Living In Thailand Blog
Sunday 31st August 2014
Not only has this been a difficult year, but it has also been an expensive one. Despite having medical insurance for me, my wife and daughter, I have still had a lot of medical related expenses.
In January, my wife wanted to give birth to our son in a private hospital. That was Bt30,000. He was born with pneumonia and one very good thing about the excellent care he received was that it was all free. He spent three weeks in a state-of-the-art NICU ward in a public hospital with 24 hour care and I didn't pay a single Baht.
After the birth she was convinced that she had cervical cancer and insisted on being admitted to a private hospital for checks. The bill was Bt25,000 and the insurance company refused to pay.
When my daughter's foot problem relapsed, that meant more trips to the hospital in Bangkok with more hospitals bills, as well as flights and hotels.
The medicine for my asthma problem is expensive and my medical insurance for OPD has a limit of Bt1,000. My last hospital bill was just over Bt4,000, which meant that I had to pay Bt3,000 myself.
But it's not only medical bills. Everything in Thailand keeps getting more expensive and I continue to spend a lot of money every month. I have no debt and therefore no monthly repayments. The house and cars are paid for, as is everything else. On my monthly income I should be able to live very well in Thailand, but it only ever seems to cover just the basics.
Whenever I do have a month in which I should be able to save, something crops up. This month, a sick cat cost me Bt7,000 and getting my car serviced was Bt6,000. Without buying anything for myself or doing any travelling or fun activities, I have spent Bt86,000 this month and last month the figure was Bt102,000. This is how it has been all year.
I've spent some money in order to try to reduce costs. In the last few months I have spent quite a lot on LED bulbs to try to reduce electricity costs, and this month I bought two more ceiling fans to do the same thing. Hopefully, the fans will be used instead of the A/C when it isn't too hot.
The cost of living is now a major bone of contention with many Thais, who generally have a much lower income than I do. One piece of good news in the last few days was that fuel prices have just gone down. For a long time, Thais have been moaning about expensive fuel and telling me how much cheaper it is in Malaysia. If they think fuel is expensive in Thailand it's a good thing that they don't live in the UK.
The wife and I have become quite cost conscious and try to save money in various ways.
This morning I went to visit the same doctor I saw at the hospital at his private clinic. Many doctors in Thailand don't just work at one place. They often have a regular job at a government hospital, work part-time at one or more private hospitals, and some also have a private clinic.
You can see the same doctor at a public hospital or a private clinic for a lot cheaper than seeing him or her at a private hospital. The medication I need cost Bt2,000 this morning. It costs Bt4,000 at the private hospital and I have to pay Bt3,000 myself. Even if I can't claim any money back from my insurance company I have saved Bt1,000 by going to the clinic, but I should be able to claim back Bt1,000 as well.
When I started making frequent trips with my daughter to Bangkok I signed up with Nok Air's 'Fan Club' frequent flyer program. It has saved me money, but not in the way that I expected it to.
When I was in the UK I used frequent flyer programs to get free flights. However, when I checked my Nok Air points recently over half have expired. They expire very quickly.
I don't think that I will be getting any free flight with Nok, but Fan Club members can take advantage of promotional prices and there are lots of promotions. I receive one or two e-mails a week about promotions.
With many of these promotions there is a limited window in which to book, and the travel window is also limited. Normally, it means booking flights on one or two specific dates and flights must be taken within the next couple of months. These limitations restrict you from booking cheap flights next year, but this arrangement suits me and I have been able to save money.
For quite a long time we have been doing our regular shopping at TOPS. If you are looking to save money this might appear to be a contradiction because TOPS is seen as an upmarket retailer, whereas Tesco and Big C are regarded as budget retailers.
We used to go to Tesco, but several things about Tesco started to annoy me. I don't find their selection of food very inspiring and most of their cheap food isn't particularly good. The good stuff is no cheaper than TOPS and TOPS has a much better selection.
On several occasions I felt as if Tesco was trying to deceive me with prices. Some items would be labelled with one price, but a different price would appear at the checkout. I bought some imported jam that was advertised at a discount if you bought two jars, only to find at the checkout that the discount only applied to the second jar. The way the discount was advertised was very misleading and I felt that they were deliberately trying to deceive me.
I also hate the way that you have to use an actual loyalty card at Tesco instead of a telephone number. If my wife has the card and I buy something I get no points.
TOPS has an excellent selection of quality food. There are also frequent deals, comprising of straight discounts or 'Buy 1 Get One Free' offers. With things such as toiletries and disposable nappies, we just choose the best deal and don't worry about brands.
TOPS also has a very good loyalty card scheme. Each month we get cash vouchers and discount vouchers for certain items posted to our home. Also, whenever we go shopping we present the receipt to customer services after paying the bill and get a free gift of some kind. In the past year we have received lots of useful storage boxes and laundry baskets, etc.
In the last few days it has got a lot cooler and we haven't had to use the A/C. I am hoping that the next electricity bill will be a lot lower. My next trip to Bangkok in mid-September should also be the last one this year and after that it will just be back to six-monthly check ups. My monthly expenditure should start to drop soon ... hopefully.
There are still foreigners who seem to have the impression that Thailand is a cheap country. It is for some things, but it is becoming increasingly expensive.
Several years ago I started recording all of my monthly outgoings in a spreadsheet. I knew a guy in the UK who did this and I thought he was crazy. He was Scottish and I just assumed that he was a miserly Scotsman.
Doing it in Thailand has been a very useful exercise because the money that I actually get through is quite deceiving. When I think about this month I haven't been out for any expensive meals, haven't bought any toys or gadgets, haven't done any fun travelling, haven't bought any clothes, and therefore it seems that I haven't spent much.
However, I have spent quite a lot and I know exactly where every Baht has gone. Having the knowledge of exactly where my money is spent helps to rein in my spending.
The biggest problem these days is that I can't control my spending how I used to when I was single. Only a fraction of my income is spent on me and the rest goes to my wife and kids. When I do manage to save a little money, I just keep it ready for the next problem rather than treating myself to something.
Next month the health insurance policies for me, my wife and daughter will need to be renewed. I will probably also take out a policy for the baby. Health insurance hasn't helped much this year because most medical costs I have incurred have been through items not covered by the policies. Nonetheless, having health insurance does bring a lot of peace of mind.
To sum up, Thailand is no longer a cheap country. It is still possible to rent a cheap room and eat cheap food, but if you want to live comfortably, eat good food (including some culinary comforts from home), travel around, and/or have a family to support it is quite expensive. Knowing what many Thais earn each month, I don't know how they manage.
I have found that it is becoming increasingly important to find ways of reducing costs in Thailand, and there are ways to do it. Another problem you may have if you have a Thai partner is getting them to believe that not all foreigners are immensely wealthy. I think that I have finally got this message through to my wife, but it took a long time.
This story was also reported on Singapore's Channel News Asia today:
'Sin City' races NCPO to clean up its act - (Pattaya aims to eliminate prostitution and control beaches)
There was a similar story some years ago, but Pattaya never changed and this latest crackdown won't change anything either.
The Channel News Asia report featured a Thai woman who explained that building a new water park in Pattaya was the answer. According to her, this fantastic new attraction will attract families to Pattaya and the ladyboys, prostitutes, heavily tattooed sexpats and sex tourists will simply leave. Apparently, the water park costs US$160 for a family and therefore I doubt that many Thai families will be using it.
Pattaya and Western sex tourists get a lot of bad press, but there is also a big sex industry in Thailand near the Thai/Malaysian border for the benefit of Malaysian sex tourists and nothing gets said about it. Malaysians account for 9.8% of all visitors to Thailand.
Nothing will ever overcome the basic laws of supply and demand. For as long as there are so many desperately poor girls and children in Thailand who will stoop to the lowest level to earn money, there will always be demand from foreign men for sex.
The problem with exploiting loopholes is that eventually the loopholes will be closed. Since Thai immigration started its clampdown on so called 'border runs', which were being used by foreigners to live permanently in Thailand without obtaining an appropriate visa, there have been a lot of adverts from language schools offering lessons in Thai and - most importantly - an education visa.
Thai immigration officials now have their eye on this particular loophole:
The good news is that it has become easier for genuine tourists to stay in the country for up to 60 days. With all these clampdowns, genuine tourists have never been affected. The only people affected are those living in Thailand without a proper visa to do so.
Thursday 28th August 2014
Foreigners arriving in Thailand only see what's on the surface and it probably looks similar to home. These days, Thais drive the same cars as Westerners, wear the same clothes, shop in the same shopping malls, buy the same electronic gadgets, etc.
It's not until you have spent some time living in Thailand that you start to learn what goes on under the surface and this is when you realise how completely different Thais are to you. Thais have complete different belief and value systems to Westerners.
I just read a story about a young girl who has been fending for herself after her parents were driven out of their village.
This quote from The Nation explains why her parents left:
"Village headman Bunleu Sangchompoo recounted the incident to The Nation, saying that about nine years ago several villagers had mysteriously fallen ill and died. Later, when a shaman was called to look into the goings on, he claimed that the girl's father was a ghost and demanded that he leave the village immediately."
Quite often, things that I find strange don't seem strange to Thais. Occasionally, however, they do find certain behaviour strange.
My wife was telling me about a teacher that she used to work with. The woman in question didn't do a lot of teaching, but when she was supposed to be doing non-teaching work at the school she liked to disappear for several hours at a time.
On one occasion someone had stolen something from her. She wanted to do one of her disappearing acts and wanted someone to go with. My wife was the unfortunate person who accompanied her.
She drove to a temple and wanted one of the monks to meditate in order to reveal the identity of the thief. Thais really do believe that monks have magical powers. She was told in polite terms to go away.
My wife thought that they were only going out during lunchtime, but it was several hours and she had to make phone calls to other teachers to cover for her.
Thaksin was well known for hiring Cambodian witch doctors to give him advice and to choose auspicious dates on which to do certain things and new Thai Airways planes are blessed by the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch.
Thais are very superstitious, have a very real belief in the supernatural and ghosts, and the belief system is immensely powerful.
Monday 25th August 2014
I've never seen the point of celebrating a day on the calendar, however, I may actually celebrate this coming New Year. My celebration will not be related to welcoming in 2015, but it will be to celebrate the departure of 2014.
The year in which our son arrived and completed the family can't be called an Annus Horribilis, but it has certainly been an Annus Difficilis - a difficult year.
At the start of the year, our son came into the world with pneumonia and spent his first three weeks of life in a perspex box in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While he was still in NICU I had to take my daughter to see a doctor in Bangkok to check up on the foot problem that she was born with.
We had spent an inordinate amount of time at hospitals after she was born trying to straighten her feet. After a year we took her to the best doctor in Thailand for this particularly problem and after some expert treatment all seemed well.
Unfortunately, just after our son was born our daughter's problem relapsed and consequently I have not stopped visiting hospitals this year. That's where I have just been again and that's where I will be again in three weeks' time.
As soon as I arrived back from the hospital in Bangkok this evening I went straight to the local animal hospital to collect my cat, who last week was diagnosed with leukaemia. He looks better, but he still isn't at all well and I know that his days are numbered even though he hasn't reached the age of four yet.
This hasn't been a good year healthwise and there have been other issues, such as the loss of our water supply for a week that I wrote about recently.
I've had very little time to do website updates this year and I also feel guilty when I have no time to correspond with people who write and want to correspond. I'm afraid that it can't be helped at the moment.
A lot of Thais have tough lives and there is an expression Thais use for times such as this: "soo soo." The word 'soo' means 'to resist, to oppose, to fight, to persist, to persevere, to face up to, to deal with, etc.' In Thai, words are repeated to give emphasis.
สู้ๆ - 'soo soo'
I have always found this to be a good attitude in life. Life does have a way of getting you down at times, but never give up. Just keep fighting back and sooner or later it will get better. Besides, with other people now depending on me I could never think about giving up even if I wanted to.
Please bear with me. After having converted this blog section so that it will display on different size devices, I have just started doing the same for my learning to read Thai tutorials. There is quite a lot of work involved and it means that I have less time to write anything here.
Friday 22nd August 2014
Everything in life is relative, of course, and the way that you perceive Thailand depends a lot on where you come from and what you are used to.
I am used to people having a sense of fairness and waiting in line for things after the people who arrived there before them. Most Thais aren't - especially when driving - and there is an overriding attitude of "me first" which I find highly objectionable. It's the law of the jungle on Thai roads and he with the biggest pickup truck or Toyota Fortuner has right of way over every other smaller vehicle.
I find the driving standards and number of road deaths so appalling because it is so different from where I come from.
The BBC has produced a little application to get statistics for road deaths in the UK between 1999 and 2010 for every local authority in England.
The local authority where I lived in the UK, which borders London and is quite large, recorded 46 road deaths in that period, or just over four a year. I don't know what the breakdown by province is in Thailand, but nationally (depending on whose figures you believe) the road death rate is upwards of 35 people every single day.
I believe that improving the appalling driving standards is one of the things that General Prayuth has his eye on, but I'm not even sure where he can start to improve things. The problems are manifold. It isn't simply a single issue that can be fixed.
The driving test is completely inadequate and skills such as parking with straight wheels are given much more precedence than teaching new drivers how to drive defensively or explaining the dangers of speeding or not maintaining a safe braking distance.
Once Thai drivers are let loose on the roads, many have extremely macho attitudes (and not just the men) and seem to think that they are racing drivers. Whenever I drive it feels like being on a go-kart track because whenever I look in my mirror there is a frenzied car or truck six feet behind trying to get past.
If all this reckless, dangerous and just plain bad driving wasn't enough, there is little to no law enforcement. From what I have seen in Bangkok there appears to be a degree or traffic law enforcement in the capital and there are deterrents such as red light cameras, etc.
However, in the provinces it's the Wild East where drivers do whatever they want with no risk or fear of being stopped and prosecuted. There is no doubt that the worst aspect of my life in Thailand is having to drive on Thai roads.
Thursday 21st August 2014
I've been replacing my compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) with LED bulbs recently and doing it in stages. Yesterday, I completed changing all of the 63 bulbs inside the house, along with six lamps.
Of the 33 bulbs outside the house, I have changed the ones that get used regularly but not the ones that get used very rarely. There are some other lights - such as fluorescent strip lights and 12V bulbs in the ceiling fans - that I can't change, but these hardly get used.
The cost savings are difficult to work out because of the big impact that air-conditioning has on the electricity bill. The bill was running at about Bt3,000 before I had any LEDs. After I started replacing the old CFLs the bill plummeted to Bt1,900.
However, it then went back up to around Bt2,400. This wasn't surprising because we have just been through an incredibly hot spell for about a month and have been using the A/C a lot. My wife's niece has also been staying over quite a lot and she loves to burn electricity.
Considering how much the A/C has been running, Bt2,400 wasn't too bad. Five of the A/C units are Mitsubushi inverter models and these are supposed to be about 40% cheaper to run than regular A/C units. We also have one old LG unit that I want to replace with a Mitsubushi inverter model soon.
The Mitsubushis run very quietly, cool the rooms down nicely, and also use less electricity than non-inverter units. The drawbacks are that they are more expensive to buy, more expensive to repair, and an A/C technician told me that the refrigerant is more expensive than for regular models.
From now until the end of the year it should start to get cooler in southern Thailand and hopefully we won't need to use the A/C as much. I should then have a better idea of the costs savings as a result of installing LED bulbs.
The other factor in the cost savings equation relates to how long the bulbs last. The manufacturers claim that they will last anything from 15 to 25 years. They were quite expensive to buy and in order to recoup the cost in lower electricity bills they need to last a long time.
In addition to the cost savings I am pleased with the light that they emit. It is very bright, quite a natural daylight colour, and easy on the eyes.
Most of the LED bulbs are Philips 7W daylight (6500K). A few are from other manufacturers such as Toshiba, Panasonic, GE, and Eve. A few are brighter 9W daylight bulbs, a few are warm white (3000K), and the ones in the external wall around the house are just 3W.
Even though I have bought all of the bulbs at promotional prices it has still been quite an expensive project. I am hoping that the cost savings will meet my expectations and that it won't take too long to recoup my investment.
Everything in Thailand continues to get more expensive and every little helps.
The BBC has put its usual biased slant on this story by comparing Prayuth's appointment to "the kind of rushed acclamation favoured by dictatorships and communist parties of old." The BBC is supposed to be non-partisan, but it uses this type of phrase a lot to push its political agenda.
The politically correct version is to say that all countries should have Western style forms of electoral government and democracy (whatever that is). The problem is a system that might work in one country won't necessarily work elsewhere. All it means is that every four years the people have some power, but for the rest of the time politicians have all the power. Also, with so many desperately poor people in Thailand vote-buying is a big problem with Western-style electoral politics.
More often than not Thai politicians are wealthy self-serving businessmen who used their wealth to get voted into office and then use their time in office to help themselves. Is this really such a great system of government to have?
I don't take sides in Thai politics because most of the politicians are just as bad as each other. From what I have seen of Prayuth he is working incredibly hard to fix the many problems in Thai society. These problems have been there for many years and politicians have been unable or unwilling to fix them.
He has been very open in his weekly addresses to the nation and I truly believe that he always puts the country's interests first and isn't being self-serving. After so many years of bad government, he is exactly what Thailand needs at this juncture.
I had some ceiling fans fitted in the kids' play room today as part of my programme to reduce electricity costs. Often, it's not really hot enough to use the A/C, but if there is no breeze it still gets uncomfortably hot. Ceiling fans are a good solution.
I picked up a couple of fans at HomePro for Bt2,000 each. They are just basic fans with no remote and no lights. My existing fans have lights that we never use and we never use the remotes. They are either on or off and this can be done with a wall switch without needing a remote. There is a 10 year guarantee on the motor, so they should last quite a long time.
My wife noticed a shop that sells lighting and ceiling fans with a big sign saying that they had a 50% discount. We took a look, but nothing seemed to be reduced in price. The sign was obviously just a ploy to get people into the shop. One remote controlled fan was being sold at a supposed discount for Bt3,700. We saw exactly the same model in HomePro for Bt3,400.
As I said before, always take discounts and promotions in Thailand with a very large pinch of salt. Retailers always claim that they are selling gods at a huge discount, but it is essential to look around and often the claimed discounts aren't discounts at all.
After I had bought the fans the next task was to get them installed. Last night, my wife called an electrician that used to work on our housing development. He arrived this morning at around 9am and just over two hours later the fans were installed and running. There was no existing wiring so he had to run new wires and he has done a really good job.
I had ceiling fans fitted at both the rented apartment and rented house where I used to live. Both times the electrician did an appalling job. The fans worked, but there were wires sticking out and it looked a real mess. Not so this time. He charged me just Bt800. I gave him Bt1,000 because he did a good job and Bt800 was a very low price. I took a look on the Internet at electrician's hourly rates in the UK and hourly rates of £40 aren't uncommon.
In the process of changing to LED bulbs there were some bulbs above the stairs that I couldn't reach. My step ladders weren't high enough and even if I had longer ladders I wouldn't have been comfortable using them. I got in an electrician to change them for me and was charged Bt400. I therefore thought that Bt800 to completely install two ceiling fans was a very fair price.
The quality of work by Thai tradesmen varies enormously from excellent to disastrous and I have encountered tradesmen at both ends of the spectrum. It seems that anyone can set themselves up in any kind of service business they want, and if you don't know who you are geting in it can be a gamble.
Thais act on word of mouth and personal recommendation and this is the best thing to do. Try to get a recommendation from someone else and once you encounter good tradesmen keep their contact details so that you can call them again.
Wednesday 20th August 2014
The Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, Noah's Ark, El Dorado, Excalibur ... and now the Dhammazedi Bell.
This story has really captured my imagination. It may just be a legend, but should it be real its purported size is colossal.
The last treasure hunt in Burma came to nothing. It was said (and maybe this too is just a legend) that dozens of brand new Spitfires were sent to Burma during WW2 in crates, but never flown. After the war ended they were supposedly buried and to find them would be an aviation enthusiasts dream.
David Cundall was convinced that the story was true and was sure that he knew the location. However, as far as I know, nothing has ever been found.
I also note that the BBC has enacted a recent policy change regarding the country just west of Thailand. For a long time the corporation referred to the country as Burma. Recently, BBC stories started saying Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), and now it is just Myanmar, with the occasional Myanmar(also known as Burma).
Tuesday 19th August 2014
A Thai woman and her English husband living in England were furious when a local politician referred to the Thai woman as a 'ting tong'.
Outrageous, indeed. It's not as if Westerners in Thailand are ever referred to by Thais using a word that is reserved specially for them.
I can't help sensing some hypocrisy in this story. Apparently, it is 'outrageous' to refer to a Thai as 'ting tong' (which isn't a particularly offensive or derogatory term) in the UK, but I bet you that when Khun Fa chats to her family and friends in Thailand on Skype she doesn't refer to English people as 'kon ungrit', 'chaaw dtaang pra-tet' or 'chaaw dtaang chaat'. I bet you that she uses the word 'farang', as all Thais do.
It's acceptable for Thais to have a convenient word to refer to all white Caucasians, but it isn't acceptable for foreigners to have a word that refers to all Thais.
Her husband also got it wrong. Quote:
Mr Munday said "ting tong" in Thai meant that a person was mad and the comment had come as "a bit of shock".
The Thai word for mad is 'baa'. The adjective 'dting dtong' (I use 'dt' in my transliterations for the unaspirated dtor dtao initial consonant) isn't offensive at all. It kind of means 'loopy' or 'nutty' and I've met many Thais over the years who are a bit dting dtong. They are always very popular people.
Thais hate taking life too seriously and they hate other people taking life too seriously. You will be admonished if you are seen worrying about something. "Yaa kit maak," Thais will tell you. Don't think too much.
'Dting dtong' people are those types who never worry, never show any anxiety and never seem to take life too seriously. This is how Thais believe that life should be lived and people who are described as dting dtong are therefore very popular.
Lighten up Mr Munday; yaa kit maak.
ติงต๊อง - dting dtong (nutty)
บ้า - baa (mad, insane)
I also note from this story that she has British citizenship, and thus is allowed to benefit from the generous British welfare system, and that she works as a street food vendor. Foreigners in the UK can also legally buy and own land.
The vast majority of foreigners living permanently in Thailand (who are constantly referred to as farangs) live on temporary visas, aren't entitled to any benefits, can't buy land, and are banned from working in a long list of occupations - including street food vending.
Even before she had UK citizenship I also suspect that when Khun Fa went on an outing with her husband somewhere in England they paid the same entrance fee to get into national parks and other attractions, rather than her having to pay ten times more than her husband.
For those who can't read Thai (and Thais don't want you to be able to read Thai), the Thai part of the sign says 'Children 10 Baht, Adults 20 Baht'. Thai numerals are used very rarely in Thailand, but they are always used on signs like this. The use of Thai numbers makes it very difficult for foreigners to see what is going on.
Of course, the BBC story talks about prejudice and racism in England but the way that foreigners are treated in Thailand never causes any concern to Thais.
To some extent I do understand why there isn't a level playing field in Thailand. Singapore is immensely rich in cash, but desperately poor in land and natural resources. If foreigners could own land in Thailand much of the country would be under foreign ownership and countries such as Singapore would own vast swathes of Thailand. On the other hand, some things are just not fair and there is no good reason.
Entry into the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 will be an important test for Thailand. It will make the country more open for business, but it will also remove some of the protectionism and unfair practices that exist.
My next-door-neighbour just gave us several fresh fish. Some were quite large. He's very generous. He was the one that gave me my palm trees for the front of the house. He ordered too many plants and trees for his garden and didn't have anywhere left to plant them. They would have cost me about Bt9,000 had I bought them myself.
He knows a lot of people and everyone seems to owe him favours. He helps them and they help him. This is how a lot of Thais operate. When he wants something done at his house some people turn up and do it. They either do it for nothing or very little.
He doesn't have a driving license, but most of the time someone comes to collect him. On Monday, he asked me to take him to collect some fish. A large box of fresh fish packed in ice had just arrived from Pattani by minivan.
Some of the fish were huge and also expensive. He said that one type of fish (bplaa gao - a grouper, I believe) sells for Bt1,000 plus per kilo in Bangkok. All of the fish were straight out of the sea and tastier than cultivated fish raised in fish farms.
He handed over several of the fish , but this presented a bit of a problem for my wife who has no experience of preparing large, whole fish and no suitable knives to do so.
Yesterday morning she took the fish to her sister's house. She gave some of the fish to her sister and mother, and her mother cut the fish into suitable size pieces for cooking.
My neighbour told me that these fish deliveries will arrive every week and that if we want fish there is no need to buy any. Just give him an order. He told me that he now regards us as family and if we need anything just ask him. This also means that he will also ask me favours occasionally, but this type of reciprocal arrangement is how life works in Thailand.
Sunday 17th August 2014
I used to be a cliché tourist, but I got better. On my first trip to Singapore in 1990 I wanted to sit in Raffles sipping a Singapore Gin Sling and was very disappointed to find out that Raffles was closed for several months whilst undergoing a big refurbishment. I was also determined to buy a camera because buying electronic goods in Singapore was another tourist cliché.
On my first trip to Thailand in 1987 I bought cliché momentos of my trip and did cliché activities. My fake Rolex watch broke shortly after I got home and my hand-made shirts ended up as cleaning rags because they were poor quality and didn't fit.
I was ripped off severely after doing a longtail boat tour, and the same thing happened with tuk-tuk rides and experiences of Bangkok's famous nightlife in Patpong.
The camera I bought in Singapore was more expensive than buying it in the UK and I never actually used it. I was intent on buying one - just because that was what tourists were supposed to do in Singapore - without really having a need. The Canon A1 that I was using at the time was about the same size and far superior in every respect.
Some years later I visited Singapore again (many times, in fact) and went to Raffles for a Singapore Gin Sling. Instead of being like a scene from Casablanca where the barman starts a conversation and skillfully mixes me a cocktail, my drink came from a huge vat that had already been mixed and prepared. It was a complete non-experience, and also very expensive.
But who was to blame? I was just tourist fodder in Singapore looking to tick off a number of cliché tourist experiences on my list. The locals know exactly what tourists want and cater to their needs. Most tourist attractions in Singapore follow the same formula. If you are really interested in seeing the real Singapore jump on a bus and take a look around HDB land.
If you want to see what Singapore used to be like head down to the National Archives or to one of the museums on the island. Singapore has a fascinating history and seeing what has taken place in the last couple of hundred years is far more interesting than the superficial tourist attractions. Places like Geylang are also quite interesting and not as sterile as the tourist attractions.
When I went to Cuba there were lots of Canadian tourists and - you guessed it - they all wanted to buy boxes of cigars (because that's what tourists do in Cuba). For every country there are specific cliché activities that tourists want to do and certain cliché products that they want to buy.
In National Lampoon's 'European Vacation' the Griswold family don stripy onion-seller shirts and berets for their visit to Paris and of course look ridiculous. This is for comic effect and no doubt backpackers would find it funny, but they don't seem to get the irony of going to Thailand and walking around in baggy fisherman pants and carrying an ethnic hilltribe shoulder bag. There is no difference.
Thailand has lots of cliché activities and goods, and high on the list of activities is going to a 'real' Thai floating market. The photo above was stuck on the back of the driver's seat in a Bangkok taxi that I travelled in recently. Another floating market has recently opened in Hat Yai just a few years after the last one opened. I haven't been yet. I feel obliged to go, but I already know what it will be like and I have very little enthusiasm to go.
My first point of contention is that nothing actually floats at most of these markets. Damnoen Saduak market is the only floating market I have been to where anything floats. Most of the other places are just like a typical Thai fair with lots of vendors selling 'look-shin' (meatballs) and there happens to be some water nearby.
The water is normally a canal and Khaochaison floating market in Phattalung province was on the edge of a newly dug pit that had been filled with water. When I looked on Google Maps the image was out of date, but there was no water. The 'floating market' had been built in a location where previously there was no water.
Secondly, no one in Thailand actually shops at a floating market. Traditional street markets and fresh markets are still common, but many Thais do their shopping at Bic C Extra and Tesco Lotus. They visit floating markets for something to do when they are bored.
The first floating market I went to was Damnoen Saduak and my head was filled with clichés. When I got there and boarded a boat to explore the market I was very disappointed that all I saw was farang cliché tourists with cameras.
Nonetheless, these markets can still be enjoyable to visit and some of the handicrafts on sale are worth buying. Some markets are better than others and the best floating market I have been to is Amphawa in Samut Songkhram province.
The one I mentioned in Phattalung province is tiny and completely artificial, but it is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty and it is right next door to some natural hot springs. It's worth going to not for the market, but for the surroundings.
As a tourist, there is nothing wrong with visiting the cliché tourist attractions, but I feel sorry for the tourists I see arriving on coach tours who only see cliché attractions and who only get taken to tourist shops where cliché goods are sold.
Try getting off the tourist trail and seeing some of the real Thailand because it's much more enjoyable and much more rewarding.
Saturday 16th August 2014
When I was a schoolboy I was always quite good at mental arithmetic. With advancing age my ability to do sums in my head is diminishing, but I can still work out basic sums easily.
This doesn't seem to be a skill that many Thais have and I am constantly surprised when a shop assistant goes straight for her calculator after I buy something for Bt80 and give her a Bt100 note.
While shopping in Thailand it is very useful to be able to do mental arithmetic. I find myself doing it constantly.
When you see a sign such as the one in the photo you might think that you save money by buying three items, but if you can do sums in your head you will know that there is no saving to be made. Why do shops make signs like this?
You might think that by buying products in bigger sizes you save money because the manufacturer saves on packaging costs. That isn't always the case and sometimes it works out cheaper buying lots of small items.
My wife bought some nappies (diapers) at TOPS a few days ago for Bt499. A neighbour then told her that Tesco were doing a 'Buy Two Get One Free' deal. When we looked at the Tesco deal the price for one pack was Bt629 - significantly more than the price at TOPS.
Bt1,258 divided by three is about Bt419 so it was a cheaper deal, but the offer wasn't quite as good as we first thought.
Many goods in Thailand are sold at an imaginary discount and were never sold at the supposed original price. Therefore do not be deceived when sales assistants tell you that there is a huge discount.
Deals are available in Thailand, but you need to keep on the ball and you need to remember prices elsewhere. Stores will suddenly offer a discount or have a 'Buy 1 or Buy 2 Get 1 Free' deal. When they do this they may inflate the original price. You need to do your sums quite carefully to know whether it is a genuine deal or not.
I've been replacing my light bulbs with LED bulbs recently and HomePro had a promotion on Philips 7W LED bulbs, which they were selling at Bt209 instead of Bt400. I bought quite a few for Bt209.
I needed some more and went back only to be told that the promotion had finished. I wanted to buy the same bulbs rather than a different brand and reluctantly handed over Bt400 for each one.
The next day I went back to HomePro and saw that the bulbs were being offered at Bt209 again. I wasn't very happy and kicked up quite a big stink with the management there. It transpired that one promotion ended and the bulbs went back to the original price for two days before another promotion started.
I have spent hundreds of thousands of Baht at HomePro and became quite annoyed and animated about this. They refunded the money.
To force a sale, sales assistants will often tell you that the special promotion price that is available now will end soon. They are probably telling the truth, but what they don't tell you is that as soon as this promotion finishes there will be another promotion (maybe a better one) straight away.
The bottom line is never to feel pressured into buying something straight away because you are afraid that you will miss out on a promotional price. Also, never believe imaginary original prices. The only purpose of an imaginary inflated original price is to make the current deal look better.
From what I have read on-line I believe that supermarkets around the world are guilty of this type of thing. It's not just Thailand, but supermarkets and shops in Thailand are very guilty of trying to confuse customers with their promotional pricing policies.
Some Thai friends of mine have been married for about six years and are desperate for a child, but so far they haven't been successful. I'm not sure that they ever will be successful, which is a shame because they are great people, have good jobs, are very well connected, and would make excellent parents.
The girl has undergone IVF treatment, but it hasn't worked. I believe that they both have physical issues that can affect fertility. IVF treatment using their own sperm and eggs, but using a surrogate mother could be the answer. I don't know.
There are certain situations where surrogacy can be a good thing. On the other hand, a Thai woman tried to warn the authorities when she first came into contact with the Japanese guy who has fathered up to 15 babies in Thailand using surrogate mothers. She warned that he was attempting to start a baby factory. The system can also be abused for money.
Thailand has now imposed restrictions on babies born to surrogate mothers from leaving the country. This can only be a good thing.
I've missed quite a few of General Prayuth's weekly addresses to the nation in recent weeks, but I managed to catch some of what he was saying last night.
One thing that I was particularly pleased about was his decision to take action against the illegal motorbike racing on public streets that teenage Thai boys participate in. This goes on all over the country, but it is a big problem in Bangkok.
Many, not all, Thai males seem to have the attitude that being born a Thai male in Thailand gives them special privileges in life and that they can do whatever they want. Their obnoxious behaviour starts early in life and they are allowed to carry on.
Parents are generally strict with daughters, but not sons. The boys' school I taught at many years ago had a special disciplinary department, but no one was interested in instilling discipline and it was a nightmare working there. I lasted one month before I walked out. Similarly, the police don't seem to be interested in taking action against Thai drivers (mainly males) who routinely break traffic laws and are a menace to other road users.
All their lives Thai males live in an environment where they are allowed to do whatever they want and as a result some end up completely out of control.
A lot of this seems to be cultural. Many Asian countries are still male dominated with males and females being treated differently.
One theory for this in Thailand is that the cultural belief of merit-making is of the utmost importance to Thais and Thais make merit through Buddhist monks, who can only be male. Thus Thai males have a privileged position in Thai society compared to women.
Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, made an excellent speech yesterday about the serious problem of rape in India in which he told parents to take responsibility for their sons' actions.
To a lesser extent, rape is also a problem in Thailand and many instances are gang rapes committed against teenage girls.
Thailand would do well to take a leaf out of the Indian PM's book and call on parents to take responsibility for their sons' actions. Some parents already do this, but many don't.
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