Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Udon Thani is dry and beautiful

Had my first motorcycle ride with friends today -- three bad boys from Homer, Albert, DC, Al and I rode together to a favorite spot about 35 miles south of here, Phu Failom National Park. I've posted pictures from there in the past and I'll no doubt post a few more in the future because it is such a nice spot and within easy riding distance from this city, our "northern headquarters". We had some good Thai food at the restaurant there at road's end, argued about which route we should have taken to get there and speculated on which route we should follow to get back. This time of year it's all good though. The weather is perfect, temps about 85, no wind, partly cloudy, and everything is green as hell after the rainy season. It was a great ride.

Three bad boys from Homer at Phu Failom Park
(N17.16164 E102.69558)
Rice paddy on Rte 2313 south of Udon Thani
The other good news is that Nut is finally ready to leave Bangkok. Barring some unforeseen difficulty, she'll be on the 8 o'clock overnight train arriving here tomorrow morning. I'm relieved of course. I've been in a funny place since we separated. I've gone through several kinds of, let's call it emotional unrest, since last Friday. I've been worried about her and have missed her, sure, but I've also been angry that she had to stubbornly push this to the limit. Now that the water has reached the streets right outside our apartment block she finally thinks it might be time to leave. I've been begging, cajoling, and warning her about the terrible waterborne diseases to which she will be exposed if she stayed in my attempts to convince her to leave, all without success. Better late than never is all I can say.

In her defense, I must say that she was only trying to protect our place and her things. She has more to lose than I do if the place gets inundated. When we returned to Bangkok a couple of weeks ago neither of us thought Bangkok would actually flood. Now, that seems inevitable. The only questions are, how bad will it be, how much of our stuff will get destroyed, how long will it last, how long until things return to normal?

Most of our other friends have left by now too. Henry was holding out for some reason but he finally came to his senses and booked a flight out today. Homer friend Scott was headed to Bangkok for some dental work. He wisely decided to wait until the crisis ends. Our thoughts are with the gals at the Gecko Bar, Geni and Pookie, who live in Bangkok and cannot leave. Hang in there ladies.

Daily I watch scenes unfolding in the English language Bangkok Post and watch Thai TV. It seems endless. The suffering, the wreckage of homes and livelihoods, automobiles, farm animals, pets, all lost — by some estimates the disaster could last into the New Year. I'll take the Red Shirt rallies any day compared to this.

Interesting trees - Phu Failom Park (Albert photo)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fleeing the flood?

Nut on the sidewalk in front of Tang Hua Seng
Homer  friend Albie and I are about to flee Bangkok for the safety of Udon Thani. The flooding we've been worrying about for the past few weeks seems unavoidable at this point.

The Thai government has up to now sacrificed the outlying communities in an effort to preserve Bangkok, the economic heart and capitol of Thailand. Some places just a mile or two north of here (Banglamphu) have had chest high water for over 2 weeks. The city center is protected by dikes and flood control gates on its north side. As the water continues to rise so too does the political pressure to open the gates to allow this part of Thailand, the only part in the southern region still above water, to slowly flood. Yesterday the PM formally requested the mayor of Bangkok to open those gates. If we get 1-3 feet of water here this area could make New Orleans and Katrina look like a  backyard pool party by comparison. There are 9 million people in Bangkok proper, 15 million in the greater Bangkok area. It could get very ugly.

Phra Sumen Fort on a cloudy evening

I've been torn about leaving up to now because Nut refuses to come along. Her entire family is here, several of them are already flooded out, and she wants to protect her/our stuff. Her daughter is pregnant and their place also is flooded already. If I can get out of here today, her daughter and boyfriend, or her sister, can retreat to our place and they'll stay together. I tell her if the floods actually come it could become very difficult here for a long time -- no electricity, no water for drinking or showering, and food will become scarce as well. But she remains adamant about staying. Knowing that I'll do some good by leaving her here, I finally made the decision to get out if I can. She will come north to rejoin me when the crisis is past. It remains to be seen if we can get out by train. As of yesterday the trains were still running but many highways are already closed.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I finally got implants installed the other day. I put it off for a month because I was dreading it --- I felt like a real wuss around it. I hemmed and hawed about getting implants vs a less expensive and less invasive bridge because of this apprehension. I guess because I've been going to the same dentist in the same office in Homer for 20 years, I had a hard time being able to trust some unknown, unproven, and foreign, dentist with the delicate job of drilling into my jawbone. But the guy I picked is very experienced, with over 2,000 implants done to date, seemingly competent, and he used some super sophisticated CT equipment to help him place the implants. Nut's niece has been going to his clinic, the Phetburi Dental Clinic, for years -- that's how I learned about him.

So, I finally decided to just figuratively grit my teeth and get it done. I had come prepared to spend a couple of hours in the chair but the entire "ordeal" was over in 30 minutes flat! I never felt the slightest twinge of pain, just a bit of pressure when he did the drilling. I'm to go back in 2 months for the actual crowns to be placed. Cost for 2 teeth: about $4K. I chose American implants for an additional $500 each as the dentist said they were better than the cheaper ones from Korea. Whether that's really true or just some Thai feeling about Korea I don't know but I decided to spend the extra money. It will sure be nice to toss these temporaries, these fucking "flippers", into the trashcan.

I've been reading some great books lately. My Thai studies have been pushed aside temporarily by motorcycles, Nut, flooding, and reading, not necessarily in that order. I just finished a novel by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong, about World War I. An excellent read and one that makes me want to sample some of his other stuff. I'm almost through Amitav Ghosh's The glass palace, a novel set in SE Asia during WWII, and another great read.

I bought e-book editions, Kindle editions actually, of several other books from Amazon.com that I'm reading on my Netbook in the Google Chrome browser. I never thought I'd like reading that way but it works surprisingly better than expected. I can carry some otherwise heavy tomes along on my travels without adding an ounce to my pack.

It will be good to get back into the cooler weather up north. Usually by now the dry, winter season is governing Bangkok's weather but because the rainy weather has persisted into late October it's been consistently too warm and too humid for this farang. But of course I'll miss Nut. And I'll worry about her. But her family is close and they'll stick together through this. I'm sure she will do her best to protect our stuff and her turf. I hope the crisis passes soon and that there will be no flooding in our apartment.

An evening at the Gecko Bar with friends - Henry, Albie, Nut and Al

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bangkok Flooding Seems Imminent

We took  a short river trip on a water taxi on the Chao Phraya River this evening. The area we're in, Banglamphu in Bangkok proper, has so far escaped the floods that have inundated much of Bangkok in past weeks. Today we went shopping for a motorcycle jacket for Nut and just as we were about to head home she got a phone call from her sister, Aouw, telling us she had heard from someone at the Phranok Market that the Chao Phraya River had overflowed near our place and that it was raining furiously over here, again.

We rushed home and were relieved to find that the rain had stopped quickly and the river had already receded quite a bit. Still, the threat of flooding was now, in our minds at least, much more real than it had been before. We went to the riverside to see what we could see and decided to grab a water taxi and head up north, toward Nonthaburi, where the flooding was more serious. Here are a few photos from our trip. They were  taken in fading light near dusk on October 19, 2011.

Nut poses at Phra Sumen Park on the Chao Phraya riverside

River walkway flooding - Chao Phraya River - Phra Sumen Park
Rama VIII Bridge from the water taxi
Flooded building on the Chao Phraya River

A beautiful evening despite the flooding - Chao Phraya River - Bangkok, Oct 19, 2011
We went north for a few stops but decided we'd better get back while the getting was good. I definitely did not want to get trapped in one of the already flooded northern suburbs seeing as night was closing in and the taxis were due to stop running at 7 o'clock. Better to be back at home, come what may. So we jumped off the northbound taxi and grabbed a southbound one as soon as the darkness made picture taking difficult.  Here's a shot of the temple at Phra Sumen Park at dusk:

Temple - Phra Sumen Park - Bangkok, Oct 19, 2011

At this point, the situation here is the worst it's been since we returned from Udon. Opinions about whether Bangkok will flood are divided but Nut is convinced it will happen. The Chao Phraya is an estuary; ocean tides periodically raise its level for several miles upstream. The current high tide is running at about 3 meters but next weekend the high tides will peak at 3.5 meters and maintain that level for several days. Those tides coupled with the already maxed out water levels that exist in the river could indeed spell disaster for Bangkok. We're keeping our fingers crossed.

Right now Nut is over at Aouw's helping her move things to the upper level away from the water that today began to encroach on the first floor. I stayed home to hit the sack early because I got two implants in my upper jaw this morning and I don't want to do anything to compromise that operation. I hope Nut will be safe and can get back here alright. Earlier this evening  I noticed for the first time that our apartment block is  at a slightly higher elevation than the streets surrounding it. Let's hope that if the shit hits the fan, our place will be among those that escape severe damage.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bangkok prepares for flooding

Park on the Chao Phraya Riverfront
Nut and I returned to Bangkok a  few days ago to prepare our place for possible high water. It hasn't happened yet. Although the water has not yet reached its crest, government talking heads assure us that they can take care of it. Others are not so sure.

The flood crest might reach 2 meters higher than the current level of the river. There is not 2 meters of seawall available to contain that much water. Nevertheless, life goes on and it's been pretty much business as usual.
The rain swollen Chao Phraya River with the Rama VIII bridge in the background
As the pundits argue about how, when, or if central Bangkok will flood several northern suburbs are already having problems with bursting levees and high water. About 100 crocodiles escaped from a zoo and have many citizens scared to venture out into the water. Some experts have said these crocs are "not fierce". Gee, that's encouraging. Then there's the fact that Thailand is home to many species of snakes, some poisonous, and some that live in water. More food for thought as the water levels rise.

Some Bangkok shop owners in my neighborhood have taken matters into their own hands and have built walls in front of their doorways.

The fact that these are public sidewalks doesn't deter them one bit. The police are something of a joke as they seldom do anything much in the way of law enforcement. They are simply not a factor in this sort of thing.

Here is a link to a more complete blog with some great pictures and commentary. It's the latest entry in a blog called Women Learning Thai, and some men too. In it Cat details the lack of bottled drinking water in the stores and other shortcomings of the "disaster relief plan" for the Thai capitol. People are predictably hoarding certain commodities like rice and apparently water.

For now we're all safe and dry. I would like to leave before the situation deteriorates but Nut insists that I go on back to Udon ahead of her. She wants to stay and protect our place. I think it could get very tough here without electricity or drinkable water. We buy  our water from one of several coin-op electric deionizers in our neighborhood. Needless to say these won't be working if the electricity goes out. I worry about leaving her but she has family scattered here and there and isn't concerned about getting stuck in the city.

In the papers this morning we read the Thai military wants to declare a State of Emergency for Bangkok. What that might mean for our travel plans is anybody's guess.

Oh, and this tidbit. In an effort to move water out of the rivers and into the ocean more quickly, the Thai government has commissioned whole fleets of boats to help "pump" the water out of several rivers. The idea is this: the boats are tied to a dock facing upstream, the engine is fired up and the propellers engaged to run at speed. Seeing as the boats cannot move the props push the water downstream. How much difference can this make? Good question.

I posted a link to a video of this on my Facebook page. Check it out if you like by going to me page or you can try this link: Bangkok boat pumping water out to sea.

Homeless people behind sandbags under the Pinklao Bridge

Monday, October 10, 2011

I buy another motorcycle

I bought a motorcycle yesterday. It's an older Honda Phantom that the previous owner hardly rode. It is a 2005 model but has only 1000 km (600 miles) on the speedometer. Jeff is an English expat who lives with his Thai wife few miles south of Udon Thani. I was torn between buying a used Phantom for about $2,000 and plunking down twice that much for a new Honda CBR 250. The Phantom is a known quantity -- I've ridden rented ones several thousand miles over the past two years. They're very underpowered and a bit bulky for maneuvering in traffic but are fairly comfortable and almost any moto shop in Thailand can work on them. The biggest reason I caved and bought this bike is because I was afraid the newer Honda with its sportier riding position would prove uncomfortable for longer rides.

2005 Honda Phantom - the venerable Thai "Chopper"
Jeff added a bunch of customizations I don't like and that I'll probably remove: the windshield, the platform foot rests, the "whitewall" tires, the oversize handlebars. It is a nice looking bike however. Nut and I had planned to return to Bangkok today but postponed our return so we could do the paperwork for the transfer of the license and title. We're concerned about the flooding that seems destined to hit the big city within the next few days. If the rain doesn't stop soon the city will experience its worst flooding in 60 years. We will move our valuables to higher ground (exactly how we'll accomplish that I don't know) and then beat a quick retreat back to the north to wait for the dry season, or the waters to recede, whichever comes first.

As for riding, we'll have a few hours this afternoon to check out the bike more thoroughly but seeing as it's virtually new, I expect that will go pretty well. Then I'll store it at a local Honda dealer for a couple of weeks until we can get back up here for a longer road trip. This bike is a long step down from my V-Strom but I figure if I just hate riding it I can always resell it for what I paid. When we drove out yesterday to have a look I was sort of hoping I wouldn't like it and thus be forced into buying the 250 but it was in such pristine condition and priced so low I just had to buy it. At some point I'll get a chance to ride a 250 and if I find I simply love it and cannot live without it, I'll buy one and sell the Phantom.

A whole gang of friends from Homer and elsewhere are due to arrive in Bangkok next week. I'll try to evaluate the situation and shoot them emails if I think they would be better off postponing their arrivals or changing their destinations to some other city.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In Bangkok Again

I'm back in Bangkok and hanging out with my sweet girl. Almost as soon as I stepped off the plane I felt at home. Considering how enormous this city is and how little of it I actually know, I'm conscious of the fact that that statement hardly makes sense. Yet that's the feeling I have. We went to the Phranok Market Saturday for my 68th birthday celebration. Nut's sister Aouw cooked khao soi while her brothers, Moo and Muk, and I worked on a bottle of Chivas Regal. Some nieces and nephews and Nut's daughter Dui Dui and her boyfriend Krit were there too. Her family is wonderful and they treat me really well. Her brother Muk told me as we hugged hello, "I've missed you." "Me too", I replied. We always have a lot of laughs despite the language barrier. It was a cool celebration and a fine welcome back.

Birthday Bash (L to R, Nut, me, Nut's brothers Muk, Moo & daughter Dui Dui, nephew Ice in rear)

Nut & Dui Dui with twin nieces Bam and Bo

I missed Nut pretty bad at times while I was in Alaska and being back with her after our long separation has me all giddy with happiness. While I write she is listening to, and with her charming Thai accent, singing along with her favorite music -- American oldies popular during my high school days. (One of my all time faves "Sea of Love" is playing. Calling Wild Bill: can you tell me who does that one?). We treated ourselves to haircuts and pedicures and a two-hour massage session on my first full day back. Then the birthday party, and the other night a tennis match at the Impact Arena where the Thailand Open, an ATP Tour event, is being played out.

In typical Thai fashion the air conditioned arena was just too damn cold for comfort. I should have known better. Nut donned the  jacket I'd made her bring while I was mentally kicking myself for not throwing an extra shirt into her handbag. We watched Frenchman Gilles Simon take a tough 3-set win from a talented guy from Taipei, Yen-Hsun Lu. I was surprised by Nut's reaction to the match. She's never played tennis (or any sport for that matter) and I had fully expected her to be bored to tears by it all. But she totally loved it! Seeing a pro tennis match is quite cool and nothing whatever like watching your run-of-the-mill club level play. Those guys cover a lot of ground in a 2-3 hour match and Simon made a few absolutely amazing passing shots after some lengthy, fast paced rallies. Before long Nut was cheering and clapping along with me after a good point. By the end of the match I was chilled to the bone and politely suggested we could make our break if she wanted to leave early. Even though the tickets had cost $100, I was willing to forego the night's second match because I was freezing my butt off.

She said, "Oh no. Let's wait to see if next match boring or not. If boring, we go."
"Okay, sure", I said, even though I was the one ready to leave.

During the break between matches I went out for hot chocolate and to get my blood flowing again. It had never before ocurred to me that I'd be ever be trying to get warmer in Bangkok yet here I was killing time outdoors hoping the warm night air would raise my temperature back to normal. I brought the hot chocolate back to an appreciative new tennis fan who was eagerly awaitng the next match, which also turned out to be pretty good.  In the event, Robin Hasse (Dutch) was defeated in straight sets by Jaarko Niemenen of Finland.  We left the arena at about midnight. In the taxi on our way home I asked the driver to turn off the air con. Naturally, it was much too cold for (my) comfort in the cab.

Next day we went over to Pinkao Central Plaza where I bought a tennis racquet for Nut. We haven't played yet but it will be interesting to see if she takes to it as she thinks she will.

"I'm very clever", says she, "I can learn to play quickly. No problem". She's not lacking in confidence, that's for sure. We'll see how it goes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

We went back to Pinklao Central for a movie but the big attraction was the food. It's Vegetable Month in Thailand and the lower level of the Plaza was literally jammed with stalls selling all manner of exotic vegetarian foods and treats. You're probably saying to yourselves about now, oh no, more photos of food. Yes, I'm afraid so. Nut and I are both crazy about food, her even more than me if that's possible to believe. We hardly finish one meal before she's thinking about the next, a trait that we constantly joke about at my family gatherings.

Here are a few shots of the food stalls at Pinklao Central Plaza. The scene was more chaotic than these stills show - people were everywhere buying, eating and selling food. I love the way the Thais obsess about food. You see folks eating everywhere, on the job, in the theaters, on the roads and street corners of the neighborhoods. It's a perfect place for a food junkie like me (and Nut).

BTW, all of these last photos were shot with my new Android smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S. I often wish I had my old dumb phone back but at times like these when I've forgotten to bring my "real" camera, it comes in handy.

We bought some food to take home for next day and then adjourned to Fuji, a high end Japanese restaurant, a chain no less, to eat dinner before the movie. It wasn't cheap by comparison with the usual places we eat but the food was sublime.

Sashimi plate and remains of the grilled asparagus
Stuffed broiled mussells, garlic grilled mushrooms
I can tell you, this meal was scrumptious. It cost about $30 USD, not including my beer and a small decanter of hot sake. We will definitely return to this restaurant for more.

I've returned to my studies of Thai. But that's a story I'll save for another post. I must share just one thing about that though before I go. The other day we went to a local bookstore where I bought a few Thai children's books, books with no English translations. Last night as I was slowly working my way through one of them, a book about two elephants, I recognized a word, dee jai, ดีใจ, which means happy! And then another popped into my consciousness, and another. I was actually reading Thai! Sheesh - I've a long, long way to go but I was thrilled nonetheless.