Thailand, Fall 2008
Tuesday, December 02, 2008 (D-Day + 5) Continued
One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that United said they could get me home if I was able to get to Singapore or Hong Kong, but not before December 11. Researching my options online, I found that I could get to Singapore at a more or less reasonable cost if I went to Chiang Mai. I could catch a bus to Chiang Mai but it would be a 12 hour ride. I didn't check the bus schedule to see if the time made it convenient to catch the flight to Singapore without a long wait. The single flight would get me to Singapore at about 11pm and I would have to wait at the airport for about nine hours for a flight the next morning. Altogether, this was not an attractive option.
I figured that any action I took, including doing nothing, was a gamble. The Bangkok airport could open at any time or it could be closed for weeks or even months. Two impending and potentially significant events were soon supposed to happen, either of which could change the situation and I decided to wait to see what happened before making further plans.
The first event was the expected ruling by Thailand's constitutional court on the legality of the last election. The second was the traditional address the king was scheduled to give on the eve of his December 5th birthday. The court was ruling on whether the election should be invalidated because of large scale vote buying. I've mentioned before that this appears to be a common practice here but this time, enough powerful people objected that something might actually be done about it. As far as the king's speech goes, I was hoping he would ask the protesters to allow the airport to resume operation. Thailand is losing a huge amount of money because of this protest and the economy here is already hurting.
This evening word came across the news that the Constitutional Court handed down a ruling that the last election was indeed invalid and not only was the prime minister to step down, his party and two allied parties were to be dissolved and their leaders forever barred from politics in Thailand. Wow, a big ruling and the prime minister has agreed to go along with it.
Closely following this news, the PAD announced that they had win and they would end the embargo of the airport. That made my day. However the joy was tempered by statements from the airport director that regular flights would not resume until December 15.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008 (D+Day + 6)
The news this morning was that that flights at the airport would resume, not on the 15th but on the 5th. As I had expected, that meant that my December 4th flight would be cancelled. I called United Airlines and was told that the earliest they could get me out was the 15th. Apparently, they hadn't gotten the news yet. I was told to call again later but before I had a chance, I got an email from John in Bangkok with a link to an announcement that United would resume flights on the 5th so I called them right away.
The customer service representative told me that she had space on the December 5th flight but wasn't sure she could change my schedule yet again. She put me on hold to call her support desk for clarification. When she came back, she informed me that while I was on hold the flight had filled up and the soonest I could get a flight was December 7. I was pissed and pleased at the same time. My decision was a no-brainer and I accepted the December 7th booking.
With my schedule now firm (I hoped), I felt much more relaxed and was able to enjoy the next few days in Pattaya. I became the unabashed tourist, exploring downtown and some of the local markets. These are the markets where most of the less affluent Thais shop for their food and other things. They are like the big supermarkets but only in the variety of things available. You can get everything from meat, fresh produce, personal care products, clothing, shoes, and many other things.
These markets are very different from the supermarkets though. The atmosphere is more like the previously described Chatuchak Market in Bangkok or the Russian Market in Phnom Penh. Each product is sold by a different vendor and several vendors could sell the same things. There are vendors with many varieties of fish and other seafood, prominently displayed on beds of ice. Others display meats and poultry, more often than not lacking any refrigeration. Fruits and vegetables we would consider exotic and plentiful and inexpensive. Apples are popular but are imported and expensive.
You can watch as vendors take fresh coconut meat, shred it, and press it in a machine that gives coconut milk at one end and dry shredded coconut at the other. A few steps away someone will be frying tasty goodies (I know, I have tried them) in bug woks filled with what is most likely coconut or palm seed oil. These two oils are the predominant cooking oils here and, because of their high saturated fat content, undoubtedly contribute to the high rate of heart attacks here. Heart attacks are actually the number one cause of death here, though I would have expected it to be motorcycle accidents.
I also walked along Beach Road, about 50 feed from the water and lined with big umbrellas shading lounge chairs with far fewer tourists than would ordinarily be here during the winter, normally Thailand's high season for tourism.
Friday, December 5, 2008 (D-Day + 8)
Today, Wednesday, is Barry's birthday but he is in Bangkok grading the final exams he gave to his class yesterday. He won't be home until Friday but Rudi and I planned to celebrate when he returns. We bought an ice cream cake at Swenson's and Rudi plans to cook some of Barry's favorite foods for Friday's dinner. Barry's eastern European Jewish heritage and Rudi's Russian and German roots came together when they discovered that they were raised on many of the same kinds of food.
We were joined today by Rudi's daughters because the king's birthday (that's today, remember?) is a national holiday and the schools are closed. I have become "Uncle Peter" to them and I have to admit to some joy in watching and sometimes participating in their childish games and play. All of those silly things that delighted me as a small child came back and caused giggles and peals of laughter in these two small children. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that I am childless but I was still able to enjoy Rudi's two and I could tell by the way they would together climb onto my knee or lap that the joy was mutual.
Saturday, December 06, 2008 (D-Day+9)
My last full day in Thailand he here at last. I fixed myself a breakfast of fried potatoes and onions, one of my favorites and a semi-regular fare at home. Odd that it comes back to me now but I learned to really love this combination from my friend Alexandra in Seattle. At one time, she was cook and part owner of the Streamliner Diner on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from the docks in Seattle. One time when I was visiting Alexandra and Michael, she had to work the restaurant and I caught the ferry over to sample their food. Not only did she make the best the best hash brown potatoes I'd ever had, she told me that the secret was to precook the potatoes and then grill them slowly with the onions (I hope I have that right Alex, If there's a mistake, it's mine). I often expand the concept and add some sesame seeds to the mix.
I went out with Barry not too much later for lunch where we were again met by John (not the Bangkok John). Despite not really being hungry, I ordered waffles with syrup. They were not bad but what was curious was that the waffle was one of those seven inch or so round waffles divided into quarters but they gave me only three of the four quarters. What did they do with the fourth? There was a lot of amusing speculation. I rationalized eating again so soon as it being my last day and I wanted to indulge myself. I guess it was more than rationalization because that's exactly what I wanted to do.
After lunch, Barry gave me directions to the highest spot in Pattaya so I rode there and it had some great views of the city, the ocean, and some islands in the distance. I was glad I had brought my camera.
Later, Rudi asked me where I'd like to have my final meal here so we ended up again going to The Sportsman restaurant, a place we'd been several times before. The food was good as was the company though these two guys, Barry and Rudi, are a lot more vocal about having things their way than I am and tonight's complaints ranged from the staff changing the channel on a big screen TV (one of three) from the basketball game between the Trail Blazers and the Celtics that Barry was watching to sending a sandwich back because it contained mayonnaise despite having told the waitress at least four times while ordering that he didn't want mayo, and he said it in Thai. Well, as the expats here are fond of saying, "This is Thailand."
Back at Rudi's after dinner, I showered, shaved, changed into clean clothes, then finished packing. My ride to the airport showed up just before 2am and we made good time except for the stop we made for the diver to take a cigarette break. At that time of the night, I didn't begrudge anything he needed to do to stay awake and alert while driving.
I got to the airport about 3:30am and waited in an ever growing line until just before 4am when United opened it's check-in line. I had checked in on United's web site earlier but it didn't appear to matter, at least as far as the check-in process itself. What it did do for me was let me change seats on the long Tokyo to San Francisco leg of my flight. When the customer service agent got me on that flight, she said only middle seats were available but online I was able to get an aisle seat.
I will avoid United Airlines in the future for all but short flights because they squeeze the rows so close that I had almost no leg room. When the guy in front of me put his seat back, I couldn't even put my knees directly in front of me, I had to straddle his seat and even had to ask the flight attendant's help in raising the aisle-side seat arm so that I could get up. I have figured out the hidden buttons on most of these aisle-side seat arms but couldn't find it on this 777, it was hidden by the seatback cushion. Despite the cramped quarters, I was able to sleep for much of the flight thanks to my fatigue and modern pharmaceuticals. Hooray for Ambien.
Other than the tight squeeze on the plane, the flights were uneventful, just the way I like them. I had one scare on landing in Tokyo because I didn't know we were that close to landing and was engrossed in my book so when the wheels touched down abruptly, I thought we had hit something. A quick look out the window and I realized my mistake. It got my heart pounding for a few seconds though.
A few thoughts on Thailand. I have gone from loving the place to hating it and never wanting to return. Due to the problems at the airport, I was forced to stay an extra ten uncertain days. It could have been much longer. It's not that I was forced to stay in horrible conditions, my conditions were terrific. It's that I was forced to stay at all and had no choice in the matter and the uncertainty of not knowing how long it would last that were the real problems.
Will I return? Who knows, I certainly don't, but what I do know is that I won't soon forget this trip.