I spent four days in Thailand last week chaperoning and judging at the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools (IASAS) Debate & Forensics competition at the International School of Bangkok. My official job was to judge a couple of rounds of extemporaneous speaking, which involves listening to kids make semi-prepared seven-minute arguments about current events. More informally, I watched a lot of debate and impromptu matches. It was surprisingly exhausting — I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to watch, take notes, and give feedback on a full day of speaking events (these were old stomping grounds for me; I used to coach debate and extemp when I worked at Punahou). The Singapore American School kids did well, earning the gold medals in debate and oratorical interpretation and a bronze in original oratory.
To get to the International School of Bangkok from the airport, you drive north of the city for nearly an hour (or more — there’s always traffic). You drive through slums and subdivisions, past tons of trash and thousands of crowded and cluttered buildings. And then you drive through a gate, and it’s like you’ve suddenly found yourself in Florida. The curbside litter is gone, everything is in its place, and there’s a manmade lake smack in the middle of it all. All of the workers are Thai, and all of the residents are white. In the parlance of expatriate living, you have found yourself on a “compound.”
A compound is a living community designed entirely for expats. I had heard about them before — they are common to many international schools — but this was the first time I had actually seen one. And I found it eerie — you know you’re in Bangkok, technically, but you feel like you’re somewhere just outside of Orlando. This is the view from the service apartment on the compound where they housed the chaperones:
The lake did make for pretty sunrises, which I admired from a balcony:
Life on the compound is easy — there are restaurants and swimming pools and huge houses and fancy condos. A Starbucks sits just a block from campus. There are flowers, of course:
Leave the compound, and life is immediately different. Instead of fine dining, you’ll find street carts selling everything from unidentifiable meat on sticks to smoked corn (those ears below are sitting over a little brazier).
Lots of Southeast Asia-loving expats adore Bangkok, and this sort of street scene is exactly why — they’ll say that Bangkok still feels “authentic.” Not all of the authenticity appeals to me — I could do without the wires and the litter and the grime. But that’s why so many expats live on a compound and experience the authenticity in small doses.
One thing that you can’t get away from on the compound is air pollution. On our first day, we had clear skies; by our second day in Bangkok, everything was hazy. It made for a brilliantly colored sun in the evening:
Also common to every place, no matter how fancy, is black and white bunting. You find it all over the city:
King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died in October, and the city will be in mourning for a year. They take this very, very seriously. As you drive around, you see a nonstop exercise in hagiography. This king was truly revered.