Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Final Installment

I have now arrived home as have all the students. I actually left Bangkok a day early because my oldest sons and my granddaughter were going to come for a visit.

It's been a good trip and I am, as always, left a little conflicted. I am so glad to be home! I am so tired! I missed Betty and my family and dogs terribly. But, give me a little rest and I'm ready to go again. I guess I'm like the farm dog who always jumps in the truck anytime the door opens. In my mind, I am already planning the next trip.

This was such a great learning experience: culture, food, politics, economy, history. It's all in Southeast Asia in quantity and the students really absorbed it. Some of the best teaching I ever did occurred in Bangkok, on Soi 11, at 11 p.m., at a street food vendors cart. It's a great place to discuss culture and politics, religion and economics, food and spirituality. There's Thai culture, at least quite a bit of it, parading right in front of you.

Another favorite teaching location is in the local markets. People are rushing in to buy things from individual vendors with whom they have a continuing relationship. Shoppers head for their favorite fruit vendor who has the best Dragon fruit. Or, they go rushing off to the person with the best pork, or veggies. People in Southeast Asia still rub shoulders with their neighbors and they still buy from people they know. What a different economic model built on small individual sellers who have been making the same pho, for example, in the same spot and in the same way for 20 years. And they sell to the same customers who come by for the best pho in Ho Chi Minh city every day. There is no Wal Mart, Target, Sam's Costco, or Kroger. There is a new grocery chain "Lotus" and one wonders how that is going to affect things and how will that affect a culture where people know each other and do business on a regular basis.

Bangkok, our last stop, is quiet and things seem pretty normal. There remain fewer tourists and I noticed that the flight from BKK to NRT was about 60% full. It was great for me because I had added room but not good for the local economy.

I wonder if this peace will hold. While Thai peoples were shocked and angered by what happened and how it happened the underlying issues remain. Thailand is a great country but the gulf between the haves and have nots remains vast. If you don't believe me take a trip outside Bangkok to any smaller community and there you will see it first hand.

So, the issues remain and red shirts remain. Can the latest coalition government produce a sustainable solution? Will the current government hold elections in November as promised? What will happen as the king spends more time in the hospital and less time exerting his enormous moral power? Is Thaksin really finished? All of these questions make Thailand a fascinating political topic of interest.

Well, it's hard to believe but my work is done here. Best to all.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Last Post Before Departure . . . Probably

This is Monday June 7, 2010 and the first of the students (Kathryn Jones and Stephanie Goins) both depart tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. They will head to the airport after a farewell dinner at 7 p.m. Both are fine travellers and now good friends. I'll miss both of them.

The rest of the group departs 11:30 p.m. tomorrow evening. I may try to fly standby with them as I am now tired and ready to return. I usually stay one day later just in case but this time I may go ahead and try to depart earlier. We'll see how that works. If all else fails I'll fly out Wednesday evening at 11:30 p.m. and I'll arrive at 1:15 p.m. on Thursday in Roanoke.

Bangkok is clearly recovering although Suk11 still remains more empty than I remember from three previous visits. However, I have seen more tourists today than I recall in previous days. All the sites and shopping and history are open. I've still not seen much security.

I do like Bangkok. I suppose it's my favorite. It's so diverse and so vibrant and so immense. It's hard to explain but I don't get tired of being here.

I'll see all in the US. Best.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Another Day in Bangkok

Yesterday we visited Young and Rubicam atSiam Towers here in Bangkok. Oliver Kittipong, who heads their strategy section, hosted us. The students understand that Thai culture is different and we've talked about some differences. From an IMC perspective Oliver was very specific about the environment for advertising/public relations/marketing from a cultural perspective.

For example, the market still relies heavily on tv but not so much cable. Newspapers remain very popular and are tightly focused even though there is one main one. Cell phone penetration is over 90% but internet use remains low although growing. Thai language and humor here requires a very local touch. All of these things set the stage for any campaign and they require constant adaptation. I think we all learned quite a lot.

Today we'll visit Nai, a friend of Dr. Joe Flory's, who works in the Foreign Affairs office. I'll be curious to learn about the government take on the recent riots and its impact on the economy. One story I read claimed that the Thai economy had lost $1.5 billion in revenue. The manager of our hotel said that only 10 rooms were occupied and we have four of them. Other places, she reported, have no customers and staff are being laid off. I thought I saw more people at our place and the streets are more full than they were but things have not yet recovered to pre riot conditions.

I have heard, but can't confirm, that the king is in the hospital. Perhaps that is why he did not take a public stand on the riots.

For now, things seem normal to me although less crowded.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tiger Temple

I have been to the Tiger Temple north and west of Bangkok four times. Each time I think I won't go in and every time I do. And, every time I enjoy myself.

This year there were more tigers and more cubs. They had added the opportunity to go to a pond and watch the tigers play. I often felt sorry that the tigers were so lethargic during the photo session. You'll note in the pictures that they seem so out of it. However, when they are released to go to the pond things change quickly. All the tigers we say (11 or 12) were under two years old and they played like the kids they are. I'll try to post some video so you can really see what they are like at play.

The drive there and back is about 2.5 hours each way. It was a very good but a tiring day.

Today we'll see Oliver Kittipong at Young and Rubicam. Tomorrow, Nai who works for the Thai government.

For those who are reading, everybody is doing very well and learning quite a lot. We had a good chat with a British restaurant owner who was on Soi 11 where we stay during the riots. His descriptions are scary and interesting.

Each day there are more and more people on the streets and things are beginning to look normal again.  We are safe and happy.

Monday, May 31, 2010

In Bangkok

We arrived in good order from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The plane was not full but plenty of travelers. Had a great conversation with a couple from New Zealand. Her parents live at Phuket and she is a public relations professional (graphic designer). They had been in Bangkok and reassured me that things are now fine . . . they are very fine.

Things are normal in Bangkok except for the shopping area burned and the lack of Westerners. MBK is open as are markets and stores. I haven't seen anybody with a red shirt, or yellow for that matter. I've seen no military presence except at the Siloam MRT stop. Even Lumpini Park is empty, cleaned, and open. So, things are fine and we are safe.

The students and I were talking about the fact that Bangkok, as is the case for most Asian cities, is so retail oriented. There are places to shop everywhere and I do mean everywhere. We went to Wat Po yesterday and then made our way to Chinatown. In Chinatown it's hard to walk down the street because of street vendors of all sizes shapes and descriptions. It's just hard to imagine.

Food is also interesting, as anyone who has been here knows. So much wonderful food is prepared on the street. Right outside our places is a guy who grills beef, pork, and chicken on sticks for 10 baht a stick. I eat a simple lunch, rice or noodles, and then a few sticks from him in the evenings. Of course, Cheap Charlies remains a Bangkok fixture and is about 100 feet from Suk11 where we stay.

All enjoyed Wat Po and the reclining Buddha. The water taxi ride was first rate and a new experience for the students.

Today we drive 2.5 hours almost into Mynamar for the Tiger Temple, a temple that is the home of orphaned tiger cubs who grow into adulthood who adopt and care for them.

Tomorrow, we will visit Young and Rubicam and Oliver Kittipong to discuss public relations and integrated marketing communication in Thailand. Thai people have a very different view of acceptable public communication.

Thursday we will visit a contact of mine, via Dr. Joe Flory, who works in foreign affairs for the Thai government.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Day in Phnom Penh

We visited S-21 (the Khmer Rouge interrogation facility in central Phnom Penh). And, we visited the Killing Fields 15 km south of town. It's hard to explain in Virginia the real horror of the whole thing. It has real impact standing next to the gallows or next to a pit where 100 headless people were found. The stupa at the Killing Fields contains 8,000 skulls of the 3,000,000 murdered by the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime. It's hard to understand. At S 21 there are pictures of the victims who were beaten and tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields. I was glad to share that with the students and to talk them through the history of this event. They did not enjoy this at all, but it's important for responsible citizens of this world to bear witness and to understand. Some major learning occurred today, By the way, I didn't like it either, it makes me sad and angry at the same time.

We saw the royal palace area and all its splendor. Great temples, great gardens, wonderful art.

On a happier note everyone enjoyed some sweaty shopping in the Russian Market and an equally sweaty lunch there. Tonight has been quiet as everybody gears up for a 6 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City.

Tomorrow upon arrival we will visit the War Remembrance Museum which portrays American soldiers as murderers and killers as terrible as Pol Pot. It's largely rubbish but the good news is that the average Vietnamese citizen likes and Americans and younger folks don't have a memory of the Vietnam war in the same way that American young people have no connection to that event either. Our students will get connected.

We've had a couple of upset stomachs, heat rash, prickley heat, etc., but overall everybody is just fine. The travel here is hot and requires patience so it tends to wear everybody down.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RU Service Project

Today we spent the day building a composting toilette for a local village the project is supported by Husk which is an NGO created by Anthony and Fiona who run The Villa where we stay. They have already built water filtration systems in several locations are are now building toilettes. The problem is that the ones they have are a bit like a French Drain which allows liquids to leech through the ground and into the water system and fields. The net effect is the presence of things like Typhoid and Cholera. Also, when people go out in the fields flies land on the smelly green stuff and then on something like food which transports these diseases. These diseases continue to be a problem there.

The project works like this. Families are asked to place rubbish, which is everywhere, into rubbish containers provided by Husk and emptied by them three days a week. Families who participate get a water filtration system for their well; Husk builds the toilettes as well. If families stay with the program and use the filtration system (systems cost $45 for anybody who wants to have one built) they can then get a composting toilette. Interestingly, women without husbands tend to be early adopters (Everett Roger's Diffusion of Innovation Theory) while many men tend to be laggards. Husk hopes that as success becomes apparent more and more families will participate and the adoption rate (S-Curve) will increase. Like the water boiling case study in Roger's book (the students know this work, at least grad students are aware) not everyone sees the inherent benefits and cling to traditional ways.

 These are pictures of Radford University students laying brick for the toilette seat and composting part and another student (Mark Patterson) digging a trench (Dr. Kennan did help quite a lot despite what Mr. Grogan may tell you) where we built a collection tank for filtered liquids.

Cambodia may be becoming my favorite place, particularly Siem R and the less urban areas, because there is so much to see and do and because it's a place where you can dig in and help people who need the help and appreciate. The smiles are genuine here. Cambodian people are truly wonderful people. For my money if this isn't learning of the highest and most important kind and well worth university support, I don't know what is. I could see it in the faces of the students. They knew.

We will rest tonight and the on to Phnom Penh tomorrow via bus.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Good Day in Cambodia

Today a visit to Tonle Sap the lake fed by the Mekong. This was the first opportunity for students to see rural life as it is lived today in Cambodia. I don't think they liked it much. The villagers farm and fish and the whole place seems a bit desperate although there is a school and a hospital there. Our boat took us out onto the lake where we were able to see the floating village their composed of Cambodian and Vietnamese sections. The lake is beautiful but low as this is the end of the dry season. Also, apparently the Chinese have built hydro-electric facilities which restrict the water flow. I will post photos but it's been a little difficult to do so thus far.

Tomorrow we build a composting toilette for a local village through the place where we stay. If I haven't said so before The Villa is an amazing place. It donates profits to charities and development work. It's a great place to stay.

Yesterday, we visited Pra Khaen which is one of my favorite temples in the Angkor Thom complex. Below is a link to the video I shot there.
On Thursday we'll travel by bus to Phnom Penh to visit the killing fields.

Students are wanting to go to Bangkok although things remain sketchy there. We'll see how it goes.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Internet access has been difficult in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Teman Negara in Malaysia. This is why I have not blogged recently.

We reached Siem Reap, Cambodia via KL international after an all night wait for our flight. We are staying at The Villa, owned by an Australian couple who came here several years ago and fell in love with the place. It's easy to understand why. Cambodian people are warm and friendly, kind and generous. Things are inexpensive here and it is plenty exotic.

We visited a children's hospital created by a Swiss doctor who has been working here since the 1970s. We also visited the land mine museum outside town. Americans have forgotten, or are too young to remember, that we bombed Cambodia in an attempt to stop supply lines into Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs from Laos into Vietnam. Cambodia is where carpet bombing began and it is a place that was heavily mined by Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese, Americans, etc., especially in the period when Pol Pot came to power.
I was told that 6,000,000 mines are still in the ground and they are still dangerous and they still kill people.

This is a country struggling to reclaim a place in the world after being devastated by war and civil war. The needs are unbelievable especially with regard to health care. Ran into a physician from Boston this a.m. who is volunteering here for five weeks.

Many NGOs are here and they are doing great work, including Americans. However, the need is great. Remember, the Khmer Roughe systematically murdered 3,000,000 of their own people in an attempt to create a rural agrarian socialist society. Those killed were teachers, doctors, etc., who had the knowledge and skill to build a country.

It's a beautiful place with beautiful people that needs some help. Tomorrow we'll help build a compost toilette in a village where water and sanitation are largely non existant. We should be doing more.

By the way, all are well. We are avoiding Thailand altogether. I received the word that we should not visit from contacts there. We'll spend our time here in Cambodia and in Vietnam, then home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Post Singapore Blues

Always hate leaving Singapore, such good food. Yesterday, we had coffee with K. Bhavani who is the Director of the Public Communications Division in the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts for the government of Singapore. She spoke to students about political and social issues in Singapore with regard to public relations and the mission of public relations here which is to build the nation. Doing public relations here is a very different enterprise given the absence of a First Amendment.

That evening we had a lovely dinner with a former graduate student Nirupama who began the RU MS program in 1999. She has completed her Ph.D. at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore in international relations. She and her husband Siddartha have a new one month old daughter. It was great reconnecting. I had not seen her since 2006 when I was in Singapore with another group.

The new Sands casino is incredibly impressive as it sits out from the Esplanade and Mer Lion area. The Master Mentor (Lee Kuan Yew) wanted the economic development but did not want the corrupting influences of gambling. So, Singaporeans must pay $100 SIN for the privilege of gambling there or in the new Universal Studios on Sentosa Island. That fee is per visit.

I continue to consider Bangkok but next is Kuala Lumpur and the Teman Negara. I think I have them tired now and we'll stay that way. Best to all in Virginia and beyond.

I apologize for the font. The keyboard here is not good and won't cooperate.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

First Day Singapore

It is interesting coming back to a place you've been several times. Despite more than a couple of visits I still like Singapore. There's nothing particularly historical or particularly significant but there's a vibrancy here that I appreciate. From a communication perspective, which is how I think about everything, there are so many inter-cultural issues that are interesting.

Today in the Straights Times is an article about the mother tongue issue (MTL). Singapore has a history of providing bi-lingual language instruction in their very strong school system. Peoples of Chinese descent are now pushing to retain/expand language instruction in Mandarin. People from other cultural groups are now agitating for instruction in languages like Hindi. This reflects a cultural awareness despite the government's best efforts to create a melting pot identity for Singaporeans.

There are real tensions here although the government has done much to provide a strong foundation for inter-cultural relations. I look forward to chatting with former graduate student Nippy who has lived here with her husband for several years. She is of Indian heritage or which about 17% of the Singaporean population reflects that culture.

If you don't think these issues matter remember that there we riots here in the 70s and in Malaysia 1969 produced disturbing outbreaks of violence between Bumiputra (native Malays) and Chinese people. So, the divide is real and language is a part of that divide. Language is an important way of maintaining a cultural identity in a multicultural society. Having studied Mandarin now for two years I'm beginning to understand how the culture thinks based on how words, sentences, and sounds work to produce very culturally based meanings.

In other news, the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim continues in Malaysia with Ibrahim claiming a conspiracy and the 24 year old government worker claiming he was sodomized. This also reflects deep cultural divisions. Remember, Chinese people spread through Southeast Asia through trade and invasion. Many many remained and they retain their cultural identity. Because Chinese peoples tend to be hard working they often old economic power which creates tensions with people of other cultures. Malay peoples, the majority in Malaysia, have sought to remain vital through religion (Islam), politics, and education. Despite a rather significant public relations campaign (One Malaysia) the divisions remain and one gets a glimpse of them when certain stories become important in the news.

Learning about these tensions and issues here helps American students, I think, to better conceptualize the cultural conflicts at home. It's not just Americans who struggle with these issues. This is an international problem and speaks to the most basic parts of being human and group oriented.

Students on there way. Looking for them tonight. All is prepared for them.

By the way, for those concerned about safety in Thailand. I ran into a woman from Springfield, Mo in Tokyo (small world, I'm from Fayetteville, Arkansas about 90 miles away) who was returning from there and said that if you stayed away from protest areas you couldn't tell there were protests. We'll forge on.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

We're Off! Almost

Tuesday May 11, 2010 I leave Roanoke, VA and Radford University to travel with nine communication students (6 women, 3 men; 3 undergrad students, 1 alum, and five grad students). Students will depart on May 12, 2010. It's a fine group and a diverse one in terms of background and experience. All are very good students and I'll looking forward to traveling with them.

Southeast Asia is an interesting place in many respects (it's really my favorite place to travel): food, cultures, history, politics, etc. At this moment, the thing that is on the mind of most people is Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a truly amazing city that is huge and diverse and complicated. The current political situation presents some challenges but my friends tell me that it continues to be safe and a great place to visit.

If we discover, upon arrival, that things have changed we will either fly or take the train to Chiang Mai in Northwest Thailand. I want to make it clear to all (parents, family, and students) that we aren't taking any chances. I have no desire to endanger my students or myself.

I also want to mention that Southeast Asia is a safe place to travel if one uses some common sense and care. One can lose their purse or wallet if they are not mindful of where they are. Drugs are available if one were to go looking for that as are many other things. If students stick together and do the kind of things I have planned, they'll be safe. I've taken my wife and children and they loved it.

More later.