Living In Thailand Blog
Monday 27th August 2007
This teaching business (to quote a well known phrase) is a funny old game. My morning students were exemplary today. We had a good laugh but they were attentive, enthusiastic, involved, active and not one showed any sign of falling asleep.
I guess this is just the nature of teaching wherever you teach and isn't unique to Thailand. What does seem a little strange though is how the students are either all bad or all good on certain days.
I've talked often about how the Land of Smiles is really the Land of Contradictions. On the surface, Thailand is the friendliest place on earth with a population of gentle, smiling natives who respect the first precept of Buddhism, that is, not to take life.
Below the surface though, lurks a sinister side that rears its ugly head every now and again. (See 11th August blog entry below for some relevant links.)
Following a dispute over some leased land in Bangkok, The Nation reported today how the land owner had arranged for 100 heavies to evict the tenants by destroying their market stalls.
This incident reminded me of what happened on Sukhumvit a few years ago when bulldozers arrived in the early hours of the morning to demolish a bar area to 'settle' a long running dispute between the tenants operating businesses there and the landlord.
The Thai way of dealing with problems is very different to what I am used to and this includes non-violent methods. Here are a few more examples.
An employer brings in a foreigner to teach his staff English but they don't want to learn English. Their solution: After a half-hearted attempt to learn - and without saying anything - they just stop attending lessons.
Now the employer has a problem with his staff not attending the lessons he has paid for. His solution: Instead of asking (or telling) the staff to go to their lessons, send the teacher to the staff at their normal place of work so they can't get out of lessons.
However, this second solution then returns the problem to the students. They now have a teacher who turns up once a week in their office to try to teach them when they still don't want to learn. Their solution: Tell the teacher they will join another group on a different day and then don't join that group. The teacher then stops bothering them and they succeed in getting out of having any lessons.
For each of the above 'problems', the Thai 'solution' is always completely different to how I would fix the problem. That's because they don't really fix problems; they just skirt around them.
What you should also have noticed is a lot of face-saving going on. Students who don't want to attend lessons avoid losing face themselves by never admitting they lack the ability to learn; and they also save the face of the teacher by never explicitly admitting they don't want to attend - or can't understand - his lessons.
After a while, you start to recognise different types of behaviour fairly quickly and understand what is going on but if you are new to Thailand it can seem puzzling. Even though I understand what is happening, I don't like the way they skirt around problems instead of tackling them properly.
This non-confrontational, face-saving way of doing things can make for a pleasant environment where no one gets upset with anyone else but issues never really get fixed - just circumvented.
The election date has been set for 23rd December, thus meeting the government's promise to hold it before the end of the year.
Quoting from the BBC News site:
"We consider 23 December 2007, is the appropriate date," election commission chief Apichart Sukhagganond said, according to the AFP news agency.
What this actually means is that the astrologer Khun Apichart consulted told him this would be an auspicious date. Thais will not arrange any important event without first seeking advice from an astrologer, or from a monk with 'special' powers, to determine auspicious dates. Thaksin never did anything without speaking to his astrologer first.
With so many votes to buy, the political parties have almost four months to load up their cars and vans with money before heading out to the provinces.
Sunday 26th August 2007
I was sent a link to the following Google Video. This 30 minute film contains everything that makes me cringe about Thailand but, at the same time, it is strangely fascinating.
I can understand perfectly well why foreign men fall for Thai girls but the type of Thai girls most of them go for (and how they go about meeting them) is completely bewildering; their concept of Thai feminine beauty even more so. Is it any wonder so many run into problems after the initial lust wears off, or when she gets a better offer?
As one non-Thai speaking farang guy says, his Thai girlfriend can only speak 'bar English'. It's optimistic thinking that a relationship can work when the people involved in it can't communicate and don't have the slightest idea about each other's cultural background.
If your courtship with a tattooed Thai girl starts with a game of 'Connect 4' in the bar where she works and she can beat you at snooker ... watch out.
The naivety of the men is actually quite pathetic. Their hearts are in the right place - they only want to give the girls some financial security in exchange for sex and companionship - but they just don't understand anything about Thai girls. Nothing at all. Zilch.
One girl (seen writing e-mails to foreign guys who are sending her money) tells how she has four farang men to choose from and she is the type of girl - quite frankly - that a Thai man would never look at.
Another guy gets dumped and has to watch while his girl cavorts with her new man in the bar where he drinks. Who's he going to play snooker with now?
Quite a sad film really but worth watching. It's an object lesson in how not to meet Thai girls.
Saturday 25th August 2007
I went out to run a few errands this morning and was overcome with a profound sense of happiness about being in Thailand. I've been moaning about a few things lately but there is no place else I'd rather be at the moment, and I wouldn't want to swap my life with anyone. It's a good feeling.
I have known this for a long time but attachment is dangerous and I think that subconsciously I have been trying not to become attached to Thailand. It's difficult not to though.
Nowhere is perfect and the issues that irritate me about Thailand aren't really that bad in the grand scheme of things. The bureaucracy is a headache, the constant heat can make life uncomfortable at times, and I can't understand why the Thais drive as if they want to kill themselves. But apart from that, everything else is good. Very good, actually.
At the supermarket this morning, there weren't gangs of hoodies hanging around outside and when I went out for a massage last night I wasn't afraid of getting beaten up or shot on the way back. Instead, as usual, there were just lots of friendly, smiling Thais.
It's very rare that I meet Thais with chips on their shoulders. I realise that many don't have much money but they are happy and don't wish other people harm.
A South African couple who were looking to move to Thailand started writing to me a few years ago and they arrived last year. However, they have fallen into the '90 days in six months' trap and are currently in the Philippines.
I received an e-mail from them a few days ago and they can't wait to get back to Thailand. They have been existing on fast food as they tell me the food is so bad and they said it is difficult to get fresh vegetables and fruit. Neither have they been impressed with the people.
Since I left the UK, I have never had any desire to go back. Recently though, the feeling has gone beyond having no desire, to actually being quite afraid to go back. I have described Thailand as being a little anarchic but that only really applies to the roads. When Thais aren't driving cars or motorbikes, it's a very civilised country and that isn't something I can say about the UK.
Britain has always been a fairly violent country but the level of violence in the streets now is completely out of hand.
Every time I look at the BBC News web site, there is news of yet another fatal shooting, stabbing or beating. Last night two bouncers were shot outside a night club in Liverpool and this came two days after an 11 year-old child, Rhys Jones, was shot dead by another child. Last month an ex-boxer was shot dead at a night club in London.
A couple of weeks ago, a biker was shot dead on the M40 motorway and yesterday shots were fired at a police car on another motorway. Also yesterday, two men were shot in Letchworth after yet another violent disorder incident.
A mentally disabled man was killed after being beaten up savagely by a gang of youths a couple of days ago in Sunderland, and a 20 year-old girl died as a result of being beaten up - along with her boyfriend - in Lancashire.
The list goes on and on and these incidents are only the recent ones. It really comes as no surprise that a record number of people left the UK last year. If the police and politicians can't fix the problems, then there is only one option and that is to leave the country.
There are a lot of guns in Thailand and, statistically, a high murder rate by firearm. The situation is different though. If you get mixed up with the wrong people in an illegal line of business, it can be dangerous.
You'd also better watch out if you get involved with a married woman or if you have one woman but get involved with another. If slighted, the Thais can be quite a vindictive race and if the red mist descends, it can get nasty.
However, what I don't see or read a lot about are the types of unprovoked, motiveless violent attack against innocent people that are so commonplace in the UK now.
I found out a little while ago (by accident) that my being in Thailand is a source of amusement for certain people back in England. Their pea-sized brains only have the mental capacity to equate Thailand with prostitutes, mail-order brides, and - even more hilarious - ladyboys. Ha ha ha.
This is something I encounter every now and again from people who have never been to Thailand and who know so little about the country, they probably couldn't even locate it on a map. Unfortunately, the last laugh is on them.
As they shuffle off to their mundane jobs every day, shivering from the cold and rain, and paying an absolute fortune for everything; if only a few of them could experience my lifestyle in Thailand. I'm sure it would wipe the smirks off their faces pretty quickly.
Monday 20th August 2007
I will remember yesterday for a long time and not because it was the day the people of Thailand voted on their latest constitution.
I am a very average person in all respects. Whatever I set out to do, I do averagely, not excelling in anything. It's OK. I have come to terms with the fact I will never be outstanding in any one field and I am grateful at least that I have the ability to be average in some.
Yesterday, I went on a mission to meet an outstanding and talented person. As it turned out, I met not one but three outstanding and talented people - two Thais and one American. It was a humbling and deeply enjoyable experience.
Todd Lavelle (aka Todd Thongdee) is one of those rare people in life who excels in many different fields. He is the kind of farang in Thailand I have the greatest respect for.
He is only one of a handful of people I have heard speak Thai like a Thai and he has a knowledge of Thailand and the Thai people that can only be achieved by having a perfect command of the language.
He's a musician, singer (he sings in English or Thai and I am told he is conversant in different Thai dialects), music producer, humanitarian, academic in Southeast Asian studies, student of Thai herbal medicine, journalist, author, Thai TV presenter. In fact, there's not much Todd isn't.
More than anything though, he's just a nice, ordinary guy who is very considerate towards other people.
Khun Soontaree Vechanont is the loveliest Thai lady you could ever wish to meet. She is the embodiment of everything that is gentle and beautiful about the Lanna culture of northern Thailand. She owns a restaurant in Chiang Mai in which she sings.
Singing folk music in the northern dialect, she sings like an angel and with such emotion that while performing, her eyes fill up with tears. She has brought up two children, one of whom is rather well known in Thailand. Just like Todd, Khun Soontaree has no airs and graces and will happily give her time talking to strangers.
Khun Soontaree's daughter was the reason for my little excursion yesterday. Ever since I first heard Lanna Cummins sing, I have loved her music and continue to be an ardent admirer. When I happened to find out last week that she was going to be giving a concert in town, I knew I had to attend.
In addition to watching the evening concert, I sat chatting with Lanna's mum as we watched the afternoon rehearsal and sound check. I then got to meet Lanna and we chatted for a long time. She signed my CDs and I got my photo taken with her. She is perfectly fluent in English, which she speaks with more than a hint of an American accent.
On her first album she sings about being an ordinary girl (pooying tumadaa). In some ways, she is, in that her feet are very much on the ground and there is not even the slightest trace of an ego.
But she's not ordinary at all. She has inherited the gift from her mother to be able to sing in a way that touches other people. Money doesn't motivate her but seeing the joy she gives other people does. She doesn't like the way the industry is so focused on money but by working with people like Todd, it allows her to concentrate on her art.
I have yet to come down from what was quite an extraordinary day.
There was a good article on The Nation's web site today: The Dilemma of the Thai Middle Class.
I liked the statement, "... the country has to appear to be a democracy, as that has become the international standard." That just about sums up the political situation in Thailand.
With everything in Thailand, what you see on the outside very rarely has any connection with the reality of the situation. As long as something appears to be in order on the outside, that is good enough.
Sunday 19th August 2007
The Thais are off to the polls once again today to vote 'for' or 'against' the latest draft constitution (their 18th attempt, I believe). That's the official reason but this poll is also about last September's coup and the legitimacy of the current government.
I had started writing a fairly lengthy discourse on why I don't believe an American style of democratic government can ever work in a country where the culture is so completely different. What's the point though?
Whatever criticisms I level at Thailand, I have the greatest respect and fondness for the country and the people. More than anything, I criticise out of frustration because I believe Thailand could be a truly great country with just a few small cultural changes.
This is a country with everything. Thailand is full of natural resources; it's the world's favourite holiday destination; it is located between the fastest growing economies in the world; and it has a talented and creative population.
If anything, it has too much and maybe life is just a little too easy for some people. All of Thailand's strengths and all of Thailand shortcomings come from this thing we call culture. It's incredibly powerful and does not change overnight.
I hope the country gets itself sorted out fairly soon.
Saturday 18th August 2007
It will probably pass unnoticed by many Thais, but today is an anniversary of sorts.
King Mongkut (Rama IV) was the most amazing man. He spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk before ascending to the throne and in his lifetime not only did he reform Buddhist practices in Thailand but he started the process of modernisation in the country that was continued by his son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
Siam had been closed to foreign countries for a long time but it was during Mongkut's reign that the country started to engage with them again.
He did this by signing treaties of friendship, trade and navigation.
Britain - The Bowring Treaty (1855)
Hanseatic Cities (1858)
Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Norway (1868)
The treaty with Austro-Hungary was completed in 1869 after his death.
It is a testament to his diplomatic skills that Siam escaped colonialism when every surrounding country had been colonised by greedy European powers but whether that fact helped or hindered Thailand in later years is debatable. The French, at the time, were particularly aggressive and thought nothing of sending gunboats up the river if they weren't getting their way.
Thailand escaped because the Thais have always been very good at playing off one country against another and Siam also happened to be a convenient buffer state separating French and British interests in the region.
The country didn't escape entirely, mind you, and a lot of Thai territory (90,000 square miles according to Rong Syamananda in his book, A History of Thailand) was ceded later during Chulalongkorn's reign in order to ward off aggressive Europeans. The Shan states were ceded to British Burma while Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis in the south were ceded to British Malaya.
The French in Indo-China and Cochin-China were more aggressive in their expansionist policy around the Mekong and as a result, the four following Thai territories were eventually ceded:
- Sibsong Chuthai and Huapan Tangha Tanghok in 1887
- The left bank of the Mekong River in 1893
- Paklai opposite Luang Prabang and Champasak (Bassac in 1904)
- Pratabong, Srisophon and Siemrat in 1907
Source: Foreign Records of the Bangkok Period up to A.D. 1932 published in 1982.
In an era when no one in the country spoke English, Mongkut learnt to speak and write English to a very competent level. In some books I have read, I have seen letters he wrote to foreign leaders and his command of the language was far better than my present-day students.
Thai students today have unprecedented access to English language material and native speakers whereas Mongkut was taught only be a few missionaries and with whatever reading material he could lay his hands on. But it was not only language that he studied.
He also studied astronomy and on this day, 18th August, in 1868 predicted a total solar eclipse. According to Mongkut's calculations, "The total eclipse of the sun may take place for the following important points of astronomical occurrence:"
- The node, either ascending or descending, comes near to the sun's apogy, either before or behind, at a distance of at least 60 degrees on the eclipse course.
- The moon's peregy comes near to the place of syzgy, or straight between the centres of the sun and moon and the earth, or near to the said nodal position.
- The sun comes as near to the said nodal position as 720 miles, or 12 degrees in ecliptic.
The event was quite something apparently. The location was Wah Kor in Prachuap Khiri Khan province on the Isthmus of Kra and many important foreign dignitaries were invited. A small, royal town was erected temporarily and for two weeks a steamer ran back and forth to Singapore bringing luxurious items.
After all this preparation it looked as if overcast weather would ruin everything but just before the time Mongkut had predicted the eclipse would occur, there was a break in the clouds and everyone was able to witness it.
Upon returning to Bangkok, Mongkut died shortly afterwards on 1st October 1868 at 9pm. Most accounts I have read attribute his death to malaria (caught while observing the eclipse) but one mentions that a Dr William Campbell, physician to the English Consulate, visited Mongkut before his death and diagnosed the illness as typhoid fever which he regarded as perfectly treatable. Other accounts simply refer to Mongkut's illness as 'jungle fever' - a vague description if ever there was one.
Despite his obvious intelligence, Mongkut appeared to have something of a stubborn streak and would not let Dr Campbell treat him, preferring to treat himself. Another account describes how he advertised for a dentist to come to Bangkok to fit him with dentures.
In September 1867 a Dr V.D. Collins arrived from China to carry out the requested dental work. However, because of the Thai taboo against touching the king's head, he was not able to make a wax mould of Mongkut's teeth. The king insisted on doing this himself.
The exercise was not a great success and subsequently Dr Collins was not allowed to make any adjustments to the false teeth in Mongkut's mouth.
Something else I read somewhere described Mongkut as having false teeth made out of red-stained wood so perhaps this is what he resorted to after Dr Collins' failed attempts? This was not as strange back then as it sounds now. All Thais in that era had red or black teeth as a result of chewing betel and also because it was the fashion. White teeth were regarded as the teeth of the devil and quite sinister.
His reign lasted just 17 years, from 1851 to 1868, but in that time he achieved an incredible amount and paved the way for Rama V to continue the modernisation of the country.
It was Mongkut who was portrayed by Yul Brynner as a slightly eccentric character in the TV version of 'The King And I', which I remember watching as a kid. The story was based on the fanciful book written by Anna Leonowens who worked for a while (1862 to 1867) as an English teacher in the royal palace.
The book, TV shows, stage show, and both films are banned in Thailand. When you start to understand what Mongkut really did and then look at the ridiculous portrayal that was started by Leonowens' account, it begins to become clear why the Thais get upset.
I've been complaining about mosquitoes lately and telling Thais they aren't a problem in England. At least they weren't when I lived there but the wet summer this year seems to have changed things a little. Mosquitoes thrive in wet summer
I was looking at anti-mosquito devices in the local superstore a couple of days ago. They are divided into two categories: 1) Cheapo made-in-China devices with hilarious examples of Chinglish written on the boxes and 2) Relatively expensive Thai devices.
The Chinese ones look as if they are designed to burn my apartment building down as soon as they are plugged in and have all the subtlety of a tank in Tiananmen Square. An ultra-violet light attracts mosquitoes and as they fly towards the light a live wire puts 600 volts through them.
The Thai Buddhist devices don't kill mosquitoes, they trap them. This is not a joke. Various sounds and lights that attract mosquitoes entice them in and a big fan sucks them down into some kind of a mosquito prison where they are held captive.
I'm not quite sure what you are supposed to do once you've caught them. Take them outside and let them go again to keep your karma intact?
In my case, I would just give them a good spraying with insect spray. On the other hand, I would rather the machine just killed them in the first place, Chinese-style.
With the huge growth in IT and call centre outsourcing in recent years - especially in India - one major developing country is conspicuous by its absence. Extremely poor skills in the English language have cost Thailand dear in this very lucrative service sector.
That's the reward for having escaped colonialism and for having implemented a hopelessly inadequate education system that serves the needs of Thai culture but does little to educate effectively. The arrogant Thais always know best though. India faces battle for outsourcing (but has nothing to fear regarding competition from Thailand).
Friday 17th August 2007
The primary objective of Thai motorcyclists is to get to wherever they are going as quickly as is humanly possible without stopping. But how are you able to drive on public roads without stopping?
Left turns are easy - just shoot round the corner and don't worry about any pedestrians that may be crossing. I explained how it is possible to drive through red traffic lights without stopping on 5th August. That just leaves us with right turns but the clever Thais have a solution for that too.
On the face of it, turning right without stopping would seem to be a difficult thing to do as it entails crossing two lanes of traffic going in different directions. Normally, you would have to wait at the junction for a break in the traffic, but waiting - even for five seconds - is anathema to Thai drivers. The Thai solution, however, makes it easy.
What they do is shoot round the corner just as if they are turning left. Of course, this means they are on the wrong side of the road but who cares? This is Thailand, the Land of the Free.
They then drive along the wrong side of the road passing oncoming traffic on the wrong side until there is a break in the traffic and they can cut across to the correct side of the road.
On busy roads this sometimes means driving on the wrong side for a long distance but no one cares; no one says anything; and the cops let it go. If I can be bothered, I will take some photos later showing a few typical Thai driving manoeuvres.
How much does it cost to live in Thailand? It's a question that lots of people ask but there is no answer because it depends on individual needs and will power. As a tourist in Thailand I used to think nothing of spending Bt2,000 per night on hotels, Bt1,500 on day trips, Bt500 to Bt1,000 on food and several more thousand Baht on ... mmm, evening entertainment.
As a tourist though, I was only in the country for short periods at a time and I wasn't going to let something as trivial as money lessen my enjoyment - especially as I was earning a high salary back home.
It's very different actually living in Thailand. My high salary is a thing of the past now and - to be frank - the novelty of Thailand wears off after a while. I have also become accustomed to local prices and resent being ripped off so I pay local prices for things.
My total spending today (not including accommodation, which I pay for monthly) was Bt79. I ate rice for lunch which cost Bt40 and noodles in the evening for Bt35. I also filled up the water bottles in my room using the machine at my apartment. The water is fine and costs Bt1 per litre.
It hasn't been the most exciting of days but I had some work to do in my room and I didn't feel inclined to go out and do anything else. I would go insane if every day was like today but if you really need to watch your money, it is possible to live very cheaply in Thailand.
There are plenty of rooms available for Bt2,500 a month even if many are dingy and depressing with no A/C, a standard Thai bathroom, and swarms of mosquitoes. All the basics of life are cheap.
As a foreigner in Thailand, however, there is no escaping the bureaucracy and - apart from all the time it will cost you - it will also cost you money. Visas cost money, as do trips out of the country to get them.
Also, as a foreigner (especially a male foreigner) there are lots of temptations on offer but they all come at a price.
If renting a room for Bt2,500 a month (paying a little extra for water and electricity) and eating as I did today for less than Bt100, you can see how cheap it can be. However, the upper limit is as high as you want it to be.
The Micawber Principle of economics was never more appropriate than when living in Thailand.
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
The problem for many males is that Thailand can be like an intoxicating drug. They need the fix so badly that they move there without really being able to afford it and they have no will power. Few sights in Thailand are more pathetic than derelict farangs begging for money on the streets but it does happen.
Those with addictive personalities, but with no will power or sufficient funds to support their lifestyles should treat Thailand with a lot of caution. It can be a great place to live if you have enough money but a tough one indeed if you don't.
My net worth improved slightly today after a little confidence was injected back into the stock markets. Until I actually decide to sell my holdings, any loss or gain on paper is purely academic. However, there is a psychological impact nonetheless when the markets make wild swings up or down.
The world revolves around the United States, unfortunately. It seems crazy that a company doing very well making widgets somewhere in Europe will be affected by dodgy mortgage deals in the US but that's the way it is.
I keep telling myself to get out of the markets but I never do. Once this current crisis is over though, I think I will be calling it a day.
Thursday 16th August 2007
I got my amended work permit back today even though it could be an irrelevant document to me fairly soon. It was a relief walking away with everything done, not having been told to go away and get something else.
A couple of years ago I saw an American guy emerge from the Thai Consulate in Penang holding his passport - complete with a new visa - high in the air for everyone to see. As he walked out, he whooped (as only Americans do), and leapt for joy punching the air with a big smile on his face. He looked as if he had just won the lottery.
I can't recall celebrating when I got my UK passport but because of the ridiculous bureaucratic nonsense in Thailand, it does make you feel like celebrating whenever you actually manage to get something done here.
This has been a significant week for me in that I have finally realised what has been making me feel dissatisfied for a while. Unfortunately, it's something I have experienced before but obviously, I didn't learn from my previous mistake. That is not a good sign.
My working life in England started off with me doing jobs I wanted to do. However, due to changes in technology, the whole workplace changed and I ended up in a career that I didn't enjoy. Why did this happen?
It happened because England is a very expensive country to live in and earning a decent salary is important. I began doing work I didn't enjoy in order to get some financial security but over a period of time it started to make me very unhappy.
When I stopped to think about the situation, I realised there was no point being unhappy for another 20 years just so I could retire with a lot of money. Anyway, I figured that when I got to 60 I might not want to do the same things, or that I might be physically incapable of doing them.
With no intention of having kids - and being more interested in countries with a lower cost of living - I figured that I would probably be OK with what I already had so I quit and moved to Thailand.
What I realised this week is that for much of this year I have been doing my best to remain employed, not because it is something I really want to do, but because it will allow me to get visas and stay in Thailand.
The circumstances are slightly different but essentially it's the same thing. What it amounts to is security - the security of being able to stay where I am - and not doing something because it's really what I want to do.
Anyway, having finally seen the light, I feel a lot better within myself now. The time for change has come but at the moment, I am not exactly sure when the changes will take place or what they will be.
I've had a lot of fun teaching in Thailand. I've met and got to know some great people, and a few of them I really believe I have helped. It's been good. Recently, however, I have been finding my work a little tedious.
Tuesday was not a good day after the long weekend. The students I teach in the morning are about to embark on careers in an industry where English isn't a 'nice-to-have'; it is absolute critical. One of the reasons I agreed to teach them was a belief that they would be extremely motivated because of this fact.
On Tuesday morning, the lack of enthusiasm was something to behold. Some were asleep with their eyes closed; some with their eyes open; and the rest looked as if they were about to fall sleep. When I asked, "What did you do over the long weekend?" I was told, "Sleep."
This one word answer was quite telling. Firstly, it told me that after 15 years of learning English they still don't have a grasp of basic English grammar. Getting them to speak in anything but the present tense seems impossible at times. But secondly, it told me that they just weren't interested.
They have a comfort zone with the English language which is basically a series of phrases they repeat like parrots; and they have been repeating these phrases since they were five years old. As soon as they step into the real world of English, they don't understand a thing.
I have spent a lot of time downloading audio material containing 'real world' English because it is a great way for them to learn. They can listen to phrases as many times as they wish and they have me to help them. I would love someone to teach me Thai the same way.
However, as soon as I play anything, their little faces glaze over and they just switch off. Their body language says it all. They won't even attempt to listen and understand. I could easily revert to, "How-are-you-today-I-am-fine-thank-you-how-are-you?" and they would be happy because they could understand but I would be doing them a disservice in the long run.
What I am trying to do is give them skills that will actually help them in the future but they don't realise this. Maybe one day they will thank me but at the moment I am public enemy number one.
The atmosphere in the classroom became very uncomfortable and I could feel myself getting angry. I tried to treat them like adults, asking them how they wanted to learn and what they wanted to do. One answered, "General," (which was really helpful) and another one told me, "Up to you." Really? It's up to me, is it? These lessons are for my benefit, are they?
I almost went in to see the guy who had employed me and told him I was wasting my time but I didn't.
On Wednesday, the Thai equivalent of the red carpet had been laid out at the college and when I asked why, I was told that a very important dignitary was arriving from Bangkok who is very high up in the Ministry of Education.
The students were all dressed up and on their best behaviour. At the entrance they had set up display boards with mission statements and various stuff describing the curriculum and how serious the college takes the students' education. Thais are masters of image and rhetoric but never believe anything you hear or see in Thailand.
One board was devoted to the importance of the English language. It told how all lessons were conducted in English (not true) and how it is a fundamental element of the courses being run there. If only the people reading it could have seen my class of students on Tuesday morning. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The bottom line is that I need to make some changes; and stopping teaching, in order to do the things I really want to do, is a part of those changes. That's the reason why I have stopped worrying about visas and can't be bothered wasting my time with this police clearance document that some sources are saying is now a requirement. I am going to apply for a new visa next month but I'm not bothered if my application is rejected.
In that eventuality it will just mean that I will be forced to make the changes I need to make sooner rather than later. Occasionally, what seems like bad news at the time actually turns out to be for the best later on and sometimes we need a few bad things to happen to galvanise us into action.
A friend I've known for 35 years works for one of the big City of London investment houses. He has worked in the financial services industry since he left university.
After I started investing in the stock market in the early 90s - and while I was still working in London - we met for a beer after work one evening (Dirty Dick's near Liverpool Street Station, I seem to remember). I was hoping to get a few 'inside' tips about investing.
Instead, he told me that I might as well put my money on a horse. It seemed strange advice at the time but over the years, I have realised that he was right. There is no logic involved, it is all emotion. As one report I read today said, the mood in the last week has gone from greed to panic.
Like many small investors, the latest 'correction' has affected me. Whether it is just a correction (as always happens after long periods of growth) or the start of a recession remains to be seen. The markets always recover eventually but after big falls, the recovery can take a long time.
Life isn't exactly very cheery at the moment, personally or on a wider level. My little part of Thailand continues to be very depressed economically. It's mainly a result of the 'southern problems' but I think that other factors are now making the problems worse. On my evening stroll I noticed more businesses that have closed for good.
One restaurant I used to go to quite often closed suddenly without notice. At first, I thought there was a refurbishment going on but six months later it is still closed with no sign of anything going on inside and no sign of it reopening.
I also noticed that a big massage parlour has closed down. It's in an area where I haven't been for a while so I don't know exactly when it closed. The bathhouse brothel opposite is still very much open but the demand for certain services never goes away and isn't affected by stock markets, politics or insurgency.
In fact, the sex industry probably prospers when the rest of the world is in a mess. I could do with some cheering up right now and jumping into a warm bubble bath with a cute little Thai girl might just do the trick.
Business-wise in Thailand at the moment, your best options are probably prostitution, car bodywork repairs, surgery for road accident victims, or selling Jatukham Ramathep amulets.
Apparently, the Baht has gone up by a phenomenal 18% since the beginning of the year. This is killing export markets and it can't be doing the tourist industry much good either, especially if the rest of the world is on the brink of recession.
The overall Thai business model isn't too clever; relying far too much on rich foreigners. Many small businesses in tourist areas rely on cheap local goods and labour to keep costs down and a never-ending stream of stupid tourists who hand over far too much money for everything they buy to keep profits up.
Plenty of Thais have done well this way in the past but with all their eggs in one basket, as soon as there is a big natural disaster, such as a tsunami, or global economic problems, the bubble bursts very suddenly.
This is one of the messages HM has been trying to get through to his subjects with his theory of Sufficiency Economy but, just as culture is stronger than law, greed is stronger than culture.
I am quite fond of Thai popular music but one artist - in my humble opinion - is in a league of her own. The music of Lanna Cummins touches my soul in a way that few other artists (from anywhere) have been able to do. I love her voice and her music, and the production values of her material are superb.
I am convinced that she could very easily be a major international star. While standing at the bus stop this morning, I saw some posters and read that there is a big concert at the local park this weekend and further, Lanna is on the bill.
I gave the number a call and found out that she is scheduled to play on Sunday evening. I missed her last time she was in town so hopefully I will put that right this weekend, provided I'm not too tired from the wedding earlier in the day.
Tuesday 14th August 2007
After a frustrating morning trying to teach students who show no interest in learning, I was gobsmacked by an amazing piece of analysis provided by my afternoon students. What was quite breathtaking was the accuracy of their perception and the conciseness of their answer.
If you asked me why things are the way they are in Thailand and why they will never change, I could give you my analysis but it would be quite lengthy. Today, I discovered the answer to that question in two short sentences.
I wrote recently about my thoughts on coming back to Thailand from Singapore. With each visit I make to orderly, clean, law-abiding Singapore, it gets more difficult to return to chaotic Thailand which, at times, seems to border on anarchy.
One of my Thai students has just returned from the Genting Highlands in Malaysia and she made exactly the same comments about the differences between Thailand and Malaysia. These comments interested me very much so I asked a few more questions.
As she did at the weekend, I have travelled by road from Malaysia into Thailand quite a few times and the contrast is striking. One minute it seems perfectly normal but as soon as you cross the border, all hell breaks loose. There are motorbikes everywhere driving on all sides of the road with up to five people on board, and hardly a crash helmet in sight.
We went down a well beaten path and got on to the subject of the general Thai disregard for law - ignoring traffic lights, etc. She then gave me a little gem. The following is a Thai's view why things are the way they are in Thailand. It's a proverb:
Transliterated, it says: tum arai dtaam jai keu thai tair. The transliteration was easy but translating the meaning of sentences from Thai into English is always awkward. Here is my attempt:
Doing whatever (tum arai) and following your heart (dtaam jai) - in other words, doing what you like, doing as you please - is (keu) the real/authentic/genuine (tair) Thai (way). Apologies in advance if this isn't exactly correct. Better translations are welcome.
After all, Thailand, meaning 'Land of the Free' is where people have the freedom to do whatever they like, right? This extremely simple little saying seems to sum up so much about Thai culture.
And why will it never change? The answer to that question was provided equally concisely by another student who actually told me in English.
"Culture is stronger than law."
I couldn't agree more. Today, I think I learnt more than any of my students.
Today hasn't been very enjoyable but it has been educational. I had one of those blinding flash moments this morning that made it perfectly clear why I have been so grumpy lately.
All of the things that have been irritating me are constants. They have always been there but only recently have they started to really annoy me. Why? The answer is quite long and I may write about it in more detail later but, basically, within us all are two views of how we should be leading our lives.
One comes from our heart and tells us what would make us most happy in life - this is our true self. The other is what we think is the right thing to do based on the views of society and lots of other people - it is not our true self. If the two views are fairly closely aligned, it isn't a problem.
However, if there are big differences, it can cause lots of problems. There are some very powerful forces at work as to why we sometimes choose to lead lives that make us unhappy - and the basic human need for security is a major factor.
If I get time, I will write more about this later but it is now clear to me that I need to make a few changes in my life and I need to do that fairly soon. Thailand isn't the problem even though I can point the finger of blame at certain things in Thailand.
Unfortunately, blaming external factors for internal problems does no good and it's a bit of a cop out. If I do stay in Thailand though, I need to change my circumstances a little.
I also found out today that an extradition treaty does exist between the UK and Thailand. I suspect that after today's news, the champagne in the Manchester City board room will have begun to taste a little flat following Saturday's victory over a poor West Ham side.
With a referendum scheduled on Sunday to vote for or against the latest draft constitution, the fireworks surrounding Thai politics are set to go off again soon. Once the blue touch paper has been lit, I would suggest standing well back.
Sunday 12th August 2007
Internet forums regarding Thailand are bad for your health so I try to avoid them.
I am wary of people who spend their entire waking lives on forums, as some apparently do. Don't they have proper lives? Many of the posts are nothing but speculation and rumour; and many of the posters are bitted and twisted.
In order to avoid the forums, I searched for contact information for a couple of Thai Embassies in neighbouring countries. I sent both a simple e-mail asking what supporting documentation was required for my visa application.
Within five minutes, both e-mails had bounced. One was an invalid address and the other looks as if the owner's inbox is full. Even if my e-mails had got through, they probably wouldn't have been answered anyway. This approach having failed; I was forced to resort to the forums.
As far as I can make out, the Thai Embassies and Consulates in Malaysia and Singapore do not have web sites and, as I said before, it is no use relying on the excellent information on the Hull Consulate web site if you are going to a different Consulate or Embassy because the rules are never the same.
After reading pages and pages of conflicting and confusing posts, I am still none the wiser. Some people got visas without needing a police clearance check while some were refused.
There is speculation that getting a police clearance check in Thailand isn't valid for foreigners and that it needs to be from an individual's home country. In that case, the speculation conflicts with other advice I have read and anyway, I haven't got time to do that now.
As usual, there are never any clear answers and there never will be for as long as the inconsistencies between different places and different Thai officials remain.
If I go to Bangkok, will it be a wasted trip? And if I go to apply for this police clearance document, do I trust the Thai mail service with returning it, or do I make a second trip to Bangkok to collect it myself? If I do go, will I find later that it was unnecessary?
There are two paths I can take. I can continue worrying, fretting and wasting my time or I can just let fate take its course. My leaning at the moment is towards the latter.
Actually, I don't think I am going to bother. I will take the same supporting documentation that I took last year and, who knows, they might issue me with a new visa. If not, I will return to Thailand as a tourist, stop working, and take things from there. There are still other options if I lose my work permit and non-B visa.
My good Thai friend, Aor, is working in Lijiang, China now and I would like to visit. It is the China I didn't think existed any more. It has beautiful mountainous scenery, lots of culture and tradition, and a pleasant, cool climate. She informs me the cost of living there is very cheap. There are a few other places I would also like to visit but doing so while being employed is difficult.
I wrote recently that I don't get bored in Thailand. I don't get bored in the sense I don't know what to do with my time but I do get bored with the constant bureaucratic nonsense and time wasting.
New requirements come into effect but there is never any consistency; one government department doesn't know what the other ones are doing; and I'm sure whoever decides these things doesn't think them through properly and doesn't realise what impact they actually have on people.
Also, if I were to get my fingerprints taken in Bangkok, what do the authorities there know about my past criminal record? They don't know anything so what does it prove?
The other question I have for which I cannot find an answer is whether this document is needed if you do not teach children. The information on the Hull Consulate web site states it is required for, "... a job which involves working with children (teaching, etc)." None of my students are children so where does that leave me?
At the hospital where I teach, there were a string of foreign teachers before me. It surprised me to discover this because the students' ability was so poor. One of them told me recently that I am the first teacher they have ever learnt anything from.
This sounds boastful but I know that I can teach quite effectively. I work hard, I'm reliable, I'm not a sex offender or any other type of criminal, I can speak, write and read a little Thai, and I have experience of teaching Thais. There is a shortage of teachers in Thailand apparently, and really, I am the kind of person they should want to keep.
However, I was turned down for a simple English teaching job last month on the basis I didn't have a degree in law and a Ph.D. Those were stupid requirements. Within the next two months I may be forced to stop teaching altogether because of more requirements that may not be stupid but because of the way they have been carelessly implemented are proving impossible to comply with.
I will lose my work and some income and my students - who I have built a great relationship with - will lose their teacher. In corporate-speak, it's a 'lose-lose' situation. Well done Thailand.
Saturday 11th August 2007
Quiz time. You receive an e-mail from an African who tells you his late father, Prince Udomwi, was killed by the evil government in his country. The late prince left a fortune of $500 million but the evil government won't allow it to leave the country. However, if you provide some assistance you will be rewarded with 2% of the total amount. What do you do?
- You delete the e-mail.
- You mark the e-mail as spam hoping this will help to improve your e-mail provider's spam filters.
- You mark the message as spam and also forward it to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or whatever e-mail system is being used, to get his e-mail account closed.
- You agree to help and ask what to do next.
A very senior Thai who I don't know very well asked me to take a look at his e-mail recently. I didn't know why. Perhaps he wanted me to proofread something?
When I looked, I saw it was stage 2 of the Nigerian e-mail scam. He had obviously said he could help and this second e-mail provided details of what information was required. It said that on receipt of the requested information he would receive a package in the mail containing $1.5 million and that it would be registered as 'a Box of an Africa cloths' (sic).
I sat there for a few minutes trying to decide what to tell him. How do I break the bad news? He then asked me, "It's a cheat, isn't it?" Phew ... he knows. Yes, I told him.
There was still an element of doubt in his mind though. He had actually called the number in the e-mail. The country code is 229 which I discovered through Google is Benin, one of the countries that borders Nigeria. He said the guy at the other end sounded as if he was drunk.
He had also been in touch with the British Embassy in Bangkok to find out more. I'm not sure why, unless the guy had contacts operating in Britain.
It amazed me that there are still people in the world who fall for this stuff. The Thai guy is far from stupid but perhaps he just wasn't aware how common this scam is. Also, Thais aren't very cynical. Farangs (Brits, especially) are extremely cynical.
Cynicism isn't always a very pleasant characteristic in a person but it can serve as a useful purpose to prevent us from being conned. Now and again, I see very shifty-looking expats in Thailand who have no doubt financed their early retirements by lots of dodgy dealings.
I can see right through them immediately - even before they open their mouths - but the Thais can't. To them, all foreigners are pretty much the same.
I expect that stage 3 of the scam involves the imaginary package containing $1.5 million to be held up somewhere due to a slight administrative problem. The intended recipient is then asked to send a little money to release it and of course he never sees his money again.
I wonder how many Thais have actually ended up losing money this way? Perhaps it's just karma for all the money scammed from foreign tourists by fake gem merchants in Bangkok?
Thai public holidays just keep on coming. There is a holiday this Monday (13th) for the Queen's birthday - which is also Mother's Day in Thailand - and an additional holiday has been announced for the 20th.
On Sunday 19th there is a national referendum for the new draft constitution. It is necessary for Thais to return to their home provinces to vote and with so many Thais living and working a long way from their home provinces, the holiday is to give them time to travel. If you're planning to travel in Thailand around the 19th, I suspect the roads will be very busy that weekend.
Life is full of strange twists and turns.
I grew up in the shadow of the West Ham United FC football ground at Upton Park, an area that is claret and blue to the core. A lad I played school football with as a youngster went on to play professionally for West Ham before going into football management.
I used to go as a kid but when my family moved away from the immediate area, my interest faded. That interest was rekindled in the early 90s when I started going back and for three consecutive seasons in the mid 90s I was a season ticket holder in the Lower East stand. I'm not what you would call a die-hard fan but I still maintain an interest and like to see the team do well.
After I came to live in Thailand, being able to attend English football games was obviously something I had to give up. Also, after coming to live in Thailand, there was a long period when I got very upset about what was happening to the country politically because of one man.
A Welshman I met a couple of months ago said it was great being able to live in a country where you can ignore the politics because it doesn't matter. I never felt like that though because, to me, it did matter. Anyway, the man responsible was chased out of Thailand into a self-imposed exile.
The English Premier League 2007/2008 season begins today and sitting in the director's box at Upton Park as the new owner of West Ham's opposition on this opening game of the season will be that same man.
I always hope that West Ham win their opening game of the season but today I want that more than ever. I also hope the West Ham fans - who are a savvy lot - have worked the man out and have a few appropriate chants to welcome him to East London.
As I said, life is full of strange twists and turns.
As mentioned previously, violent crime isn't a big problem in Thailand but judging by the way houses and motorbikes are secured, the country isn't short of light-fingered Thais.
Motorbike theft is a big problem and most car parks operate a special system for motorbikes. They are parked in a fenced-off, secured area where access and egress is via one point with security guards.
All motorcyclists entering are issued a ticket which then has to be shown in order to leave. This is to prevent people leaving on motorbikes they didn't arrive on.
In a book I picked up from the library this week, I discovered that the infamous Anna Leonowens was one of the first foreign victims of house burglary in Thailand. I've read various articles about her but I had never heard this fact mentioned before.
To maintain her independence in Bangkok while working at the royal palace, she lived in a house outside. One day in 1865, she returned from a trip to Ayuthaya to find her house had been broken into and everything of value stolen. She estimated the value of the stolen goods at £400 - a lot of money back then.
Leonowens was a contemporary of the American missionary, Dan Beach Bradley, during the reign of Mongkut (King Rama IV) and the house burglary incident was mentioned in the very detailed journal that Bradley kept during his 38 years in Thailand, or Siam, as it was called then.
Leonowens was an interesting character. She is not remembered well by Thais or many farang historians who have studied Thailand. Having read quite a bit about Mongkut, when I think back to Yul Brynner's comical and eccentric portrayal, it makes me cringe a little too.
Bradley seemed to have more sympathy for her than many of the accounts I have read. She had no authority at the royal court. She was a nothing whereas the royal children she was teaching were among the most exalted people in the land and her lessons were constantly distracted.
Bradley admits that due to the situation she was in, "... it was impossible for her to make really good scholars of any of her pupils."
Not only was Leonowens vilified after she left Siam but she wasn't exactly enthralled with her experience of living in Bangkok. She left Siam to go to the States and she later wrote to Bradley. Her letter to him closed with the following words, "Bangkok is the most hideous word I have ever written or uttered."
Here's a tip to prevent health problems in Thailand. Take out medical insurance.
I didn't have any in my first year and a couple of doses of food poisoning plus a very serious fungal infection in my eye put a big dent in my bank account. The eye problem required lots of hospital visits and some very expensive, specially prepared anti-fungal eye drops.
The drops had a shelf-life of about one week so I had to buy a fresh bottle every week and they weren't at all cheap.
I took out health insurance but, of course, I remained perfectly healthy after that. I have made a couple of very small claims but nothing much. It is almost time for my policy to be renewed again and the new premium is just over Bt16,000.
It might seem a lot but whenever I travel by road in Thailand, it seems a small price to pay for a little peace of mind. I am convinced that it is only a question of time before I am involved in a road accident and when that time comes - provided it isn't fatal - I will at least be entitled to receive excellent care at one of the local private hospitals.
I hate mosquitoes with a passion. I dislike flies too but they have a purpose. My view of mosquitoes is that they have no useful purpose. At best, their bites are irritating and at worst they can transmit diseases to humans that can kill or turn you into the elephant man (see Lymphatic Filariasis).
Simply put, the only good mosquito is a dead mosquito. I wrote recently about the current dengue fever outbreak in Southeast Asia and I also mentioned how there has been a huge campaign to deal with it in Singapore but nothing appears to be happening in Thailand.
Last week while I was teaching, a mosquito flew in front of me. Without really thinking, I instinctively swatted it and with one clap of my hands it was an ex mosquito. Job done.
My students looked less than impressed. There were a few negative comments and some very disapproving looks. The looks were similar to as if I had found a kitten in England and drowned it in a bucket of water. But why? These creatures cause big problems, don't they?
It's easy in Thailand to relate all behaviour to Buddhism. The first of the five Buddhist precepts is to refrain from taking life. OK, there's your answer, then. But what about the rest of the precepts?
- To refrain from taking life
- To refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing)
- To refrain from sensual misconduct (improper sexual behaviour)
- To refrain from lying
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness
Stealing not a problem in Thailand? Sexual misconduct not a problem in Thailand? Lying not a problem in Thailand? Drinking alcohol (and also driving while drinking alcohol) not a problem in Thailand? I don't think so.
Most Thais are not very good Buddhists (just take another look at the list above) and therefore trying to explain everything away as being a part of Buddhism doesn't work. Idol worship, in the form of Jatukham Ramathep amulets, is also not a part of Buddhism.
So why don't they like killing mosquitoes? I'm still not sure. Another little piece of hypocrisy with the first precept is that it doesn't necessarily apply to people.
Under Thaksin there were some terrible human rights atrocities (Tak Bai, Krue Se Mosque, "War on drugs") but not just under him. There were other incidents in 1973, 1976 and 1992 where innocent people were slaughtered in the streets and at universities.
The answer to why human life can sometimes be taken so easily in Thailand yet why Thais are reluctant to kill mosquitoes still eludes me.
My nurse friend has just found out that her husband has a 'gig'. Owing to the fact they live and work in different provinces; that there is a huge surplus of women in the country; and that Thai men who can afford it (he can) are apt to having a mia noi or two; I had suspected this for a long time but she denied he was jao choo. This could only have been wishful thinking on her part.
She is a sweet little thing with a lot going for her - cute looks, a shapely, petite little body; as well as being bright and sociable with a very good job and nice car. Unbelievably, the girl who her husband has gone off works in a bar.
Farang men are notorious for exercising extremely poor taste and judgment when it comes to selecting Thai girls but I always thought Thai men were better.
The wedding I have been asked to take photographs at next week is her younger sister's and with this latest development it could turn out to be quite an exciting day.
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. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
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. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand