7. Dogs and Ends

Trip Start Nov 14, 2008
Trip End Nov 29, 2008

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Today is going to be a low-profile day, and a breather is probably a good thing, not to mention good timing: This morning I discovered that my gastrointestinal tolerance of any new locale seems limited to about ninety-six hours - I woke up with some minor but uncomfortable cramps and what feels like a border dispute between my small and large intestines. And here I'd been all prepared to crow to the folks back home about my cast-iron macho stomach. At any rate, the one thing I did do right on preparation was to pack lots of Pepto-Bismol caplets, like three bottles crammed into one. So it's straight onto a regimen of two every couple hours and I'm good to go (a valuable lesson learned on a 1993 jaunt to Puerto Vallarta: Pepto is always essential equipment.)

The only real item on the agenda today is to retrieve a doggie from Tida's brother Duan. He'd apparently been chewing up everything in sight around here, so Tohn gave him to Duan a few weeks back to keep at his auto repair shop across town. Now he's barking ceaselessly (what a shock!) which means Duan wants us to take him back, so off we go to the rescue.

Just what this neighborhood needs, an additional voice for the Canine Chorus of Chaos.

Duan lives close to the downtown area - I'm guessing the south or east sides but since I haven't yet gotten a map (grrr,) that's...guessing - but it gives me another opportunity to see Bangkok's huge downtown area and its incredible skyscrapers. There are far more of them than in Los Angeles and they're spread out over a much larger area. If there aren't any photobooks of Bangkok's skyscrapers there ought to be. Once we get a chance to do some serious shopping - at a market that isn't clothing-only - I plan on hitting a bookstore or two for a search.

It was of course Rand's novel "The Fountainhead" that piqued my interest in the intellectual and symbolic aspects of skyscrapers, but my fascination with them, nearly as intense as that for airplanes, predates my 1981 introduction to architect Howard Roark by years. Bangkok has an incredible variety and some astonishing designs nearly everywhere you look. My fave so far is the Kasikorn Bank building at the south end of the huge Rama IX bridge over the Chao Phraya river, a sculpted crystalline pillar rotated 45 degrees on its lot and capped with an incredible angular peak and spire. It also happens that Kasikorn's ATMs are easily the most prevalent throughout Bangkok and the ones I've chosen for replenishing my Baht.

We've only been here a few days and I've already amassed a great gob of on-the-fly photos of skyscrapers on my cam's memory card. Unfortunately, since they're opportunistic snapshots taken through the windows of moving vehicles the compositional quality on most of them is a little lacking. But that's the way you get great shots - snap bezillions and hope for one or two gems when the dust clears. No better ones yet, but I'll keep trying.

I would be remiss here if I didn't include loud and obnoxious raves for this great little digital camera I bought a couple months before we left, the Panasonic Lumix TZ5. There's a good, thorough review of it at PhotographyBlog.com if you're in the market. I was thrilled to learn that someone had found a way to cram a 10x optical zoom lens into a camera no bigger than any other compact digicam. I'd been vacillating between two with the 10x zoom, this one and the Sony DSC-H3, both priced at around $250 USD. I almost went for the Sony because Tida has an older Sony DSC-W50 that I've used extensively and which is excellent for a simple pocket camera. What tipped the scales for the Panasonic were two things:

1. The Panasonic can take high-definition video (albeit with a codec that can make file sizes massive - roughly 16GB per hour if you set it for max resolution,) the Sony can't;

2. The Panasonic uses standard SD memory cards; Sony accepts only proprietary Sony "Duo" or "ProDuo" memory cards.

On this latter I had a direct confirmation of the wisdom of avoiding Sony: At one point during yesterday's shopping excursion at Baiyoke we went looking for memory cards at a couple of camera shops. Tohn tried in vain to find "Duo" cards for his Sony; regular SD cards were readily available everywhere.

Just like their Beta videotape fiasco, Sony seems determined to repeat past mistakes involving the idiocy of proprietary storage media. Too bad for them.

Another great tourist-friendly feature of the Lumix is its "Intelligent Automatic" (iA) mode. Switch that on and it's virtually impossible to take a bad shot - like maybe if you drew up a detailed plan you could snap a crummy picture, and even then you'd have to really struggle to make it happen. Color me enthused.

The only serious downside to the Lumix TZ5 is the sound quality, which if you're planning on doing video is disappointingly substandard. I inadvertently clicked Tida's Sony into video mode whilst snapping shots at a (blistering) Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush concert a year or so ago and was stunned later at the sound quality of the five or six seconds of playing I'd captured (FM was at full tilt in the middle of "Strange Universe," for the record.) I was kicking myself thereafter for not having loaded the Sony with a 16GB card and taping the entire show. The Lumix' sound, oddly and disappointingly enough, does not come close to matching its picture quality. If you want to capture music video, the Lumix is not a good choice. For image quality, it's phenomenal.

Lastly, the battery life on a full charge is excellent. I only ran it out once, and that was on a full-day excursion at the Ancient Siam park (read on,) where I made the bonehead mistake of failing to turn it off between uses - which means the autofocus was constantly trying to sharpen every pebble, blade of grass, itinerant lizard or wayward insect that crossed the field of view next to my feet as I strode along obliviously. On every other day of shooting I hardly made a dent in battery capacity.

As for the AC power in Thailand, make sure you get a voltage converter before you go so you can plug in your electronics. Thailand uses 220V rather than 110V, so you'll need an adaptor if you don't want to turn your shaver or battery charger into a smoking blob of liquified plasticine sludge. I got a simple, no-frills thing by Jensen for about $20 and it works without a hitch.

Full disclosure: Before I found that one I'd sprung for one of those units at Fry's with ten different adaptor plugs in every imaginable shape and configuration, and didn't pay attention to the wattage rating. When I opened the manual the first thing I noticed was the warning "Do not use this converter for electronic devices or it will fry them to a crisp." (In so many words.) You can't use a 1000+ watt converter for things like camera and cell phone chargers, electronic razors, etc., and I didn't bother to look before I leapt. Lesson learned.

And forget about the multiple plug types - everywhere we've gone in Thailand the plugs have been the same: standardized receptacles that fit the round prongs sticking out of the Jensen adaptor's backside, and those of most adaptors. The only problem is that the weight of the Jensen unit and the leverage it exerts tend to make it want to fall out of the socket. Duct tape. 'Say no more.

'K, enough of the hardware reviews.

Another advantage of staying with locals - you get to see far more of the city than you otherwise would. You also get to see places way, way off the normal tourist track, and Duan's neighborhood is...interesting. By American standards it would be considered a slum, but after that first impression comes an unexpected second: If it is a slum, it's an oddly neat, clean and orderly one. It's only the buildings themselves that appear haphazard. They're a crazy jumble of rooflines, walls, windows and doors with little in the way of rhyme or reason to them except their tenuous adherence to the discipline of straight lines imposed by the adjacent streets.

Getting to his house from the freeway was like entering a maze that wound deeper and deeper into the thick of the inner-city. One side effect of Bangkok's curious disregard for traffic lanes is that streets one would consider narrow even as one-ways regularly accomodate two-way traffic plus bikers and scooter-riders on either side, and Duan's neighborhood was a veritable poster-child for the concept. It had tiny alleyway-like streets but with the full complement of traffic - and nobody got so much as a scratch. Amazing. Oddly too, at no point was there ever a sense of impending crime or that the area was dangerous.

Despite my gastric condition I welcomed a wonderfully-cold Singha courtesy of Duan, who in a strange coincidence is the spitting image of one of my earliest martial arts instructors, named Dien. I made inevitable use of his hong nahm thereafter, and yes, it was the same lowrider Wagner-Pro-Oil-Change model as at Rayong beach. Fortunately the room was spotless and there was moon floss in abundance. 'Say no more. But...that quadriceps burn! Gaahh!

"Adapt or die," yadayada.

So we loaded up Fido and headed for home. On the way we stopped again at the Internet cafe so I could send off a little more detailed email to the folks back home, then pick up some necessities at the nearby stores. I finally found - with the help of the others - a place with an excellent selection of maps. I got two Thomas Guide-type things (without the latter's block-by-block detail but with the same general indexing format,) one of Thailand as a whole and one of Bangkok & suburbs, plus a standard sheet-type map of the country. 'Turns out that Don Mueang is at the northern extremity of Bangkok, not the southwest as I'd originally thought, also I got the position of Rayong Beach squared away and future excursions won't be blind ones.

When we got back to the house the subject of Singhas came up again, and Naya, mortified that they had none around (today has been rather on the hot side,) sent Tohn down the street to a convenience store to pick some up. He went on foot and was back in three minutes flat...!? Hmmm, beer from thin air - a mystery that bears further study.

All of the TV channels have had repeat coverage of the Royal funeral of the King's sister, the Princess Galyani Vadhana, who had died of cancer back on January 02, 2008 at age 84. It's apparently the custom in Thailand - and other Asian countries - to hold off on conducting the actual burial ceremonies following the death of a prominent official until a date seen as auspicious is decided upon, often up to a year after the actual death. The ceremony they're airing just now is the procession of her ashes from the Throne Hall to the Rajabopit Temple. This is something you'd never see on American television, a glimpse at the Thai royal family and at the ceremonial pageantry at the palace.

So, Singha in hand filling the role of system-coolant and Tohn having left for his evening shift, it's time to dive into the next Judge Dee novel, "The Chinese Lake Murders."

The previous, "The Chinese Maze Murders," was interesting but, like all of Gulik's Dee novels thus far, a little spare in depth, detail and thematic content. Rabid Gulik fans are fond of dishing on I.J. Parker's similar (but contemporary) Sugawara Akitada detective novels of Heian-era Japan, but... comparing Gulik's novels to Parker's is a little like comparing Charlie Chan movies to "The Joy Luck Club" or "Children of Huang Shi." The level of sophistication of a modern writer like Parker is just flatly missing in Van Gulik's books, despite the often pompous and condescending criticisms of her work that I've read from Gulik fans.

That's not to disparage Van Gulik as a bad writer - I wouldn't be reading him if that were the case - only to refute the unjust attacks on Parker, who is a demonstrably superior writer, even though her Akitada mysteries clearly draw on elements of Judge Dee and even pay oblique homage to him. I would even rank Laura Joh Rowland, author of the voluminous Sano Ichiro series, as far superior to Gulik, despite her repulsive sense of life (metaphysical view,) and intensely formulaic plots.

The style of Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, written through the '50s and '60s, bears comparison to that of Louis L'Amour's novels in the Western genre. They're always a good, entertaining yarn but suffer from formula, ultimately melt into one another, and aren't particularly memorable individually. It has to do with depth in plotting and characterization. I can remember every one of Parker's five Akitada novels, and more to the point, I miss being there. I've just finished "The Chinese Maze Murders" and it's only a pleasant blur.

But Judge Dee remains...a good, entertaining yarn. I will likely plow through all of them within the next few months.

'K, that's all for the literary review. Until tomorrow...
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