Archive for the ‘living in Bangkok’ Category

Well one year already in Bangkok, working at the new scope of responsibilities. I have done quite a bit of travelling and now know something about hotel rooms in Asia, not the Pacific as yet, but soon.

When people ask me how I like Bangkok, I am stumped for an easy response. I could say great (and this would be true) the gracious Thai people, the easy way to get along, the sense of being in an Asian hub, the diversity. There is the commerce, traffic, a city in non-stop motion.

But with coexisting ancient and globalizing (western) influences, Thailand defies the superficial characterization. The more I observe, the more I understand the breadth and depth of what I do not know, cannot see and am not able to hear. It is endlessly fascinating,  Thai culture (I use singular, but in fact it should be plural) is both highly formal and easily casual. There is tolerance and rigidity and everything in between. So all of that to say, that Thailand is like everywhere else. Complicated and as complex as the compounded humanity it contains.

I tend to process what I see through comparisons with what I know. Tourism, for example. Bangkok this year became the number one tourist destination globally. It is at the pinnacle, having surpassed London for the first time, not only in arrivals but also quite close to the top in quality of the visitor experience. Some of this is the happy result of the growing economic strength of Asian economies releasing the potential of recreational travel for huge populations. Bangkok is the place of choice for Chinese, Japanese, Russians and still gets lots of European travelers. They come because Thailand is relatively affordable, Thai people value and give service, service service, and there is a variety of ‘products’ from the spirituality and history which the Buddhist temples represent, to the megacity shopping and dining, to beaches and boating, to nature reserves.

I have a cousin who has worked his entire adult life in tourism. He loves Thailand and laments bitterly the state of affairs in the Caribbean tourism industry. For him, we have the goose that laid the golden egg on life support. Travel to the Caribbean is expensive, accommodation costs exorbitant, we are unimaginative, our small spaces unkempt, and worst of all, many of us, and those particularly giving service, present as surly, resentful, untrained and unpleasant. And then there is the crime and insecurity.

There may be a lot true in that. But, echoing our intense Facebook messaging fights, I am at pains to defend the Caribbean and give some sociological context. Thailand was never colonized, the only country of South East Asia to have maintained its national political and cultural integrity. Thai people do not have the same kind of complex psychological backstory that we have. Though no doubt they have another.

And our backstory includes resistance and struggle against inequalities. Caribbean people struggle with what they feel is docility in the face on unequalness. It is what Eric Williams meant in part when he said “massa day done”. The fight for emancipation was a fight for equal dignity and there is deep, deep, deep resentment that we have not achieved the project of upending colour, race and class privilege in the Caribbean. Even as every day, we contribute to it in how we try to transform ourselves, appropriating another culture’s  notion of beauty.

All of this can show up in passive aggressive service, as when you go to a store, and the sales person will side-glance you with barely concealed annoyance and saunter over indolently, never making eye contact, letting you know that she is doing a favour, that she hates her job and could care less about what you want.

We have not been able to fully disconnect service from servitude. And let’s be honest, there are employers and tourists who do expect servitude.

I may be overreaching into the social science toolkit to explain what could simply be a lack of understanding and training. Perhaps empowering supervision, decent wages and social protection may resolve the service problems.

Still the Caribbean has lots of other things going for it. It is well located, physically divine (except now increasingly littered). But mostly, we have ourselves. Our comedic sensibility, our social ease. We are not shy. Laughter is always just bubbling below the surface, one absurd comment away. Maybe it is a feature of small size, our expectation that we will know each other or know someone in common. Formality breaks down quickly. Caribbean people are delightful. Literally, full of de light if you will. Jokesters.

But back to Bangkok where too, the main attraction is the people. Thais for the most part, will refuse to engage in confrontation. Saving face (the other’s) is important. And there is a strong strain of giving in the culture. Perhaps this is based in the value of ‘making merit’: doing good deeds and acts, the benefit of which is felt throughout life or carried over in subsequent incarnations.



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Saturday in the Park

The Saturday routine for the last plenty years has been about markets (grocery, vegetables and fish) and of course the  lessons runs. Saturday is the quintessential family work day, so much so that in the early days of mothering,  I would collapse into the office chair on Monday morning with a sigh of relaxation. Ann (sister and mother of 3) and I have wondered with puzzlement and some envy about what people without children do with the time.

Now I find myself without any Saturday script, the page is clean and I hope not to write on it with a day in front the computer catching up on work email, or yes, blogging which is what I am doing now.

This morning I finally compelled myself to get out of the apartment  and go to the one and only Lumpini Park. The big green space in chock-a-block Bangkok. Outside the park the ubiquitous food, people cooking at 6 in the morning. Breakfast street food.

But inside the park, a whole social ecology. The elderly and young mixed together running, doing Tai Chi, and then some Tai Chi with snapping fans.

The park is not as big as the Trinidad savannah yet still Bangkokians have managed to make it seem much bigger, using the interior and not just the perimeter. On the inside, ponds, small bridges, pavilions, exercise areas with equipment.

And because, we are fully culturally globalized, to an aerobics class, Rihanna sings Disturbia.

I had heard that there were lizards in the park. Big lizards! In my mind like the Dominican abolores or maybe even like the Trini iguana. Was not expecting this! Look de lizard eating ah fish!

And, thinking of artists Dean and Pancho and their lamentation over the lack of art in public spaces, the Park has some lovely sculpture.

Lumpini Park feels at once bustling but also a refuge from the concrete.

It is a place to stop, stare and be quiet. 

And always the place for worship:

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Bangkok Brief

Bangkok is an extreme urban experience. A city of 11 million or so, commerce dominates the landscape. Shopping, everywhere, for anything. Also food everywhere, of all types.

Although I do not have any insight whatsoever into the daily lives of Thais, I think it would be true to say that there must be a gulf of difference in the lifestyles of most Thais and the so-called expatriate community.

I was thinking of this, ironically and embarrassingly enough while getting a Thai massage. Massage parlours and spas proliferate and following a reference, on Saturday I wandered into a spa in a nice quiet soi (Thai for street). And because of the glut on the supply side, I was able to get a massage without a booking. A walk-in so to speak.

Thai massage is a full contact event. No discreet placing of hands on body.  Hands yes, but also arms, elbows, feet, torso. Thai massage is distinguishable from the garden variety oil massage by  its concentration of pulling, prodding and pushing the body into flexibility.  And nicely, all while the client is fully clothed, thank you very much. Thai interactions are nothing if not discreet.

But one hour of this costs about $12.00 or BDS $24.

Thailand is a place where beauty, for its own sake, and in the context of faith, seems much valued. There is definitely  a religious aesthetic. Spirit houses sit prettily on many properties. These rather elaborate and ornate structures are shrines, I am told, that provide  shelter for spirits which could otherwise cause problems if not appeased. And so the shrines are also places for offerings, and in particular flowers.

The spirit houses, which dot the landscape,  can be very elaborate and big or small but still quite elaborate. This one is close to where I am currently staying. Very lovely. Sorry for the bad picture.

Yesterday I finally went on the river and travelled to another part of Bangkok to the flower district. I thought of Jan. If you see orchids! And, not even potted. And lilies, roses, 30 baht for over 30 stems- remember USD1=32baht.

There is so much to explore and enjoy and learn.

On that note, I did some apartment hunting on Saturday. All that I saw were really great. But the decision hinges on location given the traffic. I have to find a place that will allow Rais to go to school and me to work without too much time in transit.

And as for the girls, they are living rather contentedly in Dere Street with  Daddy.  Kaila and Rais met up with old friends from Junior School and in the Trinidadian way, have been embraced back into the fold.

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First impressions

This week, in the Bangkok Nation, an English language paper, a writer was reflecting on the deleterious effects of rapid urbanization. Asian cities experiencing this have populations that outstrip the  infrastructural capacity. Where once there was nothing or perhaps a single family dwelling, are now high-rise condo buildings. The sewage systems are under strain as are all services. But no effect is as visible and  impacting on daily quality of life than traffic.

This is an aspect of life in Bangkok. How, like the Canadians with their constant referencing of weather, planning centers around traffic, identifying the worst spots, planning route adjustments and making decisions about departure times.

To deal with that, Bangkok has a well-developed mass transit system (BTS) with a sky train and underground. Yesterday I ventured forth and the sky train is easy to understand and use and dramatically efficient for time-saving.  Distance from the BTS is the main selling point for real estate agents.

And so Valerie, (with whom we were recently discussing the proposed railway for Trinidad) unless and even if we move like Bermuda to the strict regulation of family car ownership (one car per family),  public transportation has to improve. But yes, I can see how a sky train would be  a very expensive venture.

Otherwise, Thai people have courtesy and grace down to a fine art. So much deference, kindness and politeness. And that deference, charmingly, it is also driven by age reverence.

And finally, for first impressions, the food. Thai food is fabled and accurately and justifiably so. Thais are imaginative cooks. Pomello (a fat, sweet grapefruit) salad- a mix of the fruit segmented finely with pepper and nuts. Or the packaging of tamarind. This one savory, that one sweet, the next sour and spicy.  Lots of coconut in cooking and use of lemon grass, the chadon beni of Thailand. Food is everywhere, literally. On sidewalks one can find a mind-boggling array of active cooking.

How am I adjusting? The work is intense and interesting. Great for learning and growth.

But I have been surprised at losing emotional energy. I am an optimist by nature except, as the children note, my spectacularly absurd bouts of unjustifiable pessimistic panic. Where is my wallet? Oh gosh, I lost it at the supermarket. Can you imagine!???!! What am I going to do???? OK let’s go now. The wallet is in my bag.

This week I have had to manage myself away from the descent. This hovering depressive feeling should have been predictable. I am not with the fab family and in particular, the ti moun, my two roommates of the last two years. And I am now really processing the effects of the dispersal of our family’s belongings and the dismantling of the home etc.

My early self-analysis though is that not having a ‘home’ has made the feeling of bereftness more acute. A place to cook, do laundry, walk about.

And so, I got such a boost of spirits yesterday when I finally identified an apartment to which I go this morning. I  will be on the 43rd floor of a building 5 minutes away from the BTS and more importantly for me, five minutes run to the Lumpini Park, the equivalent of the Trinidad Savannah.

So as with the Jeffersons, I’m moving on up!




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A change is gonna come

I have not been posting over the last few months. I find that writing, even this briefly in this small space, takes a calm mind, time to concentrate. And I have had anything but a calm mind. Indeed, rather there has been tumult and  stress, albeit low grade, when compared to people who live with real stress, brought on involuntarily as with illness or economic hardships.

Making the decision to  step in another direction continues to be coloured with doubt. People ask me, why? why this? why now? And importantly, what about the family? These are all the right questions.  I do not have compelling answers. But I do have hope and yes, an expectation that opening up myself and therefore the family, to these experiences to come should be salutary.

Still it is not clear to me that change  and the expansion it brings, is a better deal than comfortable stability, about which there is a great deal to be said.

Bangkok is as different a place from the Caribbean islands as you can imagine. The scale of the population is one obvious thing. What is also striking is the co-existence of formality in relations with the seemingly chaotic physical environment. People bustling here, there and everywhere. Yet with a dramatic level of civility, at least in the market place of society. The customary greeting is  the wai – palms pressed together at chest level and with a gentle bow. It is an action that suggests collective humility and mutual consideration. 

Thailand is called the land of smiles and I have to say, on day 2, so far so good.

Guess what? A Trinidadian woman works across the corridor from me!

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View outside my window

So I am finally in Bangkok which is 11 hours ahead of TFT (Trinidad Family Time).

Here is the view outside my hotel window:  

Post Update under the category “the world is a small place” or alternatively, “they got Caribbean people everywhere”.

I went down for breakfast and leaving the elevator, walked right into Hugh Sealy (Jackie’s brother)!


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