Thursday, May 29, 2008

Land of Smiles

"Welcome to the Land of Smiles" was one of the first things I read on a giant sign in the Bangkok airport when I arrived here over five years ago. Arriving from the West, I was immediately skeptical that Thai people were somehow more happy. How could this be possible?

While people here don't walk around grinning every minute, I quickly realized that Thai people generally smile and laugh a lot. In Thai culture, a smile is used in many situations. Besides showing happiness, it's common for Thais to smile during nervous or embarrassing moments. Now that I've lived in this culture a while, I even find myself smiling after I make an awkward foreigner faux pas. Perhaps a more accurate phrase would be, "Welcome to the Land of Happy, Nervous, and Embarrassing Moment Smiles".

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chinese Cab

Last night, when I got into a cab, there was a red laminated sign with Chinese calligraphy attached to the ceiling. I immediately asked the taxi driver what it said, and he told me he had no clue. He said he couldn't read Chinese, and then he explained that the sign was hung up by a Chinese-Thai guy who rents the car to him.

I was left feeling very curious about the sign. Considering that it was Chinese, I wondered if it had something to do with good luck. Or, perhaps it was there to protect the car from danger and "evil spirits". Or, maybe - just maybe - it was an excerpt from an ancient Chinese poem about taxi drivers.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Motorcycle Taxi

Yesterday, when I got out of work, Mr. Hi-Kool was waiting to give me a ride on his motorcycle taxi. He had picked me up the day before, and today he assumed I would hire him again. This time he didn't even bother to ask me where I was going. My friend in the orange vest was apparently anticipating my business, and I didn't want to disappoint him, so I hopped on and tucked in my knees as we wound in and out of cars.

We arrived at the destination much sooner than the car taxis stuck in traffic, and the cost was about half of what the car cab fare would have been. If I keep taking "moto-sii tak-sii", I might have to change the name of this blog to Still Life ON Moving Vehicles.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thai Amulets

Most Thais I know don't leave their home without at least a few accessories adorning their body. Sometimes, it involves making a fashion statement, while other times it's jewelry worn for good luck or protection. Many Thais wear an amulet (or a half dozen) dangling from a necklace with images of Buddha, Buddhist monks, and Hindu gods and goddesses reflecting their personal beliefs, values, and superstitions.

When many Bangkok taxi drivers begin their shift, the first thing they do is remove their amulets from around their neck, and hang them from the rear view mirror while saying a prayer. The amulets then serve to protect the car, as well as the driver and the passengers. This morning the cabby told me his amulets help to attract more business. Apparently, the charms had worked on me. As it turns out, I brought good luck to the driver as his first customer of the day.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Buddha Day

Yesterday was Buddha Day, an important Buddhist holiday celebrating the life of Gautauma Buddha. In Thailand, the day is known as Visakha Bucha, and is celebrated every May on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon. On this holiday, devout worshippers meditate, donate to charities, stop eating meat, and "bathe" the Buddha at temples.

This year, Buddha Day fell on a Monday which means it was a long weekend. For those who stayed in Bangkok, the holiday may have included a visit to the temple, but more likely it involved sleeping in late, going out to eat a lot, and perhaps heading to the mall. Yesterday, shop-a-holics were out in full force, dining in food courts, and taking advantage of Buddha Day sales.

I wonder how Buddha would react to the way some people use this sacred day to enjoy themselves. Considering that they didn't have mega-malls and food courts in Buddha's lifetime, it's difficult to say how he'd feel. Maybe, since Buddha believed happiness is an important goal in life, he wouldn't disapprove, after all.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Prayer for Bangkok Traffic

O, Garuda!
Mythological Hindu bird-man
Great mascot of Thai monarchs and civil government
Flap your golden wings
and fly, fly, fly!
Soar through the streets
Protect us from evil
and deliver us
in 30 minutes or less

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More is More

The attitude and visual aesthetic in Bangkok calls for more, more, more. In this city, you'll find an overabundance of signage and banners, endless shop houses and malls overflowing with merchandise, huge markets selling every possible item you could imagine, hordes of people meandering down walkways, and food vendors lining the sidewalks hawking literally everything from (noodle) soup to (cashew) nuts. I love it.

I especially enjoy getting in a Bangkok taxi filled with collections of stuff. They feel homey to me, and it gives passengers a lot to look at. While most Thais prefer to live among visual excess, some new luxury hotels and trendy restaurants in Bangkok are opting for minimalist-style interiors. If you ask me, those places can keep their cold, bland decor. I'd rather be in a cab brimming with colorful religious icons, superstitious bric-a-brac, and the occasional furry stuffed toy bear.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Singing in the Rain

Today, my taxi driver is in a great mood. It's raining. For most people, that's not a cause for celebration, but for automobile cab drivers that means more customers. The driver told me it was one of his busiest days in weeks.

Getting stuck under an eave in this city during a downpour with crowds of dripping-wet people isn't fun, especially if you have to be somewhere. Sometimes it's impossible finding an available taxi when it's raining.

Luckily, I was already in the cab today when it started pouring during the ride home. It was an especially relaxing drive as the cabby sang and whistled along to upbeat tunes on the radio.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bangkok Ban

Yesterday, a new law banning the use of phones while driving went into effect in Bangkok. Similar laws are in effect in other cities around the world. But, in Bangkok, you can still use a hands-free device while driving. If you ask me, the real problem isn't holding the phone at the wheel - it has more to do with the driver being distracted as they carry on a conversation at the same time as driving. I checked out some statistics, and according to what I found, using a hands-free device, rather than a regular cell phone while driving, does not significantly reduce the risk of car accidents.

When I asked a few drivers how they felt about the new law, most of them told me it was no problem. And, one driver said he uses his hands-free accessory anyway, so it doesn't matter to him. But, one of the cabbies seemed concerned about the fine which ranges from 400 to 1000 baht. He thinks the law is just another excuse for the police to make money. In his opinion, if the government was truly concerned about safety, they would ban hands-free devices, too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hand-Made in Thailand

Thai people are some of the most resourceful people in the world. They can make something beautiful out of practically nothing. It's no wonder that Thailand is famous for its exported goods and handmade objects.

Today in a taxi, there was a traditional-looking Thai-style vessel on the top of the dash board. When I examined it carefully, I realized someone had spent hours - even days - folding little pieces of iridescent paper into small origami-like forms, and then assembling them into an elaborate bowl. The cabbie told me that it was actually a "krathong" กระทง, a small "boat" that normally holds incense sticks and candles during Loy Krathong ลอกระทง, a festival celebrated in Thailand every November. The driver proudly explained how his wife had lovingly made it, and how she's an extremely patient and "cool hearted" woman, traits obviously necessary for making such a time-consuming handicraft.
I'm always happy to see traditional Thai art forms being practiced and preserved for future generations. And I'm glad the driver keeps his "krathong" out all year for his passengers and himself to enjoy.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tuk Tuk Taxi

Yesterday, I took a tuk tuk taxi. In case you haven't been to this part of the planet, tuk tuks are three-wheeled auto rickshaws named after the loud sound that comes from their two-stroke engines when they're idling. Taking a tuk tuk taxi involves haggling a price before you hop in, and if you're a foreigner and don't mind paying more than the locals, then a tuk tuk can be a good option for getting around short distances.

If you're visiting the city for the first time, or if you're new to Thailand, taking a tuk tuk is a blast. But, after you've been here a while, like myself, the novelty wears off, and an enclosed car where you can hear yourself think often seems like a better choice. I'm not quite sure what prompted me to take a tuk tuk yesterday. Perhaps, it was the fancy fringe or the stickers inside the tuk tuk, or maybe it was the huge grin on the driver's face. In any case, it was fun riding around Bangkok in a tuk tuk for a change of pace. And, it was especially exciting since we didn't get stuck in one of Bangkok's famous traffic jams.

Friday, May 2, 2008

May Kaidee

I knew that it was going to happen. I knew that sooner or later I would write about good food and cooking, two of my favorite things in life. If I weren't photographing the insides of Bangkok taxis, I'd be blogging about my culinary adventures in Thailand.

Since arriving in Bangkok, I've been yearning to learn how to make green curry, tom yum soup, and peanut sauce. So, yesterday, my friend, Didier, and I attended a half day cooking course at May Kaidee Restaurant in Bangkok. Not only did we learn how to make ten Thai dishes, but we were able to sit down and try each creation as we were entertained by the owner herself busting out a few Thai dance moves, drumming with a mortar and pestle, and singing a couple of tunes.

I should mention that May Kaidee Restaurant serves vegetarian and vegan food. I should also mention that I'm not a vegetarian, but when I'm at May Kaidee enjoying the fresh, healthy ingredients in sumptuous sauces, I don't miss eating meat. And, in the cooking class it makes more sense to learn how to make basic curries, soups, and sauces sans meat. Later on, if you choose, all of the dishes can be made with chicken, pork, shrimp, etc.

May Kaidee has a large following of foreign travelers, expats, and some health-conscious Thais. You definitely won't find any taxi drivers eating there, and, it seems most Bangkok cabbies have never heard of the place. But, if you're planning a trip to Thailand (or are already here), you should consider taking a cooking class at May Kaidee, or at least plan on stopping by and having a bowl of spicy vegetable green curry with steaming brown rice.

For locations, to sign up for a class, or to order a May
Kaidee cookbook, go to