eXtensions: The Wednesday File (44) - Travel Outside Bangkok (Buggy at Times) - A Photographic Journey
By Graham K. Rogers
A trip with students and staff to the North of Thailand took me away from usual IT access. Connections are much improved these days, however. As well as looking at different technologies this run out of the city gave me a chance to take many photographs - digital and analog - while spending more time with students.
Last weekend I took a trip with students and some staff out of Bangkok to the Bhumipol Dam in Tak Province. As well as communicating with the students on a more personal level, this sort of trip allows me to take many photographs of the places we visit and of the students. This time I had three cameras: my Hasselblad medium format (film) camera, the Nikon D7000 I have been carrying for a couple of years now; and the iPhone X, which does produce some really good images. For the Hasselblad, I had brought along three film types: Ilford 125 monochrome; Ilford 400 monochrome; and Kodak Portra 400. With a decent film shop I thought I would try color film again.
I have been to the Bhumipol Dam three or four times before and quite like it in terms of the rural experience and looking at working technology. In the past there have been shortcomings with communication, although this has improved considerably in recent years.
The planned departure time of 0800 was of course long gone by the time we left the Faculty of Engineering. Some of the staff went by personnel carrier. I travelled with the students and some staff in the big red bus. I had been with this driver several times before and he is one of the safest I know here.
We headed towards the city first then took Rajapruek Road: an easy link now to some of the better main roads to the north of Thailand. There had been haze problems in recent days and as we left the city the clouds thickened. At one time it looked like rain, but by the time we crossed the river at Nonthaburi the haze was thinning and the sun made an attempt to break through.
I wondered why we were heading through an industrial estate, but when we entered a natural gas power station there, the penny dropped. A presentation and tour by several staff of the B. Grimm installation explained the use of two gas turbines and a steam turbine to generate power for the national system and fir direct sale to nearby companies, including Toyota. As the power is distributed directly, it is cleaner: there are fewer fluctuations.
It was late in the morning when we left and several students were hungry as I was, having eaten at 5:30 am. The bus headed north again and we headed for a suitable eating place. With more than 50 people on the bus (and a few more in a van) this needed to be quite large; but these abound here along the highways. We finally stopped on Highway 32 just short of Ang Thong. By coincidence, just before we stopped, my Apple Watch stand warning showed me, "Almost There". It was 12:50 and I was starving. Knowing my students, for some this would be their first meal of the day.
After the break, I returned to my place on the bus, but as I sat down, I noticed a blue light between the two seats. I wondered if I had sat on one of my devices, but a closer look showed me that the bus had USB ports for charging: immediately resolving a problem I had experienced on previous long trips to the provinces on an older bus, and allowing me to go wild with Twitter access.
It was a long way and there were only brief bathroom stops for the rest of the journey, although roadworks slowed us down at Kamphaeng Phet, a few hours south of Tak. The road to the dam is several kilometres past Tak and it was dark before we left the northern highway and headed into the country. I had asked for (and was given) a room by myself. I prefer this not because I am a grumpy old man (that too) but when I shared before, one of my colleagues arrived at 3am and shaking the door lock made me believe - in my sleep state - that someone was breaking in to my house. It took a moment or two to realise what was really happening. I also have frequent night cramps and might leap screaming from the bed: not something even a colleague wants to experience.
We were not in the same rooms I had stayed in before, but an older dormitory-style building, with two beds to each room. As soon as I settled in to the room I found that there was an open WiFi system. However, this only worked for 24 hours and although I could connect the next evening, I was not able to make connections. I used the iPhone personal hotspot for the rest of my stay. Us older folks were slightly separate from the students, with the noisy boys down on the ground. They still managed to wake me during the first night. My room was within a couple of hundred metres of the Ping River, so when I woke, even though it was dark, I had a superb view.
The alarm went off earlier than I intended and it was still dark. It would be an hour before sunrise. After a shower I started to walk to the restaurant which Apple Maps told me was 450 metres away. Within a couple of minutes I recognised the park area I was walking through from my earlier trips. At the restaurant I ordered rice soup (Khao Tom), a favourite of mine and a good start to any day. There was no fruit juice and the coffee was instant: it was another 36 hours before I could buy a proper coffee.
At 19° C it felt cold to me and I knew that when my students surfaced they would be shivering: those from hot countries do not deal with cooler temperatures well. I had the restaurant to myself for about 10 minutes, but a small group arrived and, of all the tables that were free, sat at the next one to mine. I never understand how this works. In the past, when I rode motorcycles here, I might park up in a completely empty spot to sit and look at the scenery - enjoying the solitude - but within a few minutes a pickup truck would arrive and disgorge its load.
After breakfast I made my way back towards the dormitory and walked by the river as the sun began to peer through gaps in the trees on the hills. As it appeared fully, so the hills opposite picked up a reddish-gold colour halfway up, with the lower parts still in the shade.
Plans as ever were fluid with a rumour of a meeting with the Dam authorities, but in the end we went straight to the dam control room where students were shown the intricacies of running the largest hydropower plant in the country.
Later, a trip under the dam to see the machinery took us through a huge maintenance hall which has unusual lighting effects. I first saw this several years ago, but the last time I came there was a ban on taking photographs in this area because of light-sensitive equipment. I intended to get round this with the film camera, but the students all used their smartphones, so the problem appeared to exist no longer.
After a couple of hours at the installation, including some time on the dam crest we had lunch by the river. A couple of hours were free then until a run down the highway. I did not know where we were going, but I was told it was a walking street market. I was not enthusiastic, but when we arrived at Ban Tak (several kilometres north of Tak itself), on the banks of the Ping River, it turned out to be rather interesting.
The Friday walking market was along a street alongside the river. Houses were mainly traditional wooden constructions, but care had been taken to renovate them, without the sometimes-overkill that happens with such projects. We had two hours to walk around look at (and buy) food, and take photos.
I found a bug stall. I had seen edible insects on sale many times before (and we may remember how John the Baptist lived on honey and locusts in the desert), but the idea repels me. Nevertheless, I was offered, and tried, a (single) deep-fried cricket, which was not too bad.
These would be OK for me as a snack, but I saw a student of mine enjoying a bag full of slikworm pupae (bombyx mori) which I felt I would be unlikely ever to try. A Thai colleague with me expressed the same feelings, but said he would not even try the crickets.
During the visit, some of us walked over a rickety bamboo bridge to a reclaimed island in the river. Every step was a creak, but the plaited strips were quite strong, if springy. Some students were a little wary, but I said If it could support my weight, they should be fine. As we crossed, I could see the bottom of the fast-moving (but shallow) river. The island had been planted with several types of flower - there was a sprinkler system - and I wondered if this were a means to stitch the ground together.
At about 6:30 pm the bus was due to leave, but there were delays as the students visited nearby stores for liquid supplies. These would be needed for the traditional gathering: first teachers and students, then students by themselves. We give them the opportunity to criticize the teachers and voice problems. I am always mentioned as they all have problems with writing English for their project proposals.
After several years of high school and university foundation courses, not one can write a proper sentence and have major problems organising ideas. This is bound to create a conflict and I try to minimise the difficulties for them. It is hard work, but despite my requests, those responsible do not allocate enough marks to reflect the effort.
As the students' problems with other courses (and each other) were discussed, with input from the faculty members, there were tears as clearly some students were frustrated over certain problems that were not being resolved. There were tears and some warm moments as one student confirmed he was gay to approval from all and a hug from his adviser.
Us old guys left around midnight and the students continued until around 3am. There was noise, but nothing untoward. One or two were suffering from hangovers the next morning and all slept on the bus, except for the three stop we made: bathroom, lunch and buying produce for gifts. Traffic was not particularly heavy and we were back at base by just after 7pm.
In previous years, this has meant a rush for me as I had to catch up on a weekend's email and submit my weekly article. Internet access was almost constantly available all weekend. And the articles are now for me and I keep to my own deadlines.
I will have to wait a week or so before I can see the results of the films I took, but that is part of the enjoyment of using pre-digital technology; but for now it is back to computers and devices as normal.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)