I've been enrolled at Mahidol University for more than a month now, going for a Masters (and possibly a Ph.D) in Genetic Engineering. I had assumed that the relative novelty of a 40-something farang pursuing a degree in Thailand would make for some interesting, bloggable experiences. Unfortunately for this blog, university life has proceeded with few hitches, thanks to the well-organized administration at Mahidol, as well as the mostly 22-24 year old colleagues who don't find my presence the least bit perturbing. 99% of professional travel writing revolves around the pursuit of frustrating, risky, intractable experiences, so I guess I'm a lousy travel writer.
Quitting work has meant cutting back on the luxuries I enjoyed just a couple months ago. No fancy dinners. For the most part, I take the bus or skytrain to downtown Bangkok, something I hadn't done in a decade here, opting for taxis instead. I'm now a "farang kee nok" (birdshit white guy), I guess.
In the name of frugality, I canceled cable TV today. No big deal. It's mostly Korean pop culture, Japanese folks trying to complete some bizarre challenge, Chinese historical dramas, crude CGI flicks involving giant snakes, lanky female humans walking to and fro in garments that are never seen on the street, German language news, endless analysis of soccer, Mexican soap operas, and American professional wrestling. I'll miss the MMA and K1. Boo hoo.
The new routine means a long walk to the Skytrain, dropoff at Victory Monument, and a short bus ride to Mahidol's Phayathai campus. Street vendors. Beggars...mostly blind folks singing with the aid of a cheap amplifier. One dude plays an electric guitar most impressively...I've seen him at Central Mall Lad Prao in the early afternoon many times in the last decade; our routines now intersect more than ever. Others are purely pathetic, victims of mishaps involving electricity or motorcycles. Thais usually don't protest the results of karma.
Coming home means taking the legendary #8 bus. Again, I had no idea about this facet of existence until a month ago. Like most other buses, it's public transport, but somehow this particular number has a special reputation for accidents, folks falling out the doors into busy traffic, and the like. Last month some old guy was hit and dragged under the bus for a couple kilometers before the money-collector noticed thudding noises that seemed out-of-place in the money-collecting realm.
The tour books teach of etiquette on the Thai buses. As usual, the books are nonsense. Seating is mostly first-come first-serve. Unless a patron is obviously frail, few folks will offer their seats. In fairness to the Thais, I don't think the thought process is purely selfish. It's more like this: if I get up and offer a seat, I'll be making myself conspicuous, someone might feel obliged to thank me, and I wouldn't want to trouble anyone that way.
At the Phayathai campus, perhaps 95% of the students are Thai. My first class was something of a prep class for all sorts of bioscience-related graduate programs, so I'm guessing there were 250 students in the room. Four caucasians, myself included. The others come from locations like Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Ethiopia. It took maybe 10 minutes after the first class session before a dude named Muhammad was offering his views on the role of women (they shouldn't travel), the stupidity of Shiites (versus Sunnis), the decadence of Buddhism, and the amazingness of the Koran. The Muslims, bless their hearts, seem determined to prove that they're reasonable folks and the terrorists are mutants. I already know that, and it's fun to chat with them, but I would also like a chance to chat with the owners of the amazing legs that are only seen at a tangent.
Sarbast, a Kurdish Iraqi, is a fun dude. He doesn't hate the American soldiers, but does find them odd. Why, he laughs, do the soldiers purchase so much Viagra from his pharmacy when prostitutes are fairly scarce (though hardly nonexistent) in the region? The massive consumption of anabolic steroids is more understandable.
I'm mostly impressed with the education I'm getting so far. The profs are Thai, but their English language skills range from adequate to flawless. Acharn Prapol speaks with a fairly strong English accent. As might be expected, there's a slightly heavier emphasis on memorization and testing than you'd probably see in the West, but it's not as if the profs don't understand the importance of communicating broad concepts.
Below...9 of my 15 compadres in this year's Genetic Engineering program, eating noodles near Victory monument.
4 years ago