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.