Monday, December 30, 2013

Tech Goes to Thailand: Buddha’s Relics, Sugar Threads and Gigantic River Prawns

By Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Tech director of public relations
Posted Nov. 25, 2013, on the Tech Goes to Thailand blog

HOUGHTON -- [Editor's Note: Jennifer (Jenn) Donovan, director of public relations at Michigan Technological University, spent the month of November as a Fulbright Specialist in communications at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was working with the Faculty of Engineering to improve their external communication of their work and to help them develop an international marketing plan for expanding international exchange opportunities for students and faculty.

Jenn, who often shares her Michigan Tech News stories with Keweenaw Now, has also shared her adventures in Thailand on a blog through Michigan Tech. Here is one of her posts, reprinted here with permission.]*

It’s called Ayutthaya, the Ancient City, a bustling town about an hour from Bangkok and home to an amazing variety of tourist treats: the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, a life-sized reproduction of a traditional Thai river house, piles of rubble that are all that remains of the original Ancient City, a floating market. Also steamed river prawns -- the most enormous shrimp I’ve ever seen -- and roti sai mai, a popular Thai confection made of fine threads of sugar wrapped in paper-thin crepes.
(Photo inset: Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Tech director of public relations. Photo courtesy Michigan Tech University)

Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand 400 years ago, before a second war with Burma forced the Thais to move their capital to Bangkok. Now it’s a popular tourist destination for Thais and foreigners alike. Tour buses clog the narrow streets.

Ing and Kade, who work in the International Undergraduate Programs (IUP) office at Kasetsart University, pick me up at my hotel in a behemoth of an air-conditioned university van. They bring three IUP students with them: Paeng, Win and Smart.

Pictured here, from left, are Kade, Ing, Smart, Paeng and Win. (Photos of Thailand © and courtesy Jennifer Donovan. Reprinted with permission.)

The students, whose computer engineering program is taught in English, are much more fluent than Ing and Kade. Especially Win, who attended an international high school. He wants to study in the US. So do Paeng ("my friends call me Nichy") and Smart, who visited Detroit for a month on an exchange program when he was 12. Nichy is just in her first year at Kasetsart, but she has already attended an open house for students who may qualify for the prestigious Royal Thai Scholar program, a full ride at a US university, funded by the Thai government. Royal Thai Scholars are the best of the best Thai students. At that open house, she met with Michigan Tech Graduate School’s Kristi Isaacson, and she’s eager to hear more about opportunities at Michigan Tech. I give her my card and urge her to email me. "I can get you some information too, and reading my emails will help you practice your English," I tell her. "Thank you very much," she says with a little bow.

We start our tour of Ayutthaya at the National Museum. Leaving our shoes at the door, we receive instructions about photography inside. It is OK to take pictures in the main halls of the museum, we are told, but no flash photography, and the person shooting the picture cannot appear in the photo. That’s hard to do anyway, unless you’re into "selfies."

The museum is named for King Boramarjadhira, known as Chao Sam Phraya, who ruled in Ayutthaya in the 15th century. It is filled with antiquities recovered from Ayutthaya when the Ancient City’s ruins were excavated.

Relics include a massive cast bronze Buddha’s head dating from the 13th to 14th century, enormous carved wooden temple doors, a stone image of a seated Buddha from the 7th to 8th century and cabinets containing coins of every era, back to the stone-like money of the earliest Thai periods.

Garuda -- a mythical man-eagle -- graced the bow of a royal barge.

In two "treasure rooms," guarded and air-conditioned, are relics retrieved from basement chambers of Wat Rajaburana and Wat Mahathat. Wats are Buddhist temples in Thailand. One room is filled with sacred Buddhist treasures, including a splendid jeweled edifice said to contain the bones of the Buddha. In this room, Smart and Nichy kneel to pray to Buddha, and Win asks me if I am Christian. If you think explaining Unitarianism is hard in the US (and it is), try explaining it to a Thai. "I am not Christian," I say. "I am Unitarian. I believe in the sacred spirit of all religions." Win understands my English. I’m not sure he understands what I just said. "I am an atheist," he informs me. "We welcome atheists in the Unitarian church too," I tell him. "We welcome everyone, as long as they respect other people’s beliefs." He blinks.

I have no photos to show you of the treasure rooms. Photography is absolutely forbidden in them.

The other treasure room contains ancient royal artifacts such as crowns, eating utensils, swords and jewelry, most of them made of gold. Many of these objects were gifts from wealthy people to their king.

After we leave the museum and use a restroom where you flush the toilet by scooping a bucket of water out of a trough and dumping it in the commode, we visit a reproduction of a traditional Thai river home.

Built of wood on stilts over a river or other body of water, the house consists of an open courtyard with raised rooms on three sides. Shoes off again, we clamber over high thresholds to explore the rooms, lulled by the trickling water outside and underneath.

A traditional Thai river house.

On to lunch, at a riverfront restaurant where we can watch the barges and the floating market boats moving up and down the river. The students order. They’re clearly hungry.

After the crab fried rice and crispy sea bass come platter after platter: chicken with cashews and mushrooms; spicy/tangy seafood soup filled with squid, shrimp and less recognizable critters; another whole fish in creamy curry sauce; and steamed river prawns -- the largest shrimp I have ever seen. A dozen fill a platter that stretches from one side of our table to the other. Each shrimp is intact -- legs, head, eyes and all -- and each one is the size of a small lobster or a humongous crawfish. Peeling them is a project; eating them -- dipped in a sweet-sour chili sauce -- is ecstasy.

Giant steamed river prawns.

Suddenly shadows fall across our outdoor table.

I look up and find we are surrounded by police. But they are smiling, so we’re probably OK. The commander in charge of this unit of Tourist Police has decided we are tourists (how did he guess), and he wants to take a picture of his men with us. Needless to say, we oblige. They move on to their own table to eat their lunch, and as we leave, I ask if they will return the photo favor. They grin for my camera.

Tourist Police eating lunch in Ayutthaya.

After that enormous lunch, we couldn’t possibly eat another bite. At least that’s what I thought, until the students clamor for the van driver to pull over to a roti sai mai stand, where we all pile out to watch two women make the colorful, sugary confections out of long, spaghetti-like colored threads rolled in paper-thin crepes in matching shades of green, pink or yellow.

 A roti sai mai shopkeeper weighing out a bag of sugar threads.

As we munch, I ask what in the world we are eating. "Sugar," says Win. "Just sugar, pulled into thin threads and wrapped in roti." And the roti, what is it made of, I wonder. "Flour," Win replies. "Flower?" asks Nichy. "F-L-O-U-R, flour," Win tells her. "Flower grows in garden," Nichy says to me, looking confused. "English is funny that way," I tell her. "Flour is what you bake bread with. Flower grows in the garden. And they sound the same." Nichy stares at me. "They sound the same?" But words can sound the same in Thai too, I point out. The "mai" in roti sai mai means "thread." But "sai" also means "no." Nichy laughs. "No is sai. Thread is sai." They do sound just a bit different when she says them -- I guess.

The roti sai mai vendor cooking the paper-thin crepes that are wrapped around long threads of spun sugar in this Thai confection.

Everyone but me piles back into the van toting big bags of roti sai mai. "You want some?" Kade asks. "The one I ate was enough for me," I assure her.

On the way back to the university, the van suddenly stops dead. Everyone is looking out the windows and pointing. There in the center of the road is a rather large spotted lizard, a water monitor. "If you see this lizard, it will bring you good fortune," Win explains. But not if you run over it. So we wait patiently until the lizard slithers off the road and into a ditch.

A stop at an ancient temple was on the schedule too, but by mid-afternoon, it was seriously hot. "The temple is hotter," Win warns me. "It is hot for Thais. I think it is too hot for you." I readily agreed to skip the temple.

* Click here to find links to more of Jennifer Donovan's posts with links to stories and photos of her visit to Thailand.

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