Friday, 6 July 2012

Epilogue: In Search of Krung Thep

By Dr. Joel Moore

Since 2005 Dr. Yeoh Seng Guan has been leading groups of students from Monash University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences to major cities in Southeast Asia.  The program requires students to take learning far beyond the classroom.  They write and edit the articles featured on this blog, document their adventures in real time with photos and commentary shared on twitter and facebook, and create a video documentary after returning.  In addition, they must plan and execute their own stories once in country.   Because Dr. Yeoh was on sabbatical this year I was fortunate enough to be able to lead this trip to Bangkok. 

I have been extremely impressed with this group of exceptional students.  Their willingness and ability to not only meet these deadlines but to ask penetrating questions and synthesize the their experiences has made the logistical challenges involved in planning and carrying out such a trip more than worth it.  Nine days is, after all, not such a long time.  It could be easily spent reclining by a beach with a good book or surrounded by familiar faces at home.  These 18 students elected to face tight deadlines, late nights, strange foods, and both emotionally and intellectually challenging themes.  These themes made their way naturally into conversations that I overheard throughout the trip: in the hotel lobby, during fast-paced marches to scheduled meetings, and in the back of a taxi stuck in Bangkok traffic.
Throughout the trip, students commented on how kind and hospitable the people in Thailand have been (our hosts in particular).  We are all tremendously grateful to Chulalongkorn University for being our host while in Bangkok.  Ajarn Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, provided invaluable logistical assistance, introduced us to our Thai student guides, and generously gave his own valuable time to speak with our group directly. 

While in Bangkok we were fortunate to have the chance to train in Muay Thai at Jitti Gym with Kru Jitti Damriram and his elite trainers.  We gained insight to the reality of life for LGBT individuals living in Thailand from Khun Paisarn Likhitpreechakul.  My thanks also to the caring and committed staff at the Duang Prateep Foundation, who graciously spoke with us about the lives of the urban poor in Bangkok’s oldest slum.

My special thanks to Mr. Luke Chaya, Khun Kim, and the staff at the Golden Palace Hotel in Bangkok.  They provided clean, safe, and comfortable accommodation in the heart of Bangkok at a very generous discount.  The staff were always warm and welcoming. 

We are especially thankful to the Business for Rural Education and Development (B.R.E.A.D.) for giving us insight into the rural communities that must cope as their young adults travel to Bangkok to find work.  Their rural education and development programs in Buriram gave us the opportunity to see the problems faced by these communities and some promising initiatives designed to help resolve them.  Judy Yoon in particular helped us to plan an itinerary that made the best use of our time and resources while in Buriram.  My gratitude also goes to all of the knowledgeable and welcoming staff at the Bamboo School; the Village Development Partnership’s agriculture, apparel, and silk programs; C&C Resort in Buriram; and the Toy Library.    

And, of course, we would like to thank Khun Mechai Viravaidya, whose inspirational leadership and vision lead to the creation of all of these initiatives and who encouraged me to bring the group to Buriram in the first place.

Overseeing the trip would have been much more difficult without the help of Andrea Tee, this year’s chaperone.  Andrea worked diligently to keep me informed about the comings and goings of the students as they explored in small groups.  The team leaders for this year’s study trip included Bonnie Teh, Jia Wei Low, Farah Amirah Zulkefly, Melvin Shawn D'Silva, and Leena Mohammed.  They worked closely with the rest of the team to keep the articles coming in on time and with consistently high quality.    

This study trip has been a great pleasure to lead and I look forward to reading about Dr. Yeoh’s next trip with great anticipation.  

A group photo with B>R.E.A.D. in front of one of the factory there.

Dr. Joel Moore, 35, is a lecturer that specializes in political economy.

Editor's Last Words

By Low Jia Wei

As I stepped into the familiar 7-Eleven corner store of my apartment back in Malaysia, something rang different about it. Sure, it had the iconic ‘7’ and the familiar dee-doo ring that greeted patrons, but there were some things amiss. As I stood in front of the beverage chillers, my eyes searched the cans, looking for that refreshing manao soda and the cultured milk drink we so fondly dubbed ‘wizard drink’. Sadly, there were none to be found. At the cashier’s desk, in place of rotating sausages of all manners (pork, chicken, cheese filled, spicy, etc.) were breath mints and condoms. When I received my change from the cashier for my paltry pack of Chips Ahoy, the words that were my mantra for the past 9 days escaped my lips. Khob kun khap.


It’s been quite the journey for me, this year’s study trip. I had a feeling I might have bitten off more than I could chew when I unceremoniously became Chief Editor (which I shamelessly vied for). My premonitions were correct. This year’s team of travelers had quite the personalities, from the headstrong leader of the video team, Farah to the sassy (I mean that in a good way) webmaster, Leena to our very wary chaperone, Andrea, who must have needed a ton of eye drops from keeping her eyes peeled all the time in the dusty city of Krung Thep. In the immortal words of Helen Sneha, “This can go either really badly or really well.” Thank the divine it was the latter.

We’ve been mostly free of major conflicts throughout this trip, for which I am very much grateful. Indeed, our journey through Bangkok and Buriram was very much drama free and our team really did well in working together. Special commendations should be given to the writers, editors and the online team (basically everyone) for maintaining an excellent work ethic and updating the blog on time every night. Ironically, however, I am writing this post five days late.

For the ‘study’ portion of the study trip, I for one had a fantastic time with our speakers and facilitators. It’s really the opportunity to see the underbelly and lived experiences of a place that makes it all the more special to me, and that we did. Learning about the politics and history of Thailand from Professor Thitinan was especially enlightening to me, short as it may have been, and it really was quite the eye opener to learn of the many, many coups that Thailand has experienced in a century alone. And talking to Empower and learning about Bangkok’s sex tourism industry was also an experience unto itself which I hope has cleared some preconceptions that some of us might have had about sex workers. And I daresay all of us got quite a kick out of watching a spunky, five foot, middle aged lady wear a sparkly bikini top (it’s less sordid than I make it out to be). Learning about Thailand’s supposed LGBT acceptance is also a learning opportunity that was invaluable. So many of us (don’t deny it) associate Thailand with the kaythoey (ladyboys), gay Thai boys, and society’s perceived tolerance, that we automatically assume it must be a Mecca for LGBT people. But as always it’s never quite as cut and dry as it seems. I guess while I’m at it, I should say that Muay Thai is really, really fun. Though the experience could have been made better by not having to put on extremely sweaty gloves and handwraps. And not having a professional Muay Thai fighter send bullets of sweat flying onto a certain editor’s face via backflips.

It’s nice to be home, but at the same time I will miss things about Bangkok and Thailand. I’ll miss the food. I’ll miss the clean streets of Bangkok. I’ll miss the 7-Elevens. I’ll miss Dr. Moore chattering away in Thai and calling us lunatics. I’ll miss singing loudly in a tourist bar with reckless abandon. I’ll miss the polite nature of Thais. I’ll miss the 30 baht cans of beer. I’ll miss watching other tourists squirm at the sight of fried insects. I’ll miss being able to practice my badly mispronounced Thai, limited as it may be. I’ll miss being able to have a delicious meal for less than 40 baht (~RM4). I’ll miss waiting for the ridiculously packed BTS train and chatting with my fellow comrades. I’ll miss discussing politics, religion, shopping and music with my fellow travelers.

But most of all, I’ll miss the mangoes. By Jove, I’ll miss the mangoes. 

Low Jia Wei, 24, is majoring in Writing and International Studies and enjoys the simple things in life, like 6x6 Sudoku and beginners level Minesweeper.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Wat Arun; What a Site/Sight

By Lee Jun-Elle

On the third day we rode a boat to visit Wat Arun, a Buddhist temple on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok. I suppose the benefit of not having looked up information and photos of the temple was having a burst of delight when Dr. Joel confirmed that those towering tiers of architectural magnificence was our destination to be.
See how little we look beside the "Temple of Dawn" -- which only makes more significant the building of this temple as a measure of our forefathers' patience and love for the art, and King and God.

My excitement however, dampened seeing tourists in poorly tailored rented costumes, posing for photos with hands in air and all. Donation boxes posted at every corner of the surroundings also peeved me off. But after crossing the gate to the temple with two statues of kings guarding entry, serenity and awe hit me again.
Wat Arun is also named The Temple of Dawn because the first light of morning reflects off the surface of the temple with pearly iridescence. It is surrounded by four smaller prangs decorated by seashells and bits of porcelain which had previously been used as a ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China.
These pieces were colourful mosaic details on a tall and large temple but became orange, white and blue, and green flowers and leaves when inspected at closer proximity
There were no plaques explaining each detail of the temple but I was fortunate to have found a tour guide standing in a shaded area and learnt a few things before she had to rejoin her tour groups
As the guide explained, the half woman half bird statues carved in the base of that prang are images of mythical animals adopted from Hindu concepts.
The first tier of the temple held statues of demons wrapped around the bottom like a belt while the second tier had monkeys and the third, angels on elephant trunks. The temple in its entirety is supposed to represent the world of God with a shimmery gold seven-pronged trident at the very tip of the top, as the Trident of Shiva. The four surrounding prangs signify different regions and with the amount of careful handiwork, we noticed that each face of a statue representing the people of the particular region, were different.

Climbing the stairs up the main prang seemed doable up until a breeze rolled in which made me look to the point at which I started. It was then that I decided that having simply experienced sight from the first tier was enough of a thrill ride for me. A few of us did manage to reach the top but came down just as comedically as I did. They made it seem as though a magnetic force kept our bodies close to the steep flight of stairs and arms tight on the railings as we slid each foot to the next bottom step.
Other than the frightful descend but enthusiastic exploration of the temple at ground level, this temple left a lasting impression on me because I saw the motivation behind the creation of architectural grandeur in the sparkle that Thai people had. I saw their humility and pride, their activeness and calmness, and their warmth and respect. Though seemingly contradictory, Thais managed to find a balance between these qualities. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for their admirable characteristics but I suppose the importance is not simply in the why. It gives me strength knowing that beauty in the world lies not only in beautiful works but in beauty within people that is exuded through their works.

Lee Jun-Elle, 21 is about to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Writing and Communication. She is very keen on visual stimulants and anything rusty with history.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Savouring every mouthful of Thai food

By Sharon Chew

Food in Bangkok and Buriram has been awesome and trust me, you will not have enough of it (or maybe it is just me). Since the day we arrived, I have been eating non-stop and officially, I can add Thai food onto the list of food that I love. Penang is where I came from. They have a lot of good food there and I will go for Thai food at least once a week, but of course, it cannot be compared to the authentic Thai food I have been savouring these few days. Not to mention, the food sold at the convenience store is yummylicious too!

Thai national cuisine is a blend of several Southeast Asian elements and is known for its spiciness. Thai food is rich in colour and flavour.  It is also known for its balance of three to four fundamental taste senses in each dish or the overall meal: sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Basically, when the food is served, the look of the food opens up your appetite and the moment you taste it, your tastebuds come alive.

During our stay here, we have tried foods from the convenience store to restaurants; from street food to home cooked food. The difference in terms of food in Bangkok and Buriram is their ingredients. In Buriram, we saw that the hosts have their own farm for the mushrooms and vegetables that were served to us which gives you the feeling of freshness, and you also taste the sweat and hardwork of the villagers. Although in Bangkok, we do not see the farms, the ingredients are still fresh and they taste really crunchy and juicy, especially for the vegetables. Besides that, in their markets, you can see a big piece of pork hanging. 

Before I go on to the authentic Thai food, I just want to mention the tastiness of the food from 7-Eleven which to some of us, is actually the best food to have. The main reason is that it is just a 2-minute walk from our hotel and the service there is wonderful because they heat up or defrost the food that we want (which is a service that we cannot find in Malaysia). When asked the opinion of a local, he said that 7-Eleven would be his last choice. He also mentioned that tomyam is not their national dish – most of the days, I thought tomyam was the national dish of the Thai people. He mentioned that it is just one of the many famous dishes they have. Other dishes that are known internationally are fried chicken basil, green curry, clear tomyam soup and not to forget the famous fried noodles – pad thai.

Throughout the three days when we were in Buriram, we were served tomyam for almost every meal by the hosts. Not to forget their sincerity and their kindness – they were extremely humble and generous too. We were really spoilt at that time. The tomyam here is different from the one I had in Malaysia whereby it is filled with all kinds of other ingredients like, chicken, fish, prawns and squid with mushrooms. Besides that, the taste of their tomyam was a balance between spicy and sour which is difficult to get right. 

Other than this, one of my favourite local food is their boat noodles. It comes in four flavours and three sizes. They are beef, pork, tomyam and one pink soup (whose name I am not sure of) and they can be made small, medium or big. If you are a big eater, I would suggest you go for the medium or big one or another alternative is to order many small sizes of different flavours (just a heads up, the small one is only one mouthful and that is all). The pink one tasted a little weird but we saw some people from other tables started mixing the noodles. So we tried and when the pink one is mixed with the tomyam, it tasted less weird and more flavourful. 

We also tried this soup noodle near our hotel and were shocked that the locals actually put sugar into their soup. One of the student tried adding sugar and chili flakes and the taste turned out to be really great. It has a little spiciness and a taste of sweetness which is a lot different from many dishes we have back home. Other than that, when we were having our meals outside, the locals usually serve the noodles with other added ingredients by the side and they include, peanuts, chili flakes, sugar and green chili. 

The street food here is awesome, especially the pork steak which we purposely went around Chatuchak weekend market to buy before we were satisfied to leave for the mall for more shopping. 

It does make one wonder how Thai people stay so thin when they eat so much sugar and it is rarely heard that they have any diabetic problems. Malaysia, where food is also another tourist attraction, should really learn. 

Sharon Chew, 23 is a mediocre student who loves food but always forgets to take photos. Loves to daydream but never remembers them

Every Day 7-11: Thailand’s Mini Mart Mania

By Andrea Tee

Images Source: Google

As our days in Thailand come to a close, I find myself reflecting on the sights and sounds of our various destinations. From the hubbub of activity in Bangkok to the quiet beauty of Buriram, we are recurrently involved in a flurry of movement and change. It is thus incredibly important to, (when and where we can) establish little routines—small things that we can take comfort in and rely on. 

One of those things is 7-11.

There are about 6,300 7-11s in Thailand, half of which are in Bangkok. There is one on nearly every major street in the city, sometimes within 200 meters of one another. In one particularly surreal instance, we passed in between two 7-11s facing each other from opposite ends of a street. 
One might ponder the extreme popularity of this mini mart franchise, but after traversing the streets of Bangkok for hours on end, the appeal of 7-11 becomes significantly easier to understand. In the scorching heat of a Thai afternoon, these green, orange and white stores transform into an air conditioned oasis, beckoning to hot, thirsty pedestrians like a desert mirage (only far more satisfying). 

The sliding doors open with a whoosh, and you are instantly greeted with a blast of cold, crisp air and a kaleidoscope array of drinks. The variety is astounding. In larger stores, an entire fridge aisle is dedicated to dairy products, a few of which include fresh milk (13 baht) in various flavors and assorted yoghurts. Ovaltine (18 baht) my personal favorite, is malty, chocolatey and smooth as crushed velvet. Members of our team particularly enjoyed Betagen (affectionately referred to amongst ourselves as the ‘Wizard Drink’), a cultured milk drink that aided digestion and smoothed the passage of spicy Thai street food.

In Malaysia, 7-11s are boring affairs—stops made out of desperation and the lack of anywhere else better to go. Our selections are repetitive and limited, but Thai stores feature a huge variety of snacks, drinks and liquor. No proper food stalls around the area? There is always a freezer unit in a 7-11 stocked full of microwave meals, featuring Khao Phad Gaprow (rice with a basil leaf stir fry), the quintessential phad thai, rice with omlette and so on, from 25 to 70 baht. The counter also features a series of sausages, some bacon-wrapped and others stuffed with cheese and various other fillings. Just tell the counter attendant that you would like to ‘wave’, and a hot meal will be yours.

Suffice to say that many of us visited the 7-11 near our hotel with startling regularity, stopping by in the mornings for canned coffee and packaged cinnamon rolls, and again in the evenings for a drink or to top up our prepaid phone credit. These little stores became an essential part of our Bangkok routine, just as it appears to be a significant facet of the Thai city lifestyle. The store near our hotel was packed every morning with people on their way to work. Young girls and boys in their school uniforms linger inside, buying drinks and small food items, and in my limited experience, I had never encountered a completely empty 7-11. 
You can also apparently pay your Thai electric bill and purchase plane tickets from a 7-11, lending further credence to the fact that Thai 7-11s are amazing and will always, entirely without fail, continue to amaze me.

Andrea Tee, 23, is the intrepidest, terrificest, most ravishingly good-looking honors student on the team. (The fact that she is the only honors student on the team is negligible)

Thai Brides

By Leena Khalifa

It seems Thai women today are the way American women were fifty years ago, before they discovered their rights. Or at least that’s how Joseph Davis of California sees it. Mr. Davis, who was featured in the New York Times, says that because of American womens’ awareness of their rights, the situation between American men and women is not “as relaxed” as the one between an American man and a Thai woman. 
If anything, Western men coming to Thailand to find wives is not new nor rare – in fact, it seems to have developed into its own craft. Udon Thani, a city in northeastern Thailand, is especially popular, and has played host to some of the earliest cross-cultural marriages – ones that took place between local women and U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Now, Udon Thani even has a street that is called “Foreign Son-in-Law Street” where the Western husbands generally get together for drinks. The secretary of the Udon Thani Provincial Office said that there were 845 women in Udon Thani married to foreign men and living in Thailand, and more than a thousand were abroad with their foreign spouses. 
It is of interest to note that Isaan, the area with the highest number of these mixed marriages, also happens to be the poorest area in Thailand. It is no secret that these marriages have become a matter of business for many of these Thai brides, a simple means of survival and comparative prosperity. They are young, and in the poverty that surrounds them they seek men who are financially stable and able to support not only them but their families as well. These men, for the most part, are retired and living on pensions. Thus, the age gaps seen are usually no less than twenty years.
This craft of interracial marriage has initiated a flurry of dating agencies in Thailand and online sites as well. Foreign men often look online for women prior to their first visits to Thailand – women who they very likely may end up marrying. Thai women, on the other hand, go to dating agencies to set up profiles and to facilitate the meeting process. These agencies, “Introductory Service” being the name of one of them, come with their own screening processes and preferences developed from experience with costumers (Western men), traits like an adequate command of English and an age not too frowned upon by society, although even nineteen-year-olds are signed up. Videos are taken of the girls to show to those who are interested. All in all it is seems to be a process reminiscent of factory assembly lines, a process of convenience, demand, efficiency, and careful arrangement. 
The factory, however, does not come without its own faults. Online expat forums, like, have dedicated entire boards to accommodate this marriage community, a community in which almost 11,000 foreigners wed Thai women. These online boards have an intense focus on topics of divorce and pre-nuptial arrangements. But to put it more accurately, the discussions seem to center on the practical and straightforward, rather than the sentimental and idealistic. Issues of discussion can for example deal with visa arrangements for the Thai brides, or as mentioned earlier, about pre-nuptials and Thai marriage laws. Alas, the expat man appears to be wary. 
And so it seems that Thailand reserves a place for all desires. Travellers may cross this country for its quaint temples, its outrageous sex industry, its beaches and mountains, or its mouthwatering cuisine. But for the man over fifty who hails from the West, this place holds a woman that may become a wife that will provide him with comforts his modern world no longer sees as necessary. 

Leena Khalifa, 21 is currently pursuing a purpose in life, but also hopes to hold a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies by the end of 2013. If you're nice, she might mention you when she accepts her Oscar

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Thailand’s Current Political Situation

By Helen Sneha

Thailand is an exceptionally well-endowed country – its food and hospitality are widely known, and it has ample resources and exports to sustain it economically. Yet many issues of leadership and legitimacy continue to afflict Thailand. The simple question of who deserves to, and gets to, rule the country has yet to be answered. As Associate Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak put it in our session with him today, it seems that those who win elections cannot rule, while those who rule cannot win elections. Politicians and corruption will always go hand in hand, but there are power players on the scene in Thailand who, while not able to contest electoral seats themselves, are in positions to prevent election winners from governing in every sense of the word. 

A bit of history might be in order to fully understand the implications of ruling and being elected in modern Thailand. Thailand was an absolute monarchy till 1932, until that was overthrown by the military and civilians, who drafted their first constitution. The 80th anniversary of the day the absolute monarchy was overthrown was last Sunday, June 24th

Post-World-War-II Thailand saw 25 years of military dictatorship, running from 1947 to 1973. Politicians and political parties were not allowed to exist, for the most part, and despite the turmoil in the rest of the region – with the Vietnam War and Burma’s military dictatorship raging – Thailand managed relatively well. In 1973, students overthrew the military dictatorship, which had grown undemocratic, inflexible, and corrupt, and, in a sense, reset the constitutional monarchy. There was then a right-wing military backlash against this in 1976, which led to another year of military dictatorship. It is interesting to note that these years of dictatorship were not as bad as they could have been as the generals did not try to micro-manage the economy and instead hired experts to do it – a lot of Thailand’s ample resources and exports were in fact built up during periods of military dictatorship. 

1997 was a year of serious democratic reforms, with a new constitution that appeared to combine the best elements from Japan, Germany, and the USA towards promoting greater transparency and accountability. When the 2001 elections came about, it appeared that Thaksin Shinawatra had the answers to long-standing unhappiness stemming back to the economic crises of 1997/1998, and by suspending farmer’s debt, and making available micro credit loans and universal healthcare, he won over the rural poor solidly enough to go on to win five subsequent elections by healthy margins. Yet another coup occurred against Thaksin’s government in 2006, despite his being a strong, popular, visionary leader. Judicial coups dissolved his new-formed party in 2008, and disenfranchised Red Shirt protestors took to the streets following two years of military rule in 2009 and 2010. Thaksin’s third-generation party, headed by his sister Yingluck, was then elected in 2011 by a 265/500 majority. 

A question that arose during the session was why Thaksin got re-elected so many times. sThe answer was threefold: first, he was the first to truly connect with the majority of voters in the rural areas – taking advantage of the income disparity meant that his policies could earn him the votes of the North and the NorthEast, nearly half of the population; second, the Democrat Party was not a viable alternative, and third, there was a growing political consciousness even among the rural poor. 

In the big frame of things, as Associate Professor Pongsudhirak phrased it, Thailand is currently in a kind of lockdown. Highly reductionistically, it could be a clash between the traditional and the modernized. As it stands, the military is aware that a coup now would lead to massive Red Shirt protests. Yingluck, meanwhile, as Prime Minister, could not do much in the face of one because the legitimacy of rule is still very much drawn from traditional sources of power. In no way, however, does traditional moral authority have to be opposed to an electoral mandate – there are no black and white distinctions. Being a loyal subject and being an informed citizen do not have to be oppositional.

Thaksin Shinawatra. (Source: Google Image)
The 2006 military coup. (Source: Google Image)

Helen Sneha, 20, is a second year Bachelor of Arts student, double-majoring in Writing and International Studies. She is hopelessly interested in tennis, funky rings, dinosaurs, and the human hand.