Our Trip to Thailand (February 2545 B.E.) - Arlene G. Taylor and A. Wayne Benson

 [Please click links for pictures.]

First, a reminder of the occasion for the trip. Arlene's former PhD student, Narumol Ruksasuk, returned to Thailand after receiving her degree, and she teaches at Suranaree University of Technology in the School of Information Technology there and also serves as the deputy director of the university's library. When the head librarian, Dr. Prapavadee Suebsonthi, wished to apply to the Fulbright Senior Specialist Program for someone to come to teach them about online cataloging, she asked Narumol for a recommendation as to someone she might ask for. Narumol suggested Arlene, and after applications from both Thailand and Arlene to the Fulbright Foundation, the trip became a reality. Wayne went along as Arlene's guest - a 70th birthday present!!! (Pictures of our hosts)

Getting there was an onerous process. We had to fly on a USA airline in order to adhere to the regulations of the Fulbright grant. This left us with one option: Northwest Airlines. We flew from Pittsburgh to Detroit and from there to Tokyo (Narita airport) -- a 13 hour trip. With a short lay-over we then flew on to Bangkok - another 7 hour trip. A long time to sit. There were movies (Wayne watched one but Arlene tried to sleep. They had captioning - actually subtitles, but it was in Japanese! Fortunately, Wayne could plug in his Direct Audio Input cord to the system and hear pretty well!) We arrived at 10:45 p.m. or so (didn't need to change our watches - it is exactly 12 hours ahead of Pittsburgh.) We were met by Dr. Chonawat of the school who took us to a condominium belonging to the University and used by people connected with the university while in Bangkok. Bangkok is a large city, colorful, busy, polluted, and hot! Arlene was to meet with a representative of Fulbright the next day, but the Fulbright rep was ill and the meeting could not take place. We ended up staying a second night in Bangkok and then traveling in a University van to Suranaree University the next day. Thai folk follow the British pattern and drive on the wrong (oops) left side of the road/street. Their printed language is unique. The alphabet was developed by one of their Kings in the fifteenth century or so and has 60+ characters, some of which look like Hebrew characters, some of which look a little like Roman characters, and others that look like nothing else. Being functionally illiterate, a sign in English was most welcome and more likely in Bangkok. Many Thai people speak English, especially at the University where most have studied abroad or plan to do so.

Suranaree University of Technology is only nine years old -- opened in May of 1993 (AD) or 2536 BE (Buddhist Era). It is close to the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, which lies some 250 kilometers north and east of Bangkok on what is known as the Khorat Plateau. The aforementioned city is also sometimes referred to as Khorat. The plateau is the home of the silver Khorat cat, which, Dr. Ladda Grote told us, is the common cat there - one goes to America to see the Siamese cat! The University is laid out over a large area - formerly government land and not very productive. The buildings are spacious and modern in design, but the huge campus made it problematic to get around. A University car was sent for Arlene each morning to take her to the school. We were housed in what contacts had referred to as a "bungalow." Some bungalow! It had a kitchen, living room and dining room downstairs, with a nice patio off the dining room, and a full bath. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a full bath. The bedrooms were air-conditioned. Since they use air-conditioning year-around, the bedding included a nice comforter. Unfortunately, there was no in-between -- either a comforter or nothing! One morning it must have dipped to the low 70s and Wayne was amused to see the security guard on our street, who spends the night outside, wearing a heavy coat!! The house also had a large TV with HBO, Starz and CNN (international) plus local stations - in Thai, of course. One station ran older American movies, but the sound had been removed and they were subtitled in Thai! The house was in an area of faculty housing, where Wayne walked each morning. Each house is on a large lot, with a variety of flowers, banana trees, mango trees, papaya trees etc. around, depending on the whims of the occupants. This was the "dry" season (as compared to the monsoon - rainy season.) which began in early December. So the grass was brown, unless irrigated. In fact, the smell of that dry grass was so familiar to Wayne that he was mentally transported 25 years into the past and the Central Valley of California! One other thing reminded him of California - they had recently planted oleander in the median strip of the main road into the campus.

Someone asked what was the outstanding thing about our visit and Wayne's immediate reply was: "The people!" The folk at the school particularly were most friendly, gracious, and helpful. They took us to the "hypermarket" (not super) in Nakhon Ratchasima which was part of a 24-hour Mall. Also in the Mall was KFC, Swensen's Ice Cream, McDonalds, and Dunkin' Donuts - made us feel right at home! They helped us find somewhat familiar foodstuffs by translating and identifying things.

Arlene's work involved preparing and leading two workshops (one on online cataloging with OCLC and one on using Blackboard software for teaching via the Web). The workshops seemed to be successful. The folks at the University had anticipated that there might be up to 40 participants for the online cataloging workshop. They started turning away applicants after accepting 70. The computer room for the workshop had only 60 computers. Participants for the cataloging workshop came from many parts of Thailand. Participants for the distance education workshop were faculty, mostly from Suranaree University, but also from other Universities in the northeast part of Thailand. Three lecturers who were assigned to work with Arlene were instrumental in making the workshops successful. Arlene also spent some time with the faculty talking about their curriculum needs, and she lectured on OPAC system design for Narumol's Information Systems class.

Arlene went to see the University library, of course, which is very well-designed - seemed a lot like a library in the United States. (We suspect that Narumol had quite a lot to do with its seeming so efficient!)

We did some "touristy" things, too. One Saturday, some of the younger faculty took us in a school van to some of the area highlights. One of these was Prasat Hin Phimai, a somewhat restored Buddhist temple complex (originally Hindu) from some 950 to 1000 years ago. It is part of the Khmer area, which extended over eastern Thailand and into Cambodia. This temple is oriented South and east to the old capital of that area - Angkor (you may have heard of Angkor Wat, the huge temple complex in Cambodia, which was built about 100 years after Phimai). We also saw an archaeological burial site, a banyan tree, and of course the countryside and people. Another time, Narumol and a friend took us to Nakhon Ratchsima to the Thao Suranaree Monument - a statue of a woman who defended and saved the city back in 1826 (AD) - near what is now the one remaining city gate (the University is named after this woman). They also took us to a site of a reclining Buddha made of sandstone. Arrangements were made our second weekend there for us to hire a "private" tour that took us the first day to several Buddhist temples, where we saw an Emerald Buddha (made of jadite), and a Golden Buddha - it was solid gold and had been disguised by a covering of plaster at one point in time. The gold was discovered when the plaster cracked just 50 years or so ago. We also saw palaces in Bangkok, and we went on a boat trip on the Chao Phraya river - there were homes on the banks, often on stilts. The second day they took us to Ayutthaya, the ruins (with some restoration) of the former capital of Thailand. It was destroyed and sacked by the Burmese in 1767 (AD). After that the capital was moved to Bangkok. It is an impressive set of ruins. It was there we had our only sighting of elephants, which were available for riding, although we didn't do so.

Food: The Thais like to eat. There are food stalls everywhere it seemed with prepared food offered or things of the "farmer's market" variety. In the city some of the stalls are mobile (kind of like New York, only more numerous.) There are many exotic (to us!) fruits available, some of which are delightful, some not so much so, as well as familiar items such as strawberries, pineapple, melons and coconuts (a nice drink is a coconut with the top lopped off and a straw to drink the "milk"). Restaurants also served a watermelon "slurpee" type of drink. Some restaurants were outside (roof, but no walls). Others were inside and air-conditioned. The food can be quite spicy (use a lot of curry and chilies), but they ordered the milder variety for us. Thai folk eat with a fork and large spoon. The fork is to get food onto the spoon - it is considered crude to eat directly from the fork. They do use chopsticks occasionally, particularly for noodle dishes. The last night there the faculty of the School of Information Technology took us to a Chinese restaurant. The meal had nine courses, we think. Boy, were we stuffed. The dessert was gingko fruit served in a syrup. We have several gingko trees in our part of Pittsburgh, but our only association with the fruit is when it drops on the sidewalk in the fall in an overripe condition and is messy and smelly! The dessert was delicious, however.

As you can tell, we enjoyed the trip immensely. As Wayne wrote his dad on a postcard, "Who would have thought that that baby born in 1932 would spend his 70th birthday in Thailand!!