I think I’ll just talk about a few days at a time for each post.
January 4, 2020 – Day 1
It seems I have forgotten exactly how much I detest summer (it’s currently winter in Thailand, but the climate does nothing to suggest this). My skin does not take well to sunscreen. I packed long travel pants and mid-sleeve t-shirts to avoid having to apply sunscreen and bug repellent, but I also get rashes from heat and sweat. There is no winning.
We arrived in Bangkok this morning at around 12:30am. After the grueling 14-hour flight to Beijing, it was another 5 hours on the connecting flight from Beijing to Bangkok followed by a 1-hour trip via van (albeit a very nice van) to the Bundit Parlor apartments where we would be staying in Salaya, near the Mahidol University campus. I am still not seeing the wonders of globetrotting.
At around 2:00am, all of us students went to one of the many 7-Elevens (two or three on the same street for some reason) to buy bottled water, which unfortunately doesn’t quite fit the sustainability theme. On the other hand, brushing your teeth with bottled water really does teach you to conserve resources.
Despite going to sleep at 4:30am, I woke up three hours later at 7:30am, then joined a couple others on a walk around the area. Dogs filled every nook and cranny on the roadside, under parked cars, and on the doormat in front of every 7-Eleven (maybe for the AC?).
We encountered some interesting things along the way, such as a 6.11 vending machine, many rooster statues (we later found out that the statues are used as offerings, and that roosters were pets in ancient times), and much royal family imagery.
Upon returning to the hostel, I consumed a mung bean bun from – you guessed it – 7-Eleven.
In the afternoon, we all walked over to the Institute of Nutrition at Mahidol University to meet with the professor, Dr. Matthews, and go over the itinerary and assignments for the program. I appreciated that the campus incorporated nature into its landscaping, either intentionally or unintentionally. The trees, ponds, and open fields provide habitats for all manner of wildlife, from songbirds and storks to geckos and monitor lizards. I love fun animals. The colorful flowers around campus were also quite eye-catching.
We visited a nearby market later in the day. It was quite large. Throughout the maze of indoor food stalls, vendors were selling a wide variety of produce and fish (dead and alive), as well as cooked food. The outdoor stalls sold largely clothing and trinkets. I wanted to try some of the cooked food, but I couldn’t decide what I should get and in the end bought nothing. Perhaps later. There are also night markets all over the place, so access to street food is easy.
Speaking of which, we had dinner as a group from a street vendor. The professor strongly advises eating only food that is freshly cooked to avoid diseases and too many trips to the bathroom. Sadly, I am unable to enjoy the full experience of Thai cuisine because of my nut allergy and aversion to very spicy food (oops, should have considered that before signing up). But the family-style dinner was nice, and the flavors of the dishes were diverse and pleasant. Because Thai food is not too much different from Chinese food, it was fairly familiar and reminiscent of dinner back home. Also, almost anything is better than airplane food.
We were sitting at a table around here.
Despite being covered in a persistent and itchy film of sweat for 12 hours, today was a good preface to the program and a nice way to start adjusting to life in Thailand.
January 5, 2020 – Day 2
My roommate Aliya (also a blogger) and I had breakfast together on the rooftop this morning. It was a nice bonding moment.
Yesterday, we met the director of the Mahidol University Institute of Nutrition, Dr. Chalat Santivarangkna. His assistant, who goes by Mai, traveled with us to Bangkok in a white van labeled “Best Friend” in orange sans serif letters on the rear window. The driver was the same man who picked us up from the airport.
Our first stop was the Grand Palace, a complex of royal residence halls and government administrative buildings established by King Rama I in 1782. The name “Rama” is taken from an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and it is used by all the kings in the Chakri dynasty (the current king is Rama X) Many of the decorative statues are based on the story of the Ramakien, the Thai national epic. A long mural depicts scenes from the tale.
Before I continue our tour, I would just like to note that at the entrance, I was pulled aside from the group by the security guard, who said something to me in Thai. I thought maybe she wanted to check my bag. Mai came to rescue me, and she explained that the lady thought I was Thai and not one of the Americans. Well, I am certainly of Asian descent.
Moving on, the Emerald Buddha sits in Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. He changes his gold clothes for the summer, rainy season, and winter. No photos were allowed in the temple, unfortunately, but you can Google him.
Relics of the Buddha are housed in Phra Siratana Chedi, a large stupa covered in gold tile mosaic.
Thai kings are coronated in Amarindra Winitchai Hall, which was covered in yellow ribbons to show that King Rama X was born on a Monday (different days of the week have different colors, e.g. Tuesday is pink and Saturday is purple).
Here also is Chakri Maha Prasat Hall, originally planned to be a European-style residence hall for King Rama V, but in the end it was completed with a Thai roof.
Afterward, we visited Wat Pho, a temple complex famed for its giant 46-meter-long reclining Buddha statue.
The chief monk was eager to tell us about how Barack Obama’s visit in 2012 caused a surge in annual tourist visits.
At the end of the tour, we all tried Thai massages, Wat Pho being the center of Thai traditional medicine. Probably because I have no muscles to speak of, it was quite painful. At one point, it felt like the lady was trying to separate my head from my neck.
Mai arranged for us to have lunch at Krua Khun Kung, a restaurant with a view of the Chao Phraya River. The mango smoothie I tried was very much a mango smoothie, with little if any added sugar. Very refreshing. It was great for counteracting the spiciness of some of the dishes, like the delicious chicken coconut soup. All the food was very flavorful and not at all greasy, even the fried shrimp cakes.
Then it was on to Wat Saket, the Temple of the Golden Mount. The view of the city from the top of the spiraling stairs was pretty. Bells were hung around the roof, originally used to chase away birds.
Our last stop of the day was the Or Tor Kor Market, described on the Internet as a “high-end” market. According to Mai, the fruits and vegetables sold here were organic and thus “cleaner” and more pricy. From a food safety perspective, the unrefrigerated cut fruits and pre-cooked foods covered in flies were a bit concerning. We did, however, try some packaged mango gummies and fried fish puffs. The interesting thing about the fish puffs was that they were first sweet, then savory, then spicy. A curious flavor profile.
The six of us students had dinner at the Groove Market, which seemed to cater to foreigners.
January 6, 2020 – Day 3
The trip this morning was back to Bangkok to visit Thai Union Food, a global leader in sustainability. The outside looks a little grim and shabby, but the inside of the facility is quite modern. No photos of the production floor were allowed, so you will have to trust me on this.
The presentations we were given described the background of the company and their sustainability initiatives. Thai Union started out in tuna processing but expanded into other seafood. The plant we visited was for tuna processing. I was surprised to hear that they own Chicken of the Sea, a brand I grew up eating in the form of tuna salad made with love by my dear mother.
One thing I found interesting was the mention of purse seining, a popular method of fishing that slowly closes a large wall of net at the bottom to allow dolphins to jump out the top to avoid being caught. The company claims to be very invested in sustainability to preserve fish populations. All of a tuna fish is used for some product. After removing the meat for canning or selling as fillets, the head is used for oil, and other “waste” is used as bait. For the company, it’s elimination of inefficiency and maximization of resources, and for the public, it’s elimination of food waste. A win-win.
Thai Union also has a domestic bakery line, which has nothing to do with tuna. Apparently there was an opportunity for it. They gave us some Hokkaido roll cake to try, which was quite light and fluffy, though a bit too much cream.
We were given a tour of the production floor. Sadly, no one could hear what the manager was saying due to the noise, but it was still interesting to see the workers process the tuna.
It seems that in Thailand, a lot of the sit-in restaurants are open to the air. Despite the onslaught of flies, the restaurant we had lunch at today was enjoyable because of the view of the rice paddy, which was populated by some kind of smallish crane species, and of course the delicious food.
The most interesting dish was probably the frog legs. Though a bit tough, they were tasty and do taste similar to chicken.
I will spare you the details of the afternoon lecture, but here is a fun fact. Bleach is USDA-approved for washing fruits and vegetables. In low concentration, of course, but still interesting. It’s probably not common knowledge because otherwise there would be people trying to eat lettuce soaked in 100% bleach. The hospitals might be overcrowded.
We went back to the Groove Market for dinner. We always seem to miss the elusive period when other places are open.
I’ll tell you now, I bought another taro bun from the 7-Eleven for breakfast tomorrow. I wish I got something else to be more exciting, but I like how cheap these are – 7 baht, or $0.23. They’d be at least ten times that in the US.