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  • Living in Thailand Blog April 2017

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Saturday 22nd April 2017

The shop that repainted my car wheels did a good job with the painting, but they pumped up the tyres to 46 PSI, took off the balancing weights, and didn't rebalance the wheels. I sorted out the air pressure myself and took the car to the shop where I bought the tyres to get the wheels balanced.

The tyre shop provides a good service. Every ten thousand kilometres they rotate the tyres, balance the wheels and check the alignment all for free. They will also repair all punctures for free for the lifetime of the tyres. Not all aftersales service is bad in Thailand.

While waiting in the tyre shop customer waiting room I was half watching TV and noticed that there were lots of horrendous car accidents being shown. I wasn't paying much attention and thought, at first, it was a video demonstrating what can happen if you don't take care of your tyres. It wasn't.

When I opened my ears and started paying attention I realised it was a Thai infomercial for a magical amulet. I've never watched much TV, but during my time working in the States the infomercials there fascinated me. I found the fake enthusiasm for the products demonstrated by the actors in the infomercials highly entertaining while, at the same time, I couldn't understand how people could be so gullible as to actually buy the junk being sold. Obviously, it must work otherwise the people selling these products wouldn't bother paying out a lot of money to make infomercials.

 

Amulet infomercial on one of the Thai TV shopping channels

Amulet infomercial on one of the Thai TV shopping channels

 

My favourite was probably the Flowbee - a do-it-yourself hair cutting contraption that you attach to your vacuum cleaner. The vacuum from the vacuum cleaner sucks your hair into a tube and also spins the cutting blades. You can save thousands of dollars by owning a Flowbee and cutting your own hair ... apparently. In shopping malls I always kept my eye out for Americans who I suspected might have cut their own hair at home with a Flowbee. On a subsequent trip to the States I was delighted to see that a Flowbee specially designed for pets had also come on to the market.

Shortly after arriving in Thailand I found an 'As Seen On TV Shop' that sold the same kind of things that are sold in US infomercials. It seemed that some Thais, like some Americans (but excluding my readers, of course) have a similar fondness for the type of products that are sold on cable TV shopping channels. However, there are some uniquely Thai selling techniques used in the Thai infomercials that probably wouldn't be very effective in other countries.

 

Thailand has these shops too

Thailand has these shops too

 

About 11 or 12 years ago in Thailand there was a massive Jatukham Ramathep amulet craze that gripped the whole country. Its epicentre was Nakhon Sri Thammarat, normally quite a sleepy place, but during the craze it was difficult to get a hotel room in Nakhon because Thais from all over the country were flocking there to buy amulets.

New shops were opening everywhere in Hat Yai (and probably elsewhere) specifically to sell Jatukham Ramathep amulets, and existing shops were selling Jatukham Ramathep amulet along with their normal products. Even my local pharmacy had a big rack of amulets on the counter.

New issues of amulets were drawing huge crowds and one woman was even trampled to death in the rush to get them. Amulets were changing money for huge amounts of money and stories were being circulated of the magical powers of the amulets. People told of how the amulets they were wearing saved their lives by deflecting bullets, etc. It was heady stuff.

After a while the craze died a natural death. The amulet shops closed and the phenomenon of amulets being sold elsewhere disappeared. However, this belief in the supernatural and the power of magical amulets is still very much a big part of the Thai belief system. It is animist in nature (pre-dating Buddhism by a long way) and has absolutely nothing to do with Buddhism, even though many monks are involved in the amulet trade. If you read any reliable information about Buddhism you won't find anything about supernatural powers or magical amulets.

 

One of the many shops that opened during the Jatukham Ramathep amulet craze

One of the many shops that opened during the Jatukham Ramathep amulet craze

 

The infomercial I watched did its best to tap into the Thai belief system and it featured several Thais who swore they had survived serious car crashes purely because they were wearing the amulet being sold. There was also a guy in the studio who had an instant orgasm whenever it was mentioned (which was very frequently) that the normal price was Bt1,999, but if you bought it now it would only cost Bt999. Wow! What was that telephone number again? Where's my credit card?

Observing this type of thing interests me and I always try to look at the psychology behind the selling. This kind of selling technique may work in other Asian countries where there is a similar belief system, but it's hard to imagine that something could be sold in a Western country on the premise that it has magical powers which will protect you from accidents and misadventures.

I have made the point many times that Thailand and the Thais give the appearance of being quite Western and modernised externally, but when you start looking below the surface the Thai value and belief systems are hugely different to Western value and belief systems.

I'm not saying this in a derogatory manner and I'm not claiming that my value and belief systems are right and other systems are wrong. They are just very, very different. Many foreigners develop a love affair with Thailand after going to the country for a vacation and quite a few go to live in Thailand. I'm one of them. Sometimes it works and out, but sometimes it doesn't.

I suspect that many people go to Thailand thinking that it isn't much different to home, but after a few years they realise. Some can adapt, but others can't. If you've only ever visited Thailand as a tourist - even if you have visited many times - never underestimate how completely different the Thai way of thinking is.

 

Nakhon Sri Thammarat: Jatukham Ramathep image protecting this minivan from accidents

Nakhon Sri Thammarat: Jatukham Ramathep image protecting this minivan from accidents

 

The belief in amulets also provides another clue as to why the driving standards are so appalling and the road fatality rate is so high in Thailand. I have been in cars and vans that have dashboards plastered in amulets and other iconography and there are also amulets dangling from the rear view mirror. Some drivers think that no matter how recklessly they drive, no harm will come to them because of the protection provided by their amulets.

If the Thai authorities wish to improve road safety - and there have been a few indications recently that they do want to - how can you deal with this part of the belief system?

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Tuesday 18th April 2017

BMA bans all street food across Bangkok this year

This is a massive announcement. Basically, Thailand is now doing what Singapore did 50 years ago and removing food vendors from the streets. Singapore set up a number of hawker centres for the vendors so that they could carry on making a living and so that street food would still be available. The hawker centres have electricity and running water and are regulated for cleanliness. I imagine that a similar thing will happen in Bangkok, but this hasn't been made clear. This is one of the problems in Thailand. You can't just put an end to people's livelihoods overnight without giving them some kind of an alternative. There has to be a long term plan that takes into consideration all of the affected parties.

This announcement gives me many very mixed feelings. If I am being logical and rational it is a good thing. For a start, I won't miss street food. I think that the last time I ate Bangkok street food was in 2006. On a trip to Bangkok I had gone across the river to visit the fascinating museums in Siriraj hospital. It got to lunchtime and the only food available was street food. I am perfectly able to eat street food if I want to - or have to, but normally I choose not to eat it.

The other reason it is a good thing is because the food vendors completely take over the sidewalks and their pots of boiling water and red hot open charcoal burners create safety hazards.

 

Street food everywhere in Bangkok

Street food everywhere in Bangkok

 

Street food near the Reno hotel in Bangkok

Street food near the Reno hotel in Bangkok

 

On the other hand - not being logical or rational - it is very sad. My old life in the UK started to go badly off course sometime in my 30's and by the time I was 40 I was at an all-time low. I was only attracted to attractive females who were younger than me but, of course, the attraction was never reciprocated in a Western country.

Life had become very lonely. I lived alone, which was lonely, and when I went outside the streets were empty and it was still lonely. I loved my trips to Thailand because there was so much life out on the streets. I could never wait to get to my hotel, dump my gear, and then get out on the streets of Thailand to explore. Bangkok, in particular, was always a fascinating place and I just used to walk around all day. I could never get enough of Thailand as a tourist and knew that one day I would have to live in the country. That eventually happened in 2003.

Niels Mulder first saw Bangkok in 1965 and claimed that it made him feel happy and alive. By the early 1970's the city had lost its charm as far as he was concerned and it made him depressed and tired. In 1975 he went to live in Chiang Mai.

I first saw Bangkok in 1987 and it was still a great place - to my mind. The city was still mainly on one level back then (street level) with no elevated roads or railway systems and with very few tall buildings. Since then, however, it has gone rapidly downhill with anything of interest being removed to make way for yet another huge shopping mall or yet another high rise condominium building. Just like Mulder, whenever I visit Bangkok these days I start to feel depressed and tired quite quickly. The removal of all the street food vendors will simply bring Bangkok closer to looking like any other soulless large city in the world.

It also has something to do with the fact that certain things are expected to exist in certain places in the world. When foreigners go to London they expect to see City gents with bad dentistry wearing pinstripe suits and bowler hats, carrying umbrellas, being very polite and apologising all the time.

Tourists visiting Asian cities also expect to see certain things. What would Bangkok be without tuk-tuks, stray dogs, 7-Elevens, dodgy Indian tailors, even dodgier bars and strip clubs and - of course - streets vendors everywhere cluttering up the sidewalks?

 

Hat Yai's old snake house restaurant

Hat Yai's old snake house restaurant

 

I had similar feelings when Hat Yai's Snake House restaurant closed down some years ago. Outside were cages filled with live cobras and other venomous snakes. I remember that cobras were Bt1,000 and some black and yellow stripy snakes were Bt500. Customers chose their snake and it was sent to the kitchen to be slit open and drained of its blood and gall bladder. I believe that these items were mixed with some kind of Asian liquor and honey for the customer to drink.

Naturally, I never used this restaurant myself and wouldn't drink snake blood even if the restaurant paid me, but it was a part of the 'Living in Asia' experience that so many expats in Thailand appreciate.

 

Hand-painted Thai movie poster for Miami Vice

Hand-painted Thai movie poster for Miami Vice

 

I was also saddened when the hand-painted movie posters that used to be a regular feature in the town centre disappeared. Again, these were something unique to this area and not seen anywhere else. Nowadays, movies are advertised using the same old boring studio posters that appear everywhere else on the globe.

Even now, Bangkok is starting to look the same as every other big city. In a few years' time there won't be any difference at all.

I was out and about quite early this morning and I noticed a lot of people going to work in the back of pickup trucks. I thought the new law had now come into effect, but apparently it has been delayed.

Pickups allowed to carry passengers until new rules done: police

My gut feeling is that nothing will change. The problem with Thailand is so many people have broken laws for so long that when someone such at the Prime Minister decides that a certain law will be enforced the impact is too great on Thai society at large. Lots of Thais travel around in the back of pickup trucks. It has always been illegal, but that particular law has always been ignored and never enforced. If someone suddenly decides that the law will be enforced you give lots of people a big problem. How are they going to get around now? I'll give you another example.

There are tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of homemade sidecars attached to motorbikes in Thailand. Money is always the primary concern for Thais and this is the cheapest way to transport goods. The sidecars are cobbled together in backstreet workshops and sold cheaply.

 

Shop that makes sidecars

Shop that makes sidecars

 

They don't have a brake on the third wheel, most have no rear lights, braking lights or indicators (not that Thai motorcyclists ever use their indicators) and they don't undergo any kind of testing for roadworthiness.

When fully laden these modified vehicles are quite heavy and many are driven very quickly, as is always the case with any kind of vehicle in Thailand. If the rider needs to brake heavily the third wheel doesn't stop and there is so much momentum that these vehicles can flip, somersault or spin. They are also a pain if you get stuck behind one because they are quite wide and they can be difficult to overtake.

 

Homemade sidecar

Homemade sidecar

 

However, they are the backbone of Thai fresh markets. There are fresh markets everywhere in Thailand and the vendors use these homemade sidecars to get their goods to market. I have been informed quite reliably that they are illegal, but if they were banned it would put all Thai fresh markets out of business. This would hurt thousands of vendors, along with millions of Thais who depend on fresh markets to buy cheap food. What can you do? A positive quality of Thais is that they are pragmatic and they realise that some laws simply can't be enforced.

Probably the worst place I have driven in Thailand is on the large island of Phuket, which is an entire province in itself. The roads there have a lot of steep inclines and sharp bends and the driving is very fast and aggressive. In addition, there are many minivans and minivan drivers in Thailand are notoriously aggressive. Consequently, there are a lot of accidents and road fatalities. A few years ago the authorities installed speed cameras to try to limit the carnage.

This was a great decision, but I learned later that hardly any speeding drivers are being prosecuted. With the cameras in place, I didn't know why. That was until I saw a video clip of a Phuket traffic policeman being interviewed.

If the police in Phuket strictly enforced the speed limit they would have to give tickets to every single driver which, of course, is impractical. They therefore allow drivers to speed and feel powerless to be able to do anything. This is another example of a law that is impossible to enforce in Thailand.

 

Taking produce to the local fresh market

Taking produce to the local fresh market

 

Quad bikes normally have warning stickers saying that they can't be used on public roads because most have been designed for offroad use only, but it is a fairly common sight in Thailand. Many Thais have no regard for rules, regulations or laws and do whatever they want to do.

 

Quad bike being driven on the road in Thailand

Quad bike being driven on the road in Thailand

 

Thailand has reached an interesting stage in its development. Industry has overtaken agriculture and Thailand's official status is now Newly Industrialised Country (NIC). The country's medical infrastructure is quite developed, as is its tourism sector, and the education system is getting better but still has a long way to go.

Thaksin, during his tenure, liked to use Singapore as a role model and had aspirations of Thailand gaining fully developed First World status, but there are so many aspects of Thailand that are still very Third World and there are no simple solutions to fix the problems.

 

Disabled farang in Chiang Rai on a homemade sidecar

Disabled farang in Chiang Rai on a homemade sidecar

 

Singapore is regarded as being a modern economic miracle, but when Lee Kuan Yew began the transformation of Singapore in the 1960's from Third World to First he too met a lot of resistance. He took a ruthless, hardline approach and whole areas of slum housing were simply bulldozed. There are big differences, however, between Singapore in the 1960's and present day Thailand.

Singapore's population at that time was less than two million, compared to Thailand's population now of over 68 million. I think Singaporeans acknowledged that change was necessary for progress to happen and under LKY there was a long term plan that had been very well thought out. You can't simply demolish slum housing and leave people homeless, but the Housing Development Board (HDB) had been set up to deal with the problem.

I don't think that Thais, in general, see the need for change and also I don't see much evidence of long term planning in Thailand. The mentality is very different.

Today I went to get my car inspected and renew the road tax. The whole process only took just over an hour, even including the fact that the tax office has moved recently and I had to find the new location.

 

Annual vehicle inspection in Thailand

Annual vehicle inspection in Thailand

 

In the UK there is an annual MOT (Ministry Of Transport) inspection for cars over three years old and it is very stringent. When cars get to a certain age there is normally always something to fix at MOT time. It's very different in Thailand. Firstly, cars don't need to be inspected until they are seven years old. Secondly, the testing procedure is very lax.

The guy this morning spent most of his time putting information into a computer system. He then put a piece of masking tape over the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to get an impression of the number. The actual testing involved putting the front wheels on a rolling road to test the braking efficiency and then doing the same with the back wheels. Test over.

The testing centres are quite well equipped and there is probably an official list of items to check, but he only checked the braking efficiency. In previous years they have checked exhaust emissions, lights, windscreen washers and horn, etc, but this morning they didn't check anything.

I guess I should be pleased, but this kind of thing concerns me a little. I see a lot of vehicles in Thailand that obviously aren't roadworthy and this is one of the reasons why.

 

I see lots of vehicles like this where I live

I see lots of vehicles like this where I live

 

A part of Thai cultural behaviour is known as muk ngaay, which translates basically as 'to like easy'. I think this is true of all people, in that we all want life to be as straightforward and hassle free as possible. Thais like having easy lives and a lot of foreigners who go to live in Thailand do so for the same reason.

The difference with most Western societies is where this fits into the local value system. In most Western countries, safety will always be at the top of the value system with ease and convenience much lower down. Thais have a different value system and put a different level of importance on these things. Safety, unfortunately, is often placed below a lot of other factors.

For those who are interested in the costs involved, the annual roadworthiness inspection was Bt200, the mandatory government insurance (Por Ror Bor) was Bt640, and the road tax was Bt3,384.

In a previous post I mentioned how Thais hate queueing for anything. If there is no queueing system in place they simply queue jump and go straight to the front of the queue. If there is a queueing system in place they try to devise ways to get around it. When my queue number was called at Bangkok airport recently a Thai man with a much higher number tried to jump ahead of me.

The procedure at the road tax office is to arrive with all the necessary documents (vehicle registration, inspection certificate, Por Ror Bor certificate) and then to obtain a queue number. This morning a woman was attempting to get a queue number before her motorbike had been inspected and before she had the necessary documents. The staff told her to go away and to come back when she had everything that she needed. She got really annoyed.

I was actually very impressed with the speed and efficiency at which the officials processed my road tax. When you first go in there are people at the door who check that you have all the required documents. Once they are satisfied that you have everything they give you a queue number and then it doesn't take very long before your number is called. I often wish that everything else in Thailand worked as efficiently as this.

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Sunday 16th April 2017

Of course, if you're planning a train journey one obvious piece of information you will need to know is when the train leaves. This should be easy to find out, right? Well, not if you are in Thailand.

When I started to think about the trip yesterday I picked up a timetable from the local railway station. This said the train we wanted would leave at 10:55am. My neighbour has a Thai train timetable app on her phone and she told me 10:46am. My wife's niece looked at another on-line resource and said there were no trains leaving for Phattalung yesterday morning.

When we arrived at the station and got tickets, the time printed on the tickets was 10:58am. I asked a member of staff which platform we needed to wait on and he said the train would leave at 11:30am. His information, as it turned out, was about the most accurate.

After you've been in Thailand for a while you will realise that this kind of thing isn't at all unusual. Thailand isn't Switzerland and Thais work in accordance with Thai time. Time on planet Thailand bears no resemblance to time on planet Earth. Thais like vagueness and the degree of flexibility that is allowed by being vague.

 

Thai time

Thai time

 

The term gwaa (meaning more, over) is used a lot for all sorts of things. For example, I have seen houses advertised at Bt4 million gwaa, meaning the price can be anything from Bt4,000,001 to Bt4,999,999. If you don't want to reveal your age you can give any number followed by gwaa.

Gwaa is also often added to time. If a plumber tells you he will be at your house at gao mong gwaa this can mean any time (absolutely any time) after 9am - possibly as late as 5pm. It can also mean something quite different. Thais like to tell people what they want to hear and even if a plumber has no intention of returning to do the job you want done, he might tell you gao mong gwaa simply because it is what you want to hear. It is then possible that you will wait in all day for a plumber who will never arrive. This particular aspect of Thai cultural behaviour is known as poot ao jai.

If you plan a train journey in Thailand, get to the station early (just in case there has been a timetable change and the train arrives early), but also be prepared to wait quite a long time. Probably the only thing you can be sure of is that the train will not depart at the time you were told.

As a tourist one of the charms of vacationing in Thailand is the easy-going, laid-back nature of the Thais. No one gets flustered or angry and the mai bpen rai attitude of the Thais is a pervasive feature of everyday life. However, when you live in Thailand and actually need to get things done it can be quite frustrating.

It is also why the way that Thais drive is so contradictory to their normal behaviour. Whereas normally time is never important and people will wait forever, when Thais are driving they can't wait for anything or anyone and drive everywhere as if they are attending a medical emergency. And whereas Thais normally avoid confrontation and try not to get angry, when driving they are extremely confrontational and get so angry that it sometimes leads to them killing each other. Quite a few Thais carry loaded guns while driving and roadrage shootings aren't that uncommon in Thailand.

It truly is the Land of Contrasts and Contradictions.

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Saturday 15th April 2017

In the last couple of posts I have talked about rural Songkhla province and today I will move northwards one province and talk about Phattalung province. It's one of my favourite places and quite close to where I live. To get to Phattalung main town from Hat Yai only takes 90 minutes. As usual, driving there today was quite unpleasant with Thais constantly weaving in and out of lanes at high speed and tailgating within a few feet of each other, but - unfortunately - there's nothing you can do about the way they drive.

For a while we've had a plan for a day out with the kids and it finally happened today. I drove my wife and children (along with one of my wife's nieces) to Hat Yai train station where they boarded a train to Phattalung. I then drove to Phattalung to pick them up. We came home via a district in Phattalung called Khaochaison, which is very scenic.

Certain areas of southern Thailand have huge limestone karsts that jut out of the ground and these spectacular geological features have become world-famous, especially after one such rock was featured in the 1974 James Bond movie, The Man With The Golden Gun. There are none in the southernmost provinces, but as you head north they start to appear in Phattalung.

There is also geothermal activity in Phattalung and one of the things that Khaochaison is famous for is its hot springs. The area around the hot springs is very pleasant. You can soak your feet in the water (although the temperature was too hot for me) and there are bungalows so you can stay the night if you wish. There is also a big population of longtailed macaques and it's always fun to watch monkey antics - apart from when they are driving pickup trucks.

 

There was no need to buy train tickets as they were free. After all the political shenanigans a few years ago the military stepped in to stop Thais fighting with each other and the new unelected government vowed to return happiness to the people. One of the things they chose to do in order to accomplish this was to provide some free train services.

I was quite surprised that to get tickets my wife had to show her national identity card and photocopies of the kids' birth certificates. I'm not sure whether this is something related to security or whether the free train rides are only for Thais. I should have asked, but I forgot. Even if you have to pay, it isn't a lot. Some years ago I did exactly the same train ride and my ticket cost Bt18.

There is still a problem with southern insurgency in southern Thailand and this is evident at the train station. Railway stations and tracks have been targets for insurgents in the past. As you enter Hat Yai station you have to go through an airport-type scanner and there are quite a few soldiers at the station. On the other hand, there was nothing like this at Phattalung railway station.

 

Soldiers at Hat Yai train station

Soldiers at Hat Yai train station

 

The security at Hat Yai train station isn't as stringent as airport security and it was actually quite relaxed. Recently, I had a bit of a gripe about the things that irritate me when travelling by plane and a few days ago there was the notorious United Airlines incident in which a perfectly innocent man who had paid for his ticket was dragged off the plane by his ankles because the airline had overbooked the flight. For several years now, travelling by plane has been no fun at all.

I got to Phattalung about an hour before my family and was able to explore a little. I didn't see another farang. In fact, I have visited Phattalung many times since 2004 and I have only ever seen a handful of Westerners. I love it there, but this would be difficult to understand for many foreigners.

They might ask what is there and what can you do, but I would have difficulty answering. The type of foreign tourist that loves Pattaya and Patong would probably hate it because it is nothing like those places. At all. Thankfully.

 

McDonalds and faux Irish pub, Patong beach, Phuket, Thailand

McDonalds and faux Irish pub, Patong beach, Phuket, Thailand

 

Foreign tourists who visit Pattaya and Patong only see a version of Thailand that has been constructed purely for tourists like them, and most of what they see is quite tacky. I find these places very artificial. Also, it concerns me how the whole world is gradually becoming the same. If you go into a big shopping mall in Bangkok, or even Hat Yai, it is the same experience as being in a big shopping mall anywhere else in the world. Phattalung, on the other hand, is very different. It's like entering a time travel machine and it reminds me of Thailand 30 years ago.

This may sound hypocritical, but I wouldn't want to live there permanently. I think I would get bored and the things I need for my kids aren't there. All the places I find attractive in Thailand wouldn't be suitable as places to live, and the places where it is convenient to live generally aren't that attractive. This is the dilemma.

I love having these places to visit that are like Thailand 30 years ago, but I can understand the local people wanting development and I can understand why so many people from the lesser developed southern provinces end up moving to Hat Yai.

The development of Phattalung has already started. I stayed in the main town for the first time in 2004 and the only hotels available were just like the Patalung Hotel below - very basic, to say the least. Now, however, there is a fancy new Centris hotel where you can stay in a lot more comfort for Bt900 per night. It wasn't there the last time I visited Phattalung main town.

 

The ancient Patalung Hotel

The ancient Patalung Hotel

 

The fancy new Centris Hotel, Phattalung

The fancy new Centris Hotel, Phattalung

 

Phattalung train station

Phattalung train station

 

Phattalung train station

Phattalung train station

 

Phattalung train station

Phattalung train station

 

After picking up my gang we headed to Khaochaison as planned and visited the hot springs. About one kilometre down the road is a cave underneath a limestone karst where you can hire a boat and go into the cave. We didn't do it, but maybe next time. We also had plans to visit the Khaochaison floating market, but it's closed. Apparently, it closed last year sometime. The man who told me said it was being renovated and will reopen in the future. The last time I went to Khaochaison floating market was in 2013.

 

Khaochaison floating market - currently closed for refurbishment

Khaochaison floating market - currently closed for refurbishment

 

Khaochaison hot springs

Khaochaison hot springs

 

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

 

With the children on their long school break it has been a headache at times trying to keep them entertained, but these recent day trips have been quite good fun.

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Thursday 13th April 2017

Rural Thailand is as beautiful as most parts of urban Thailand are ugly. The contrast is huge. In August last year I visited a large reservoir nearby to where I live (and also near the Thai/Malaysian border) to see how full it was because last year was very hot. It was almost empty and quite parched. The rainy season still hadn't arrived so I didn't think there was a lot to be concerned about.

 

In October, when it normally starts to rain heavily and regularly, the weather remained very dry. It stayed that way throughout October and towards the end of the month I started to think that we might be in for some water shortages in 2017.

However, despite arriving late, the rains arrived in November and continued into December. And instead of ending at the end of the year, as is usually the case, the rain continued throughout January. I guess that we got about the same amount of rainfall as usual, but the rainy season started and finished about a month later than usual. Just recently there has also been some heavy rain, which is quite unusual for this time of the year.

I have been wanting to return to the reservoir after all this rain to see what it looked like, but I haven't had an opportunity. Yesterday morning finally provided that opportunity, so I hopped on the wife's scooter to get some fresh air in my face and country smells in my nostrils, and headed into the Songkhla countryside. It was stunning. Nowadays, urban Thailand makes me feel quite depressed, but when I get into the countryside I can feel my soul start to come alive.

Instead of ugly, drab concrete buildings, masses of overhead electricity cables everywhere, crowds of people, blocked sidewalks, traffic jams, crazy drivers and the sound of diesel engines being revved as fast as they will go, there was just beautiful countryside, white-throated kingfishers perched on electricity lines, the sound of birds and insects, and utter peace and tranquility.

The only thing missing from last August was all the fruit. Last year there was fruit being sold everywhere, but yesterday there was none.

The water level in the reservoir is still below maximum capacity (about 3.5m from the top of the yellow depth gauge that you can see in the photos), but a member of staff working there told me that the level is sufficient. With the reservoir full of water, mountains in the background, cows grazing, blue skies and white clouds, it was perfect. Unfortunately, my photos don't do it justice, but here are just a few quick snaps to compare what I saw yesterday to what I saw last August.

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 12 April 2017

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 12 April 2017

 

Klong Laa Reservoir, 14 August 2016

Klong Laa Reservoir, 12 April 2017

 

Just like the environs around Songkhla Lake, this is another area of outstanding natural beauty near Hat Yai in Songkhla province.

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Wednesday 12th April 2017

This is a quick snap I took last week while on the way to Bangkok. It is the southernmost part of Songkhla Lake. The island you can see in the centre of the photo about a third of the way down is Yo island. It is connected to the mainland either side by two long bridges - the Tinsulanonda bridges, named after Prem Tinsulanonda the ex Prime Minister of Thailand and now President of the Privy Council. Prem is a Songkhla native and at the age of 96 he remains amazingly active.

 

The southern part of Songkhla Lake

The southern part of Songkhla Lake

 

Yo island is quite pleasant. It is home to the Institute for Southern Thai Studies, a museum and research centre focusing on southern Thai culture, and there are a number of good seafood restaurants. There is also a small cloth weaving cottage industry in which cloth is woven on hand looms. I took the photos that follow just over 12 years ago.

The only problem with Yo island at the moment is traffic. There is a large traffic intersection at the turn off to the island and the authorities are currently constructing road bridges to improve the traffic flow. It will be great when the work is completed because you will be able to zoom over the bridges without stopping and waiting for a long time for traffic lights, but at the moment it is a real mess and best avoided.

 

Weaving cloth by hand on Yo island, Songkhla

Weaving cloth by hand on Yo island, Songkhla

 

Hand loom on Yo island, Songkhla

Hand loom on Yo island, Songkhla

 

Weaving cloth by hand on Yo island, Songkhla

Weaving cloth by hand on Yo island, Songkhla

 

The final product

The final product

 

A couple of years ago my wife went to Yo island to buy some of the hand-woven material. Her sister, who is a professional seamstress, made it into table cloths, place mats and runners. The cloth is quite expensive because it is all hand made and these were unique items, not mass-produced and not available to buy at Ikea. We attempted to sell them on-line, but there was zero interest. It was quite sad because a great deal of expense and effort had gone in to making these items. We ended up giving them to my mother as a Christmas gift.

The southern part of Songkhla lake is brackish because it is open to the sea in the Gulf of Thailand. The lake extends northwards into Phattalung province and in the northern part the water entering the lake is rainwater runoff from mountains. It is therefore almost fresh. The further south you go, the saltier the water becomes.

Right at the top of the lake in Phattalung province is the Thale Noi wetlands reserve, which is one of my favourite escapes from Hat Yai - it's about a two hour drive from Hat Yai. If you like natural areas, wild birds and lotus flowers it is a fantastic place to visit. If you don't like these things, you will find it quite boring because there isn't a lot else.

 

Thale Noi wetlands reserve, Phattalung province, Thailand

Thale Noi wetlands reserve, Phattalung province, Thailand

 

Nok Nam Khu Khut Park is another attractive area on the east side of Songkhla Lake. It is in the Sathing Phra district of Songkhla province. There are no lotus flowers (presumably because of the increased salinity of the water) but there are lots of birds including a substantial population of Brahminy Kites. These large brown and white raptors are quite stunning to observe.

 

In the past, Hat Yai had a big problem with flooding but the situation has improved immensely in recent years. Rain water in Hat Yai is channeled into a network of canals in the city and then into a number of larger canals which eventually deposit the water into Songkhla Lake.

On Sunday we went for lunch at a little restaurant that overlooks one of these large canals. The food and the setting were absolutely perfect. Just opposite the restaurant on the other side of the canal is Baan Taang Tai homestay where you can sleep the night if you wish.

 

This is now my 14th year in Hat Yai and before Sunday I had never been to this area before. It struck me that so many people travel long distances to find attractive places, yet often there are great places almost on your doorstep. I didn't check the mileage, but the journey was only around 40 minutes from where I live driving at a very relaxed pace.

 

Baan Naay Chaang Restaurant

Baan Naay Chaang Restaurant

 

Baan Naay Chaang Restaurant

Baan Naay Chaang Restaurant

 

Baan Taang Tai Homestay, just opposite the restaurant

Baan Taang Tai Homestay, just opposite the restaurant

 

I've spoken to backpackers in Hat Yai and read comments on-line written by backpacker types about what a dump Hat Yai is. They stay one night waiting for a train or bus the next morning and can't wait to leave. They normally stay at the Cathay Guesthouse, which isn't exactly the most luxurious place in town, and only ever see the tiny piece of central Hat Yai between the train station and Lee Gardens Plaza.

I agree. That area is ugly. But if you dare to venture even 15 minutes away from that central area the landscape starts to change dramatically and just one hour away it is completely different. Central Hat Yai is ugly, but it's convenient for a lot of things. Locals live near Hat Yai for the convenience, but in their leisure time they go elsewhere. If, as a backpacker, you only stay within a few hundred square meters of central Hat Yai, of course, you will only ever have a very one-sided view of the city.

Sunday's trip has motivated me to explore my own province more in the hope of unearthing some more little gems like the one we just found. There are so many great little spots all around Songkhla Lake. I hope you found this useful and enjoyed the photos!

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Blog entries 1st to 11th April 2017

 

 

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