Living In Thailand Blog
Wednesday 30th August 2006
I haven't owned a TV for a year since I moved to another apartment. My current apartment building doesn't provide TV sets in the rooms. At first I considered renting or buying one but when I had a TV set in my room previously I found that I hardly watched it so there seemed little point in getting another.
Most standard Thai TV programmes are quite pathetic and even though some cable TV channels are worth watching occasionally, TV in general is such a waste of time. I prefer to spend my time on the Internet where I can get the information I want.
One compensation for not having a TV set is being able to 'tune in' to the daily soap opera of life at Iss's shop. What goes on there makes most TV soap operas look decidedly boring.
The latest storyline has to do with the theft of gold jewellery from her boss. In the past, when Iss stayed in one of the rooms above the shop where the staff live, she also had stuff stolen but no one was really bothered.
I have never had any theft problems in Thailand but petty thieving among Thais living and working together appears to be a little bit of a social problem.
However, when the boss noticed her own belongings being pilfered, it was a completely different story. The police were called in and duly dusted for fingerprints but they only found prints from the boss and her husband.
The first suspect was a girl the boss had felt sorry for and who she had given a job and somewhere to stay. One of the nice things about the culture is the kindness that is often shown, especially to people who are down on their luck.
Unfortunately, the gold went missing shortly after this girl took residence. The poor girl (being new and unknown) became the prime suspect and was sacked, leaving her - once again - jobless and homeless.
What has happened since then is that two other girls working at the short are now suspected. And what has brought about this change of thinking, you may wonder? It's obvious, of course.
The boss went to a temple yesterday and consulted a Buddhist monk with clairvoyant powers - so she claims. He was apparently able to tell her things about her life that he couldn't possibly have known. The Thais are great believers in ghosts and the supernatural.
She asked him who the thieves were and he said it was two girls working from inside. (I really can't understand why the Thai police don't employ more monks?)
What's more is that these two young girls earn very little but spend quite frivolously. They normally come to the boss each month asking to borrow money until their salary arrives but this month they haven't made that request.
The two girls have also been repeatedly asking the boss if she knows who took the gold - a sure sign of guilt. I have to admit that Nong Goong and Nong Goi are now sounding as if they are likely candidates. I actually feel a bit sorry for them though.
Being a boss is great in Thailand. Whenever I visit the shop the boss is sitting around reading a newspaper or counting the takings. Iss is forever telling me of things she has just bought; or that she has gone to meet some friends on a shopping trip. This year she has bought a new car and motorbike as well as lots of other stuff.
The employees that actually do the work which gives her this nice lifestyle earn about Bt5,000 a month. When they see how much their boss has it must be quite tempting to distribute the wealth a little even though I hate thieving and thieves.
I was joking with Iss about this and about all of her boss's acquisitions this year. Her explanation was that she only buys things so that she then has a reason not to give money away to friends and relatives looking for free handouts.
If Thais are seen to be doing well in business and making money, their friends and relatives (anyone who knows them, actually) see it as perfectly acceptable to ask for money. Indeed, I have experienced the same thing, based on the premise that I am a farang and therefore I must be rich.
People I have only been acquainted with for a short time, and who I didn't know very well, have come to me asking for money because they were a bit short or had a financial crisis.
The boss - being a true Thai - has bought everything on credit so has quite a few monthly repayments to make. When people come asking for money she uses that as an excuse not to give them anything. Apparently, if she didn't have a justifiable reason, she would be obliged to give them money.
This should be a warning to farang men that if they get involved with a Thai girl, the girl will then be perceived by her friends and family as having hit the jackpot. You may not be at all rich but Thais believe that all farangs are rich. She will start getting approached by people she knows who want to share in her 'good fortune'.
It's an interesting culture and an interesting society but until you get involved fairly closely with a Thai a lot of this stuff remains fairly well hidden.
The ongoing soap opera at the beauty and foot massage shop has given me quite a few insights into Thai cultural behaviour.
Monday 28th August 2006
A low-life piece of farang scum upset Iss today and it really annoyed me. Even though our long-term relationship has been doomed for a while, she's an honest, hard-working, kind girl and I get angry when this kind of thing happens.
The Thais are very sensitive about language - having words in the language to express several different levels of politeness - and Iss, as an individual, is very sensitive. I am not over enthusiastic about the type of work she does but it is her choice, she seems to enjoy it, and she doesn't exactly have that many opportunities to get a better job in Thailand.
In the salon where she cuts hair and does beauty treatments, one of her tasks is to try to get customers in off the street for foot massages which other people in the shop do. She has a great personality for this and her ability to speak Thai, English or Chinese helps a lot. She's a friendly, likeable girl and she gets the shop a lot of business.
Anyway, today she encountered the farang in question who told her in Thai that he didn't like massage (Mai chawp nuat ...) but, using a vulgar Thai idiom, that he liked sex in the morning (chawp laang naa gai).
It was completely unnecessary - she was just trying to do her job - and, as I said, it upset her. Later on he turned up with his Thai wife or girlfriend, who, by all accounts was an Isaan ex bar girl.
I would guess he has been dossing in Thailand for several years and has obviously made an effort to learn some 'market Thai'. The girl he was with sounded as if she was from the same social scale. You often find that like-attracts-like. 'Birds of a feather flock together,' as they say.
He was staying in town, I guess, while on his way down to Penang for a yearly visa because he arrived too late to get the last Penang minivan. I can't think of any other reason. Another guess would be that he probably lives in Patong. These are all assumptions but I bet I'm not far out. Penang visa runs bring together lots of similar people and it is always something I dread when I have to make the trip myself.
There is a certain type of farang in Thailand that really is scum. Whenever I go to Patong I hear the most vulgar English language from some of the most foul, uncouth English people I have ever come across.
They meet Thai girls of a similar social level and some, obviously, learn how to use foul language in two languages. It might get a cheap laugh with bar girls, saying this sort of thing, but respectable Thais find it quite offensive. I don't particularly like using the word scum but for this type of low-life it seems perfectly apt.
Perhaps I should teach Iss a few new English words? I'm sure that if she had just responded, "Wanker," it might have wiped the stupid grin off his face. It's not the Thai way though. They won't enter into the type of slanging matches you see so often in the UK.
Non-confrontation is a big part of the culture and the Thais will walk away from unpleasant situations and people rather than confront them. What is also interesting is that my Thai friends won't teach me any bad language.
You normally find that when people are learning another language, they learn the swear words first. In Thailand you don't do yourself any favours by using low language because it just makes you look vulgar and uneducated.
It can also be quite dangerous. A foreigner can rant and rave at a Thai in English and it will mean nothing to the Thai but if the insults are in Thai there could be serious repercussions.
Saturday 26th August 2006
I see lots of farangs resident in Thailand who, to be frank, look suspicious. It's not fair to judge books by their covers, I know, but I grew up in East London and as part of my survival instinct I became quite astute in my ability to get an idea of people just from their appearance and general behaviour.
There was a period of time when people who needed to get out of the UK to escape the law went to southern Spain but after Spain signed an extradition treaty with the UK those people were forced to start looking elsewhere.
Ideally, they wanted a place with warm weather, where the living was easy and cheap, where local people wouldn't have a clue who they were and where there was very little law enforcement. In other words, a place where they could start afresh and erase all traces of their past.
Added bonuses would be a huge supply of cheap prostitutes and local people who are so utterly useless at distinguishing good foreigners from bad ones, they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the Andrews sisters and the Kray twins.
It might also help if there was a lot of counterfeiting going on in the country. That would be handy for documents in order to establish a new identity and businesses could be set up dealing in fake goods - replica football jerseys, pirated movies/music/software, etc.
Thailand must be very high up on the list of countries to move to for those on the run. I just spotted on the BBC news site that the guy from Manchester suspected of murdering his wife and three children (and who subsequently went missing) left on a flight to Thailand four weeks ago.
In Thailand I see very few Thais who give me any cause for concern but that is certainly not the case with farangs. It's one of the primary reasons why I avoid them at all costs, why I generally try to avoid tourist areas and why I haven't been to Pattaya since 1992.
Friday 25th August 2006
There are a number of reasons why I have been feeling so content recently and one not insignificant reason has been the lack of any real political nonsense in Thailand during the last couple of months.
However, that is all about to change in the run-up to the October election.
As Iss and I were about to return from our little excursion earlier this week, a flashy-looking black Toyota Camry with lots of chrome trim pulled up as we were waiting for the bus back.
Two Thai guys stepped out wearing designer clothes, dripping in jewellery and amulets. They didn't seem quite right and I guessed that they were involved either in crime or politics - not that there's much of a line between the two professions.
I got speaking to them and discovered they were involved with one of the political parties and were campaigning in the southern provinces. One guy was a local and the other was from Bangkok.
However, they weren't the kind of politicians I am used to seeing on campaign trails and I suspect there was probably a lot of money in the boot of their big car to try to convince people who to vote for.
Just a few weeks ago, Thaksin was back out in the poor provinces throwing money around. One of his favourite stunts is to find a few hard-luck cases and then act as fairy godmother. He will pay for a poor student's education or send a poor sick person down to a Bangkok hospital for treatment or something.
The money this costs is completely insignificant to him and this type of thing is illegal - punishable by the Election Commission - but he always seems to get away with these cheap publicity stunts.
While I was out and about today I kept hearing Thaksin's name on the TV and radio. I knew that something must have happened but couldn't understand what, exactly.
When I got back to my room the story was revealed on the BBC news site. He has claimed that someone tried to assassinate him recently. A warning about this had already been given by Pairoj Vongvipanon, former dean of the Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, who said: "Thaksin must be careful or else he might be killed. Don't think that assassinations can not occur in Thailand."
It didn't really need an academic to make this prediction. Thaksin has made a lot of enemies and many are in powerful positions. If there is a successful attempt later it wouldn't surprise me. He may be an immensely wealthy man but now he has no personal freedom and I certainly wouldn't want to be in his shoes.
With his immense wealth he could go off and do anything he wants. I'm sure that if he just walked away from politics, his current enemies would leave him alone. He won't though. Such is his greed that the mega-fortune he has already accumulated isn't enough and he wants more. It also has to do with his desire for power.
The term 'megalomaniac' has never seemed more appropriate and what we are seeing here is a man afflicted by a severe mental illness.
He is an interesting character. When things were going well for him he was supremely confident and the most arrogant man on earth. Since his problems began, that arrogance and confidence has disappeared and he has started acting like a small child, crying to his mother when anything doesn't go his way.
This latest story has been seen by some as a publicity stunt to drum up sympathy. Recently he cried that a powerful 'charismatic' figure in Thailand was trying to oust him and then he wrote to George Bush and other world leaders crying that the other political parties wanted to destroy democracy in Thailand (a sure case of the pot calling the kettle black if ever there was one). At the time he wasn't even the official Prime Minister and he isn't at the moment - just a caretaker.
For as long as he insists on being involved in Thai politics, the general unrest in the country will continue and the daily bombings and murders will continue in the southern provinces.
At the same time, for as long as he retains the rural poor majority in his pocket with free handouts and populist policies, they will continue to vote him back in at election time. This makes for a very dangerous situation with no end in sight by conventional means.
Despite everything that has happened in Thai politics in recent years, after the next election on October 15th I can't see that anything will have changed. It's an utterly crazy situation that has been created by one man who, I admit, has a very clever business brain but who is afflicted by an advanced case of megalomania.
Thursday 24th August 2006
What is it about the Thais and noise? I needed to buy a few bits at Carrefour this evening and I also needed to eat so, for the sake of convenience, I ate at the food hall there. This place is so noisy that while trying to have a conversation you can barely hear the person sitting next to you.
There are several ceiling-mounted TVs set to their loudest volume and a music shop nearby also pumping out very loud sounds. In the corner is a kid's arcade and each little ride has a very loud soundtrack. Christmas tunes are popular and although they mean nothing to the Thais, I find listening to Jingle Bells repeatedly at 110dB in August even more irritating than at Christmas.
In additional to the general din of a loud cafeteria there are Karaoke booths to keep the teenagers amused and although they are enclosed in glass, quite a bit of sound still manages to escape.
As I walked home - with my ears still ringing - there was the usual sound of very loud motorbikes with modified exhaust systems being raced around by teenagers and then I heard the sound of a pickup truck creeping along blasting out advertisements from massive speakers mounted on the back. This is a popular way to advertise in Thailand.
The continuous assault on my eardrums does my head in, yet the Thais look completely at ease. Wherever you go in Thailand, the Thais will make sure there is lots of loud noise. It's probably the number one annoyance for foreign residents in the country. So, why is this?
Why is it that foreigners relish a bit of peace and quiet yet the Thais seem to go out of their way to make sure that there is always loud noise?
Knowing about their fear of ghosts, I had started to develop a theory that it was something to do with keeping ghosts away. This may seem ridiculous and a bit of joke but the majority of Thais have a very real fear of ghosts so don't laugh.
However, in one of my classes today I heard something a little different which may throw some light on the mysterious Thai love of loud noise.
The lesson was about a few adjectives that Thais always seem to get wrong. You will often hear them say, "I am boring," and whereas I wouldn't normally disagree, what they are really trying to say is, "I am bored."
I got them to tell me what they find interesting and what they are interested in, what they find boring and what they are bored with, etc. One of the answers I got was, "I find quietness boring."
I therefore think this could be the answer. The loud noise isn't to keep ghosts away, it's just that quietness bores them. This makes me a very boring person (but if you are reading this you know that anyway).
Wednesday 23rd August 2006
Life is strange and (as Buddhism teaches us) nothing is permanent. Since getting my various paperwork sorted out recently and securing myself another year in Thailand, I have been feeling great. I knew it wouldn't last but, of course, I didn't know when the crap would return. Well, today has been pretty crappy.
The day started off well enough. It's not every day that you see West Ham at the top of the Premiership table but things were about to take a serious downward turn.
After getting back from her early morning aerobics session, Iss decided to have a little turn out. Our relationship has been a farce for over 18 months but she just won't go. There's no future in it and all we are doing is wasting each other's time but she refuses to go.
I am quite a rational person and have tried having adult conversations with her. I've told her that I'm not going to marry her and that one day I will just go, leaving her on her own again, but she insists on sticking around.
Her first attempt at ensnaring me was by getting pregnant. Obviously, I can't deny my part in the matter but it was only as a result of her not being exactly truthful with me. She knew exactly what she was doing. I was saved from fatherhood only by a slippery bathroom floor at her grandmother's house a couple of months later.
A couple of times in the past she has spoken about the situation rationally and goes off somewhere but then her emotions take over and she returns crying and pleading with me to take her back. I have attempted to stand my ground but on two occasions she has ended up in hospital. She works herself up into such an emotional state that eventually she requires medical attention.
On a couple of other occasions we have had the conversation just as she was about to go to work and she just collapses into a sobbing heap, completely unable to do anything for the rest of the day. Knowing about her life, I sympathise with her and find that I can't be hard on her.
She has helped me a lot in the past during bouts of illness - which makes me feel guilty about forcing her out - and the other thing is that I am worried what she might do to herself if I force her out. She gets herself worked up into such a state that she could inflict some serious damage on herself.
The bottom line is that it's a mess and the whole situation is really stupid. I never had these problems with farang girls but Thai women are completely different creatures.
I have let her stay but this hasn't changed anything or repaired our relationship. Maybe she thought she could bring me around and make things how they were before but, if she did, she miscalculated.
We actually get on fine. She is always working so I don't see much of her but in the evenings, and when she has days off, we get on great. The trouble - for her - is that it is no longer a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and there are times (such as this morning) when she just can't deal with that fact.
She has asked me if I love her and I do. However, I love her like the little sister I never had. I want her to be happy and I feel protective towards her but I no longer view her as my partner.
It's a crazy situation but I'm not that fussed. Being in Thailand has completely changed the way I think about women. In England it was impossible to find a young, attractive girlfriend and because it was impossible that was all I wanted. We always want what we can't have.
In Thailand there are several girls who I know would like a relationship with me and it wouldn't take very much to turn them into girlfriends. As a result of it being so easy, I find now that I am completely unbothered about having a permanent girlfriend.
In fact, after the problems with Iss with jealousy, possessiveness and irrational behaviour, a permanent Thai girlfriend is about the last thing I want at the moment.
So, for the time being, the craziness continues and in the future I see one of a few things happening. Either she will get completely fed up and leave; I will find a girl I fall head-over-heels in love with and make her leave; or I will just move to a different location and leave her behind.
Work hasn't been good today either. The ability of Thai students to speak English is generally abysmal and you will find that most only use the present tense, for example, "Yesterday I go shopping."
I decided to go through the different tenses with one of my groups. It's an exercise I have done with university students and it works quite well. As the students arrived today, I noticed there was one who was absent last week.
"I am sick," she told me. What, you're sick now? "No, I am sick last week." Ah, you mean you were sick last week. It was a perfect example of why I wanted to teach them about tenses. My plan was to teach them a particular verb tense and then get them to practice using real-life examples.
About three-quarters of the way through the lesson I got the classic, "We don't want to learn grammar, we want to learn conversation." At this point I almost lost it which is about the worst thing you can do in Thailand. I felt my facing get hot (I'm sure it must have been quite red) and my voice getting louder.
The example I normally use when I hear this is a waitress telling me she wants to learn how to add up bills but she doesn't want to learn arithmetic. I tried to explain to them that if they want to learn how to converse they first need to know some words (vocabulary) and then they need to know how to put those words into coherent sentences (grammar).
They are receptionists at a hospital and the hospital is paying me a high hourly-rate to teach them how to deal with foreign patients. The sort of things I am trying to teach them are, for example, how to respond if a patient wants to see a particular doctor.
If it's 3:55pm and the doctor goes home at 4pm, "The doctor is about to leave," (future tense) but if it is 10 minutes later, "The doctor went home five minutes ago," (simple past) or, "The doctor has gone home," (present perfect).
Yes, it's grammar (I admit) but how can I teach them to speak English while ignoring grammar? There were glum faces all round and my little outburst had probably indicated a 'loss of face'. The next question is, will they bother to turn up next week?
On top of all this, it has been a scorching hot day today. It's been as hot as any 'hot season' day but with added humidity. I can tolerate the heat but it's just one of those things about Thailand that can make a bad day seem really miserable.
Tuesday 22nd August 2006
There are so many great things about Thailand but the icing on the cake is how cheap it can be to live here.
The last few months have been fairly expensive because of the trips I have had to make for a new passport and visa, etc. The documents themselves were fairly expensive and I had to fork out for air fares and hotels.
I like a certain level of comfort and security when I travel which means not staying in cheap guesthouses. The hotels I stay in are generally quite expensive for Thailand so whenever I travel I get through a lot of money.
My situation now is different though. There are no trips that I have to make and consequently there is no reason to spend a lot of money at the moment. I checked my cash situation last week and found I had Bt7,000. I decided that I would try to make this last until at least the end of the month.
My cash situation is very healthy but it certainly won't do any harm to have a few cheap months after the expensive ones, especially as I'm aware there are a few more expensive ones coming along soon.
Today I have spent the grand total of Bt155. A motorbike taxi to work (which is the fastest option) cost Bt20. Lunch was Bt30. I ate spaghetti and the normal size portion for Bt25 is a little small. I asked for a larger portion today. The one I got was almost double the size for just Bt5 more.
After lunch I ate three kinds of fresh, tropical fruit - all freshly prepared - for Bt15. The little vendor I go to is always incredibly busy and the turnover of food is very high. The fruit they sell is sold almost immediately after it is cut up so it is very fresh. I had pineapple, water melon and honeydew melon.
I have a bit of a coffee addiction and normally grab a large cup of iced coffee after my lunch which costs Bt25. I came home by sawng-thaew and the fare is a flat Bt10. It's a lot slower than motorbike taxi but I finish work during rush hour and I hate travelling on motorbikes in Thailand when there is a lot of traffic. The experience is good for constipation but not a lot else.
For my evening meal I went to one of my favourite places in town. They do the most incredible food for equally incredible prices - and the portions are huge. I had a large serving of sweet-and-sour prawns and squid on steamed rice with a glass of fresh lemon juice. It was delicious.
The price was Bt35 which is amazing value. I always try to leave a tip but they just won't take it - not even Bt5. As usual, I handed over Bt40 and said, "Mai bpen rai," but they absolutely refuse to take a tip. In the past they have come running after me in the street to give me my Bt5 change.
Sometimes they give me food just to try if I haven't eaten it before and on a couple of occasions they have insisted on giving me pastries to take home. This all comes free. On the way back from dinner tonight I grabbed an ice cream for Bt20 to round off my spending for the day.
I had several cheap days at the end of last week until my thrift was temporarily halted yesterday when Iss decided to take the day off and we went out for a bit of an excursion. We were out most of the day and ate at a place last night that is fairly expensive by local standards but even so, my daily spend only came to a fraction over Bt500.
As I have said elsewhere, it's not at all difficult to get through vast sums of cash in Thailand. There are lots of things to buy and lots of pleasures to be had. When I used to come to Thailand as a tourist I never kept track of what I spent but I guess, on average, it was somewhere between Bt3,000 and Bt4,000 a day.
However, once the novelty of being in Thailand has worn off, and provided that you have an element of will-power, there are times when it's possible to live here on a very small budget. Not all the time, mind you. The big stuff always comes along to blow your budget out of the water but, at certain times, you really can do 'Southeast Asia on a Shoestring', as Lonely Planet might say.
Monday 21st August 2006
Quite an interesting day today. Iss doesn't get any fixed days off but might occasionally have a day off when the shop is quiet. Weekends are her busiest days when the Chinese Malaysians arrive in town en-masse for their much needed beauty treatments, and Mondays are the quietest when they return to their various Kampongs and Bukits.
She announced this morning she was taking the day off and was keen to do something. She knows me pretty well by now and knows the kinds of activity I enjoy - which are in complete contrast to 99.99999% of farangs in Thailand.
Her idea was to go to a small Muslim village she knows of where she hasn't been since she was a youngster. I wasn't over keen about going out on such a hot day but didn't want to disappoint her so off we went.
I made sure to smother my face with sunscreen and I also took my hat along. If I had taken these two simple precautions on Friday I wouldn't have ended up with the mild case of sunstroke I got that made me feel quite ill.
I picked up one those Japanese Army style hats from a Thai market. It's really well made and the label inside says it was made in America. The quality certainly seems better than a lot of the locally made stuff. It's a standard sun hat but has a flap of material at the back that comes all the way round to protect your neck from the sun.
To be honest, it looks stupid - and it gives the Thais a good laugh - but it's actually very effective at doing the job it was designed to do.
The village we went to is called Baan Nua and it's one of those places that are very seldom seen by foreigners. For a start, getting there by public transport would be almost impossible for an outsider.
Iss went to one particular sawng-thaew parked in a long line of sawng-thaews which happened to be the right one and the only one going to the village. I can read locations written in Thai but this sawng-thaew didn't even have any locations written on the side.
After just a few minutes heading out of town, everything changed. The manic pace of the city and all the traffic just disappeared. Thailand is mostly rural but while living in a city it is easy to forget that fact.
The constant noise of the city drives me nuts and it was so nice to experience peace and quiet again. We even saw a few kingfishers perched on electricity cables. We drove along roads that I would be quite happy driving a motorbike on - something that is definitely not the case in town.
Eventually we came to a large, semi-built mosque. The building work is being financed by donations from the local people and it will take Bt30 million to complete. It is therefore taking a long time to build because that is a lot of money in this part of rural Thailand.
From the road no signs of life were visible but behind the mosque was a klong (canal) and a small, but thriving, village. We spent quite a while just wandering around. The klong leads out to Songkhla's inland sea and the main activity in the village is fishing.
The men go out every morning and the women prepare the fish they catch for market. I saw just one small restaurant in the village. Everything seems to revolve around the klong and the local fishing industry although I noticed several fields of sugarcane which must be another source of income for the people living there. The whole experience was very different to city life in Thailand.
The daily diet of fish has certainly not done the villagers any harm. One very friendly man we met offered to drive us around in his pickup truck to show us the local area. He was a very young-looking 67. A little later in the day we met his 95 year-old mother who is still very active and sat there preparing a bowl of shrimps.
Our new 67 year-old friend cut down two fresh coconuts for me and Iss from a nearby tree at the side of the klong. I have never tasted such delicious coconuts. The juice inside was delicious and the soft, white flesh was the same consistency as melted butter.
Muslim villages are the only places in Thailand where you will not find stray dogs everywhere. Muslims cannot handle dogs so there aren't any. Instead, there were hundreds of cats and for me - being a big cat fan - it was a real treat.
It was an enjoyable day out. I found the experience interesting and I enjoyed meeting some charming and hospitable Thai people. This kind of thing isn't for everyone but that's one of the nice things about Thailand.
If you are just interested in beaches, jetskis, go-karting, buying badly made clothes from Indian tailors, buying fake Rolex watches, getting ripped off left, right and centre, eating Big Macs, getting drunk every night and then having sex with prostitutes there are places that cater for you but if you want to experience different aspects of Thai life and culture there are other places that also cater for you.
Sunday 20th August 2006
Last week, John Mark Karr was arrested in Thailand over the killing of JonBenet Ramsey, the six year-old American beauty contestant. To be honest, I had never heard of this murder case before - and Mr Karr may be perfectly innocent - but my reaction was similar to that when an American child molester was arrested and deported from Thailand earlier this year.
Both men had jobs teaching English in Thailand; that's what I do; many of my friends back home know this is what I do; and whenever these stories surface I always wonder what they might be thinking.
When I arrived in Thailand almost three years ago I had no plans to work but after six months of just doing tourist activities I decided to look for a job.
After I left my job in the UK I had a feeling that I might end up somewhere teaching English so the first thing I did was invest 1,000 US dollars by enrolling on a TEFL course in the Czech Republic. The course was far tougher than I had anticipated but after completing it I felt fairly confident that I would be able to teach.
Prior to my job search, I made several copies of my CV, TEFL qualifications, employment history, qualifications, etc.
I set aside one whole day and my plan was to go from school to school to see if anyone might be interested in employing me. I had even figured that if no one was interested I might offer to work for free for the first month as a way of getting my foot in the door.
What actually happened quite surprised me. The first school I went to almost bit my hand off and wanted to employ me straight away. There was no real interest in the documentation I had brought along - just a cursory glance.
I could have been anyone. I could have been a criminal on the run who was an alcoholic, drug-addicted child molester. That's the worst case, of course. Not quite so bad, but still disturbing, is that I might not have been a bad person, per se, but I might just have been very stupid and uneducated.
None of this mattered though. They wanted to employ me two minutes after walking through the door; the reasons being a desperate shortage of native speaking English teachers in many parts of the country and the fact I was a white, native English speaker.
Now and again, news reports of criminals and perverts teaching English in Thailand appear but, far more often, I see farang men teaching English in Thailand who are poorly educated themselves, cannot spell, do not understand grammar and are certainly not qualified to teach.
They aren't criminal exactly but the lifestyles they lead and their motives for wanting to teach aren't exactly honourable. They don't do their students any good, nor are they good for the reputations of other Westerners in Thailand who want to teach for the right reasons.
It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. John Mark Karr's arrest has turned the spotlight on the Thai authorities regarding their lax procedures recruiting foreign teachers. The BBC report can be accessed here.
A Thai government spokesman, Khun Jakrapob, said that while there was currently no national recruitment system, the government was due to meet early next week to discuss whether more regulations were needed. I can tell Khun Jakrapob the answer to that question is an emphatic, "Yes."
Thailand is not alone by any means. It's a problem for many developing countries that have realised the English language is an important life skill and are trying to teach that skill to their young people. However, they do need to ensure that undesirable foreigners are kept out of the teaching profession.
At my old cricket club in England, anyone wanting to help coach youngsters must take cricket coaching and first-aid examinations and have undergone Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. And that's just for voluntary work.
As usual in Thailand, the rhetoric sounds great. My fear is that, as usual, there will always be knee-jerk reactions and outpourings of rhetoric when these things happen but nothing will get done and things will carry on as they have always done.
The Thais already have most of the procedures in place. (The only thing clearly lacking with the work permit application procedure is a criminal record check.) All the authorities need to do is to actually enforce them.
Finding and kicking out foreigners working illegally without work permits would be a simple matter. The problem would be that there wouldn't be many native speaking teachers left as a result but this is not a problem that can be fixed overnight.
Saturday 19th August 2006
The heat should never be underestimated in Thailand. I spent a little too long outside yesterday and paid the price. A few hours after getting back to my room I developed a hellish, thumping headache that just wouldn't go away. It was a case of too much direct sunlight on my skin and dehydration.
I felt slightly better this morning but still not quite right. Today will be spent in my room drinking lots of water with trips outside only for sustenance.
Ever since I started living Thailand I have forced myself to drink lots of water, regardless of feeling thirsty or not, but there are still times when my urine is a deep yellow colour indicating dehydration.
April is recognised as the hottest time of year but now - four months later - it still doesn't seem any cooler.
The full-on rainy season hasn't arrived yet but it is on the way. This is both good and bad. When it does actually rain, the cooler temperatures feel heavenly. Also, when clouds gather and block out the sun, they do a good job of cooling things down.
However, the extra moisture in the air just increases the humidity and humid heat is a lot worse than dry heat.
The reason I was out yesterday was to see what was going on at 'Science Week'. Hat Yai has gone crazy this week - as it does every year when this event is staged - but 'crazy' is a relative term and it is still quieter here than in Bangkok on a quiet day.
The central influence in Thailand is the monarchy and the Thai monarchy has a rich tradition of being involved in the Sciences and Arts. The present King's father (HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej of Songkhla) is credited with introducing modern medicine and public health into Thailand and King Rama 4th is credited with introducing modern science into Thailand.
Among his other talents, he was an accomplished astronomer who predicted solar eclipses. It was on a trip to observe a solar eclipse that he contracted malaria which led to his death. Science Week, I was told this week, is one of King Rama 4th's legacies.
Tens of thousands of schoolchildren from southern Thailand descend on the Prince of Songkhla in Hat Yai every August for what is basically a fun day out and a huge picnic. When I attended last year I was quite dismissive because, from my observations, there was very little of academic value to be had from the exercise.
This year, however, I saw things in a slightly different light. I have found that the longer I am in Thailand, the better I understand things and, as a result, I constantly change my mind about different aspects of the country.
Science Week coincides with a large agricultural fair that is held next door and the fair has lots of food - a Thai obsession. Tesco Lotus is also next door. One of the first observations is that - considering the kids are supposed to be in town for Science Week _ there are an awful lot of them wandering around Tesco Lotus and the agricultural fair.
Another observation is that they spend a lot of time walking around idly, taking photographs of their friends and eating, and not very much time in the various university faculties where displays have been set up.
When they do get involved with an activity it is more likely to be some kind of a game, or painting task, rather than something very cerebral or academic. One very big attraction is looking at the cadavers in the department of anatomy. Thais have the weirdest fascination with death and ghosts. They are actually quite a morbid bunch and view death very differently to most Westerners.
They are nice kids though. All week they have wanted their photograph taken with me and they are all well-behaved. When I think back to my school trips, they were a complete disaster. I was a nightmare kid and so were many of my colleagues.
It also struck me this year that these kids have very little and probably never travel. Most provincial Thais have never been abroad and many haven't seen much of Thailand even. When they get a chance to have a day out with their friends they can't be blamed for wanting to have fun and many probably come from places that don't have large supermarkets.
I spoke with kids from as far away as Nakhon Sri Thammarat. The three troubled provinces (as well as Songkhla and Satun) were all well represented and naturally there were lots of Muslim youngsters. The Muslim kids are sweet kids and no different to any other.
Naturally, I said they could and they all broke out into big, beaming smiles. I thought about the current state of the world with all the death and destruction that is taking place between Muslims and Jews, and Muslims and Christians, and it all seemed so stupid.
I think that all the conversations I had were in Thai. I tried to talk to some of them in English but they hid behind their hands and ran off giggling. Some had been learning English for six years but couldn't answer, "What is your name?, "Where do you come from?" or "How old are you?"
Having taught in Thailand for a few years now, this didn't surprise me in the least but it is a real problem for the country.
Science Week finishes today, I believe, and hopefully the traffic jams and crowds will have gone next week. I hope that the kids had a good time and I will be more tolerant and less critical in future.
Some societies press their children too hard but Thailand is the complete opposite. Thailand doesn't have a problem with student suicides caused by excessive expectations and pressure but young people do need to be pushed a little in order to realise their full potential. If not they will only ever underachieve.
Coming from England, and now having lived in Thailand for a while, I have noticed many extremes in different types of behaviour. In many cases, both extremes are unhealthy but somewhere in the middle would be ideal. This is where West can learn from East and vice-versa.
Wednesday 9th August 2006
I didn't agree with how the government's 'War on Drugs' was carried out a few years ago - with so much bloodshed in the streets of Thailand and extra-judicial killings - but the country certainly seems to have a fairly serious drug problem.
After meeting a couple of friends for dinner last night they dropped me off at my apartment building and just as they did so I saw two young lads on a motorbike going like bats out of hell. This is completely normal though so I didn't think much of it.
However, I then saw a cop running along the street in full combat gear, which included a bullet-proof vest and some serious weaponry at his disposal. He had a torch (flashlight in Americanese) and was obviously looking for something in the road. As he ran along he was talking into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder.
I was intrigued but at the same time cautious. Last week a lecturer at the university where I work was on her way home at about the same time I was coming home from dinner when she got caught up in the crossfire between two groups of Thais having a gun battle. She caught a stray bullet and died.
There are far too many unlicensed guns in Thailand and far too many stupid people willing to use them. Seeing the cop wearing a bullet-proof vest reminded me of the dangers and I didn't want to meet the same fate as the poor woman last week.
Anyway, the policeman appeared to find what he was looking for, picked it up and started walking back. I asked the security guy at the apartment what this was all about. Apparently the cops had tried to apprehend the kids on the motorbike and they were in possession of drugs.
Knowing the consequences or narcotic offences, they had thrown their drug stash away and the policeman was now looking for the evidence.
From what I can gather, amphetamines are a big problem in Thailand. I have read that they can be made cheaply and easily and are therefore affordable to even fairly poor Thais. An unfortunate by-product of drug addiction is that addicts will get involved with crime to fund their habit.
Amphetamine production goes on in Thailand but also in the poorer neighbouring countries, such as Burma, where they then come across the border.
In Thailand these drugs are known as yaa baa. Yaa is a generic word for drugs or medicine - both prescription and non-prescription - and baa means crazy. The effect of the drugs is to make people go temporarily crazy.
Young Thai males are crazy enough riding their motorbikes anyway but on a couple of occasions I have seen unbelievable craziness. On one occasion a guy riding a bike like a madman got extremely close to the vehicle I was travelling in before he overtook.
He had a blank but crazed expression on his face and looked as if he was about to kill himself. I figured that he must have been under the influence of something, and most likely it was yaa baa.
The girlfriend works in a beauty salon cutting hair and doing facials, etc. Most of these places also do foot massage because there is a big demand from the Chinese Malaysians who flood into southern Thailand every week.
A separate group of people do foot massage in the shop and I know a few of them. She told me last week that one of the young foot massage guys had been arrested and is now in prison. He is waiting for a lawyer and then a trial and doesn't know when he will be out.
He is one of the people at the shop I know quite well and he's a nice lad. He looks like a Thai boxer with a body the envy of most men and he is very popular with female customers. He's a joker - as many Thais are - who likes to try to tease me and I do the same with him, not least because as well as being popular with female customers he is also popular with ladyboy customers.
He's from a poor Isaan background, as are many Thais doing menial work, but he seems honest enough and not someone I suspected of being involved with drugs. Some of his friends aren't very honest though, by all accounts.
He opened a bank account on behalf of these 'friends' which they transferred Bt800,000 into - the proceeds of their drug dealing. The police tracked him down and arrested him. He was arrested in possession of drugs but he claims they were planted on him.
Whatever the truth is, he is now in a mess. He is languishing in a Thai prison cell, which aren't reputed to be the nicest places in the world, and he doesn't know yet how long he will be there.
Drugs really do destroy lives and they are a social evil that our governments must tackle. I am all for that but not for drawing up blacklists of alleged drug dealers and then murdering them in the street without trial. There's a justice system which needs to be adhered to in civilised countries and I like to think that Thailand is a civilised country.
Tuesday 8th August 2006
"A diary will show you that troubles that loomed so large and menacingly at the time become insignificant and usually forgotten over the months." - John Copeland.
John Copeland is an English gentleman whose writing I have enjoyed immensely. He has been writing an on-line diary for a number of years which unfortunately I only discovered recently and, even more unfortunately, which he has decided to stop.
Not one for political correctness, he sees things for what they are and over the years has done a good job of documenting what a complete mess the UK has become. It was no surprise to see a BBC News article with the statistic that over half of people in the UK have considered moving abroad at some stage.
I am once again feeling very positive about Thailand. The quote above is indeed correct. Having completed the necessary paperwork to live and work legally in Thailand, I am feeling a lot more relaxed and wondering why I was getting so concerned about things recently.
The final task was completed yesterday when I went to Songkhla to get my work permit extended. Songkhla is a very pleasant place. There is a beach and the sea actually looked blue yesterday which is quite unusual because the normal colour is murky grey. It isn't as pretty as the Andaman coast but there are no hordes of fat tourists walking around town in beachwear.
There aren't sex tourists and prostitutes everywhere and farangs aren't just seen as easy targets for tuk-tuk drivers to rip off. I don't think there is one Indian tailor in the whole province.
After getting my work permit done we went off to feed the monkeys (which is always good fun), went up Tang Kuan hill for some great views and a very refreshing breeze, and then ate fresh fish near the beach.
This is the Thailand I love and it wouldn't bother me one little bit if I never set foot on Phuket or Koh Samui ever again. In fact, I do my best to avoid those places and the tourists who go there.
I went back to the dentist this morning after experiencing some pain last week. The pain has subsided considerably but instead of cancelling my appointment I let the dentist check. An X-Ray was taken and all looks OK.
She suspects that I may have crunched a piece of hard food and it caused some temporary pain. I have experienced this type of thing before where a tooth becomes painful and then gets better again. The dentist wants to see me again next week for a further check.
I have nothing but good things to say about dentists in Thailand. In England, by all accounts, it takes months to get an appointment and when you are lucky enough to get one you will be charged a small fortune.
Appointments can be made almost immediately here, the dentists are superb, and the costs are minimal. I wasn't even charged for the dentist's time this morning; I was only charged for the X-Ray which cost a paltry Bt30.
Many years ago, the Thais analysed the state of their dental healthcare system and it wasn't good. Overall, there were far too few dentists to service the population but in certain parts of the country the problem was severe.
As a result they decided to invest in education for dentists but made sure that this was done at universities in areas of the country lacking dentists. This was basically how the Prince of Songkhla dental faculty and hospital came to be.
Thailand now has a dental profession which I consider second to none. I accept, of course, that other countries have good dentists but in countries such as America, healthcare is only for the rich. In Thailand it is available for most people.
It can be a frustrating country though because there are other problems which the Thais seem uninterested in fixing. It's certainly not a case of not being able to. As they have shown with the medical profession, they are capable of tackling any problem if they are motivated to do so.
There is a great system to ensure that the population has access to healthcare and can remain healthy but after spending all that time and effort, someone can leave the hospital and get killed by a lunatic on the road thus completely wasting a good life and the efforts of all the doctors who worked to make that life better.
Sunday 6th August 2006
Having just got a new non-B visa (and wondering periodically why I bother because it has taken a lot of time, effort and money and no-one ever checks) I just spotted a story in The Nation about Thai efforts to clamp down on illegal immigrants and workers.
According to the report, "There will be no illegal immigrants living or working in Thailand by the end of next year." The report goes on to say that Bt100 million is being invested in a database to track all foreigners in the country.
I just wonder if this will actually change anything? Thai politicians love rhetoric and this sort of thing goes down well but I've heard similar statements before about various things and nothing ever changes.
Also, if anything does actually happen, will it really be all foreigners or will farangs in Thailand maintain the immunity that they currently have? Let me explain.
Once you get near to a border in Thailand you will come across lots of roadside checkpoints where the police check for illegal immigrants. If you are on a bus, it will quite likely be stopped and the police will get on board to take a look around.
However, what I have found is that, as a farang, I have never been bothered or asked any questions. The Thai officials are only interested in Asians. They don't want people from neighbouring countries working in Thailand illegally and - if there are any around - they always give Indians a hard time. I could be a criminal on the run and staying in Thailand illegally but the fact that I have Western features means that I won't even be checked.
As I said, it is as if farangs have a special status in Thailand among foreign visitors. There are plenty of farangs overstaying in Thailand (and far more staying legally but working illegally without work permits) but the authorities don't seem overly concerned. I refer in particular to the profession of English teaching.
The authorities only really seem to be concerned about Burmese, Laotians, Indians, etc. On my visa trips, and my visits to the Department of Labour to get my work permit extended, I often see Filipinos who are there for the same purpose. The Filipinos teaching English in Thailand daren't work illegally because there will be people checking up on them but many farangs working illegally in Thailand just don't bother and they get away with it.
Will anything ever change? I'd like to think so because it would remove a lot of undesirables from Thailand but something tells me it won't. Many Thai employers don't want the hassle and expense of sorting out documentation for their teachers.
In many areas of Thailand there is a real shortage of native speaking English teachers and schools will grab any native speaker that walks through the door, regardless of how unsuitable they may be for the job.
It's unfortunate but sadly many Thais will often make decisions based on taking the easiest option. The result, as I have seen, is a country with far too many Western men of a certain age calling themselves English teachers who are basically failures from wherever they come from, who cannot teach, cannot even spell and have no idea about English grammar.
The really sad part is that it is the Thais themselves that lose out eventually. When I read reports like this it gives me some hope for the future of Thailand but somehow I doubt that anything will have changed by the end of 2007 when this new policy is proposed to be in place.
Saturday 5th August 2006
I feel as if an enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I arrived in Thailand almost three years ago with a 30 day 'Social Visit' stamp in my passport and no work. I found work but it wasn't good at first and then I found a great job which I really enjoy.
I went through the process of getting a visa - which was only for three months initially. I then went through the more complicated task of getting a work permit and with that I was able to get a one-year visa. Everything was good for a while.
When my continued employment was put into doubt I was at risk of not being able to apply for a new visa and without a visa my work permit would have expired. After all the previous effort I could so easily have gone back to square one and just been making monthly trips to the border again.
On top of this, my passport had almost filled up so needed replacing which meant yet more form-filling, the acquisition of supporting documentation and trips to the British Embassy in Bangkok.
The visa issue caused me quite a lot of anxiety because there doesn't seem to be a clearly laid-out set of criteria to follow. Everyone has their own ideas but the official at the Thai Consulate may want something completely different.
My worst nightmare was getting down to Penang and being told that another piece of paper was necessary so I would have to go back to Thailand and then come back again. This is exactly what happened to two Cambodian monks I met on the minivan coming back to Thailand on Tuesday.
They are studying at an International Buddhist Institute attached to a temple in Hat Yai. As foreigners in Thailand they require visas, of course. The monastery gave them official letters to support their visa application and they arrived at the Thai Consulate with shaven heads and saffron robes.
The Consulate decided that their supporting letters weren't good enough and that they needed new ones so refused their visa applications. They were headed back to Thailand to get new letters before going straight back to Penang again.
The only task I have left for the moment is to extend my work permit but it is normally a formality. Today is the first day in months when I haven't actually had a task to do or something to preoccupy my thoughts.
I will do some lesson preparation for my students next week but there is nothing urgent to do. A writing project I had planned has been put on the backburner and my Thai language studies have been sadly neglected recently.
My photography hobby is something else that I have hardly touched in recent months. I am now looking forward to relaxing and enjoying life a bit more again.
Sometimes I wonder why I can't be like the thousands of other farangs in Thailand who don't bother with any of this nonsense; who just live here on 30 day stamps and work illegally. I guess it's just accepting that everyone is different, trying to understand the person we are and then doing what we believe is the correct thing for us to do as individuals - and not what other people do.
Tuesday 1st August 2006
The Penang trip has gone fairly smoothly so far but today wasn't good. In the morning I decided to take Iss to see the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. When I visited previously the guide was a fascinating lady who provided lots of information about Feng Shui and told visitors about the intricate and labour-intensive house restoration details. She was a real charmer and I could have listened to her for hours.
The guide today was an obnoxious woman who acted like a frumpy old school mistress in charge of a classroom full of naughty children. She spent the first 20 minutes of the one-hour tour lecturing us on why visitors must join the guided tours and heaven help anyone who produced a camera.
As she droned on, I caught Iss yawning and I felt like going to sleep myself. We actually left before the tour had finished. What a waste of 24 Ringgits. It just goes to show how the same activity can result in two very different experiences.
More bad luck was to follow. In the mid-1990's Malaysia brought in a regulation that all taxis should have meters. The taxi drivers in Penang decided that this wouldn't be good for business and (in Thai fashion) just ignored it.
Unlike Thailand, the Malaysian government are insisting that laws and regulations are followed. They have put pressure on Penang's taxi drivers and decreed that from 1st August 2006 (today) all Penang taxis will have meters.
After checking out of the hotel at 1pm we hung around for a while a while because my visa wouldn't be available for collection until 2pm. However, when I started to think about getting a taxi I realised that there weren't any.
The buggers have decided to go on strike. Great. Now what do I do? I tell the concierge that I need to get a taxi and he manages to find one for me as a result of a guest arriving from the airport. The fare is twice as much as it should be but the guy has got me out of a big hole and I am in no position today to start complaining about the fare or trying to negotiate a lower rate.
I am just grateful to have actually found a taxi. All I want to do is get my visa and return to Thailand ASAP. After picking up my visa we go back into town and head for Chulia Street to get a minivan.
Although I have heard many stories of people defecating in the street in India, the only place I have ever witnessed this is in Penang where I saw an Indian with his trousers around his ankles and his arse hanging over a storm drain while he took a crap. Nice.
In Penang at visa time I am thrown together with all the lowlife farangs I do my best to avoid in Thailand who crawl out of their holes to get new visas. I tell myself that if I'm still in Thailand next year and need another visa I will go to Singapore instead.
My hatred of minivans and the way passengers who use them are treated goes off the scale. The excellent service on Tiger Airways is the complete opposite and the fares aren't expensive. And because I can stay with my brother in Singapore, the whole trip would probably work out cheaper.
Yes, I think this might have been my last visit to Penang.
Weekday afternoons in Penang around 2:30pm are always a crazy time because there are so many people who have just collected their Thais visas and want to get back to Thailand ASAP. We manage to miss out on what look like a couple of fairly new'ish vans and end up in the back of an ancient Toyota with about eight million kms on the clock.
It is completely clapped out and suffers from a strong, droning, vibration which we have to endure for four hours. To compound my misery, sat next to me is a most unsavoury looking Thai man. His skin is covered in lumps and he looks thoroughly diseased.
He continually sniffs and appears to be most unhealthy. I try my best to avoid physical and eye contact with him. On the odd occasion when we make eye contact he starts prodding me and pointing at Iss's bag. I think he is after a tissue so I ask Iss if she has any but she says no.
She tries to pull me in her direction to get me further away from him but it is impossible in the cramped conditions. Later, she tells me he wanted the sniffing salts that you often see stuffed up Thai noses.
We get delayed at the border by two Indians on the van. At Malaysian immigration where we get our exit stamps they disappear. It seems they have been taken to an office somewhere. Eventually they reappear. At Thai immigration they don't go to the normal booths to get their entry stamps but go straight into the office.
The van driver obviously knows something because he continues on his way without them. I don't have a clue what the problem was but obviously the big computer in the sky had raised a few flags as they attempted to cross the border. Word on the van was that they would be going straight back to Malaysia again.
More 'tea money' changes hands as we enter Thailand but Iss and I aren't asked for any. There are two Austrian girls on the van who are extremely pleasant and I see them give money to the driver. Later on, I ask them why. They tell me because he asked. Fair enough! We just laugh.
It was Bt10 each so didn't hurt them but considering how many people enter Thailand every day it all adds up and must supplement the incomes of the immigration officials quite nicely. It's a bit of a joke but the bottom line is that it is still corruption.
It's the Thai disease and whether it is low-level corruption taking Bt10 off people entering the country or politicians accepting huge bribes for awarding government contracts it's not good for Thailand or ordinary Thai people.
Getting back into Thailand is an almighty relief. Yes, the roads seem crazier than in Malaysia and the motorbike masses have reappeared but people are smiling again and it is a damn sight cleaner than Penang.
On previous visits I have found Penang to be OK but I hated almost every minute of this trip. I have visited Malaysia a number of times - always with an open mind - but every time it leaves me feeling thoroughly depressed.
It is no wonder that every weekend thousands of Malaysians flood into southern Thailand to get away from their own depressing country.
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand