Friday, January 30, 2009

Blagojevich Ousted From Office

AP coverage of Blagojevich getting the boot.

CSPAN coverage of "Illinois Prosecutor Closing Argument in Impeachment Tribunal for Gov. Blagojevich".

The Daily Show seemed to have temporarily become The Mock Rod Blagojevich Until He Cries Show. I've never seen so many hair jokes.

"Geraldo Rivera traps Rod Blagojevich in a parking lot for the first-ever ambush softball interview."

"If Rod Blagojevich boycotting his own impeachment trial sounds arrogant, it's because he's very arrogant."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thailand Part 3: Markets, Boat Trips, and Elephants

Our day began with a trip to the Chatuchak Weekend Market via Skytrain. We met back up with Mike and Allison the night before, bringing the crew back up to four. Its the mother of all markets, so large that maps are necessary to have even a prayer of navigating it. Giant sections of the place were loosely devoted to subjects like clothing or furniture, but that was the extent of organization. It was probably the hottest day of my whole trip, but mercifully the majority of the stalls were covered. They were set out it rows and columns that divided everything into squares. Logical enough, but it made the giant number of lanes into a labyrinth. No one's cellphone worked in Thailand, so I spent more time looking for lost friends than I did shopping. In the end I think one t-shirt was all I ended up buying for myself. The Lonely Planet guide calls it "one great big market-style concentration camp" with "a climate like a sauna".

Police patrols strode by periodically. Thankfully I didn't have any interactions with them during my time in the country. The police in Thailand seem much like they are everywhere else. One thing I will mention though, is that they wear really, really tight uniforms.

There were lots of little places to eat within the market, but the huge amount of shoppers did a pretty good job of occupying every last spot to sit down. So, the four of us ate lunch at a nearby restaurant.

I thought I ordered a fried catfish, but what I got looked like someone forgot to add the fish to the batter. I guess it was good, but it wasn't super filling. It was accompanied by a spicy papaya salad.

My dessert intake goes way up when I'm traveling, as its another chance to experience the menu. This time I had a big chunk of mango with a sweet and sticky pile of rice pudding. The dish is called kao niao ma muang.

I washed it all down with some 7up in glass bottles. I swear the soda tastes better in some countries over others. I really need to stage a taste test one of these days.

This was one of our wander-around sort of days. Its not the most efficient way of seeing things, but it does provide some unique opportunities if you're lucky.

Gold: check. Pointy: check.

These people's hustle is that they will release one of these birds if you give them about $2.50. The sign is in English if you're interested. If releasing one bird gives me "luck and happiness forever", then what of the person who caught them all in the first place?

Each one of these little guys is a dried squid. I never tried one, but I could smell them from some distance.

Favorite sign of the whole trip, hands down.

At one point we decided that it might be cool to take a take a ferry. We thought it would be as simple as walking to the river and looking both ways, but unfortunately we did quite a bit of walking before we discovered something. The boat we did find was more about taking tours rather than getting locals to work, but we had the whole thing to ourselves which was nice.

A large part of the trip was spent zooming through residential areas. Some areas of Bangkok have a bit of a Venetian waterway thing going on, only poorer. These canals are called khlongs. Many houses were right up against the khlongs, and it seemed as if their front doors were facing the water. Many had mailboxes out as well. Maybe its faster to deliver mail by boat to these folks. I was surprised at how friendly so many of them were. Adults and children alike smiled and waved at us vigorously, ignoring the fact that we were gawking tourists taking pictures of their daily lives.

Midway through our journey another little canoe shaped boat came up along side us. The man in it was selling random things. Included in his offering was a big piles of banana bunches. I was feeling impulsive and they were super cheap, so I grabbed a ripe looking one. They were new to me. Not only were they fun size, but the inside was more yellow than the average fruit. I think they tasted sweeter than a normal banana as well. No one else would eat more than one or two, so I happily took care of most of them myself.

The one downside is that when the banana is 1/3 the size, it takes 3 times more peeling to get the same amount of fruit.

Out of the klongs and into the open river, we could see some of the important buildings in the center of the city.

That night while eating dinner, I saw four or five elephants being led around. It was the same game as the day before: give them some money and they will give some food to the poor creature.

These were really good. It was meat wrapped in a leaf, deep fried to crispiness.

Tom yum soup. It's spicy, it's sour, it's freaking delicious. It is a pretty widely known Thai food and I can't get enough of it. I'm pretty well acquainted with the soup because it's available at the Thai restaurant here in Ashikaga. So good!

This poor guy had red lights tied to his tail to help him better survive traffic.

My companions were not very amused by the elephants. They thought it was wrong for the elephants to be here and roundly ignored them. I understand their point, but I figured that money, not attention, is what fueled the wildlife presence here, so as long as I didn't pay anyone for the pleasure, I should be able to take as many pictures as I like. Booyah.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thailand Part 2: Monk Bowls and Prison Parks

My first full day in Thailand was one of the most touristy of my stay, and I loved it. We more or less followed a walking tour right out of the book, taking healthy detours whenever the heck we felt like it. Its my favorite way to travel. We began at the King Prajadhipok Museum. It was free, and we were the only souls in the whole building. It wasn't terribly exciting, but it was a nice leisurely introduction to some Thai culture.

A very twisted royal family tree.

I always make fun of people when they have both the authority to create awards, and a ton of awards. "Wow, I've won the coolest king ever award 10 years in a row!" Its even funnier when they try to wear all of their medals at once.

Random cool looking gardens.

From there we walked up the steps of The Golden Mount. It doesn't feel like a terribly important place, but it was worth the quick climb. It provided some opportunities to see people doing religious stuff without being too intrusive, and a nice little view of our part of the city.

Thailand's food is really good. I liked how there were so many little street stalls everywhere. Many like this had their own little tables and chairs set up for customers. Food always tastes best when the cook gets all the profits.

Bells were prolific on the way up the mount. I'm not sure, but I think if you inscribe a prayer on a bell, every time you ring the bell its like saying the prayer. That's my kind of lazy-man spirituality. Heck, write the bible on a wind chime and you are set for life.

I think the Thai Buddha style is pretty cool. They are very flashy and wearing impossible hats.

Some ritual wrapping going on. "Buddha's gonna be so surprised when he sees what we bought him."

Random fat guy on top of the golden mount. Religious things in Thailand are often golden and/or pointy.

I saw this cool structure on the way back down. Note the pointiness.

As we continued to walk we entered an area populated by mechanics of all types. Just about every storefront on either side of the street had some sort of motor vehicle related activity bustling about inside. We were here in search of the “Monk's Bowl Ban Batt Community”. I wasn't sure what a monk's bowl was or why the heck I would want one, but that sure hasn't stopped me before.

After a few blocks Clarence and I met with this charming sign.

An elderly woman nearby perked up when she saw us reading the sign, and waved at us to follow her. Sure, the sign did say “monk bowls” very clearly, but I was expecting something a little more substantial. I gave her a suspicious smile as I followed her, and I like to think that she understood what I was thinking. The walk she took us on, zig zagging through narrow streets and back alleys, was awesome. I walked wide eyed, I wish I had a video camera, but I don't think I would have turned it on anyway. I felt like I had been invited into a very private space. Many an open door revealed people sitting and eating on the floor of very small rooms. TVs were on in more than one house. One guy diverted his stare from his set to turn to me and say just “Thai Boxing”. I saw three seconds of fighting as we continued to move. Our old lady guide wasn't slowing down and I didn't want to get lost.

We stopped at a little hut with a rack full of monk bowls. They were metal and covered with hammer marks where they had been beaten into shape. I thought they looked pretty interesting, but then the man selling them tapped many of them with his lighter. They rang like bells. I was sold.

I thought my nice little bowl would be better captured in a nice little video, so here you have it. The number 2552 on the bowl corresponds to the year 2009. The Thai calendar counts up from the death of Buddha instead of the birth of Christ. I don't remember exactly, but I think the bowl cost around $30?

The gentleman proudly flashed us an award he had won from the government, and included a copy of it in my shopping bag.

I found a little Seattle Times article that describes the neighborhood and its people much better than I can. I thought it was cool that they interviewed the same guy who I bought my bowl from, Mr. Somsak Buppachart.

We were taken back to the main road in a different, way less interesting manner. We did get to see where one guy was making the bowls, though.

By this time I was pretty sure our route had been hijacked. Surely the Monk Bowl Village wasn't just one guy with some bowls. I continued walking the way I had been, past the homemade sign, and sure enough, I found the real place.

I'm happy with what I got though, so no worries.

I was still in a very people person sort of mood when we left the monk bowl area. I had seen something real back there and I wanted more. Back on mechanic road, I stopped at a little food stand. An intimidating looking guy was grilling various kinds of meats on a grill that sat atop a wheeled cart. When something had finished cooking, he set the sizzling skewer onto a plate. From there it was up to me to choose one, dip it in one of a few sauces, and eat it. Everyone was just serving themselves, so I followed suit. They were good. One I could tell was liver from my Japanese sketchy meat eating experience. Another was a kind of a little sausage. The rest were delicious mysteries. The other customers were tough looking guys that probably worked in the nearby car shops. A couple of them smiled whenever I looked at something quizzically before eating it. Once I had tried everything once or twice, it was bill settling time, and the bill was pitifully small. One skewer only cost 5 baht (about 14 cents). I motioned that the cook could just keep the change, but he seemed more confused than happy. Tipping is not generally a Thai custom, so only those that deal with tourists are big on it.

That was a wholesome little human interaction. I was a hungry dude. He was a guy with some food. Maybe less than 5 words were spoken between us. Hopefully someone eating lunch that day came away with the the feeling that foreigners aren't all such evil idiots after all.

Some of the meats were a little spicy and the cart man didn't have a single thing to drink(can a guy get a comment card?). I popped into a random little mom and pop restaurant and picked up a soda. Glass soda bottles are still in use in many places, including this old school restaurant. When I motioned that I wanted to take it out, some unexpected doggy-baggage occurred. The old man removed the cap and poured the whole bottle into a small clear plastic bag. He then tied a rubber band into a knot on one corner, leaving a loop for my finger, and added a straw into the little opening still left.

Next on the the itinerary was Wat Suthatthepwararam. I was destined to go to many a temple, and see many a Buddha, but this temple was a bright spot for a couple of reasons.

The Giant Swing stands near the wat.

This temple seemed almost devoid of people who didn't have real business there. There were few if any other tourists in the whole place despite its respectable size and grandeur. On top of that, on this particular day there was some serious monk congregating going on. Many were seated at tables and looking over big stacks of papers that seemed to me to be tests of some sort. In the wide open spaces between buildings, then, there was a little market happening and the monks were the only customers. My favorite scene was a group of monks, dressed in their bright orange holy looking clothes, standing around and rummaging through a pile of pirated movies.

It takes a lot of nerve to haggle with a monk.

This wat had a large golden Buddha sitting inside a tall building. I sat down and thought for a while with my eyes closed with the only the soft whir of fan blades to connect me to the world.

My tolerance for giant Buddhas has been greatly increased. I'm afraid that after Hong Kong and Thailand I'm going to need to see a seriously monstrous, bejeweled beast of a man-god statue before I'll be impressed. The ante has been substantially raised.

The next place we hit was a nice little park. I was afraid that it might be a bit boring, but there was plenty of Thailand to see even in this simple green space. Apparently the park used to be a prison yard.

This one tree got the same wrapping treatment that I had seen earlier.

What a nice place to work out.

There are still a view reminders of this place's prison days.

There was a museum housed in an old prison building, but unfortunately it seemed to be closed. We were reduced to walking around the building and looking in the windows.

My favorite punishment. The signs reads: "Takrow This instrument was made of rattan. Its shape was look like the big ball but with many sharp nails inside. An offender was typically put inside this ball. Then the officer would let an elephant kick it around."

The little guys are tuk tuks. Thailand's mini-taxi.

I find it interesting how American companies adapt to foreign markets.

By this time it was starting to get dark and the remaining spots on our list began to look less and less worth the continued walking. A tiny bit more wandering while looking for a good place to wave a taxi revealed a good sized flower market. A large percentage of the flowers offered were the golden colored ones used everywhere for religious stuff, offerings and whatnot. It makes sense that the market for these would be healthy as they are less of a frivolous purchase than the average flower. It was nice to be in a market where everyone wasn't jumping down my throat at the slightest sign of interest. I didn't look like the bulk flower buying type I imagine.

This was the night of my first elephant sighting. It was cool to see one in the middle of the city, but the circumstances were unfortunate. A common little hustle is to lead a baby elephant around and sell food that people can feed to it. I can't believe this is even legal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thailand Part 1: Getting Acquainted With The King

Thailand. What an awesome place.

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We flew into and spent the majority of our time in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. Wikipedia translates the ceremonial name of the city to: "The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam". It holds the world record for longest place name.

The day of arrival is always fun. I feel especially cool. Of all the people I saw that day, how many of them had been rockin' out in Hong Kong 5 hours ago? Not so many, I think. In your face, Thailand!

Clarence and I left almost 2 days before Mike and Allison, so we were on our own for the moment. We hadn't even left the airport before we got taken for suckers. I was a bit worried about how things were going to be outside the airport. I had already read in my Thailand Lonely Planet guide about the legendary shadiness of some of the cab drivers, so when we saw a legitimate-looking taxi company doing business on the safe side of the airport doors, I was interested. I was new to Baht, the Thai currency, so I don't remember the extent of how bad we got it, but I think we paid 2 or 3 times what Mike and Allison paid for the same trip.

On top of that, the taxi driver was super lost for quite some time. While that was a bummer, I enjoyed the tour of the city that our wandering provided.

The first thing I was struck by was the huge amount of king-related monuments everywhere. I've been to London and Tokyo, both with some form of royal people, but I've never seen anything like this. Thailand is covered in pictures of the King, from small portraits in people's houses to giant billboards on highways. I found the nature of the pictures interesting as well. They often depict the King as a very approachable kind of guy, not a triumphant warrior king or anything like that. Thailand has pretty serious punishments for lèse-majesté, the crime of insulting the royal family. An interesting Christian Science Monitor article covers the subject and the story of an Australian novelist arrested for the offense here.

Here are a few little shots of royal-looking stuff I saw. I took them through the window of a moving cab so give them a break, will ya?