Category Archives: DC Thai Culture

Songkran DC Style….one year on

What a year. It was one year ago this month I wrote my first blog on here. Hard to believe it’s actually been a year. Even harder still to believe what kind of year 2005 was! Starting with the Tsunami disaster in Thailand and the horror the whole world saw I began 2006 in shock and disbelief. Night after night seeing the pictures on TV was wrenching my farang eyes and my (Thai?) heart. I long since stopped being superstitious when I was little but like many people in the back of my mind was the feeling this was not a good omen to begin the new year. Little did I know how true that feeling was (and how it was one I should have heeded)?

Eight months later the American Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, jabbed America in the chest as if to emphasize the point that we should have gotten the hint last time. It seemed like everywhere the news was the same, the floods waters never reached me but it shook me upside down just the same. Say goodbye to what you knew because nothing, not even the earth and sky and planet we thought we could depend on, would ever be certain again.

This year would also prove to be the worst I ever lived through

As winter closed in on the Easy Coast so did my life close in on me. I stopped seeing friends and going to Wat Thai for class or even just to see the monks, fellow classmate would e-mail and ask when I was coming back because the monks kept asking about me. They finally stopped after about 4 months.

I was 7 when I badly cut my arm. I smashed my fist through a window in the kitchen door trying to get the door open for my father coming home from work. I was so excited to see him and welcome him home. But by the time I was 9 I was lying in my bed at night in terror listening to my parents battling it out in the hall. My father was forcefully trying to get at me and I didn’t know why and or why Mom was so scared that he did. She desperately tried to make him stop and not wake me up. My father had come home late again and was drunk. Again. It was an occurrence happening more and more at my house. He wanted to wake me up that night just to give me a stupid wooden toy horse that he got from who knew where but the whole experience terrified me just the same. From those first frightening nights all the good in our relationship eventually vanished. As years past he became more and more about getting his next drink than being a father to his son. The blind love I had as a son for him as a father was swept away like all those lives lost in Katrina and the Tsunami. In it’s place remained contempt and hate for him. As I grew older fear gave way to rebellion and as he grew older belligerence gave way to raw bitterness. It was a long and slowly drawn out deterioration into hurt, then panic then retaliation and finally desperation with each confrontation we had, many times over nothing but many times accented by sudden, out of nowhere explosive bursts of violence. Then the eerie calm of dread wondering what’s or when would trigger the cycle again next. Is it any wonder all of us in my family live like shell shocked zombies until we each could finally get away? The last time he hit me was the first time I hit him back. I think I was by that time about 18 then.

As I shook my head of its revere I sat on the top step of the temple and looked around at all the people and the fun. Church never was like this when I was a kid and a “Southern Baptist”. If I didn’t understand anything else I knew then that in that moment this was what it was all about for me. Even if I had no clue where I was or where I was going I knew Thailand and I loved it. This was not just a part of me, my brain or even my passion it WAS me! This is what I do and what I love and I know everything about even though I had never been to there before, a country and people and way of life that pleaded with me. Come and you’ll be happy, come and you’ll belong, come and you finally find peace and your place in it all. Crazy stuff huh?

Looking down at the crowd I saw George a new member to our Thai Meetup group he had just arrived and it was his first Songkhran. I waved and slipping back on my shoes I clambered down the steps to meet him. We hung out and I showed him all the ropes. It was his first time at Wat Thai and I was a two year vet by now. He took pictures with his nice expensive camera and we talked and ate and walked and looked. We also shopped and poked and prodded (the merchandise not any cute Thais) but didn’t buy anything. George makes some pretty good money in his business and has been to Thailand many times before, often more than once in a year in fact he’s going again next month. I doubt what we saw that day might have impressed him compared to the real thing but he didn’t say and I didn’t ask. He enjoyed telling me his stories of adventures and friends in Bangkok and Pattaya and I enjoyed eating them up with envy. We spent the rest of that day together and got sunburned together; well at least I did, anyway.
Finally after several hours we left with the other hot, tired and tuckered out folks both Thai and farang waiting for the shuttle bus to take them back to our their and then home. We had been e-mailing each other for months planning a get together for some Singhas somewhere but I was always sick or distracted or whatever so we never did it until that day. I liked George and we are much alike so we decided once we got back to his car we’d drive down to his place in Virginia, hunt up some Thai beers then go get a nice Thai dinner at his favorite restaurant down there. Like I said George has done pretty alright by himself so I was expecting it but still impressed with his Penthouse condo overlooking the Virginia countryside. Not to mention the beautiful pieces of Thai art and tapestry from Thailand that he showed me. but what really got me was the satellite dish! He had not one but two and one with 500 channels including several from, you guess it, Thailand! It was too cool sitting on his expensive leather couch drinking expensive German wheat beer and watching real kick boxing on his wide screen TV. I want my Thai TV! We watched a few matches and some the Thai news downed a few beers then headed off for some spicy Pud Gra Pao Neua at his favorite Thai hideaway restaurant. It was a small quiet place squeezed into a strip mall with Vietnamese Pho shops and Chinese grocery stores. The hostess and waitresses all knew George by name and what to bring him without ordering. I had my usually stir fried beef and basil but “Aow kon Thai phet, mai chawp farang phet” and boy they didn’t disappoint! The sweat was dripping off me but that’s ok I was loving it, let some of my excess baggage and, Girl Scout cookie fat, roll off too. Me and George talked, laughed and cut up for hours – serious and thoughtful one minute, silly and irreverent the next. I was having a good time and I had forgotten what it was like to have fun and be part of the human race again. Silly as it seems it made me think all the times I could do this again and again with friends for the first time in a long time I was feeling winter thaw and spring start to come alive in me again. I guess maybe I could be hopeful for the future again. I don’t pretend that there aren’t crashes and collisions in this life I can still see coming but where can anyone go that life won’t touch you? All we really have I guess are the days we have to live and how we choose to fill them. There will always be shake ups and change and disruptions. Even at my age and most certainly living in the wonderful chaos of Thailand I know that uncertainty is still there waiting for me. There are so few fairy tale endings anymore should we believe in fairy tales anyway? Long before Clash, Labanoon or Modern Dog one of my favorite singers in the 80’s was John Mellencamp a folk rocker from the American heartland. I always really felt these lines in one of his songs so much. I felt it fit me so well but always looking from the down side of the equation, now maybe for the first time in a long time I’m looking at the upside. You be the judge.
from ‘The Real Life’
by John Mellancamp

Jackson Jackson was a good kid
He had four years of college and a bachelor’s degree
Started workin’ when he was 21
Got fed up and quit
When he was 43
He said, “My whole life
I’ve done what I’m supposed to do
Now I’d like to maybe do something for myself
And just as soon as I figure out what that is
You can bet your life I’m gonna give it hell”
He says

(Chorus)

I guess it don’t matter how old you are
Or how old one lives to be
I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives
And how we deal with our own destinies
But something happens
When you reach a certain age
Particularly to those ones that are young at heart
It’s a lonely proposition when you realize
That’s there’s less days in front of the horse
Than riding in the back of this cart
I say

I want to live the real life
I want to live my life close to the bone
Just because I’m middle-aged that don’t mean
I want to sit around my house and watch T.V.
I want the real life…
I want to live the Thai life!

-Words and Music Courtesy of Mr. John Mellencamp
-Last verse courtesy of you-know-who

Wit

Loy Kratong, DC Style!

Sawasdee Krab True Thai Believers!

Ah, Fall.

A special time of year, the days get shorter and the leaves bloom into fiery bursts of red, orange and gold. The weather feels crisp and starts getting cooler or as our Thai friends would say หนาวมาก (cold very!)

In the country folks start shopping to buy big, ripe pumpkins. If your a city kid like myself you go shopping for a pumpkin spiced latte` at Starbucks. Back home in Alabama as a kid we took pumpkins to carve into Jack O’Lanterns for Halloween. Today in my DC neighborhood you need a pretty scary Jack O’Lantern to keep it from being mugged!

Right about this time of year folks start thinking about the coming holidays as thoughts turn to turkey, the dreaded Christmas shopping, Kratongs …Say what?

Well maybe not everybody except for Thai people here in DC and card-carrying Thai fanatics like me. For our fellow farang readers that don’t know what it’s all about let me enlighten you. Although not an official holiday in Thailand Loy Kratong, next to Songkran is one of the
most popular, and romantic, festival gatherings Thai people celebrate
each year. The festival is held on the night of the 12th full moon, which usually lands some time in November although this year in DC it’s in October.

Loy Kratong is a festival held to pay homage to the goddess of rivers and waterways, Mae Nam or mother water. Kratong supplies to make them can be purchased in the any market in Thailand. Usually they are supplied by the temple but you can make and bring your own if you like. At the festival there is dancing and music, best Kratong contests for adults and the kids, a beauty pageant and always lots of Thai food.

‘Loy’ literally translates to mean ‘float’, while Kratong is the Thai word for a sort of tray made out of banana leaves. Loy Kratong is celebrated by floating elaborate Kratongs decorated with flowers, candles and incense on just about any waterway in the kingdom. After dark when the full moon has risen then you lit the candle and incense sticks in your Kratong, make a wish and then set it in the water to float away carrying your wish to Mae Nam. The romance behind all this originated in the 13th century Sukhothai period Thailand and became an addition to the festivities especially as an event for couples to enjoy.

It all began with a fairy tale legend.

According to the story, Nang Nopamas, a royal consort in the court of King Ramkhamhaeng (the founder of Sukhothai), made the first Kratong as an offering to Mae Nam. She set it afloat on one of the canals of the
palace so that it would drift past her lover the King. The King was so
delighted with the creation, thus the origin of a saying that if two lovers set a Kratong adrift and it stays afloat until out
of sight, their love will last forever.

Definitely sounds romantic right?

Saturday night we celebrated our own Loy Kratong at Wat Thai here in DC. In the past it was celebrated on the National Mall with floating the Kratongs in the Malls huge reflecting pool. To me that was a cool touch to highlight a Thai festival here in America but maybe these days Homeland Security is too worried about terrorists in the mix. I hate to think of Secret Service agents’ body searching monks or taking away some little kids float as a threat to national security!

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Making Pad Baigapoa ..a love affair!

For those of you who have become regular readers of my weekly blogging welcome back to another pulse pounding episode! Not to infer by ‘pulse pounding’ I mean this time out Wit is writing about the Thai bar girl scene in Thailand since for sure that’s something I know nothing about 😉

However with any luck, as the title of this weeks missive implies, it’s my plan to serve up a hot and spicy helping of blog! Those of you who read my stuff regualrly may have noticed a particular reference or two pop up on occasion, namely my addictions to American coffee, listening to my huge collection of pleing Thai เพลงไทย and most notably my culinary favorite that fiery hot stir fried beef and basil Thai creation otherwise known as pad baigapoa neua ผัดใบกะเพราเนึ้อ

It’s my Holy Grail in DC to find a Thai resturant that serves pad baigapoa hot enough with the suicidual spicy kick I like where I don’t have to ask the waiter to bring me a puen prik พวงพริก to heap on enough chillies. Sure I could always send it back to the kitchen but really to be honest I feel enough kreeng jai เกรงใจ that I don’t want to bother the cook with my farang death wishes haha.

However recently I think I may have finally found my match! A few weeks ago I stopped in to check out a fairly new Thai resturant in my neighborhood only about 5 minutes walk from home. I was looking to treat myself to some nice Thai cooking after a frustrating day shopping at the local monster mall dealing with mass human insanity, which I can’t stand, then to top it all having to walk away without buying what I went there to get in the first place! So I decided to seek some solace in some good Thai grub and stopped into this new place I had seen to check it out as it is literally on my way home.

For the middle of the afternoon it was slow with hardly any customers but the service was quick and friendly. After settling in at my table I managed to stumble through my usual request of pom yaak pad grapao neua phet mahk, pom chawp Thai phet, mai chawp farang phet, ok? ผมอยากผัดใบกะเพราเนึ้อเผ็ดมาก ผมชอบไทยเผ็ด ไม่ชอบฝรั่งเผ็ดใหม? which I hope serves two purposes, one I get to practice my Thai and two if I said it correctly then they know I meant business and I’m wanting the real deal and not pussyfooting around with ‘watered down’ spicy Thai just because I was born on the wrong side of the planet from Thailand. 😉

My genuinely friendly waiter (unfortunately something rare in most resturants I’ve been to) after bringing me a nice cool glass of Thai tea smiled and left with my order probably quite bemused at my poor mans Thai. But before I even had a chance to dig into my homework which I always carry with me he was coming back with my order! The pad baigapoa looked so good and smelled delicious I could only hope he understood my request to make it hot enough to stunt growth but I was impressed with the service and everything so far. I asked him how come it was so fast and he said with that famous Thai smile “No problem sir, we have microwave!” Ye Gods! A Thai resturant with great (looking) food, service and a Thai waiter with my same cheeky sense of humor? That’s right up my alley! If the food was as hot as I like it I knew I would be in love. :)

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Thai Tours Pt. Two

Yesterday I left off as Bo and I were beginning our tour of the Smithsonians many museusms here in DC. You may be asking yourself why would that be something to blog about on a blog page devoted to Thailand? Other than the fact that Bo is Thai 😛 Well actually dear reader you would be surprised just how much of Thailand you can find in the Smithsonian :)

From the number of Thai people that I have worked with in the business division of the museums to Thai artists and exhibits there is alot to find here you just have to know where to look. Bo and I started at the Museum of American History, mainly because there is just so much cool stuff to see!

Once we got through the lines of security, Bo waiting on me while I got my ever present book bag of Thai books and homework hand checked, we got a free museum guide and planned what to see. I told Bo whatever he wanted to see I’d show him. I should mention that all of the Smithsonian museums are free and open to the public except for the added security you have to go through each time now since 9/11. There is so much stuff crammed into this museum that is it like a maze to try and find it all.

I explained this to Bo and he said “Oh it’s Amazing?”
“Well yes but it’s like one big maze here”
“Really AMAZING!”
“No, that’s not guite what I mean :) It’s a maze”
“?”
I was almost to the point of digging out my Beckers Thai-English dictionary when mai bpen rai saved the day! Later on looking at the layout for the Science in America exhibit I showed Bo that it was layed out as a Maze. Ping. Light bulb! “ooooh!” (which btw the word for ‘maze’ is taang kot kiao ทางคดเคี้ย&#3623

One of the really cool things we checked out were several exhibits like Within These Walls an actual 200 year old house built in Massachusetts. The house was taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt inside the museum so you can see how 5 different American families lived throughout our history.

Something Bo really liked was that many exhibits are interactive with dials and levers and things to pull and smell or open to show more about a certain exhibit or period of history. He was like a kid in a candy store finding stuff he wanted to photograph. I wish I had asked him to download all his pics in my computer so I could use them for this blog. All the pics you will see in this series on the museums are stock photos I found on the internet.

Walking through the main entrance hall we stopped to watch a live drama presentation by singers and actors. They were talking about what it was like 40 years ago protesting for civil rights when black people were discriminated against in America and suffered a lot to gain egual rights like the right to vote. They showed picket signs saying ‘we shall overcome’ and one woman becan to sing an emotional gospel song.

Bo was taking pictures and I asked him if he had ever heard American gospel music before. He hadn’t but he commented how it made him feel very tingly inside. Amazing how music can reach and touch people of different cultures, races and languages the same. The presentation was also at the foot of a very special exhibit in the museum. Towering above us and hanging as a backdrop was the actual three stories tall American Flag that was hung on the side of the Pentagon after the attack on September 11th. The other really cool exhibit was on the third floor and all about the Presidents and history of the Presidency of the United States.

Did you know that as far back as 1833 Presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln all received Royal Gifts from high ranking members of the Thai Court (like the Bunnak family), Prince Mongkut (later HM King Mongkut, Rama IV) and his brother Phra Pin Klao (later the Second King.)

The first official American contact with Thailand (then Siam) came in the Reign of King Nang Klao, Rama III (r.1824-1851) On a mission to negotiate a treaty of friendship and commerce this was the beginning of the exchange of gifts of state between Thailand and America in which we sent in return a steady supply of scientific books and equipment from Western missionaries requested by the King and important members of the court. This was a good opportunity for the scholarly royalty and nobility of Thailand to improve their knowleadge of Western science and culture.

Now I would love to tell you that all this information is on display at the Smithsonian. In fact you can see a display of some of the actual royal gifts in the Natural History Museum but to be honest I got all this information from one of the books in my collection “Treasure of Two Nations: Thai Royal Gifts to the United States of America” by Lisa McQuail. This is a book I bought from Asia Books in Bangkok that was actually published by the Smithsonian! It was published for the asian cultural history program and is actually one of two books I have on Thailand published by the Smithsonian.

One of the Royal Gifts also included two gorgeous swords given to President Lincoln and as I was telling Bo about that I swear he was rolling his eyes a bit “yeah I KNOW you like swords” On the Metro that day on the way headed to the museums Bo and I met a kid who had a Kendo sword used in the Japanese art of combat. I told Bo afterwards how I wanted to get a real Thai sword, or Daab, to display on my wall. I have a friend in Thailand that makes armor to re-enact Thai battles and can have a Thai sword made for me. I’m sure Bo thinks I am such a geek maybe haha.

Seeing all we wanted to see we decided to move on to our next target the Museum of Natural History! I’m really trying to keep my blogs in fairly bite sized portions 😉 so that and more to come tomorrow. My apologies if maybe I’m too long on the history lectures this time and too short on the humor 😛

พบกันใหม่

วิทย์

Memorial weekend with friends

Ah Memorial Day Weekend. The official kick off of summer here in the good old US of A and the tourists are in full bloom here in Washington DC. Already the city is full up with visitors from all over the country and across the world, including more than a few friendly Thai folk, to come gaggle and ogle at our countries many monuments and museums here in our nations capital.

More than once I have volunteered as tour guide to friends and folks from Thailand visiting or staying here in DC since I used to work for one of the biggest ‘must sees’ in Washington, The Smithsonian Museums! On top of that I worked in the Worlds Most Popular Museum (jing jing) the Smithsonians Air and Space Museum. Many people may think the Smithsonian is just one BIG museum but actually it is 17 HUGE MUSEUMS with mine being the biggest and baddest of the bunch 😉 So naturally I was a good fit to be a tour guide for two excellent reasons, namely:

1. I learned a lot of cool things about the museums from working there and

2. If you’ve read my blogs before you know I can talk. Alot. Especially if I know what it is I am talking about 😀

If you read my last blog then you will already have met Bo, my latest victim, er, guest on yet another whirl wind tour extravaganza.

That’s Bo in the upper right hand corner of the pic up there. Don’t worry I promise you will see more of him later (and less of my pale, hairy farang legs) as well as the rest of our merry bunch from this weekend. Bo is from Thailand (surprise, surprise) but has been going to school in Canyon, TX with a large group of international students. Bo is also a member of our Thai Language Group here online and has been visiting DC testing out the waters to see how he likes it here. I found a place for him to stay with a Thai host family in Maryland but they live kinda in the boonies and Bo has been going bonkers with boredom and maybe coco for coca puffs too 😛 I would have invited him to be a guest at my house but living here with my roommates has been occasionally referred to, none too affectionately, as being in MTV’s “Real World” Reality TV Show….on Acid.

“He likes the night life, he likes to boogie …”, ahem, sorry, I know it’s not karaoke night since that is not a Thai song. Anyway, my friend Bo likes to go out to nightclubs a lot and was hoping yours truly might indulge but my days on the dance floor and a bar stool have sadly all become, ‘been there, done that, and all I got was a souvenir t-shirt’ which actually I think I gave away when I donated a bunch of old clothes to the Tsunami survivors. If you see some kid wandering around Thailand with a “I got Drunk and Stupid in Washington, DC” t-shirt on now you’ll know where he got it from, besides some of the places I used to hang out and party at would make even a veteran Patpong tourist think twice!

So I compromised and Saturday I spent the day, and in fact the last 4 days more or less, with Bo hence the topic of this blogs tale. We met up Saturday morning at McDonalds just down the street from Jandara the Thai restaurant in my neighborhood that Bo worked at. When Bo got there I was slouched over my table copying my latest Thai homework. Eventually I will buy a scanner and then I can scan and post for the blogs my Thai writing assignments. That would be easier than getting the blog site to post in Thai fonts correctly every time! grrrr!

When we got off the Metro we were in Federal Triangle the heart of DC’s mega government offices and we had to cross the most famous street in America to get to all the museums on the National Mall. Pennsylvania avenue is a broad four lane boulevard that everyone in America knows because it leads to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Americas most famous address, the White House. Still as famous just as our current President is infamous but I digress no politicking in my blogs 😉

Crossing south on Pennsylvania Ave. if you turn to the right you will face the White House even though you can’t see it from where we stood but look to your left and at the other end of Penn. Ave you can see another famous land mark, the National Congress. Bo got excited and wanted to take a picture which didn’t surprise me because tourists and visitors probably take pictures of these two buildings a billion or more times each year. He brought his digital camera and I wish I had one too. The camera I bought and took my Songkran blog pics with wasn’t that great so I took it back to eventually get a much better one like our webmaster/pro photo journalist Richard :)

What did surprise me however was Bo’s reason to take the picture, he told me he was shocked to see how much Penn. Ave. looked just like Bangkok! Huh????

Try as I might I was not seeing it, looking at the hot dog vendors on the sidewalk I was not seeing noodle stalls and what little traffic that was on the road that morning was actually moving! Plus watching the kamikaze taxis go by I could not convince myself they were Tuk Tuks. But Bo was excited so who am I to argue points? I joked that did this mean when I am in Bangkok I might get confused and think I am still in Washington? That got a great laugh from Bo. A good laugh is always a great start, right?

Once we got to the Mall, which is what the huge park of monuments and museums is called in DC, I asked Bo which museum he wanted to see first. Personally, from experience I am convinced that the area is named ‘the Mall’ because of all the millions of tourists that ‘maul’ the place every summer. Bo was clueless where he wanted to start first so I forged ahead, to the National Museum of American History!

More to come in Pt. 2 tomorrow…bedtime for now :)