Living In Thailand Blog
Sunday 31st August 2008
What a strange evening; and also quite a sad one. I can't believe some of the things that go on right outside my door and it isn't until I am told by the locals that I know about them. I don't walk around with my eyes closed but there is just so much that I don't see (and I don't always hear about stuff either).
When I moved to my current apartment building three years ago there was a mini-construction boom in the area but many small restaurants that opened during the boom have closed in the last year. Recently, a large and expensive restaurant also closed. It was a big investment and I was quite shocked when it closed.
One small restaurant reopened as an Internet shop but then closed down again only to emerge as a betting shop. These places are known as bon ('ball' in English) because punters bet on European football. From the outside it is quite obvious what goes on inside.
There are several TVs inside showing football games, lots of betting slips lying around, and the odds for each game are actually posted outside. This might not be unusual in a UK High Street but gambling is illegal in Thailand.
As I walked past tonight, there were a group of country boys sitting outside on the pavement just a few doors away drinking Thai whisky and smoking the thin roll-up cigarettes that Thai men smoke. They were keen for me to join them and invited me by calling out, "You!"
I sat down and chatted with them for a while. They were heavily into football gambling and showed me their fixture lists and betting slips. They must have though I was really boring because I don't drink, smoke or gamble. Considering that I don't have a motorbike either, they probably wondered how I manage to get through each day. Instead of a glass of local liquor, they gave me a fresh coconut!
They told me that the police had raided the betting shop and 10 to 15 people had been arrested. I wondered when this could have happened because the betting shop was doing a roaring trade as we spoke. "Last night," they told me.
I think this is what the Tourist Authority of Thailand means with its slogan 'Amazing Thailand'. An illegal betting operation is raided by police but within 24 hours it is open again and fully operational. They told me the guys arrested spent one night in jail but money was passed under the table. They didn't have much good to say about the local cops.
This place happens to be near to where I saw the handbag snatching incident recently. As I left, they told me to be very careful because there are lots of thieves around and some have guns. Up until that point I had never really worried about it but their comments made me think.
On the way back I called into the convenience store next door to my apartment. It's like a 7-Eleven but it's not a 7-Eleven. It's a handy place and I have got to know the girls in there quite well. They told me tonight that the shop is closing down this week.
They are sad, and I was also sad to hear this news. Besides the convenience it offers, I will miss the girls, but this just seems to be a reflection of the current economic downtown that is affecting all of us.
In between the convenience store and the betting shop is another small coffee shop that opened recently but has been closed for about a week now. The shutters are up and you can't see inside. I assumed it had gone the same way as all the other places and that it had been forced to close because there wasn't enough business. However, my friend in the convenience store told me what had actually happened.
Sometime last week, a guy entered with a gun in each hand and started spraying bullets around. I asked if it was a thief but apparently not. I don't know if it was some kind of a vendetta or if he was simply mad. Either way, it's quite scary.
Also as I was walking back this evening there was the usual business of trying to cross the road at a crossroads with traffic lights but finding it quite dangerous because of motorcyclists just ignoring the red lights if nothing was coming the other way. Red lights mean nothing to them and there is never a cop to be seen.
The friend I went out for dinner with last week seemed to be really grateful that I had asked her because nowadays she won't go out alone. As a single girl she is too frightened to leave her room after dark.
The cowardly thieves and handbag snatchers only target girls and what with the complete breakdown of any traffic laws, no police to be seen anywhere, and crazy Thais walking around with guns, you can hardly blame people for staying inside.
As a big, ugly, hairy-arsed farang male I don't feel too threatened under normal circumstances but I might think twice about doing things like taking camera equipment and tripods out in the evening to take night shots.
As I said a few days ago, it's as if the country is two steps away from anarchy. When you meet Thais in normal day-to-day life they seem so gentle you would never believe some of the other stuff that is going on that you don't see, but just because you don't see something doesn't mean that there isn't crazy stuff going on. And believe me, there is never any shortage of crazy stuff going on in Thailand.
If you have any doubts, just watch the TV news for a while or pick up a newspaper.
Saturday 30th August 2008
Graphic from the BBC News Site. Just a single point from the Man City debacle last Sunday would have made this the perfect table top and bottom. Our dreams will fade and die, as they always do, but it's good to enjoy the moment. Come on you Irons!
It isn't unusual to see pickup trucks driving around with their load areas full of people; sometimes 20 people or more in bigger trucks. You'd think that with so many people in the back the drivers would drive ultra-carefully. Well, think again. This is Thailand.
This story mentions - as usual - that the truck was speeding. A tyre blew out, the truck went out of control, and in an instant 14 Thais riding on the back of the truck found themselves on an accelerated Buddhist journey of life, death, and rebirth.
You might also think that professional drivers transporting members of the public would drive responsibly, but again you would be wrong. Sawng-thaews are nothing more than pickup trucks with a couple of bench seats in the back and a flimsy roof.
The roof is designed to keep passengers dry when it rains but would offer absolutely no protection if the truck were to turn over. I have been on a few hair-raising journeys in the back of sawng-thaews that have terrified the living daylights me.
I am still here to tell the tale but all it takes is one little incident - a dog running into the road or a blown out tyre - and it's curtains.
Because the Thais are so good at creating the impression of Thailand being a civilised country, it is very easy to make the wrong assumptions about lots of things. For example, you would hope the dangerous cost-cutting measures that are routinely taken by greedy minivan companies in order to increase profits by a few more baht wouldn't apply to aircraft operators.
All countries have strict maintenance and operating rules for aircraft, don't they? Sadly that doesn't appear to be the case: Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must investigate Udom Tantiprasongchai
There's a troubling, dark-side to Thailand that casual observers and tourists will never suspect in a land apparently filled with smiling, happy, care-free people. However, you need to remember that what you see on the surface in Thailand is rarely representative of the truth.
This dark side is hidden from foreigners. Thais don't generally like talking about the negative aspects of their country and they can get uncomfortable if certain subjects are raised. After living in Thailand for a while though, you can't help but see what is going on.
Poor people from Thailand and neighbouring countries are exploited terribly by greedy Thais. There was the case earlier this year of the 54 Burmese labourers suffocated in a container truck while they were being smuggled into Thailand for cheap labour to work in Phuket.
I spoke to a nurse on one occasion who was doing some part-time work at one of the many rubber glove factories in southern Thailand. She told me that all the workers she treats are from poor neighbouring countries. These people are employed simply because they are cheaper than Thai workers and they will work for almost nothing.
Most of the medical complaints she treats are related to poverty: malnutrition and a lifestyle that is not conducive to healthy living.
Corruption is just a way of life in Thailand with a certain amount of money from every project finding its way into the back pockets of certain people.
A university lecturer was telling me that he works in a new building but the air-conditioning is sub-standard. He told me that typically 20% of the money for any construction project goes into people's back pockets and, as a result, construction quality is compromised. Perhaps the biggest example of this was the new Bangkok airport, whose runways started to crack almost immediately after the airport was opened.
He went on to tell me that everyone knows what is going on but no one can say anything. The reason - in his words - was, "They will kill you." He wasn't joking.
In a well publicised case four years ago a Muslim human-rights lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, went missing. Yes, he just went missing; one day he was there and the next he wasn't. Senior people in Thailand know what happened, and know who was responsible, but nothing has ever been done about bringing them to justice.
The Nation reports that today is the International Day of the Disappeared. This article mentions Somchai Neelaphaijit but also mentions some other cases that I didn't know about.
I've always liked The Nation's reporting because they address the ugly side of Thai society and don't try to sweep it under the carpet, as is the normal Thai way. In Thailand that takes guts because there are real risks involved.
As a tourist many years ago, I did my first ever scuba dive with a Canadian divemaster in Phuket. He was a lovely fella and on my next trip to Thailand I tried to find him. What I discovered though, was that he had encountered some of Thailand's dark forces and had been forced to leave the country.
I'm not sure about the whole story but he had been accused of doing something that had subsequently led to the sinking of a boat. The people doing the accusing were ones you don't want to mess with in Thailand and to safeguard his life he had been forced to leave.
On another occasion, a guy I was talking to on Koh Samui had been involved in an almost fatal motorbike accident. It wasn't his fault. A car (or pickup truck) being driven by a drunk driver crashed into him.
He was lucky not to be killed or paralysed for life and spent a long time in hospital. He got no compensation, did not recover the cost of his motorbike, paid for his own hospital fees, and paid for the repair of the vehicle that hit him.
This was all because the Thai person involved in the accident was also someone not to be messed with in Thailand.
It isn't unknown for owners of expensive cars in Thailand to shoot dead motorcyclists who crash into their prized vehicles.
I still see farangs having the time of their lives driving motorbikes around in provincial Thailand at great speed. With Thailand's almost complete lack of any law enforcement, they obviously love the freedom of not having to worry about police, speed cameras, road signs, etc., but I often wonder if they are aware of some of the other risks?
I'm not trying to frighten people from visiting Thailand but just to make them aware that behind the gentle, smiling faces there is a dark, sinister side to the country that shouldn't be forgotten about.
It's the same everywhere you might say, and I would agree. The problem with Thailand is that because of what Thailand is, and how it appears on the surface, I think that many foreigners get lulled into a false sense of security compared with other countries.
Thursday 28th August 2008
Five reporters who were on their way to attend a colleague's funeral in Narathiwat found the journey ended up being one to their own funerals as the van overturned and LPG tanks caused the van to explode into flames.
I read elsewhere they had hired the van in Hat Yai. The state of many minivans operating out of Hat Yai is disgraceful. They cover hundreds of thousands of kilometres a year and maintenance is kept to a bare minimum.
I saw one van listing badly that had been abandoned by the side of the road in Hat Yai. When I looked underneath, I saw that the suspension had collapsed - no doubt as a result of consistently carrying too many people.
Tyres are often bare, and to maximise profits the drivers carry far more passengers than the vans are designed for. At busy times on the busy Hat Yai to Songkhla route it isn't unusual for there to be 19 or 20 people in a van designed to carry 14 passengers. Despite this, the drivers still drive like maniacs.
As I found out on one occasion, if you say anything to the drivers about overloading they go crazy. The Thais, as usual, just accept what happens and never complain or say anything. Not directly, anyway. When you speak to them alone they aren't happy but complaining is confrontational so they don't do it. And because no one ever complains, nothing ever changes.
I really worry about this country at times. I arrived in Thailand five years ago determined to be as positive as I could about all things Thai. I even tried to defend and justify lots of strange Thai ways and behaviour to my family and foreign friends. I got the impression they thought I was losing the plot; and with hindsight they were probably right.
The problem in a society that is based on client/patron relationships is that many people don't have the ability to think for themselves. When I was getting upset about the political situation in Thailand a few years ago - and when Thais should have been getting upset - absolutely nothing happened.
It wasn't until Sondhi Limthongkul took up the gauntlet that any action was taken against the rampant corruption that had been going on. But even then it took a very long time after that for any justice to be served.
In recent months, the Thais seemed to have got their act together. A mountain of evidence was collated, the accused were brought to trial, one was sentenced, and then - in true Thai fashion - they fled the scene. The country was just about to seize its stolen assets.
You'd have thought that most people would have been fairly satisfied with what had happened, and that the country could start getting back to normal (if anything in Thailand can ever be considered normal). But oh no.
There have been crazy scenes in Bangkok this week with smiling Thais breaking into and occupying various buildings including TV stations and even government house. When I checked The Nation this morning there was a photo of rural-looking Thais in traditional wraparound sarongs using hose pipes in the grounds of government house to take a shower.
How long before the street vendors find a way in and start selling som-tum from inside government buildings? Let's all have a party.
I have always maintained that Thailand is about two steps away from anarchy. The Buddhist culture of non-confrontation is fairly strong, and the monarchy provide a much needed stabilising influence in the country. However, there are times when even these powerful forces seem to be in danger of being overridden.
What on earth are these protesters trying to achieve? They maintain they want Thaksin back to face trial and that they want Samak out. However, all they are doing is giving these people more credibility. Samak has never had as much credibility as he has this week.
The PAD leaders are encouraging their supporters not to give up so eventually the government will be forced to use stronger means and, as history has shown, that could get very nasty. Thaksin must be sitting in London rubbing his hands with glee at what is happening.
I will be taking a break from Thailand fairly soon and I can't wait for it to happen. During my first four years I took regular trips elsewhere throughout the year but I haven't been outside of Thailand for the past year. This was another mistake because being in Thailand permanently for too long isn't very healthy.
This break has been forced on me to some extent but the timing is actually very good. My first stop will be Singapore to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix and to readjust to life in the First World. You know, things like finding the confidence to cross roads safely again and not fearing for my life every time I travel on a bus. After that, I'm not sure.
I don't think I will ever be able to divorce myself from Thailand completely because I love the country and the people too much. It is just such a shame that the poor majority are manipulated by a tiny rich minority all the time, and that the majority can't understand how they are being exploited.
Monday 25th August 2008
I had dinner with a Thai friend last night and she confirmed something that I have known for quite a while now.
She works in a mobile phone repair shop serving customers. She has a Bachelor's degree; this level of education being the minimum qualification for any non-menial job in Thailand. Her salary is lousy, the work is boring and repetitive, and she wants to find something else that is more interesting, pays better, and is closer to her home.
First though, she wants to go back to university to get a Master's degree because she told me that for any decent job in Thailand these days, a Master's degree is required.
Thailand churns out 700,000 new graduates each year, 300,000 of whom have no skills to do anything in the real world. There is an intense focus on qualifications, even if people have no real skills. What has happened now is that the job market has become over-saturated with graduates, thus making their Bachelor's degrees pretty worthless.
Consequently, Master's degrees are the new Bachelor's degrees in Thailand. But will this really mean increased skill levels in the Thai labour market? I don't think so.
My friend, Aoy, wants to do a Master's in marketing and this is quite a popular course in Thailand, along with other 'soft' degrees. The problem is that there are far more marketing graduates than there are marketing jobs. Those people with marketing degrees go into completely unrelated fields (if they can get a job at all), so effectively they have the same skills and experience as someone who doesn't have any kind of qualification.
The Thais have an obsession with qualifications and that is the only criteria they are capable of using when assessing someone's ability to perform a job. It is probably because in Thailand there would never be a situation where a taxi driver with very modest high school qualifications could ever win a national quiz competition and prove himself to be a highly knowledgeable person.
Neither is it likely that an unqualified person could build a huge and successful company, such as Richard Branson. Bill Gates, who didn't get around to finishing his degree, would also be considered unqualified to do anything in Thailand.
In some ways, the Thais are quite pragmatic, but not in this one. Let's see where the country stands in ten years time when there are several million MBA's and marketing graduates but only a handful can speak reasonable English and no one can actually do anything useful.
I decided to make myself a light tent. If you don't know what a light tent is, search on Google and you will find a million and one tutorials on how to build one.
The PVC pipe and joints were very easy to get hold of because the entire country is plumbed with PVC pipe. These bits were also cheap but I had no way to cut the sections of pipe to the correct length. I don't have any tools here and didn't want to buy a saw and file just for one simple task. Besides, a saw and file probably wouldn't have resulted in a very neat job.
One of the great things about Thailand is that there are still lots of small machine shops everywhere with skilled operators. There aren't many such machine shops in the UK any longer, unfortunately, and even if there were it would be expensive to get anything done. Not in Thailand, though.
I took the pipe to such a place with suitable instructions and they did a great job. They used a centre lathe to cut the pipe to length and therefore the ends are very clean cut. It cost Bt100 to get done, which is nothing.
My background - from a long time ago - is mechanical and production engineering so I have a certain admiration for machine tool operators. In Thailand, however, anyone doing any kind of manual work is considered pretty low in the feeding chain, and way below anyone with a useless degree.
For a while last year (and at the beginning of this year) I worked at the Oil and Petroleum department of a technical college. As far as I know, it's the only college of its kind in Thailand. The students do a two-year diploma course with lots of emphasis on practical skills.
Diplomas - as I have found out to my cost - are sneered at in Thailand; degrees being the only qualifications Thais are interested in.
What is interesting though is that the Oil and Petroleum diploma students are snapped up by Thai and foreign oil companies and paid huge salaries (relatively speaking). What the companies want is real skills and not useless bits of paper. This is a lesson that many Thais still need to learn, especially those who have spent their whole lives in academia and who have zero experience of the real world.
If you can taste some sour grapes with today's whine, there is a reason, and all will be revealed soon.
The Thai language is tough to master but don't forget that we also communicate quite a lot using non-verbal language and gestures. I thought I would go through a few of these.
To summon someone or flag down a taxi, a hand is outstretched with the palm facing down, while all the fingers are wagged back-and-forth quite quickly.
If you don't want something, for example a tuk-tuk driver keeps honking at you when you don't want to go anywhere, a hand is raised to about eye-level just in front of the face and made into a very loose fist while being gyrated in either direction.
Pointing with a finger is regarded as quite rude. When Iss wants to draw my attention to something, she purses her lips and, while looking in the general direction, raises and lowers her eyebrows repeatedly. This is quite comical and naturally I mimic her when she does it.
If a tuk-tuk driver wants to charge you Bt300 for a Bt30 fare, you have two options. A raised middle finger is pretty universal. Alternative, raise both index fingers to either side of your forehead to approximate buffalo horns while at the same time making a buffalo sound. It works every time.
Sunday 24th August 2008
Generally speaking, I haven't found Thais to be very respectful of other people's time. I understand that among trendy types it is fashionable to be late for appointments but, as a distinctly untrendy person, I simply regard it as rude if someone makes me wait around for 45 minutes after agreeing to meet at a specific time.
Thai girls, also, can be big time wasters. They are very good at smiling, flirting, playing games, and leading men down the garden path. What you often find, however, is that the only thing at the bottom of the garden is an empty shed.
My students cancel (or don't turn up for) lessons regularly. Sometimes this just means hanging around for an hour, doing nothing, wasting my time, while waiting for the next group of students. However, my schedule hasn't been very kind the last couple of months and I have had single lessons in the middle of some days.
Having to work one hour in the middle of the day isn't ideal but sometimes it can't be avoided. It is no fun, then, getting ready for work and turning up to teach a solitary lesson only to be told just before the lesson is about to begin that the students aren't available. This has happened a number of times recently and it screws up my entire day.
On some assignments I have done in the past I was paid an hourly rate and because no teaching took place when the students didn't show up, they didn't pay me. It's maddening.
There's a Welsh professor at the university who is a great guy. He's in his 70's but his brain is razor sharp and he is an exceptionally clever man. He and his wife have lived, worked and travelled all over the world.
He has had the same problems in Thailand as I have. On one occasion he ran a course that should have taken 10 weeks but it ended up taking considerably longer because of cancelled lessons. He was furious. He told the Thais he has worked for governments, has met heads of state, and therefore doesn't accept being treated so disrespectfully. Not that complaining about it did him much good.
On the subject of tardiness, he told me that when he worked in Africa a similar situation existed at first but once he had made his feelings known the locals changed their ways. They became so punctual that he started to feel a little embarrassed when he arrived a couple of minutes late for meetings.
His next comment was one I found very interesting. He said that despite being able to get Africans to change their ways, he knows it will never happen with Thais.
What a fascinating comment; and I have found just the same thing. Thais do things their way and they won't change. If I was being kind, I would say they are determined and strong-willed. If I wasn't being so kind, I would say they are obstinate, stubborn and arrogant.
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