Living In Thailand Blog
Thursday 31st December 2009
On The Road - Singapore back to Thailand
There's a blog called Singabloodypore, and that's how I feel at the moment. I've just had another overpriced coffee and sandwich at Singapore airport, and I hope it will be my last for a long time.
I cannot wait for the plane to take off and get me out of here.
The lovely Singaporean lady who checked me in had doubts about letting me go to Thailand. "Where are you travelling to after Thailand?" she asked. "I'm not; I live in Thailand." "Do you have a letter? You can't go into Thailand without a return ticket." "No, I don't have a ******* letter. What are these?" I ask, pointing to the one-year visa and multiple re-entry permit stamped in my passport.
"I have to ask," she tells me. "Well, if you have to ask you should understand a little about visas."
The security people then examine everything with a fine tooth comb, stopping just short of slapping on the rubber gloves and asking me to touch my toes. I brought Iss down here a few years ago and they gave her grief when we travelled back to Thailand.
There is now some regulation about carrying liquid in bottles bigger than 100ml - even if the bottle only contains a small amount of liquid.
She's a typical girl so had lots of lotions and potions, some of which were in bottles bigger than 100ml. We had to buy plastic 100ml bottles to transfer all her stuff to and dispose of the original bottles. Our drinks also had to be discarded.
I understand that with the threat of terrorism these days, everyone needs to take precautions. However, these policies are mostly knee-jerk reactions and implemented to show that something is being done.
All they do is inconvenience the vast majority of passengers who pose absolutely no threat whatsoever. The incident in the States this week shows that those people with bad intentions can still get through airport security easily enough.
I've read several accounts about over-officious Singaporean immigration officials. One woman I read about was travelling with a young child and explained to her daughter they were going to be searched for bombs. The Singaporean official overheard and asked her to repeat what she said.
When she did, she was arrested and grilled for using the 'b' word at an airport.
The average Singaporean is educated via government campaigns on public transport. Singaporeans, apparently, do not know it is rude to barge on to a train to get a seat before the other passengers have alighted. Thus it is necessary for the government to launch public service campaigns because average Singaporeans do not understand common courtesy.
Singaporeans working in an official capacity blindly follow any rule or regulation without thinking for themselves and applying any degree of common sense.
Despite all this, I have to admit that the country works. It's been a single party state for 50 years and there is no end in sight to the PAP's dominance. Many things do work in Singapore but it is the ultimate nanny state and I really feel sorry for people who have to live under such a regime.
As I am writing this, I am seriously worried that a CCTV camera is watching what I write and that I will be arrested as I try to leave the country. When George Orwell wrote his famous book long ago, he must have had Singapore in mind.
The plane to Hat Yai is completely full again. Tiger started this service a few years ago but then discontinued it, apparently so that they could use their planes on services to India. They reinstated the service recently due to demand.
Because Singapore is so small, and because it is such an expensive and oppressive place to live, residents tend to suffer from 'island fever' and need to make frequent escapes.
Nearby Malaysia is a miserable country but Thailand, a little further up the peninsular, makes an ideal break. The journey by bus is a bit of a drag but it is nothing by plane.
It really is no surprise that this route is very popular. As I scan around the passengers on board, about 98% are Chinese men. Again, no surprises.
Hat Yai and a few other southern Thai towns near the Thai/Malaysian border are to Malaysians and Singaporeans what Pattaya is to farangs.
This trip is the first one I can remember when I haven't taken an SLR camera with me. I got my first SLR (a Canon A1) in 1982 and ever since then I have always carried around SLR bodies, lenses and accessories on my travels.
When I moved to digital SLR in 2004 everything suddenly got a lot heavier. I started off with a backpack but it was never very convenient. I moved to a shoulder bag but I always felt as if I had the proverbial monkey on my back - and a heavy monkey, at that.
On several occasions while taking a rest from carrying my camera gear around, I remember not wanting to pick up my bag again.
Earlier this year I bought a waistpack in an attempt to get the monkey off my back. It felt great when I tried it in the shop but after loading the thing up I realised that I needed to use the shoulder strap as well because the waist strap alone didn't give enough support.
The monkey was back.
If I am going out primarily to take photos I don't mind the weight but when I am travelling for pleasure I don't want to carry all this gear around.
I'd been keeping an eye out for a decent compact camera but none seemed to fit the bill. I liked the Canon G Series cameras but they were a lot bigger than I wanted.
When Canon announced the S90 it looked perfect and I bought one last month. It looks the same as the millions of other compact cameras on the market but the sensor inside is a little larger than most. It's the same sensor, in fact, as the Canon G11 but in a much more compact body.
The lens is fast for a camera of this type (F1:2.0) and it works fairly well in low light. It's no substitute for an SLR system but in the right conditions photographing stationary objects the image quality is indistinguishable. I've been very pleased with it.
The real beauty though is that it enables me to leave my camera bag at home. It weighs nothing and lives in a small pouch on my belt, in which there is plenty of room for an extra memory card and battery. I can't begin to explain how good it feels to walk around without carrying a camera bag.
One reason for buying this particular camera was that it shoots RAW. However, I haven't bothered with this lately. There is a big storage overhead with RAW files, and I can't process these on the small Netbook I use while travelling. The screen resolution is below the minimum required for my RAW converter.
I understand the arguments for and against, but I can't see the difference between the file formats and there are other reasons for shooting JPG.
The lens on the S90 isn't perfect. Canon are fully aware of this and have included onboard software in the camera to fix the lens imperfections while doing RAW to JPG conversions. Of course, if you shoot RAW then this clever stuff isn't used.
I may switch back to RAW if I find a need to (the ability to adjust white balance in post-processing may be a reason why) but at the moment I am finding that the JPG files are quite acceptable for my needs.
I didn't buy any more camera gear in Singapore on this trip (as I usually do) because I am trying to use less gear, not more. Also, just continuing to buy more gear doesn't improve your photos.
Instead, I bought a couple of books related to technique. I was only intending buying one - on composition - but the shop was doing a deal if you also bought the accompanying book on exposure.
There's a small shop on the ground floor of Funan IT Mall that specialises in photography books. In Singapore you can spend however much you want on gear but for most people a few good books on technique will improve results with their existing gear far more than simply keep buying more new gear all the time.
I don't intend selling any of my SLR equipment because there will still be occasions when I go out primarily to take photos. However, for general walkaround use (and so that I have a camera on me all the time) the S90 fits the bill perfectly.
Wednesday 30th December 2009
On The Road - Singapore
This six day trip to Singapore has been about five days too long. There are lots of things for first-time tourists but this is my umpteenth time here and there isn't anything I want to see or do that I haven't seen or done before.
I find that most of Singapore's attractions are good for one visit, and after that they get boring. On this trip - unlike previous trips - I've had nothing to buy or get repaired so there has been no practical purpose for the trip.
I'm only here to see my brother and niece but my mistake was not going back after a day or two. I find Singapore quite a soulless place. It's all about consumerism, materialism and money-making. The only people who speak to me here are those who want business.
There is lots of insincere friendliness but attitudes change very quickly when no money is passed over. I took a walk around Chinatown this morning and ran into several Indian tailors. I have no time for these guys at all, wherever they're located.
They stand outside their shops with stupid grins and lousy one-liners, with their hands outstretched trying to shake hands with tourists. My policy is to ignore them, and the last thing I want to do is shake their hands.
They don't like this and they don't like having their photos taken. One kept telling me to go inside his shop to take a look. "Why?" I asked him. He didn't have an answer so started abusing me.
Another old Chinese guy tried to sell me something and when I didn't want it he waved me away disgustedly. I've met some great Singaporeans but the ones who make a living fleecing tourists tend to be lowlifes.
I took a photo of one of the girls at Hooters later and got another volley of abuse. There is a lot of superficiality in Singapore. As long as you continue handing over money you are tolerated, but that's all foreigners are good for.
It's an expensive place for families to visit, and I would imagine that a trip to Singapore is almost expensive as London. Boat cruises on the river are SG$15 for adults; restaurants and hotels aren't cheap, and if you want to visit Sentosa, the zoo, night safari, bird park, etc., expect to shell out a lot of cash.
I haven't enjoyed this trip at all and I didn't really enjoy travelling in northern Thailand a few months ago. I've been doing this kind of thing for too many years and it's getting boring. Next year will be very different.
Travelling is never cheap and with the money I could save by not travelling I can have a lot of fun where I live in Thailand. My plan next year is not to go anywhere if I can help it.
Summing Singapore up, it's not all bad. The central areas are ultra-clean and there aren't any real eyesores anywhere on the island. There are always people cleaning, painting, or doing other types of maintenance. Everything looks as if it has been finished properly and everything is done to a high standard. I can't say the same for Thailand.
There are trees and green spaces everywhere. As a result, it feels better and it feels cooler. Again, I can't say the same for Thailand.
After six years of living in Thailand, I still can't get used to drivers in Singapore stopping to allow me to cross the road. This simply doesn't happen in Thailand.
I remarked to a colleague that I didn't understand why Thais wasted white paint painting pedestrian crossings. You can wait all day to cross but the last thing a Thai driver will do is stop for a pedestrian. He told me that if you get run over on a pedestrian crossing, it is the driver's responsibility to pay for your hospital bill.
I wasn't convinced, and anyway you'd need to catch the driver first. The term 'hit and run' is a very common term when describing accidents involving cars and pedestrians in Thailand.
Since getting here I haven't seen a rat, a cockroach, a mosquito, or even a fly. For Asia that's incredible and I see all of these things in abundance in Thailand. In some restaurants in Thailand, I have sat there waving my hand continuously throughout the meal in an attempt to prevent flies landing on the food.
There are quite a few crows in Singapore but on one trip I even saw a guy with a shotgun whose job it was to keep crow numbers down.
My brother enjoys his life in Singapore but he earns a salary that enables him to enjoy the lifestyle. I find it all very soulless. If your life is about shopping for designer brands I can understand why Singapore might appeal but it's not for me.
As someone who doesn't really fit in with the Singapore lifestyle thing, I find that attitudes towards me aren't altogether friendly either.
Singapore has made very deliberate decisions about the type of foreigner it wants to attract and as a result I don't really fit in. The bars along the river selling beer for SG$22 a glass might appeal to the expat bankers but they aren't for the likes of me.
Backpackers are also not welcome. There are a few backpacker type places but you don't see hordes of flip-flop wearing kids in Singapore as you do elsewhere in Asia.
Because of family obligations I will be required to visit Singapore again, but left to my own devices I wouldn't lose any sleep if I never visited Singapore again.
In addition to foreigners who make lots of money, Singapore also attracts lots of poor Asians who do jobs that Singaporeans won't do.
There are always lots of huge construction projects going on and the workers are from places such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.
There is also a huge maid population. Most apartments have maid's quarters - a tiny room and a bathroom, often without any air-conditioning or hot water. The majority of maids appear to be from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Some of the Filipina maids I've spoken to in the past have been well-qualified, intelligent girls but they can't find work back home so move to Singapore to babysit and do household chores for someone.
If a maid is lucky, she will get a contract with an expat family where she will be treated fairly and given a day off. A friend of my brother got a maid who had previously worked for a local family for five years.
During that time she used to start work at 5am and finish around 10pm. In those five years she never got a day off. The maids get board and lodging, and a salary of SG$400 or less. Of course, they try to save as much of this as they can to send home. It isn't much of a life and stories of maid beatings and abuse are only too common.
There are lots of maid agencies in Singapore and I looked in one today. Outside, there were pictures of poor Asian girls dressed in maid uniforms doing demeaning household chores.
At the place today there were two Indonesian girls who had just arrived in Singapore looking for work. They were sitting outside filling in forms.
I tried to talk to them, not knowing how much English they spoke. As I did so, one of the Chinese Singaporean staff flew out of the agency looking quite upset that I was talking to them.
She acted as if she owned the girls (and perhaps she thought she did). The extensive use of this kind of labour is another aspect of Singapore that I'm not crazy about.
Tuesday 29th December 2009
On The Road - Singapore
Everyone looks at things differently. It was pretty obvious today that the tourists were there for the views, and to take photos of each other.
The views were good but from the moment I got up close I was completely blown away by the sheer scale of the thing and the engineering that went into constructing it. It really is an engineering marvel of our age.
My background is mechanical and production engineering, and with any piece of engineering I like to look beneath the skin a little. Even if it were half the size, it would be impressive but I find it difficult to comprehend how something so large could not only be made, but be made to work so well.
Absolutely incredible. The tickets aren't that cheap (SG$29.50) but considering what went into the construction, it was worth it.
My HNC in Mechanical and Production Engineering many years ago covered materials science, measurement and machine tools, and calculating structural stresses and strains. Some of the maths was quite complex ... and long forgotten.
The skills I learnt were the types of skill required to create complex engineering structures. In Thailand my qualifications are regarded about the same as a 50 yard breast-stroke certificate.
However, if I had a degree in Media Studies, Travel and Tourism, Golf Course Management, or any other similarly useless subject I would have Thais bowing at my feet.
This worship in Thailand of anything called a degree, and the utter refusal to accept anything not called a degree as having any value, is something that really grates with me.
One description I once read of Singapore was 'Disneyland with the death penalty'. I find this highly accurate.
It's a fascinating place, with a fascinating history, but it has indeed been 'Disney-fied'.
It used to be a rough place. Looking through the book 'A Pictorial History of Singapore' there was a time not so very long ago when this small island consisted of inhospitable jungle, slums, opium dens, and forced prostitution.
My cousin spent his honeymoon in Singapore in the 1970's and even then it was pretty rough. Bugis was full of transvestites and the nightlife was a little different back then.
My first visit was in 1990 and although things had been cleaned up by then, it was still rough around the edges. I remember some very unpleasant encounters with Chinese salesman on that trip.
As I walk around the tourist areas now, it feels like being in Disneyland or the Epcot Centre. The image of Asia that is presented is no different really to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson presentation of a desert island.
It's romantic, exotic and completely safe, but it has nothing to do with reality.
Yesterday, I went for a stroll around the red light area in Geylang. I took a look at what was going on but didn't participate. Just like massage prices in Singapore, it's the same price for 45 minutes with a Thai girl in Singapore as it is for a girl for the whole day in Thailand.
I quite like the seedy areas because they show what Singapore is really like. There isn't any pretence. The minute I start walking around Orchard Road shopping malls and twee, sanitised tourist attractions I start to yawn.
Another description of Singapore I once heard was 'Asia for Beginners'. A lot of the malls remind me of being in the States or Canada. If you stick to the central areas it is easy to forget you are in Asia.
The food is the same and English is spoken everywhere. It's a strange place. I always enjoy my little escapes to Singapore from Thailand but after a few days I am ready to go back. I now regard Singapore the same as Bangkok.
I enjoy being there for a few days but I couldn't live there. This is day four and already I can't wait for my flight back to southern Thailand.
Monday 28th December 2009
On The Road - Singapore
One of the great things about Thailand is cheap massage. At home in Thailand I don't think anything of going for a massage. It varies in price from Bt200 to Bt300 for two hours at the normal places. It is more expensive in the slightly more upmarket spas but I am friendly with the girls at one of these places and get a good deal. I've also helped them advertise their shop.
In Singapore I always walk a lot, and I always feel tired. Land is at a premium in tiny Singapore and because I am always in the shadow of high-rise buildings this seems to have a psychological effect and makes me feel even more tired.
I fancied a massage today so went to investigate a few places. There are a number of small Thai massage shops around Little India. Just like in Thailand, they have all fixed their prices so the only option you have is to pay what they ask or go without.
The price was SG$40 (Bt950) per hour - almost 10 times what I pay back home. An hour isn't enough anyway; I normally fall asleep in the two hour sessions.
I said it was expensive but all the girls denied this. These are girls who would have a heart attack if they had to pay more than Bt30 for a bowl of som-tum but when it's someone else's money, everything is suddenly cheap.
Maybe if there had been a really attractive girl, I might have been tempted. However, the Isaan girls working there - how shall I put this - weren't the best advertisement for Thai feminine beauty.
At those prices, I'm prepared to wait for a few days until I go home. For the price of a two-hour massage in Singapore I can get the company of an attractive girl for the best part of 24 hours.
At home there are lots of massage shops and hundreds (probably thousands) of girls working in them. At busy times, when all the Malaysian and Singaporean tourists roll in, it can be difficult to get a massage because there aren't any girls left. It's no surprise really.
Nothing is cheap in Singapore and if it wasn't for the fact that my brother lived here, I certainly wouldn't be a regular visitor.
Sunday 27th December 2009
On The Road - Singapore
I've given away a lot of money this year. In addition to the girl I wrote about recently, other Thais short of money have requested handouts. I've obliged in most cases.
In Singapore today while crossing the road, a guy started walking next to me and said, "Merry Christmas." I looked at him and he seemed normal enough. He then said he was hungry and asked if I could give him some money. I said no. Judging by the size of his gut, he couldn't have been that hungry.
A little later a woman came up to me and asked how much the bus fare to KL was. As if I would know. I was somewhat confused.
She then said that she lived in KL and had come down to Singapore for a job interview. She told me it was tough getting a job, and that she had been unsuccessful. She went on to say that she had lost her money and now couldn't get home.
This all sounded like a classic scam, except that there was something genuine about her and then she pulled out a police report for her lost (or stolen) money. At first, it seemed that she was trying to conceal part of the page so I asked for a better look.
It all looked official and had yesterday's date. Now, this all might have been part of the scam. I don't know and I will never know, but I gave her SG$10.
I've been to Singapore several times and I can't recall being asked for money like this before. There are plenty of sharks masquerading as salesmen in Singapore who make a living ripping off foreigners but they are different.
Singapore seems to be getting more divided between the haves and have-nots. The expat community seems to be thriving again and the tourist/expat bars and restaurants are packed.
However, I sense that on the other side of the fence there are a lot of people who are still really struggling.
Saturday 26th December 2009
On The Road - Singapore
When it comes to catching flights, the world is divided into two types of people. There are those who like to arrive at the airport in plenty of time, and there are those who leave it until the last possible minute. I fall into the former category.
I have only ever missed one flight in my life - a flight to Singapore from southern Thailand. I ordered a taxi for 7am and it didn't show up. Their excuse was that they thought it was 7pm, but 7am and 7pm are completely different in Thai.
There had been heavy rain and flooding so the traffic was really bad. They kept telling me the taxi would arrive in five minutes, and not to worry. Mai bpen rai, Thais don't worry about anything. Of course, it didn't arrive in five minutes.
Because of their reassurance that it would arrive soon I didn't look for alternative transport and I missed the flight. I bought another ticket for a flight that evening but it meant wasting a whole day. The original flight was quite cheap but buying a ticket for the same day was expensive.
It was an expensive and frustrating day.
After that I never bothered attempting to order a taxi myself. Even after six years of living in Thailand, I ask my apartment receptionist to do this simple thing for me. Why?
The first reason is that Thais switch off their ears when a foreigner talks to them - even if you speak in their own language. Secondly, they never admit to not understanding. You can ask them a million times if they understand and they will say yes, when actually they don't.
It is the same with Thai students. It's pointless asking them if they understand, or telling them to tell you if they can't understand something. They never admit to not understanding anything but a quick test will show that they don't understand.
I had the receptionist book me a taxi for a trip to the airport today. The taxi driver hadn't arrived when he was supposed to, and 10 minutes later he phoned to ask where my apartment was.
When I used to work in customer service, people generally found out where they needed to go before they were due to get there, but not in Thailand.
I knew it would be pointless talking to the driver so I asked the security guard to explain to him. He said he was somewhere that was about two minutes away.
After another 10 minutes he still hadn't arrived. I called again and he was in the same place as before. After another 10 minutes he still hadn't arrived. I tried calling again - several times - but now he had decided to stop answering his phone.
This kind of response is fairly typical in Thailand. If you start getting a bit angry with a Thai in person they will act as if you aren't there. They will stop speaking to you and avoid eye contact. As far as they are concerned, you are no longer there.
If you try to contact them by phone, they simply stop answering. A foreigner I knew had a problem with his apartment Internet connection. He got a number for the Thai responsible but after a while the guy stopped answering his phone because he couldn't fix the problem.
The foreigner got fed up being ignored and called using a different phone. The call was answered immediately - much to the surprise of the Thai man.
After about 30 minutes I was getting worried about missing another flight so waited outside the apartment building with the security guard. Ten minutes later the taxi came roaring past but as he passed us he was overtaking another car so didn't see us waving at him.
Eventually he turned up, and sensing my displeasure, drove as fast as he could to the airport. I didn't miss my flight.
Thai attitudes are great if you don't need to do anything, or don't need to get anywhere. However, there are times when the Thai attitude of complete apathy to time can get very frustrating.
To balance things out a little, let's look at another group of people. The plane was packed with Singaporeans going home. Singaporeans are the exact opposite of Thais. Most Thais complain that I walk too fast but in Singapore I am constantly overtaken by Singaporean pedestrians. Singaporeans are always in a hurry.
As I joined various queues in the airport, I felt someone keep pushing in the back of me. Each time I turned round I found a Singaporean who couldn't keep still. Maybe they felt that by keep nudging me it would make the queue go faster?
The plane was a little late coming in and as soon as it landed the Singaporeans in the departure lounge all jumped up and ran to the boarding gate so that they could board first.
When the Tiger flights first started there was no seat allocation and there was always a huge scramble to get on the plane first to get the seats at the front. It was almost a fist fight and the worst culprits were little old Chinese Singaporean ladies.
As soon as the plane touches down, the Singaporeans jump up from the their seats so they can be first of the plane.
On one trip to Singapore I was waiting for a lift. As it arrived, the door opened and I was about to get in, when the door shut immediately. A Singaporean inside had his finger on the button to close the door so that he would get to his destination sooner. He didn't care about anyone else.
The MRT is fantastic but there is a dog-fight whenever a train arrives because people want to get in first to grab any available seats. There are notices everywhere telling people to let passengers off first but these are ignored most of the time.
Thai behaviour can be frustrating but the Singapore attitude of everyone wanting to be first can be quite irritating. This is all part of the Kiasu culture of Singapore.
I don't know which is better, but something in the middle would probably be about right.
Tuesday 22nd December 2009
What is the biggest danger to life in Thailand? I've said it dozens of times already.
Exercise extreme caution negotiating Thailand's roads, and be particularly vigilant regarding motorbikes, pickup trucks, and boy racers.
I'm planning at some stage to write about Thailand's culture of street racing and boy racers. What goes on in the evenings around where I live is totally unacceptable in any civilised society.
A large number of young (and sometimes not so young), Thai male road-users are completely out of control and nothing is done to curtail their obnoxious behaviour.
We are approaching one of the worst times of the year for road accidents in Thailand. The statistics are bad all year round but the injuries and fatalities soar at New Year and Songkran in April.
Of course, Thailand isn't the only place where foreigners are killed on the roads but it seems to happen a lot more frequently here than in other places.
Saturday 19th December 2009
After several relatively hassle-free years in Thailand, I've made the classic mistake of letting a Thai girl get the better of my emotions. It's been a difficult time and I haven't felt much like writing here.
The highs have been enormous, but so have the lows. This one is leading either to marriage or to a broken heart, but after six months or so, I still don't know.
I will write more once the situation stabilises a little.
Sunday 13th December 2009
I need to stop grumbling about small things because I actually lead quite a charmed life. I don't think I could bear to be anywhere else at the moment.
My colleague feels the same way. He's about 10 years older than me and hasn't lived a 'normal' life for many years. He did a stint for VSO in Africa, spent some time sailing around the globe, taught in Singapore, and now he's leading the good life in Thailand.
He has no money behind him but he earns enough to live and enjoys life to the fullest. He's a very nice guy, totally genuine, very caring about others, and one of life's eternal optimists.
Having him to talk to is good for me because, being cynical by nature, I tend to be pessimistic about most things. He's a very sociable person and always sees the good in people first. I'm the opposite and tend to be wary about new people until they prove they can be trusted.
You can learn a lot from other people.
He mentioned that some people have remarked he is lucky to lead the life he does. We both agreed that what we are doing has nothing to do with luck.
I've had quite a few lucky breaks since I came to Thailand, especially with work and the people I have met, but my being here in the first place didn't come about through luck.
The decision to completely change my way of life took a long time to make, and it was helped by the fact I had become extremely unhappy in my old life. Had I remained contented in my old life I might not have changed anything, and now I would still have been a corporate drone testing software in some boring cubicle somewhere.
The message here is that sometimes things need to get really bad before they get better. When things do get really bad, it might be the catalyst that is needed to force you to do something life-changing that will improve your life.
The most difficult aspect of undertaking a dramatic life change is overcoming fear. My plans had been set for a long time but actually posting the letter to HR to confirm my separation package was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Security is a very basic human need, and for many of us that security comes from the salaries our jobs pay. In addition, I had a pension, medical insurance, and other benefits to think about.
It would have been very easy to have led a very secure, but extremely boring, life into old age. But is that what life is really about?
It is said that in life we only regret the things we didn't do, not the things we did. There is also no turning back the clock, and no guarantees that our lives or health will last.
One of my biggest fears after I quit my job was waking up one morning and wondering what the hell I had done. Well, almost eight years later that has never happened. In fact, the nightmare now would be having to return to my old life.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing. The Thai immigration changes that came into effect in 2006 affected me, the hiring policy at my last place of employment affected me, and the global financial crisis that arrived half-way through 2007 terrified the life out of me.
I didn't predict any of these things but as each problem arrived I managed to deal with them. That's just life. Had I remained in my old job, then I'm sure I would have faced problems of a different nature.
If you feel strongly enough about doing something, don't let fear prevent you from leading the life you want. Even though I try to follow Buddhist philosophies in life, I'm not figuring on having any further lives. You get one shot at life so make the most of it.
On the other hand, you can't afford to be reckless and irresponsible. I didn't give up my old life and move to Thailand empty-handed. I had a fairly big pot of money invested, a detached house in a good location that I own outright, and a pension plan.
I also invested in a TEFL course to ensure I had the skills to be able to find paid work in Thailand. My bases were pretty well covered - even though at the depths of the financial crisis I was having a few sleepless nights.
If you have no money behind you and no skills I really couldn't recommend moving to Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter. You will only end up with more problems than you left with.
Most people have a dream. For some it might be living in Thailand, and for others it might be sailing around the world (just keep away from Somalia if you take to the high seas).
Most dreams are in people's reach. Just remember that you can have anything, but you can't have everything. With some sensible planning and saving, dreams can be quite achievable.
Probably the biggest problem for most people is actually breaking away from the security of their old lives due to fear of the unknown.
Provided that you have the means to embark on a new lifestyle and have thought about it carefully, don't let fear stop you. Undoubtedly, problems will arise but that is normal and they can be dealt with.
If you want to do something badly enough, life really is too short to let fear hold you back.
And don't rely on luck because luck has nothing to do with it.
Friday 11th December 2009
It's always hot here and I'd almost forgotten what time of year it was. I was suddenly reminded when, behind the shopping trolleys at Tesco, I spotted a plastic Christmas tree covered in cotton wool snow.
After having lunch and doing my shopping I decided to have an ice cream in Swensen's and was greeted by one of the young waitresses wearing reindeer antlers!
From about the age of 14 I hated Christmas in England. I couldn't stand all the commercialism and tackiness, and everything was made worse by the fact that Christmas started in August.
I had grown to dislike the UK drinking culture and Christmas just gave everyone an excuse for even more obnoxious, drunken behaviour than usual because (spoken with a drunken slur), "It's Christmas." It was simply a holiday I despised and I couldn't wait for it to end.
Since living in Thailand I have felt a lot better about Christmas. Buddhist Thais don't really understand Christmas, obviously, but Thais enjoy certain aspects of Christmas and they don't overdo everything.
I find that just having a few reminders of Christmas is a lot more preferable than the carnival it has become in many Western countries.
The only thing I find slightly annoying in Thailand is that Thais don't seem to understand when Christmas ends. The Christmas tree that appeared in the reception area of my apartment building last year was eventually taken down some time in March.
Thais will download 'Jingle Bells' ring tones to their mobile phones but it isn't unusual to still be hearing 'Jingle Bells' in July when their phones ring.
I was sitting in a branch of S&P having lunch in the middle of the year and suddenly realised that the background music in the restaurant was Christmas songs.
Having written that Thais don't seem to place a lot of importance on time, there are some advantages.
When I used to get work done at home in the UK, the most expensive part of the bill was always for labour. I don't know how much UK plumbers and other tradesmen charge per hour these days, but I bet it ain't cheap. In Thailand it's the opposite.
I had a ceiling fan installed a few years ago. It took two men and a young lad over two hours to install and they charged me just Bt300 for their labour and some cable.
A few months ago I broke the bed in my rented accommodation. I was moving it to conceal some wiring and a piece of cheap chipboard cracked. When I eventually leave this place an inspection will be done and I will be charged for any damage.
I called in at a furniture store and asked if they knew anyone who did repairs. They did and the repair guys turned up a couple of days later. Two pleasant Thai men arrived and did a great job.
They dismantled the bed, turned the piece of cracked wood around, and put everything together again. It looks like new.
It took them well over an hour and they worked hard. After they had finished they didn't know what to charge so started asking me how much I wanted to pay. I didn't have a clue.
They eventually settled on Bt200 each. I thought this was ridiculous. They had just fixed a fairly big problem for me and they'd done a really good job.
I gave them Bt500 each and I still thought it was cheap. They were happy and so was I.
There was an interesting editorial in The Nation today. This is what I've been saying for years.
"In Thailand, too much blind faith is placed on those with higher educational degrees, be they technocrats, bureaucrats or academics."
At the university where I once worked, the individual faculties used to hire people directly. Later on, they changed the procedure so that all hiring was done through a central administrative office.
The people doing the hiring didn't even meet the applicants. All they were interested in were CVs with long lists of academic qualifications. This was my eventual downfall, and when someone I had never met decided my CV wasn't suitable, my contract was terminated.
There is terrible elitism within some Thai academic institutions based purely on academic qualifications.
It worked out well for me. I ended up getting a better paid job elsewhere that I enjoy far more. However, the way it was all done made me quite angry at the time.
Thursday 10th December 2009
Since I discarded my old blog entries and started again, I have tried to focus on Thai value and belief systems.
If you have an interest in Thailand, I believe it is important to understand what Thais value in life and what they believe in. A basic understanding can help to explain behaviour that might otherwise seem strange to foreigners.
Time, for example, is not valued the same way it is in Western cultures. Thais regularly waste lots of my time and think nothing of it. They seem to regard time as a free commodity and therefore place a low value on it.
Money, on the other hand, is highly valued and many Thais I know will work all the hours they can to earn money, even if it means having no free time to themselves.
I am often asked to teach privately. The hours I work are enough, and I don't need any extra money because what I have already is sufficient for my needs. My usual response is that I can't teach because I have no free time.
This is often countered with the comment that I have evenings and weekends free. What Thais don't seem to appreciate is that free time to me is worth more than money. My way of thinking is not the same as most Thais.
In Thailand you will often hear the word sabai. It's a difficult word to translate. Not being sabai can mean to be ill, but it can also mean not being comfortable, happy, satisfied or content.
When used in relation to an emotion, it is used with jai (heart or mind). In Thai there are many phrases that use jai to express emotions.
Being happy, content, satisfied and well in body and mind is highly valued in Thailand. This seems obvious but it contrasts a little to how I remember my life in England.
In my UK working life some people used to enjoy seeing other people suffering. They would back this up by remarking that a little suffering did people good. There seemed to be a belief that by inflicting suffering on others it was good for character-building and the like.
The school I work at now in Thailand is so completely different to how I remember my own school days. There is absolutely no bullying, nor any kind of hostility between pupils, or between teachers and pupils.
It's a very gentle environment. In some ways it is a little too gentle, and it is easy for students to underachieve. On the other hand, it's a perfect environment to develop extremely well-balanced, morally good individuals who will go on to make great contributions to society.
Such is the importance of sabainess in mind and body, that Thais are very perceptive regarding other people's well-being, and if they detect that the other person has a problem it seems to cause them a great deal of personal anxiety. They will then go out of their way to help.
I met someone very special earlier this year and the last few months have been a bit of a roller-coaster emotionally for various reasons. The highs have been enormous, but so have the lows.
This past week, I've been suffering from a standard cold so the suffering has been physical.
In England I used to suffer alone but in Thailand that rarely happens. I am continually surprised by the amount of support that people give others when they realise there is an emotional or physical problem.
It's almost as if it is a personal challenge for them to get the sabainess back into the other person's life.
One of my old students got in touch recently. She's free at the moment and wanted to meet regularly to go out with a view to improving her English. After a few meetings, she realised something wasn't quite right and has been calling frequently to check up on me. She is genuinely concerned.
She also got in touch with another one of my old students, and subsequently I also got a call from the other girl. This isn't unusual behaviour in Thailand.
Behaviour in Thailand can sometimes seem strange but often it is only because of differing value systems. If Thais don't regard something as being important, then they won't bother with it. Time isn't important and that's why it isn't unusual for Thais to turn up late when you have arranged to meet.
However, with things they do value, it is often surprising as to how much effort they will put in. Even now, there are still some aspects of living in Thailand that frustrate me but there is no going back.
Living in Thailand isn't always perfect, but overall it's a lot better than my old life.
Thailand used to be an Absolute Monarchy but in 1932 it changed to a Constitutional Monarchy. Today is Constitution Day.
This is how it is described in the book 'Essays on Thailand' by Thanapol Chadchaidee.
"Previously, the government of Thailand was an absolute monarchy until June 24, 1932 there was a transition to constitutional monarchy led by a group of young intellectuals educated abroad and inspired by the concept of western democratic procedures. The group which was known as "People's Party or Khana Rasdr" was led by Luang Pradit Manudharm (Pridi Panomyong).
To avoid bloodshed, King Rama VII graciously agreed to abolish absolute monarchy and handed over the country's first "Permanent" Constitution. In fact, King Rama VII (King Prajadhipok) had prepared, even before being asked, to hand over his powers to the people."
The author goes on to say:
"Even though the Revolution of 1932 brought an end to the centuries old absolute monarchy, the reverence of the Thai people towards their kings has not been diminished by this change."
Tuesday 8th December 2009
I talked recently about the price of camera equipment; comparing prices between Thailand, the US, and the UK.
My conclusion was that the US is the cheapest place to buy, and that rip-off Britain is by far the worst. Thailand isn't quite as cheap as the US but if you visit Thailand from the UK and buy enough gear, the savings you make will allow you to have a cheap holiday.
Moreover, if you get some scheduled dental work done, you can actually have a 'free' holiday in Thailand.
It sounds obvious, but when comparing prices the exchange rate makes a huge difference, and these have varied wildly in recent years. I have a trip to Singapore coming up soon and was doing some price-checking yesterday on camera lenses.
For pricing information on camera equipment in Thailand use Foto File. Whenever I ask for a price at any of my local camera shops, they always go straight to this site.
One UK pound is about 2.28 SGD at the moment. Back in January 2005 the rate was over 3 SGD, and even in July 2007 it was still around 3 SGD.
The rate now certainly isn't as good as it was, but one item I am looking at appears to be considerably cheaper in Singapore at the moment than it is in Thailand if using a UK credit card and paying in pounds.
It's impossible to make blanket statements about one country being cheaper than another because it changes all the time. Also, it isn't worth going somewhere to make a purchase if the cost of getting there is more than the saving you will make.
My reason for making the trip to Singapore isn't related to shopping, but while I'm there it seems that I should be able to get better deals on certain items compared to buying the same items in Thailand.
A quick update on my recent credit card woes. My bank had applied a security marker to my card, which is why attempts to use it kept being declined.
In the past, I've had two experiences of fraudulent transactions using my card number and both came shortly after using my card in Thailand.
I therefore try to use my card as little as possible in Thailand. Just recently, however, I have needed to pay for things and the only way to pay was by credit card.
My bank, seeing a flurry of card activity after a long period of inactivity, thought it was suspicious and blocked the card. In some ways I am happy they are being vigilant and taking action, but this caused me a lot of inconvenience.
It also cost me money. Instead of being able to book flights on-line, I had to use a travel agent to do this for me and it was more expensive.
As my bank explained to me, I have a UK account with a UK address but was seen to be making transactions from Thailand to an American company.
I still believe that with all the technology we have available to us today, there are better ways to do this rather than just blocking someone's card because another person thought their card usage was suspicious.
Monday 7th December 2009
Many Westerners - especially men - seem to get completely seduced by Thailand after their first experience of the country. After that first visit, Thailand becomes a kind of addictive drug.
Such is the addiction that many can only think about one thing, and that is how they can go back to live in Thailand permanently.
Yet, quite a few end up committing suicide after realising their dream. There have been two more suicides of Western men reported in the last week.
The 'Pattaya Death Leap' seems to be the favoured method - Western man killed after apparently jumping from 38th floor of Bangkok condominium; although they do come up with alternative methods - American scuba diving teacher found dead on remote mountain in Chon Buri
What causes them to do it? They start off referring to Thailand as 'paradise', move there, and then a few years later decide that life isn't worth living any more.
I remember a few years ago a guy jumped from a light aircraft in Pattaya (without a parachute). It turned out later that he had a terminal disease and couldn't face life any longer. I think he was an exception though.
Quite a few can't really afford to live in Thailand (even though Thailand has a fairly low cost of living) and they run into money problems fairly quickly. They can't get any paid work and they don't have the will power to live within their limited means.
In theory, Thailand can be an extremely cheap place to live but in reality that's never how it works out.
It's cheap but there are lots of pleasurable things to spend your money on and it's very easy to get through a lot of money. Thailand can be a great place if you have money, but a very tough and unforgiving one if you don't.
Even if men have money, there are still lots of problems. Loneliness is a big factor with Western men going to Thailand but the girls can really screw with your head. The saying, "Money can buy you sex, but not love," is probably more appropriate to Thailand than to any other country.
The easiest thing in the world is to buy sex in Thailand. I've heard some farang men talking about their encounters with Thai prostitutes as if they were some kind of achievement, but if the Elephant Man were alive today and had a few thousand Baht in his pocket he would have the same degree of success.
The girls making a living by selling their bodies are merciless and quite mercenary. For reasons that I can understand, Western men have a habit of viewing Thai prostitutes differently to prostitutes elsewhere. In other countries men have sex with prostitutes, in Thailand men fall in love with them.
This may sound weird to someone who has never been to Thailand but because nothing is ever what it appears to be in Thailand, this is what happens.
I have other theories but these can all be summed up by saying that what you see of Thailand while enjoying a two-week beach holiday bears no relationship at all to the real Thailand.
The behaviour of Thais in the tourist resorts isn't at all typical of the behaviour of normal Thais; life in Thailand isn't as carefree and relaxed as it is in those places; and Thais are very good at disguising and hiding problems in order to present a good image.
When I visit Thai beach resorts these days, they seem like different countries compared to the Thailand I live in.
If you get seduced by Thailand while having a vacation and decide to move there, make sure that you really understand what you are letting yourself in for. Be honest with yourself about your own personal needs and spending habits; and make sure that you can afford to live the lifestyle you want.
Try to spend some time outside the tourist resorts to get an idea of what Thailand and Thais are really like. Learning a little Thai is the best possible way there is of finding out how Thais think.
I see quite a few foreigners arriving to live in Thailand who obviously view their new life as an endless vacation. The way they dress, and the things they do, are typical of two-week tourists.
That style of living may last for a while, but not for long. It's expensive and after a while it also gets really boring. Moving to Thailand is a big decision and it needs to be thought about sensibly with a long term view.
Suicide is a desperate measure, and one that many people wouldn't consider. What I see far more of in Thailand are farangs who have obviously been in the country a long time, and who just look continually miserable.
They traipse around the streets and shopping malls with gloomy expressions on their faces, always alone, with no Thai or Western friends.
Whenever I see these people, my impression is that they were seduced by Thailand while on vacation and then moved to Thailand without giving it much thought. Money started to get tight, the fun of living in Thailand disappeared, and now they can't afford to go anywhere else so they are trapped in a miserable existence.
Find out as much about the country and the people as you can. If you only ever experience tourist resorts in Thailand and never make any attempt to understand the language, then you will never really understand Thailand and Thais.
Saturday 5th December 2009
Today is H.M. the King's birthday.
Very busy at the moment. Hope to post something soon.
Thursday 3rd December 2009
It's the most amazing material. It's light, strong, environmentally friendly, and it grows amazingly quickly. Because it grows so long and so straight, it makes for a perfect building material.
I've seen lots of things made from bamboo here, from picture frames to small bridges. While out on a mountain hike last year, the guide said we would be stopping for a coffee break. There were quite a few of us and I wasn't sure what we would be drinking out of.
He went into the forest and came back with a section of bamboo that he had cut down with his machete. Bamboo isn't completely hollow. It has cross-sections and if you cut it in the right place you can make cups. I still have mine as a souvenir.
I think it's great seeing workmen here using bamboo scaffolding and ladders to do their work. Even in highly-developed Singapore, among all the glitzy cars and high-tech buildings, you will see lots of bamboo scaffolding.
I haven't seen any bamboo camera tripods yet but it would seem to be an ideal material due to it's strength, light weight, and vibration-absorbing qualities.
Wednesday 2nd December 2009
For the second time in three days I have been unable to use my credit card when trying to make an on-line payment. In both cases, the payment was declined and the error messages given were useless and unhelpful.
Since arriving in Thailand six years ago I've made lots of on-line payments and never had a problem, up until very recently.
For the first payment I ended up calling the UK so that the company concerned could enter the details manually. This was hardly convenient but I had no other choice. I am currently in the process of trying to sort out the second payment.
With the first problem I was told that a check is now done to see if the IP address of the computer being used to make the payment matches the country where the card account is held. Of course mine doesn't because my bank account is in the UK and I am in Thailand.
When I worked in the US in the late 80's and 90's - before Internet banking arrived - it was a pain trying to handle my banking matters from abroad. After the advent of on-line banking and secure payment systems, it suddenly became very easy.
However, now that banks and payment companies have had to take further measures to counter all the fraud that goes on, it would appear that the old problems have returned.
Once again, the dishonest people in the world have made life difficult for the honest people.
I can understand why the payment companies have taken action, but if they are really declining payments based simply on geographical location it will affect a lot of people. There are lots of clever programmers around, and there are much better ways to do this.
Using a sledgehammer isn't always the best way to crack a nut.
There are used car dealers everywhere here and they all have lots of stock. It is my view that used cars are overpriced in Thailand, and therefore they don't represent good value. Nonetheless, I continue looking around to see what is available.
One of the things I am interested to know about a car is why the previous owner sold it. A common answer is that the owner couldn't keep up with the credit repayments.
From what I can make out, almost all Thais buy cars and motorbikes on credit. Relatively small down payments and long credit deals (seven years is common) make it easy for cars to be driven out of the showroom.
Thais don't tend to worry too much about the future and the temptation of being able to 'own' a vehicle right now is just too much for many. What many don't seem to realise is that they might run into difficulties with the repayments later on. Mai bpen rai, why let worrying about the future spoil the present?
A fancy vehicle seems to figure very highly in the Thai value system. After visiting some Thai houses and cheap rented rooms, I have been quite shocked at how many Thais live. What you often find though is that the people who live this way put a disproportionately high percentage of their income towards car repayments.
Image and presentation are very important to Thais and a vehicle can be used to portray self-image to other people, whereas most people won't see where (or how) they live. Westerners might have a different view but Western and Thai value systems are quite different.
Tuesday 1st December 2009
If renting a car in Thailand, make sure that you check the insurance details carefully.
There are lots of small tour shops in the tourist areas and some might have a few vehicles for rent. It can be tempting to rent a car but these places aren't proper rental companies and their insurance coverage can leave a lot to be desired.
In September 2004 I was in Khaolak (a few months before the Asian tsunami devastated the area). I was with my girlfriend at the time and we saw a little jeep for rent that looked like fun. It was only Bt1,000 a day to rent.
We drove up to Takua Pa and had a good day. I didn't look at the rental agreement until after I had returned the car, but when I did I had quite a shock.
If I had been involved in an accident that was deemed to be my fault I would have been responsible for lots of expenses. These included damage to the rental car and any other vehicles involved, plus medical bills for anyone injured.
Also, while the rental car was having repairs done (paid by me) I would also have been responsible for a daily charge representing loss of earnings.
A small mistake could have been very expensive. What is also worrying is that when contesting blame in Thailand between a Thai and a foreigner, it is unlikely the Thai will be blamed.
When I rented a car recently I made sure I used one of the large international rental companies. There are only two in these parts - Budget and Avis.
Both companies told me there was a maximum liability of Bt8,000, so whatever happens you won't need to pay more than that. The Budget office in Bangkok offered coverage with zero liability for an extra Bt310 a day but when I went to the local office they told me there was a promotion running offering zero liability insurance for no extra charge.
Accidents happen frequently in Thailand and even if an accident isn't your fault you could be blamed. The accident itself could be quite traumatic but if you are also presented with huge bills for damage and injury, things will only be worse.
Some people don't seem to worry about these things but for me, peace of mind counts for a lot in Thailand.
It's not fair to generalise, but stubbornness is a big problem in Thailand.
I get documents printed at a nearby shop and just recently their computers became infected with a virus. It's unusual for computers in Thailand to be virus-free, but the computers at this place didn't have a problem until quite recently.
Every time I give them my USB flash drive to print something it comes back with viruses, which my antivirus software then detects and deletes.
I keep telling them but they deny they have a problem. To prove this I told them to format my USB drive, which they did, so there was nothing at all on it. They then reinserted it back into their computer and straight away three directories were written with a hidden virus.
I thought this exercise might be enough to convince them but they still maintained the problem was with my USB drive. The wall in their shop now has dents the same shape as my head.
There was a Thai customer in the shop who seemed to fancy himself as a bit of an IT expert and I heard the shop owner's wife telling him that they don't have a problem with their computers, but that they can't explain this to the farang.
This is all about the notion of losing face. If Thais admit to having a problem, they believe that it will cause a loss of face. The solution, therefore, is just to deny having a problem - even if it is obvious that there is a problem. This is a highly effective strategy when it comes to solving problems.
When confronted with a problem, what will often happen is that the Thai will deny it, but will then go away to find - and fix - the problem.
All of a sudden the problem miraculously disappears but you will never be given the full story. Now that the problem no longer exists, everyone is happy, and because no one ever admitted to having a problem, no one lost face. Perfect.
This is the Thai way. Welcome to the wonderful world of Thai culture.
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