Return to Main Page

Go back to March 8

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, “sawadee,” literally means, “your well-being is my concern.”  How sweet!

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 break-neck 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 with!

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.  Ha-ha.)  Bangkok is a very dirty, smoggy city, and the heat probably plays some part in it.  Even on the clearest days, you can see a dark 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 of this.

Our hotel was located on the corner of Petchaburi Street and Ratchaprarop Avenue.  These are two major streets, and there is a large street market surrounding the intersection and extending about 2 blocks in all directions.  The street vendors set up their stalls on both sides of the wide sidewalk, which reduces the actual 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 underwear to 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 of stores 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 the pizza people really understood.)  There was a 7-Eleven on every block (literally), which sold unidentifiable snack foods with packages 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 level – 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 school, Chulalongkorn University.

When we arrived at Chula, the conference room wasn’t quite 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 “spirit house.”  A spirit house is a little house on a pillar.  Every home in Thailand has 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 house.

Across the street was a lake with a traditional Thai house 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 have 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 never 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 your living quarters.

We had about ten minutes to explore the campus immediately surrounding our building.  By the end of that time, I was already damp with sweat, even though I was wearing a skirt 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 air-conditioning is typically not enough to actually cool the room; it just takes the edge off the humidity.

We were seated around a large table in a conference room, and a 50-ish Thai woman addressed us in perfect English.  She was Professor Surapeepan Chatraporn, our host at Chula U.  She welcomed us to Thailand, to Bangkok, and 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 was presented with a name tag displaying our name in both English and Thai, and a Chulalongkorn University lapel pin.

Professor Jeerasak left after the welcome ceremony, and Professor Surapeepan seated herself at our table.  Throughout the welcome ceremony, she had been very formal, always addressing Professor Doctor Jeerasak Noppakun by his full name – as well as our Professor Doctor Phil Corse and our Dean Miss Erica 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 her 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 to the university, and to Thailand.  Chulalongkorn University was named 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 having to take the entrance exam.

Thailand is one of the only countries in Asia that has 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 fusion of the old with the new.  The word “Thai” refers to the free history of the country, while the word “land,” which of course is not a Thai word, refers to the acceptance and welcoming of modernity Western culture.

Thailand 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 himself, or 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 was 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 parents were in graduate school there.  He is the first king to wear Western-style clothes, speak English, and adopt other Western customs.  He has spent his reign touring Thailand, 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 Crown 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 successor, 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 will now pass to the Princess, not to the next-youngest son.

Following Professor Surapeepan’s introduction to Thailand, we 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 partner with the school for our consulting project.  Each company had a problem, which we were supposed to solve and present 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 parties 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 very frustrating.  The clients would most likely not be willing to share information right away, and we would have to coax it out of them; peeling back the layers and trying to find out what their problem was.

Bua led our group (Margaret, Steppan, Jaime, Manzoor, Mitesh, and myself) to the classroom in which we would be meeting with our 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 moving the 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 herself and her company.

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 small 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 growing very quickly, mostly because they’d added a few big-ticket items to their 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 us, and answered the million questions we asked.  We asked her about going out for dinner that evening, but she wasn’t interested.  We agreed to meet again the next afternoon so that she could show us her company’s sales brochures and other information.

The entire meeting took less than two hours, and since she didn’t want to go out to dinner, we suddenly had the afternoon and evening free!  We decided to reconvene as a group that evening to discuss how we would handle the project, and then we returned to the hotel and hit the pool.

The pool area was on the roof of the hotel, and it was beautiful.  The pool itself was small, but the area was landscaped nicely, and there was plenty of space to soak up 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 with her 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 refreshing.

A group of my classmates had gathered around the pool bar, 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 place in 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 list of 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 classmates 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 played covers of American music and took requests.  Margaret spent most of the night dancing, and trying to get the rest of 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 Bangkok.

Go to March 10