An English teacher's blog about his travels and his digital art.

Month: March 2014

Death on the Mekong Update

Here’s an update on the death I reported in my previous post.

The death was reported last Thursdy evening, and the search for the body continued for several days. Meanwhile, at the house of the deceased, dozens of mourners visited over the weekend. I went there on a few evenings to join the 20 or so people who gathered at any one time of the day. The mood was anything but somber. Folks were drinking Beer Lao, of course, talking and laughing, playing cards and generally having a good time. It must have resembled an Irish wake, but there was still no body.

Dawn came grey and pale on Monday, the sun shrouded by a thin overcast. I was up about 6:30, drinking coffee and plotting revenge against the early-crowing roosters. There was a flurry of activity as first one of Nai’s sister’s husbands and then another scrambled for their motorbikes and raced away. My first thought was that the body had been found and indeed it had.

The two husbands, one of Nai’s brothers and many of the workmen had been searching for the body the past several days, and finally, that morning they’d been successful. Nai and I hurried off on his motorbike and joined the throng of people at the work site, which is only about three kilometers from Nai’s house. The body hadn’t drifted downstream after all, but had remained where it had fallen. The Mekong is very muddy around this area because of the dredging operations, so the search had taken some time.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that the man had walked to one of the smaller dredge boats across a narrow pontoon bridge consisting of a large plastic or metal pipe. No body else saw him go out there. He must have slipped and fallen at some point, struck his head against the pipe or boat, and gotten knocked unconscious as he sank beneath the water. By the time his absence was noticed, it was too late.

The body, unnaturally white and grotesquely bloated, had been placed on the shore. As I watched, a couple of the men wrapped it in a clear plastic tarp, wrapped it again in a blanket and tied the bundle with strips of white cloth. Plastic bags filled with the dead man’s possessions were placed next to the bundle, and some of the men lined the corpse with unlit incense sticks. A few other men poured several bottles of water over the mound, I suppose as an act of purification.

Then there was a wait of about an hour, so all the relatives and friends, far from being downcast, sat around and talked and smiled and laughed. Curious people of all stripes, including a lot of school kids in their uniforms, came and left. Finally, a brown wooden box, the same color as the soil along the river, was brought to the site. The corpse was placed into it and the top was nailed shut. Then half a dozen men carried it about 100 meters to a large pyre composed of dried brown driftwood and old, dusty truck tires. The driftwood nearly perfectly matched the color of the casket. The box was placed on the ground and the top was removed. Mourners, many in tears, gathered around the body as the man’s possessions were stuffed into the casket. Some people placed money inside. Nai pointed out the dead man’s father. He was grey-haired, about 60, and his handsome, wrinkled face was covered in tears. I was about ready to burst out myself.

The cover was then nailed shut again, and the box was placed on top of the wood. All the mourners picked up an orange flower from a pile that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and we tossed them onto the pyre. One of the younger guys doused the wood and tires with gasoline, someone touched a flaming piece of wood to several areas on the pyre and the whole thing burst into flames, black smoke billowing into the sky. Dredging operations several hundred yards up and down stream from us continued unabated. We watched for awhile, then hopped on the motorbike and departed the area. Back at Nai’s house, I could still see the smoke, dark against the pale sky.

Because it would have been completely tasteless of me to run around taking photos of the people and the wrapped body, I only snapped off one shot, and this only after I saw others taking pictures with their cellphones. Here’s a view of the cremation and the watchers. It was all pretty sad, but, curiously, not morbid or overly mournful. This had not been a ritual. The Buddhist rites had been carried out at a nearby temple a few days earlier while I was still in Vientiane. This was, it seemed to me, a process to dispose of the body in a respectful manner.


The body is cremated

While I was living in Korea, I talked to Nai almost daily. It seems that at least once, sometimes twice a month there was a death, either of a cousin or of an acquaintance in the neighborhood. Most of the deaths were of older folks, but occasionally one of the younger ones died. The people around here seem to live with dying on a continual basis. I think the Buddhist principle of the impermanence of everything helps see them through these trying affairs. Let’s hope that there are no more deaths in the extended family for a long while.

A Death on the Mekong

I’d been keeping in touch with Nai while I was in Vientiane, and I found out on Thursday that one of his cousin’s had died in a work-related accident. I think I met the guy last week (Nai has so many cousins that it’s impossible to keep track of them all). He lived in the family compound just a few house away from Nai. If it’s the same fellow, he was probably in his late twenties, and he left behind a wife and baby.

A lot of the adult men around here work on the Mekong, where they are dredging gravel from the river bed to use in making concrete. Scores of dump trucks full of the rock travel daily along the dirt road that runs through Nai’s village. The road used to be paved, but it’s been torn up for a few years because of the trucks. It’s now cratered with small pot holes and ruts, and it’s terrible for traveling. The heavy vehicles stir up a lot of dust early in the day, but later, when they’re hauling rocks from the river, the water seeps out and eventually drenches the road. That keeps the dust down, but it gets rather muddy.

Apparently the accident victim was working around the dredging machines when something went wrong. Nai couldn’t give me too many details with his limited English vocabulary, so I don’t know what actually happened. I’m sure there will be no government or company support for his grieving wife, but the rest of the family will take care of her and the baby.

Unlike in the United States where people will bring food to a family who’s lost a loved one, in Laos the family is expected to provide food for all the people who come to pay their respects. The past few days Nai has been to his cousin’s house cooking food for hours for all the mourners. However, the people who visit the house will also leave some money for the widow and that usually covers the cost of the food.

There will still be a lot of people today who come to pay their respects, and the funeral will probably be Sunday or Monday. I’ve never been to a Buddhist funeral, so perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to view one, albeit under tragic circumstances.

In Laos

I’m heading back out to my friend Nai’s farm, which is about 10 kilometers outside Vientiane. I’ve been in Laos for about a week now. I was at The Farm for a few days, and then I came into Vientiane to look for a job.

I became a “farmer” at Nai’s place. One day I helped to twist the stems and leaves off of red and green cherry tomatoes. Thousands and thousands of cherry tomatoes. I helped out for about three hours on a hot afternoon, sitting under the shade of a tree, twisting and pulling and culling. There were several family members and neighbors pitching in also. It was boring work, but satisfying. Nai’s sister took all the tomatoes to the morning market in Vientiane, where they were bought in quantity by restaurant owners. Nai told me that they use them in making papaya salad, a staple dish that’s generally served at every meal.

The next day was Green Onion Day. Again, uncountable numbers of green onions. Nai and other family members went into the fields early in the morning and harvested the crop, then hauled it to the house on two-wheeled pushcarts. I was alerted that they had arrived by the aromatic smell of green onions floating on the breeze throughout the family compound. It’s quite a wonderful odor. They spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon pulling the debris and outer skin from each onion. I was going to join in, but this chore required some expertise, so I sat this one out.

The last three days I’ve been in Vientiane, and I’m pretty sure that I got a job working at one of the local colleges. I’ll find out this coming Tuesday. The director is going to phone me and let me know what he might have open for me. I won’t say any more about the job until I officially get it.

So, I’ll be out of Internet and email contact until the middle of next week. I’m taking a bus to the Friendship Bridge around noon today, which is the border-crossing point over the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. Then, I’m going to give Nai a call and have him pick me up on his motorbike. The Farm isn’t too far away from the bridge. I talked to Nai earlier this morning to let him know my plans. He was harvesting more green onions.

Lumphini Park Becomes Lumphini Camp

Joggers and other users of Bangkok’s Lumphini Park were complaining that their use of the area was being hindered by the protesters camped there. That obstruction is probably going to change, but it’s going to get worse. The leaders of the protest decided to close all the other protest sites, unblock the roads and move all activities to the park.

I walked to the park late Sunday morning and got in the middle of the thousands of people setting up camp, listening to speeches, waiting in food lines and lazing in the shade to escape the hot sun. Compared to the park yesterday, this is a huge change. My guess is that nobody will be able to use the park for activities like jogging, bicycle riding, or outdoor aerobics classes.

Saturday, I strolled to more remote areas of the park, and there were still some pockets of quiet and serenity in the lush landscape of tropical trees and flowers.

Flowers in Lumphini Park

Just a few of the hundreds of flowering trees and shrubs in Lumphini Park

Chinese Pavilion at Lumphini

This is the Chinese Pavilion in Lumphini. It was an oasis amid the chaotic areas.

Chinese Pavilion, Lumphini Park

Here’s a better view of the Chinese Pavilion.

Even in some of the tent encampments the scene was peaceful, almost serene.

Tents along a stream at Lumphini Park

A tent area along one of the many watercourses in the park.

That peacefulness is gone, I suspect. Throughout the park, hundreds of new tents have been erected with the arrival of protesters from the other sites. I wish everyone well, but I’m afraid they’re not making any friends with the other users of the park.

Protesters at Lumpini Park, Bangkok.

Just a small part of the many protesters at Lumpini Park, listening to speeches.

The mood, though, remains festive, almost like Mardi Gras, with people wearing smiles along with costumes and accessories that proclaim their involvement. Here are a few of them.

Protesters at Lumphini Park.

Protesters at Lumphini Park.

Flag waver at Lumphini Park protest.

Flag waver at Lumphini Park protest.

Protesters at Lumphini Park

More people enjoying the day, sitting in the shade.

Protesters at Lumphini Park

I don’t know what the pink flags signify. Perhaps they’re one of the royal colors.

Coffee cup tuk-tuk.

Care for a BIG cup of coffee? Here, volunteers are dispensing coffee to protesters.

Foreign expats are involved, also. A German resident of Bangkok and his wife are outfitted appropriately.

German man and wife at Bangkok protests.

Ready to entertain the multitudes, a German resident and his wife join the protesters.

I entered the area again on Sunday night, and the number of people had dramatically increased from that morning. Thousands more protesters had arrived from the now-closed sites, and walking around near the stage was almost impossible. I was squashed from both sides in a slow moving line that was going nowhere in particular. At the first opportunity, I bailed out into an open area. Taking photos was equally difficult. The one below shows the main stage, but it doesn’t quite give the impression of the large crowd.

Night photo of crowd of protesters at Lumphini Park.

Part of the large crowd of protesters at Lumphini Park. I felt a small triumph that I was able to free myself from the crush of people to take this shot.

I was able to work my way to another exit from the park, just down the road from the subway station. I walked back to the main intersection of Silom and Rama IV roads. As you can see, traffic is back to normal. No more casual strolling down the middle of the street.

Intersection of Silom and Rama IV roads.

The intersection of Silom and Rama IV roads. This is where the main stage of the Lumphini protest was located. Now it’s in the park itself.

That was my brush with the protest areas in Bangkok. It seemed a different kind of protest from the ones in which people were killed in the violence. I hope we don’t see news headlines like that again.

At the National Stadium Protest

I had to do some shopping for personal odds and ends at Tokyu Department Store at the Mahboonkrong (MBK) shopping center. After I finished that chore, I walked out into the protest site and snapped off a few pictures. The scene and crowd atmosphere weren’t that different from the Silom/Lumphini site. Here’s a few of the photos I took.

Tents near MBK shopping center

Orderly rows of tents were erected next to the MBK shopping center, near the National Stadium.

Siam protest site

I believe this is Rama I Road, a continuation of Sukhumvit Road.

Singer at Siam protest

A singer at the main stage of the Siam protest area.

Selling shoes at the Siam protest site.

Do you need some shoes? No harm in making a few baht while you stay out of the mid-day sun at the Siam protest site.

Couple at MBK shopping center

At MBK Shopping Center. No other caption needed.

Bangkok Under Protest

I was tired after arriving in Bangkok, so I stayed near the Silom City Hotel and ate at the small food street nearby, Silom Soi 20. There are several items I need to buy in Bangkok, items I didn’t feel like hauling with me, like some new running shoes, new shirts and t-shirts and other odds and ends. I’ll be here until March 3rd, so I started my shopping errands yesterday, Friday the 28th.

But first, my biggest goal was to find some of the protest sites where the anti-government opposition was holding court, threatening to shut down Bangkok. I don’t think they ever really shut it down, but several of the busiest avenues in Bangkok were turned into walking streets, closed to the usual heavy traffic of cars, buses, tuk-tuks and motorbikes.

I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I’d read about the tragic deaths that had recently occurred, but I’d also read that the demonstrations were mainly peaceful. I had to go to Hualamphong train station to buy a ticket to Nongkhai, where I’ll be heading on March 3rd on the overnight sleeper. So, I decided to walk the few kilometers to the subway near Lumphini Park, one of the biggest protest areas, and take the short ride to Hualamphong in air-conditioned comfort.

I had no idea how big the protest area would be, so I walked along expecting the sidewalks to be jammed with people and the road to be impassable with a permanent traffic jam. In actuality, you don’t really notice the protest site until you get close to Lumphini Park, near the subway station. Silom Road is closed to traffic for about half a kilometer before the park, so it’s easy to avoid the normally crowded sidewalks, jammed with vendors, by walking down the middle of Silom, an unusual experience on this heavily traveled road. You can also walk above the crowd on the overhead walkway, which is what I first did. Here are a few photos from the walkway.

No traffic on Silom Road

An unusual sight–no traffic on Silom Road, blocked by protesters.

A quiet Silom Road

This is a view down the other direction of Silom. The tire barricade and the black netting mark the entrance to the protest site.

Food vendors on Silom Road

Food vendors are set up all along the road, taking advantage of the large crowds.

Silom Road vendors

More vendors along closed-to-traffic Silom Road.

The atmosphere of the protest was more that of a street fair than a demonstration against the current government. In addition to the usual assortment of vendors on the sidewalks, lining Silom on both sides were food stalls and vendors selling everything imaginable, from belts and baubles and beads to t-shirts proclaiming the protest. Huge speakers were piping in the music and speeches from the main stage near Lumphini and the protesters, tired, but undaunted, seemed to be enjoying themselves, as were the gawking tourists, including me.

“Would I be allowed to take photos?” I wondered. Yeah, it was OK. So, I walked into the area and into Lumpini and took these photos. I always asked first before taking a shot, and everyone was quite agreeable and friendly about it, and I always followed up with a thank you. I was turned down only once.

I really liked the spirit of the people; their friendliness was apparent in their smiles and their determination apparent in their staying power of doing this for weeks on end. Whether their political aims are correct or not is for history and the Thai people to decide. No matter, I enjoyed being among them.

This is the first photo I took on entering the area. The middle guy was agreeable, so I took the shot. No problems, so I became more confident about being among the people. I wonder if the protest banner makers could use a native English-speaking proofreader.

Protests near Lumphini Park

Three protesters with dog. I asked the guy in the middle if it was OK to take a photo and he smilingly agreed. The other two seemed not to notice.

I saw this fellow from far off waving his flag, and I knew immediately that I had to catch him in his moment of pride. This is along one of the side streets leading to the main stage area.

Thailand flag waver.

Flag waver along a street leading into the main stage area.

Lots of vendors here. I should buy a protest shirt. Maybe I’ll go back and get one later.

T-shirt vendor.

T-shirt vendor along a side street. Lots of colorful protest shirts are for sale.

Near the flag waver I saw this older gentleman, with his cool toothless smile. I think he asked me to take his photo before I could ask for his permission to do so.

Toothless man smiling.

An enthusiast near where I saw the flag waver. This guy is really into it, with his toothless, but infectious, grin.

Here are a few of the hundreds of tents where the protesters are living. This is near the entrance to Lumphini Park, which is jammed with tents, shower stalls and cooking areas. I took a few more photos earlier today, which I’ll try to get processed and posted by tomorrow.

Tent city near Lumphini Park

Tent city near Lumphini Park. The park itself is crammed with hundreds of tents.

There are tents set up inside larger tents. Here some folks are enjoying a gab session, staying out of the afternoon heat. I asked the guy on the left about taking a photo and he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up, but he immediately went into “serious” mode when I took the shot. After I finished, he smiled again.

People talking

Enjoying a gab session away from the heat of the early afternoon.

I walked around the park a bit more and decided it was time to get out of the heat and go to the subway station. But, I saw this older lady sitting under an awning. I don’t know if she was just resting there or whether she was selling the “V for Vendetta” masks. I liked her smile.

V for Vendetta mask

“V for Vendetta” character mask. I think this lady was selling them.

Just one more shot before the subway entrance. I caught these two guys near an “I (heart) Thailand” sign near the main stage.

Two men resting

A couple of guys taking a break at one of the “I (heart) Thailand” signs near the main stage.

It was time to get out of the heat. It’s been around 95 degrees fahrenheit (35 C) in Bangkok the last few days and I was sweating. I went to the entrance to the subway station and took the escalator down. Wow! There was a sweet, cool breeze coming up from the underground area. Was it ever a sensuous feeling! I thought that maybe I should go up and down the escalators several times to repeat the cooling breeze, but there’s a security checkpoint at the bottom. I figured that sooner or later the cop on duty would get wise to me.

I got my ticket at Hualamphong and then took the wonderfully air-conditioned subway to the protest site near the National Stadium. I took a few more photos there, but I’ll save them for my next post.

You might wonder why people fall in love with a particular city. Is it the restaurants and the food, the music venues, the sightseeing opportunities or the overall culture? I really love Bangkok and I have for years. It’s my favorite city of the ones I’ve visited. Yesterday, though, I think I discovered why I love it so much. Sure, it has great food, beautiful Buddhist temples and tons of culture. Yestereday, for me, it was the people. Good luck to all of them, on both sides of the political divide. I hope they get this settled peacefully and soon. Please, no more violence, no more deaths.

Leaving, Arriving

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but it’s also quite a hassle. Packing for a three-week vacation is troublesome. Should I bring my swimming pants that are three sizes too small? How about my sunglasses? I’ve never worn them before, but maybe it’ll be really, really bright this time and my retinas might get burned out. There’s this outside chance that I might get asked to do a bit of juggling, so I’d better bring those yellow tennis balls that I “found” at the court. Right? So many non life-threatening decisions to make.

Moving permanently is a different beast altogether. In a way, it’s easier. After you’ve packed everything, you just look around your abysmally small apartment to see if anything you’ve accumulated over the past five years, including dust, food droppings, sticky notes with meaningless phone numbers written on them and your passport are still lying in hidden corners of your room. If they are, pick them up and either toss them in the garbage or keep them. There should be nothing remaining. Everything important should be in your 1995 vintage Kelty backpack or your hand-me-down suitcase, given to you by Rob, a Scottish colleague who returned home six months ago.

But, before packing, I have to decide “Do I keep it or haul it out to the trash bin?” That old, moldy coffee maker has to go of course, as do all the condiments in the ‘fridge, including the five year old jar of what used to be pickles. Incense? Gone. All that old scratch paper? Gone. Garish polyester shirts that I bought in the Dominican Republic? Hmmm, they sure pack nice (wrinkle-free) and they kind of make a statement and I sure like the day-glo colors. Keep ’em.

It was problematic, but I finally packed everything that I thought I needed to have for a permanent change of location and life. I finished all the obligations to the university, like paying my final utility bill and cleaning my apartment, and I left. For good. Never to return to South Korea, I waved it a more or less fond farewell. I hopped on the overnight bus from Yeosu to Incheon Airport with no regrets, no tears of farewell and no looking back.

The bus departs Yeosu at 11:10 pm and arrives at the airport at 4 am. Usually, I can intermittently doze off, but I never arrive at Incheon refreshed. As a matter of fact, I always need a transfusion of caffeine. You really have to experience the vast emptiness of Incheon Airport at 4 in the morning. It’s like the Sahara of Korea. Dry. Unoccupied. Trackless. Except for KFC and McDonalds restaurants. They’re open at that ungodly hour. I don’t care for fried chicken for breakfast, so I always order a McDonalds Big Breakfast. I hate McDonalds. Really, I can’t stand it. I live for Burger King, but the BK at Incheon doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. So, the Mac breakfast has to tide me over. Especially the Huge Cup of coffee. I embrace it.

So it was, then, that I checked in at China Eastern Airline, and left Korea for Bangkok, with a brief stop at Shanghai. Four thirty in the morning is dark, of course, but the sun eventually rose on a smoggy, hazy, foggy, misty morning. What was it? Smog, haze, fog, mist. Seoul, and nearby Incheon, had been experiencing a lot of smog and dust blown over, I suspect, from China. The morning was not illuminating. Here’s a shot of the airport.

Incheon Airport smog

It’s a hazy, misty, smoggy morning at Incheon International Airport.

The plane ride to Shanghai, the only stop, was uneventful, but the view from Pudong airport wasn’t any different from Incheon. Indeed, smog seems to be taking over all of east Asia. The atmosphere seemed to be a mix of fog, mist and smog, but the rising Sun couldn’t dissipate the smog.

Smoggy Pudong Airport in Shanghai

It’s quite smoggy at Pudong Airport in Shanghai around 10 a.m. local time.

I had about a two hour layover at Pudong Airport, so, as I always do in an airport that I’ve never been to before, I walked around the concourse. It’s a stunning-looking area, but the main concourse goes on forever. I would guess the straight-line walk from end to end is at least a kilometer long and maybe closer to two. Lining almost the entire length are duty free shops, where you can buy Chinese-themed items. Stuffed panda bears? Check. Chinese tassels? Check. Chinese tea? Check. Restaurants? Not many. I didn’t go into any of the restaurants or coffee shops, mainly because I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t have any Chinese yuan on me. The businesses will exchange dollars, but the exchange rate is cruel.

Pudong Airport Concourse

The main, very long concourse at Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Walking up and down this duty-free lined passage will give you plenty of exercise.

Stuffed panda bears

Cute cuddly pandas on sale in the Panda Store at Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Stuffed panda bears

More pandas at the panda “hangout” in Pudong Airport, Shanghai.

Chinese tassels

Chinese tassels, thousands of them, can be found at the duty free shops at Pudong.

Chinese tea

Chinese tea for sale at the duty free shops. All kinds, all tastes.

From Shanghai, it was a four-and-a-half hour flight to Bangkok. China Eastern definitely isn’t the greatest airline in the world. No in-flight movie that I could hear or understand even if I could hear it, and no great food, but the service wasn’t bad, and I had a window seat, which I always enjoy in the daytime. And the flight was on time–extra points for that.

When I stepped out of the climate-controlled, stale, dry air of the plane cabin, I knew that I was in Bangkok when the heat and humidity enclosed me in a suffocating cocoon, but I loved it after the winter temperatures of South Korea. Welcome to Thailand! More on Bangkok later.

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