Travel Journal: Bangkok

I’m going to start keeping a journal of the places I travel. Why? Well, I pack a lot of stuff into these trips, and it would be nice to have a place to go back to remember exactly when I did what. So, with that in mind, here’s the first part of a lengthy bit of travel writing about Bangkok, Kyoto, Osaka, and Koyasan.

Bangkok

The Trip In

We landed late at night at Bangkok Airport, following an obscenely long travel day of PDX – SEA – ICN – BKK. After a couple of beers with a client in the Seoul-Incheon airport, I was hoping for a quick, sleep-filled flight, but it was fairly warm and I was unable to go to sleep easily. Still, all told and aside from the woman who coughed on me for the entirety of the 11 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, everything was pretty okay.

Movies watched

  1. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy
  2. The Longest Day
  3. The Dead Don’t Die
  4. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  5. (Part of) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Ironically, I wanted to sleep through The Dead Don’t Die, but fell asleep during the last movie. It was fine, I was just exhausted. I need to give it another shot. The Dead Don’t Die was dull and seemed more like an exercise for Jim Jarmusch to get his friends together than anything. Just a lot of dull moments following each other with hints of a better script throughout.

Sunday

Woke up early, got breakfast at, possibly, the most excessive breakfast buffet known to man, and went back upstairs to get some work done and listen to the Astros’ last ALCS game over the MLB.com radio. A bit of the way through the 7th, I figured they would do just fine without me and went for a walk with some coworkers. We went through one of the giant malls that you usually find in Southeast Asia, those shining diamonds of tourism and glamour set right next to side streets where the houses are little more than tin lean-tos. Floors of designer gear aimed at wealthy Chinese and Japanese shopping-tourists – not to mention Emirates on vacation. We walked around aimlessly, talking about life, our jobs, leaving our jobs, and reasons for leaving jobs, and, ultimately, wound up at a cafe next to a gas station.

After a brief repose, I met up with another coworker. He and I went for another amble in the heat – I told him about the song “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen” – and found a small place for lunch. Two pad thais and two sodas for four dollars! The price and the food were good and the restaurant staff were friendly. He and I then went back to the hotel, I did some more work, and then planted in the hotel bar & lounge. In the course of a few hours when we were there, I met a couple from the local Chabad House. They were wandering around hotels looking for Jews who hadn’t done anything for Sukkot. I shook the lulav and etrog and chatted for a bit. The guy – Mendl – invited me out for Simchat Torah the next day. I said that, as I had no other plans, I’d give it a shot.

We went for dinner that night at one of the restaurants at the hotel after missing a connection with a few other people who were going somewhere else. Had mediocre sleep that night; jetlag began to strike.

Monday

Meetings through the day with nothing major to report. That night, though, I wound up going to Simchat Torah at the Chabad House. The people were very friendly once I got through the “Are you really Jewish or are you a terrorist in disguise” screening at the entrance. As normal for Chabad and Simchat Torah, the whiskey and vodka flowed like the Chao Praya. I chatted with a lot of people, including one guy from San Francisco who owns rental properties in Portland and is, thus, the enemy. Lots of ex-pat American Jews in Bangkok, either because of finance or retirement. I drank and ate, then danced with the Torah like it was in a very low-key circle pit. Chabad has turned praying into an endurance sport in this regard, and they are to be commended for it.

Toward the end of the night, I met one guy who tried (and failed) to convince me to buy tefillen. He then offered to just give me some, which was very nice. We arranged to meet on Wednesday, which did not happen due to scheduling problems. Again, a very nice man, but Chabad does not, as a rule, strike me as a schedule-oriented bunch.

Observations

  • The shul was in the bottom floor of what I assume is an apartment building catering to Westerners. I walked by it twice on Sunday, but didn’t notice anything that indicated it was a Jewish center. I assume this is very much intentional, given the rise of racism the world over.
  • Inside, the shul was simple. Some tables and chairs, a heavy bima in the center that was a little larger than a speaker’s platform. The ark was nice, though, and they had two Ashkenazi scrolls and two Sephardic scrolls. Those Sephardic scrolls, I learned, are very heavy. The women were behind a barrier, except for the girls, who ran around the room while the men prayed.
  • At one point, some Bar Mitzvah-aged boys ran around with huge bottles of whiskey.
  • The Chabadniks were shocked that I was not married, and Mendle offered to make me a match. I turned him down because I did not, by any ways, means, or hopes, want to stay in Bangkok a moment longer than I needed to.

All in all, it was a wildly different experience from a Reform service and I definitely see the appeal of joining the community, especially if you have decent Hebrew. The fact that I was practically stumbling back from the hotel – carefree! In Bangkok! – spoke wonders to how they’re able to throw a community together out of – ostensibly – every kind of Jew. It reminded me of Rabbi Zalman in Kent, who traveled around South and Southeast England, connecting Jewish students and holding services for holidays. I wondered how he’s doing, and should really reach out to him and see how things are.

Tuesday

Long day of meetings. We held a members reception at the top floor of the hotel bar, bit nothing following it aside from small-group schmoozing and drinking. Noticed here that most people seemed fairly low energy. Unsure of the reason. Talked with Ania, Oleksandr’s wife, for a bit. She was nice and gave me some pointers for Kyoto. We had a final drink in the hotel bar and called it a night.

Wednesday

Incredibly long and brutal day of meetings capped off by a 30-minute voting session. Following that, had a few rounds at the hotel bar with members, then went out to a small place nearby for pad thai and a huge Chang. I returned to the hotel and slept poorly again, thanks to stress dreams. Included:

  • Carrying Grandolph’s corpse around a village in Eastern Europe, trying and failing to find an appropriate place to bury him. In the dream I called my dad to ask why he wasn’t the one doing this, and he gave me a verbal shrug on the phone.
  • Went to a synagogue where the chair of the org’s certification group was the rabbi. The synagogue’s focus was on worshipping god through physical fitness. Kind of like masculine Christianity, but Jewish. It was a very strange dream.

I woke up at 3am and could not get back to sleep. I knew that I was looking forward to vacation.

Thursday

Relatively laid-back day. Had a lot of work to get through and hoped to be able to do so by the end of the day Friday. Spent most of the day with the Security group. Phil cracked jokes and Alex deemed the group a bunch of imps. I went to dinner with a few members at a nearby Indian restaurant at the Holiday Inn, called Maya. It was pretty good, though a little pricier than I think it should have been. I returned to the hotel with the members and had a round of beer before crashing for the night. Topics of conversation included.:

  • Inclement weather (tornadoes)
  • The size of pint glasses
  • Permission to be nice to Phil as part of higher-tier membership dues.

Went to sleep early and got a full(ish) 7 hours of sleep.

Friday

A half day of meetings led to shirking some duties to go to the Bangkok Aquarium. It was nice, and they seemed to care about the fish. I guess. They weren’t eating them in front of us, which I took to be a good sign. Not sure how you are supposed to tell if fish are comfortable. Do they get more aggressive? Do they go insane? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

After fish-jail, we went to a steak place across the street from the hotel for beers. Ed made it clear that he was “disappointed” that the bar was out of some beer. The server said “Ah” and walked away. I’m sure he has bigger things to worry about. Like if water is going to be potable that day. Or if he’s going to be able to easily afford to eat. You know, minor things like that. The beer they did have was perfectly fine. I got a Tuk Tuk, which was billed as a cream ale. My experience with cream ales is limited, but it tasted fine. Don’t know that I’ll seek it out again, but if I find myself in SE Asia again, I’ll be on the lookout for it.

The beer reminded me of the beer stall in Singapore. Singapore is another place I’d be perfectly fine with never going to again. The beer stall was fine, though.

After the beers, we went back to the hotel lobby bar, and had a few drinks before I left for the airport. I’m not sure when I’ll get to see those guys again, and it was nice to be able to spend a bit of time with em. At least a few of them I’d consider to be friends, and parting with friends, especially when you don’t know when you’ll see each other again, is always bittersweet.

En route to the airport, my driver thought I said no to the highway, which resulted in a winding path through the streets of Bangkok. There were a lot of downtrodden streets along that route. Poverty is hard to acknowledge and accept, especially when you know that a lot of those people share the same dreams as everyone in the world: Stability, prosperity for their life, and – hell – drinkable water on demand.

At the airport, I ran into Oleksandr and Ania. We chatted for a bit, parted ways at our gates, and I caught my flight.

Kyoto by way of Busan, Seoul, and Osaka

Saturday

I left Bangkok late and, as a result, missed my connection. After a very frustrating conversation with Kiwi, I got a refund on my Busan -> KIX flight and booked at the airport with Korean Air. It was more expensive that way, but I have solidly inscribed Kiwi in the Book of Grudges after they told me it would be 2-4 hours before I could talk to another agent about re-booking my flight. I decided to go the route I did because doing so put me on a dependable airline, direct with the airline, and did not throw me into a situation where I might have to take a weird route. My advice if you want to go with Kiwi or another semi-travel agency would be to only do it if you’re travelling domestic. If you’re flying international, give yourself more than enough time for transfers in case something goes slightly wrong, because you’re going to need to go out of your way to go about your day.

Anyway, the bright side of an extended layover in Busan was that I was able to listen to the Astros game at the airport!

I landed in Osaka and got through immigration at 6pm. There, I met up with Brad, took a long bus trip to Kyoto, dropped off my bags at First Cabin – a capsule hotel that charged me $130 for the week! – and went to dinner with him and Yumiko at a nearby Italian place. Apparently, Italian is a big deal in Kyoto. I had a risotto and some kind of white wine that was tasty. Brad and Yumiko’s kid, Kanna, displayed patience that would desert her later in the weekm and was fairly innocuous throughout dinner.

After the meal, I went out for a beer at a nearby place called Marib, went to my hotel, and passed out.

V for Victory

It is no secret that I have a thing for Beethoven. I’ve written about it here and if you’re around me when I’m drunk enough to go on a ramble about music, then chances are that you’ll hear me talk about why Beethoven’s work is so important to me. But in the context of what the US is going through right now, and, really, what the world is going through right now, Beethoven is integral.

Anyone who pays any attention to news from the US and abroad knows that the world has seen a massive upswing in the worst excesses of right-wing politics, from reactionary rhetoric to autocrats encouraging the full-sale slaughter of their own citizens. But more disturbing than their actions is that, at least in the West, these parties are democratically elected. They are a symptom of a great amount of fear, hatred, and misplaced rage the world over, and the causes of that are best left for another post written by someone who hasn’t recently gone on a tear shouting “Punch Nazis wherever you see them.” No, what I’m here to talk about today is a follow-up to a Twitterstorm I threw out a few days ago about Shostakovich. See, that happened before our President, a man with a micropenis—evidenced by his reactionary and egoistic approach to anyone criticizing him or the straw figures he calls his policies—decided to throw a gag order on environmental and recreational federal agencies. After that popped up, I thought some more about Shostakovich, a man who fought back against another oppressive regime in his own way: He made music. And now, with our President deciding that, yes, a list of crimes committed by immigrants is a fantastic way to unify the country and use his executive powers, I think about Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man from the margins who spent his life attempting to become an aristocrat by virtue of his work. His family was not of the upper crust, and he knew that very well. It’s reflected in his relationships with his patrons and his mentors, this mentality that they had no moral right or standing to address him as an inferior, or that he should be content with his station as a mere employee or artistic servant. This carried over into his politics, where, for the day, he was a staunch proponent of individual liberties. He criticized the Austrian court, its secret police, and the foibles of the aristocracy. He supported Napoleon up until the point where Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. His only opera deals with the theme of the unjustly imprisoned and mistreated overcoming their oppressors with the help of a just ruler. In all, Beethoven was, at least nominally, a friend of the common man. His music is filled with these themes, and to write about any of those pieces would provide enough content for an entire series about Beethoven and political resistance. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about Beethoven’s 5th and World War II.

In short, the Allies realized that they had a propaganda coup with using the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to open their broadcasts. Not only is the music striking, but, in Morse Code, the same short-long pattern translates to “V,” as in “victory.” So, with every broadcast, with every bumbumbum-buh, the Allies would telegraph their hope for victory over the Germans. Of course, what they didn’t really make a note of is the very same bars being the implication of Fate knocking on one’s door. That, naturally, has its own propaganda use, as it’s almost as if Heaven and Earth are willing the Allied forces to victory over the Axis powers. But, that’s a lot less snappy than “V for Victory.”

Of course, Beethoven’s German roots were a little troublesome to some people. Those people, naturally, didn’t really think about that beyond the labels of “German.” On one level, it falls apart because Beethoven didn’t live in Germany, as Germany would not exist for decades. On another, he came from a Flemish family (hence the “van” in his name), and lived and worked in Austria for a significant portion of his life. On yet another level, that concern falls apart when one considers that Beethoven had a certain, significant portion of his brain dedicated to making known his disdain for autocrats, tyrants, and the crushing of the masses by the aristocracy.

But beyond all of those political matters, the underlying theme in all of Beethoven’s work is a sort of universalism that is a unique hybrid of a Protestant environment, Beethoven’s sense of natural wonder and nature-based spiritualism, and the brotherhood of man. The most famous example of this is the Choral portion of his 9th Symphony, which takes and edits (for the better, by all accounts) a poem by Friedrich Schiller. The content of Beethoven’s choral work is a sort of unitarian spiritualist praise of the best qualities of humanity, and, at its core, a call for people to rise above their base natures and embrace one another as brothers (and sisters).

But, as it stands, and as poetic and beautiful and moving as the 9th is, there is nothing quite as punch and attention-grabbing as those opening bars of the 5th. They force you to sit up, focus your attention, and set you up for riding the wave of Fate that is the 5th. Most relevant for today’s political environment, though, is the call to action implicit in those bars. As the dynamic, bombastic music throughout the symphony would suggest, Fate does not favor those who sit idly by. Fate favors those who act.

Perhaps that was in the background of the Allied propagandists’ minds when they decided to use those opening notes in BBC broadcasts across occupied Europe. For whatever reason, though, those opening bars of the Fifth Symphony have found their place in the composer’s work’s theme of triumph over adversity, of resistance to tyranny, and the triumph of individual liberty.

As the United States faces a President who is at the very least someone who is eerily close to several definitions of fascism, we would do well to look back at the inspiration our parents and grandparents took from art like the Fifth Symphony, and the themes that Beethoven espoused in his work. Just as Fate favors the bold and the active, it takes more effort than we’d like to admit to rise above our evolutionary origins of face-ripping, feces-throwing apes and fully embrace each other. It takes a strong will to stand up against the empowered few who seek to dominate the disempowered many.

⬤ ⬤ ⬤ ▬

The List – 36 Movies You, as a Person, Should Watch

One of my coworkers suggested I draw up a list of movies that people should watch. So, here are 36 movies you should watch! All but one of them were released after 2000.

Documentary

  • The Wolfpack (2015) – Follows six brothers who were isolated in their apartment by their father. Their method of learning about the outside world was through movies, which they would reenact and film. Thus, this is a documentary about movies and people watching movies. Meta as shit.
  • Grizzly Man (2005) – Werner Herzog’s documentary on a man who lived with grizzly bears every summer in Alaska until, eventually, he was killed by one of them. Herzog, I think, is about as close to an incarnation of God as we’ll ever see, and any time you can see him wax philosophic on the interaction of humans and nature is a blast.
  • Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) – Werner Herzog’s newest documentary, about the Internet, technology, and how people interact with it. Come for the ethics of connection, stay for the bit where someone suggests robots could make movies.
  • Jesus Camp (2006) – [screams]
  • Trekkies (1997) – Documentary about Trekkies and what it means to be a Trekkie
  • When Jews Were Funny (2013) – A perfect companion piece to two web series: Old Jews Telling Jokes and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Jokes! So many jokes!

Drama, Westerns, & Others I’m Too Lazy to Classify

  • The Road (2009) – Post-apocalyptic movie adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. It’s a challenging one to watch. You’ve been warned.
  • Only God Forgives (2013) – Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives is another entry in the Fucked Up Movies genre, following Ryan Gosling as a young drug dealer in Bangkok, being hunted by a merciless, machete-wielding police officer. Dialogue is sparse in this movie, which is driven more by a dreamlike atmosphere than conventional storytelling.
  • Tangerine (2015) – Two trans prostitutes are on the warpath in Los Angeles after their pimp cheats on one of them while she is in prison.
  • Slow West (2015) – Western with Michael Fassbender playing an Irish outlaw escorting a young Scottish noble who’s trying to track down his exiled paramour in the expanse of the American West.
  • The Witch (2015) – Horror film about a 17th century New England Puritan family exiled from their township for blasphemy. Living in isolation, they fall prey to malevolent forces in the woods.
  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) – Directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicolas Cage, this movie is something else. Oftentimes manically edited to match the eponymous cop’s drug habit, you need to be on your toes for this one, lest you’re left behind, stuck in the mire of post-Katrina New Orleans.
  • Creed (2015) – Fighting harder, fighting stronger.

Action

  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) – Once again, we send off my War Rig to bring back guzzoline from Gastown and bullets from Bullet Farm. Once again, I salute my Imperator, Furiosa and my Half-Life War Boys, who will ride with me eternal on the highways of Walhalla! I am your redeemer! It is by my hand you will rise from the ashes of this world!
  • Dredd (2012) – Brutal reboot of the Judge Dredd film property with Karl Urban. Taking heavily from The Raid, Dredd is a fantastic action flick that more than redeems the travesty that was the Stallone film from the 90s.
  • John Wick (2014) – Don’t fuck with a man’s dog.
  • Ip Man 3 (2015) – Donnie Yen plays the embodiment of awesome in this third installment of the Ip Man series. Loosely based on the life of Bruce Lee’s mentor, Ip Man follows Yip Man as he defends family and country against aggressors. Ip Man 3 finds him against an American real estate developer played by Mike Tyson and his horde of greaser minions. It’s a lot of fun, even if the pacing’s off at times.
  • JCVD (2008) – I’m not quite sure where to put this one. It’s a drama, and an action movie, and at times a comedy. JCVD follows Jean-Claude Van Damme as he reflects on his life, imminent divorce and bankruptcy, and also gets held hostage in a bank robbery. And it turns out that JCVD is a really fun guy to watch, even to this day.

Sci-Fi

  • Moon (2009) – Directed by Duncan Jones, Moon follows astronaut Sam Bell as he experiences some super weird shit on a lunar installation on the moon.
  • Ex Machina (2015) – What’s worse than an egotistical startup tech genius? An egotistical startup tech genius dicking around with AI research.
  • Children of Men (2006) – In a world where procreation is impossible, one woman can suddenly have a child. Clive Owen puts in a legitimately good performance in a bleak post-apocalyptic film about humanity.
  • Prometheus (2012) – An extremely divisive film, Prometheus is the prologue to Alien. It has a similar plot trajectory, but delves just a bit more into the lore of the Alien series, and has some extremely striking visuals and a very unique tone throughout the movie.
  • Interstellar (2014) – Christopher Nolan’s entry into the sci-fi canon. Interstellar acts in a way very similar to a lot of older sci-fi novels. The plot is slow, the science is somewhat heavy, and the characters are not so much people as interactions of ideas and philosophies. Notable as a think-y blockbuster in an age of sequels and series.
  • Pandorum (2009) – This movie is garbage, but it’s occasionally creepy garbage.

Comedy

  • What We Do In The Shadows (2015) – A New Zealand faux-documentary about vampires sharing a house in Wellington. It’s hilarious, and has so much more than the “werewolves not swearwolves” line that everyone latches on to. Pray you never meet The Beast.
  • The Nice Guys (2016) – Shane Black’s post-Iron Man 3 movie follows Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as slimy private investigators with hearts of gold, caught in the midst of a plot between 1970s Big Auto, the porno industry, and their own lackluster professional lives. It’s a fantastic crime-comedy that borrows from Black’s earlier work, the buddy cop genre, and Abbot & Costello in equal measure.
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer star in Shane Black’s other mystery-crime-comedy. This one is equally as amazing as The Nice Guys, and it’s awesome to see pre-Iron Man Downey Jr do a comedy schtick relying on him being an idiot. Amazingly meta. Great fucking watch.
  • Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) – A horror-comedy about two rednecks who are hunted by college students in the backwoods. Officer, it’s been a doozy of a day.
  • In The Loop (2009) – British comedy about American and English diplomats inadvertently starting a war. Brilliant satire that has some of the most artful swearing in the history of cinema.
  • A Serious Man (2009) – One of the most Jewish movies in the history of movies, the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man follows a put-upon physics professor as his life takes on serious undertones of the Book of Job. Contains a fantastic slew of an ensemble cast, and then this scene, which is [drools].
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016) – The Coen Brothers’ latest movie follows a studio fixer as he herds cats including George Clooney’s idiot movie star character, a charming hick of a horse rider-turned-star, twin gossip columnists, and Scarlett Johansson’s foul-mouthed It Girl who is on the prowl for a dependable man in Hollywood.
  • In Bruges (2008) – The best Irish movie set in Belgium in the history of Irish movies set in Belgium. Maybe that’s what hell is. Being stuck in fucking Bruges for all eternity.
  • The Lobster (2015) – A very weird movie about the horrors of dating and being a single person in modern(ish) society. Very worth a double feature with In Bruges just to see Colin Farrell suddenly put on thirty pounds and grow a dorky mustache.

Shorts