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.