled with us to Kanchanaburi, had a lot to say about her 10-day experience and how difficult it was. My biggest assumption, which turned out to be very wrong, was that I assumed the experience would be just thinking while walking or sitting. I’m already very good at thinking; I can sit in one spot and let my mind wander for hours, jumping from thought to thought. It’s what I’d done on the plane ride over, or on all the bus trips we’ve taken around Thailand. In fact, I had a mental list of things I was going to think about. Big mistake. My assumption turned out not only to be very wrong, but a pretty significant obstacle to meditation. Meditation is focusing the mind. Focus is directed to the breath flowing in and out while sitting or to the feet while walking. It’s simplicity makes it so difficult. If the mind wanders, if there is a sensation, pain, a sound or smell, etc., the task is to simply acknowledge its presence and come back to your base – flow of breath or feet.

When I first got there on Monday I was greeted by an overly enthusiastic Thai girl at the front gates who was a graduate student in teaching. I’m used to Thais coming up to me as a “farang” (foreigner), asking me where I’m from. But she threw me completely off guard by singing “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, and I was obliged to sing along. Over the course of my stay I would be greeted by many Thais wanting to practice their English. And I likewise got to practice my Thai.

The most familiar questions I’m met with are the usual puud pasathai dai mai? (Do you speak thai), and kun yu ti ni (where do you come from). They were curious as to where I was from in the States, and if there was snow there, and whether it got as hot as Thailand (It’s the hot season now, and it’s 90-100F everyday).

My favorite exchange, with an older nun:

1) Where are you from?

2) How long do you stay in Thailand?

3) How old are you?

4) Do you have a girlfriend?

(now I know what you’re thinking, but you’re thinking about it the wrong way. She was impressed that a boy at my age was practicing meditation and had undertaken the 8 precepts. She wished more boys my age would become monks.)

I ate a quick lunch at the free canteen and then was taken along by a Thai monk to a room with AC (a relief) and we chatted for a bit about what visit to Thailand. He persuaded me to eat my first baked egg-rice cakes, and jack fruit, which were really good. Next, P. Leif, the German monk who instructed me on my meditation at Wat Sanghathan showed me around, and then after I had changed into my white clothes, gave me the eight precepts. To take the 8 precepts, I knelt and prayed to the Buddha (enlightened one), the Dhamma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples). All of this was done in pali script, repeating after the monk.

The 8 precepts are a code of conduct so to speak, a basis for morality. The first five should always be obeyed, no matter whether you are a top level monk or a common citizen (some slack is allowed on precepts 3 and 5). But while practicing at a temple or as a monk, you must obey all 8 precepts, and stricter forms of them too. I’ve included them below, not in the pali script as you take them, but in a very rough English translation.

The 8 precepts are:

1. Refrain from destroying living creatures. (ie, don’t kill. While in the temple, under all 8 precepts this includes even mosquitoes.)

2. Refrain from taking that which is not given. (don’t steal)
3. Refrain from sexual activity. (with just the 5 precepts, this means refraining from adulterous activity. While in the temple, it is strictly forbidden to touch someone of the opposite sex, or talk to them alone and even casual conversation in public is looked down on.)
4. Refrain from incorrect speech. (don’t tell lies).
5. Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness. (Outside the temple, they are allowed as long as they don’t interfere with your life or causing suffering for others (ie, being a drunkard), but they are strictly forbidden in the temple.)
The last three apply just to practice in the temple:
6. Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., you may only eat once around 10am in the morning, after that only bottled water and some fruit drinks are allowed).
7. Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
8. Refrain from lying down on a high or luxurious sleeping place. (sleep on a mattress on the floor).

After the precepts P.Leif instructed me in the first 20 minutes of meditation. Boy was it difficult. Even for just 20 minutes. Back pain set in but I just had to focus on keeping my back straight, acknowledging the pain, then bringing my focus back to the base of breathing at the nose. Meditation is so simple – just concentrate on your breathing – but just that simple thing is so difficult. Leif said that after a while, you no longer recognize the pain or it won’t set in until after 20,30,40 minutes. But that is after years of meditation.

Monday and Tuesday (my first two days) were special days for the temple. It was the Abbot’s birthday, and there was also a dedication for a new hospital. I got to meet the Abbot, the Venerable Acharn Sanong Katapunyo, and got an autographed picture.

There were hundreds of lay people there who had come to stay for the occasion, as well as 200 novice monks. The novice monks are young boys, and this is kind of like their summer camp. They stay at Wat Sanghathan for a while, then head up to the Khao Yai meditation center (a satellite location of Wat Sanghathan) for two weeks. The novices are very lively and fun, but aren’t very good at paying attention during their afternoon walking meditation. They kick each other playfully and were completely distracted by my presence as a tall foreigner. But this doesn’t bother the older monks. It’s Thailand, and the culture here is subai-subai (so it goes). If they don’t focus, so what. I could understand their anxiousness – after their walking meditation was the afternoon drink period, which meant fruit sorbet was waiting for them. I would be just an antsy myself at that age.

I had the rare and very cool opportunity to witness the opening ceremony of the hospital. All of the monks (including novices), nuns and laypeople were there. Hundreds of people. I went with a German nun who spoke English. We sat towards the back, but soon found ourselves invited up to the front by the organizer of the whole thing, and I was given flowers to present later during the offering. (Keep in mind this was my first day there). Thais love being inclusive. The Abbot had actually asked me earlier when I met him if I played an instrument and would be interested in performing in the opening ceremony, since he was still looking for performers. I think he was being serious. Later, the German nun had to turn away the offer of another organizer who wanted me to participate in the filming of a music video to celebrate the opening (yes, a music video). The offerings were very cool. In Thailand, if you’re going to make an offering, you might as well make it look pretty. I’ve seen the prettiest flower bouquets here, and the ones presented at the opening ceremony were stunning. All money offering were made in the form of money trees or money boats (see pictures).

The master of ceremonies with a unique hat

Balloons to carry a banner up into the sky!

...Or rather into the powerlines

hey, that's pretty great situational comedy

money DOES grow on trees!

a boatload of money

the music video

In the evening on the first day just before bedtime at 9:00pm I did walking meditation for an hour. It was much easier than sitting meditation, but I still hard a time keeping focus. I learned that meditation is partly about suffering, or rather acceptance of suffering. I was seriously doubting if I could handle what I got myself into.

After the first day, things got much easier and I settled into a routine. Every morning I got up around 3:45am to go to morning chanting. Surreal is the best word for it. Listening to a monk and a hundred plus laypeople chanting in a pali drone is just awesome. It makes an eerie sound that you can literally feel vibrate through you if you’re close enough. There were chanting in the evenings too, which I went to once.

the chanting and group meditation area

Around 10am was brunch, the only meal of the day. What a feast. All of it was for free; Thais would stop by the temple to give food as an offering. Some would even come and hand out ice cream to us (laypeople) while we ate. It shows the support Thai buddhists have for monks and laypeople. It’s good luck to give food to people who are practicing at the temple. The bowls we used were huge. Think 2-quart sized mixing bowls. The food was great (especially the coconut sticky rice) and I got to try nearly any Thai food imaginable (especially during the first two days during the festival). I got too much the first day, or better put, it was a day’s worth of food and I just wasn’t used to eating all my meals at once. P. Leif said it wasn’t healthy, but it was simple.

Food order: monks, novice monks, men who've taken the eight precepts, nuns, women who've taken the eight precepts, then everybody else

My meditation got a lot better over the four days. I was able to focus longer. But it was still tough. So many things came up: thoughts, feelings, sensations, sounds, smells, and, with sitting meditation, back and neck pain. Apparently wandering thoughts seems to be a common problem for us Westerners. I would think of something and have to say, “ I recognize you thought, but I’m sorry, I can’t concentrate on you now. I’m concentrating on my breath”. While meditating in the middle of the day when it was hottest, I could feel sweat dripping down my back while meditating which was particularly annoying. During one evening meditation outside I got bit by mosquitoes. Its one thing not the bites because you are deeply concentrating on your breath, but its even harder to feel a mosquito, acknowledge it’s presence, then refocus your breath. It’s against the precepts to kill the mosquito.

Despite the difficulties, the meditation was very peaceful. I found myself moving much slower doing everything – walking, eating, breathing – throughout the day. I really appreciated walking meditation: slow, focused steps at a pace of around a meter per minute. In the morning some nuns would come by and use a mop to clean the granite surface surrounding the main temple where I did most of my meditation. I could watch tiny pools of water 3 meters in front of me dry up before I got to them. Ants would race by me. On the third day, I was moving slow enough and focused enough that on three occasions, I was able to sense and stop my foot on top of a leaf, millimeters of the ground, then gently push it out of the way before setting my foot down. Such a cool feeling. I also had the funny experience of an old nun with broken arm and a multi-legged cane race by me.

Practicing walking meditation outside the glass temple

Inside the glass temple. On the last day, while I was meditating, a puppy who had manged to get his entire lower half covered in oil somehow came running into the temple and rolled around on the rug to clean himself off. uh oh.

I’ve got deep respect for people who’ve done this a long time (monks). P.Leif says that after a while the meditation doesn’t necessarily get easier (although the monks can easily handle an overnight meditation); you simply experience more sensations in a given moment. Whereas I might feel 2-3 sensations with my breath, after years of meditating that will turn into feeling 14-16 sensations. After a meditating for a long time, peacefulness arises and then happiness out of that peacefulness. The monks here are very friendly, amazing people who always smile. Genuine is good word to describe it. It’s like having 200 happy grandfather all in one spot.

Wat Arun on the boat ride home

Me with P.Leif

Me with P.Sunan

Coming back to Evergreen was quite a shock. I returned to find that a “State of Emergency” had been declared in Bangkok, after the red shirt protesters invaded the parliament building and forced the prime minister to leave by helicopter. I also found out that a 5kg bomb was found outside the main gate at Chula before it went off. I walk by that gate everyday which is a scary thought. According to Professor Kennedy, some of the red shirts believe that Chula is educating and supporting the ‘elites’ against whom they are protesting. They also weren’t too happy about the pink shirt counter-protest, although most people at Chula are trying to remain neutral. Hopefully things won’t escalate any further. There was a state of emergency last year around this time and no widespread violence occurred. We’ll also be out of harms way for the next week and a half anyways.

ok… into the home stretch!

BIG updates:

So I’ve finally settled on what I’m doing this summer. I’m be doing an amazing 5-month internship at the Center for Whole Communities, a social and environmental justice retreat center in Fayston, Vermont. I’ll be doing farming, cooking, trailwork, and most importantly, will get to meet with tons of amazing people throughout the summer. (check out their website at http://www.wholecommunities.org/).

It means I’ll be back in the states in early May, so I won’t be spending 8 months in Thailand as I had initially thought. Dartmouth folk, I’ll see you all in just over three weeks on my way up to CWC. So I’ll get another chance to say goodbyes to you seniors : ) .

Many, many hours of thought went into this decision. I won’t go into it in detail in the blog, but I’d love to share my reasons if you’re interested. My alternative was to do biogas research in Thailand, and I also briefly considered spending time as a monk. My dad puts it well when he says it is best to not look at such choices as good or bad but rather different.

Tomorrow we leave for the Surin islands, one of the best snorkeling spots in the world. Then it’s time for water fights during the much anticipated Songkran holiday, and a trip up to Chiang Mai. That’ll be the last of my traveling in Thailand outside of Bangkok. The following week is the last week of classes, then a week of finals, then back to the States.

More red shirt protests

April 4, 2010

For a month now red shirt protesters have been driving around the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the prime minister resolve and hold new elections. The leaders of the red shirts have held two sets of talks with the prime minister, but they couldn’t come to an agreement. Luckily, there hasn’t been any violence. But the persistence of the red shirts is unwavering, so no one knows what is going to happen. On Friday classes were canceled and Chulalongkorn closed down after the red shirts said they would hold a protest at Chula, where many academics were holding a counter-protest as pink shirts, asking for there to be peace and to support the government. There were police guarding the only open entrance to Chula, and they wouldn’t even let me in so that I could turn in my homework. Oh well. According to Boom, there are political statements associated with wearing yellow, red, blue, white and pink shirts. I’ve decided to wear the awesome tie-dye shirt my twin sis made for me to confuse people.

Wolfgang, Laurie and I went with the Fins and Maxime (the Frenchman) to the ADME senior send-off party at the fancy Rama Gardens Hotel. The food was free and buffet style – just the way I like it. The Fins appreciated the free drinks. Most of the party was spent talking, eating and taking pictures. All the ISE students LOVE taking pictures. Towards the end of the evening they showed a 10 minute slideshow of pictures that were all taken at the send-off party, some taken just 10 minutes beforehand. I was really confused. At the end we took a bunch of group pictures and, as usual, I made people feel small when I stood next to them. Some of the 1st years put together a band and played live music which was actually pretty good.

This past week I’ve been working almost non-stop to finish my homework and get ahead a bit so I could skip class this week. I almost even pulled an all-nighter. Now I’ve only got one more problem set for fluids due after Songkran, and then finals and then I’m done!

That means this week I’m going to skip class and spend 4-5 days studying meditation and mindfulness at Wat Sanghathan north of Bangkok with a German monk who has been studying as a monk in Thailand for 12 years. I’m looking forward to it, but it won’t be easy! In fact, I think it’s going to be the most difficult thing I’ll do in Thailand. Each day includes 8-11 hours of meditation and getting up at 4am and going to bed at 11pm. I must take the 8 precepts, which include things I normally do (don’t drink) and things that will be very difficult for me (eat only one meal a day in the morning and no eating after noon). Once I’m done spending 5 days with my mind, it’s off to the beautiful Surin Islands (one of the best snorkeling spots in the world) and then up to Chiang Mai for Songkran!

Some pictures from my boat trip up the Chao Phraya to visit Wat Sanghathan:

Grand Palace complex as seen from the river

Another week in Bangkok

March 29, 2010

After returning from Ko Tao, I spent the rest of the week and weekend catching up on applications and schoolwork. Over the weekend we were treated to a wonderful lunch by Professor Kennedy and his wife at Kalaprapreuk Restaurant, a Thai restaurant that doesn’t advertise and only serves lunch. Prof. Kennedy and his wife go there once a week when they’re in Bangkok. The food was great – spring rolls, som tom, sen yai noodles in soup, sticky rice and more delicious eats. They had a bakery at the restaurant that sold cheesecake, which was a rare and much appreciated treat. We talked about our plans for the summer, the political situation in Bangkok where the red shirts are still protesting and the politics of Chula’s ISE program…

Red shirts riding around on the streets of Bangkok - a common sight for the past three weeks

…The politics of Chula’s ISE program:

The ISE program was started 5 years ago for Chula engineers who want an English program so they can be more competitive and have a better shot at graduate programs in the states. The ISE has four different departments: ADME (automotive), AERO (aeronautical), NANO (nanotech) and ICE (information and communications tech). Initially, there was a quota of 60 for each program. At first they couldn’t find well qualified students to fill the full 60 in each program, especially in automotive. 1-2 years into the program, new administrators took over and tried to reach the 60 person quota in each program to raise revenue by taking students who weren’t really prepared for it. The result was a bunch of bad students whose parents had bought their way into the program and who didn’t want to be there. The administration was recently replaced again and for the past two years, the admissions has followed the principal of quality over quantity which means all the programs besides nano are well below that initial 60-person quota. The difference in students is like night and day. In my mechanical solids class, in the ADME department, the whole time most of the Thai students are sleeping, playing games on handhelds, talking with each other, or copying down the homework and examples from other students. Over half the students currently have a D or F in the course. In my Sust Dev class in Nano, nearly all of the students pay attention in class, study hard (sometimes even more than I do), and many are applying to competitive graduate programs in the States. Overall, most Thai students in the ISE program come from upper-class families. Hanging out in luxury shopping malls seems to be their favorite pastime. I wasn’t surprised when Boom mentioned to me that there aren’t any red shirt supporters in Chula’s ISE program.

I suppose while I’m at it I tell you about the courses I’m taking:

Introduction to Automotive Engineering – Thursdays means spending 6 hrs with Aj. Nuksit (Aj. stands for Ajarn, which is equivalent to professor in Thai). The first 3 hours is spent in lecture learning about systems in a car, and the next 3 hours are spent in a lab where we sit through some more lecture and then get to work on a car. The lab is much more exciting than class; we’ve taken apart and reassembled a starter motor and alternator, done all basic car maintenance (brake system replacement, oil changes, engine timing). During the next two weeks we will disassemble then reassemble the engine of a car.  Nuksit’s a nice guy – he just doesn’t teach very well. He is always 20-30 minutes late, talks on his cellphone when he gets a call during class and uses powerpoint like a wheelchair (a bad habit many professors have).

Mechanical Solids – I’ve given up on learning anything in class and have been teaching myself from the textbook. Class consists of Aj. Thanyarat partly working through examples (which we have to turn in at the end of each class), while telling us “you need to know this”, without presenting the theory behind the examples or deriving any equations. This past Friday we had a quiz worth 15%, and Aj. Thanyarat gave us some of our homeworks and example problems to help with the nearly identical problems on the quiz. I’m assuming she did that to save the grades of many of the students who are about to fail. Luckily for me, solid mechanics is pretty easy to learn by yourself, especially if you have a solid background in physics and math like I do.

Sustainable Development for Nanotechnology – Sust Dev is the only course I’m taking in the Nano program. My good Thai friends, Gene, Boom, Kid and Yee are in the class. The first part of the course was spent learning about sustainability issues, life cycle and energy analyses and the like. The second and larger part of the course is a term project to write a paper and make a presentation on a nanotechnology application in sustainable development. Gene, Boom and I are doing our project on nanomembranes for industrial wastewater treatment. We’ve already finished our final presentation and final paper that are due this Friday, so I’m basically done with the class.

Fluid Mechanics – Aj. Asi is the best prof I have, and fluids is the most challenging course I’m taking. Asi is great at presenting the theory behind the fluids equations and also works out difficult examples for us. It’s too bad that of the originally 24 students in the class, most dropped after the midterm and I’m one of only 4 students that have shown up to class the past two weeks.

The outdoor canteen at Chula

Statues of Kings Rama V (Chulalongkorn) and Rama VI, the founders of Chulalongkorn University.

Part of the 2 km walk to school everyday

The indoor canteen where I get my lunch everyday

Yes, this is a picture of guy watering a pond.

My solid mechanics class

Ok… Moving on!

Last Wednesday Mo and Toshi (two of our good Thai friends in Sean and Noz’s fluids class) came over for dinner at our apartment. Nozomi cooked a wonderful dinner of Miso soup, stir-fired veges and chicken/pork for us. Toshi and Mo brought mango sticky rice for dessert (yum!). Afterwards we played cards and spoons.

Mangos have huge, unedible seeds

We went to get our visa renewed at the immigration bureau. In true Thai style the immigration bureau was a 40 minute drive away from the center of Bangkok and it took over three hours to go through the process of get our visas extended.

The gigantic government building that houses the immigration office

Why doesn't the US have an office for this?

Last Friday was Chula’s birthday, and there was a giant party on the main lawn with 20 stalls of FREE FOOD!. We spent the evening there watching performances of traditional thai dance and singing. The princess showed up to make a speech and then sang a few songs, including “CU polka”, which was the highlight of the night. Ask me when I get back to see a video of it.

A picture of us with the director of the ISE program, who also put together the entire birthday celebration

The princess

Noz and I went to Jim Thompson’s house as a short tourist visit. Jim Thompson was an American architect who had a passion for Thai silk and turned it into a business empire. The house is a collection of several thai houses that were dismantled and transferred to the site. The tour we took didn’t give much history about the silk company, just about the house and where all the rare artifacts in it came from.

A wooden printing block for silk textiles

Inside the main hall of Jim Thompson's house

Yesterday Toshi and Mo took us to the Erawan museum and the Ancient city. The Erawan museum is a massive statue of a three-headed elephant, the largest free-standing statue in Thailand. The museum was built just over a decade ago, and is meant to serve as a place to learn about traditional thai arts and culture. The lowest level of the museum houses a large collection of fine pottery dating back to over 800 years ago. The main room of the site has an astrologers skylight and giant serpent stairs that go up to the elephant. Porcelain bowls, spoons and chips make up the very ornate staircase, and metal reliefs line the main structural columns. The top room is actually inside the belly of the elephant, and has a main buddha image in the front and several other hundreds of years old buddha images lining the sides.

Astrologer's skylight

Inside the elephant

The ancient city was even more impressive. It is the size of an amusement park with a collection of over a hundred replicas of famous thai historical sites and temples. Most are built to life size. We rented bikes to tour around the park. For lunch we ate at a replica floating market, were I enjoyed coconut ice cream in a bun, a common way ice cream (pronounced as the shortened “i-team”) is served in Thailand. I split with the group so I could make sure to get around to see everything in the park before it closed. My favorite spots were the Pavilion of the Enlightened, many statues of Naga, a replica thai village and museum that houses many antique fishing and farming tools and the largest drums I’ve ever seen, and a replica of Prasat Phra Wihan, a temple on a hill that overlooks the entire park.

Pavilion of the Enlightened

Pavilion of the Enlightened

Sumeru Mountain

The seven-headed naga protecting the Buddha from the rain. Not sure why the statue only has five heads...

Prasat Phra Wihan, the temple at the top of a hill

Drums bigger than me

Whew… long post.

Hope everyone is doing great back at home, and I hope spring break was fun for the Dartmouth kids reading this blog! This week I find out for sure what I’m doing this summer. I may be working in Vermont… if not I’ll definitely be doing the biogas project here in Thailand. I may also be skipping class next week to do a week-long meditation course at a retreat center in Khao Yai national park. More on all that later once I find out.

Ko Tao

March 19, 2010

Last weekend Laurie, Sean, Noz, Wolfgang and I took yet another vacation to the island of Ko Tao along Thailand’s southern gulf coast. We wanted to get out away from Bangkok in case any of the protests turned violent. Last Friday classes were canceled in the afternoon and Chula was closed on the weekend in anticipation of the protests. It don’t have the space here to give a thorough background about the red shirt protests, but you can read all about on any world news website. Thankfully, there hasn’t been any violence.

We took a long overnight bus ride (7 hrs) down to Chumpon, waited at a terminal there (4 hrs), then traveled by ferry to get to Ko Tao (2 hours). Normally whenever ever we arrive at a place via bus we get stormed by a few taxi drivers asking “taxi ride?” and “where you go?”. But the taxi drivers on Ko Tao were much more relentless than the ones in Bangkok or at other places we’ve been to; we must’ve been approached at least 20 times in the first kilometer walk from the pier on the way to our hotel. After a night of no sleep the last thing you need is a bunch of Thai taxi drivers who hover around you like mosquitoes.

We were very relieved to finally arrive at the Wind Beach resort at Sai Ree beach, where we got a room ($30 a night, split five ways. Thailand is great.) and had a chance to rest and swim at the beach.

In the afternoon we decided to trek over the island to a beach on the other side (Ko Tao is only about 2 km wide and 8 km long). The island is surprisingly steep, with a high point around 350 m above sea level. The dirts roads that go across the island quickly become unmanageable for cars, motorbikes, and was even a scramble for just walking. But the trek up is worth it, as the whole island is visible from the central high point and is just far enough away from the beaches and the main road to be quiet. I stayed up on top of the peak to watch the sunset and read.

Photo credit: Nozomi

On Sunday while Sean and Wolfgang went diving, Noz, Laurie and I went snorkeling with Oskari, a Finnish exchange student at Chula and Aino, Saloa, Annas, three friends of Oskari’s who are taking an extended vacation in southeast asia. Oskari is quite the character. He loves to tell about how he has friends/contacts at various locales throughout Thailand, especially Ko Tao. For example, while waiting for our longtail boat, Oskari sits down the owner of a Thai massage parlor on the beach starts chatting with her, links arm, and then offers her some of his beer. I have no idea why he is studying engineering because he would make the perfect business major. Osakari managed to get us 25% discounted rentals on snorkel gear, because he knows the shop owners.

We rented a longtail boat for the day (with a discount, thanks to Oskari) and rode around the entire island, stopping at shark bay and Mango bay to go snorkeling. The snorkeling was great, although not that much different than our previous snorkel trip on Ko Chang. The highlights for me were seeing a school of parrot fish scrounging among the coral and a few clownfish. The sunset was particularly amazing.

Photo Credit: Nozomi

Noz makin' out with some tropical fish

I spent the whole day on Monday at the beach relaxing, napping, swimming and reading. I couldn’t help but think of the ridiculousness of being able to spend several days on a tropical island in the middle of an academic term. In truth, I don’t really like Thailand’s touristy tropical islands that much. They’ve been taken over by the tourist industry that caters to affluent Westerners (me included), who are trying to find that “dream vacation” mold of tropical paradise. Tourists spend all day diving, reading, drinking and taking full advantage of their buying power. Such islands are completely disconnected from reality. It bothers me in the same way that the luxury mall complex near our apartment of Siam Center, Siam Discovery and Siam Paragon does. These three malls on one city block use more energy than the entire country of Laos. I can think of a million better uses for that fossil fuel-derived energy than to flaunt luxury items destined for wealthy foreign shoppers.

On Tuesday we did our 12 hours of traveling back to Bangkok, only to discover that the red shirt protests hadn’t ended yet. It looks like they’ll be around for awhile longer, but I doubt the conflict is going to escalate further than it already has. Many of the original 100,000 protesters have left, leaving 40,000 to keep the protests going. More rallies are planned for this weekend.

Kanchanaburi & Erawan Falls

March 9, 2010

So if you count a picture as a thousand words, this just might be my longest post yet! What an exciting week. The two days we spent at Kanchanaburi and Erawan were the best days of the adventure so far!

Enjoying homecooked Tom Kah Gai

Last week I had some free time on Thursday, so I wandered over to IT world, the tech gear hub of Bangkok and Platinum, a giant indoor clothes mall. I didn’t get anything, but I did admire some of the kids-themed clothing that would make pretty good “flair” as Dartmouth students call it. If only the mario kart 64 shirt was in my size…

IT world

Mario Kart 64 T-shirt

This past weekend was spent west of Bangkok at Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park. Kelly Erickson joined us on the trip. She’s a Dartmouth ’11 who spent the term teaching english at temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She was good company, and seen Thailand from a different angle than we had.

Saturday morning we got up early and took the bus to Kanchanaburi, 2 ½ hrs west of Bangkok. We rented bikes for the day (only cost $1) and went exploring. Our first stop was at the allied war cemetery, where thousands of British, Austrailian and Dutch soldiers were buried. I appreciated the powerful, striking messages on the gravestones.

Allied war cemetary

Next to the cemetery was the death railway war museum, a small but very well put together museum about the history of Japanese Thai-Burma railway during the second world war. In short, the Japanese used POWs and forced asian laborers to build a railway through the mountainous Thai jungle to connect Burma’s major city Rangoon with Kanchanaburi. This linked the major cities in asia, and allowed the Japanese to easily move men and supplies to the war effort in Burma, saving a risky sea route near Malaysia patrolled by allied forces. The conditions for the POWs and laborers were very poor, especially during the rainy season. Long hours of forced manual labour and poor sanitation and nutrition lead to an outbreak of disease that claimed the lives of around a third of the POWs and half of the asian laborers. Most of the POWs were British, and there were many Australians and Dutch as well. About 650 Americans were made to work on the railway, of which 131 died. There were two things that struck me most about the museum which I didn’t know beforehand:

1) The POWs on the railway were largely well accounted for by the Japanese and POWs alike, and the Japanese allowed the POWs to bury their dead in cemetaries. Since such good records were kept, it meant that after the war a major effort could be undertaken to find and move the graves of most the POWs that died from out in the jungle to allied war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi.

2) The asian laborers, despite initially being drawn to the project as a form of work, had a much higher death rate and were nearly all buried in unmarked graves. They were treated the same – or more often worse – than the POWs. 90,000 laborers died on the railway, compared to 16,000 POWs.

The museum was a good stop to get some context before seeing the famous Bridge at River Kwai a few kilometers away. You could still see bomb marks on the piers, and some of the original spans were still intact.

Bridge at River Kwai

Five Dartmouth '11s

Bridge at River Kwai

A leopard near the bridge being used to advertise a nearby wildlife park

Afterwards we went on a long bike ride across the river, through the countryside and up a hill to khao poon cave, a large limestome cave that houses a temple inside. Kelly told us what she knew about Buddhism and being monk, as well as about the 10 days she recently spent at a meditation retreat in a temple where she spent 8-11 hrs a day meditating. We rode back at sunset and headed out to dinner at the town’s night market in the evening. I bought some very colorful, comfortable pants and a shirt. Before heading back to the inn to go to sleep we had a fun little debate about what was more attractive – a guy showing up on your doorstep with a Ferrari and a bunch of roses (Sean and Wolfgang’s choice) or one with a dehydrator, doughnut machine and proofing box to make dried fruits, doughnuts and bread (my choice). Kelly and Laurie sided with cooking over cars.

A reclining Buddha image inside khao poon cave

The hotel we stayed at had this really cool bird that made a variety of cool sounds (80% sure its a Catbird, bio majors need your help here.)

On Sunday we had another early start to catch the bus over to Erawan National Park. We checked into our “bangalow” as it was called and trekked 1.5 K back along the road a market for lunch. The entire afternoon was spent a Erawan falls, a set of 7 cascading waterfalls spaced around 300 meters apart from each other, with the 7th and top falls 2.2 kilometers from the trailhead. Each of level of the falls was unique and gorgeous. I can’t really write a description that does them justice, so I’ve included many pictures.

Erawan falls lvl 1

Erawan falls lvl 2

Erawan falls lvl 2

Erawan falls lvl 3

We spent most of our time at the 4th falls where we went on the water slide, got bitten by fish and played frisbee with the Thais. One little kid was particularly fun and kept faking out Nozomi with the frisbee.

On our way up to the 5th falls we were lucky enough of to encounter a pack of monkeys. Some were eating, others had babies hanging on to them, one tried to attack us and one monkey did his impression of a waterfall onto an unsuspecting and soon-to-be-disgusted Laurie.

Erawan falls lvl 4

Nozomi going down a waterslide at the 4th falls

Erawan falls lvl 5

Falls lvl 6 were the prettiest, with several green cascades and cool pool formations. I couldn’t help but contrast the beauty of Erawan and surrounding area to the horrors of the death railway we had learned of the day before. What was a paradise to us was a hell for the POWs and asian laborers. It seems that only humans are capable of taking such a beautiful place and making it so deadly.

Erawan falls lvl 6

Erawan falls lvl 6

Erawan falls lvl 7

Erawan falls lvl 7

Erawan falls lvl 7

In the evening we sat around our bangalow talked for a while. We each shared our top 10 list of places to visit or activities to do during our senior at Dartmouth. It was a wonderful moment of reflection. Its starting to settle in that we’ve only got one more year in a place we’ve called home for the past three.

Back in Bangkok classes are picking back up after midterms. Our last thai class is this Wednesday. My Thai is getting better – its good enough now to hold a conversation with the lady I buy veges from at the market and to order food from a restaurant or street stall. It’ll be a busy week between homework, job applications and a job interview. This Saturday we are going on a “study trip” to learn about Thai culture at a cultural center west of the city then on Sunday and Monday we’ll visit the ruins of the old city. We’ve been advised to stay out of the city this weekend because the red shirts – a political group supporting the former prime minister Thaksin – are going to hold demonstrations in the city and block traffic, with up to a million protesters expected.

So if you count a picture as a thousand words, this just might be my longest post yet! What an exciting week. The two days we spent at Kanchanaburi and Erawan were the best days of the adventure so far!