Monday, May 28, 2012

36 Hours in Phuket Thailand

36 Hours in Phuket Thailand.

THE teardrop-shaped island of Phuket has long been known for its dazzling beaches and naughty night life. But for many, it was the catastrophic Asian tsunami in 2004 that finally placed Phuket on the map. Recovery has been swift, and in recent years the island has firmly reasserted itself as a premier beach resort in southern Thailand, with a growing crop of luxury hotels, top-notch restaurants and even a thriving art community.


4 p.m.

The beach town of Kamala was hit hard by the tsunami, but today the town has sprung back to life with renovated cottages that dot the hillside and beach bars along the promenade. Grab a crepe-like roti — this Thai version is filled with egg and fruit and topped with condensed milk — from the Chef Roti stand (near the Coconut Garden bungalows; banana roti, 30 baht, or 95 cents at 32 baht to the dollar), and stroll along Kamala’s wide crescent of sandy beach, dipping your toes in the mesmerizingly clear water.

5:30 p.m.

Seek nirvana at the top of Mount Nagakerd, where an enormous, white jade marble-covered Buddha is close to completion. Follow the red-and-white signs from the town of Chalong pointing the way to the 147-foot-tall Big Buddha, officially known as Phraphutthamingmongkhol-akenagakhiri Buddha. Workers are still finishing the Buddha’s big lotus seat, but already it’s an impressive sight, with magnificent views of the Andaman Sea.

7 p.m.

Skip the tourist-filled beach restaurants and instead follow the locals inland to Phuket town and the night food market on Ong Sim Phai Road near the Robinson Department Store. A food market by day, it’s a lively food court at night. Portable stalls and carts pull up to the curb, and a sea of plastic tables and chairs spills onto the street. Tasty Thai and Chinese dishes include spicy papaya salad, barbecued pork buns, coconut curry, grilled fish balls and, for dessert, sticky rice with mango. Having trouble deciding what to eat? Look for the stall with the longest line and join it. The whole meal, plus a couple of beers, shouldn’t cost more than 200 baht.

9 p.m.

Thailand’s national sport is brutal. In the ancient martial art of muay Thai, fighters pummel each other with fists, feet, elbows and knees. An authentic place to catch a fight is Suwit Stadium (15 Moo 1, Chaofa Road), where ceremonial prefight dances and traditional music are reminders that this is more than just violent entertainment. Friday night fights start with a few pipsqueak bouts, so if you’re opposed to watching oiled-up 10-year-olds duking it out in the ring, plan to arrive an hour late, around 9:30. Itching to get into the ring yourself? The stadium doubles as a gym and runs a training camp for aspiring fighters. Fight tickets start at 900 baht and include free transportation to and from the stadium.


9 a.m.

Start the day precariously perched on a pachyderm. Bang Pae Safari (12/3 Moo 5, T. Srisoonthorn Road) offers elephant trekking excursions through shallow streams and groves of rubber trees. Midway through the trip, you can scramble down from your seat and take a turn in the mahout’s spot, riding on the elephant’s head. A 30-minute trek costs 900 baht per person, or 1,300 baht for an hour.

10:30 a.m.

Next door is the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary (entry, 200 baht), where singsong gibbon calls lead you to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, a nonprofit organization that works to return captured gibbons to their natural habitat. If you can pull yourself away from the adorable, acrobatic apes, hoof it a few minutes into the rain forest to Bang Pae Waterfall and take a refreshing dip in the pool below.

1 p.m.

Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, better known as Mom Tri, is a local architect and entrepreneur who runs a growing empire of respected hotels and restaurants on Phuket. His latest restaurant, Mom Tri’s Boathouse Regatta, is a breezy spot on the boardwalk of the Royal Phuket Marina. The service is as polished as the colossal yachts docked out front, but the real star is the food. Recommendations include lobster ravioli with morel mushroom velouté (500 baht) and curried fried rice with seafood, pineapple and cashews (300 baht).

3 p.m.

The laid-back village of Rawai, near the island’s southern tip, has emerged as an enclave for talented local artists. Leading the way is the Red Gallery, where the artist Somrak Maneemai shows trippy paintings imbued with a whimsical dreaminess. The gallery recently relocated to the Art Village, joining a cluster of other small studios and galleries, like Tawan Ook Art Gallery and the Love Art Studio. On an island inundated with mediocre imitation art, the originality of this bohemian art colony is refreshing.

7 p.m.

With sweeping ocean views, floor-to-ceiling windows and an elegant terrace, White Box Restaurant (245/7 Prabaramee Road) has been a foodie favorite since opening two years ago on the rocky beach north of Patong. The menu is a mélange of Thai and Mediterranean flavors, and as the name implies, the design is sleek with white décor. Dinner with drinks for two is about 3,000 baht. After dinner, linger upstairs in the trendy open-air lounge sipping spicy Tom Yum martinis, made with vodka, galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf and chili (280 baht).

11 p.m.

Beer-soaked Bangla Road in Patong is Phuket night life at its brashest and seediest — a heaving crush of hostess bars, go-go clubs and “ladyboy” cabaret. But if that’s not your thing, head south toward Rawai to the bright orange Volkswagen minibus parked along the right side of Viset Road, just past the Art Village. Customized with a bar, the minibus is a party on wheels that attracts a mix of locals, expatriates and sunburned Swedes sipping ice-cold Chang beers (35 baht).


10 a.m.

Inexpensive massage parlors staffed by gaggles of young Thai girls are everywhere in Phuket. For a quick foot rub, these places will do just fine. But for a head-to-toe treat, go to the sprawling Sukko Cultural Spa & Wellness. Book a traditional Thai massage, a method that incorporates acupressure and yoga-like poses to stretch your aching limbs into glorious submission (1,300 baht for 60 minutes).


For miles of untouched golden sand all to yourself, head to the blissfully deserted Mai Khao Beach, part of Sirinat National Park, along Phuket’s northwestern shore. Between the warm, cerulean water stretching out to the horizon and a backdrop of lush forests filled with palms, a wide swath of powdery sand sits tantalizingly undisturbed. So sling up a hammock and pretend that you’re stranded on a deserted island for a few hours.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hua Hin Beach Resort Quiet Enough

Hua Hin a Beach Resort That’s Quiet Enough for a King.
AS the late afternoon sun bathes the horizon in purple and crimson, I wander slowly down the long, curving beach. Though rocks mar part of the five-mile-long stretch, most of the waterfront is covered with white sand. On the southern end of the beachfront, a towering, slim golden Buddha statue peers out over the sea, and I can see small white and yellow shrines cut into the rocks of a nearby mountain fringed with low mist.

When I sit in the surf, I notice young Thai men riding black-and-white spotted horses up and down the beach, offering rides to tourists. Thai families doggy paddle near me, luxuriating in the bath-warm water and searing sunlight. Not one Jet Ski, tour group or powerboat in sight.

There aren't many places left in Thailand where travelers can sit in the surf undisturbed. Over the past decade, it seems that clusters of hotels and condominiums have colonized nearly every strip of beach. So I was surprised, on a trip in March, to find that Hua Hin, the country's oldest beach resort, just a three-hour train ride from Bangkok, had not yet fallen to the wave of building and water sports.

Arriving in Hua Hin, in fact, I quickly notice the mellow atmosphere far different from the blaring beer bars and neon dance shows of other Thai beaches like Pattaya. At Hua Hin's colonial-style train station, all white-and-red columns and mahogany floors, a small group of taxi drivers sleeps in the shade of a jackfruit tree. When I try to rouse them for a ride into town, they nod “no” to my offer and then nod off again.

Friends explain to me there are several reasons for Hua Hin's slow pace of life. Because it sits so close to Bangkok, many foreign tourists skip it for other beach resorts like Phuket; Hua Hin now attracts mostly Thai families. Because Thailand's revered royal family spends much of its time in Hua Hin — in a palace of marble and teak named, aptly, Far From Worries — developers may be reluctant to overbuild, knowing that the king has made sustainable development a centerpiece of his reign.

The laid-back, small-scale life has also made Hua Hin Thailand's pioneer in boutique hotels and spas. (The Hua Hin area set the world record for the largest group massage.) Thirty minutes south of Hua Hin town, I drive to Aleenta, an intimate boutique hotel in the beach village of Pranburi made up of bungalow-style buildings with gleaming white walls and thatched roofs. Aleenta seems to attract Thai artists seeking a private but avant-garde resort — I overhear two Thai men with thin goatees and long ponytails discussing the latest films to hit Bangkok art theaters.

Aleenta's burnt siena walls, curving outdoor staircases and crimson tiles give it the feel of a Mediterranean or Mexican beach resort. A resort at the end of nowhere: in the lap pool adjacent to a swim-up bar, I paddle around without seeing another guest.Aleenta also quickly coddles me with homey touches. My room, the size of a large New York studio and built from natural wood, thatch and smooth tile, looks out onto a lonely longtail fishing boat bobbing in the surf outside. The hotel staff has programmed an iPod in my room, and when I request coffee at bizarre, late-night hours, they laugh and bring Thai java. At the hotel's Frangipani Wing, where cooks teach Thai cuisine in an open kitchen, the chef takes time to demonstrate to me how she makes piquant Thai salads of fresh squid, basil and chopped chilies.

Aleenta has spawned a boutique hotel industry. Along the Pranburi beach road, other developers are building small bungalows and spas with Mediterranean and Moroccan themes, and Hua Hin town now features Let's Sea Hua Hin al Fresco Resort, a cheaper yet still charming 40-room boutique hotel on the water. Near the Aleenta lies the Evason Hideaway, another high-end boutique. Even the bigger hotels have gotten into the act. This spring, the Hyatt Regency Hua Hin will open its own boutique, the Barai, eight suites with their own gardens or plunge pools.

I wander up to Aleenta's spa, which advertises unique detox treatments featuring Thai herbs and tamarind juice and massages with kaffir lime, lemongrass and jasmine flavors. On the roof of the hotel restaurant, it commands a stunning panoramic view of the sea, but I decide to head back into town, where massages will be cheaper.

In central Hua Hin, I stop for a break from the 105-degree heat at the Sofitel Central, a renovated version of the town's classic colonial-era Railway Hotel, famed for its topiary gardens full of bushes shaped like elephants and its wide, curved balconies. Gardeners obsessively trim the bushes with clippers so small they look like nail scissors.

FROM the beginning of the 20th century until the development of other resorts like Phuket, Hua Hin was the place for wealthy Thais to escape Bangkok's heat. The Sofitel's coffee bar, which still serves high tea each afternoon, features aging photographs of that older era, a time when the king and queen were host to royal parties at the hotel, and people gathered around the radio to hear the latest jazz coming from America. (The king is a jazz maven who once played with Benny Goodman.)

From the Sofitel, I can walk right onto the beach. Children play on the boulders jutting out of the water in low tide, and on one end of the beach, families clamber up small hills covered in thick forests with clusters of small monkeys.

I stroll into the quiet town, just a grid of small interlocking alleys. No one grabs my arm or tries to sell me anything, as often happens in Phuket. I stop in the central market, where vendors sell piles of stinky dried shrimp, fresh fish on ice and luscious mangoes topped with coconut custard, to be eaten with glutinous, sweet sticky rice.

I peek into Hua Hin Thai Massage, a small shop near a beach market selling towels and trinkets. The massage parlor truly feels like a family affair. Local women sit in circles massaging one another's feet and gossiping about their clients. When I interrupt them to ask for a foot rubdown, one reluctantly pulls herself away to bathe my feet in warm water and then prod and poke them for an hour, all for only $10.

For many Thai tourists, the greatest attraction of Hua Hin is neither the miles of beach nor the multitude of spa treatments. With fishing boats pulling into Hua Hin pier every day packed with bass, giant prawns, lobster and other delicacies, the town has built a reputation as one of the finest places to try Thai seafood dishes. On recommendations from friends, I stop at Ketsirin restaurant on Naresdamri Road. The back of the dining room sits on a pier moored over the ocean, and crowds of Thais dig into whole steamed fish flavored with chili and lime juice. I order geng som, sour orange soup with vegetables and shellfish. It hits my tongue hard, the fiery spices tempered with a hint of sugar, and I order a platter of giant local shrimp to go with it, the prawns charcoal-grilled over a barbecue and topped with a tangy, delicious garlic-and-lemon sauce.

When dessert arrives, a plate piled with fresh papaya, guava and watermelon, I can barely finish half of it. I sit at Ketsirin for another hour, digesting my feast and watching fishing boats bobbing in the water, their lighted-up masts gleaming in the dark sky like light sabers.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

36 Hours in Chiang Mai Thailand

36 Hours in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

BLESSED with a cooler climate than Bangkok and buffered by lush mountains, Chiang Mai has long served as a backpacker’s gateway to Thailand’s northern reaches. But an influx of Thai artists and Western expatriates has turned this quiet city into a vibrant destination in its own right. Design studios have sprung up in town, fusing traditional Thai with modern twists. Age-old curries are now paired with Australian red wines and croissants. The area around Nimanhaemin Road now looks like South Beach, packed with BMWs and Art Deco homes, alongside contemporary art galleries run by young Thais with purple hair and nose rings. But traditional Chiang Mai is still there. Walk away from Nimanhaemin into the old city and you’ll see shaved monks meditating and backpackers chowing down on banana pancakes.


3 p.m.

Packed with crumbling old stupas, jewel-encrusted temples and wooden houses, Chiang Mai’s central old city hasn’t lost its old charm. And since Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom, its temples and other historic sites have a unique look, with starker lines and darker woods. Start a long walk at Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest temple, built in the late 13th century, and then wander southwest, to Wat Chedi Luang, which houses a giant, partly damaged traditional Lanna-style stupa. Get your exercise by continuing on for about a mile, southeast, just past the old city walls, where you can stop for a break at a branch of Wawee Coffee, a local chain serving northern Thai joe. (Inside the Suriwong Book Center; Sri Donchai Road, near the intersection with Thanon Chang Khlan.)

6 p.m.

The bumpy roads can take their toll on your legs. Rejuvenate them at the Ban Sabai Town (17/7 Charoenprathet Road). The spa offers aromatherapy and other treatments, but the specialty is, of course, Thai massage — a method that emphasizes stretching. The masseuse pulls and prods your limbs in every direction, like a chiropractor. Your muscles might be tempted to scream, but they’ll end up feeling like soft butter. An hourlong Thai massage costs 1,900 baht (or around $60 at 32 baht to the dollar), far less than you would pay at most hotel spas.

8 p.m.

For a taste of the city’s cosmopolitan edge, stroll along the Ping River, where university students and young professionals gather at a strip of rollicking restaurants that serve modern Thai, Japanese and Western food. Among the liveliest is the Good View, a sprawling pub and restaurant where the young patrons sing along to live Thai country and rock music, while downing pitchers of beer and shots of Johnnie Walker. Try the geng som, a soup flavored with a sour Thai orange, and the poo phat pong kari, crab stir-fried with yellow curry. Dinner for two people costs about 1,000 baht.


7 a.m.

Get up early — it’s worth it — for the classic Chiang Mai experience: a morning hike on Doi Suthep, the 5,498-foot peak that overlooks the city. Many residents consider Doi Suthep a holy mountain, and hike it as often as they can. Head to the base of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple that, according to legend, dates from the 14th century, and is topped by a glittering gold chedi. On a clear day, the temple’s terraces afford views across northern Thailand. You’ll see Thailand old and new: monks in sandals begging for rice and young couples smooching in the corner (a taboo among older, more conservative Thais).


Chiang Mai has become a design laboratory, with foreign and Thai designers blending traditional styles with minimalist lines. Head to Nimanhaemin Road, a major design drag, for boutiques that sell textiles, pottery and other crafts. Thai art students wander the street in packs, occasionally whipping out sketchpads. Stores like Studio Kachama (10-12 Nimanhaemin Soi 1) and Gerard Collection sell funky lamps with shades made from local mulberry paper, furniture constructed from bamboo and women’s suits made from a traditional, thick-spun cotton.

2 p.m.

New, stylish bistros have colonized the city, but true fans of northern Thai cuisine — which incorporates Burmese and Chinese spices, and is lighter than southern Thai cooking — congregate at the classic Huen Phen. The restaurant’s cramped tables are packed with taxi drivers who dig into heaps of steaming curries and fiery salads. Have the khao soi, a delicious mix of creamy curry, crispy egg noodles, slices of pickled cabbage and bits of shallot and lime. Lunch for two is about 300 baht.

4 p.m.

In recent years, many of Thailand’s best-known artists have moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Several have won global recognition: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, a performance artist who reads poetry to corpses, was featured at the 2006 Venice Biennale. And Navin Rawanchaikul, who paints cartoonlike murals inside taxis and tuk-tuks, has exhibited his work at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. For emerging talents, visit La Luna Gallery).

9 p.m.

For a late dinner, the fashionable crowd migrates to Dalaabaa for cocktails and small Thai plates like spicy squid salad. The midcentury modern bungalow is furnished with eclectic furniture, polished wood and tons of glass, as if Frank Lloyd Wright had gone East. The young crowd includes rail-thin women in slinky black dresses smoking from long cigarette holders, Frenchmen tossing back martinis, and students with ponytails and wispy mustaches engrossed in conversations about Buddhism and art. Dinner with drinks for two is about 1,200 baht.


7 a.m.

Every travel guide recommends an elephant ride, but the typical trip involves a short, bumpy elephant walk led by a bored trainer. Skip that and take a taxi instead to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center between Chiang Mai and the town of Lampang. The center will not only teach you how to command and handle a tusker, but also how to honor the pachyderm, a revered animal in Thailand. Classes, which last most of the day, start at 3,500 baht.

4 p.m.

With its cooler climate and rugged terrain, Chiang Mai has become the hub for adventure sports, including rafting, trekking and mountain biking. An American expat, Josh Morris, pioneered the rock climbing scene, especially at Crazy Horse Buttress, a rock face that overlooks lime green, terraced rice fields. Mr. Morris’s outfitter, Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures offers introductory courses starting at 1,800 baht per person. After sweating to the top, head back to the bars along the Ping River to cool off with a Singha beer and cap off your adventure in style.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Education a Priority for Vietnam’s Youth

Education a Priority for Vietnam’s Youth.

Hanoi (Asia News) – Education for young Vietnamese is getting worse. A survey among high school students in Ho Chi Minh City shows that 32.2 per cent are disrespectful towards teachers, 38.8 per cent uses foul language often and 53.6 per cent does it sometimes.

Another survey indicates that from 2005 to the present the number of students involved in antisocial behaviour increased in both frequency and gravity. The rise in sexual abuse is another aspect of the broader moral decline among young people.

In 2011 alone, 1386 minors were sexually abused by adults, that is 11.8 per cent more than in 2010. Of these, 51 were killed, 427 raped, 495 forced to have intercourse with adults and 128 intentionally injured. Many children and teenagers have also become the victims of human trafficking through the border with China, Thailand and Cambodia.

AsiaNews spoke with Prof Hoàng Tuy, 84, who recently won the first Constantin Caratheodory Prize established by the International Society of Global Optimisation. He is very concerned about the state of education in Vietnam.

“Education is an urgent matter. Our life increasingly needs an overall reform of education if we do not want our country to remain backward . . . . Shortcomings in and harm to education have accumulated and reached an extreme level. We can no longer tolerate them. Now a total overhaul of education is the first order of business. Reality requires us to change the current state of education.”

When the educational level of a country reaches such a low level, it becomes imperative for society to wake up, the professor said, from ordinary citizens to its leaders.

“An enlightened education must begin with a true democratic spirit and determination to build a clean, just and civilised society, and train its leadership in view of this,” he said. “Today, the moral decline and unlawful behaviour by young people should alarm families, schools and universities. The sense of morality among young generations is going down.”

A decline in academic ethics as well as lying and dishonesty among public officials are among the reasons for this trend, the scholar noted. They affect young people in particular. On the other hand, university education appears to be the key to ensure an overall higher quality education, but for decades, policies in this area have been inadequate, touching the lives of millions of students.

“Education must be at the top of the nation’s priority list. The role of education is important and affects the country’s survival. It is the foundation of society and helps maintain and develop values.”

It is a social good and as such, “the government should create the conditions that allow religions and the Vietnamese people to participate in the education of younger generations. We need a healthy social environment free of corruption, respectful of human dignity, freedom of religion and human rights for all.”

Read more at,-a-priority-for-Vietnam%E2%80%99s-youth-23813.html

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Education Market Offers Salvation for Ailing Tech Vendors

Education market offers salvation for ailing tech vendors.

The education sector, particularly in developing markets, is an ideal arena for struggling tech vendors to stage their comebacks as they can build brand awareness and credibility among youths to reap long-term benefits, as well as help local governments strengthen their education IT infrastructure.

According to Peter McAlpine, senior director of education sales for Asia-Pacific at Adobe Systems, beleaguered tech companies should look to expand their presence in the education market as it could prove lucrative in the long run.

He noted that should these companies deliver a good product and user experience to the students, they would want to continue using these brands' products and services even after they leave school and enter the workforce.

Frank Levering, research manager of IDC's Government Insights, agreed. He said ailing companies should look at building their credibility among students, such as providing support and repair services when needed, will give them a "large competitive advantage" over IT vendors that do not have a presence in the education sector.

"The education [market's] transformation [in general] is at a very early stage, and any company with the right focus on a specific solution or a significant contribution to the education ecosystem will definitely see a good return on investment," he said.

Target developing countries
The analyst went on to suggest that the companies should focus their efforts on developing countries in order to generate market traction for their products and re-establish fundamental best practices in order to scale beyond these markets to more developed economies.

Furthermore, developing markets usually have a specific government budget set aside to improve the quality of education, Levering stated, citing Thailand's "One Tablet Per Child" initiative which aims to equip all Grade 1 child with a tablet PC device as an example.

The government was reportedly poised to ink a 2.2 billion baht (US$70.6 million) deal with Chinese manufacturers for 900,000 tablet devices to fulfill its election promise. A subsequent report by Thai news agency The Nation in April stated that the country's Cabinet had signed off on the revised tablet deal for 1 million devices at 2.4 billion baht (US$77.9 million), even though the Chinese manufacturer Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development had not yet signed on.

The IDC analyst also pointed out that the focus of developing countries is to improve their existing education levels by using technology as an enabler. Infrastructure, too, is commonly lacking in these countries. As such, ailing tech vendors can step up and push their offerings as these are viable market openings, he noted. By comparison, the education sector in developed markets has a more "conservative attitude" toward tech adoption in that the product or service being considered needs to produce a certain benefit or positive outcome for stakeholders, he noted.

"Developed countries will embrace technologies especially if they have a proven track record elsewhere and will transform at a much greater pace from there onward," he added.

Hence, this is why emerging countries may lead in innovations on many occasions over their more established counterparts as they are driven by necessity, Levering surmised.

Already, two regional companies have made moves to enter the education sector to revive their fortunes. Taiwanese display manufacturer BenQ, for one, announced plans to introduce three tablets in the Thai enterprise and education markets amid expectation that the tablet growth in these two areas is "poised to increase exponentially", according to a March report by Bangkok Post.

Singapore-based Creative Technology and its wholly-owned subsidiary ZiiLabs too unveiled its HanZpad in February, targeting China's education market. "This is [an] opportune time when its government aims to transform the conventional education system to one that embraces the latest in digital technologies," its press release stated.

Challenges loom
However, there are challenges vendors such as Creative and BenQ, among others, will have to face in order to see an upturn in their fortunes.

Levering pointed out that it's important tech vendors take time to thoroughly understand the sector in order to create the right offering that would integrate with institutions' existing systems and education methods.

Felicia Brown, Asia-Pacific education programs manager at Microsoft, concurred, saying that the education market is "unique". She noted that this requires a lot of understanding in areas such as creating the right content and curriculum, as well as incorporating "ruggedness" in computing devices meant for students, she explained.

To address this, Redmond works with global and local advisory councils made up of education thought leaders and youths, and also hires ex-teachers who understand specific local markets to develop its education offerings, she added.

The IDC analyst also noted that companies will find developing a generic, international product a "massive challenge". This is because there is too many different needs between schools and countries, and constant customization to the product would prove expensive for a sector with its limited budget, he explained.

High costs of education tech offerings was highlighted by Adobe's McAlpine too, who said that while governments can help financially in facilitating tech adoption, the education market will need to be self-sustaining at some point. This is especially so when the local government decides to shift its priorities to other sectors of the economy, he said.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Thailand - One Man’s Dream Becomes a Bangkok Sanctuary

Thailand, One Man’s Dream Becomes a Bangkok Sanctuary.

BUDDHIST temples in Bangkok are about as ubiquitous as hot dog stands in Manhattan, and after a day or two of playing duck-the-camera with tour groups, even the most devout tourists can become shrine shirkers. But Bangkok has a fantastic sanctuary from the sanctuaries that stands out for both its secret grandeur and for its ancient style. You just have to find it.

It took our cab driver two calls on his mobile phone before he was able to navigate Bangkok’s traffic jungle a half-dozen miles east of downtown. He dropped us off on the side of a street that had evidently once been a quiet country lane, but over the last decade had become absorbed by the suburbs. Entering a nondescript gate we emerged into a six-acre compound of languorous gardens and ponds surrounding ancient temples and pagodas — an urban Angkor Wat whose exotic Technicolor setting could have been painted by Gauguin.

As my two sons, aged 10 and 8, and I made our way farther into this unexpected oasis, Bangkok’s pervasive diesel fumes were replaced by the scent of wildflowers, plumeria and incense. Prickly pears, ficus and fantastically gnarled trees — deliberately twisted according to classic Thai gardening traditions — framed aged statues and temples above koi-filled ponds. It was one of the most transcendent, bewitching places we’d ever been, as if Kurtz’s compound in “Heart of Darkness” were situated on a remote tributary of Bangkok’s airport highway rather than on the Congo River.

And like Kurtz’s compound, all of this came from a single man’s vision.

“I saw so many of our national treasures disappear or leave Thailand,” said Prasart Vongsakul, 67, a real estate tycoon turned collector and gardener. He was sitting cross-legged in a teak pavilion where he often greets visitors wandering through his gardens. “I have worked most of my life preserving our heritage so that it can be cherished by future generations.”

Mr. Prasart’s serene, broad face mirrors those on the dozens of Buddhas inhabiting his gardens. Once a samurai in Bangkok’s cutthroat business world, he now seemed as whimsically rooted to this lush spot as his fantastically sculptured trees. “My father disappeared in the war, and my mother couldn’t afford to send me to school,” he said. “I started work when I was 7, and I learned the value of being an honest middleman in buying and selling property in Bangkok.” As his fortune grew, so did his garden. “I never married, and I never had children,” he said, gesturing around him. “What you see here are my children.”

Over the course of two decades Mr. Prasart and his staff have assembled and recreated a dozen shrines, ranging from a 30-foot-tall Khmer temple surrendered by the Cambodian jungle, to a classic Sukhothai teak library pavilion suspended on stilts over a lotus pond — insurance against insects, fires and rats.

Mr. Prasart personally sawed, painted and masoned much of this complex, sometimes resurrecting long-forgotten building techniques in his quest. He even fired up and painted much of the Chinese and Thai reproduction porcelain lining the pavilions to complement the remarkable array of treasures he has amassed during six decades of wandering.

An exquisitely carved Qing dynasty screen elicited a tale from Mr. Prasart’s early, leaner years. “When I was studying real estate I would go every day for years to the store to look at the screen,” he said. “One day the owner said, ‘I’m tired of seeing you in here all the time. If you give me 20,000 baht right now, you can just take it.’ He was bluffing because he thought I was still poor, but right away I went to my bank, withdrew the money, and bought it. He was very surprised, but he couldn’t withdraw his offer without losing face. It’s probably worth at least a million baht now.” (This would mean that Mr. Prasart paid about $675 for a screen now worth more than $34,000, at the current exchange rate.)

Despite having a staff of 30 gardeners and caretakers, Mr. Prasart said, he usually rises at dawn from his Chinese-style one-bedroom pavilion to personally tend to the plants. “I am the head gardener,” he announced. “I get to sing the loudest when we water.”

He is joined by the sounds of chimes, swaying palms and balmy breezes blowing through ancient relics. Not included in the chorus are the mosquitoes and flies that regularly hover above Bangkok’s swamps and canals like a dark mist. To keep the insects at bay, Mr. Prasart has lined his paths with barrel-size water-filled porcelain jars and vases — some more than 500 years old. Bugs alighting on the water’s surface are swallowed by fish lurking beneath — antique fly zappers.

Mr. Prasart hasn’t neglected the more modern, Western-facing Thailand in his collections. A green-and-white Italianate building in the neo-colonial style popular in Thailand during the 19th century houses a “Citizen Kane”-like bewilderment of European statuary and art, including a collection of elaborately decorated French and German porcelain plates, vases and figurines.

“These were for the Thai royal family’s private use,” Mr. Prasart explained. As tribute to the royal family’s Westernized tastes, Mr. Prasart has placed an offering of a cigar and a glass of Cognac before an Italian bust of King Rama V, the great modernizer of what was then known as Siam. His exploits are celebrated in dinner theaters around the world thanks to the memoirs of his tutor, Anna Leonowens of “The King and I.”

The relatively high entrance fee (about $16) and remote location ensured that despite being here during the packed tourist season, we had the place almost to ourselves. “Sometimes we get tour groups and we’ve even rented the place out for cruise ship dinner parties,” said Benjawan Kayee, 39, the museum’s docent. “But otherwise visitors come here to enjoy the museum in peace and privacy.”

Visitors are usually given an hourlong guided tour after which they are free to wander at whim. I was worried about the guided tour part, especially as I was traveling with two short attention spans, but under the gentle direction of Ms. Benjawan, the boys, who protest when being dragged to so much as a Christmas service, became ardent acolytes, bowing forehead-to-floor before centuries-old Buddhist altars, ringing holy bells and waving incense while absorbing the ethereal designs.

“Why do you think we elevate our doorways?” Ms. Benjawan asked, as we stepped over a foot-tall doorsill into a soaring Ayutthaya-style royal pavilion built entirely without nails. “To keep out rats?” volunteered my older son. “Close,” she responded. “To keep out evil spirits.”

Not that more earthly matters are neglected in this celestial place.

Over on the western reaches of the compound a blood-red Chinese temple guards the collection. Within the temple, an 18th-century gold-covered Goddess of Mercy dominates the altar, her eyes half open as if bemused at having ended up back here after a long odyssey that ended when Mr. Prasart bought her at an auction gallery in England. She was illuminated by candles and sweetened by incense for worship by Mr. Prasart’s employees and their families.

A local woman circled through the temple twice, using two separate doorways for exits. “The left door is for luck in love, the right one for luck in money,” Ms. Benjawan explained.

My sons instantly darted through the right door. I somehow managed to circle through both.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cambodia - Koh Kong Emerges as an Eco-Tourism Destination

In Cambodia, Koh Kong Emerges as an Eco-Tourism Destination.

INSIDE a breezy bamboo structure in Chi Phat, a village in the remote province of Koh Kong, near the Thai border in southwestern Cambodia, a dozen or so foreigners sat down to a communal dinner of chicken curry and Angkor Beer. Cinnamon-hued cattle and elderly women wearing ikat sarongs and checkered scarves ambled along the dusty road outside.

Eating by the light given off by fishing cages doubling as lamps, the group recounted the day’s activities: bird-watching at sunrise, mountain biking across rocky streams, swimming in waterfalls. And fending off rain forest leeches.

“The bite is no worse than a large mosquito’s,” said David Lambert, a strapping Englishman.

Katrin van Camp, from Belgium, had returned from a guided overnight jungle trek, then spent the afternoon in a hammock and playing with local children eager to improve their English. “When I go home, this is the Cambodia I’m going to remember,” she said.

For decades, Koh Kong villages like Chi Phat had little contact with the outside world. Marginalized by a lack of infrastructure, a Khmer Rouge presence that endured into the late 1990s, and some of Southeast Asia’s wildest, least-explored terrain, the region remained virtually forbidden to outsiders.

But new roads now penetrate the jungle and scale the hills; new bridges traverse the area’s numerous rivers. And as Cambodia has achieved a level of political stability, a small but diverse array of Western-run accommodations — including the makeshift restaurant in Chi Phat, part of a project called Community-Based Eco-tourism — has opened in the last few years, catering to both backpackers and the well-heeled.

Thanks to this new accessibility, travelers are now discovering the area’s awe-inspiring biodiversity, which includes one of Southeast Asia’s largest tracts of virgin rain forest; some 60 threatened species, including the endangered Asian elephants, tigers, Siamese crocodiles and pileated gibbons; and a virtually untouched 12-island archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, with sand beaches and crystal-clear aquamarine waters.

The Koh Kong region spans 4,300 square miles, about the size of the Everglades National Park. But the charms of Cambodian rural life are readily apparent in Chi Phat, home to about 2,500 people. The village sits at the foot of the Southern Cardamom Mountains, about 10 miles inland, up the mangrove- and bamboo-lined Preak Piphot River. Wooden houses on stilts, painted mint green and baby blue and shaded by towering palms, line the main dirt road. Children wearing navy blue and white uniforms and broad smiles cycle to school on adult-size bikes, passing by toothpick-legged white egrets hanging out on the backs of water buffalo in neon green rice fields.

It wasn’t always this peaceful. Chi Phat was once infamous for its abundant poachers, loggers and slash-and-burn farmers, who were forced to turn to illegal practices to make a living. That began to change in 2007, when the conservation group Wildlife Alliance started to work with the community on a project that would turn hunters — who knew the forest’s hidden gems better than anyone — into tour guides, and local families into guesthouse owners.

“Chi Phat was home to the most destructive inhabitants in the whole of Koh Kong province,” said John Maloy, a spokesman for Wildlife Alliance. “By participating in the eco-tourism project, community members would not only receive income that would greatly improve their situation, they would be provided with incentives to protect the forest rather than exploit it in an unsustainable manner.”

So far, the initiatives seem to be working. Last year, Chi Phat welcomed 1,228 visitors, according to the alliance, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2009. Residents are receiving much-needed income that allows them to reside year-round in the village, allowing their children to go to school and get to health care. (When locals relied on logging and hunting, they had to spend long stretches in the forest.)

Travelers, meanwhile, can leave the pressures of the developed world behind. Days begin with the rooster’s crow and end when the village’s generator goes silent at midnight. On trips organized by the Community-Based Eco-tourism office, visitors can trek through fields filled with canary yellow and electric blue butterflies to reach bat caves hidden behind curved waterfalls, or plant a tree at a reforestation nursery. Recent visitors reportedly caught a glimpse of a few of the area’s roughly 175 endangered elephants.

Janet Newman, originally from England, fell for Koh Kong while documenting the province’s wildlife in 2005. Within three years, she had decided to stay for good, and opened the eco-friendly Rainbow Lodge.

“I looked at many parts of the country but always had a big smile on my face when I went to Koh Kong,” Ms. Newman said. “It was just the sheer unspoiled beauty of the area.”

The lodge, on 12 acres along the Tatai River about 50 miles northwest of Chi Phat, is thick with palms and brightly colored flowering bushes. The seven wooden thatched-roof bungalows have hammock-strung terraces that overlook the trees.

Guests at the lodge — who recently ranged from a young Australian family of five to adventure-ready couples from Europe — can kayak to the nearby Tatai waterfall, a wide expanse that creates small bathing pools and pummeling massage spots between black rocks; head into the jungle on guided hikes, spotting and identifying birds and insects as they go; or just lounge in the wicker sofas in the open-air restaurant, whose thatched roof features a nightly display by limb-size polka-dotted geckos.

If you are lucky, the spot might just live up to its name: three rainbows streaked the sky during a November visit.


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Odyssey of Learning

The Odyssey of Learning.

"When this old world starts getting me down," as the old song goes, and the usual antidotes -- family, friends, writing, and music -- can't soothe my soul, I take comfort in knowing there's one place I can always go that's akin to being "Up on the Roof." And that's my annual engagement with the inspiring students enrolled in UW-Madison's Odyssey Project. While I'm typically there with my colleague and collaborator, Professor Craig Werner, to talk about music and the Vietnam War, I always come away from those evenings awed and stimulated by the students and their insights. My encounter this past week was no exception.

Craig and I have been giving this talk to Odyssey Project students for years, but no two presentations are ever the same because the Odyssey students are so genuine and candid. They bring their own life experiences to the conversation, and that makes the dialogue rich and powerful -- and unique -- every year.

Plus, thanks to Odyssey Project director Emily Auerbach and her co-pilot Marshall Cook, there's not the usual distance between teacher and student, nor is there the hierarchical posturing that often gets in the way of learning.

And what learning there is.

We talk a lot about race during our presentation on music and Vietnam, using songs like "Chain of Fools," "What's Going On," and "Dock of the Bay" as touchstones. Even though we're more than 40 years removed from that time and these songs, and many/most of the students in the room weren't even born, they cut to the heart of the matter faster than you can say Marvin Gaye.

And why shouldn't they? These are folks from our own community whom we've marginalized. They regularly confront Vietnam-like challenges of survival, stereotyping, misunderstanding and injustice. They know what we're talking about because they've lived it. As one female student told us last Wednesday, "'What's Going On' would be a hit today because it's telling the truth about what's going down."

The UW-Madison Odyssey Project was inspired by the work of Earl Shorris, an educator who began the Clemente Course in the Humanities in New York in 1995. Now in its tenth year, it brings about 30 adult students together for three hours every Wednesday from September to May. They hear from a number of committed and celebrated UW faculty as they read and discuss everything from Shakespeare and Sojourner Truth to the Federalist papers and Vaclav Havel's 'Essay on Civility.'

All Odyssey participants are enrolled as "Special Students" at UW-Madison and receive six college credits through the English department when they complete the course. The Project also provides these adult men and women with a variety of support services, including bus transportation, childcare, counseling, and guidance on post-project applications and financial aid.

Although many of the Odyssey students are confronting very difficult circumstances -- some live at the local Salvation Army, some have lost their homes, and others are dealing with tough personal and medical crises -- their spirits, and their energy, are always high.

"They are somehow managing -- despite all of these obstacles -- to get to class with their work done," Emily Auerbach told a local newspaper last week. "I find it incredibly moving and inspiring."

There's probably nothing more inspirational than the annual Odyssey graduation ceremony. This year's is slated for May 9. Laughter, tears, and shouts of joy fill the room, and you realize that lives have indeed been changed. As Denise Maddox, one of the first Odyssey Project graduates, told her teachers and fellow graduates: "I would never have thought that classes in the humanities would change my life forever. I mean 'forever' without exaggeration because Writing, Art History, American History, Literature, and Philosophy transported me into a new world, where written words came alive and made magic inside my heart."

And that's exactly the kind of magic that education should be all about.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Does Social Studies Matter?

Does Social Studies Matter?

On a recent 13-minute drive home from baseball practice, my 15-year-old explained to me how World War I started.

Mind you, I knew the bit about Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by a Bosnian Serb but I couldn’t have told you why other countries started joining in like it was a brawl at an NHL game.

For most of us, information has a use-it-or-lose-it quality. If we’re not called on in daily life to remember who was president during the Spanish-American War, it might slip our minds.

What stays are concepts. How America’s founders enshrined freedom of speech, religion and the press in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. That America came to England’s aid to defeat Hitler. How Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders used non-violence to force this country to see the shamefulness of the Jim Crow system.

I bring this up because the Allentown School District is considering combining social studies with English in the sixth grade in order to free up time for more math, according to The Morning Call. The district’s math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests drop off after elementary school, which puts it at odds with the federal No Child Left Behind law. The Allentown School Board could vote on the change April 26.

Combining the subjects might sound like it makes sense because so many works of literature can shed light on historical events: Have a class read “Animal Farm” to learn about communism or “To Kill a Mockingbird” to discuss segregation in the South.

But unless those classes are team-taught by an English teacher and a Social Studies teacher, one of the subjects will be slighted. Plus the time on these subjects would be cut in half.

Allentown is in a pickle. The regiment of high stakes standardized testing instituted by No Child Left Behind diminishes the importance of anything not on the PSSAs, including social studies.

While I was researching other efforts to combine social studies and English, I spoke to Corbin Moore, vice president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies and a former history teacher.

Moore said he’s seen the combining of such subjects done successfully but only when they were team-taught.

“It can work, but my fear would be that social studies would get the short end of the stick like it usually does,” Moore said. “Pretty much what gets tested, gets taught. You talk about No Child Left Behind, well …social studies was the subject that got left behind.”

Here’s what gets lost: Creativity – one of the hardest talents to measure -- germinates in our frame of reference. Learning world history is key to expanding that.

Social studies helps us understand who we are as a country and what is worth saving. It reminds Americans from diverse backgrounds, ages and ethnicities of our common bond and shared rights and responsibilities. It teaches us what solutions to problems have – and have not – worked.

Perhaps a clergyman I know said it best: Science and math can tell us how to build gas chambers and opera houses. Social sciences like history teach us which one to build.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why Your Kid Is Not Creative

Why Your Kid Isn't Creative.

Most parents want their kids to be inventive and clever -- perhaps even the next Steve Jobs. But parents also want their kids to perform well by the standard measures of success. Prioritizing one of those pathways, it turns out, may close off the other.

In the new bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works, journalist Jonah Lehrer synthesizes the latest scientific research into creativity and offers tips for how ordinary people can become more creative. It's a timely subject. Businesses increasingly value workers who can devise customized solutions to complex problems. And improvisation is a key skill for people who want a career of their own design, instead of one dictated by an increasingly cutthroat corporate sector.

The good news is that most people start out with healthy creative instincts, and virtually anybody can improve their creativity if they want to. The bad news is that our education system and social mores discourage creativity. "We're very good at killing creativity in kids," Lehrer told me in an interview. "We kill it with ruthless efficiency. The schools have twelve years to sculpt your mind, and they end up convincing kids that they're not creative."

There's nothing new about the way pragmatic concerns and conformity displace playfulness and originality as kids mature. "Every child is an artist," Pablo Picasso once said. "The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

What is new is the emphasis schools place on rote learning, memorization, and especially standardized tests, which generate a kind of assembly-line uniformity to what kids learn in school. Creativity, by contrast, requires qualities that schools tend to discourage, such as daydreaming, uninhibited curiosity, hands-on experimentation and an unstructured, permissive environment.

Lehrer profiles one highly successful school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where there are no textbooks or lectures, and kids spend most of their time working with music, art, theater or whatever their vocation is. Most schools don't operate that way, of course. It's also worth pointing out that many parents would be uncomfortable sending their kids to such an unorthodox place.

Lehrer also highlights one important theme I came across while researching my own book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success: the importance of letting kids fail. He describes a phenomenon known as the "fourth-grade slump," a point at which students suddenly start to censor their creative impulses. What happens is kids become more self-aware as they mature, and more eager to conform to social norms. They'd rather avoid something difficult than risk the embarrassment that might come from failing at it. They start to regard improvising as risky, suppressing their creativity. "This is why it's so important to practice letting ourselves go," Lehrer writes.

There are solutions, of course. Many parents instinctively want to "fix" the schools so that they do everything well: Teach the skills that society values most, while also teaching the creativity that will let kids stand out as adults. But that's not realistic. Most schools are appendages of a bureaucracy that serves many interests. They're capable of doing some things competently, but expecting excellence for all is a stretch.

This might be one job parents should handle themselves, instead of outsourcing it to the schools. We can start by tolerating, even encouraging, the kind of daydreaming and intellectual meandering that we too readily label attention-deficit disorder, as if it's a defect. Sometimes it's not. Parents who don't feel they're personally creative can find creative mentors for their kids outside the schools - -writers or artists or designers who seem to have an inventive knack. And exposing kids to many different things is crucially important, since creativity often happens when people connect seemingly disparate ideas, the way the Wright Brothers got the idea for an airplane by wondering if a bicycle could fly.

Lehrer invokes a maxim popularized by psychologist Angela Duckworth: Choose easy, work hard. That means giving kids the freedom to discover something they truly love, while making sure they know it takes diligence and grit to succeed at their passion. "It's going to involve failure," says Lehrer. "You have to be able to put in the work." The rewards may be well worth it.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Half Of New Graduates Find They Are Jobless Or Underemployed

Half of new graduates are jobless or underemployed.

A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don't fully use their skills and knowledge.

Young adults with bachelor's degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that's confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

STORY: Economists' outlook brightens

An analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor's degrees.

Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.

While there's strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for bachelor's degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.

"I don't even know what I'm looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.

Initially hopeful that his college education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last two years. In the beginning he sent three or four resumes day. But, Bledsoe said, employers questioned his lack of experience or the practical worth of his major. Now he sends a resume once every two weeks or so.

Bledsoe, currently making just above minimum wage, says he has received financial help from his parents to help pay off student loans. He is now mulling whether to go to graduate school, seeing few other options to advance his career. "There is not much out there, it seems," he said.

His situation highlights a widening but little-discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that young adults make earlier in life — level of schooling, academic field and training, where to attend college, how to pay for it — are having a long-lasting financial impact.

"You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it's not true for everybody," says Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. "If you're not sure what you're going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college."

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who analyzed the numbers, said many people with a bachelor's degree face a double whammy of rising tuition and poor job outcomes. "Simply put, we're failing kids coming out of college," he said, emphasizing that when it comes to jobs, a college major can make all the difference. "We're going to need a lot better job growth and connections to the labor market, otherwise college debt will grow."

By region, the Mountain West was most likely to have young college graduates jobless or underemployed — roughly 3 in 5. It was followed by the more rural southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The Pacific region, including Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, also was high on the list.

On the other end of the scale, the southern U.S., anchored by Texas, was most likely to have young college graduates in higher-skill jobs.

The figures are based on an analysis of the 2011 Current Population Survey data by Northeastern University researchers and supplemented with material from Paul Harrington, an economist at Drexel University, and the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. They rely on Labor Department assessments of the level of education required to do the job in 900-plus U.S. occupations, which were used to calculate the shares of young adults with bachelor's degrees who were "underemployed."

About 1.5 million, or 53.6%, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41%, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.

Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.

Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less.

In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000 versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren't easily replaced by computers.

College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

In Nevada, where unemployment is the highest in the nation, Class of 2012 college seniors recently expressed feelings ranging from anxiety and fear to cautious optimism about what lies ahead.

With the state's economy languishing in an extended housing bust, a lot of young graduates have shown up at job placement centers in tears. Many have been squeezed out of jobs by more experienced workers, job counselors said, and are now having to explain to prospective employers the time gaps in their resumes.

"It's kind of scary," said Cameron Bawden, 22, who is graduating from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in December with a business degree. His family has warned him for years about the job market, so he has been building his resume by working part time on the Las Vegas Strip as a food runner and doing a marketing internship with a local airline.

Bawden said his friends who have graduated are either unemployed or working along the Vegas Strip in service jobs that don't require degrees. "There are so few jobs and it's a small city," he said. "It's all about who you know."

Any job gains are going mostly to workers at the top and bottom of the wage scale, at the expense of middle-income jobs commonly held by bachelor's degree holders. By some studies, up to 95% of positions lost during the economic recovery occurred in middle-income occupations such as bank tellers, the type of job not expected to return in a more high-tech age.

David Neumark, an economist at the University of California-Irvine, said a bachelor's degree can have benefits that aren't fully reflected in the government's labor data. He said even for lower-skilled jobs such as waitress or cashier, employers tend to value bachelor's degree-holders more highly than high-school graduates, paying them more for the same work and offering promotions.

In addition, U.S. workers increasingly may need to consider their position in a global economy, where they must compete with educated foreign-born residents for jobs. Longer-term government projections also may fail to consider "degree inflation," a growing ubiquity of bachelor's degrees that could make them more commonplace in lower-wage jobs but inadequate for higher-wage ones.

That future may be now for Kelman Edwards Jr., 24, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who is waiting to see the returns on his college education.

After earning a biology degree last May, the only job he could find was as a construction worker for five months before he quit to focus on finding a job in his academic field. He applied for positions in laboratories but was told they were looking for people with specialized certifications.

"I thought that me having a biology degree was a gold ticket for me getting into places, but every other job wants you to have previous history in the field," he said. Edwards, who has about $5,500 in student debt, recently met with a career counselor at Middle Tennessee State University. The counselor's main advice: Pursue further education.

"Everyone is always telling you, 'Go to college,'" Edwards said. "But when you graduate, it's kind of an empty cliff."


Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Joy of Teaching

The Joy of Teaching.

To say that this past week was a tad bizarre seems a bit of an understatement. As I strangely became the focus of unwanted national attention, and I experienced quite a roller coaster ride of emotional extremes, from embarrassment to pride, tears to laughter, exhaustion to exhilaration.

Ultimately, I must say that I am left with an overriding sense of gratitude. I am immensely grateful to all of you for your phenomenal level of support, and also very grateful to be reminded of why I feel so passionate about teaching; what it is that makes teaching such a truly joyful experience for me.

As the week unfolded and the truth began to emerge, it became obvious that nothing newsworthy took place in my classroom on Tuesday. I wish that I could take credit for something innovative and truly groundbreaking, but I cannot. Those courageous and pioneering efforts took place more than 40 years ago as others paved the way for human sexuality courses to be taught at universities across the nation.

However, out of this non-event in the classroom countless opportunities have emerged for those teachable moments that we all relish. Lively classroom discussions have already been triggered on such issues as journalistic ethics, academic freedom and the power of social networking.

Of even greater significance to me, the controversy has focused attention on the offering of human sexuality courses. My current and former students from the course have been absolutely stunned by the media exposure surrounding the viewing of this educational video, and the mischaracterization of the very nature of human sexuality courses. They have also been incredibly fascinated by the very polarized opinions being posted online, particularly those expressing outrage that such a course even exists in a university setting.

I strongly believe that the debate stirred up over this controversy actually serves to reinforce the profound need to offer these very courses in human sexuality. Students come together in a sexuality class representing a diversity of sexual attitudes, values and experiences, with varying cultural, religious and political beliefs. Spending a semester learning from one another heightens their awareness of these differences promoting greater respect and understanding.

Clearly ignorance is not bliss when it comes to one's sexuality. These courses also provide students with essential information to make informed decisions to better protect their sexual health and to enhance the quality of their relationships.

Again, I cannot thank that you all enough for the kindness that you expressed as you shared your words of encouragement through conversations, voicemails and emails ... all treasured by me. I am also indebted to those of you as reporters who were interested in not just getting a story, but both sides of the story.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Travel the World and Teach English in Chiang Mai Thailand

Travel the world and teach English in Chiang Mai Thailand.

Katherine Hardy and her partner Rob, both from the UK, jacked in their jobs in the civil service to travel the world and teach English. They slung a few things in a backpack and after seeing a few countries, they both ended up in Chiang Mai. But they’ve already got itchy feet.

Q: Katherine, welcome to the ajarn hot seat and firstly, a big thank you for all the other excellent contributions you've made to the ajarn website. OK let's get down to business, tell us a little about how you and your partner Rob met and how long you've actually been together? 
A: We met back in the UK while both working for the government. We’ve been together about a year and a half now. We were friends first, but only together as a ‘couple’ for six months before we decided to leave the UK.

Q: I think it's fair to say then that you and Rob are still in the relatively early stages of your relationship. So to pack up and head out East together must have been a massive decision?

A: Before we got together we both had ideas in our heads about travelling, though admittedly to very different parts of the world. As it became apparent that our jobs were not secure we began to discuss travelling more and more.

When it started to get to crunch time and booking tickets, we decided that we wanted to stay together and travel together, so without much hesitation we booked a pair of one way tickets to Hong Kong and that was that.

Part of the reason behind us travelling was to be spontaneous and do something out of our comfort zone, so the thought of going together, after not having known each other that long, wasn’t really a concern.

Q: So it's a tale of two kindred spirits, both disillusioned with life in the UK and looking for some great adventure. Have I just about nailed it there?

A: Yes! We both worked under various departments of the UK Jobcentre, so we were all too aware of how hard things were becoming in the UK for people looking for work.

Neither of us had any real ties to the UK - no mortgage, no children, not even pets - and after years of desk jobs we both felt we needed an adventure and to see more of the world. The timing just seemed to fit perfectly.
Q: You both 'bummed around SE Asia' for several months. Were you intent on looking for work or was it purely a holiday? Where did you actually stay on your travels and what were your thoughts on the various places?

A: Well we headed first to Hong Kong as I have a friend who teaches English in China and I wanted to visit her. We had a vague plan in our heads, with a Chinese and Vietnamese visa ready in our passports, so that began our journey.

From there we really just travelled along the usual routes but with no real destination in mind (again part of the ‘being spontaneous’ idea behind the whole adventure). We travelled from China, though Vietnam, into Cambodia and finally Lao.

Overall, we saw so many things that it’s hard to put into words. For us, our favourite country was without a doubt Cambodia - so much history, so many beautiful sights and very friendly people.

Realistically we always knew we would have to stop and start work at some stage. We had booked a one-way ticket after all and money was certainly not limitless. We had no real plan for ‘where’ or ‘when’ but we knew that teaching English would probably be our best bet.
   Q: You ended up in Chiang Mai. It sounds like it was love at first sight? What's so special about the place for you?

A:We ended up in Chiang Mai on a bit of a whim. Sat in a guesthouse somewhere in Lao, I decided that if we were going to teach English, our only real option was to do a TEFL course, both to prepare us for teaching and to hopefully help us to gain employment.

After a little internet research I found one in Chiang Mai that seemed to suit us both time-wise and what the course was offering. After a few exchanged emails, we headed to Chiang Mai and enrolled on the course, which was due to start in two weeks time.

We knew nothing of Thailand other than what the guide book said, but like most things over the last few months we just thought ‘why not’ and just packed our rucksacks and headed on.

Chiang Mai was definitely love at first sight. It’s a brilliant place to introduce yourself to Thailand. It still retains much of its Thai vibe while still having all the amenities you could ever need. The people really are so friendly and it just instantly became home. 

Q: OK, so you your own admittance, your funds had started to run low so you looked for teaching work in Chiang Mai. Was that something you had planned on doing?

A: It wasn’t planned, no. We had intended to travel around Thailand for a while after the TEFL course and before finding work, but a combination of lack of funds and the fact that we finished our course in October (prime hiring time for Thai schools) meant that we decided to stay put and find work

Q: I presume that you had also done a little research and already knew that Chiang Mai wasn't perhaps the best choice in terms of well-paid teaching jobs?

A: Hmmm, you presume wrong. We did no research into salaries in Thailand whatsoever. We simply relied on the information from our TEFL course - that Chiang Mai had a plethora of schools to apply to.

We wrongly believed that this would mean it would be easy to find work, when in reality it took a lot of ‘hitting the pavement’ before both Rob and I had secured jobs. We certainly don’t regret staying in Chiang Mai, but had timing and the money situation been different, I think we would have done more research and moved on.

Q: Do you and Rob both work at the same school? If not, did you try and seek work at the same place?

A: I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time job pretty quickly through a contact from our TEFL school. We never had the intention of working at the same school, but as we were both looking for the same type of jobs, we inevitably applied at many of the same schools.

Rob later found a part time job at another school, and we both worked for the same language school teaching private lessons.

Q: I've always said that for employers, teacher couples are a good catch because they will support each other and you'll get decent loyalty from them. Have you generally found that Thai hirers, school owners or whatever have looked at you in a more positive light - purely because you are a young couple?

A: At first, no, we never really advertised the fact that we were a couple and mostly conducted our job searches autonomously. Recently, since we have been looking for new jobs for the start of the new school year, I would say yes it has helped.

I have actually been offered a new job in Nakhon Si Thammarat, and once I told the employer there that I would be moving with my partner Rob, he set about trying to secure him a job too, first with another school and now within the same school.

I think it depends on the employer and his or her experiences with western teachers, as to whether they see teaching couples as a good bet or not. One school in Suart Thani I interviewed with seemed almost ‘put-off’ when I said I would be moving to Nakhon with a boyfriend, asking how long we had been together and implying the relationship might not last and that upon its disintegration I would be on the first flight home! I very sweetly told them this would not be the case, and was offered the job anyway.

Q: Do you and Rob share the same personality traits? You've both obviously got a sense of adventure but is one person more of a worrier, who's intent on keeping your feet firmly on the ground, whereas one of you is a bit more carefree perhaps?

A: Hmmm, well… We obviously share a sense of adventure and we both set out on this experience with the same goals in mind - basically that there were no goals. We simply wanted to see some of the world, have a good time doing it, and not have to return to the UK anytime soon.

As to our personalities we probably are quite different. I’m certainly the organiser, to which Rob would say I am the worrier, but one of us has to gauge some sort of direction.

He’s very much suited to the Thai way of thinking. Don’t think too far ahead, let things happen, and to be honest it’s worked out for us so far.

Q: I've got to ask this because in your 'cost of living' survey that you did for ajarn, you mentioned that you both share a studio apartment. So what happens when you 'fall out' or have words with each other? Does one of you have to go onto the balcony for a sulk?

A: Ha ha, well lucky for us neither of us have particularly volatile tempers and we don’t really fall out. Yes, we both have our sulky moments, and the balcony is the perfect place for this, or the 5-minute walk to 7-11, but I think we both realise that we are out here together, we share a small flat, and that we really shouldn’t let the small things get to us. Maybe I’m adopting the Thai attitude more than I thought!

Q: Would you be approaching the whole idea of teaching English in Thailand differently if you didn't have Rob alongside you?

A: I think I would have approached this whole adventure differently without Rob, and I certainly don’t think I would be planning the next few years out here if I wasn’t here with him. It’s very hard to say. On my own I might have just travelled a bit and then returned home when the money ran out.
   Q: You've already let me in on your future plans. That's to say you and Rob are planning a big move to Nakhon Si Thammarat. Chiang Mai to NST sounds like an unusual move. I don't know why; it just does. What made you choose a town at the other end of the country and a place that probably doesn't have the attractions and lifestyle that Chiang Mai has to offer?

A: As with everything that we have done over the last year, we're going on a a bit of a whim!

We knew that we wanted something different to Chiang Mai. While we love it here, we want a complete change of scenery and I in particular want to be nearer the beaches.

We know someone already teaching in Nakhon and he has told us that there is a great ex-pat teaching community there, which is very lacking in Chiang Mai, probably because there are just so many ‘farangs’ here.

I applied for a couple of jobs, was made an offer, and that was that. The drastic increase in salary is obviously a big incentive as well, along with much better benefits from the school and a lower cost of living. We’ve never even been to Southern Thailand, let alone Nakhon, so it’s a very exciting move for us.
   Q: I'm sure you'll do well Katherine. I wish you both the very best of British luck. How long do you seriously think Thailand will be home?

A: Well I think realistically we shall stay in Thailand for the next 1-2 years. After that we may need to think about money more seriously and head for an Asian country that pays better.

Neither of us see ourselves back in the UK within the next 5 years, but who knows? We have no plan set in stone, only to continue teaching out here for as long as it’s fun and feasible.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vietnam and Cambodia - Land of the Dragon

Vietnam and Cambodia - Land of the Dragon.

"I can't say what made me fall in love with Vietnam... (and Cambodia)... that everything is so intense... The colours, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the...rain in London. They say whatever you're looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that's the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat....You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war." These were the words of Thomas Fowler from the film, "The Quiet American," which so accurately sums up Vietnam. It is a land that captures the very essence of your soul and takes you on an unforgettable journey through the land of the dragon.

Ancient mythology tells us that the people of Vietnam are descendants of the Dragon Lord Lạc Long Qun and the Immortal Fairy u Cơ. They produced 100 children, 50 of whom lived with their mother in the mountains and the other 50, with their father in the sea. So steeped in mythology is the land of Vietnam that each area is shrouded in some story of mythological formation.

Landing in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and home to about 3.7 million people and 1.2 million motor bikes, is like landing in the heart of a giant mosquito that never sleeps. Endless streams of bikes pass you by each day, with many families of 4 heading off on their daily chores. Farmers from surrounding areas meet at the "morning market at 03h00 and by 07h00 have cleared up and gone. At night, entire streets are transformed into night markets which trade until late in the evening. Unlike its sister city, Saigon, Hanoi has narrow streets and still retains some of its old city charm. The old quarter, often known as the "36 streets," dates back over 2000 years. The area was once home to numerous craft guilds which created work areas. When the streets were eventually named, each street was named after the craft sold along that street and so today, if you need shoes, you head for Hang Guay, and for jewellery, Hang Bac.

Leaving the bustle of the city behind and traveling northwards towards the sea, highway 5 takes you to a world Heritage site, and the tail of the "descending dragon." Halong Bay is an endless canvas of 1969 limestone islands, 989 of which have been named. Many of these islands are home to numerous caves, some of which can be visited on foot and others in the pleasant tranquility of a kayak.

According to local legend, Halong Bay was created by a family of dragons, sent by the gods to help protect the Vietnamese from Chinese invaders. The dragons spat out pears and jade stones which soon turned to a myriad of islands protecting the people from the invaders. Today, these very same islands provide a safe home to many small floating villages, the inhabitants of whom survive off the 200 species of fish and 450 different species of mollusks that the waters provide.

Far south of Halong Bay is the picturesque small historical town of Hoi An, where the "The Quiet American," was partially filmed. Between the 15th to 19th centuries the town served as one of South-East Asia's most important trading ports for spices and silk and today is still a traders paradise. Cars are banned and the narrow cobbled streets are lined with old buildings, temples, pagoda's and endless shops selling hand made trousers for $15, evening dresses for $25 and three-piece suits for $40. In the heart of the town is the Ving Hung Hotel, which served as the dressing room for Michael Caine during filming. Today, tourists jostle to book into the same room which overlooks the narrow bustling lantern lit streets below, which come alive during the festival of the full moon.

From the quiet tranquility of Hoi An, a short flight takes you in the belly of the dragon, Saigon or the modern day, Ho Chi Minh City. Inhabited by 8 million people and 4 million motor bikes it pulsates 24 hours a day. Traveling through the vast tarred streets with towering modern hotels and malls, it is hard to believe that the city started out as a small fishing village in an area that was originally swampland, but when heading out into the neighbouring areas the tranquility of forgotten days soon prevails. Endless rice paddies line the myriad of roads that spread out from the city. Framers work the land,

harvesting rice in the blazing heat. Old carts are pulled by weary horses. Rubber trees are methodically planted in rows, their sticky sap slowly seeping into wooden bowls for collection.

Driving back in time, one arrives at the area of Cu Chi, whose 121km hand-dug underground tunnels became famous as a battleground of the Vietnam War. The forested area is littered with B52 bomb craters and the endless spattering of gun fire can be heard from the firing range. Some of the tunnels are open to tourists to experience for a brief period, what life in the tunnels must have been like. In the blistering heat of the day, 7 of us descended into the dark abyss below us. The tunnels are narrow, dark, airless and in places slope down and narrow so one has to belly crawl. 40m was all it took for me to realize that as a non-sufferer of claustrophobia, another 20m would surely have converted me. Lack of air. Stifling heat. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing from American troops, the Viet Cong would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Malaria and sickness were rampant and accounted for the second largest cause of death after battle wounds.

As horrific as life in the tunnels must have been, it is the images of the war weapons and traps set by the Viet Cong for the Americans that will remain in my memory for a life time, but as one local guide said, when your way of life is under attack, you will do all in your power to protect it.

South of Saigon lies the feet and arms of the dragon, whose claws spread out to form the massive expanse of the Mekong Delta. The area, also known as Nine River Dragon Delta, drains an area of over 790 000 km2. The Mekong is the 12th-longest river in the world, and runs all the way from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, into Vietnam and finally into the south china sea.

With such an expanse of water it is not surprising to find that the residents of the Mekong area are river people. Where Hanoi's streets come alive with early morning markets, the tributaries of the Mekong erupt into a chattering wash tub as hundreds of boats navigate the narrow channels laden with hands of bananas, grapefruit, jackfruit, spinach, fish and every kind of vegetable imaginable. Trade takes place under the shade of Vietnamese hats while hotel and restaurant owners on the shore line yell instructions across the water of their daily needs. About 20 minutes up the Mekong we headed along a narrow tributary to encounter life up river. Locals wade about in the waters catching fish. Children cycle and play along narrow sidewalks dodging chickens and dogs. Mothers sit at the waters edge washing clothes while the men potter about fixing their boats. Farmers live on combination fish and rice farms, generating an average of $35 a month, while small family businesses survive making rice cakes, rice paper and potent rice wine.

Leaving the peace and tranquility of the Mekong, our next stop was neighbouring Cambodia, lying at the back of the dragon. Like Vietnam, the history of Cambodia is marred with foreign invasions, international political intervention and internal conflicts. The pinnacle of Cambodia's history arose during the rulership of the Khymer Kings between about 800 - 1400AD. It was during this period that Khmer kings built the most extensive concentration of religious temples in the world - the Angkor temple complex - and hundreds of surrounding temples.

Then in 1431 the Thais plundered the area and the complex of Angkor was abandoned. For almost 200 years the forces of nature invaded the temples. Fig trees took up residence on temple walls and slowly engulfed the buildings. Moss adorned the intricate carvings and aerial roots flowed to the floor.

Today, the complex of temples is a World Heritage site. Many of the Hindu statues have been removed and replaced with sculptures of Buddha and numerous renovations are underway. Time seems to have stood leaving an imprint of mystique. I lost my heart to the temples of Cambodia.

I cannot say what made me fall in love with Vietnam and Cambodia. Perhaps it was the ever smiling faces of the people, the sheer simplicity of life or the vast green rice fields; the smell of the rain or the sounds of children splashing about kicking a home crafted soccer ball. Perhaps it was the excitement with which vendors haggle over prices or the intense respect shown by children to their elders. Whatever the reason, they left an indelible imprint on my heart and a yearning to return, in my soul.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Serious About a New Language? Begin With Lesson 1

Serious About a New Language? Begin With Lesson 1.

I’ve tried learning Italian through books, CDs, DVDs, tapes, and apps with phrase books and translation technology. Nothing stuck.

As a result, I’ve avoided much costlier alternatives that promise to deliver full language courses to mobile phones and tablets.

I shouldn’t have.

In two cases in particular, I found comprehensive language courses for mobile devices that are vastly better in quality than apps that offer a small piece of the language learning experience.

The courses are from Living Language and Rocket Languages, and if you’re serious about bilingualism they are absolutely worth considering.

Of the two, Living Language (free on Apple and Android) offers a more consistently good experience and the more generous trial terms. The French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese and Japanese apps include 11 introductory lessons, with another 35 lessons available for $20 on iPad and $15 on iPhone. On Android, the first three lessons are free, and languages include Spanish, French, German and Italian. The full app is $15.

The app’s full 46 lessons are included if you purchase the Living Language Platinum service, which, for $179, includes books, CDs, a personal online tutor and access to a online community, among other elements.

Rocket Languages is a similar Web-based service, and it has no dedicated app, but if you log on from a mobile device the experience is nearly identical to an app. Rocket Languages also offers instruction in Korean, Arabic, Hindi and American Sign Language.

The big difference is that you can’t use the service while outside of a Wi-Fi hot spot for any significant length of time, unless you can afford additional data charges. You can download audio files ahead of time to save at least a little on data charges.

Plus, if you have a spotty network connection, the pages will lag.

Rocket Languages offers free trial versions that include at least 10 of the more than 60 tutorials in the paid versions, which cost between $100 and $150.

Prospective students should start with Living Languages, whose lessons in Italian I found nothing short of delightful, even with a few small hiccups.

Regardless of the language you choose, the lessons include a range of surprising and engaging exercises and games that test and build knowledge.

The building blocks of each lesson are virtual flashcards that gracefully flip at your touch, to reveal the English translations of Italian words and phrases. Once you’ve mastered a card, you touch a button to indicate as much, and the app adjusts its exercises to account for your proficiency.

The most challenging of the games is Fill in the Blank, where users complete a sentence by typing the Italian word. The app offers hints, in the form of partly spelled words, to those who are stumped.

On the Sentence Builder page, you drag words from a menu to assemble the Italian version of a given sentence, while another game challenges users to tap the Italian phrase and its English analog as the phrases move about the page in bubbles.

The games are smartly designed. The Sentence Builder, for instance, includes enough variations on words to make users think carefully about their choices. And the app’s developers evidently obsessed over little elements, like the way the software responds to the touch. The typeface design and color scheme, too, are friendly to the eye.

Living Language keeps score each time you play a game, and if you score perfectly, a gold ribbon icon appears on that page. It’s a nice enticement, even if the system doesn’t always work as planned.

In the word-finder puzzle, for instance, you must identify Italian phrases in a grid. On two occasions, the Italian phrase for “good evening” (buona sera) did not exist in the grid, which was frustrating.

This is the kind of glitch that’s easy to forgive, though, since everything else works so well. I emerged from Lesson 1 with demonstrably improved knowledge and an eagerness to move onto the next one.

It took me about 45 minutes to complete the lesson, but since I knew a little of the language I got through it slightly faster than a true beginner might. If one assumes roughly one hour per lesson, the app’s 11 lessons offer a huge amount of value at no charge.