One night in Bangkok

A cockroach watched me eat my dinner.  It was khao pat, from a stall in front of the Hua Lamphong railway station, at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night.

I just arrived in Bangkok and several things about the city strike me as different from the last time I was here, now more than two years ago.

The city seems grubbier, on the whole.  Billboards bigger than ones I have ever seen line an ultra-modern 8-lane expressway.  Perhaps it’s only because my perceptions have changed.  The smell of sewage and human waste is something I associate with my time in sub-Saharan Africa; not Southeast Asia.  I don’t actually recall having seen a roach in the last 2 years, and while I struggled to recall if I had ever seen one in my house in Vientiane, I suddenly had a very vivid memory of finding one in my tea thermos, which I then summarily filled with several cups of bleach.

I have a very strong aversion to roaches.  Yet, unfortunately, I have had to learn not to shriek and run for cover when one comes into sight, against my natural inclinations.   But the roaches of Thailand and Laos are nothing compared to the ones covering the walls of the latrine I had to use during my in-country training in Comé, Benin.  But, I digress.

Lying here in this tiny room, I remember how awesome being in Southeast Asia is.  If only I were here simply for leisure.  My data gathering hangs over my head like an ominous cloud.

Ticker would hate everything about this place.  The heat, the humidity, the dirty plastic cup I took my fork out of to eat my rice prepared in a thoroughly unhygienic manner.   The water pressure of the shower which can only be compared to a flaccid drizzle.  The thin foam mattress, the audible footsteps outside.

But hey, I love it.  I feel right at home here, and it feels so good to be back.

Tomorrow I catch the train to Nong Khai, then a bus to Vientiane.  But first… shopping in Bangkok!  Hooray!


hello from ho chi minh

Holy shit.  Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic frenzied mass of motorcycles, all perpetually honking.

Anyway, I shall write more about Vietnam later.  First a quick summary of my travels for far:

After a grumpy start at the Vientiane Talat Sao bus station, when at 9 in the morning the lady told me I couldn’t buy a ticket for the 4 pm bus to Udon Thani, and I missed my bus to the University.  After waiting an hour for the next bus to the University, which never showed up, at 10:15 I called my boss and told him “I give up on the bus.  See you in Vietnam!”, then I went home and sulked.  At 12 pm I rode my bike back to the bus station and bought the ticket for the 4 pm bus, 22,000 kip (about $3).  Then at 3:30 I went back again to actually get back on the bus.

At 4:00 we left Vientiane, about 30 minutes later we arrived at the Friendship Bridge.  After 2 HOURS of standing in lines, we were finally in Thailand, and then another 45 minutes to Udon Thani.  In Udon Thani I went to the “Ruangsoupraeth” VIP Bus company and bought a ticket for the 9:30 pm bus to Bangkok, 443 Thai Baht (about 15 dollars).  Then I went to the mall and ate KFC, 100 baht ($3), which was really exciting.  At 9:00 I went back to the bus station, got on the bus, and while some science-fiction horror movie starring The Rock dubbed in Thai played, I tried to sleep.  Actually the bus was quite comfortable, but I always have nightmares the driver is falling asleep and we are about to careen off the highway so sleeping on night busses is alwasy a challenge for me. Anyway, at 6:00 am we rolled into Bangkok.  This was the first time I had ever been to Bangkok, even though it’s only a $15 bus ride away…

I argued with a tuk-tuk driver for about 10 minutes and convinced him to take me to a guesthouse my friend Dani recommended for 140 Baht (about $4).  Bangkok traffic, even at 6 in the morning, is also pretty horrendous.

I went to this guesthouse, and asked if I could have a room for 6 hours.  Anyway, to make a long story short, the woman was an asshole, she ripped me off, and I highly do not recommend Tavee guesthouse in Thewet, Bangkok.  Anyway, after paying too much because I was exhausted, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then found a tuk-tuk who I told to take me to “Pratunam market”, where I have heard all the cheap shit is.  An hour later (yes, Bangkok traffic is horrendous) we pulled up in front of PLATINUM shopping center.  At that point I didn’t want to be on the road or in a tuk-tuk any longer so I got out. It turned out Platinum is like heaven, actually.  Shoe and handbag and clothing heaven, all reasonably priced, and no need to bargain for 20 minutes per item!

After dropping a few thousand baht, I went back to the guesthouse to get a bite to eat and grab my bag before heading to the airport for my flight to HCMC.  As I was walking past a cafe around noon (11pm Chicago time), I noticed a bunch of people with their eyes glued to CNN.  Obama was giving a speech.  Until that point I had completely forgotten about the election, since I sent in my absentee ballot months ago.  As I stumbled to take off my shoes to walk into the cafe I said “Did he win !??! Did he win !??!”.  I got a very bland “Yes.” in response.  “Hooray!!  Hooray!” I shouted.  Then everyone looked at me strangely.  I guess they had had more time to digest the news and we’re as excitable as me.  Anyway I just put my shoes back on and ran away from all the un-excited people.

I got my bag, and after listening to the lady at the gueshouse try and convince me for 10 minutes to take a taxi to the aiport for 450 baht ($15), and refusing to tell me where to take a bus from, I finally just left and decided to take a tuk-tuk to Khao San rd where I was pretty sure some bus or van to the airport must leave from.  I arrived, bought my ticket at a little kiosk for 130 baht, plus 20 for the tuk tuk ($5), and arrived at the aiport around 2:15, checked in for my 3:55 flight, and then hit the duty free shops.  I probably should have just spent the $400 to fly directly from Vientiane to HCMC, considering the loads of cash I am dropping on the way, but at least I get more than crappy airline food as a souvenir.

I arrived in HCMC around 5:30, and a lovely young lady from the University of Vietnam was waiting for me to escort me to my hotel.  However, due to the aforementioned chaotic frenzied traffic in this city, it actually took over 1 hour of mostly stop-and-go traffic to get to the hotel from the airport.

This hotel has more than it’s fare share of funny anecdotes, mostly due to the extreme lack of English comprehension of any staff member here, and my zero knowledge of the vietnamese language. I have to write a paper right now but I will share them later.

bike ride to thailand

On Sunday my neighbor and I rode our bikes to Nong Khai, Thailand.  He does it every weekend, and told me it only takes about an hour.  An hour and a half after leaving my house, we finally got to the Friendship Bridge.  After crossing the Mekong and going through customs, we were finally in Thailand, but still had a ways to go to get into the town.

We rode around downtown Nong Khai for a while, stopped and got some food, and tried to find a swimming pool, but failed.  Then we went spent the rest of the day in the air conditioning at the mall.  After eating a delicious meal of american-style pizza, we got on our bikes and started to head home.  Just as I got to the middle of the bridge, it started pouring rain.  We waited out the rain on the Lao side of the bridge for about a half hour, and then it let up, and we continued on our way.  A few kilometers from home, it started pouring again, so we stopped under the nearest tree, and there happened to be a wild party happening at the bar across the street.  We ducked inside, and ordered a Beerlao, and I was suddenly mobbed by drunk bar-girls.  They caressed my hands, and arms, and one of them even kissed me on the top of my head. They kept insisting I join them for dancing, but I was so exhausted I couldn’t do it.  They served us a round “Lao style”, meaning somebody pours a glass half full of beer, and then you have to drink it in one go.  One of the girls noticed I had a box of donuts on my bike, and kept asking for one, even after I told her they were for my colleagues at work.  “Just one!!”  “I want a donut!!”  “Please give me one!!”… it went on like this for a while, and then alternately the girls pulling my arms so hard it actually hurt, saying “dance!! dance!!  dance!!!!”.

We made our escape as soon as the rain stopped.

A few kilometers later, we finally arrived back at home, wet and tired.  My neighbor’s odometer indicated we ha gone a distance of 61 kms.  Thats the most I have ever biked in a 12 hour period.  I also got a really bad sunburn.

more photographs

A picture is worth 1,000 words, right?

From Thailand, and Laos.

choreorgraphed dancing at the mall in udon thani
choreographed dancing at the mall in udon thani

This one is also from Thailand:

at the bus station in maha sarakham
at the bus station in maha sarakham

And a few from Vientiane:

my bus station sandwich man...
my bus station sandwich man...

He told me he loved me… (Koi Hak Chau!)

back from thailand

I have to say, I was happy to get back to Vientiane last night.  Even though ethnically and culturally Isan (North Eastern Thailand) is very similar to Laos, I really felt like I was coming “home” when I crossed the Friendship Bridge last night.

Here is a map showing the geography of the places I am talking about:

I had such a wonderful time in Thailand!  The meeting was very interesting and I was able to network and “liaise” with a lot of librarians from South East Asia.

I’ve uploaded some pictures from the conference here.

It was quite a wonderful and amazing experience.

Staying with Dr. Surithong was great!  She and her husband are so nice!  Now I have a Thai family too!  I’m sending her the link to this blog so I have to say great things about her – but I mean it!  I hope have the chance to come back and visit again soon.  Maha Sarakham is a really nice town.  I visited the Sirindhorn Isan Infommation Centre, part of the library that Dr. Surthong is the director of, and learned a lot about Northeastern Thailand.  I also visited the Medicinal Mushroom Museum of Maha Sarakham University, and learned about the 2,000 differnt varieties of mushrooms found in NE Thailand.

phouvieng, surithong, and me!
phouvieng, surithong, and me!

On Saturday I went with Salvacion Arlante, the head of the Philippine University Libraries, to visit the “Isan Jurassic Park”, a really awesome dinosaur museum in NE Thailand, near Kalasin.  It blew my mind how great this museum was.  It was located on the site of a hill where archeologists had found the complete skeletons of 3 large dinosaurs from the cenozoic era or something.

The director of the Philipine University Libraries also suggested I submit a paper for the CONSAL conference in March in Hanoi:

Call for papers

From 20-23 April 2009, the National Library of Vietnam in cooperation with the Library Department and Vietnamese Library Association will be hosting the XIV Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians (CONSAL XIV) at the Melia Hanoi Hotel, Hanoi, Vietnam. The theme of the conference is



Which I plan to do, and then hopefully can get invited to Vietnam in March!

I also met the president of the Thai Library Association, who suggested possibly arranging a workshop for the members of the association in Information Literacy in Bangkok, with myself as the invited resource person.

So, I met a lot of wonderful people, saw a lot of amazing things, ate a lot of delicious food, and learned a lot of interesting things.  Which I think overall makes a trip very nice, huh?

conference in thailand

Well, I am writing this from Maha Sarakham’s Academic Resource Centre’s Director’s Daughter’s bedroom.  Does that make sense?  Don’t worry, the daughter isn’t here, she’s in Chicago, of all places.  But her parents have WIRELESS INTERNET AT HOME.  This is really exciting for me.

I was invited to attend the following conference with the director of the Central Library:

“Local Information Network: Local Wisdom as Power to Social and Economic Development”

You can read my paper there if you click on this year’s meeting link.

I originally expected to be attending this meeting simply as an observer.  On Monday, I received an e-mail from the Thai Director asking me if I would like to submit a short paper about “Cultural Heritage Materials” from my home country.  I quickly wrote something up about the Notman Photographic Archive that I worked with at the McCord Museum in Montreal, and sent it by e-mail.

I guess they really liked it.  On Monday evening, I recieved a response inviting me to be one of the presenters at the conference, which would include an honorarium.  So, I had about 1 day to turn my 3 page paper into an hour-long presentation.  The title turned into something like:

“Digitization as a Preservation Strategy for Local Information Resources and Heritage Materials: A Case study of the Notman Photographic Archive at the McCord Museum in Montreal, Canada”.

The director of UCL and I took the bus from Talat Sao (near my house in Vientiane) to Kohn Kaen today at 2 pm.

Right as the bus left, sitting next to Mr. Chansy, he said to me “You know, I often get sick in the car”.

And I said “How do you feel?”

And he said “Not so good.”

And I said “What did you have for lunch?”

And he said “Fish.”

And I said “Fermented fish paste and insects?”

And he said “No, Fish Laap.”

And I suddenly imagined myself covered in the director’s fish laap vomit.  And then I told him to look straight ahead and turn the air vent full blast on him.

Anyway, there were no fish-laap vomit incidents, I fell asleep, and woke myself up snoring when we arrived tin Kohn Kaen around 6pm.  Some guy picked us up at the bus station and drove us another hour to Maha Sarakham, where we met the Thai director and her husband for dinner.  Dinner was delicious, Dr. Surithong and her husband are lovely!

Then we dropped Mr. Chansy off at the hotel, and came back to her house to sleep.  Now I am comfortably using the internet in my pyjamas.

why god, why !???!

OK, I’ve been having some bad luck lately.

Firstly, my house almost burned down.

The roof is on fire!
The roof is on fire!

Thursday was the beginning of Buddhist lent, so there were a lot of people burning candles and incense in their houses.  One of the caught on fire, and suddenly there was a huge raging fire that ended up completely burning down 5 hours on my street.  At 10 pm on Thursday night my landlord starts pounding on my door – “FIRE!!  grab your passport and get out!”.


  So, all ofthe people living in my area of the concesion grab our stuff and climb over a wall to safety, where we wait for about 3 hours, while finally some fire trucks arrive and eventually the fire is put out.  I will admit that it was quite frightening.

post-fire destruction
post-fire destruction

Then, yesterday I found out that some one has stolen my debit card information and bought $4,000 worth of computer equipment online.  So, I called my bank, and hopefully I can dispute the charges and everything will be taken care of.  But in the meantime, they canceled my debit card and are sending a new one to my mother’s house… and then she will have to Fed Ex it to me here.  So, I had planned on paying my fees for my Canadian Work Permit online this week using that debit card… and now I can’t.  I have to submit the visa application before August 27th so I am not sure what I will do.

All of the computers in this entire country have viruses on them, and I think they can steal your banking information by recording your key strokes or something.  I bought some books on Amazon last week and I bet that’s when the sleazy Nigerian guy I saw at the internet cafe got my information.  I hate to promote racial stereotypes… but we all know it’s true.

What else?  Of yeah!  I went to Thailand! 

I really went to Thailand
I really went to Thailand

The library director and his wife took me to Nong Khai, just on the other side of the Mekong, so I could renew my Lao Visa.  They wanted to go to the mall – and it was pretty unbelievable that just across the river it’s like you’re suddenly back in civilization… there is a Starbucks there, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a 7-11 !!??!!  Otherwise, it was basically exactly like Vientiane, except they drive on the other side of the road there.

The Thai-Lao Friendship
The Thai-Lao Friendship

I bought stuff to bake cookies at the Tesco – which turned out alright.  My make-shift oven is not really cutting it, and for pizzas or quiches I wil have to make some changes.  But it works for now.

Ok, The director of the library wants me to go have lunch with him now so I have to go.  Later today I am going to go register at the US Embassy.  I do have more stories to tell, I made some friends!  But I will save that for another post.