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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
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