Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lost in Bangkok - or how map use can fail

Bangkok is a big City, and it can be very confusing. For may reasons: It is not just a grid like Manhattan, there a streets and Sois and sub-Sois and mubans with sois and all the other alleys with no names. Some streetnames aren't in English, so you don't even know where you are right now.

But hey, its 2013, we have smartphones now and maps. So, I did a bit of a comparison between the two leading maps: Google maps and Openstreetmap (Forget Bing, please, and don't even think about Apple maps)

When you use maps, you need orientation. To get orientation, you need to know where you are. Your phone may use its GPS to do that. But maybe you want to see the bigger picture. Google Maps is quite good in this:
Even when you zoom out you get some useful information and you will see some street names, at least the important ones. Not all of them are in English, and I don't know why Google is still mixing the English and the Thai interface.

So I did a screenshot of the same area from the Openstreetmap-Website.

It looks very different. It seems that OSM has a strong focus on the detail. The more you zoom in, the more information you get, and a lot of venues are named in English. In particular in the downtown tourist area nearly every noodle soup cart is mention. But when you zoom out, you are lost. Just some coloured lines, that's it. The more you go to the East, the less information it has. My area, Samut Prakan, is poorly covered - and with a lot of useless information as well.

So I checked for another problem I recently ran into: Public places. There is a park with a lake next to Queen Sirikit Convention Center. I took some pictures there, and when I was back home and editing and tagging them, I wondered what the name of the park was. Open Streetmap gives me a Thai name (for some reason the font isn't increasing, so it is very difficult to read). But at least I have a name. (Note: When I tried to edit the map top add the English name, everything then was in English. already. No idea why it din't show up on the map)

Google has no name at all. There is a location name of an Bootcamp event, no idea why this is on the map, but that's pretty much it. 
A friend then told me it's the Benjakiti Park (a nice running place in the afternoon, you can rent bikes there as well, as mentioned in the OSM) 

So this is the other problem with both maps. You can contribute to Openstreetmaps by adding a newly discovered place (certain apps for Android or iOS makes it quite easy). But for some reason, people outside the downtown area don't do it (I tried it in Laos, but my places never showed up, so I gave up after a while. That shouldn't dis-encourage you, maybe I was to stupid to use the app.)

Google has an amazing tool that provided a lot of information for the maps: mapmaker. There you can add places, even streets. It goes through an approval process and will later end up in the google maps update. Only problem: For some reason it is not available in Thailand.

So, be careful if you ant to rely on these maps. They can help you a lot, but sometimes you can get lost in the City of Angles.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mai Sai Tung - no plastic bag, please

We Germans, as one stereotype says, are crazy about recycling. These are not my words since I never thought it might be that serious, but at least we do recycle glass, plastic, metal and organic waste in Germany. But really obsessed are actually people in South-East-Asia. It is just for another reason, and it is in a different way.

If you have ever watched the garbage collectors picking up your waste, you know what I mean. They open the carefully corded plastic bags with a snap and sort what ever is useful. Cardboxes on the top of the truck, plastic bottles and cans in big bags in the back of the truck, glas in a plastic box and so on. You may see also usually old men and women walking in your Soi and asking for plastic bottles. It is big business. Someone who runs a company that produces plastic mats in Laos told be, a good plastic collector can make 300 USD per month.

So some parts of your waste are actually not waste, but valuables. But there is one item that apparently has no value at all, although it makes a big part of the garbage: the plastic bag.

Where ever you buy something, if it is a bottle of water, a fresh coconut, even a pack of plastic bags: you will get it packed in a plastic bag. It is nearly impossible to avoid, one may say. Why are people so obsesses with these plastic bags?

One theory is that because it is free, people want to have it. Part of this is a training that went wrong at Tesco and Big C: The cashier was told that they shouldn't pack until the bag is full. Instead, they pack fresh food in one bag, juices in another, washing detergent and toilet paper in a different bag. It looks like every classifier in the Thai language has it's own bag category.

Because it is free and there is unlimited supply of this free good, nobody spends a thought about reusing it.

But I do. And I use cotton bags or the thick reusable plastic bags Tesco sells (mainly to Farang, I guess). And somehow I am surprised about the reaction of the staff at the cashier desk. Like today, when the girl understood my "Mai say tung" and saw the Tesco bag. "Oh, very good" she said in English. That happend before even at a 7/11 shop.

So it seems, at least young people learn in school (or somewhere else) that reuse is a good thing. But somehow there is a gap between knowledge and impact for their life.

It took decades for the West (and is far from finished) to limit the use of plastic bags, so I think even if it takes ten more years in Asia, it would be quite fast for a change of habits.

Let's just hope, and Happy Recycle.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hospitals and Health Insurance

While my surgery might be painful, the overture is it already: Negotiating with health insurance and hospital. The latter isn't able to explain the costs properly, and the insurance goes strict with the rules. I learned, that doctors don't really like to talk to insurance companies (or even patients). So, it is quite hard for the Health Insurance to get proper information.

My doctor yesterday at Samitivej wasn't even able to open my file on his computer. He said, it is not his job, so his assistant had to do it. The problem now is that (so the doctor explained to me) they may need to fix my supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendon with something like small screws or anchors and will charge 70.000 Baht for this. They called it an implant what is not covered by insurance, and the insurance company asked - for a reason - why some screws are quoted with 2000 USD.

My job is now to be the middle man between the two companies (yes, hospitals are mainly a business here). It seems that Samitivej, although selling quite aggressive, would risk the deal instead of just talking with my health insurance. They didn't even offer me to call the insurance, so I had to do this.

It turned out the screws are actually more anchors and will remain in the body - and that's the difference. This is called an implant, and has to be paid by me :-(

Since my should really hurts, I have to bite the dust and undergo surgery - and it will be at Samitivej, since they did all  the preliminary examinations already.

I had two surgeries at Bumrungrad before, and while the nurses and administration staff is great there, the doctors also try to not spend too much time with you. I learned that most doctors in private hospitals are basically freelancers. That explains why it is so difficult to get an appointment - they are in in the hospital of your choice only on certain days.

Street food and food courts

Last week the Thailand Street Food Festival took place outside Central World. For me a good opportunity to get in touch with one of the most famous cuisine in the world: The Thai street food. Of course, I tried it before, some grilled chicken, some noodles, even sweets. But I am still not really familiar with all the different dishes.

The Street Food Festival was a great help. Organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), around 50 different food stalls were offering delicious dishes. Biggest advantage for me: English signs, and even the sellers were speaking enough English to explain what they offer.

Thai street food has a lot of variety, and I won't be able to mention all in this post. Fortunately the TAT published a handy book with the best street food vendors in Bangkok and a glossary giving you a brought overview. You learn that Bamee Heng are Egg noodles with dry toppings (although dry just means its not in a soup), that the Thai name for the renown Green Curry is Kaeng Keaw Wan, and that Kanom means snack, but Kanom Bueang Yuan for example is a Vietnamese crepe filled with minced meat, in Vietnam know as Ban Xeo.

Kuaytiew is the main Thai dish, it means rice noodles. Kuaytiew Look Chin Pla means it comes with fish balls, while Kuaytiew Kua Kai are stir fried flat rice noodles with chicken. The book isn't for sale, but I am sure it will be distributed at further food events.

One reason why I need the introduction into Thai street food (beside my general interest in the food of the country I live in) was top get along in food courts. Nearly every shopping mall has a local food court, much cheaper than the fancy Pizza Company or even MK restaurants. But for me it was always difficult to even understand what they are selling.

Yesterday I went to the food court at Imperial World Samut Prakan. I go there for shopping (Big C) and banking, and decided to give the food place in the basement a try. And surprise: Nearly all stalls there have a sign in English. I got minced pork with basil leaves and rice for 30 baht. I am quite motivated to try more of the Thai dishes, and discovered a nice looking shop in my street, selling street food in the morning.

That is still something I need to figure out: Opening hours. Many shops just open in the morning, until everything is sold out. So for lunch, I need to go to other stalls, and they may not be open in the evening. I think it just takes time to know who is selling what and when (and sometimes where).

Although I never had much problems with street food, you should have a look at the environment of the shops. To many flies are an indicator it may not be clean, very few customers as well. If you buy in the morning, buy early, even the hottest Thai curry isn't getting better after 4 hours in the open sun (and fumed by passing trucks).

Also, while being delicious, Thai street food isn't always the most healthy diet. It is a bit like McDonalds. If you go for a burger and salad is fine, if you order the XXL meals it's not. Beside the MSG issue (no, you are not dying once you ingested some), coconut oil and palm oil aren't the best oils. In general, Thai street food is too fat and has too much calorie for a balanced diet. And since it is prepared once and the kept warm, do not expect too many vitamins to survive (but you can compensate with some fruits from the stall right next).

Monday, June 10, 2013

Orchids at Siam Paragon

Orchids by thomaswanhoff
Orchids, a photo by thomaswanhoff on Flickr.

There is a orchid exhibition at Siam Paragon until Wednesday. In case you are a flowers lover. Expect a large crowd there.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dogs, dogs dogs - and a few cats at the Pet Expo in Bangkok

We are dog lovers, as you may have already seen reading this blog. So, when there was the Pet Expo at the Queen Sirikit Convention Center announced, we wanted to give it a shot. Although it was allowed to bring your dogs, we decided to just go by our own. A wise decision.

Pet dogs have become a fashion statement in Thailand (rot in hell, Paris Hilton). The smaller, the better. And even if they have four legs, owners don't really let them walk, They are carried on basket, hold in the humans arms, or, latest development, put in strollers. At least they don't share it with the new born baby (yet).
Our five dogs are street dogs, all rescued, and certainly not fitting the profile for the beauty contest. But they have character, and they are allowed to behave like dogs.

What worried me, was a booth with a Soi Dog foundation banner that was selling perfume for dogs. I really admire Soi Dog Foundation and we support them monthly, and I also understand the need of fundraising, but perfume for dogs????? It is stupid because dogs NEED to smell like a dog. It is the main communication channel with other dogs. A dogs fur usually doesn't small bad, except he was in the rain. Also, there is NO need to shower a dog every week if it's not dirty from outdoor activities (and even then, only water is just fine).

But it goes further: Countless offers of clothes for dogs, from T-Shirts to hats, shoes and - wigs! In all colours.

What I kinda liked was a company called HomePet Thailand. They are building dog houses. But it is not the average hut you already know. These are well designed villas, miniatures of the building we live in (see picture). They come with a price: a 1.24 square meter house costs 19.000 Baht.

In case you need some fancy bowls for your pets food, check out Coccola. They have well designed equipment, from wooden bowl holders to finest ceramic, blankest and dog beds.

A very smart move was to sell Condos there. Happy Condo is at Ladprao 101, and the reason they showed up at the Pet Expo was that they are dog friendly. They even have a dog park and a dog beauty salon.

Last but not least we found Pets Ville. They call themself a Community for Pet lovers, but it is a company. However, they will offer a promising range of services from October on. Dog Pool, Dog Hotel, Pet Shop. Grooming, Dog Cafem Pet Taxe and a Dog Park will be set up not far from the airport. Check the Facebook page for updates.

And then some more weird pets:

My first Thai course at AAA language school

So it is over, my first 20 hours of learning Thai at AAA Language school. The school is approved by the government in 2004. It costs 7,450 Baht for a 60 hours course in groups, but I took private lessons. The reason was that I wanted to focus on learning and not getting distracted (or pushed or slowed down) by others. I was also expecting more flexibility.

What I liked:
The tuition fee is reasonable, compared with other school. No complain about this. Included is a book and a CD. The location is also very convenient just 5 minutes walk from the BTS Chitlom. My teacher was very friendly and helpful, so was the overall experience with the staff.

What I did not like:
The school sticks with a certain system, that is pretty old. My biggest complain is that they don't refer to English. So the teacher wants you to figure out what the word means. I can understand that they might do this because of students from different nationalities, but for me it was a waste of time. I am not sure if they ever changed the books since they opened. One of the first words I learned was rubber eraser and ruler. Not sure if this is up to date.

Since I have some knowledge, in particular with vocabulary, from my time in Laos, I was hoping to learn Thai by speaking and reading/writing. But they stick with phonetic language, and that is quite an outdated system (although it might be helpful as a addition).

So, yes, I learned something, but not as much as I expected. A bit strange was the moment when I was leaving: Neither the teacher nor the receptionist/sales women even tried to sell me another course or asked about my experience. So it seems they just don't need more customers.

Now, I will try to go back to books and learn more reading and writing, and extend my vocabulary. And of course I need to practise.