28 September 2005

Bangkok strikes back

I present you with: random thoughts and photos [Cue: corny Thai music]....duck and cover people, duck and cover...

The gang in a photo op behind a temple. Wow. They do detail here. Lots of detail.

Petchaburi beach. (School field trip) The water was so warm...

A scene from the heart of a Thailand jungle...um...actually this picture was taken in the middle of my campus. Seriously.

The street sidewalk across from campus. I usually order dinner from the street vendors here. Shortly after this picture was taken, it started pouring rain by the bucket, so I was trapped for a while. The street vendors put up tarps and took it in stride. Just look at those cute Thai uniforms. I wear the same thing to school everyday.

I LOVE organic chemistry. Discrete math + abstract algebra + chemistry --> happiness
Southeast Asian Dance and Theatre rocks my socks.
Thai is going to break my mind. In a good way.

Things I miss (in no particular order)

whole wheat bread
cold, dry air
people (you know who you are ^_^)

Things I'll miss when I leave Thailand

Street food
School uniforms
Coconut yogurt
Buddhist nuns
Khaosan Rd
Thai fruit (I've never seen half the fruits here before)
Naught/Not/Nod (KEI coordinator. Pure Thai. Catch phrases: "It's a Thai joke." "Why not?" "Are you okay?")

27 September 2005

Wasteful words

Life is never what I expect it to be. I went questing for Sri Racha sauce and instead found a Buddhist master who told me to stay single because the suffering of two people is too great…

I took my first independent mini-excursion this weekend. I thought I was making a pilgrimage to Sri Racha, birthplace of the infamous Sri Racha sauce. (They sell it in the states in bottles labeled with roosters…or ducks…a must-have condiment for any college kitchen…) Another KEI girl, Alana, wanted to see a nearby island named Ko Si Chang, and so we agreed to travel together.

Sri Racha is not the small provincial town I expected. The bus dropped us off on the side of a bustling, nasty highway. We tried to find our way to a mystical seafood market (championed by Let’s Go) by use of sign language, butchered Thai, and broken English. We did find some sort of market, but it was closed, so we detoured to a classy restaurant where the seafood was divine. Best $5 meal I’ve ever had.

We took off on a tuk-tuk (ooo…I love tuk-tuks) to the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, the local tourist trap. It was…a bizarre and disturbing experience… Highlights include:

  • Crocodiles. EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of them.

  • A crocodile wrestling show where the crocs were more or less catatonic
    An elephant show…I couldn’t stop crying…although they did look fairly healthy and well-kept…

  • The scorpion queen. A lady covered with live scorpions. Seriously.

  • “Happy Family”—two dogs, a tiger, and a pig in the same cage…right next to the cage with humans in loin cloths and tigers.

  • Baby tigers suckling on a sow

  • Baby pigs suckling on a tiger

The vast number of crocs and tigers convinced me of rumors that the zoo is a disguised meat farm. There is no other logical reason for keeping that many animals. Tiger and croc meat are very expensive, so it would be quite a lucrative enterprise to have the zoo double as a tourist trap and a meat farm…a disquieting thought. At the same time, I’ve seen the cattle meat farms in southern California, and I had to fight to keep my stomach in place. A meat farm that fronts as a zoo has to look presentable/pleasant, which I think leads to better living conditions for the animals…All the same, I’d rather wipe the Tiger Zoo from my memory.

Another tuk-tuk and a 40 minute ferry ride later, we were at Ko Si Chang, where there are [gasp!] no cars. It was fabulous. It made me realize that the true evil in Bangkok is the hordes of cars. They take the soul out of a place... (Sidenote: Khaosan Rd is closed to motorized traffic at night…) Tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and bicycles are fine, just keep your friggin cars to yourself, alright? Alana and I took an evening walk where we practiced our Spanish, swapped near-death experiences, and glowed over a group of elderly Thais playing bocci by the side of the street.

The next morning we woke early to explore the temples and beaches on the island. We were trying to find a giant yellow Buddha we had seen from the ferry, so we took a random side street and found something that looked like temple grounds. We timidly stepped inside and started looking around… This tiny little nun with a shaved head, white robes, and glasses scampered over the stony ground and invited us (in English) to have breakfast with the other nuns and monks. She promised us a tour after we had eaten. Our jaws must have sounded very loud hitting the ground like they did. We gave her enthusiastic nods. As we followed her back, she asked us a few more questions. We told her we were students at Mahidol, that Alana was studying psychology and I engineering.

We stepped inside an open building where dozens of nuns in white robes and monks in saffron robes sat on the floor around an ancient man who was lecturing quietly in Thai. “Now, we listen to the Master,” our guide said. We sat on our heels and she taught us how to show respect for the Buddha and the Master by bowing three times. The Master continued talking as his audience listened intently and respectfully. Reason #4906 (si gao soon hok) why I wish I knew Thai: I couldn’t understand any of his jokes—his audience laughed several times and all I could do was put on my stupid-foreigner face.

When he finished, he got up and sat at the head of an elevated platform behind a silver bowl. All the other monks sat down in a straight line on the same platform behind their bowls. The nuns sat on floor in front of the platform, in two lines facing each other. There were huge platters of food everywhere. A man began offering the food to the monks…he placed white trays with wheels on the monk platform and he arranged a couple of platters of food on each tray. The Master took some food, and rolled the tray down to the next monk in line. After a few people had offered food, our guide encouraged us to offer food. I nearly fell over. I had read about offering food to Buddhist monks (they can only eat what other people give to them, and they have to put it all in the same bowl) but I never imagined that I would take part in it…When I began placing the trays and bowing, our guide talked to the Master and told him (in Thai) that I was an engineering student at Mahidol…and I understood her. In Thai. I felt like singing.

When the trays rolled past the end of the monks, they were passed down to the nun level. Alana and I sat near the end of the nun lines. There was so much food…I wanted to try everything…I took just a little of each dish, and I still had way too much to eat in my bowl at the end. Curries, noodles, vegetables, spices, fruits…everything imaginable rolled by. When the last tray made its way past all the nuns, everyone (including us) took water from the little silver vases in front of them and poured it into little silver bowls. Our guide explained its significance…something about kharma and life…then everyone began chanting…it was beautiful to the point of pain. I was so happy I could have burst.

When the last notes died away, the eating commenced…my favorites: a Thai fruit called ____, an orange sweet potato type thing, and rice pudding with coconut milk. The nuns whisked our dishes away, and we were instructed to pour out the water from our little silver bowls at the base of a tree…I can’t remember the reason. Alana and I sat and talked with an elderly white gentleman who had also taken part in everything. A retired English professor, he now lives part time at the monastery. He told us that the monastery was slightly unusual because it functions like a commune—everyone pitches in to do something. Usually monks are supported by patrons and don’t get their hands very dirty… Then he left us in the hands of Sao Pui (Sister Pui, our guide)and asked her to bring us by his hut before we left.

Pui and Ying, another sister, reappeared in brown clothing and began to lead us around the monastery. They wore straw hats to protect their shaved heads from the vicious sun…They told us that there were 27 nuns there. Pui had been there for 10 years, I think, and Ying was the newest sister, just under a year of experience. Right before that, she graduated from college with a degree in Chinese. As they showed us the temple and various buildings, they explained that the monastery was fairly new and that it had been built by monks and nuns. “We build very fast because meditation together makes the work light. Work was not heavy because we were motivated.”

They showed us a mural of the story where Buddha as a prince leaves his palace for the first time. He sees four truths that he has never been exposed to before: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man. The first three prompt Buddha to ask why there is suffering in the world, and he goes to the forest to find the answer. After telling the story, the nuns took us into a small room with a body lying in the open on a low table. A decaying human body. “I think you never see this before, yes? This is my mother. She donated her body so that we could learn the truth. We will all end like this. Your body, it is not yours. You cannot change it. You cannot take anything with you…Suffering comes from desires and wishes. Your mind must be like your hand, it can pick something up, but it must also let it go. Do not be attached. Let it go. It does not matter.”

Wow. They don’t teach that in engineering school, kids…

They led us to the professor’s little white hut, which overlooks the sea. He welcomed us and talked about how nothing is real because everything is in a state of eternal change. I asked him about happiness and he told us that Buddhists believe it can be achieved by removing suffering. One way to happiness is to analyze pains, to watch them arise, objectively follow them back to their root, and in the process they will loose their power. (Buddha was an analytical man, he told us.) He spoke about a stage of bliss, but also that a monk once told him that he must pierce through this phase of happiness to find something deeper. “Someone once asked Buddha, ‘What do I do now?’ Buddha replied, ‘You start…and then you keep going.’” He talked a little about meditation breathing—my first piece of the meditation puzzle. He encouraged us to try it and ask someone else for the next piece. He told us that the Buddhism practiced in temples and monasteries can’t be found in books, you have to ask nuns and monks to find it.

The nuns led us to the gardens and gave us some of the sweetest juice I’ve ever tasted. They couldn’t tell us exactly what it was—a mixture, they said, apple and something else. Almost everyone at the monastery is vegetarian, they explained.

Sometime in my life I’m going to have a little garden like that—where I can grow food and feed it to other people.

They taught us about the 8-fold path and the senses. I was so overwhelmed by that point that I could barely absorb any of it. They took us past a room with a coffin and told us that every night a different nun sleeps under it, to remind them of their mortality. A cave came next, a natural limestone formation that had been reworked with a tile floor. There were bats. At the end we went back to talk to the Master one-on-two. Pui and Ying translated for us. He told us four things:

  1. Our minds must be like our hands…we must give freely and let go.

  2. We are born covered in lymph and blood, we are dirty all our lives, and we return to dirt.

  3. Open and close your eyes (nothing is real).

  4. Stay single. The suffering of two people is too great.


Alana and I had expected to spend the day exploring the island, but by the time we left the monastery, it was time to head back. The bus ride home was surreal. Between catnaps and philosophical discussions with Alana, I lost all sense of where I was, who I was…well, not exactly…I >did< know…but it felt as though someone had torn apart my mind and put it carefully back together while I wasn’t paying attention. Everything was the same, but it was…different.

In Bangkok, Alana and I parted ways. A few nights previous, I had tried to find a tango event and failed miserably, but between skytrains, taxis, a pair of Russian tourists, endless wandering, a bag of rambutans, and desperate phone calls, I got the email address of the coordinator, and thus better directions to the next event. I found my tango this night in a wild restaurant called Reflections…the décor felt like someone had way too much fun with some throwing darts and a design catalog. All the waiters wore knit caps with horns. I ordered “sweet curry with snails” and began chatting the usual dance banter. There were….ehh…about a dozen other people there…Germans, Frenchmen, Japanese, Americans, and all the Thais there had lived in the states before. No Argentines. As the next progressed and I danced, I forgot I was in Bangkok. I was some place without a location. The tango community is small, but strong…good dancers. Salsa is much more popular here, and I’ve heard that a bar offers free zouk lessons (from Brazil…apparently the “yoga of dance”), so I’ll probably try my hand…errr…feet at those. No swing. Someone led salsa to a swing beat and it almost worked. Fuck. I miss swing. I asked Apple, a dance instructor who knows basically every dance in the city, and she nailed the coffin shut: “I’ve never seen anyone dance swing here.”

When I stumbled out of Reflections, Bangkok hit me like a wall again. Here were the street vendors, here were the cars, here was the skytrain, and finally bus 515 to take me home. Between the Tiger Zoo, the monastery, and tango, I feel like I 've been leaping between worlds…36 hours is a long time.

I never did find any Sri Racha sauce...

22 September 2005

A second skin of sand

Mmmm…Ko Samet…dark green island, lined with shining white beaches, swimming in a sea the color of envy. The roads are mud, colored paper lanterns grow on the trees, there's a dozen stray dogs for every person, and insect repellent is your best friend. By day, tourists lounge and burn in the warm sun, roaming peddlers wander the shore looking for victims, and every white, balding, flabby, middle-aged man has a cute Thai girl (or boy) in his arms. By night, music from the bars drips through the air, cocktails are served in buckets, whirling fire lights the beaches, and lady boys close their souvenir shops to step out and join the dancing and karaoke.

Alana and Nikesha hit the beach.

Why I'm studying away—Exhibit A:

Mmmm… crab with lime chili sauce for dinner...mai tais, long island iced teas, pina coladas, followed by a pleasant drunken glow and a short hike down the island to go dancing. It was raining lightly when we arrived, and as the night progressed, the rain intensified exponentially. I danced madly (and foolishly, I'm sure) because it had been such a long time since I'd had the chance to move my body to music. I miss tango and swing so bad it hurts. I danced almost every night this past summer, and the bar dancing was a welcome relief from the withdrawal symptoms. By the time I staggered home, the road had turned into a river. The stretch between the bar and our bungalows was deserted, dark, and surrounded by jungle. There were frogs everywhere, and they filled the wet air with the sound of an army of dying record players. As I stumbled through the dark and the mud, soaked to the bone from the rain and high from dancing, I paused in a knee-deep puddle and realized that I was intensely happy. "Hell yeah," I thought, "I'm in Thailand…"

The next night karaoke, more dancing and, the fire guys on the beach let me twirl some. Good times.

17 September 2005

Grasshoppers, elephants, and a lawn gnome

I saw an elephant yesterday. We live by an 8-lane highway and I was waiting for the bus by the side of the road. I was getting pretty frustrated because I had been waiting for a long time, so I was staring intently at the oncoming traffic, ready to jump up and wave my arms if bus 84 appeared. When I took a quick glance behind me, there was this elephant lumbering up the sidewalk. I nearly fell over. Bangkok is crazy like that—just when I think the bedlam has reached its limits and the city can't get any louder or dirtier, I stumble across an enchanting, serene side street, a golden temple appears out of nowhere, …or an elephant nearly knocks me over.

Last night, I met a girl from Tajikistan. We stuck out like bright white sore thumbs ordering our dinner from street vendors. We struck up a conversation and ate together, we had green tea and Russian chocolate back at her dorm. She's 28 and used to work for CARE. She attends a medical school at MU, and she seemed incredibly lonely. She knows of no one else from her country at MU, and she complained that none of her classmates ever go out at night. She made me feel lucky because our group of 10 KEI students always goes out together. It's a sweet thing that KEI gave us mobile phones, because we all go our separate ways during the day, and then coordinate ourselves by night time to head into Bangkok or organize a movie night at home. Sometimes traveling with 10 people is like pulling teeth because decisions take an eternity and a half, but the companionship sure is nice…

Last night the KEI gang went out to a Jazz club. The music was phenomenal, although the food was pricy: $2-3 for entrees, $3-4 for drinks. My standards have definitely changed. A full plate of Pad Thai on Khosan Rd is $0.35, while mouth-watering street food in other places runs $0.50-$1. It's gonna be painful coming back to the US.

After Jazz, we took taxis to Khosan Rd. The gang had beers at the ladyboy bar again, and I wandered the streets. GRASSHOPPERS. I ordered fried grasshoppers from a street vendor. I've wanted to eat grasshoppers since I read about eating insects in Ranger Rick when I was 8. I even went as far as to catch some in my backyard and kill them in my freezer, but I balked when it came to cooking them because I wasn't sure if they were poisonous. The Khosan grasshoppers weren't fantastic, but I wasn't disappointed: they were crunchy and a bit spicy, with a pleasant aftertaste.

15 September 2005

Street art

Recent sightings near Club Q on Sukhumvit Rd in the middle of Bangkok...

14 September 2005

Never say night

Once upon a time there was an English bloke named…of course…John. And like most English blokes in Thailand for the long term, he had a Thai girlfriend. He breathed alcohol, drank smoke, and showed us the way to several little sweet hang out spots. "Katmandi" is a good place to be. (The sign out side says, "Great Food Good Song") A Thai named Paul plays guitar and sings American and Thai hits every night, and after a few rounds the whole bar is singing with him. It's quickly becoming a favorite hangout of the gang, and there's been at least one night where we invited the rest of the international students--that usually quiet little pub was so packed it was bursting at the seams. I've spent a few nights sitting at a table piled with Singha bottles, talking philosophy, pondering celestial physics, and musing on the human mind. Now if only I could wash the stench of second-hand smoke out of my clothes...

Then there's The Shamrock on Khoasan Rd... Khoasan Rd is >the< hangout for backpackers and farangs (foreigners) in Bangkok. It's trashy, debauched, and I love every last slimy stone on that street. It's so...international... Stop any random person on the street and strike up a conversation, they're from all over the world... Street vendors sell everything from your grandma to the kitchen sink. [This includes: food (of course), used books, cocktails, hair braiding/dredding, trendy clothing, and the usual knick-knacks.] If you want to get a feel for Khaosan Rd, watch "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio, but be warned, it's full of cheesy lines and macabre scenes...but it does give a good feel for the utter insanity found in parts of Thailand...although I can't say I've found any fields of marijuana or Thai drug guerrillas with guns...

Ummm...back to the point...the Shamrock is...bloody fantastic...that's what it is. An Irish pub with a Thai band that does smashing covers of American songs....good times...good times...

09 September 2005

Concrete for breakfast

My mind is so full I don't know where to begin.

I don't like admitting that I don't like Bangkok. When I first started seriously looking for a place to study away, Gaylon and Zenia gave me a multitude of recommendations, listed beautiful places all over the world…and told me to stay away from Bangkok. When Teresa talked about her months in Asia, she glowed about everything…until Bangkok came up, and she started scowling. Hours of Google and elbow grease later, I was oscillating between two choices: Kenya and Thailand. Qualifying criteria: 1) Not in Europe or the Americas, and 2) a wide variety of classes, including psychology. The decision process is only clean-cut and concise in retrospect. I had no clue in hell what I was doing. I'm not exactly sure what tipped Thailand. I think it might have been the neuroscience course in their catalog, which is ironically not offered this term after all.

I'm not unhappy here… just takes a lot more effort to stay happy. I think this is going to be my semester of self-discipline. I've considering joining the army or the navy in the past, just because I want the experience and the discipline. I wanted to be forced to test my limits, and by doing so, expand them. (Corny, I know…) I've since realized that I'll never learn to be strong unless I learn to test my own limits without being forced. I think I'm going to jump into Peace Corps after college. Thailand is my boot camp now.

It's amusing that I want to be more disciplined and yet more spontaneous at the same time. I want to be strong enough to keep myself above apathy, to have the stamina it takes to be happy. Thailand will teach me to be more patient and assertive, less panicky and thin-skinned. I want to be open to the world, but at the same time, I don't want to let it tear me apart.

Anyone who thinks America is a nation of consumer whores should take a day trip to Bangkok. I have never experienced such blatant commercialism in my life. Bangkok is a writhing sea of fast food, clothing, shoes, cars, and cell phones. There are billboards screaming everywhere, empty smiling ad faces look out from every corner, and sometimes I feel like I'm trapped inside a giant shopping mall.

There are astounding wats (temples) and palaces nestled between the expressways and the skyscrapers, but even they seem decadent, glaring, overdone. We've taken lightning tours across the city, and I've seen enough golden Buddhas to last a lifetime. I just want to find a small, quiet, cool stone temple with a small wooden Buddha on some back road and sit for hours in silence away from the noise and the tourists and the exhaust.

In other news, the air conditioner in our shaft-and-a-half bedroom broke. Now it spits out scorching hot air. Yipee.

08 September 2005

A glossary of sorts...

Ummm...here's a few buzzwords defined, maybe it will help lend a little sense to my entries...I'll try to go back and update it as I come up with more words...

The gang -- the 10 KEI students at MUIC this semester

KEI (Knowledge Exchange Institute) – My sponsoring program. We pay them a lump sum, they pay for school, find housing, arrange outings, etc. There are 10 KEI kids here now. There's probably ~60+ other internationals at MUIC who are not with KEI.

MUIC (Mahidol University International College) – the Thai institution I'm attending. Courses are taught in English, but only 10% of the students are from out of the country.

Tuk-tuk -- Hell yeah these things are fun. Bargain with the driver, then hand him your life as he weaves through Bangkok traffic.

07 September 2005

Contact info

Mailing address:

Laura Stupin
International Relations Office
Mahidol University International College
999 Buddhamonthon 4 Rd.
Salaya, Nakhonpathom 73170

Thai cell phone: 05-1266181

02 September 2005

$50 stack slap

Hey, I’m going to sleep now. You won't see me for…a little bit. ‘Cause I’ll be sleeping.

--Madfellow Mike

01 September 2005

The ghosts are at the gate

I don’t actually live in Santa Fe. My house is outside of city limits on a dirt road. I went running last night, a little past midnight. No moon, only stars, and there’s no streetlights out here, so it was darker than a communist conspiracy. I’m not a runner, but I start missing New Mexico before I leave it, and I felt the overwhelming need to stake out my turf, to make sure I still owned the hills and arroyos, and the thin air and parched piñons still belonged to me.
I learned how to ride a bike in the dark during inky summer nights at Ghost Ranch. Dodging unseen obstacles wasn't the hard part, it was learning to make peace with my mind…in the dark, every half-seen clump of bushes concealed a rattlesnake or an axe murderer. Nothing scares me quite like groping through a dark night does. It creates a familiar feeling of utter panic...my throat tightens, my veins sing with adrenaline, and my my pounding heart leaks out my ears. After a while, it becomes addicting. How long can I skate on the edge of my fears?
Last night, I found myself running nearly blind, feeling the road and watching the stars. I felt enormously vulnerable because I could barely see and mind kept creating lurking monsters. My feet thumping against the dirt seemed like the only sound in the world, and I felt so loud. I couldn't help imagining people sitting up in bed as I thumped by. I heard some dogs barking maniacally in the distance, and I realized that there were three of them and I would soon be running right past them. I could see them leaping over the fence, coming to tear my throat out in the dark. Then my runner's high kicked in and my head exploded with euphoria. It dawned on me that they were barking because they were afraid of me, this thumping, shadowy monster that was barrelling down their road past midnight, and if they dared jump over that fence, I would just rip their effing throats out.
Sounds silly in retrospect, right? The point is...in that moment it was razor clear that I have nothing to fear in the world because the whole world is fearful. Thailand, here I come.