Praying for Rain

April 25, 2010

It hasn’t rained for months (except for a period of about 7 minutes the other day) and the temperature has been over 40° C every day for the last few weeks, so I have been thinking a lot about the next rainy season.

You’ve probably heard that rain in the tropics is not the same animal as rain back home.  Coming from Seattle I should know something about rain.  But a real tropical rain shower is a quantum leap from a typical Seattle drizzle.  Here is what happened to me last rainy season.

An old colleague from the university asked me if I were interested in joining her exercise group.  They meet after classes in the afternoon and go for about an hour doing a kind of exercise combining aerobics and Tai Chi.  I had studied a little Tai Chi, and I certainly could use a bit more exercise, so I thought I would take her up on the offer.

The university was not very far from home, so I figured that I would really get a good workout by walking, and I left the car at home.  That was my first mistake.

The class took place in front of the English Department building.  There were about 20 of us and I followed along with the accompanying Chinese music.  It was fun and the old Tai Chi moves came back to me quickly.  I was just feeling the first beads of sweat forming when a huge drop of water struck me right between the eyes. When I looked up I saw that the cumulous cloud that had formed right above us was turning dark and was growing so fast it was beginning to look like the plume of a volcano.  We were in for a rain shower.

There is not much of a warning before a storm breaks here.  You get one or two drops and then it is as if someone overturns a bucket over your head.  Everyone broke for cover.  In the three seconds it took me to get under shelter I was completely soaked.  We were all laughing and knew that the usual storm would last only a few minutes and we could get back to working out.  When lightening bolts started striking all around us, and the rain seemed to come even harder, if that were possible, we realized that maybe this wasn’t your usual storm.

After about a half an hour of cowering from the lightening and downpour people started peeling off to their cars and headed for home.  I had thoughts of curling into a ball and settling down for the night when a teacher offered me a ride home.  I quickly took her up on the offer.  That was my second mistake.

Even in her pickup truck, with the wipers going at full speed, it seemed that our visibility was no more than about three feet.  Going down one of the main streets of the university the water was now almost over our tires.  Her driving must have been pretty good because I couldn’t see anything out of the windshield but she somehow got me to the intersection of my lane.  I told her that this was fine and I could walk from here.  That was my biggest mistake.

There is a slight incline on my lane up to my house.  That was enough to create a bit of a stream of water that I would have to walk against.  My glasses were all fogged up so I took them off and put them into my shirt pocket.  Do I have to tell you that that was a mistake too?

That little stream coming off my lane quickly became a torrent.  It was like walking against a force 4 rapid.  Before I knew it the water was waist high with waves striking me in the chest.  This was the narrow lane that I drive down every day.  And I had never seen a trickle of water before.  I know now that if I had fallen down I could have been in real trouble.  But with the rain still pouring down and the raging river to fight against, and being almost blind without my glasses, I didn’t realize what danger I was in.

That's not me - but it could have been.

I’m not sure how I made it home but I finally got to my front porch, sat down and went to put on my glasses.  They were gone.  One of the waves must have knocked them out of my pocket.  Just then, as if a spigot was turned off, the rain stopped.  A half hour later we were out on the lane, completely dry now, looking for my glasses.  I figure that they are somewhere out in the Gulf of Thailand by now.  But at least all the garbage that lined my lane was gone.  I had never seen it so clean.

Epilogue:

A while back, a group of tourists where walking through a cave at one of the national parks in the south.  The cave had a small stream flowing through it and they were following the stream to the other side of the cave.  While they were inside the cave there was a rain storm a number of kilometers up the mountain.  A flash flood came raging down the stream bed so suddenly, and with such force, that the whole cave system was almost instantly flooded to its ceiling.  Eight foreign tourists and two Thai guides were in the cave at the time.  No one made it out alive.

After hearing that I realized just how lucky I was.  My heart goes out to those who lost their lives.

I sure hope we don’t get that kind of rain but we sure could use a nice safe Seattle drizzle around now.

Just can't wait

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Shopping in Thailand

There may not be an Alice’s Restaurant in Thailand, but you can get just about anything you want or need at markets, supermarkets, malls, shopping centers, and home improvement centers all over Thailand.

One question that a lot of prospective retirees have before making a decision about where to retire is what kind of lifestyle they will have.  This includes whether they will be able to buy the “stuff” of their lives.  Will the foods that they are familiar with be available?  Can they buy clothes, and the latest electronics, and their favorite cosmetics, and their necessary medicines?

Years ago these were big problems.  Western “stuff” just was not available and if it was it was taxed so high as to make it prohibitively expensive.  I am thankful that we now live in the 21st century and a global economy.  Except for a very few items (like my favorite chocolate bars – from Trader Joes), and some brand name products, I can get just about everything I need here.  Occasionally my favorite brand of underwear won’t available here and I will ask a friend (a good friend) to bring me a dozen pair when he comes to visit.  Sometimes a brand name of an over the counter drug can’t be found here but if you know the generic name you will be able to find a substitute.  And if you like good cheese, you might want to have one whole checked bag full the next time you return from a trip “home”.

But mostly, if you search hard enough, you’ll find what you are looking for, Below are examples of where most expats and retirees in Thailand do their shopping and where “you can get anything you want”.

Traditional Market Places

A lot of expats and retirees, especially the ones who live upcountry and far from population centers, do their shopping in the traditional Thai way.  They go to their local market.  Thais normally will shop at the market daily, getting their produce and fruits fresh and eating them the same day.  You can get most Thai foods and foods indigenous to the local area there.  Rice, boxed milk, juices, fish, and meats (freshly killed that morning usually) are all available.

One thing you will see at almost all markets is ready made foods (homemade by the vendors themselves).  In a large percentage of Thai families both partners work.  That leaves little time to prepare a meal after returning home in the evening.  It has become a tradition now to pick up some plastic bag wrapped dishes that “go with rice”.  Depending on the size of the market you could have dozens of traditional Thai dishes to choose from. You can even pick up the cooked rice.  This has led to a phenomenon where few Thai young people cook, or even know how to cook, for themselves.  But it does make it convenient for a lone expat or a retired couple to have dinner at home without having to cook.  Most lunches are eaten at small restaurants, food courts, or cafeterias.

Thai markeplace

Weekend Markets

Weekend markets, or more accurately, markets by appointment, open on the same day(s) once or more a week.  They usually take over a small field or a temple courtyard.  They carry much of the same stuff as a traditional market carries and lots of other goodies.  Clothes, tools, music CDs and Videos, electronics,  plants, orchids, trees, live chickens and ducks, and even water buffalos are featured at some of these markets.  The most impressive is the Jutukak Market, or Weekend Market, in Bangkok.  It is so huge that most locals living in Bangkok have never seen the whole thing.  It is one of the few places in Bangkok that I enjoy going to.  There are lots of strange and exotic flora and fauna for sale at the Jutujak Market.  Weekend markets are also great people watching places.

A weekend market

7-Eleven

You might think that convenience stores, where you can pick up drinks and snacks is a western thing.  You’d be really wrong about that.  7-Eleven is now a Japanese owned company and Thailand has over 5,000 stores.  It ranks only behind the U.S. and Japan for the most 7-Eleven stores in the world.  I have been in very small villages in upcountry Thailand and found one.  There are more than 1,500 in Bangkok alone.  You can pay your telephone and electric bills there, buy phone cards for your cell phone, and pick up a late night snack just as you might back home.  Pretty convenient this convenience stores.

Supermarkets

Most population centers will now have modern supermarkets.  These are usually large international chain stores that carry all kinds of Asian foods as well as a large variety of western foods.  You can find supermarkets at the shopping centers that have sprung up around the country.  The largest ones in Thailand are Tesco/Lotus (British), Carrefour (French), and Big C (Thai).  There are also now big-box-stores where you can buy your food in bulk (Macro).  People still shop at their local outdoor marketplaces but supermarkets are becoming more and more popular and their prices are the same and sometimes even cheaper than what you can get outside.

Tesco/Lotus

Big C supermarket

Pharmacies

There are first rate pharmacies, especially if you live in a large town, where you can get both Thai produced and imported medicines.  Quite often you won’t need a doctor’s prescription.  If you have medication that you are taking just bring it into the pharmacy and you can get a refill without having to see a doctor first.  I often go to a pharmacist and tell him/her a symptom and ask what I should do about it.  They usually come up with a good answer and the correct medication to treat the problem.  I mean, you don’t really need to go to a doctor to identify and treat ringworm, do you?  Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

Home Improvement Centers

These have sprung up all over the country.  Global House and Home Pro are chains that carry everything from plumbing, and electrical, to kitchen equipment.  If you are a do-it-yourself type then you’ll most likely find what you need there.

Shopping Malls

As modern as any mall anywhere in the world.  I was walking through one with a visiting friend a while back and his take was “This could be anywhere. London, Paris, Tokyo.”  My favorite time to go to the mall is when it is 40 degrees out and I am about to raost.  They are by far the “coolest” places in town.  Some malls will have Versachi next to a  McDonald’s, next to a Thai food court, next to Thai handicrafts shops, bookstores , Samsung TVs and a cinema multi-plex.

You could be a purist and elect to shop only at “real”  Thai shops but for me, I like having the Malls available, especially on those scorching days in the hot season.  And just like anywhere else in the world, there is no better people watching than at a nice cool, modern shopping mall.

Modern Shopping Malls are almost everywhere

With the events of the last few days I thought it would be a good thing to give a report about how the protests and violence are affecting those of us trying to live a peaceful retirement here.  If you are a friend of Thailand and if you are considering living and maybe retiring in Thailand you probably want to know what is going on and whether you can stay safe here.

First of all I would like to say that in Thailand I am completely apolitical (in my actions), and suggest that other expats and retirees consider acting similarly.  We are guests here and should leave the decisions about how this country should work up to Thai citizens.  I can say that I am a true believer in democratically elected governments and non-violence.  But all my yellow shirts, red shirts, pink shirts, and even purple shirts are stored away in my closet.

It would probably be useful to get a little background to the current situation.  Here is BBC timeline, a pretty good overview of Thai history over the past few hundred years http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1243059.stm.  But the current situation started with the military coup in 2006 that replaced the duly elected government.  Here is a timeline starting with those events, with links to news stories of the time http://www.mapreport.com/citysubtopics/thailand-p-r.html.  If you are unaware of what has transpired over the last few days here are some pictures and observations from Facebook.  Be aware that these are very graphic and aren’t for everyone http://www.facebook.com/UDDThailand?v=wall#!/UDDThailand?v=photos.

So what does this all mean for foreigners living in Thailand during these tumultuous times?  I have seen a few foreigners dressed in various colored shirts and taking sides.  I have seen them get on stage during a rally and voice their political opinions.  These have all been in English and they obviously did not have great command over the Thai language.  In my opinion, if you are not Thai then you should be absolutely fluent in Thai, both spoken and written, before taking a side and choosing a colored shirt.  If you aren’t fluent then you probably don’t have a clue about what is going on here and should probably sit safely on the sidelines.

For us sitting on the sidelines, unless we live in Bangkok and have business anywhere the protestors are gathering, then our lives have been going on pretty much as usual.   I live in Chiang Mai and have passed by some Red Shirt staging areas (Chiang Mai is a major Red Shirt province).  They have been peaceful and polite and I haven’t even experienced a traffic jam.  I would say that, being a foreigner, unless you specifically join a protest rally then you will most likely not even know that there was a government crisis going on.

This is not the first political crisis I have experienced.  During each one I have stayed away from trouble and kept my head down.  There are tens of thousands of expats living here and most of us are simply waiting this all out peacefully.

I would like to express my extreme sorrow and condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives, and my thoughts are with the hundreds who have been injured, on both sides.  And I pray for a peaceful resolution to these problems.

I am sitting here at my desk.  The thermometer on the wall says its 96°F/35°C.  It’s over 100°F/38°C outside.  It has been the same daily temperature every day for the past 10 days or so.  Pretty boring.  Why can’t it get to 105°F/40°C so we would have something to talk about?  March and April are like this.  So I will sort of make this a stream of consciousness piece since my brain is very close to ceasing functioning.  If it gets to 40°C then all you will probably see will be random letters typed on this page.  Wish me luck.

I just came back from getting my motorcycle inspected.  That sounds like a routine enough undertaking except that I got a flat tire halfway to the inspection center and had to push the bike about 2 kilos to a place that repairs flats.  (Remember the temperature.)  Luckily there was a Big C (Thailand’s equivalent to a Wal-Mart) nearby so an hour was spent there, cooling off and drinking iced coffee.  But I made it back alive, which at a few points was in question.

I want to talk a little about living through the hot season here.  Many people come here in the winter time on vacation, fall in love with the place, and decide that Thailand would be a great place to live and maybe even retire.  Well, don’t make any decisions until you experience a hot season here.

There are basically three seasons in Thailand.  There is the rainy season, June –October.  Coming from Seattle, I find this season quite nice.  Unlike Seattle, where it rains for what seems like months at a time, here it will rain for a few hours a day, just enough to cool things off, or to steam things up, depending on your point of view.  Then there is the cool season, November – February.  Here is the way I describe the cool season in Chiang Mai.  If you are really good in this life, and do lots of good things, and make wonderful karma, then you will be reborn in a place that is like Chiang Mai in the cool season.  But you will have to be really good.

Now if you are pretty bad, then you have a good chance to be born in a place that is like Chiang Mai in the hot season.  Not only is it really hot and humid but there is lots of burning of fields and forest at this time of year.  This makes for what has become a yearly time of smog and smoke.  If you have a lung disease then this is not the place and time for you.  My Thai friend just spent 5 days in the ICU with a lung infection.  He had to be put on a ventilator when his lungs filled with fluids and ceased to function.  We brought him home from the hospital yesterday and he was advised to stay indoors for the coming future or until the air clears up.

Look at the picture of me above.  That’s my house and Doi Suthep Mountain in the background.  Today you can’t see the mountains, only about 1 kilometer away.  That is how thick the smog is.

A typical hot season day is spent like this:  Wake up, eat a little breakfast, lay down on the tile floor or anywhere that is cool, wait until lunch time, have a little to eat, lay down on the tiles again until dinner time, have dinner until the sun sets, then begin your day.  Now a lot of expats will add “have a beer” between each of the stages above.  I don’t imbibe anymore so I drink lots of water and juice and cokes along the way.

So here are my thought processes lately.  Where can I go for March and April that will save my poor brain from cooking?  I have been thinking of Kunming, China.  There are direct flights from Chiang Mai and the average temperature in April is 75°F/24°C.  Living there is cheap and, interestingly enough, there is a large population of ethnic Thai (or Tai) people living there.  Anyone ever been there?  Drop me a comment and let me know if it would be a good place to run away to.

OMG!  I just looked at the outside thermometer.  It is just about 40°C.  I am afraid that lojfpo ;lfjmew paoj39 flirp3mf lkajamnfl.

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