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Wednesday 26th April 2006

I guess I should blog an update on the current political mess but, to be honest, it has really started to get me down.

The 2nd April 'democratic' election with just one party standing (how's that for democracy?) left 40 unfilled parliamentary seats and the Thai Constitution says that a new government cannot be convened unless all the seats are filled. What's more, this has to happen within 30 days of the election.

So, another poll was called last Sunday to fill the empty seats but at least 13 have still not been filled. In an effort to beat the 30 day deadline, another poll is being arranged for Saturday. I should add that all these elections are costing Thai taxpayers a lot of money.

If all the seats aren't filled by the end of the month there is nothing in the Constitution about what to do next.

As ever, the problem is Thaksin. He has caused all the problems but will not just disappear. He continues to play silly games but he doesn't fool anyone any more. The Thais know he is still pulling the strings and still in control but now he is in a position behind the scenes where he isn't accountable for his actions.

He is already one of the wealthiest men in the world but still he wants to be in a position of power so he can become even wealthier. His greed knows no bounds. He could retire anywhere he wants to in the world in total luxury for the rest of his days and I wish he would because that's the only way to solve this current crisis.

HM the King has now become involved. The good news is that his is always the voice of reason and when he speaks, the Thais take heed. His words may mean the nullification of the April 2nd election and a chance for Thailand to end this mess. Thailand's top judges are now considering His Majesty's remarks and trying to work out a solution. It is likely that another general election will be held and this time the Democrat Party will stand in opposition.

What is a little unfortunate is that continually resolving political crises by royal intervention doesn't bode well for Thailand's attempts to become a real democracy and it is also an unfair burden on His Majesty.

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Tuesday 25th April 2006

I saw that Kevin Costner has been named in a sexual harassment case. While playing golf in Scotland he apparently went for a massage and the soothing strokes of the wee lassie masseuse got him a little too worked up causing him to his play with his Big Bertha.

Of course, as he is a big celebrity, she thought it would be worth a huge law suit which is how many people think these days. Mmm, how do I make some money? Sue McDonalds for serving hot coffee or drop a human finger into a bowl of chili.

I just hope the armies of young Thai massage girls working in every corner of the Magic Kingdom do not follow suit otherwise Thai lawyers will start to find themselves very, very busy.

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Monday 24th April 2006

The Hammers in an FA Cup final; the first time for 26 years and up against a Liverpool side they stand a much better chance of beating than had Chelsea made the final. Oh, happy days. After the crap that was dished out to West Ham fans by the board for several seasons in recent years it is about time they had something to be happy about.

Two great West Ham managers have died this year but in charge now is a manager who looks set to follow in the steps of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall. How Alan Pardew managed to survive the pressure he came under when he first arrived, I don't know, but survive he did with the utmost dignity and resolve.

One more win boys, that's all it will take to bring some long-awaited silverware back to Upton Park. May 13th is the big day. It's just a shame that the new Wembley stadium won't be complete for the final.

West Ham played in the first FA Cup final at the old Wembley stadium in 1923 against Bolton Wanderers in what was known as the 'White Horse' final. It would seem only fitting that the Hammers play in the first FA Cup final in the new stadium.

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Wednesday 19th April 2006

The Thais were back at the polling booths today to vote for a new Senate. The upper house is key in the Thai constitution as it is supposedly neutral; providing checks and balance mechanisms crucial for good governance. The Senate monitors the government and the independent watchdog bodies that were set up as part of the 1997 Constitution to ensure fairness.

However, the same old nonsense continues. The 1,477 candidates standing for 200 Senate seats are barred from joining political parties but most, apparently, are married, or connected in some way, to members of Thaksin's Thai Ruk Thai party.

There has been no let up with vote buying, an old favourite in Thai politics. Here are a couple of extracts from the Thai Yahoo! site.

P-Net (The People's Network for Elections) said at least 100 million Baht (US$2.6 million) was spent by some candidates in the impoverished northeastern province of Sisaket alone, where seven candidates are racing for one seat.

"Billions of Baht have been spent in past elections and this Senate election was no exception," P-Net secretary-general Warin Thiemjaras told Reuters, adding the cost per vote ranged from Bt20 to Bt1,000.

Thaksin has claimed he is a champion of democracy whereas he claims the People's Alliance for Democracy are just an unruly 'mob' but here we have yet another classic example of his version of democracy. I expect this kind of thing in tinpot African republics but not in Thailand. And don't be fooled. He may have stepped down but he is still controlling matters from behind the scenes and providing the funds for vote-buying.

The struggle that began at the end of last year to end this ridiculous state of affairs in Thailand still has a very long way to go. Unsurprisingly, violence flared up in the south again after a relatively peaceful few weeks. The Thais aren't stupid. They can see what is happening and unless Thailand can sort things out the problems in the south will only get worse and will probably spread to other parts of the country.

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Saturday 15th April 2006

Regarding my rant below about not being able to cross certain busy roads safely because there is absolutely no provision to help pedestrians, I just spotted a story about a British girl teaching English in Bangkok who was killed recently while crossing the road. Here's the story as reported by the Yorkshire Post.

It's no joke when there are no pedestrian bridges and when drivers ignore zebra crossings and red lights. I mentioned below about taking my life in my hands almost every day when I attempt to cross the road and I wasn't exaggerating. When you combine this with the crazy speeds some Thais drive at (and some are probably drunk) it's a disaster waiting to happen.

This is nothing new in Thailand; it's always been like this. However, after my recent trip to Singapore where it is possible to cross roads safely, it has highlighted to me just how stupid the situation is in Thailand.

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Friday 14th April 2006

Songkran came and went without me leaving my room. I wasn't in a particularly good mood and I knew exactly what would have happened if I'd ventured outside. A dry farang is a prime target during Songkran.

Had I gone outside I would have been approached cautiously by groups of kids with water pistols. They would first have gauged my general reaction to make sure I wasn't going to turn violent or anything and then soaked me. I would have stood there thinking, "Well done, that was fun wasn't it, thank you." If my mood had been better I might have ventured out but Songkran isn't for grouchy old farts.

I wasn't the only one by all accounts. I asked quite a few of my friends and students what their plans were for Songkran and they all said they were staying indoors. It seems to be a thing for kids and tourists these days. Hat Yai has been packed with Malaysian and Singaporean tourists this week - 70,000 apparently and I've been told that every hotel room in town has been taken. It must be a relief for local businesses who have had a difficult couple of years due to the problems in the southern provinces.

The Nation published the annual Songkran road death and injury figures today. By Wednesday (day 6) there had been 254 deaths and 3,038 injuries. This was actually an improvement on last year and every year it gets better but it still isn't good.

The good news now though is that if someone throws water at you while you are riding a motorbike causing your death, they will be charged with murder. That's reassuring.

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Wednesday 12th April 2006

It always takes me a few days to readjust to Thailand after being in Singapore. All of a sudden I find myself walking in the roads again (because pavements are blocked) while dodging stray dogs, chickens and crazy motorcyclists. Yes, it's back to the third world.

I like it though. I enjoy Singapore but I always feel out of place and I could never afford to live there. In Thailand my average daily spending is about the same as I pay for breakfast in Singapore. Even basic Thai restaurants around Geylang and Golden Mile are about five times as expensive as their equivalents in Thailand.

The Thai girls look great as well. It's not that the Singaporean girls are ugly - far from it - but many are just so stuck up. There are no shortage of great looking girls in Singapore but most look at me as if I have some kind of horrible disease.

As one expat told me a long time ago, the Singaporean girls have three questions. "Where do you live?" "What car do you drive?" "How much do you earn?" If the answers to those questions aren't right then forget it. Back in the Land of Smiles the girls are smiling once again and it feels great.

This is now about the peak of the hot season and it is oppressively hot. I have just put my thermometer outside for a few minutes and, at just after 4pm, it is 36C degrees in the shade with 42% humidity. Being in direct sunlight is brutal and if you go outside it is often unavoidable.

Ten minutes outside is enough to make you soaking wet with sweat and air-conditioning starts to become a necessity. This time of year can actually make a prisoner of me in my own room. I don't have much tolerance for extremes of temperature - hot or cold - and I start to feel quite ill if I am out in very hot weather for too long.

Maybe I should think myself lucky as I'm in the south. The forecast for Kanchanaburi next week is 43C. I want to go back to that part of Thailand some time but it won't be in the hot season.

It's Songkran tomorrow and already the Thais are getting ready for their holiday by bathing Buddha images. This will be my third Songkran whilst living in Thailand and my feelings at the moment are the same as in previous years.

I don't like crowds and I don't like those times of the year when people think they have a free license to carry out anti-social behaviour. Thanks to the Americans, Halloween has turned into a nightmare in the UK in recent years with gangs of delinquent juveniles roaming around terrorising old ladies with 'Trick-or-Treat'.

In Thailand there is generally a lot more respect for other people than in the UK but it doesn't stop 20 people cruising around on the back of a pickup truck dousing everyone they see with ice-cold water.

On previous Songkran days I have been reluctant to go out but after going out it has been good fun. I expect the same will happen tomorrow - or maybe I will just stay in my room all day?

And to finish the day, a rant. It's nothing new but after over a week in Singapore it's one of those things about Thailand that is very difficult to readjust to. I cannot cross the road safely.

I went to Carrefour to get some food in, just in case I don't fancy going out during Songkran tomorrow. The local Carrefour was built opened about 18 months ago and is located on a very busy road with three lanes of traffic going each way.

It is crying out for a pedestrian bridge but obviously the planners didn't see any need when the supermarket was being built. There is no zebra crossing and even if there was it would be a waste of white paint as the Thais completely disregard them.

Walking up to the nearest set of traffic lights to get across is inconvenient and there isn't much point anyway as the Thais turn right on a red light with no consideration for pedestrians. It doesn't matter which way you are crossing or what colour the lights are, there is always a constant stream of traffic.

Because the area in front of Carrefour is busy there is a constant stream of slow moving tuk-tuks, sawng-thaews and buses who slow down to a crawling pace or stop to pick up passengers. They do a great job of obstructing pedestrians trying to cross.

Once past the slow-moving stuff you are at the mercy of the drivers who are driving far too fast. At busy times it is a complete nightmare. I am young enough still to be fairly nimble on my feet but even so I feel like I am taking my life in my hands every time I cross the road.

For old or infirm people slow on their feet, it is an accident waiting to happen. It is this aspect of Thailand that I find most frustrating and annoying. As I've said elsewhere on this site, there just seems to be no sense of responsibility or liability for other people's safety.

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Monday 10th April 2006

Just back from a fairly lengthy break in Singapore and it's a country that never ceases to fascinate me, no matter how many times I visit. I've lost track of how many times I've been but it must be around 15 by now. Most of the tourists wander around marvelling at how clean and safe everything is but I'm sure they know very little about the workings of Singapore or its remarkable recent history.

As in other parts of Asia, it is a country of huge contrasts. I could be extremely critical about the political system but it works. Singapore has been a one-party state for 50 years and completely dominated by the Lee family but in many respects it is the perfect country.

An election is just about to take place and I had almost forgotten that Singapore is actually a democracy. The poor guy I saw trying to sell literature about the SDP party looked like the sad and lonely Popular People's Front representative from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Everyone walking past was far more interested in their shopping than reading about what the opposition parties have to say.

Any opposition to the ruling PAP is dealt with severely and the main newspaper, the Straits Times, is just a government mouthpiece. Bloggers have been banned from including any political content in their blogs and it goes without saying that Singapore has a very poor press freedom rating.

So, that's the bad stuff but just look at the country. I arrived in the early hours of the morning and couldn't get into my friend's place. I was wandering around the streets with a laptop and lots of digital SLR gear but didn't feel the least bit threatened.

When I couldn't find a public telephone a local guy insisted that I use his mobile phone. I had already experienced lots of courteous behaviour at the airport. Arriving at Changi (in my opinion, the best airport in the world) is always a special experience - even the new 'budget' terminal.

Getting around is so easy. It helps that the country is so small but even despite that the transport system is unmatched anywhere in the world. I've been using the MRT for many years and still there is not a single piece of graffiti or litter anywhere. It is truly an integrated transport system and so easy to transfer between trains and buses.

Development of the MRT system never stops with a new line under construction now and enhancements to the original system. If you need to go somewhere that isn't served by public transport there are loads of taxis and the taxis are never a problem. The drivers are always courteous and don't try to rip people off.

When I first went to Singapore in 1990 there were lots of unscrupulous shopkeepers around at that time who lied a lot and tried to rip people off but the situation has changed. Nowadays I avoid shopping at places like Lucky Plaza and never have any problems.

The selection of goods available to buy in Singapore is absolutely amazing. I am not materialistic but enjoy photography which means I need photographic equipment and these days I also need computer equipment for digital images.

In Thailand there is nothing available outside of Bangkok that I am vaguely interested in buying but in Singapore there is everything I could ever want or need.

It's a busy place but the efficient transport system means that everyone gets around without problems. There are lots of green spaces which is really nice. The botanical gardens and Chinese gardens are just two examples of very relaxing places to chill out.

Everything is ultra-clean and well maintained and problems are dealt with severely. It is possible to leave windows open which do not have insect screens yet not be invaded by mosquitoes because spraying takes place every day. This is unheard of in the tropics. People are fined for allowing water to stand in which mosquitoes can breed. There is an anti-litter program to stop rats breeding and I saw two guys with shotguns on an official crow-culling operation.

Accommodation is good for everyone. Some of the private condos are just gorgeous and because of the long-standing HDB program, no one lives in slums. However, everything comes at a price.

The Singaporeans work hard. Pressure comes early in life with parents having high expectations of their children to do well at school. Taxi drivers work long shifts just to survive. Many couples have to work so put off having kids which is causing big demographic problems for Singapore. Taxes are high and everything is highly regulated with fines for stepping out of line.

On one hand this can be viewed as the ultimate nanny-state but it's a good thing. Crazy driving and littering doesn't exist. Coming from Thailand I couldn't work out what was happening when I stood at a zebra crossing waiting for a break in the traffic and cars actually stopped to let me cross. This never happens in Thailand.

Two people are the most you will ever see on one motorbike and everyone wears a crash helmet at all times.

Just as the Thais use workers from poor areas of Thailand and neighbouring countries to do construction work, Singapore uses cheap labour from India and other poor countries. Racial integration is good though.

Race riots tore apart the country in the 60's so to prevent the same thing happening again Singapore has done its best to promote the idea that all races live together in perfect harmony. They do but my previous observations have shown the different ethnic groups to live very separately from one another. That seems to be changing now and there is a lot more mixing of the ethnic groups.

So, could I live there? Whenever I first arrive in Singapore from Thailand, I love it and want to stay. However, after about four or five days I start to miss Thailand. The Singaporeans are so busy they don't have time to talk and few people smile.

Some are very stuck-up and I don't like the way they look down their noses at me. Even in Singapore I find myself gravitating towards Thais. On this latest trip I saw a lot of Thai tourists. I guess that many are taking advantage of the cheap Tiger Airways fares that are now available. There is also a permanent Thai community in Singapore whose focal point is the Golden Mile Complex which is like a Little Thailand.

In Thailand I am always asked where I am going. I was able to get my own back in Singapore by asking Thai tourists, "Bpai nai?" This caused a few laughs and the Thais have an infectious sense of fun. I was pleased to actually get back to Thailand.

I miss a lot of things about Singapore but for me, living there is unsustainable. I can go there easily and cheaply and I always have a free place to stay so it's a great situation to be in.

The contrast between Thailand and Singapore, which are only separated by a 90 minute flight, is stark. The countries are two extremes, neither of which are perfect for various reasons, and it is unrealistic to expect that anywhere can be perfect.

Both countries can learn a great deal from each other though. Singapore went from third to first world having very few natural resources but what the country did have was a leader with an amazing intellect, outstanding vision and the ability to make changes. Corruption is very low in Singapore to the point of being almost non-existent.

Thailand is a lot bigger geographically with a lot larger population. Many Thais are poor and uneducated and the culture is completely different. The country is rich in natural resources and the people are clever but they have always had it pretty easy. For the Thais there has always been a bowl of rice and fish from the sea without having to do much.

It was a very different story for the Chinese immigrants who settled in Singapore. They endured extreme hardship and as a result their attitude to life and work is very different.

Somewhere in-between there is a balance between the Thai and Singaporean way of life which would be just about perfect. For Thailand it's just a case of taking the right aspects of Singapore to incorporate into the Thai way of life.

However, these need to be things that benefit the people at large and not things that will just make a few Thais very rich. The bottom line is that Thailand really does need to stamp out corruption but it is so ingrained into the culture that this is unlikely.

You have to remember that there is no Thai word for corruption. People in positions of power who do things to benefit themselves are expected to do so and everyone accepts this. Before real change can take place therefore, there need to be a few cultural shifts.

Oh, and I almost forgot. The Thai election occurred while I was away and, to be honest, I wasn't as interested as I thought I would be. Somehow, being outside of Thailand, it didn't seem to matter a lot. I was happy about my apathy because getting wound up about the political situation in Thailand wasn't doing me any good.

It's up to the Thais and they will get the political leadership they deserve. The big message now is that Thailand's poor need to be given a better deal. Having lots of poor workers in the country keeps costs down nicely for the middle classes but it doesn't suit them when the poor vote for a politician they don't like because that politician has promised to help the poor.

Huge financial and educational divides in society are not healthy. The most successful countries are ones such as Singapore where opportunities are open to everyone. In countries where there are huge divides in wealth, such as Brazil and South Africa, there are also massive crime and social problems.

It is only really the strength of Thai culture that has prevented a complete societal breakdown but if the gap continues to widen - as it has been doing - then problems will occur.

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