Pounding the Kinks Out, Thai Home Cooking & Turkey

A visit to Thailand is not complete without getting a Thai massage. Traditional Thai massage is known worldwide for its therapeutic deep muscle work, acupressure and stretching. Lucky me–there is a Thai massage shop on the lower level of the nearby Tops Market.  They offer foot or full-body massage. “What does an hour cost?” I ask.” Foot or body?” a smiling Thai woman replies. “Body,” I say.  An hour of full-body massage is 200 baht. That’s about $6. I pay ten times that for an hour of massage in Houghton.

Getting a traditional Thai massage

She leads me back to a line of mattresses, separated by thin cloth curtains. The massage is done with shoes off but clothes on, which makes sense since there is essentially no privacy, and the mattresses closest to the front of the shop are in full view of shoppers passing by.

A large woman kneels on the mattress at my feet and starts massaging them, working the acupressure points, sending shivers of pleasure throughout my body. Then she moves up to my legs. knees, hands, arms, back and shoulders. Her hands are incredibly strong, as are her elbows, which she also uses. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s a good hurt, with a noticeable easing of tension immediately following the pain. She also stretches various body parts: legs bent at the knee and pressed down to the mattress, arms yanked sideways and up over my head. I had heard that Thai massage sometimes includes the masseuse walking on her victim–I mean client.  Thank goodness that doesn’t happen; that woman had to weigh 250 pounds.

The hour passes swiftly. I put my shoes back on, feeling light, stretched out and invigorated. I pay my 200 baht and give my masseuse 50 baht as a tip. That’s about $1.50, but she looks surprised and extremely grateful, bowing several times as she murmurs “kob kuhn kaa” (thank you).

The Kasetsart University International Undergraduate Program staff take me to a restaurant that specializes in Thai home cooking.

It is nearing the end of my time in Thailand. Intiraporn, my host and director of the International Undergraduate Program at Kasetsart University, takes me and her office staff to a farewell dinner. We make our way through narrow, winding alleys to a tiny restaurant tucked into a courtyard.  “This is Thai home cooking,” they tell me.” This is what we cook and eat at home.”

They order in rapid-fire Thai. First up is mee grob, a delectable mound of sweet-and-sour crispy fried threads of noodles. Crunchy and yummy.  Dish after dish after dish follow: braised beef ribs with cabbage, a tart and spicy seafood medley, fried chicken chunks with green beans, cellophane noodles, a whole fried river fish, fried chicken wings and, of course, heaping servings of rice.  Wichai Siwakosit brought his 8-yeaar-old son along, and little Woramet Siwakosit polishes off most of the chicken wings. Fried chicken, apparently, is a children’s favorite around the world.

The food just keeps coming, and when I am too full to even think of taking another bite, it’s time for dessert. To be polite, I say I’ll share something.

A dessert made of layers of gelled coconut milk and pandan leaf.

Intiraporn orders a spectacular gelled confection cut into four little cubes. Made with layers of coconut milk and pandan leaf, served in a small glass bowl, the green and white marvel is almost too pretty to eat.  But I manage. The coconut layers are creamy, white and sweet. The pandan leaf layers are a brilliant green with a fresh, delicate flavor that doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever tasted.

The next day–my last in Bangkok–is Thanksgiving in the US.  It’s just a normal work day in Thailand, of course, but I leave the office early because I’ve been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of the cultural affairs attache of the US Embassy in Bangkok.  The attache, Mike Honnold, and his Thai wife host this dinner every year for the Fulbright scholars, specialists and teaching assistants in Thailand. The largest group of guests are the English teaching assistants, who are placed in schools throughout Thailand for a year.  They tend to be young adults, recent college graduates, and most of them are serving in towns and rural regions far from Bangkok. So the trip to Bangkok for Thanksgiving dinner is a major treat.

Getting to the Honnolds’ condominium, in downtown Bangkok a couple of blocks from the US Embassy, is another taxi adventure. My hosts have provided me with their address and a map, written in Thai, and that gets the taxi driver on the right street.  But finding the actual condo building, called Peng Seng Mansion, is another story. “Peng Seng, Peng Seng, Peng Seng.” the driver mutters as he crawls along in the curb lane, causing other drivers to shake their fists and honk at us. Finally he stops so long in front of a Marriott that the security guard comes out to move us along. They discuss Peng Seng Mansion in Thai, but the Marriott guard doesn’t know where it is either. Finally I call a Thai woman from the Fulbright office who gave me her cell phone number when I visited her office last week, insurance against just such an occurrence as this. Thank goodness she answers, and I hand the phone to my bewildered driver. She gives him directions, and two blocks later, we pull into the driveway of Peng Seng Mansion. “The name is Chinese, not Thai,” she explains to me later. “That confuses Thai people.”

US cultural attache Mike Honnold and his wife host Thanksgiving dinner for the Fulbright folks in Thailand

After turkey with all the trimmings, pecan pie and fascinating conversation with the English teaching assistants, who are working hard to prepare Thai children to function in a global world where English is the lingua franca of business, I venture back down to try a taxi ride back to the university.  Luckily, the driver I get knows where Kasetsart is.  He turns onto the campus through huge gilded gates and and points left and right to ask which way to go.  This time I’ve done my homework.  “Khwah,” I say. It means “right.” A big grin spreads across the driver’s face. “Khwah,” says.  “Thai.”  I tell him, “I’m trying,” which I don’t think he understands.  But he certainly seems pleased with my drastically limited command of Thai. “Kob kuhn kaa” (thank you), I say as we stop in front of KU Home, the hotel on the university campus. His face lights up as he grins again.

And now it’s time to go home. My new friends in the International Undergraduate Program office hug me and bow and hug me again. Puy has tears in her eyes. “You come visit me at Michigan Tech,” I tell her. “Yes, yes, yes, I come,” she says.  “Meanwhile, practice your English,” I urge. “I practice,” she promises.

As promised, promptly at 4 a.m. a university van picks me up in front of KU Home. The airport is at least 45 minutes away, and I am supposed to check in no later than 5 a.m. for my 7 a.m. flight, since I have to go through immigration as well as security.  The driver speaks no English, but he knows where we are going.  Traffic is blessedly light at that time of the morning, and we are at the airport well before 5.  I give him a 500 baht tip–about $15–which widens his eyes and produces a series of bows.

I whip through immigration and customs and find my gate. Thus begins a four-leg, 30-hour trip home, leaving a lot of new friends behind,  but taking with me memories that will last a lifetime.

The Write Way

University faculty can find it challenging to write about their research in clear, simple English,  making it interesting and comprehensible to non-scientists.  Imagine how much harder that is to do in a language other than your own.

Professors from several engineering departments at Kasetsart University who teach in the International Undergraduate Program’s courses taught in English gather for my workshop on “Writing for a Non-Technical Audience.”  I share some tips with them:  say something surprising or intriguing in the title and first paragraph, to make people want to read on;  define–or preferably, don’t use–technical terms;  tell them why it matters to them and their lives.  On a PowerPoint, I show examples of each of my tips, from Michigan Tech’s news site, Michigan Tech Magazine and the Michigan Tech Research magazine.

I pass around copies of both magazines.  Professor Bob Nemiroff on the cover of the Michigan Tech Research magazineThe 2013 research magazine cover–showing Physics Professor Bob Nemiroff in a bar, holding up a cognac bottle labeled “space time” and a brandy snifter–particularly intrigues them. “It’s about astrophysics,” I say.  “Professor Nemiroff is an astrophysicist who has done research showing that space time is smooth like cognac rather than frothy and bubbly like beer (the popularly held belief).  You see, that’s how to make hard science interesting. Who could resist reading that story?”

My host, Intiraporn Mulasastra, wants to find a way to publish a research magazine like Michigan Tech’s.  “Our Faculty of Engineering is as big as your university,” she observes. “We should do this.”

After the writing workshop, we head down to the hot, noisy food court in the International Undergraduate Programs building. I discover what is going to become my favorite Thai lunch:  noodle soup withnoodles, b ean sprouts, green onions, little meat-filled dumplings and slices of “red pork” (Thai barbecued pork) or fish cake.  I must admit the sign above the soup booth stopped me for a moment, advertising as it did in English: noodle soap. But I see the serving ladies ladling rich broth over noodles, veggies and dumplings, so I trust that I will be eating soup, not soap.

Then it’s back to PowerPoint-making, for a big seminar on marketing international programs, the wrap-up of my Fulbright project.  Kasetsart University is hosting the seminar. They’ve invited 12 other Bangkok universities that have international programs.

Representatives of international programs at five Bangkok universities gather to discuss working together to recruit students.

Representatives of four of those universities join us for the seminar, as well as about a dozen people from various faculties and programs at Kasetsart.  “This is a first,” Intiraporn tells me, as directors of international programs at Mahidol University International College, Silpakorn University, Chulalongkorn University and King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok, file into the seminar room, making polite little bows in my direction. “Our universities have never collaborated before.”   So before I even open the seminar, we have accomplished something huge.

I talk about some of the ways Michigan Tech markets its international programs (with guidance kindly provided by Thy Yang and Darnishia Slade). Then I open a discussion about what the Bangkok universities see as their greatest challenges to attracting international students.

“Thailand is a travel destination,” says Wanpimon “Winnie” Senadpadpakorn, chief of international affairs at Mahidol University International College.  “It is easy to get exchange students who want to see Thailand.”  What is more difficult is getting full-time foreign students to attend Mahidol, she says. “We need to make Thailand an education destination as well as a travel destination,” says Natthaboon Pornrattanacharoen, Mahidol’s assistant dean for marketing and public communications.

A Kasetsart University staffer shares his concern that Thai students do not make foreign students feel welcome.  Kasetsart’s International Undergraduate Programs uses a buddy system to compensate, assigning each foreign student a Thai student-buddy.  Mahidol does something similar with its “young ambassadors” program, Winnie says.

Tawiwan Kangsadan, assistant professor of chemical and process engineering and head of the international program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok, describes her university’s international partnership with Germany.  Students who participate must do part of their studies in Germany and part in Bangkok.  They earn degrees from both the German and Thai universities, making it a very appealing program to Thai and foreign students alike.

Partnering with industry is another way to find funding for international programs and market them.   Burin T. Sriwong, deputy director of student development and special affairs at Silpakorn University International College, runs an international partnership program with a prominent hotel chain in France.  Students alternate classroom study and internships in Bangkok and in France, and there is no lack of applicants.  Silpakorn’s other international program, in multimedia, has no industry partner, and the university is having a harder time recruiting students.

One avenue that has not been much explored, a Kasetsart University spokesman says,  is recruiting from nearby Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore–member countries of the ASEAN Economic Community, whose goal is to establish a southeast Asian common market by 2015.    “We need to find out what each country needs and offer that at Thai universities,” Burin suggests.

We talk some about next steps, including more collaboration among the Bangkok universities international programs.  The group agrees to stay in touch and meet again–to try to have a stronger voice by working together. I suggest forming a Council of Bangkok Universities International Programs.  There are quite a few nods.

Intiraporn, my host, is pleased. “You have given us many ideas to work on,” she tells me.

Buddha’s Relics, Sugar Threads and Gigantic River Prawns

It’s called Ayutthaya, the Ancient City, a bustling town about an hour from Bangkok and home to an amazing variety of tourist treats: the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, a life-sized reproduction of a traditional Thai river house, piles of rubble that are all that remains of the original Ancient City, a floating market.  Also steamed river prawns–the most enormous shrimp I’ve ever seen–and roti sai mai, a popular Thai confection made of fine threads of sugar wrapped in paper-thin crepes.

Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand 400 years ago, before a second war with Burma forced the Thais to move their capital to Bangkok.  Now it’s a popular tourist destination for Thais and foreigners alike. Tour buses clog the narrow streets.

Ing and Kade, who work in the International Undergraduate Programs (IUP) office at Kasetsart University, pick me up at my hotel in a behemoth of an air-conditioned university van. They bring three IUP students with them: Paeng, Win and Smart.

From the left, Kade, Ing, Smart, Paeng and Win

The students, whose computer engineering program is taught in English, are much more fluent than Ing and Kade.  Especially Win, who attended an international high school. He wants to study in the US. So do Paeng (“my friends call me Nichy” ) and Smart, who visited Detroit  for a month on an exchange program when he was 12. Nichy is just in her first year at Kasetsart, but she has already attended an open house for students who may qualify for the prestigious  Royal Thai Scholar program, a full ride at a US university, funded by the Thai government.  Royal Thai Scholars are the best of the best Thai students. At that open house, she met with Michigan Tech Graduate School’s Kristi Isaacson, and she’s eager to hear more about opportunities at Michigan Tech. I give her my card and urge her to email me. “I can get you some information too, and reading my emails will help you practice your English,” I tell her. “Thank you very much,” she says with a little  bow.

We start our tour of Ayutthaya at the National Museum. Leaving our shoes at the door, we receive instructions about photography inside.  It is OK to take pictures in the main halls of the museum, we are told, but no flash photography, and the person shooting the picture cannot appear in the photo. That’s hard to do anyway, unless you’re into “selfies.”

The museum is named for King Boramarjadhira, known as Chao Sam Phraya, who ruled in Ayutthaya in the 15th century. It is filled with antiquities recovered from Ayutthaya when the Ancient City’s ruins were excavated.

Garuda--a mythical man-eagle--graced the bow of a royal barge.

Relics include a massive cast bronze Buddha’s head dating from the 13th to 14th century, enormous carved wooden temple doors, a stone image of a seated Buddha from the 7th to 8th century and cabinets containing coins of every era, back to the stone-like money of the earliest Thai periods.

In two “treasure rooms,: guarded and air-conditioned, are relics retrieved from basement chambers of Wat Rajaburana and Wat Mahathat. Wats are Buddhist temples in Thailand. One room is filled with sacred Buddhist treasures, including a splendid jeweled edifice said to contain the bones of the  Buddha.  In this room, Smart and Nichy kneel to pray to Buddha, and Win asks me if I am Christian.  If you think explaining Unitarianism is hard in the US (and it is), try explaining it to a Thai. “I am not Christian,” I say. “I am Unitarian.  I believe in the sacred spirit of all religions.”  Win understands my English. I’m not sure he understands what I just said.  “I am an athiest,” he informs me. “We welcome athiests in the Unitarian church too,” I tell him. “We welcome everyone, as long as they respect other people’s beliefs.”  He blinks.

I have no photos to show you of the treasure rooms. Photography is absolutely forbidden in them.

The other treasure room contains ancient royal artifacts such as crowns, eating utensils, swords and jewelry, most of them made of gold.  Many of these objects were gifts from wealthy people to their king.

After we leave the museum and use a restroom where you flush the toilet by scooping a bucket of water out of a trough and dumping it in the commode, we visit a reproduction of a traditional Thai river home.

A traditional Thai river house

Built of wood on stilts over a river or other body of water, the house consists of an open courtyard with raised rooms on three sides.   Shoes off again, we clamber over high thresholds to explore the rooms, lulled by the trickling water outside and underneath.

On to lunch, at a riverfront restaurant where we can watch the barges and the floating market boats moving up and down the river.  The students order.  They’re clearly hungry.

Giant steamed river prawns

After the crab fried rice and crispy sea bass come platter after platter: chicken with cashews and mushrooms; spicy/tangy seafood soup filled with squid, shrimp and less recognizable critters; another whole fish in creamy curry sauce; and steamed river prawns–the largest shrimp I have ever seen. A dozen fill a platter that stretches from one side of our table to the other. Each shrimp is intact, legs. head, eyes and all, and each one is the size of a small lobster or a humongous crawfish. Peeling them is a project;  eating them–dipped in a sweet-sour chili sauce–is ecstasy.

Suddenly shadows fall across our outdoor table.

Tourist Police eating lunch in Ayutthaya

I look up and find we are surrounded by police. But they are smiling, so we’re probably OK.  The commander in charge of this unit of Tourist Police has decided we are tourists (how did he guess), and he wants to take a picture of his men with us.  Needless to say, we oblige. They move on to their own table to eat their lunch, and as we leave, I ask if they will return the photo favor. They grin for my camera.

After that enormous lunch, we couldn’t possibly eat another bite.  At least that’s what I thought, until the students clamor for the van driver to pull over to a roti sai mai stand, where we all pile out to watch two women make the colorful, sugary confections out of long, spaghetti-like colored threads rolled in paper-thin crepes in matching shades of green, pink or yellow.

A roti sai mai shopkeeper weighing out a bag of sugar threads

As we munch, I ask what in the world we are eating. “Sugar,” says Win. “Just sugar, pulled into thin threads and wrapped in roti.”   And the roti, what is it made of, I wonder. “Flour,” Win replies. “Flower?” asks  Nichy.  “F-L-O-U-R, flour,” Win tells her. “Flower grows in garden,” Nichy says to me, looking confused. “English is funny that way,” I tell her.  “Flour is what you bake bread with.  Flower grows in the garden. And they sound the same.”  Nichy stares at me. “They sound the same?”  But words can sound the same in Thai too, I point out.  The “mai” in roti sai mai means “thread.”  But “sai” also means “no.”  Nichy laughs. “No is sai. Thread is sai.”  They do sound just a bit different when she says them –I guess.

The roti sai mai vendor cooking the paper-thin crepes that are wrapped around long threads of spun sugar in this Thai confection.

Everyone but me piles back into the van toting big bags of roti sai mai. “You want some?” Kade asks. “The one I ate was enough for me,” I assure her.

On the way back to the university, the van suddenly stops dead. Everyone is looking out the windows and pointing. There in the center of the road is a rather large spotted lizard, a water monitor. “If you see this lizard, it will bring you good fortune,” Win explains.  But not if you run over it.  So we wait patiently until the lizard slithers off the road and into a ditch.

A stop at an ancient temple was on the schedule too, but by mid-afternoon, it was seriously hot.  “The temple is hotter,” Win warns me. “It is hot for Thais. I think it is too hot for you.” I readily agreed to skip the temple.

The King Composes Jazz

Gilded Thai artifacts line Vithes Samosorn Hall at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The king of Thailand is a jazz composer as well as a ruler, so in honor of his 86th birthday–coming up on Dec. 5–the US Embassy in Bangkok and the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsor a jazz concert at the Foreign Ministry.  Featuring Dave Liebman’s group of jazz musicians, Expansions, and special guest artist Pathorn Bede Srikaranonda de Sequeira–whom Liebman calls “Dr. Pat”–the concert is a special invitational affair. “Lounge suit or short evening dress” says the elegant invitation.  Hmmm. I’m a pants-and-shirts type of gal. I brought a dress to Thailand, a light-weight wraparound thing that’s never fit quite right, but it’s a stretch to call it a “short evening dress.” Oh, well…

First I have to get there. The hotel doorman gets me a taxi, but the driver speaks no English. With a map and directions, kindly written in Thai by my host, I cross my fingers, and off we go.

They must be good directions. We get to the Foreign Ministry in half an hour, despite rush-hour traffic, which is a horror and a half in Bangkok. My host recommended that I leave an hour and a half before the 6 pm concert. That puts me there a good hour early.  I produce my invitation, and a security guard leads me down a hallway and waves in the direction of a huge, gilded gallery where caterers are setting up tables, stacking plates, polishing glasses.  No one asks me what I am doing or seems to care.

The Dave Liebman jazz group rehearses for its royal concert

I hear muffled music through heavy, carved doors, so I tiptoe into the concert hall itself, take a seat and watch the Dave Liebman group rehearse. Dozens of smartly dressed young women with name badges are scurrying about, placing programs on chairs, arranging enormous cascades of flowers.  Burly military-looking guards are standing around the edges of the hall. An attractive young woman and man practice the introductions they will give: she in Thai, he in English. No one pays the slightest attention to me.

Finally I spot an American-sounding young man giving instructions to one person, then another.  I introduce myself.  He’s from the US Embassy, where he does media relations (just like me).  But he’s also from Grand Rapids and spent four summers when he was in high school at Michigan Tech’s Summer Youth Program. Talk about a small world.

Snagging a program from one of the seats, I discover that the concert actually doesn’t start until 6:30. Now I am an hour and a half early. But at 5:45, rescue appears in the form of a pre-concert reception with wine and Thai tidbits carried around on trays by smiling Thai servers. Most of the guests have arrived. I meet a Chevron executive, an official with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a woman from Australia whose husband works in the Bangkok office of an international bank.

Kristie Kenney, US Ambassador to Thailand

And I introduce myself to Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand.

The concert itself is a marvel. The group plays everything from the classic blues from which jazz emerged to early New Orleans jazz to gems by superstars of the genre like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. They wind up with a piece written by King Bhumibbol Adulyadej, who has 48 musical compositions to his credit. The king, by the way, was born in the US, in Cambridge, Mass.  Doesn’t that make him an American citizen?

The pre-concert reception was peanuts compared to the reception after it. Tables laden with delicacies from Thailand and America line the huge hall, now jammed with people drinking, chatting, lining up for sushi and salt-crusted salmon, rack of lamb, fish maw soup and pasta in three kinds of sauce.  The wine flows freely.  Desserts are scattered about on high, white linen-draped tables.  Parfait cups filled with rich dark chocolate mousse. Teeny glass cups holding about two thimbles-full each of  melt-in-your-mouth creme brulee.  In honor of the king, a feast fit for a king.

Then comes my second taxi challenge: getting back to my hotel at Kasetsart University. The driver keeps looking at the map and asking me questions in Thai that I can’t answer. I wonder where we will end up. I’m glad I have my host’s cell phone number in my phone. I hope my phone is working (sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t). But miraculously, the cab exits the highway on Ngam Wong Wan Road, a street I recognize.  He’s actually found the university and gotten me to my hotel.

The Spirits are Alive and Well in Thailand

I thought they were shrines, the miniature, temple-like structures outside many buildings in Bangkok, including my hotel.  But Putchong Uthayopas, head of computer engineering at Kasetsart University and a Thai history buff, explains that they are “spirit houses,” erected to keep the building and those within it safe.

A spirit house in front of a popular Bangkok restaurant

It’s a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, which commonly intermingle in Thailand.  You can’t just buy a spirit house and place it in front of your home or business. You have to find a brahmin to invoke the spirits.  Then you’re safe.

But don’t just use a spirit house for decoration, Uthayopas warns.  It is sacred, and you should respect it as such.

Speaking of spirits, my host, Intirapon Mulasatra–a lecturer in computer engineering and director of International University Programs at Kasetsart–drives by a lagoon in a peaceful park on campus.  On the other side of a small walking bridge stands a herd of zebras.

No, not real ones. These are statues of zebras, dozens of them, facing the lagoon, facing the park, facing each other, in every imaginable size.

Some of the zebra statues at Kasetsart University

“Wait, go back,” I shout. “I want to see the zebras.”  Intirapon chuckles, makes a U-turn and parks right next to the zebras’ bridge.   When someone dies, she explains, those who are left often say a prayer and place a zebra in the herd.  The zebra represents the spirit of their loved one.

A new adventure is a 45-minute trip in a university van to meet the staff of the Thai-US Educational Foundation, which manages the Fulbright programs in Thailand. There I meet Wanida Chaiyasan, who helped me land this exciting opportunity. I leave with a Fulbright shirt and an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at the cultural attache’s apartment. All the Americans on Fulbrights in Thailand will be there.

My new friends in the IUP office buy me a gift–a charming red print elephant on a keyring. After I attach it to my book bag, I do some research and discover why I am so drawn to elephants. An ancient symbol of religion and culture throughout Asia, the Asian elephant is revered by the Thais and their neighbors. It is the symbol of Ganesh, the god of arts and sciences and the remover of obstacles. The Asian elephant once graced the ancient flag of Siam,  Thailand’s former name.

Thanya Kiatiwat, dean, Faculty of Engineering, Kasetsart University

I go to lunch with the dean of engineering and the heads of the departments of mechanical engineering and computer engineering.  They take me to a popular restaurant whose menu features pasta, beef tenderloin and pork chops. Luckily, they also offer some Thai food. I order spicy roast duck, which turns out to be a warm salad filled with tender slices of duck and crunchy vegetables. And yes, it IS spicy. But wonderful.

The dean earned his PhD in mechanical engineering at Kansas State University. His English is impeccable, as is his severe black suit.  Yesterday, I spoke to a group of university and Faculty of Engineering PR people  and commented–when they asked me what I thought of the Faculty of Engineering newsletter–that there were too many pictures of men in black suits, lined up and staring at the camera.  The black-suit story apparently has made the rounds.  Dean Thanya Kiatiwat points to his own black suit, but to his credit, he laughs.

Tomorrow I will present a workshop for professors on writing for a non-technical audience. “Our faculty write for journals,” Intirapon explains. ” They need to learn how to make their research accessible and interesting to ordinary people.” You should have seen me trying to prepare a PowerPoint for my workshop, on a computer that presents all its dialog boxes in Thai, even when you choose English as the language to type in.

A Mall is a Mall is a Mall, but a Temple is More than a Temple

On Saturday, Puy and I take a 15-minute taxi ride to Central Mall.  We weave our way through clusters of outdoor food vendors and clothing stalls. I am thrilled. This mall is nothing like an American one, I think. Then we enter the mall itself. Three levels, indoors, air-conditioned, escalators, filled with stores that look disconcertingly familiar. Gap, Reebok, even Starbucks. A McDonalds and something called Harlem Steak (don’t ask!). Throngs of people scurrying every which way. Families pushing strollers, young couples holding hands, sales girls handing out discount fliers and urging us into their stores.  I guess some things are the same the world around.

Na Ra Ya makes colorful fabric purses and pouches, containers for just about anything.

But Puy knows I want to purchase Thai goods.  She steers me to her favorite store, Na Ra Ya, stocked with an amazing assortment of Thai-made containers of every kind.  Purses, cosmetic bags, cell phone holders, wallets, even a golf scorecard case with little blue elephants on it. Everything is made of brightly colored, padded fabric in every imaginable shade and print. Puy favors stripes. She already has a Na Ra Ya change purse, and she buys a matching handbag.  I am drawn to elephants. I leave with a little pouch, a cosmetic case and two key rings adorned with charming, padded elephants. Gifts. I think.

“Na Ra Ya,” I say. Puy giggles. “Na Ra Ya,” she corrects. I can’t hear the difference, but I know there is one.  The Thai language has five pitches: high, rising, medium, falling and low.  So “suay” may mean “beautiful” when spoken with one pitch and “ugly” when another pitch is used. Makes me scared to even try.

Pronunciation poses another language barrier. The letter R is pronounced like an L. When a Thai says “loy,” they are actually saying “roy” or 100. Even the word for foreigners like me, “farang,” sounds like “falang.”

Still, I’m learning to say a few things. Di chan cheu Jennifer means “My name is Jennifer.”  That comes in handy, as does the ubiquitous kob kuhn kaa—“thank you.”  Sometimes I even get the pitch semi-right on the kaa part; it’s supposed to rise.

On Sunday, Puy, Green and I go to see the famous Buddhist temples of Bangkok.  Green (“like the color,” she assures me) is a mechanical engineering student in Kasetsart’s International Undergraduate Programs, where she studies in English. She graduates next month, and then she is heading for Germany for six months of study there. “Do you speak German?” I ask. “A little,” she says. “Very little.”

The cab ride to the temple takes nearly an hour, because even on a Sunday morning, Bangkok traffic is not moving. But our hot-pink cab is air-conditioned, so who cares. The street is filled with taxis painted startling, fluorescent colors.  Hot pink, chartreuse, electric blue, orange. There are even some yellow ones, but it’s a different yellow from classic American cabs. An intense, blinding yellow.  I guess the cabs want to be seen, by potential passengers and other vehicles.  It’s working.

As we pull up to the temple complex, we see more and more of another kind of taxi: an open four-wheel cart with a seat behind the driver for two (or three small and friendly) people.  They are tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws. Cheaper than air-conditioned cabs, weaving in and out of traffic, they are a uniquely Asian adventure all their own.

The temple of the Emerald Buddha is part of the enormous Grand Palace complex. Built in 1782, the Grand Palace covers approximately 2.4 million square feet filled with ornate temples, shrines, a monastery, great halls and pavilions, as well as the royal family’s palace.  Murals on the walls of galleries that wind through the complex tell ancient folktales of historic and mythic battles.

The entrance to the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha

At the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, crowds of visitors from all over the world remove their shoes and step over golden thresholds (it is forbidden to step on the thresholds) into a cavernous temple where a Buddha carved from jade is enshrined on a golden throne.  The sacred image is clad in clothes appropriate to the season–summer, rainy and winter–and his costume is changed at the start of each season in a ceremony presided over by the king. No cameras are allowed inside the shrine, where people kneel to pray to Buddha, their feet respectfully behind them. It is forbidden to point your feet at the Buddha. I don’t kneel, because I’d never get up again, but I do bow respectfully,  say a prayer for my dear late husband, Jim, and stuff a 20 baht bill into the donation box.

Puy dips a lotus flower in holy water and sprinkles my head, Green’s and her own.  Then we resume our long, hot walk around the grounds.  It is noon; the sun is fierce, and this polar-bear-by-nature is sweating like a pig. Puy takes one look at my cherry-red face,  runs over to a stall nearby and pays 12 baht (about 40 cents) for a “cold towel.”  It’s a littlel washrag, frozen solid. What a wonderful invention. I rub it across my forehead and neck until it melts enough to open. Then I mop my face with it as we continue on our way.

After we walk around the temple complex, we take a taxi (yes, a hot-pink one) back to Pola Pola, a Thai-Italians restaurant near Kasetsart University. I can’t quite bring myself to order spaghetti, so I share some pineapple rice with Puy.

Pineapple rice, stuffed in a half pineapple

No doubt that it was pineapple rice; it was served in a scooped out half of a pineapple. It was alloy–I mean delicious (I’m starting to think in Thai)–but I still have some work to do on handling cutlery.  The Thais eat with a fork and a large (soup-sized) spoon. No knife. The spoon is used to cut things into bite=sized pieces, and the fork is used to push the food onto the spoon, held in your left hand. Then the you lift the food to your mouth in the spoon, still held in your left hand. Do you know how much food has fallen back onto my plate!  But I’m working on it.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the Fulbright office of the Thailand-US Educational Foundation. Kasetsart has arranged a university van to take me there, and Puy is going to accompany me, since the driver does not speak English. Stay tuned…

Mourning the Buddhist Patriarch

In the lobby of Kasetsart University’s Institute of Food Research and Product Development stands an elaborate shrine.  It honors Thailand’s most senior Buddhist leader, the Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, who died late last month at age 100. “We are all wearing black to mourn him,”  my host, Intirapon Mulasastra, explains.

Black jelly with palm fruit & shaved ice

We have come to the food institute for lunch. They not only conduct food research there; they cook and serve the results.  Our lunch of crispy river fish, red curry pork, mixed vegetables with tofu and brown rice was as delicious as it was nutritious. But dessert went way beyond. Black jelly with palm fruit, served under a scoop of shaved ice, it was cooling, sweet, delicate and exotic all at once. “And good for a fever too,” Intirapon mentions.

Our lunch–enough for two–cost about $1.50 . Once again, I am stunned. But money has to stretch much farther in Thailand than it does in the US.  A university lecturer with a PhD makes the equivalent of $5,000 or $6,000. So it’s lucky that lunch costs so little.  Housing and cars, on the other hand, are incredibly expensive.  A house in a nice neighborhood in Bangkok probably costs 3 million baht, Intirapon says. That’s $1 million. You can get a condo for 500,000 baht–about $150,000–still pretty pricey if you make $5,000 a year. As for cars, I’m told that there is up to a 300 percent tax on them, particularly if they are made outside Thailand.

The cost of cars is probably one reason the streets (and roads and alleyways) are packedwith zipping, weaving motorbikes. Today I see a miniature motorbike with three university students  on board. And not one of them was a skinny little guy.

Prince, a Michigan Tech alumnus who now teaches at Kasetsart University, explains the reasoning behind the uniforms the university students wear.  “It is to teach discipline,” he says, “because they are going to need to be able to follow rules when they get out in the work world.”  The uniforms also are a badge of honor, Prince points out.  “It is very hard for people to go to university in Thailand, so students are proud to wear the uniform to show that they are university students.”

On the white blouses of their uniforms, the women students wear a pin.  It’s the KU emblem, given to the university by Thailand’s king. I am told that only two universities in Thailand have been so honored by the king.

Cooking pad thai in an outdoor restaurant on the Kasetsart University campus.

There are dozens of places to eat all over the spread-out campus. Most of them close in the mid-to-late afternoon. Prince wants to show me one that is open at night, “in case you get tired of hotel food.”  I ask if it is close to the hotel, since I’m not much of a walker.  “Oh, yes, very close,” he assures me.  Well, his definition of close and mine are a bit different.  Six long, hot blocks later, dodging motorbikes and tripping over broken paving stones, we come upon an enormous, open-air food court, where the air is redolent with all the amazing things the vendors are cooking.

We order pad thai and watch the cook saute noodles in an enormous wok, chop in green onions and tofu, sprinkle on peanuts and tiny shrimp, and scoop sizzling, mouth-watering mounds onto our plates.   I season my plate with vinegar peppers. “Oh, be careful, not too much,” Prince exclaims.  I squeeze a lime wedge over it all, then drop the squeezed lime on top of my food.  Prince looks distraught.  After we sit down, he explains gently: “You squeeze the lime and then throw it away. Maybe they wash them, maybe not.”

Later, on the balcony off my 7th floor room, trying to catch the slightest hint of a breeze, I see a Thai flag waving gently on a building across the way. A promising sign.

Flag of Thailand

The Thai flag is red, white and blue like ours, but you’d never mistake one for the other. The Thai flag features broad red stripes top and bottom,   with two white stripes bordering a wider center stripe of blue.  It is revered as much as Old Glory is in the US, almost as much as the king.

Although the king is a ceremonial figurehead with no governing powers any more, his name and face are held in highest honor.  If someone is heard saying anything bad about the king–even in a blog or private conversation, that person can be arrested and imprisoned. Even tearing a baht–the Thai bank note like our dollar–is a crime, since bahts are imprinted with an image of the king.

By now you might be wondering if I am doing anything other than eating on my trip to Thailand. The answer is yes. Every weekday morning, I go to the comfortable cubicle they have set up for me in the International Undergraduate Programs office.  There I work on talking points for the meetings Intirapon has helped me arrange: a writing workshop for professors, to help them learn to communicate their research in non-technical ways; a meeting with the university public relations staff and the editor of the Faculty of Engineering newsletter; interviews at TUSEF, the Thai-US Educational Foundation, which sponsors my Fulbright; and a seminar for people who run international programs at 18 Bangkok universities. Intirapon has asked me to create PowerPoints for each meeting. I can’t find PowerPoint on my office computer, but I’ll bet Puy can help. She’s a charming, friendly young woman and a computer guru. When my screen goes black or my text suddenly comes up in Thai instead of English, it’s Puy to the rescue.

My first week at Kasetsart is over. But my friends have a busy weekend planned for me.  Shopping with Puy on Saturday, a visit to a Buddhist temple on Sunday. More soon.

Land of Smiles is not Smiling Today

They call Thailand “the land of smiles.”  But on Ratchadamnoen Avenue near the Parliament building in downtown Bangkok, no one is smiling. Thousands are thronging the streets in protests of a government effort to grant amnesty to Thailand’s former prime minister, whose government was overthrown under a cloud of corruption and who left the country before he could be tried.  Nine members of Parliament have resigned in order to lead the protests.  No one is sure what will happen next, and my hosts advise me not to go downtown.

So I stay on the quiet, leafy green campus of Kasetsart University, north of central Bangkok.  Here, it is business as usual. In other words, hordes of black-trousered or skirted and white-shirted university students going to class, studying at the many outdoor benches and tables–many of them wired for plugging in phones and laptops–playing basketball or soccer in the humid heat of a Bangkok afternoon. Walking hand in hand. Chattering and giggling, like university students everywhere.  But at Kasetsart, there are 35,000 students, 7,000 of them–the entire enrollment of Michigan Tech–in the Faculty of Engineering alone.

Looking out over the Kasetsart University Campus

I meet with Parinya Chakartnarodom and Kemathat Vibhatavanij. Chakartnarodom–generally know as “Prince”–is a Michigan Tech alumnus who now teaches at Kasetsart. Vibhatavanij is associate dean for information technology and international affairs. He is also an assistant professor in computer engineering. I soon learn that administration is not considered a full-time job here.  Professors teach and also serve as administrators. Dr. V. is a good example.  My host, the director of International Undergraduate Programs at Kasetsart, is another. She heads the university’s equivalent of Tech’s International Programs and Services Office and teaches computer engineering. The dual roles everyone plays seem to be one reason no one has made much of an effort to get the word out about Kasetsart research and international programs.

I show samples of the Michigan Tech Magazine and Michigan Tech Research magazine. Dr. V. is excited. He wants to publish a magazine about Kasetsart research.  The Faculty of Engineering (the equivalent of our College of Engineering) already publishes a scholarly journal. We talk about the difference between a journal and a magazine, how a magazine explains research in non-technical terms and makes it accessible and interesting to non-scientists, students and people in other fields.  I will put Dr. V. in touch with Marcia Goodrich, Tech’s magazine editor, but I’m not sure what Kasetsart can do with part-time people and no budget.  Come to think of it, though, that also describes us in a way. All of us in University Marketing & Communications have many more responsibilities than publishing the magazines, and we’re always watching our pennies too.

In the IUP office break room, the very pregnant Au (sounds like a wolf howl–ah-oooo)is fixing herself a cup of tea. She is due Nov. 23, less than 2 weeks. She takes my hand and places it on her big belly. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I ask.  “Girl,” she says. “Have you named her?” I continue.  “Dteeng-moo,” she replies, giggling. “Watermelon.”  More giggling.  I realize she is teasing me.  But little whoever-she-is does look a bit like a dteeng-moo right now.

The Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper, has just alerted me to another concerning situation. The International Court of Justice has ruled that Preah Vihear temple, an ancient Hindu temple on the Thailand-Cambodia border, belongs to Cambodia, not Thailand. Actually, the court simply affirmed a 1962 ruling, but the situation is not as simple as it sounds.  The temple perches on the top of a steep mountain. If you draw a line straight down to the ground from the temple, you will find yourself in Cambodia. But most of the mountain–and all of the access to the temple–is on the Thai side of the border.  This presents a Solomon-like dilemma. The international court says the temple belongs to Cambodia. But Thailand controls the access to it. As you can imagine, no one is happy.   I don’t plan to go there either.

We take a taxi to a restaurant, and the driver wants to practice his English. “Please to meet you, please to meet you” he says, over and over again. When we get out of his cab about 10 minutes later, he is still practicing: “Please to meet you.”

Here’s a picture of two of the women who work in the IUP office and accompanied me to lunch.

Ing and Kade, two of my lunch companions

I have emailed 28 Michigan Tech alumni whose addresses put them in Bangkok, but I’ve only heard back from two.  I was planning a big reunion. Maybe a very small reunion.

I am about to try to call the US Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, to see if I can meet her while I’m here.  Stay tuned.

First Day of Work at Kasetsart University

Three delightful young women from Kasetsart University’s International Undergraduate Programs office take me to lunch.  Their names are Ing, Kade and Puy. I’d been told they speak English. They speak English the way I speak Thai, which is to say virtually not at all.  From that point on, it’s Google Translate at 10 paces, tapping in words or phrases, showing each other our smartphone screens—and giggling.

They order an amazing assortment of delicious dishes:  King of the Sea–minced shrimp rolled up and baked in an aromatic garlic/parsley sauce; fried fish cakes; sautéed cabbage (ga-lam bplii, says Google Translate. Nods. Giggles.); fish balls in green curry, served with crispy Indian-style roti.

The table is set with forks and spoons. No chopsticks.  “Don’t you use chopsticks?” I ask.  With Google Translate’s help, they tell me no, Thais eat with forks and spoons—and occasionally knives.  Except for noodles.  “With noodles, chopsticks,” says Kade, making scissors-like/chopstick-like motions with her fingers.

After lunch, they help me get a Thai sim card for my phone. The idea is to avoid international roaming charges. It takes all four of us to do it, but boy, did we ever do it. Now my phone won’t make calls or receive email at all. Instead, I get a recording in rapid-fire Thai. Then I’m disconnected.

Looking left for oncoming traffic at an intersection near my hotel, I’m almost sideswiped by a motorbike coming from the right.  Aha. I finally notice that Thais drive like the British, on the “wrong” side of the road.  Steering wheels of cars are on the right, not the left, and traffic stays to the left, not the right.  Our cars with steering wheels on the left and traffic on the right must be as discombobulating to Thai people visiting the US as this mirror-image system is to me.

Soon it is Monday morning, my first real day of work. I manage to get lost on my way to the International Undergraduate Programs office, but the third person I ask speaks enough English to show me the way.

All around me are young men in black slacks and white shirts and young women in short, black pleated skirts with white blouses. Clearly uniforms. Curious, I ask my friend Puy when I get to my office. Uniforms, yes, she agrees. University students in Thailand wear uniforms, just as elementary and high school students do. They don’t like it much, she adds. Here and there, you see rebellion: jeans, T-shirts touting rock groups. But students who refuse to wear the uniforms risk being kicked out of class or not allowed to take exams, losing credit for courses because of their dress.

Puy invites me to accompany her and a very pregnant colleague to lunch. We head over to the Faculty of Science food court, a noisy chaotic cavern of a cafeteria where I choose duck with noodles. An incredibly complex, soupy dish full of delicious textures and flavors, it cost 90 cents, one of the more expensive choices in the cafeteria line.

After arranging some meetings and making plans for a multi-university seminar that we are going to host week after next, I head back to the hotel with a growing craving. As much as I love Thai food, I am craving my traditional comfort food—peanut butter and cheese.

“No problem,” says the woman at the hotel desk. “Tops Market is right over there.”  She points out the window. Yes, I can see it, barely a block away.  But … When I head in that direction, I find myself facing a roaring eight-lane highway with no traffic lights and no intersections. How do I get across to the market?  A friendly student points out the pedestrian bridge over the highway—72 steps up, 72 steps back down on the other side. And I am a woman who takes the elevator rather than walking one flight down to my office in the Administration Building at Tech.  Is peanut butter and cheese really worth it?

Yes, I decide.  Red-faced, sweating and panting, I make my purchase and head back toward the torture chamber—I mean, bridge.  As you can see, I made it.  And the peanut butter and cheese was delicious. Worth the effort—I think.

I Make It to Bangkok

You think CIA tactics are bad?  Try the torture of 32 hours on planes and in airports. But I finally made it to Bangkok, minus the duty-free bottle of vodka I bought for myself in Denver, my last plane change in the US.  The duty-free store gladly took my $20.  They didn’t bother telling me that my purchase would be confiscated in Tokyo, where everyone has to go through another security line before boarding the plane for Bangkok.  I hope the Japanese version of TSA agents enjoy my Finlandia.

At Suvarnabhumi Airport, the line to have my passport checked and stamped was endless. Luckily, I’m old (never thought I’d say that!), so I was able to bypass hundreds of irritated passengers and walk right through the “seniority” line.  Score one for having had too many birthdays.

Outside, my dear host, Intirapon Mulasastra, a professor in the Kasetsart University Faculty of Engineering, and her husband were patiently waiting for me, even though it was past 1 a.m. A brief stop at a currency exchange (“You need baht, not dollars,” Intirapon advised me), and with 2,980 baht ($100, minus the exchange fee) tucked in my wallet, we headed off on the 45 minute drive to KU Home, my hotel on the Kasetsart University campus.  It was 2:15 a.m. when we got there.  I stumbled into the lobby, got checked in and up to my room on the 7th floor overlooking the sprawling university.

Once I figured out how to turn on the lights—you have to dock your room key in a special holder—and discovered ice cold bottled water in a little refrigerator in my room, I fell into bed.

It seemed like only minutes later that a maid was knocking on my door.  “Clean room?” she asked. “Not today,” I groaned.  “Tomorrow.”  I wish I’d looked up the Thai word for tomorrow. I wonder if she will ever come back.

I resurfaced at 2 p.m., feeling groggy but a little hungry. So I showered, dressed and headed out into the 92 degree mugginess to seek out my first Thai meal.

The Gardenia restaurant, about two blocks from my hotel, looked clean, brightly lit and filled with university students. I ordered crispy noodles with shrimp, which turned out to be broad, flat noodles that probably were crispy before they were drenched in a delicious gravy.  Closer to soup than a plate of food, the gravy-soaked noodles were topped with delicious shrimp, leafy green vegetables, onions and mushrooms. It was delicious.  Almost more than I could eat, it cost 90 baht.  That’s just under $3.

Later, after a nap (I’d only had 11 hours of sleep, right?), I set out in search of a 7-11 store that the desk clerk said was two-three minutes down street to right.”   The ubiquitous 7-11s (a Thai student at Tech told me that there is one on almost every corner) sell sim cards for cell phones, something my host advised me to get to avoid enormous roaming charges.  I never found it.  7-11s may be on almost every corner, but there weren’t any on the five corners I passed.

After a dinner of pad thai in the hotel (another $3), I tried the TV in my room. Lots of familiar-looking shows, but it’s hard to follow the action on Law & Order when everyone is speaking Thai.  I’m glad I brought several books.

It’s Saturday morning now (Friday evening back in Houghton). Just explored the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which is free with the room. An amazing variety of fruit—familiar fruit like watermelon, unfamiliar fruit like …  One looked—and tasted—like diced, pickled, chewy stuff. One looked like ground beef and tasted like, umm, salty, pickled ground beef.  One looked like figs and tasted rotten.  With all that fruit, I had chicken sausage (mild and tasty), a fried egg (one of the most delicious eggs I have ever tasted), a little bowl of jasmine rice with chicken & chili peppers on top, and a piece of plain white-bread toast (the only choice) with delicious pineapple jam.

My host is coming to get me soon, to help me find a sim card for my phone. Stay tuned…