Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas from Thailand

Another year has come and gone and now the holiday season is upon us. At the ripe old age of 74 I don't get too excited about Christmas anymore but Nut trimmed the patio with lights and some tinsel and that put me in the mood for reminiscing and for reaching out to friends old and new. The holidays often also bring a spell of cool weather. For many of us who spend Christmas in the tropics, this sort of weather is as close to winter as it ever gets. Nut and I were surprised to find the temperature inside the house at a bone chilling 55 degrees the other morning. We brought the portable convection oven into the living room and ran it all morning until the sun had warmed the air outside. I know this must sound a bit silly to most of my friends and family who still enjoy (or suffer) real winter weather but my acclimatization to the cold ain't what it used to be and days I might have got through with only a long sleeve shirt and jeans in Alaska seem now to require a jacket and even gloves, especially when riding the bicycle or moto. It was only a brief "cold snap", hardly worthy of the name, and when they do come they're a refreshing interlude between the warmer days.

Anyway, here's wishing you a fine holiday season, no matter where you are or what your weather's like. Let's hope next year is better than the last and that we continue to enjoy peaceful and healthy lives.

Until we meet again.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year

Sunday, November 26, 2017

We visit the Panyaden International School

When one travels in SE Asia, one sees a lot of bamboo — it's literally everywhere. It's used for furniture, fences, walls, flooring, scaffolding, ladders, houses —  and even made into cloth. I've seen pictures of bamboo scaffolding on the Internet that extends many stories above the ground (see for some impressive examples), up to and including skyscrapers. It's also used to support concrete floor forms during all types of construction from the smallest home to the largest buildings. The rural poor often live in houses constructed entirely of bamboo. The school we visited in September, the Panyaden International School, (Wikipedia has more) also uses bamboo extensively but the construction is both unique and beautiful. The main materials fabrication site for the outfit that designed and built the school, Chiangmai Life Construction, is situated on the nearby Canal Road so we visited that as well to learn how they process the bamboo to prevent devastation from Thailand's many wood-eating insects.
Panyaden Meeting Hall
Panyaden Meeting Hall — Interior
Panyaden Meeting Hall — Interior detail
Note use of rope and dowels instead of bolts or nails
Panyaden Meeting Hall — Interior detail

Panyaden School Canteen with bamboo tables & benches

The Panyaden School is a model of sustainable building practices and has won awards because of its innovative use of bamboo and rammed-earth construction. (see this Wikipedia article for more.) Below is a shot of the exterior of a bathroom. Classrooms are done in much the same way. Rammed-earth walls have significant thermal storage capacity which keeps them cool during the daytime — classrooms need not be air-conditioned.

Panyaden is a so-called "international school", which means coursework is presented in both English and Thai each of which is used about 50% of the time; each class has a Thai teacher and fluent English-speaking teacher. It offers education from nursery school to Grade 6. Tuition involves a substantial outlay ranging from 81K baht per term for K-1 and K-2 to about 103K baht for grades 6 and 7. At the current exchange rate of 35 baht per USD that works out to approximately $2300 and $2940 USD per term or $4600 and $5900 USD per year. There is another 10K baht ($285 USD) required per term for a Capital Improvements fee and a one-time admission fee of 40K baht ($1143 USD). This cost is well beyond the reach of many people. Considering that the average Thai worker makes only about 300-400 baht PER DAY it's pretty obvious that only the well-heeled can afford to send their kids to Panyaden.

Curious about the preparation of the bamboo, we visited Chiangmai Life Construction (CLC) to learn how they do it. None of the workers spoke any English but from the empty bags lying about, I determined that the bamboo is insect-proofed by soaking it in a solution of boric acid for up to two weeks. Termites and other insect pests will destroy anything made of wood in short order if it's not treated in any way. Apparently, the acid soak does a pretty good job because CLC claims a life-span of 50 years for their buildings.

Workers removing bamboo slats from acid bath
Rolls of sun-dried bamboo roofing slats
The processing facility is housed in three or four open-air buildings. The workers don't wear much in the way of protective clothing, typical for Thailand, and what becomes of the used boric acid solution is anyone's guess. Thailand is about 40 years behind Europe and North America in terms of environmental awareness. Construction workers wear flip-flops on their feet, I've never seen ear protection of any kind and welders commonly use sunglasses when arc-welding. Thais will block their faces from the sun using hats, umbrellas, ski masks, or whatever they have in their hands at the time, even while driving a motorcycle, yet they arc-weld without eye protection.

The CLC offices and demonstration buildings at the site are made of bamboo and rammed earth and some feature the bird motif we saw earlier at the Panyaden School. CLC makes and sells bamboo furniture similar to what we saw at the school. I was reminded of the many homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright in which everything inside, from lights and draperies to furniture, was of his own unified design.  I was tempted to buy a chair but successfully fought off the urge. Still, the furniture is sturdy and, like everything else we saw, unique and attractive.

CLC office with bird motif roof treatment

Open-air sala for your backyard?

Whether this sort of construction will ever become widespread is unknown but our visit was interesting and instructive. I do like the look of that chair and may eventually go back to buy it yet.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bicycling as a cure for the Trump Blues

Bikeride on October 20th — the Ping River near flood stage.
The other day, Thais mourned during the cremation of their beloved King Rama 9. Everything was shuttered, even the nation's thousands of 7-11s. Homer friends in Bangkok complained about the bars being closed and being forced out of hotel rooms because they had been reserved long ago for this occasion. It was a huge national holiday and I must admit, things were so quiet around here it seemed like a holiday for me too. I took off on my bicycle for a lovely 25-mile ride on lanes and highways that were virtually deserted. The area just south of my neighborhood is ideal for bicycling and for the past several weeks I've been riding for exercise and to clear my head. The rural lanes are narrow and lightly traveled but they're all paved, and some are quite scenic, almost idyllic. My rides take me past countless rice paddies, fruit orchards, fish ponds and tiny hamlets. The entire area is in the Ping River valley and that means it's totally flat, a nice bonus for people who hate hills, people like me. Oh, and there's never any wind. The Chiang Mai area is often favored with light breezes but there's seldom enough wind to bother a bicyclist. Unlike Homer Alaska.

The other reason I've been doing more bicycling lately is to escape from Trump and Trumpism. I get on the bike with my Bose earbuds and Motorola phone, put on some good music and I can retreat from my email and news feeds and forget for a few hours the miserable condition our country is in with such a dangerous paranoid running it into the ground. I want to air my feelings about Trump and made a start on two or three posts but quit when I realized, not for the first time, that what I write and how I feel about Trump isn't going to change anyone's mind. History will determine whether this lunatic managed to destroy our government and precious institutions. If we're lucky, his legacy will be one characterized merely by the hate and divisiveness he catalyzes. If we're unlucky, his legacy could include the end of the world as we know it. I hope I live long enough to celebrate the day when Trump again becomes irrelevant.

September was on the warm side with temps in the 90s by late afternoon most days but the weather since the start of October has been quite fine. If I can get out before 8 o'clock the temperature is in the mid-70s which means heat isn't a problem even for someone who sweats when he reads. The rainy season is drawing to a close — winter is starting to make its presence felt and although I love the rain, I love Thailand's winters more.

A cloudy day on a lonely lane
The rainy season means lots of clouds and swollen streams and ponds. The pond in the following photo, caught during a sunny morning, I call Pretty Pond. It's about 9 miles from home. There's a small sala or shelter on its shore that makes a perfect rest stop. During my breaks I pause the music and listen to the sounds of rural Thailand, doves cooing, roosters crowing, and watch the farmer across the pond as he moves his water buffalo from pasture to pasture. I recently noticed there are nets running shore to shore. Whether the nets are for catching fish or divvying the pond into sections, I have no idea but Thailand has a lot of ponds where fish are grown for market. All of rural Thailand is studded with fish ponds. And it has water ponds aplenty besides those — rice is a notoriously thirsty crop and farmers stash water everywhere to use during the 6-month long dry season when there isn't enough rain to keep the rice happy. Anyway, my point is that while there are ponds everywhere, this one is special.

Pretty Pond (N18.67084° E99.02276°)

Pretty Pond shelter — my Trek MTB was a gift from Walt Bovich
Small sala overlooking the Little Ping River
Entrance to Wat Don Kaew
Last season I didn't ride all that much. I was spooked about uncontrolled dogs, which I consider the worst thing about Thailand. Unfortunately, Thais don't neuter their pets. That means some of the dogs I encounter on my rides are territorial, some much more than others, and those constitute a major threat to bicyclists and joggers. I've been feeling more positive about getting back on the bike after equipping myself with an array of defensive tools to fend them off. I carry a stout bamboo pole, a cap pistol, and lately a can of pepper spray. Usually, threatening them with the bamboo stick works but in cases when they persist, I'll point my plastic six-shooter at one and shoot off a cap or two. But now that I have the pepper spray, I feel empowered. Just let one of those snarling bastards get too close and I guarantee he'll never attack another bicyclist again.

Below are a couple of photos from one of my favorite parts of the rides — the peaceful, park-like grounds of the McKean Hospital. When I get here I'm only 20 minutes from home so I sometimes take another rest stop in McKean's big octagon shelter. Originally a leper colony, the hospital grounds offer the casual biker the most beautiful forest scenery in this part of town and I generally set my route to pass through here. It's a little paradise, an oasis of shade. McKean also has an assisted-living facility that's quite affordable compared to anything in the states. One of my friends is considering moving there at some unspecified point in the future.

Tall, stately trees shade the McKean Hospital grounds

Bamboo forest track at McKean Hospital (N18.73979° E98.98621°)
Home sweet home, 180/24 Ban Chang Kham Soi 5
(N18.74817° E99.00248°)
Last stop is our home in Ban Chang Kham. Nut has planted flowering vines out front to provide privacy and shade, which is invaluable in Thailand's tropical climate. At ride's end I'll jump in the shower and then return outdoors to sit in the shade with an iced latte, enjoying the morning air and chatting with Nut as she fusses with her orchids. Life is good.

On these recent rides, I've been listening to some new music by Agnes Obel, Spoon, and the Hooverphonics along with old standbys Phish, The National, and Arcade Fire.
I've fallen in love with Agnes. She's a Danish composer that I happened upon while listening to a few months ago. She writes the music, plays piano and percussion and sings on most tracks. She has three albums to her credit so far.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Motorcycling Tak Province and the Wonderful 105

It's been a while since I posted anything and after a lot of talking to myself finally built up enough motivation to make a beginning, to scratch something out about my winter meanderings in Thailand. After only a few more weeks it'll be another I'm Outta Here™ moment I'll be back in Homer for the summer. I've been very busy adding geographic data to Alaska on Open Street Map and it seems the more I do the more I notice how much there is to do. My mapping addiction has also been helping me avoid thinking too much about the disaster unfolding in the United States where an actual fascist was elected to the presidency. I'm not going to wade into that swamp here. It's enough to mention it in passing and to hope that draining it involves lancing the abscess on the American democracy that is Donald J. Trump.

We've had fine, really excellent, weather since late November and that always gets the motorcycling juices flowing. When I say excellent I'm talking about 65-degree mornings and, afternoon temps in the 80s with cloudless blue skies. That means wearing jackets and gloves at the start of a day's ride and gradually stashing those layers until it's lunch time. Of course, Nut, along with most other Thais, never sheds her outer jacket. She hates getting any sun on her skin and wears long sleeves even on 90 plus degree afternoons. This behavior is inexplicable to my mind because the heat genuinely bothers her. I reckon it's just a Thai thing.

The 1090 on my GPS
Anyway, Nut's daughter Dui's boyfriend Na is a school teacher and they were going to be visiting his family over the New Year holiday so Nut and I decided to meet them at his family home near Mae Sot, in Tak Province, and caravan with them (they drove a car) to the remote little town of Umphang. Aside from hoping to enjoy a pleasant motorcycle ride, the object was to see Thailand's highest waterfall, Namtok Thi Lo Su. The ride to Umphang passes through a lovely and very sparsely populated region that is both mountainous and heavily wooded. The only road to Umphang is, however, a twisty little SOB, full of hills and hairpin turns. Signs in nearby towns proudly advertise that the 1090 has 1226 curves. I found motorcycling 2-up on it nerve-wracking and while I'd love to visit Umphang again that drive isn't something I'm eager to experience again, at least not right away.

We were lucky to find a guesthouse with a vacancy on New Year's weekend and Nut made a reservation sight unseen. It turned out to be a very pleasant accommodation — a series of little bungalows in a beautiful setting on the river. The Umphang Riverside Guesthouse is just outside of town on the Umphang River (N16.01180, E98.85836)

Sunrise at the Umphang Riverside
To get to Thi Lo Su we had to hire a driver and vehicle because ordinary cars and motorcycles are prohibited from entering the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary where the falls is located. It's just as well because the commute in and out on a miserable dirt road was torturously bumpy, so riddled with ruts and potholes that even the late model Isuzu 4x4 we were riding in couldn't tame them. Despite my rigid hold on the grab-bar my head bounced off the door frame repeatedly, and I had it good. I was riding shotgun while Nut, Chicha, Dui and Na were stuffed into the back seat. It took 2 hours to drive 20 km (12.5 miles) and when it was over it was a relief to get out of the truck and walk again. We paid 1200 baht ($35 USD) for the ride.

We had to drive to Mae Sot after returning from the falls and by the time we finished getting banged up on that blasted dirt road again it was getting on towards 3 pm. I worried about getting stuck driving the 1090 after dark but we made good time and managed to pull into our hotel parking lot just after dinner. We got an early start the next day and took the scenic route back to Mae Sariang, one of my favorite towns, riding the newly repaired route 105. Nut and I rode the 105 a couple of seasons ago and it was a royal mess. Mile after mile of construction and many miles of badly broken pavement after that. But the reconstruction is almost complete and the road was awesome! It turned into one of those classic Thailand motorcycle rides — perfect weather, a nice curvy road with smooth pavement, no traffic and scenery that is as good as any Thailand has to offer. The 105 runs between Mae Sariang on the north and Mae Sot in the south through the lovely Moei River valley. Thailand is on the east side, Myanmar is just across the river which doubles as the international boundary. We liked it so much we returned to Mae Sariang a month later with Homer buddy DC, our friend Daniel, and some new friends, American expats from Chiang Rai, Bruce and Lois. The photos below are from that tour.

Lois, Daniel, Dave, Bruce, Nut, DC
Route 105 - Rit River Bridge (N17.9304, E97.9573)

Thailand 105

Moei River on the 105 (N17.5106, E97.9923)

The refugee camp at Mae La on the 105 (N17.1155, E98.39966)

I'll add a couple of photos from a trip I made to Udon Thani a couple of months ago just to close out the Thailand report for this season. I make the journey to Udon every year to visit with a contingent of Homer friends who hang out there. I discovered several new ideal-for-motorcycling roads, the 1237, the 1083, and the 1026, on the return trip.

View from the 2331 (N16.8926, E101.0994)

View from the 1083 (N18.3694, E100.8316)

I'll be back in Eugene in three weeks and back in Homer on May 17th. I'll also visit my daughter, Carin, in North Carolina. Sister Sandy, brother Dale and nephew Jason will drive down from Buffalo to join us for a family reunion. Also during that visit, Carin and I will join thousands of other people protesting the regressive and vile policies of the SCROTUS, aka Florida Man, in Washingon, DC.