Bangkok Journal Chapter 2 - Western Worries and Water Rules

It’s warm, but easy sleeping with the fan. The air conditioner is too loud and creates a foreign space. Neither of us likes it. Heat is the reality. In spite of the humid mornings, I drink my Lipton hot, with a little milk. It’s nice to be able to buy the Lipton brand here.

Blue, grey morning haze will either last all day or give way to blue white sun. I haven’t worn my sunglasses since I’ve arrived and I don’t plan to start anytime soon. For some reason, the sun doesn’t seem to bother my eyes and, anyway, I don’t want to hide behind black shades. I also don’t wish to look like a tourist (to that end, I’d better rethink the flip-flops, baggy shorts and tee shirts. Thais wear shorts, but not baggy, and sandals but even the rubber ones are a little thicker and different from the western style “flip-flop”. Some Thais wear tee-shirts, but many favour the light yellow polo shirt with an emblem of the King, worn in his honour.)

There are low, white, concrete buildings and an occasional high rise in all directions as far as the eye can comfortably see from the balcony. (We’re on the 7th floor.) This morning there’s a heavy sulphur smell in the air – a big city smell. Am I in Bayonne or Bangkok? I hear the hum of a million air-conditioners (this is like standing on a balcony in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and I feel the thrum of urban infrastructure. That’s a familiar feeling. That’s a New York, a city feeling. I’m in a city. If I forget, I only need walk down our road a piece to soi Ramhkamhaeng, the main thoroughfare in this area. It’s nice that we’re back off a side street enough to be removed from the rumble of traffic, from the sound as well as the fumes. The smog here is not as bad as I remember it from my visit a few years back, but, of course, on the main roads, there’s lots of exhaust.

The humidity, the late afternoon downpours that try to cool things off but don’t quite succeed, the fluffy clouds in an endless sky (when there’ no haze), also reminds me of Florida. The haze, when it’s there, or smog, reminds of Los Angeles. The sprawl reminds me of Los Angeles. When I’m in the crush of people on the narrow sidewalks, dancing on the edge of the heavy, moat-like traffic – when I get puffed by a belching bus – then I’m back in my mind in New York. Since the faces are all Asian, my mind is more specific: I’m on Canal Street snaking through Chinatown as I cross lower Manhattan (there’s a Chinatown in Bangkok, too). Funny, I am never transported to Germany. There is nothing about Bangkok remotely German or northern European. But many parts of the city, and the climate, even parts of the culture (especially when I’m at a shopping mall complete with Dairy Queen), remind me of the States.

Time warp: we did a trial run with the bus today to Chulalongkorn University, where I have my interview tomorrow morning. (The distance of about 10 miles, with no transferring, took about 2 hours. Not bad!) Noraseth also wanted to stop briefly at a mall near there to see about transferring his cell phone chip. The mall was attached to a major tourist hotel. Suddenly all the people were white and the prices were quadrupled!

I like the smaller malls and supermarkets in our neighbourhood. Imagine: a modern supermarket like Publix in Florida, Ralphs in LA, ShopRite in NJ, even Tegut in Kassel or Tesco in London (in fact, Tesco-Lotus is one of the major chains here in Bangkok). You expect to see the pre-packaged cooked chickens on a black or white Styrofoam plate, covered in shrink wrap and under intense heat lamps in a glass-enclosed case. Instead, you almost bump into a large garment-style rack of about forty uncovered cooked chickens (heads somewhat still intact), dripping grease and fat, which is speckling and pooling on broken down cardboard boxes placed beneath. There are no flies, though, since we are indoors (with air conditioning). These chickens are delicious, you realize later, when you order some with rice at the food court in Big C (equivalent to Walmart). You notice after you order that they have a naked bird, cooked and hanging in identical fashion.

Western worries: what food is safe to eat? It’s not a good idea to look too closely into the kitchens of some of the restaurants along the streets. While the ones in the malls look like any food stand in any mall anywhere, the street restaurants are basically garage fronts, or simple, unpainted concrete structures with bare concrete floors and water (used for cooking or cleaning) in buckets. Remember: water here is luke warm from the tap, neither cold nor hot. We have a hot water unit for the shower at home, but both sinks (in the kitchen and bathroom) don’t have hot water (somehow it’s not a problem. Trust me.). Standards of cleanliness here are different than in the west, but somehow work. Noraseth is only taking me to places where it’s safe to eat – no matter what they look like – and, in a way, he’s training me to recognize safe food for myself. Basically the only thing that’s not safe to eat is food being cooked on the ground on grills or hibachis by poor people basically living on the ground. If it’s below your knees, don’t eat here.

By the way, the most questionable looking restaurants have the best tasting food. I have yet to be disappointed by the fresh rice and vegetables, a little meat or fish, hotly spiced with chilli sauce (even if you order “native” in the Thai restaurants in the U.S., it’s still about a tenth of the power of what you get here. My mouth goes numb). The only really unappealing restaurants are McDonalds and KFC (yes, they’re everywhere).

What about cooking at home? Is there ever time to cook at home during the week in a big city? Would you want to when you can get fresh rice or noodles, veggies, tropical fruits (jackfruit, pomello, durien, mango), etc. on every corner at every hour of the day or night? You can buy bread and other western style products – even western brand names – at the supermarkets here if you want, but I prefer the Asian stuff, which I could never get on the fly in Europe (you had to sit down in a formal restaurant there – not practical for lunch between teaching assignments). When we don’t eat out, we even bring home dinner in plastic bags tied with rubber bands (like the kind we used to get goldfish in when we won them at the County Fair. Some of you know what I mean). We’ll get a rice cooker to make our own fresh rice, but Noraseth, who’s a good cook (some of you know this), has no time for cooking during the week and neither will I. But what’s to worry? I always feel like I can get healthy, appetizing fresh food fast but I never feel like it’s fast food.

Some of this all probably sounds a little scary, especially to those who’ve never travelled outside the U.S. It’s not scary at all if you’re here experiencing it. We live in a very modern building, very south-FLA condo like, with modern facilities. It’s just that there’s usually an Asian twist, or a Bangkok twist, like the thing with no hot water sinks.

And, sometimes, when you’re out and about, you do get a little developing world moment. Imagine: 4 year-olds sitting on their father’s lap on a motorcycle, with or without helmets, not strapped in but with feet on the steering column and hands on the rear view mirror, holding on quite competently as their pop weaves – and I mean weaves – in and out of moving traffic, which includes busses. You simply have to see this to believe it! The first time I saw it, I thought it was an exception. But I see it now everywhere. Whole families on motorcycles – mom riding side saddle in her sensible shoes on back. Incredible. They make it look so easy that I want to go out and buy a Honda. But I’ve read the worst accidents here – and there are many – involve motorbikes. Now I know why.)

Water rules:
1. Drink only bottled water and only that from clear brand name bottles you can see through (not the cloudy white bottles – that is filtered drinking water and, while safe for anyone who grew up here, it’s not quite clean enough for visitors. I’d rather drink that, though, than the tap water in London!)
2. Water bottles can be refilled from the blue water machines found throughout Bangkok (this is the only way to re-cycle them, by the way. All trash just goes in one container here. Sorry if I just gave every German and a few Americans a heart attack.) The blue water machines have very high quality water which cost about 5 U.S. cents for 3 two-litre bottles (Germans note: water is inexpensive here – and drinking water does not have gas or bubbles!) Tap water is fine for brushing teeth, washing hands and the shower.
3. Big chunky ices cubes are okay anywhere. Crushed ice is okay in high-end restaurants (in the malls) but beware in the other places (on the streets).

And remember: always step over door thresholds and not on them. According to the old traditions, ghosts live everywhere, including in thresholds. Stepping on them insults and aggravates them, which is not a good thing.

Other important dos and don’ts:
- It’s insulting to touch Thais on the head (even cute, cuddly little kids). The crown chakra is the connection to Buddha and is to be respected as holy.
- Feet are dirty. Keep them on the ground and don’t point with them when sitting.

Who’s ready to come visit?

Tuesday, 28 August 2007