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Thursday, March 2, 2006
I noticed that I put a place holder in the blog
Thursday, March 2. However, I now
realize that nothing is going to happen that day. I
am leaving from O’hare at noon on Thursday,
but since I’ll be crossing the International Date Line, I won’t arrive
until 3:30 pm on
Friday. So this is going to be a very
anti-climactic start to my blog.
The morning has been uneventful.
Mike and I ate breakfast at Steak n Shake,
and then he dropped me off at O’hare. I
got in the line for United International check-in, but when I finally
front of the line, they told me that I had to check in at Domestic
had an e-ticket. So I waited in that
line for awhile. I needed the person
checking me in to look up my frequent flyer number, because I didn’t
it. This caused a problem because she
was looking at my passport and it has my maiden name on it. It took me awhile to get her to understand
that my frequent flyer number was under a different name.
But finally, it was all checked in. I
was very happy to see that I have an aisle
seat. I’d prefer the window, but aisle
is better than the middle of the 4 seats in the center of the 747. There was no line at security, and I did not
At the gate, I discovered that O’hare has wifi,
but it costs
$7. Since I only had an hour before
boarding, I decided $7 wasn’t worth it.
The flight was completely full – every seat on the
occupied. It was very hard to sleep
because people were talking and walking around throughout the flight. Even with ear plugs, it was too loud to
sleep. The woman in front of me was
constantly shifting in her seat, causing her seatback to smash into my
knees. There was always a line for the
bathroom. In general, it was pretty
miserable. At least it was smooth. It barely felt like we were moving at all.
The sun did not set throughout the 14-hour flight. The cabin was dimmed in an effort to trick us
into thinking it was night, but it didn’t work.
I thought it was strange that the sun never set. I had thought
the winter, it was always dark at the Arctic Circle. Apparently
It was bright and sunny for 14 consecutive hours. We flew over a
of snowy wastelands - tundra and mountains that were so white that at
first I wasn't sure if it were clouds or snow. And then the
turned brown, and then we started to see signs of civilization.
All in all, the 14-hour flight was not nearly as
bad as I
had thought it would be. We arrived in Beijing on
breezed through immigration and customs, and met up with our tour guide
Friday, March 3, 2006
Once we arrived in Beijing
our tour guide, Leon
whisked us into a chartered bus and we were on the way to the hotel. Leon
is Chinese, but he must have been educated in England
He has a bit of a British accent, and told us
to “queue up to get onto the lift” to get us to the right level in the
As we drove through the congested
streets of Beijing,
gave us a little tour and an introduction to the city.
The number of people living in Beijing is huge, and
obviously overcrowding is a problem. The
government is preventing the construction of more high rises, in an
cut the population density in the city.
Bicycles and rickshaws are
everywhere, since it’s so hard to
get around by car. Leon warned us that traffic laws in Beijing are much
different from what we are used to in the States. In
traffic signals are merely a
“suggestion.” He warned us not to assume
that it was safe to cross on a green light.
“If other people are crossing, you cross. If
no one else moves, you don’t move,” he
Our hotel is beautiful – five
star all the way. When we arrived, tea and
snacks were prepared
for us in the Executive Lounge on the tenth floor.
We have unlimited access to the lounge,
including daily happy hours with food and drink, as well as free use of
business center’s computers, fax, copy machine, and wifi access. Nice!
After we got settled, we ventured
out to see the city. Our hotel is located
in the heart of Beijing. It’s a very clean, safe area.
The streets are so clean you could
practically eat off of them. There is a
cop on almost any corner – the slightly military-looking kind of cop
carries a semi-automatic weapon.
The area of the city around our
hotel reminds me a little of
New Orleans and a little of Las Vegas.
Since it was Friday night, there were throngs of people walking
street. There were lots of little
shops and restaurants. There were also
high-end retailers: Lancome, Rolex, and
little boutique stores I hadn’t heard of.
And of course, the ubiquitous KFC.
There is a KFC every few blocks in this town.
The Chinese are obsessed with KFC.
We stumbled upon a little area of
street vendors, selling
everything from food to souvenirs. All
of the food was in stick form. We saw
chicken on a stick, corn on the cob on a stick, squid on a stick. One unique vendor was selling fruit on a
stick that had been coated in a crunchy sugary candy shell. Those were pretty good. We
also saw one guy selling scorpions on a
stick. The scorpions were still alive
and wriggling, though they had been impaled with the wooden skewer. I did not stick around to find out if they
were going to be cooked before someone ate them.
As we walked through the narrow
street lined with vendors,
the sellers (mostly women) called out to us, “Hey, lady, lookie lookie! Lookie what I have!” And
then she’d thrust some trinket under our
noses. This got to be a little annoying,
since I didn’t think we were planning to buy anything.
However, Mitesh became enamored with a fake
Rolex. Of course, the woman selling it
claimed it was real. She wanted 750 RMB
for it. Mitesh talked her down to 60 RMB
– about $8. Yep, Mitesh got a “real”
Rolex for $8!
We ended up back at the hotel around 9 pm, which
is 7 am Chicago
time. So I have now been up since 7 am the
day. Hopefully I’ll sleep tonight and be
adjusted to Beijing
time when I wake up tomorrow!
Saturday, March 4, 2006
Today was my first full day in Beijing.
Phil and Erica had warned us that
we would probably wake up
at 2 am and not be able to get back to sleep.
I did not think that there was any chance of this happening. I managed to stay up until about 10:30 pm,
but then I crashed hard. When I finally
went to bed, I felt like I could sleep for about 12 hours straight.
But sure enough, I was wide awake
promptly at 2 am. I told myself that this
was not acceptable
and that I’d have to go back to sleep. I
was marginally successful. I managed to
sleep off and on until about 6 am. At
that point, Margaret and I both decided to get up.
We took our time getting ready, and headed
down to breakfast at 7 am.
Breakfast was amazing.
The free breakfast buffet here is a far cry from the continental
breakfast you get at most hotels in the States.
The buffet was full of every kind of breakfast food imaginable: donuts, pastries, bagels, bread, pancakes,
French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, fruit, and tons of Chinese food
didn’t recognize. Everything was
wonderful. I’m usually not a big
breakfast person, but I stuffed myself.
When I was about half way through my first plate of food,
discovered that there was a made-to-order omelet station in the corner. That’s what I’ll be having tomorrow!
showed up about halfway through breakfast, and herded us all down to
around 8:30. We had a 20 minute
to Tiananmen Square.
On the bus, Leon
warned us about the Hello
People. The Hello People are at every
tourist attraction in Beijing. They greet you as you exit the bus, saying
“hello, hello, want to buy a…” They are peddling everything from post
silk scarves to fake Rolexes. They speak
surprisingly good English. Leon
to be careful when buying from them.
There are good deals to be had if you are willing to haggle, but
just as easily be ripped off. And it’s
not unheard of to receive fake money as change.
We were told to use small bills and keep track of our money.
expected Tiananmen Square to be full
tourist groups like ours. Most tour
guides carry a sign with a flag on it, so that their groups can find
had forgotten our Lake Forest
sign, so he tied a little Santa Claus penguin stuffed animal to the end
flag pole. We would be following the
penguin all day. He also told us that if
we got lost and couldn’t find the penguin, we could approach any
English-speaking tour guide, and they would help us.
As we exited the bus, he also handed each of
us a business card. On it was written,
in both English and Chinese, “Please take me to the Tianlun Dynasty
then the address of the hotel. We could
give this to a cab driver if we ever became lost.
In front of the entrance to Tiananmen Square was a huge picture of Chairman
Mao, and we all stopped to
take pictures in front of it. The area
was incredibly crowded – filled with tourist groups like ours. A bunch of military-looking police men kept
shooing us along, yelling in Chinese. “I
wonder what they’re saying,” said Frank.
“Probably something like, “Stupid American tourists! Keep moving or I will shoot you!”’ I replied.
While waiting in line to enter
the square, we were
approached by a lot of beggars. Most of
them were missing limbs, or parts of limbs, like Thalidomide victims. Phil kept us away from them as much as
possible. Any time one got too close, I
would feel a strong arm around my shoulders, gently leading me away.
Square is just a
large open area, paved with bricks, surrounded by pagoda-type buildings. You have probably seen dozens of pictures of
it. If you’re like most Americans, only
one thing comes to your mind when you hear the words Tiananmen Square. However,
Chinese are prohibited from discussing the massacre, so I wasn’t
didn’t mention it. We did not linger in
the square. He rushed us through the
palace doors and into the Forbidden City.
City was the
palace of several of the Chinese emperors.
It is so huge that they call it a city.
Historically, it was forbidden to all commoners, with the
the palace servants, of course. The only
man allowed in the palace was the Emperor himself.
He was served by women, children, and
unics. This was so that if ever a baby
was born in the palace, it would be certain to be the Emperor’s. Even the Emperor’s sons were required to
leave the palace when they started puberty.
If a male baby was born to a
concubine or even a palace
maid, the woman would be elevated to a much higher status.
Her son would be a prince, and would have the
chance to become Emperor himself one day.
It was not a given that the oldest son would become Emperor. Typically, the Emperor had dozens of sons
(all with different mothers). He would
watch all of his sons grow up, and decide which one was smartest and
best-suited to becoming Emperor.
The palace is absolutely huge –
truly a city unto
itself. It’s mind-boggling that it was
built for just one person – especially when you know that in the time
Chinese Emperors, most other people in China were starving to
The last Chinese Emperor, Puyi,
started his reign when he
was only a baby. His tutor was an
Englishman, so Puyi brought many Western ideas to China. He was de-throned in the 1920’s when the
Communists took power. I guess the Forbidden City became a tourist attraction at
Walking through the entire Forbidden City took a couple of hours.
All along the way, Leon
told us the stories of its history, and gave us time for taking
pictures. That encompassed the Chinese
for the morning. I also got a lesson in
Chinese culture, which was a bit more practical than the history side.
you will find two types of toilets. One
is the regular toilet that we are all used to seeing, called the
toilet” in China. (We have the Western-style toilets in our
hotel.) The other kind is affectionately
referred to as the “squatty potty.” The
squatty potty is like a narrow, oblong toilet bowl set directly into
so that the rim of the bowl is about flush with the floor.
Therefore, you can’t sit on it – you have to
squat over it, hence the name. Apparently,
these are the more common types of toilets throughout the world, except
Europe and North America. Most of the public restrooms we visited
(including my first Chinese public restroom at the Forbidden
City) have about 10 stalls containing squatty potties, and
two stalls with Western-style toilets (if you’re lucky – many only have
squatty potties). As you can imagine,
there is usually quite a long line for the Western-style toilets at
When we entered the public restroom at
the Forbidden City, the maid working
there directed us to the Western-style
stalls, and we all lined up to wait.
Meanwhile, several Chinese women came in and quickly bypassed
for the squatty potties. Margaret and I
glanced at each other and quickly agreed that we were not going to
entire trip waiting in line for the restroom, and made a beeline for
squatty potties. They are really more
hygienic, anyway – most public restrooms are not the cleanest, and your
never touches anything with the squatty potty.
By the second day of the trip, most of the younger women in our
were willing to use the squatty potties.
The older women weren’t willing to do it. I’m
not sure if this is because they are
squeamish about trying something different, or because they are not
they trust their thigh muscles to get them back up!
We exited the Forbidden City
from the opposite side from which we’d entered, and the bus picked us
there. We went to a small Chinese
restaurant for lunch. The food was quite
good, but I wasn’t very hungry, since I’d stuffed myself at breakfast.
After lunch, the bus took us to the Hutong
district. Hutong literally means “alley.” Back
in the days of the Emperors, the area around the Forbidden City was a walled city.
was made up of one-story houses with narrow, winding, twisting streets
alleys between them, which why it is called Hutong.
This area is also called Old Beijing
Most of these houses still exist today,
although most have been greatly modified and remodeled.
The bus dropped us off in a narrow street lined
shops, restaurants, and bars. In front
of the shops were parked dozens of rickshaws.
rickshaws are like great big tricycles, with one seat up front for the
and two seats in back for the passenger.
We all paired up and were assigned rickshaws, and we set off for
tour of the Hutong.
The transportation through the Hutong was somewhat
nerve-wrecking. The rickshaw drivers
peddled us through the narrow, twisting alleys at break-neck speed –
somehow managed to avoid all the pot holes and speed bumps. The alleys in the Hutong are too narrow for
two cars to pass – really, they are even too narrow for one car, in my
opinion. But that doesn’t stop cars from
driving through them! And of course
there were dozens and dozens of bicyclers to avoid as well. It was scary, but also fun.
The temperature had warmed into the mid-60s,
and it was sunny. It was a beautiful day
for a rickshaw ride.
The buildings we passed mostly looked run down. However, the streets were clean and full of
well-dressed people. We passed many
restaurants, stores, and bars. Really
more bars than anything else. I assumed
that the buildings that didn’t have any signs on the front must be
they didn’t look like any houses I’d ever seen.
We screeched to a stop in front of one such
were told to exit our rickshaws. We were
going to get a tour of a local Hutong home.
An English-speaking guide (not Leon) led us through a gate and
small courtyard. The courtyard was paved
in brick, and surrounded on all four sides by rundown buildings made of
wood and stone. A small, squat building
made of red brick was in the center of the courtyard.
There were several doors into the
buildings. The one nearest to us had a
small area fenced off around it with scrap plywood.
Two small dogs wandered about in this
makeshift pen. Several of the doors had
plywood overhangs above them, creating a kind of roofed patio area. Under the roofs were tables and chairs and
bikes and toys and all kinds of other items.
Our guide explained to us that hundreds of years
the Hutong was built, each courtyard and the buildings surrounding it
by a wealthy Beijing
family. Each of the buildings on the
fours sides of the courtyard was an individual house.
In the largest house lived the parents. In
the other houses lived their sons and
daughter-in-laws and grandchildren. Only
the largest house had a kitchen.
Today, about 90% of the Hutong is owned by the
government. Families with at least one
working for the government have the opportunity to rent one of these
houses. This is substantially cheaper
than renting a privately-owned house.
Actually, there are not many privately owned houses in Beijing.
If you do not have the option of living in a government space
want to), the most available private option is a modern high-rise. (The government also owns high-rises for
employees who prefer the high-rise life to the Hutong life. However, the government high-rises are
generally pretty lousy compared to the more expensive privately owned
In the houses surrounding the courtyard
in which we were now
standing lived 9 separate, unrelated families – a total of about 40
people. The original 4 houses had been
carved up into 9. This is a very typical
situation in the Hutong. There was not
room to put a private kitchen in all of the houses, so the small brick
had been constructed in the center of the courtyard.
This building contained kitchens for the
houses that were too small to have their own.
However, this building was in no way connected to the others. The users of these kitchens had to walk
outside to get to them.
Each of the houses had the option
of installing a private
bathroom. Not all of the families wanted
to give up the space for that.
Therefore, there was also a public bathroom in the kitchen
again, not connected to any of the houses.
We were led through one of the
doors and into a house. We were introduced
to the lady of the house,
Madam Song. Madam Song did not speak
English, but we were encouraged to ask her any questions while our
interpreted. We learned that Madam Song
lived here with her husband, her mother and father in-law, and her
daughter. Her husband worked for the
Aviation Ministry, as did at least one member of each family in this
house cluster. The entire cluster was
owned by the Aviation Ministry. Madam
Song used to work for a private company, but she was able to retire
made more money by allowing the tour company to drag groups of tourists
her home every day.
We were given a brief tour of the
house. The living room was small by our
but was nicely furnished and had a large Sony TV. The
dining room table was also in this
room. Besides the front door, there was
only one other door in the room, and this led to a bedroom. The bedroom was tiny, and contained a twin
bed, a sofa, and a dresser. Another
large Sony TV was perched on the dresser.
There were two other doors in this room.
I stuck my head in one of them, and saw a squatty potty, a
table, and a
floor drain with a shower massager affixed several feet above it. Apparently, this was Madam Song’s private
The other door led into the other
bedroom. It was slightly bigger than the
bedroom, and also contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser. A door in this room led to the tiny kitchen –
barely bigger than a closet – which contained a dorm room-sized fridge,
and a two-burner stove.
And that was it.
was the whole house, in which 4 adults and one pre-teen lived. Madam Song was very proud of her home, and
much preferred it to living in a high-rise, since the government
not so nice. She felt very fortunate to
be living there.
Seeing people living like that really makes you
it is possible to live very happily with a lot less than what we have. We complain when the internet connection is
low, and we don’t think we’d survive without TIVO, but guess what? You really need so much less than that.
One of the girls in my class had
observation. If Paris Hilton had taken
that same rickshaw tour, and then immediately afterwards taken a tour
neighborhood in suburban Chicago,
would she be able to tell the difference between the two?
About half the class thought that she would
not. She is so far removed from real
life that all our everyday experiences and surroundings would blend
and look the same to her. I’m not sure I
agree with that. I think the way we live
is a bit closer to the Paris Hilton lifestyle than it is to the Hutong,
could be wrong.
After the stop at Madam Song’s
house, the rickshaws took us
to the Price
This was Emperor Puyi’s playground when he was a child. It’s a very pretty park full of sculptures
and weird twisted, knotty trees. It looks
like something right out of Dr. Seuss.
Our final stop was the Beijing Bell Tower. One of the Emperor’s constructed two huge
towers in the end of Old
One contained huge drums and one contained a
huge bell. The drum and the bell marked
each hour of the day in ancient times.
To reach the top of the bell tower, you must climb 75 extremely
narrow stairs. The climb isn’t too bad,
but coming back down is a bit scary.
From the top of the bell tower, the panoramic view of Beijing is
breathtaking. The bell tower is the
built by the ancient emperors on the meridian line.
The meridian line is a north-south street that
ran through the center of Old Beijing.
It was considered lucky to live on this line (feng shui thing). The bell tower is the southernmost point,
then the drum tower, then Tianenmen
Square, and finally the Forbidden
City and the emperor’s palace.
And now the Olympic Village for 2008 is be constructed on the
line, extending the line north of the Forbidden
After decending the bell tower,
we stopped in the tea shop
at the base to learn about the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. We were all seated at a long table, and a
friendly English-speaking young lady taught us about the ceremony. She was very funny and entertaining. We were each given a small square china tray
holding two tiny tea cups. One cup was
wide and low, and the other was tall and narrow. Our
host told us about all the different
types of tea that are available in China, and explained how
them were infused with fruit juice or herbs.
Then she brewed some tea in a small pot and poured some into our
narrow tea cups. We were shown how to
invert the wide cup over the top of the narrow cup, and then flip the
thing over so that the tea ended up in the wide cup.
Then you rub the inverted tall cup around the
rim of the wide cup 3 times. Then roll
the tall cup between your hands several times, and then smell it. It smells strongly of whatever type of tea
you are drinking. Then you pick up the
wide cup using three fingers, and drink the tea in three sips.
Following the tea ceremony, we
returned to the hotel. On the bus, Leon
asked if anyone wanted to get
a massage that night. He could arrange
for a girl to come to our rooms and give 1.5 hour reflexology massages
Yuan, which is about $20. A 90 minute
massage for $20…amazing! I signed up.
That evening, Margaret went out to
dinner with a friend of
hers who lives in Beijing. After she left, I went to the hotel fitness
center and had a good workout. Then I
took a shower and went to the Executive Lounge for Happy Hour. Everyone staying on the executive floor got
two free drinks during the Happy Hour. I
had one beer with some of my classmates before it was time to go back
room and wait for the massage girl. I
returned to my room and put on my pj’s.
The massage girl was running a
bit late. She looked extremely young. I assume that she must have been at least 16
or 18, but she really looked about 12.
She had me lay on my bed with my head at the foot on my back. She started out with scalp massage, and then
moved on to my neck, back, arms, and legs.
This was not like any massage that I have ever gotten at home. The massages I have gotten in the States have
all been slow, kneading, relaxing massages.
The Chinese massage was not exactly relaxing.
She attacked me with vigor, and there was no
way I could have fallen asleep or even really relaxed completely. But it felt wonderful. Even
when I get deep tissue massages at home,
I never feel like they really get deep enough into my muscles. This girl did. She
poked and prodded and moved my joints
around. I wore my pj’s the whole time,
and she did not use any kind of oil.
After she finished with my legs, she
disappeared into the
bathroom. I had no idea what she was
doing, but soon I heard the bathtub running.
“What the heck?” I thought, “Is she going to bathe me? Weirder and weirder.”
I walked into the bathroom and
saw that she had brewed a
bathtub full of hot tea. She had me roll
up the legs of my pj’s and sit on the edge of the tub to soak my feet
tea. While my feet were soaking, she
massaged my scalp and neck. Then she
rubbed my feet and lower legs with the tea bag.
She had me step out of the tub
onto a waiting towel, and she
dried my legs and feet. Then she had me
come back to bed, with my feet at the foot this time.
And then she went to work on my feet. Wonderful!
I’ve never had a foot massage before, and it was fantastic.
When the massage was finished, I
paid her and she left. I felt amazing. Although I wouldn’t have described the
massage as relaxing while it was in progress, every muscle in my body
completely relaxed afterwards. I felt
I got dressed and met some people
from the class for
dinner. We walked to a nearby Chinese
restaurant that Leon
had recommended. I got a big plate of
noodles and veggies for about $3. Tsing
Tao beer was served in 22 ounce bottles for 12 Yuan – about $1.50.
After dinner, I went to bed, still
feeling totally relaxed
I need to mention something here that
doesn’t really fit
into any particular day. There is a guy
in my class, Dave, who is really overweight.
I mean, REALLY overweight. He’s
shorter than I am, and probably weighs over 300 pounds.
He does not carry the weight well. It’s
all focused in his belly. He does not move
easily, and always looks uncomfortable.
There really aren’t any fat
people in China. Everyone you see on the street is thin, and
almost everyone is beautiful as well.
It’s like walking through a Japanese Anime cartoon.
We are something of a spectacle, since we are
not Chinese, but Dave is even more of an oddity because of his weight. People treat him as a kind of a freak
show. They stare and point.
They walk up to him on the street and rub his
belly. (It probably doesn’t help that
there are statues of fat Buddha everywhere, and rubbing Buddha’s belly
Dave was put alone in a rickshaw
for our Hutong tour, so as
not to overtax the driver. Apparently,
the driver was a bit overexerted anyway, because he tried to ditch Dave. As we were all boarding our rickshaws after
one of the stops, his driver just took off without him.
We all had to wait while the driver was
retrieved. At the time, I didn’t know
what we were waiting for. We were a huge
group, and Margaret and I were in one of the first rickshaws. Dave’s rickshaw was at the end.
Dave told this story over dinner.
I do feel bad for Dave.
I hate being the center of attention for a negative reason. But on the other hand, he should have known
what he was getting himself into when he came to China. I knew that a group of American tourists
would be a spectacle, and I also knew that there weren’t a lot of
people in China. He should have known that this would happen,
but he complains about it a lot.
I think having Dave in our group really personifies
most of the rest of the world thinks about Americans:
fat, slow, lazy.
Sunday, March 5, 2006
I got my omelet for breakfast, and ate too much
again. After breakfast, we piled into the
headed out to a jade factory. Jade is a
natural resource of China,
and is used to carve all kinds of figurines and jewelry.
The factor had some very cool stuff on
display. Near the entrance were two huge
jade ships. Each was about 3 feet long,
and had been carved out of a single piece of jade.
The detail was amazing. Masts and
sails and portholes, but the
coolest thing was the chains. Linked
chains had been carved out of that single piece of jade.
We were shown an assembly line of people working
stages of the jade carving and polishing process. We
learned about all the different kinds of
jade. Green jade is the most common, but
white and red jade are the most valuable.
Of course, the factory had a huge gift shop. I was extremely overpriced, and I didn’t buy
After the stop at the jade factory, we headed to
the Great Wall of China.
It took about an hour to get there.
We passed miles and miles of city, which all looked very similar. Huge high-rise apartment complexes stretched
as far as the eye could see. And
suddenly we were in open country. There
was no suburban-type area. The city just
ended and the country began.
The terrain became more and more mountainous. It probably would have been very pretty in
spring, but since it was March, everything was dead and brown. Leon pointed out the sites
us some history of the Great Wall as we drove.
We passed the Trans Siberian Rail Road, which
will take you from Beijing to Moscow
in about a week.
The Great Wall was originally built thousands of
to keep invaders out of China.
It fell into disrepair, and was built again
in the 1500s. It is long enough to
circle the globe if it were stretched out into a straight line. It is not true that you can see the Great
Wall from space. It is an urban legend
that it is the only man made structure visible from orbit.
You can read the de-bunking on Snopes. The
great wall is no wider than a standard
interstate highway, and you can’t see highways from space.
It just doesn’t make any sense that you could
see the Great Wall.
We finally arrived at the Great
Wall of China at Badaling. We
greeted by throngs of Hello People as we left the bus.
It was very cold. The sun was
shining, but it was terribly
windy up in the mountains.
From the parking lot, we headed up a steep
street. There were shops and restaurants
on both sides. At the top of the hill
was the Great Wall itself. It looks just
like all the pictures you’ve seen. It
goes on forever and ever, up and down through the mountains.
After a group picture, Leon
told us to go explore the Wall
and regroup in 2 hours. Walking on the
Wall is extremely difficult. It’s very
steep, and there are loose bricks everywhere.
Some of the steeper places have handrails, but they were built
Chinese people, not for 6-foot tall Americans.
It was very hard for me to use the handrails because I had to
to reach them.
We walked from the entrance up to the first of
towers. The climb was difficult, and I
could tell that it was going to be more precarious going back down. When we got to the first tower, I decided
that I wasn’t going on any further. I am
very clumsy and accident-prone to begin with, and this just didn’t seem
safe activity for me. Three other people
in our group had the same thought. We
walked back down to the shops and restaurants.
We browsed in the shops for awhile.
The weather warmed up a bit, and we sat in a beer garden out of
to wait for the others.
The Great Wall of China
supposed to be one of the wonders of the world.
It is breathtakingly beautiful up in the mountains.
However, it’s not something you’d want to
spend your whole day looking at. The
wall goes on as far as you can see, and it’s all pretty much the same.
Later, after we were back at the
hotel, I read in my Beijing
that area of the Great Wall at Badaling was actually constructed in the
1950’s. The original Great Wall was not
made of brick or stone. It was made of
tamped earth with wooden supports. It
didn’t even serve its function of keeping invaders out of China. Most of it was largely unguarded, and the
guards were easily bribed anyway.
The Great Wall was mostly
forgotten in history, until
someone had the bright idea to turn it into a tourist attraction about
ago. The section at Badaling was rebuilt
with bricks and stone, and the towers you’re used to seeing were added. So the whole thing is less than authentic.
The drive back down from the Wall
was not so fun. The roads were very
twisty, and the bus
driver took them at breakneck speeds. I
was feeling very carsick. I didn’t want
to take Dramamine, because I kept thinking that surely we must be
almost to the
bottom. But it went on and on and
on. I really thought I was going to be
sick by the time we finally arrived at our destination.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one
feeling that way. Just about everyone on
the bus was looking a little green.
Our next stop was a
Cloisonné factory. You have all
seen Cloisonne before, although
you probably didn’t know what it was called (I didn’t).
Cloisonne vases, knick-knacks and jewelry are
brightly colored, with a kind of mosaic patterned.
Copper wire divides each colored
section. Cloisonne is made of
brass. First, the brass shape is formed. Then the design is painted onto it. Next, copper wire is painstakingly laid along
the lines of the design. The whole thing
is then fired in a 1000 degree oven so that the copper wire becomes
attached. Then the piece is painted and
It was interesting to walk
through the factory and see all
of these steps. They had quite the
little sweat shop going there. The store
attached to the factory was huge, and they had a lot of really cute
pieces. Very expensive.
For lunch, we went to a small
Chinese restaurant. No one was very
hungry, due to the
carsickness. One of the girls on the
trip, Kris, is starting to drive me nuts.
Maybe it was because I was sick and cranky anyway, but she
started to get under my skin at lunch.
Kris is a typical sorority girl.
She’s about 30 years old and lives by herself in the city. She complains about everything.
We haven’t done a single thing on the trip
that she enjoyed. It seems like she
wants everything to be exactly as it is at home. I
am starting to wonder why she came on this
Kris has a really annoying way of
talking to Chinese
people. She speaks quickly and is not
careful about choosing simple words. If
the person doesn’t understand, she repeats the same thing again, but
louder. They’re not deaf; if you just
speak slowly and use simple words, they will usually understand. If someone is having trouble with what I’m
saying, I try to say it again using slightly different words. All Chinese people under the age of about 50
have taken 6 years of English, but most haven’t practiced it since
school. If you’re patient with them,
they will get it. I haven’t had much
trouble making myself understood.
Yelling at them is not the answer.
After lunch we went back to the
hotel to relax, shop, and
eat dinner on our own. After dinner,
Margaret and I both got massages. Two
girls came to our room and did the massages simultaneously. The seemed to be a bit older than the girl I
had the first time. They had us both sit
on the edge of the bathtub and soak our feet in tea together. There is a mirror on the wall behind the
bathtub, so we were sitting there looking at ourselves the whole time. This was just too much for Margaret, and she
got the giggles. She laughed so hard
that her girl had to stop the massage and wait for her to regain
control. Margaret is one of those
people who is just
constantly giggling, especially when it’s inappropriate.
Monday, March 6, 2006
Monday morning started off with our first company
visit. Since technically we are supposed
to be learning about doing business in China, and not just taking
vacation, the school set up visits to several different companies.
After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove to
Bama. Bama is an American company based
out of Tulsa. Their main product is the apple pies for
McDonald’s. When McD’s moved into China,
asked Bama to come with them. This was a
really good idea for McD. They wanted to
be able to maintain the same quality of food at all of their
over the world. Importing from their
reputable, hand-picked suppliers in the US was too expensive. They needed everything to be produced
locally. For some items, McD found local
suppliers. For other things, they asked
the suppliers to set up locations around the world.
On the way to Bama, we passed miles and miles of
all government housing complexes. The
Bama building was located in front of a very new housing complex. It was obviously privately owned.
It looked like a townhouse development right
out of the American suburbs. There was
even a flashy billboard in front of it, advertising that there were
available. I did not ever see anything
like this anywhere else in Beijing.
Bama was located in a small, free-standing
building. We were led into a conference
room by a
Chinese woman who spoke perfect English.
After we were seated, a tall, curly-haired American man of about
years old walked in and greeted us. He
was Bernie Sheridan, the General Manager of Beijing Bama.
(Genreal Manager is the same thing as a CEO
Bernie had been living in China
for about 17 years. He spoke fluent
Mandarin. He used to work for McDonald’s
in China. McD wanted to send him back to the US,
didn’t want to go. He offered to help
get Bama up and running in Beijing. Bernie was out-going and charismatic, and
loved his job, his employees, and China in general.
Beijing Bama was founded about 6 years ago. About $12 million US had been invested in
building the factory – and it would have cost three times that much to
similar facility in the US. When
the plant first opened, they had only
one pie line. They have since added an
At first, Bama made only apple pies.
Apple pies were not a big seller in China. It’s just not something that the Chinese
people are used to. McD did some market
research and recommended some other flavors for Bama.
Today, their biggest seller is taro pie. Taro
root is kind of similar to a sweet
potato, but it’s purple. Their
second-biggest seller is pineapple. They
also sell chicken, tuna, and several other flavors of fruit pies. I sampled the pineapple, and it was very
good. I am assuming that the meat pies
are not sweet – they are probably more like a pot pie or a Hot Pocket. The pies sold in China
are still deep-fried, unlike the ones in the US,
which are now baked.
Bama now sells products to companies other than
McD. They make pocket-type pies for
companies in China. They also have a line of baked goods such as
cakes and breads. The cake and bread
business is still very small. All of
those items are still made by hand in a giant kitchen.
Bernie took us on a tour of the plant. Their pie line was not running that day, so
the plant floor was very quiet. We had
to wear lab coats and hair covers, although we did not need shoe
gloves, or masks, as would be required in a drug plant.
The pie line itself looked very similar to any
pharmaceutical manufacturing line I’ve seen.
Lots of stainless steel equipment, large tanks, a filling line
conveyer belt. Bernie showed us how the
raw materials are taken from a huge refrigerated warehouse, loaded onto
conveyer belt, and poured into a huge mixing tank.
Pie shell ingredients go into one tank;
filling ingredients go into another.
After mixing, the pie shell dough is extruded onto a moving
belt. Filling is extruded onto it, then
another layer of pie dough is added. The
individual pies are cut apart, deep fried, and flash-frozen before
I have seen many plants like this, but this was
plant tour for many of the people in the class.
Everyone had a million questions, and Bernie was very good about
answering all of them.
One thing I found interesting was that the plant
had its own
well-water supply. At drug plants in the
municipal water is usually purified for use in drug manufacturing. This is not really an option in Beijing. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but
you can’t drink the tap water in Beijing
– not even to brush your teeth. The
locals can’t drink it either. Everyone
drinks and cooks with bottled water. A
gallon of water costs more than a gallon of milk in Beijing.
Bama would not have been able to cost-effectively purify tap
started out that dirty, so they drilled their own well, far below the
contaminated water table used by the city.
After the plant tour, we returned to the
conference room and
had a chance to sample some of the different pies.
Bernie told us how he had built a world-class
company in China. He was very devoted to his employees. He paid above the median wage, and offered
them plenty of career development opportunities. He
was the only ex-pat working for the
company – everyone else was Chinese. I
was very impressed with Bernie and his company.
He really had a nice little organization set up there. When we left, he gave us each a Bama Beanie
After the Bama visit, the bus dropped us off at
and we were left to find lunch on our own.
recommended a noodle shop a few blocks away from the hotel. Margaret, Kris, Jamie and I walked
there. The noodle shop was small, and
set up like a fast-food restaurant. The
girl working at the counter did not speak English.
She brought out a menu that was written in
English so that we could point to which item we wanted.
However, the menu didn’t give a description
of the item; just the name. I ordered
plain chow mein, not really sure what I would get.
Kris was not so adventurous. She
wanted to know what was in each
dish. She kept asking the poor counter
girl over and over, but she just didn’t understand.
Kris was getting frustrated and started
yelling at her. Finally, a manager who
spoke a (very) little English came out. Kris
was finally able to order, but as we walked to the table, she continued
My chow mein turned out to be spaghetti noodles in
sauce with onions and green peppers. It
was pretty good, and was a huge serving.
I’d paid about $2 for it. Kris
was mildly happy with her lunch, although she continued to complain
wasn’t exactly what she wanted.
After lunch, I wanted to find a place where I
could buy a
small notebook. Somehow I’d forgotten to
bring my leather notepad, and I didn’t have anything to take notes with
meetings. I wanted to stop in a drug
store and pick one up, but Kris said she’d been in a drug store the day
and all they had was drugs. We walked by
a mall on the way back to the hotel, and I decided to stop there. I didn’t end up finding a notebook, but I did
find something interesting – a dollar store.
Actually, it was a 10 Yuan store.
Ten Yuan is about $1.25. I
wandered around in there looking at all the stuff.
It was very similar to an American dollar
store – everything from cleaning supplies to shampoo to underwear. But of course, all the brands were weird and
all the packaging was printed in Chinese.
In the afternoon, we went to the US
embassy to meet with someone
from the Commerce Department. The
embassy office was located in a large office building.
We had to show our passports to get in. The
embassy seemed to be staffed mostly with
English-speaking Chinese. We were led
into a conference room and left there by the receptionist.
We waited for a long time. At first
we didn’t talk much, but then we
started getting a little silly. Someone
wondered whether the Chinese government was taping everything we were
Finally, the guy we had come to see arrived (I
remember his name). He didn’t seem like
he wanted to be there. He was an
American working for the Commerce Department, and was on a 4-year
Beijing. His office helped American companies get
established in China. They only worked with American companies that
wanted to export goods to China;
not companies that wanted to manufacture in China
and import into the US. They do market research and provide local
contacts and things like that.
We asked him a few questions about how one would
breaking into the Chinese market. His
answer to just about every question was, “Well, that’s outside our area
expertise. You’d have to hire a private
for that.” Finally, I asked him, “What
is the advantage of working through your office rather than just going
a private consultant to begin with?” He
replied, “Well, we’re cheaper. We do
charge a fee for our services, but it’s nominal. Also,
we can provide some assistance in
dealing with the Chinese government if needed.”
I asked, “Do you keep any metrics?
Do you know if you’re actually helping any
companies?” He said, “Yes, we keep track
of which companies have consulted with us.”
I prodded further, “But how do you track whether you actually
difference, or if those companies would have figured things out in China
At that point, Phil interrupted me and brought the
to a close.
I have a big problem with this whole thing. Providing assistance in dealing with the
government is one thing, but I don’t feel that doing market research in
is a good
use of my tax dollars. I don’t think
this office has any place in the US government.
I mentioned this to some of my classmates
after we left. Most of them disagreed
with me. They felt that hiring private
consultants would be too expensive for small companies, and working
Commerce Department would be the only way for them to break into the
market. Based on what we’d heard at the
meeting, I really didn’t get the impression that the Commerce
helping anyone break into the Chinese market.
They seemed to be in the business of charging fees to give
Furthermore, I don’t believe that the government
paying for something just because you can’t afford to buy it on your
own. Again, my classmates disagreed. I go to school with a bunch of socialists.
After learning about the socialist nature of the US
we stopped at a market to witness Chinese capitalism in action. The market was located in a gigantic 7-story
building. Each floor was dedicated to a
different type of merchandise. High-end
jewelry was on the top floor, then costume jewelry, purses, housewares,
clothing. All of the purses and watches
and clothing were designer knock-offs.
Each floor was set up in a grid
with a single seller
occupying each square of the grid. It
was extremely crowded. As we walked down
the aisles, the sellers were constantly saying, “Hello, hello, lady. Lookie!
You want to buy purse? I have
Coach, Gucci, good quality!” It never
stopped and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mitesh
and Manzoor became infatuated with
some fake Rolexes. They spent hours at
the watch counter, and eventually walked away with about 30 watches for
80 Yuan each – about $10.
I spent a long time wandering
around, but didn’t buy
much. I really wanted a new fake Prada
purse, but couldn’t find one. One girl
told me that it had gotten “too dangerous” to sell Prada, but tried to
into a Louis Vitton instead.
Shopping at that market was
really exhausting. I was so tired of being
harassed by the
sellers by the time we left.
I got down to the bus about 15
minutes early. Jaime was there, and
mentioned that he had
just eaten a sandwich from the Subway across the street.
He and I walked back over there and got two
Tsing Tao beers to go for a total of $3.
You gotta love Beijing.
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Today our first company visit was with Motorola. They had reserved a meeting room for us at a
local hotel, since space was limited in their office building. The hotel was amazing. If
our hotel was a 5-star, this one was at
Two Motorola executives were there for the
presentation. Biao was the VP of
Corporate Communications. He was a China
and spoke perfect English with a deep British accent.
Lee was VP of Human Resources. He
also spoke fluent English.
They gave us a brief overview of the cellular
in China. The market is only about 30% saturated right
now, which surprised me. It seems like
everyone in Beijing
is talking on a cell phone. The youth
market is huge. Most teenagers buy a new
phone approximately every 3 months. Kids
have a lot of disposable income. The
teenagers of today are the second generation of China’s
one-child policy. None of them have any
brothers or sisters or
aunts or uncles or cousins. Each of them
is not only an only child, but an only grandchild to two sets of
grandparents. Chinese children are
therefore very spoiled.
The latest things in Chinese phones are pen-based
phones. These phones have a large touch
screen and a stylus. You can write on
the touch screen with the stylus, and the phone translates it into text. This is a huge improvement in Chinese text
messaging. Text messaging in English is
pretty straightforward. You have the 10
phone buttons to cover 26 letters.
Chinese has over 16,000 different characters.
Previously, in order to send a text message
in Chinese, you had to type the word in regular English letters
phonetically. Then the phone would make
it into a Chinese character. This is
cumbersome, since there are so many sounds in the Chinese language that
don’t translate into English. Chinese
text messaging has almost become a completely different language, which
very interesting. The pen-based phones
eliminate the need for this. You can
just write your message directly in Chinese.
Biao passed around the phone he’s currently using. It’s as thin as a RAZR phone, but has the
large touch screen. It also has a
feature that can scan a business card and import all of that info into
address book automatically. Pretty
Motorola is a huge brand in China,
and it’s considered very
prestigious to work for them. Every time
they have a job opening, they receive thousands of applications. Mitesh (in my class) works for Motorola. He’s a little bit psycho as far as his
company loyalty goes. He talks about
Motorola all the time. Every time he
sees an ad for Nokia or LG, he gets angry.
Manzoor swears that Mitesh has a Motorola chip implanted in his
he’s been assimilated into the Motorola collective.
I have to wonder what will happen to him when
he loses his job. It happens to all of
us sooner or later. I don’t think it’s
healthy to have that much loyalty in a company, because a company will
loyal to you.
After the Motorola meeting, we went back to the
for lunch. We ended up eating in another
noodle hut. I was not very hungry, so I
didn’t order noodles. I just had a plate
of veggies with some kind of spicey sauce.
After lunch, we went to our next meeting at the
Montreal. This was within walking
distance of our hotel. This meeting was
not very interesting to me. I have never
been too interested in the finance side of business, and investment
just isn’t too exciting to me.
When I got back to the hotel, I took my laptop up
Executive Lounge and worked on homework for awhile.
Then Happy Hour started, and some of my
classmates showed up. Then we all went
to a nice restaurant for Peking Duck.
We split into groups of 3 and took taxis to the
restaurant. Steppen and Jaime were in my
taxi. Steppen is a slightly crazy Korean
guy. I never see him without a drink in
his hand, and often also a cigar. In the
cab, we were discussing whether it was feasible to ship some stuff home
we didn’t have to take it to Thailand
with us. I asked Steppen, “How long does
it take for something to be shipped from Asia
to the States?” Steppen replied, “Only
about 6 or 7 days. I asked my wife to
ship me a bath towel yesterday, and I expect it to be waiting at the
hotel in Bangkok.” I said, “A what? A
Aren’t the towels in the hotel good enough for you?” “They’re too small,” he said.
“Steppen,” I said, “I’m at least 6 inches
taller than you, and the towels work fine for me.”
The whole towel issue became a standing joke.
At the Peking Duck restaurant, we were led to the
floor and down a long hallway. We passed
by a number of small, private rooms.
Apparently this restaurant was all private rooms.
In our room, we all sat down at 2 large,
round tables. We were served almost
family-style, everything except the duck.
had bought some wine, which the waitresses served.
Phil and Erica had met with Budweiser China
in the day, and they had brought a few large bottles of a new Bud
dinner: Bud Ultra. We
each got to sample it. Not so good.
Tastes a lot like water.
We made a number of toasts to Leon and Phil and
Erica. Then the Peking Duck was brought in. The chef carved it at the table, and then the
waitress showed us how to dip the pieces in sauce and wrap them up in a
After we finished eating, Steppen announced that
going out to have a cigar. I had been
telling Erica about his towel issue, and as he passed our table, she
gave him a
little crap about that. Steppen FREAKED
out, and yelled, “I DON’T HAVE TO DO WHAT YOU SAY!
YOU AIN’T MY MAMA!” And then he ran
from the room. I have no idea what that
was about. I guess he must have been drunk.
As we left the restaurant, we were handed a
that said, in English and Chinese, “Take me to Bar Street!”
We hadn’t really experienced any local
nightlife yet, so we hopped in a cab and handed the card to the driver. Bar
Street turned out to be a street lined with
pubs, and it seemed a little touristy.
We saw plenty of Americans and Europeans walking around. The first bar we entered had live
entertainment. Three Chinese girls were
singing along with recorded back-up music.
They sang songs in both English and Chinese, and they were
good. When they took a break, we tried
to talk to them, but it turned out that they really didn’t speak much
English. They were just imitating the
The next bar we tried was a little
place. Above the bar hung all kinds of
money from different countries, with writing on them.
I took out one US dollar and wrote on it,
“LFGSM 2006” and gave it to the bar tender to hang.
At this bar, I got a chance to talk to one of
my classmates, Jim, for the first time.
He works for Aon, which is a company that Mike has done a lot of
business with. Jim doesn’t work with the
consulting side that Mike worked with, though.
He does something with engineering and fire protection systems. He does a lot of work with the city of Chicago. We figured out that he probably works with
our friend Aric. Small world.
I also learned that Jim had a daughter who
was 25 years old – only 4 years younger than me. I
had no idea he was old enough to have a 25
year old daughter!
We moved on to one final bar.
It was a really nice lounge-type place with
plush red furniture. They had a really
nice bathroom, too. At this bar, I got
to talk with another classmate, Pete. Pete
had lived in Belgium
for 2.5 years, on an assignment from his company. While
there, he had met his fiancé, a Hungarian. She
now lived with him in Chicago.
She was keeping her EU citizenship so that they would always
option of living either in the US
At some point in the evening, we started playing
How Old I Am” game. I guessed everyone’s
age within one year. For my age, I got
guesses of 38, 36, and 33. There was a
lot of back-pedaling when I revealed my real age.
Very interesting day.
I got to learn a lot about my classmates.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Today is my last day in Beijing!
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been away from home for almost a
I awoke early in the morning, and went to the
center for awhile. Then I had to pack
and drop my checked baggage off in the lobby.
was going to take it to the airport for us.
After breakfast, we set out for our final Beijing company
visit. For each of these company visits,
has been assigned to research the firm ahead of time, and kind of lead
Q&A. Then they give a “debrief” of
their key takeaways from the meeting when we return to the bus. Today was my turn to be the debriefer.
The company we were visiting is called CMEC. I had checked out their website ahead of
time. Basically, they export equipment
and heavy machinery from China
to other countries. The website detailed
a couple of projects they had worked on.
They had actually exported a few entire power plants – they
of the equipment and trained the personnel and set up the plants in
CMEC’s office was in a large high rise building. I was surprised to see a lot of people in the
office wearing jeans. This was the first
time I’d seen any business people wearing anything other than a suit
and tie in
China. We were led into a multi-purpose room for the
presentation. It had a kitchen, a TV,
some video games, a bunch of chairs set up theater-style, and a
screen. We were seated in the chairs,
and a young Chinese woman introduced herself as some kind of VP and
The woman’s English was not very good. I don’t fault her for that.
I do fault her for her lousy
presentation. I am so sick and tired of
our over-reliance on crappy Power Point presentations.
All of her slides stated things like mission
statements and company visions. “To
leverage our strengths to become one of the top firms in the nation…” blah, blah, blah. I
hate having to sit through that kind of
crap. I think that most mission and
vision statements are so broad that they are practically meaningless. I also think that most of the ideas set forth
in these statements should be a given – yeah, no kidding you want to
your strengths – now cut to the chase and tell me something interesting
We went through about 20 slides while the woman
slowly in broken English. They were all
high and lofty statements about what a fabulous company they were
CMEC. It was excruciating.
The presentation did not give us any clue as
to what the company actually did.
After she finished, she opened the floor to
questions. No one had any, probably
because no one had
figured out what business this company was actually in.
I started asking some open-ended, leading
questions based on what I’d learned from their website earlier. I kept trying to get her to expand upon some
of the projects I’d seen on the web. She
really didn’t bite on that. She really
didn’t give us any interesting information.
We got back to the bus and I gave my debrief. Most of the others students’ debriefs have
been a quick re-hashing of the basic facts, and then highlighting of
found most interesting, followed by a little discussion of the
what we’d learned.
Since we really didn’t receive any facts at this
took a slightly different approach to my debrief. I
started out by explaining what this company
actually does based on my web research.
Then I gave a nice little monologue on how much I detest these
generalized presentations. If I had to
guess, I would have said that this crappy way of doing presentations
American phenomenon. I found it
interesting that we saw the same thing happening in China.
After the company visit, we returned to the hotel
packing. We checked out and piled onto
the bus to head to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.
watched the city through the window as we drove through the streets of Beijing for the
time. I was sad to leave.
I had really gotten to like this city. When
we had first arrived, everything had
seemed so strange – all I saw were the differences.
Now it was just another city. Not
so very different from what I had always
known. I loved the Chinese people. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, and
they all seemed to love Americans.
As we neared the airport, Erica stood up at the
front of the
bus to say good bye to Leon. She
didn’t make it through her first sentence
before she burst into tears. She sobbed
and sobbed. She told us how Leon
was such a
good friend, and she couldn’t stand to leave.
Erica is kind of a drama queen.
passed out his business cards to everyone on the bus.
They had his email address, mobile phone
number, and then simply said, “Leon Liao:
A Friend in Beijing.” Sweet.
The airport was a zoo.
We made it through the initial customs screening pretty quickly. Then we had to wait in line at the Thai
Airways counter to check it. Thai
Airways does not do e-tickets. Above the
ticked counter were monitors that were counting down the time left
check-in started. Meanwhile, the line
was growing. We noticed that a bunch of
Thai employees were lined up against the wall at the side of the room. At the moment the countdown reached zero, they
all moved behind the counter and started checking us in.
I wonder if there is a law that they can’t
start before the appointed time.
The security screening was quick and easy, and we
the gate with more than an hour to spare.
I hadn’t had any lunch, so I went to find something to eat. There wasn’t much. There
wasn’t even a convenience store or
newsstand type place. I ended up at
Starbucks and got some coffee and a Danish.
We boarded the plane exactly on time.
It was a huge plane. Nine seats
across in the economy section, and
it had an upstairs. The flight
attendants were all Thai, and they were wearing traditional Thai
clothes: long silk skirts, blouses, and
their shoulders. That was a nice touch. They all spoke very good English.
Before we left the gate, they came around and
gave each of us a hot, damp wash cloth.
Then they collected the cloths and gave us each a little bottle
water. And this was in coach!
I can only imagine the treatment that the
First Class passengers received. They
did it all with a smile and a pleasant demeanor. This
was miles away from any service I’ve
received on any domestic airline. And it
really didn’t cost the airline anything extra.
airlines could take a lesson from this.
Even just having stewardesses who didn’t seem to hate thei lives
go a long way.
I slept for most of the 6 hour flight. I did wake up briefly for the meal, and it
was fantastic. It was spicy Thai beef
and rice. Nothing special, but it
actually tasted good! The stewardesses
took very good care of us for the entire flight.
When we landed in Bangkok, there was not jetway;
we had to walk down
the stairs onto the tarmac. The heat hit
me like a brick. It was 10 at night, but
it must have been 85 degrees with high humidity.
We cleared immigration in no time, picked up our
bags, and piled
onto a bus. We were whisked quickly to
the Amari Watergate Hotel. The hotel was
just as beautiful as the Tianlun Dynasty in Beijing.
There was a bit of a snafu with the rooms. They
had given many of us rooms with a single
bed instead of two beds, but they quickly remedied the situation.
I collapsed into bed and fell asleep.
Thursday, March 9, 2006
BANGKOK! Oh my gosh!
I don’t think I have the words to adequately describe this city.
The first thing you notice is the people. The Thai people are the sweetest, kindest,
most welcoming people I’ve ever met, and they always have a smile on
their faces. Their way of saying hello,
literally means, “your well-being is my concern.” How
The next thing you notice is the traffic. I thought Chicago traffic was bad.
Then I thought Beijing
traffic was bad. I now realize that I had
never seen real
traffic problems before I arrived in Bangkok. Bangkok
has some serious traffic issues. Every
street looks like a parking lot, at all hours of the day.
Even coming from the airport at 1 in the
morning, there was traffic. Sometimes it
takes 4 or 5 green lights to get through an intersection.
It seems that motorcycles do not have to
follow any traffic regulations. They zip
between the cars, along the shoulder, and across sidewalks at
speed. Motorcycle is the only quick way
to get anywhere in Bangkok. There are even motorcycle taxis.
The motorcycle taxi drivers all wear bright
orange vests, and they carry an extra helmet for their passengers. They are about twice as expensive as a
regular cab – but taking a regular cab anywhere in Bangkok only costs about $2 to being
The other important thing you notice about Bangkok is the
weather. We were there in the cool season,
so it was
only in the 90’s during the day, and 80’s at night.
The hot season is much worse. (Actually,
someone told me that there are
three seasons in Bangkok: Hot, Damn Hot, and Bloody Hot.
is a very dirty, smoggy city, and the heat probably plays some part in
it. Even on the clearest days, you can see
haze on the horizon. After walking
through the city all day, you have to clean the dirt off your face. Many people wear surgical-type masks because
Our hotel was located on the corner of Petchaburi Street
and Ratchaprarop Avenue. These are two major streets, and there is a
street market surrounding the intersection and extending about 2 blocks
directions. The street vendors set up
their stalls on both sides of the wide sidewalk, which reduces the
walking space to allow only single-file passage. There
is always a crowd hurrying through the
market, which makes getting around the neighborhood slow and crowded. I didn’t mind, though. I
enjoyed being in all the hustle and bustle
of the city.
The street vendors are selling everything from
jewelry to Buddha statues to grilled squid-on-a-stick.
I did not see anyone selling fake watches or
purses, as they were in Beijing. The vendors were not as pushy as the Chinese
vendors. It was fairly easy to walk
through the market almost totally unmolested.
Besides the street vendors, there were also lots
and restaurants in our neighborhood. We
had McDonald’s and KFC. We had
Swenson’s, a British ice cream chain that looked similar to Oberweis. There was Mr. Pizza, serving the Thai version
of deep-dish pizza. (Thai deep-dish is
not quite the same as Chicago
deep-dish. The crust is pretty
undercooked – close to raw. Some of my
classmates tried ordering their pizza “well done,” but I don’t think
people really understood.) There was a
on every block (literally), which sold unidentifiable snack foods with
written only in Thai, as well as beer and prepared, hot foods. There were little massage parlors everywhere. And tons and tons of tailor shops.
Directly across the street from our hotel were two
malls. One was the “fashion mall.” It actually reminded me of the market we’d
visited in Beijing. It was many stories tall, and divided up into
tiny “shops” that were really more like booths than real stores. Each one had a single person working in it
(almost always a girl), who would call to you as you walked by. Most of the clothes sold there were cheaply
made, and most of them didn’t fit me.
I’m a little bigger than the average Thai.
The other mall was the electronics mall. Imagine an entire shopping mall with nothing
but electronics shops. Computers,
printers, cameras, computer components, software, and on the bottom
DVDs and CDs, most of them pirated. It
was a computer geek’s paradise.
We started our first full day in Bangkok with an
early breakfast. The buffet at the Bangkok
hotel was just as good as Beijing. Then the charter bus took us to our sister
When we arrived at Chula, the conference room
ready for us, so Erica told us to explore the area around the building. The campus looked a lot like any typical
college campus, with a mix of modern and traditional buildings. There was a pool with a little fountain in it
in front of our building, which was pretty.
Directly in front of the building was a Thai
house.” A spirit house is a little house
on a pillar. Every home in Thailand
one. The spirits of your ancestors
reside there and bring good luck to your home.
You are supposed to put offerings of food and drink near the
Across the street was a lake with a traditional
in the middle of it. Thai houses are
built on stilts, due to the flooding that occurs yearly in Thailand. This house had been moved to the university
from the countryside, and placed in the pond to represent what it would
looked like in the rainy season. The
house had a floor and roof, but no walls.
Walls really aren’t necessary in a climate where the temperature
drops below 70 degrees. The kitchen was
in a small, separate building away from the main house.
Thai cooking uses a lot of spices and is
smoky and smelly; therefore, you don’t want your kitchen too close to
We had about ten minutes to explore the campus
surrounding our building. By the end of
that time, I was already damp with sweat, even though I was wearing a
with no hose and a short-sleeved blouse.
I was very glad when we were called inside the building. However, I didn’t get the relief I expected. I found that in Thailand, the
typically not enough to actually cool the room; it just takes the edge
We were seated around a large table in a
and a 50-ish Thai woman addressed us in perfect English.
She was Professor Surapeepan Chatraporn, our
host at Chula
She welcomed us to Thailand,
to Chula. She introduced the vice
president of the university, Professor Doctor Jeerasak Noppakun. Professor Jeerasak welcomed us to Thailand, to Bangkok, and to Chula.
He gave a long speech about the honor of
having us there. At the end, each of us
presented with a name tag displaying our name in both English and Thai,
and a Chulalongkorn
Professor Jeerasak left after the welcome
Professor Surapeepan seated herself at our table. Throughout
the welcome ceremony, she had been
very formal, always addressing Professor Doctor Jeerasak Noppakun by
name – as well as our Professor Doctor Phil Corse and our Dean Miss
Wilke. Once Professor Jeerasak had left
the room, and Professor Surapeepan was seated with us, she opened up
and we saw
the real Professor Surapeepan. She was
one of the warmest, sweetest people I’d ever met. She
had a contagious smile, and I instantly
felt at home with her. It was impossible
not to believe her when she told us how thrilled she was to have us at
university. And she had a great sense of
humor and was a little bit of a smart-ass.
Professor Surapeepan introduced us to her
assistants: Bua (a girl) and Mee (a boy). They would be our tour guides, interpreters,
and general helpers while we were in Bangkok. We
were given their cell phone numbers, as
well as Surapeepan’s.
Professor Surapeepan then gave us an introduction
university, and to Thailand. Chulalongkorn
after the king who founded it. It was
the largest university in Thailand.
Although it was a public school, there were
strict entrance requirements. We were to
feel honored that we had been chosen to be guest students without
take the entrance exam.
is one of the only countries in Asia
never been under colonial rule, a fact of which the Thais are very
proud. The word “Thai” means freedom. The name of the country was changed from Siam to Thailand to represent a
the old with the new. The word “Thai”
refers to the free history of the country, while the word “land,” which
course is not a Thai word, refers to the acceptance and welcoming of
is a constitutional monarchy, like Great Britain.
They have a king, but also an elected Prime
Minister and a Parliament. The king is
thought to be a direct descendant of Buddha – an incarnation of God
a demigod. The current king, Rama IX, is
loved and adored by all his people.
Originally, his brother, Rama VIII, had been the king, but he
murdered after a very short reign. His
murder was never solved, and is something of a controversy. As King Rama VIII had no children, his
brother was crowned King Rama IX.
King Rama IX is a king of the people.
He was born in the United States, while his
were in graduate school there. He is the
first king to wear Western-style clothes, speak English, and adopt
Western customs. He has spent his reign
particularly the poor rural areas.
Although he has no political power, he has done a lot for the
people of Thailand.
King Rama IX has four children:
A son, the Crown Prince, a daughter, the
Crown Princess, and then two younger sons.
The Crown Prince is not very popular with the people, but the
Princess is. She is always by her
father’s side, and actively participates in all of his pursuits. Always, the law had said that a woman could
not rule Thailand,
but King Rama IX changed this law. He
altered the law so that the oldest child of the king would be his
regardless of gender. However, his son
is his oldest child, so he will be king.
But if something were to happen to the Crown Prince, the role
pass to the Princess, not to the next-youngest son.
Following Professor Surapeepan’s introduction to Thailand,
had a tour of the campus. Then we had a
very nice Thai lunch at a nearby restaurant.
After lunch, it was time to meet our clients for the first time.
Chula had arranged for three local companies to
the school for our consulting project.
Each company had a problem, which we were supposed to solve and
to the class on our last day in Bangkok. Phil
had warned us that the clients might not
be very forth-coming with their problems.
He warned that in Thai culture, business is not done until both
get to know each other. He told us not
to be surprised if nothing got done until late at night, over beers and
karaoke. He warned us that this would
not be at all like doing business with Americans, and that it could get
frustrating. The clients would most
likely not be willing to share information right away, and we would
coax it out of them; peeling back the layers and trying to find out
Bua led our group (Margaret, Steppan, Jaime,
Mitesh, and myself) to the classroom in which we would be meeting with
client. We sat nervously in the desks
awaiting her arrival. I suggested that
we turn the desks to face each other to be more intimate.
The others disagreed. They thought
that due to the formal Thai
culture, that might not appropriate. Bua
came back into the room and suggested the same thing, so we ended up
desks into a circle.
We waited and waited.
Finally, our client, Visutha Verasucha arrived, a half-hour late. She was a lovely, 40-ish Thai woman, wearing
a suit and hose (!). Like most Thais,
she was very soft-spoken and reserved.
We all introduced ourselves and asked her to tell us about
Miss Visutha had lived in Bangkok all her life, but had gotten
a MBA at
UCLA. Therefore, she spoke very good
English. She was General Manager of a
medical supply importer/distributor.
(General Manager is the same thing as CEO.)
Her company partners with foreign medical
device manufacturers, and imports their products into Thailand. They employ a sales force of 15 people, who
sell the products to hospitals throughout Thailand.
The products are things like operating room
lights, operating tables, monitors, and other hospital equipment.
Her company had been in existence for about 7
years. In the last few years, they’d been
very quickly, mostly because they’d added a few big-ticket items to
portfolio. The problem was, most
hospitals didn’t have to buy big-ticket items very often.
Operating tables normally had a life of at
least 10 years. Once they had outfitted
every hospital in Thailand
with an operating table, what’s next?
Miss Visutha wanted a plan for the future of her company. Should she add new products?
Pursue some other strategy?
This meeting was so contrary to everything Phil
had told us
about working with Thais. Working with
Visutha was just like working with any American. Perhaps
it was because she had spent a couple
of years in the US. She was very forthcoming with all the
details, told us up-front what her problem was and what she wanted from
answered the million questions we asked.
We asked her about going out for dinner that evening, but she
interested. We agreed to meet again the
next afternoon so that she could show us her company’s sales brochures
The entire meeting took less than two hours, and
didn’t want to go out to dinner, we suddenly had the afternoon and
free! We decided to reconvene as a group
that evening to discuss how we would handle the project, and then we
to the hotel and hit the pool.
The pool area was on the roof of the hotel, and it
beautiful. The pool itself was small,
but the area was landscaped nicely, and there was plenty of space to
the sun. There was also a ping-pong
table and a bar and a little restaurant.
When I arrived at the pool, I saw Phil and Erica lounging in the
sun. I spoke with them briefly, and told
them how well our meeting with Visutha had gone, and how easy working
had been. Phil seemed surprised but
happy about this.
I spent about an hour laying in the sun – half an
hour on my
front and half an hour on my back. I
wasn’t sure how strong the sun was, and I’ve had bad experiences with
underestimating it in the Caribbean. A sweet Thai girl brought me a cold, wet wash
cloth several times, and wiping down my face and neck with it was very
A group of my classmates had gathered around the
and I joined them when I was done in the sun.
They were drinking Tiger Beer, a local brew.
I had one beer, and then returned to my room
to shower and get ready for our group meeting.
We met in the hotel lobby, since that is the only
the hotel with free wifi. We had a lot
of questions about the medical device market in Thailand,
and we wanted to be able
to do research while we met. We hammered
out a basic outline of what we wanted our proposal to look like, made a
additional questions for Visutha, and assigned some action items. I was rather distracted throughout the entire
meeting. The wifi connection was slow
and irritating, and I was extremely hungry.
I probably shouldn’t have drunk a beer on an empty stomach.
After the meeting, we learned that some of our
had gathered in the hotel bar for dinner.
The bar was in the basement of the hotel, and was kind of like a
Bennigan’s or Friday’s restaurant, although they served some Thai food. We joined them, and spent the rest of the
evening there. The bar had a band that
covers of American music and took requests.
Margaret spent most of the night dancing, and trying to get the
us to dance with her. She had quite a
bit to drink. By about 11pm I was
getting pretty tired, and left to go to bed.
Most of my classmates had left by then.
Margaret, Peter, and Jaime stayed behind. Apparently,
after I left, Margaret started
talking to some guys from Nigeria,
and danced and drank with them until the wee hours of the morning. (OK, I guess the hours couldn’t have been too
wee, because everything closes at 1am in Bangkok.)
And thus ended my first day in the amazing city of
Friday, March 10, 2006
Our second morning in Thailand
got off to a slow
start. In the hotel lobby, we waited and
waited for Peter to make his appearance.
Finally, Phil called his room – and woke him up.
He had overslept and somehow missed the
wake-up call that Erica made sure was scheduled for each of us every
morning. (Peter did not have a room
I thought this whole thing was a little strange. Peter had been at the hotel bar with us the
night before, but I didn’t think he had been drinking very much. And Margaret reported that he had left for
his room before she did.
Much later, I learned a very interesting fact. Another classmate, Jim, had been having
trouble sleeping and was spending his nights in Bangkok in the hotel lobby, taking
of the free wifi. The night before Peter
overslept, Jim saw him returning to the hotel around 3am with a Thai
could only have been one of the infamous Bangkok
women of the night. I was shocked. Peter had spoken so highly of his live-in
fiancé when we were in Beijing. I’m not judging him, but Thailand has one of the highest HIV
rates outside of Africa.
That is scary, regardless of your moral
position on the subject. It’s a good
thing that the hotel provided free condoms on our nightstands!
Jim had started keeping track of the nightly
traffic in and
out of the hotel. The ritual went
something like this: It was pretty quiet
in the hotel lobby in the wee hours of the morning.
He would hear the elevator bell chime, then
hear the click-click-click of high heels across the lobby floor. He’d look up from his computer and see a Thai
working girl hurrying across the room, rummaging in her purse. By the time she reached the door, she had
found her cell phone and was making a call.
Each woman seemed to go through this same process on her way out. Based on the number of women Jim saw leaving
in a particular period of time, and the number of rooms in our hotel,
extrapolated that approximately 17% of the hotel rooms in Bangkok had a
whore in them at any one time. Yikes!
At any rate, we finally arrived at Chula, sans
Peter. (He took a cab and arrived later.) Professor Surapeepan began the day by giving
us each some flowers that she had picked out of her garden.
Our first lecture of the morning was on the Thai
situation. We had visited Bangkok in the
a very interesting time in Thai politics.
The current Prime Minister was not very popular.
He had been involved in some business
dealings, on which he had not paid taxes, that were not very becoming
government official. There were a lot of
protests going on, calling for him to be removed from office. Parliament had been consumed with the debate,
so the Prime Minister dissolved the Parliament.
We were supposed to be visiting Parliament on Tuesday, but now
like this wouldn’t happen.
The PM had been elected mostly due to his support
rural community. Rural Thais liked him
because he had instituted a national healthcare program.
Up to that point, no healthcare had been
available for poor or rural people in Thailand. Now any Thai
could receive healthcare for a co-pay of only 30 baht, which is less
US dollar. While this seems like a good
idea on the surface, the funding for this program is not there.
Our second lecture was about the Thai economy, but
up really talking more about the political situation, since it was such
topic. I was shocked to learn that the
vast majority of Thais do not pay income taxes.
Only people earning more than 15,000 baht annually pay taxes. The median income in Thailand
only 8000 baht. How the heck is this
government supporting itself?!
After lunch, we had a chance to meet with our
again. Visutha had brought some of her
sales materials for us to look at. Her
company did not publish any of its own sales or marketing materials. All she had brought were the brochures that
were put out by the medical equipment manufacturers.
They were all in English. Her lack
of establishment of a brand for her
own company was a big problem, in our opinion, as well as the lack of
information in the local language.
Aftrr returning to the hotel, a few of us decided
to do some
shopping at the street market. We
wandered around, looking for Thai souvenirs.
I bought some silk pillow covers for throw pillows.
As we meandered down Petchaburi Street, someone
glance at a tailor shop and see Mitesh and Manzoor sitting inside. We went in to see what they were doing. They were having suits made.
This shop would make a men’s suit for about
$75-$100. What a steal!
Soon we were all looking at fabric samples
and studying catalogs.
The tailor shop was owned by an Indian family,
which was why
Mitesh and Manzoor had originally been drawn inside.
The guys spoke Hindi with the shop owners the
entire time, although the owners did speak English as well.
Jim and Jaime ended up ordering three suits and
shirts each. Kris and Jamie each ordered
two suits with both skirts and pants. (I
should mention here, so that there is no confusion, that Jaime and
two different people. Jaime is a boy,
and although he was born in Chicago,
he is of Columbian descent. Technically,
his name is pronounced like Hy-may.
However, since he’s lived in the US all his life, he has
correcting people and now uses the pronunciation Jay-mee.
Jamie (whose name is spelled slightly
differently than Jaime) is a girl, and also pronounces her name
I did not really want to order a suit. I already have two suits, and I rarely wear
either of them, since my company is business-casual.
Instead, I ended up ordering a silk
Chinese-style jacket with matching silk pants.
I was measured by a young Thai man.
At least he looked Thai. I
noticed that he spoke Hindi with the shop owners. Later,
Mitesh explained to me that he had
been working for this shop for years. He
had taught the owners to speak Thai, and they had taught him to speak
Hindi. (They all spoke English.) They called the young man Sandeep, a common
Indian name. I thought this was really
funny. They had given him a random
Indian name because his Thai name was too hard for them to pronounce –
like we might call a foreigner Joe or Bob if he had a difficult name.
Later that evening, Margaret convinced me to
return to the
hotel bar. I had kind of wanted to go
out to see some of the local nightlife, but I was starting to feel like
coming down with a cold. I decided it
would be better to stay at the hotel so that I could retire early if
necessary. The hotel bar was having a
Salsa Night. Margaret loved salsa.
So Margaret and I ended up sitting at the bar
together. She found some people to dance
with, but I am
not a big dancer, so I just watched.
Then she tried to convince me to do Tequila shots.
She liked to do “Tequila Boom-Boom” shots,
which is something she picked up while living in Italy. You take a shot glass half-full of Tequila,
and fill it the rest of the way with club soda.
Then you put your hand over the glass and bang it twice on the
bar. This causes the drink to become foamy. Then you drink it down. I
did one of these shots with her, and was
not too impressed. It wasn’t bad, but it
wasn’t anything special.
On the other side of the bar from where we were
three middle-aged British ladies. They
were slightly overweight, slightly frumpy.
I had noticed them just sitting there, silently watching the
dancing, not even really talking to each other.
I started to imagine their story.
They were three moms from a suburb of London.
They wanted to get out and do something wild and crazy, so they
came to Bangkok
for a few
days. But they didn’t know how to be
wild and crazy, so they sat in the hotel bar, watching a mediocre cover
not talking to anyone, and wondering why this wasn’t as fun as it had
back home in the burbs.
Meanwhile, Margaret continued to try to convince
me to do
more shots, but I wasn’t too interested.
Then she pointed at the British ladies and said, “Do you want to
end up like
that?” Well, of course I didn’t. I am not as young as I used to be, but I hope
I have not lost all ability to have fun.
So I did a few more shots and danced with her a little. Later that night, we met some businessmen
who bought us drinks. Margaret ended up
drinking way too much and got sick after we returned to our room. There is a fine line between knowing how to
have a good time, and being a lush. I
think Margaret and I each teetered on opposite sides of that line that
This is something that I think about quite a bit
approach the ripe old age of 30. The
things I do for fun now are definitely not the same as what I did ten
just 5 years ago. Every once in awhile,
someone wants to relive their youth, and hosts a “Girls’ Night Out” at
club in the city, or a drunkfest at a football game in Champaign.
I have found that these events have mixed results.
Sometimes they are fun; sometimes they are
lame and boring. But I always end up
thinking the same thing at the end: I’m
not as young as I used to be. Even if I
have fun, I wake up with a hangover – and that is something that didn’t
too often in college. And if I don’t
have fun, I always wonder, were this evening’s activities really lame,
or have I
just become really lame?
I am definitely not ready to throw away my
and resign myself to a life of Friday night Prime Time (every week) and
vacations in Door County instead of Jamaica
and Vegas and Bangkok. I hope I’m never ready to go that way
completely. But more and more often it
seems like more fun to stay home on a Friday or Saturday instead of
effort to go out. And I’m sure things
would change even more if I ever had kids.
It’s important to be a grown-up sometimes, but I think it’s also
important to remember how to have fun, and I really hope that I never
Saturday, March 11, 2006
As it turned out, I was right when I thought I might be getting sick on
Friday night. I felt really lousy when I woke up on Saturday
morning – and the tequila shots probably hadn’t helped. My head
was throbbing, my nose was running, my throat was scratchy, and I
thought that I might have a bit of a fever. I stayed in bed as
long as possible, and missed breakfast. I really didn’t feel like
We were supposed to be going to Ayuttya, the former capital of Thailand
to look at some temples and ruins. Then we were going to take a
boat ride back to Bangkok. I thought I would be able to tough it
out, so I didn’t tell Phil and Erica that I wasn’t feeling well.
The bus ride to Ayuttya took over an hour. I have always gotten
airsick, but I had rarely gotten carsick before this trip. I have
felt sick every time we’ve taken a long trip in the bus on this
trip. It seems so bouncy. The roads don’t physically look
like there is anything wrong, so I wonder if they do suspensions
differently in Asia. Anyway, I was feeling really bad by the time
we got to Ayuttya.
We piled off the bus and went inside a little museum. Our tour
guide, Terry, led the group around, explaining exhibits on the history
of the former capital. I was tired and having trouble paying
attention. I wandered away from the group and sat down on a
bench. Phil came over to see what was wrong, and I told him that
I was getting a cold. He told me that if I wanted to take a cab
back to the hotel, I could, but I needed to decide soon. Further
on in the trip, it would be harder to find a cab. I told him that
I thought I could make it. He gave me some Airborne. It’s a
super-concentrate of vitamin C and some other vitamins that is supposed
to boost your immune system if you take it when you first feel a cold
coming on. It’s a tablet that dissolves in water, kind of like
Alka-Seltzer. It is orange-flavored, and it made me even more
nauseous than I was before.
We got back on the bus for a 20 minute ride down the road to look at
some ruins. Terry told us that we had 2 hours to look around on
our own. I guess he must have been telling the group about the
ruins back at the museum. Since I hadn’t stayed with the group, I
wasn’t too sure what I was looking at.
We walked along the edge of a wide lawn. Near the sidewalks
around the edges were vendors selling souvenirs. After we had
gotten past the vendors, we came to a large, crumbling wall with a gate
in it. This was the entrance to the ruins. Inside were
buildings in various states of decay. The ones near the gate were
in the best shape. They were round, beehive-like buildings with
tall spires on top. They were made of gray stone. Each had
a single door, which was about one story above the ground. Steep
stairs led up to the door. We were allowed to climb up the
stairs, but the doors were sealed shut.
As I walked further into the ruins, I came upon similar buildings that
were in worse and worse shape. Finally I came to a point where
the buildings were little more than piles of rubble. It was
extremely hot, and there was no shade. I don’t think I’ve ever
had to walk around in the sun with a fever before. It’s not
pleasant. I had a bottle of water, but my stomach was upset, so I
wasn’t really drinking it. Everyone was wandering around on their
own, and I kind of got away from the group. I walked and walked,
occasionally snapping a picture. Finally, I had had enough and
left the ruins area.
I walked back through the gate to the lawn with the vendors. I
looked at some of the stuff they were selling, but wasn’t really in the
mood to haggle. At one end of the lawn was the Buddha
temple. There seemed to be a lot of people going in and out of
it. I decided to go there, hoping that it would be
Wide marble steps led up to the temple. You had to take off your
shoes before ascending the stairs. I placed my shoes on a rack at
the bottom of the steps with the countless other pairs that had been
left there. I wondered for a moment about the chances of my shoes
being there when I got back, but no one else seemed to be concerned
I slowly climbed the stairs. The marble was very warm under my
bare feet. I stepped through the huge, dark door and into the
temple, and was totally floored by what I saw there. In front of
me was the biggest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the
fat-bellied Buddha from China. It was the Thai-style Buddha –
thin, sitting in the lotus position, wearing a pointed helmet. It
was seated on a pedestal. The pedestal was taller than the top of
my head – which is about 5 feet, 10 inches above the ground when I’m
barefoot. The very top of the Buddha’s helmet was at least 5
stories above the ground. The shear size of the thing was
breath-taking. I simply hadn’t expected to find anything so huge.
Many people were kneeling and bowing on the floor in front of the
Buddha. When Buddhists pray, they kneel on the floor with their
butts resting on their heels. They stretch their arms straight
above their heads, and then bend forward so that their foreheads touch
the floor and their arms are stretched out in front. This is what
the people were doing in front of the Buddha statue. Some of them
were holding cardboard canisters full of incense sticks. They
would shake the canisters and bang them against the ground until a
stick fell out. Then they would light the stick.
I stood and watched this scene for a few minutes, then tried to explore
the area around the statue. There wasn’t much else to see.
In one corner was a woman seated at a table, selling some sort of
literature written in Thai. In another corner was a kind of tree
with money paper-clipped all over it. Donations, I guess.
That was it. There weren’t any people on the sides of the statue
or behind it. Apparently you only worship Buddha from the front.
The temple was not air-conditioned, and it was stifling hot. The
heavy scent of incense was not helping, either. I left the temple
and retrieved my shoes. I stood on the lawn, trying to figure out
what to do next. I had almost an hour before we left. On
the opposite side of the temple from which I had come I saw a little
covered gazebo with benches in it. I decided to sit there, out of
the sun. As I approached it, I saw a little path leading down to
an area full of little tents. I decided to investigate.
The tent area was another little market, but it seemed to be
exclusively food. Each tent was selling something
different. Some of it looked good; some was unidentifiable.
I walked through for awhile, but some of the smells started to turn my
stomach. I left the way I had come, and sat down in the gazebo.
There were a few other people there, staying out of the sun. I
drank some of my water, ate a granola bar that I’d brought with me, and
ate some Tums. My stomach was still upset, my nose was running
non-stop, and my fever was raging. I felt completely crappy.
Finally, it was time to meet up and move on to our next
destination: the boat ride. I found Phil and told him that
I didn’t think that I was going to make it. I just felt too
lousy. He told me that it was no problem, and he’d ask Terry to
find a cab for me. It would be expensive to take a cab all the
way back to Bangkok, but I didn’t care at that point.
Terry thought that it would be easier to find a cab when we got to the
boat dock, so I rode the bus there with the others. When we
arrived, the others left for the boat, and Phil stayed behind with me
while Terry looked for a cab. I asked if there were a bathroom I
could use before I left. Terry asked the bus driver (who didn’t
speak English) to take me to a restroom. Phil walked with
me. I was taken to what looked like a kind of outdoor restaurant,
and led to the back. There were several free-standing toilet
stalls – or were they outhouses? What had I gotten myself
into? A Thai woman came over to me and smiled and said something
like, “Women’s bathroom,” and gestured towards one of the
outhouses. I reluctantly went inside. The entire structure,
including the floor, was made of wood, and held a single squatty
potty. Most squatty potties have an overhead tank with a chain to
pull for the flush, like an old-fashioned toilet. This one didn’t
have a tank. Instead, next to it was a kind of cistern with a
spigot over it. The cistern was already full of water, and there
was a plastic bowl floating in it. Apparently to flush, you used
to bowl to pour some water into the toilet.
Although the facilities were somewhat rudimentary, they were
immaculately clean, so I didn’t mind using them. When I left the
stall, the woman came running over and led me to a sink and gave me
some hand soap. Then she held a towel for me and dried my
hands. Five-star treatment. You’ve gotta love the
Thais. I gave her 10 baht for a tip.
Phil put me in a cab, and Terry made sure that the driver understood
which hotel I needed. I slept the entire drive back to
Bangkok. I felt considerably better when we arrived. I went
to the mall across the street from the hotel and got some noodles from
the food court. After eating, I went to bed and slept for a few
more hours, until the others returned.
That evening, most of us had to go to the tailor shop for a
fitting. My jacket and pants were coming along nicely. I
had a few things I wanted changed, but I was really happy with the
progress. Everyone else seemed happy with theirs as well.
Except Kris. She wasn’t happy with anything. In fact, she
claimed that some of her clothes were completely different from what
she had ordered. The tailor showed her the order slip which
explained exactly what she had told him, but she still insisted that it
wasn’t correct. Although the tailor was doing everything he could
to try to fix the situation, she threw a little temper-tantrum.
It was actually kind of embarrassing. I really couldn’t believe
that she thought that that was an acceptable way to act.
Finally, they thought that they had it all worked out. Kris was
going to have to come back again the next day for another
fitting. She ended up ordering an additional pair of pants and a
few blouses. I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to order more
when she was so unhappy with what she had seen so far.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. I spent it in the lobby
using the internet, and in my room reading. I went to bed early
and slept for almost 12 hours.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Monday, March 13, 2006
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Friday, March 17, 2006
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Sunday, March 19, 2006
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