Living In Thailand Blog
Friday 31st December 2010
The minivan crash in which nine people were killed earlier this week is big news here. Families of the victims were being interviewed on Thai TV this morning and their immense grief was obvious. It is said that there is nothing worse than for a parent to experience the death of a child, and that is quite understandable.
I feel for the families of the victims but at the same time I feel so frustrated because so much death on the roads of Thailand could be avoided.
It's like a zoo deciding not to keep any of their big cats in cages and then people getting upset when someone gets eaten by a lion. What did you expect?
The lunatic style of driving here and the lack of enforcement of traffic laws means that lots of people will die on the roads each and every year. It's so completely predictable that I could write a report now about road accidents next April during the Songkran festival and I would be fairly accurate.
However, it IS possible to change. I'm old enough to remember a time in the UK when drink driving was commonplace and no one wore seat belts. When the government started to act on these things there was resistance. Who are they to tell me to wear a seatbelt in my own car?
Over time, attitudes changed. These days, the first thing a Brit does in a car is reach for the seatbelt and it can even feel a little strange not wearing one. There may be a small minority who continue to drink and drive but with many people now it is socially unacceptable because people understand the risks.
Things can change.
Probably the most frustrating thing for me living in Thailand is that there are obvious problems in Thailand but it seems that no one wants to change anything. The government introduces laws (for good reason) but these are just ignored by the public and not enforced by the police.
The maturity of an individual or a society can be measured by that individual's or society's ability to learn from past mistakes.
In Thailand there appears to be no ability, in fact, no willingness to learn from mistakes. The wheel just keeps turning with exactly the same results every revolution.
I know I go on about this a lot but it hurts. It hurts to see so many young Thai lives wasted every year and it hurts me to know that while living in Thailand I and my loved ones could so easily be the next victims of the crass stupidity on Thailand's roads.
There was a lot of rain again last last night but no 200m tidal waves and tsunamis as predicted by a band of troublemaking Buddhist monks and Thai fortune tellers. Surprise, surprise.
Thailand is developing quickly in many respects but the country still has a lot of growing up to do and it needs to break free from some of its prehistoric belief systems.
Happy New Year and if your plans for 2011 involve visiting Thailand have a safe and enjoyable time here.
Thursday 30th December 2010
The little trip I had planned yesterday was ruined by wet weather. The weather this year really does seem to have been the defining feature of 2010. Australia is the latest country to have been hit by severe flooding:
It rained heavily all night on Wednesday and it was still raining hard yesterday morning but I set off anyway, hoping it would get better. It didn't. I got to the places I wanted to see but with constant heavy rain and nothing but depressing grey skies I just decided to go home.
I saw a couple of birds I hadn't seen before in a great little location that I hadn't been to before. The only positive is that I now know of a few more places to visit when the weather improves.
The first part of the journey wasn't much fun on the main Hat Yai to Phattalung road. Some parts of the road had standing water and I could feel the car aquaplaning when I hit it. The darkness and spray made visibility very bad. Despite this, very few drivers had their vehicle headlights turned on.
I drove at a speed I thought was safe for the conditions but, of course, I was then the slowest vehicle on the road. Lines of vehicles overtook me constantly at high speed with a gap of about 10 feet between each one. Thais make no allowances for bad conditions and just drive in the same crazy manner rain or shine.
At times when I did venture into the fast lane, I had angry pickup truck and minivan drivers flashing their headlights to get past. On top of that was the usual business of cars and motorbikes driving the wrong way along major roads on the hard shoulder, motorbikes pulling out from everywhere, and motorbikes taking off at red lights because they couldn't be bothered waiting for them to turn green.
When you read about huge accidents in Thailand where several people die (see links in yesterday's post) and then you see how Thais drive, it really isn't surprising.
The driver of the car responsible for this 'horror car crash' in Thailand was a 16 year-old girl without a driving licence.
Some of the worst drivers yesterday were minivan drivers who are supposedly responsible for the 14 or more passengers they are paid to carry. When driving in Thailand there are two dangers - the idiots on the road and the idiot who is driving the vehicle you are in.
At least when you drive yourself you only have half the danger.
Despite this, the most dangerous moment I had was when two dogs just run out into the road. Instinctively I swerved but that could have resulted in a nasty accident if the car had lost control. If this happens it's best just to keep control of the car and run over stray dogs but it's a reflex reaction that is difficult to control.
I remember a couple of farangs being killed driving a motorbike in Pattaya when a stray dog ran into the road.
Today is 30th December, the day on which many Thais believe that huge tsunamis from both the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand will wipe out major parts of Thailand.
I'd forgotten about this but I was sitting on a sawng-thaew today when I heard it being discussed by two women.
Well, so far there haven't been any major disasters but if you don't hear anything else from me ever again you will know why.
My wife has seven elder siblings and all four of her older brothers repair cars. We visit one of her brothers fairly often and I am constantly amazed at the wrecks being repaired in his garage. I'm sure they would be insurance write-offs in the UK but in Thailand they just get repaired.
Most vehicles being repaired are pickup trucks. Why is this?
The first reason is that there are lots of pickup trucks in Thailand. After the United States, Thailand has the second largest number of pickup trucks in the world. Many Thais work in the agricultural sector and if you need to get rubber or fruit to the market a pickup truck is useful. Also, because of Thai taxation policies, pickup trucks are the cheapeast cars you can buy in Thailand.
The drivers of pickup trucks are generally rural, lesser educated types who are very Thai in their ways and don't like anyone telling them what to do. The pickup in the photo had impact damage to the windshield on the inside and blood on the seats as a result of the driver not wearing a seatbelt. This is common.
The truck is in such a state because it hit a tree. I don't know how the driver managed to hit a tree but it wouldn't surprise me if he was sending a text message on his mobile phone and not looking at the road when the accident happened. Mobile phone usage while driving is something else that is also very common.
Using a mobile phone while driving was made illegal in Thailand a few years ago but, certainly around where I live, no one pays any attention to this law and it isn't enforced.
Thailand has always had a big problem with foreign perverts and fugitives. In 2006 there was a high profile case when John Mark Karr, the suspected killer of JonBenet Ramsey in the United States, was found teaching children in Thailand.
Thais like an easy life and they also like other people to have an easy life. That's fine, but like many things in Thailand, it goes too far. What it means is that anyone on the run abroad can simply enter Thailand as a tourist and then stay indefinitely without much risk of being caught. Visa? Who needs a visa because no one ever checks.
No one knows who they are, no one knows about their history, and the authorities don't know where they live. If they encounter a policeman, the cop is more likely to smile than to ask to see their current visa. This ability to live 'under the radar' is very attractive to people on the run who need somewhere to hide.
They can even find work. There are regulations in place about needing the appropriate visa and a work permit to be allowed to work but these regulations are ignored just like many other laws, rules and regulations in Thailand.
Because the JonBenet Ramsey case was very high profile in the USA I got the impression that some high level dialogue took place between the USA and Thailand. It was soon after this case that a whole new raft of immigration changes were announced.
It made life difficult for some foreigners in Thailand, but only because they didn't have the credentials to be living in Thailand permanently. I was pleased when it happened because it was the right thing to do.
I've been working full-time for a while and I haven't needed to deal with immigration because the company I work for processes my visa and also my work permit. However, I have spoken to other foreigners in Thailand recently and it seems that things have gone back to how they were.
For the short duration when immigration controls were strict there weren't too many of the usual stories. Now, however, I am starting to see the same old things:
Foreigners bring a huge amount of money into the country and tourism is vitally important for the Thai economy. For this reason, Thailand makes it very easy for foreigners to visit but this generosity is always abused by a minority.
Unfortunately, this obsession with foreign tourist dollars appears to be far more important than trying to halt the reputation Thailand has as being the favourite refuge for foreigners on the run and foreigners who prey on young children.
Wednesday 29th December 2010
The lunatic driving and carnage on Thailand's roads never stops. While driving in Thailand I find that the most obnoxious road users are pickup truck drivers (including sawng-thaews, which are only pickup trucks that have been converted to carry passengers), followed closely by minivan drivers, boy racers with big exhaust tailpipes and daft spoilers, and teenaged male motorcyclists.
Really, seriously, does anyone STILL fall for this scam? I still receive e-mails like this one quite regularly so I guess some people do, but it's hard to believe these days that anyone could possibly think it is anything else but a scam.
FROM: MR GEORGE KABORE,
REPLY SO WE CAN PULL THE FUND.
Please read carefully,
This message might meet you in utmost surprise. However, it's just my urgent need for foreign partner that made me to contact you for this transaction. I got your contact from yahoo tourist search while I was searching for a foreign partner. I assured of your capability and reliability to champion this business opportunity when I prayed about you.
I am a banker by profession in BURKINA-FASO, WEST AFRICA and currently holding the post of manager in account and auditing department in our bank. I have the opportunity of transferring the left over funds ($ 19.3 Million Dollars) belong to our deceased customer who died along with his entire family in a plane crash.
Hence; I am inviting you for a business deal where this money can be shared between us in the ratio of 60/40 if you agree to my business proposal. Further details of the transfer will be forwarded to you as soon as I receive your return mail immediately as soon as you receive this letter.
Please indicate your willingness by sending the below information for more clarification and easy communication.
For more details, Contact me for more details.
- YOUR FULL NAME.......................... ......
- YOUR AGE AND SEX........................... .
- YOUR CONTACT ADDRESS..................
- YOUR TEL AND FAX NUMBER..............
- YOUR COUNTRY OF ORIGIN..................
Trusting to hear from you immediately.
Thanks & Best Regards,
MR GEORGE KABORE,
Please Reply To This E-Mail Address,
Tuesday 28th December 2010
The teacher I work with has had a problem with repeated flat tyres on his motorbike recently. He couldn't work out why. A conversation with another colleague who has had the same problem in the past may have solved the riddle.
Apparently Thais don't believe in pressure gauges when they inflate tyres. They simply shove a load of air into the tyre and then hit it with something solid to 'check' the pressure. This reminded me of the scene in Airplane! where the guy checking a commercial jet just kicks the tyres to check the pressure.
The scene in the movie was obviously intended to be funny but in Thailand this kind of thing is just normal for many Thais and sometimes it isn't funny. I have laughed many times at Thai workmanship but when it involves anything that belongs to me it somehow doesn't seem so funny.
My colleague told us that he bought a gauge and found that his tyres were twice the recommended pressure. This makes them susceptible to punctures. He now checks the tyre pressure himself.
I put my car in for a service this morning. It looks as if it has been taken care of by the previous owner but the official service history stopped a few years ago for some reason. I just want to make sure that it has fresh oil and everything looks OK. I hope they do a decent job but in Thailand getting anything done by mechanics or tradesmen is always something of a gamble.
When I was preparing my house to get it ready to live in we had tradesmen in and out all the time. Most were OK, but some were a nightmare. One of the plumbers we had in was the Thai John Wayne of cowboy plumbers.
With any problem his first move was to rest his large screwdriver on the problem area and then to hit it with his large hammer. I got him to change the toilet squirter in one of the bathrooms and while doing it he drilled through the wall and straight into a water pipe.
He then had to chisel off all the tiles to repair the pipe. A 15 minute job ended up taking several hours and now the tiles look a real mess.
The two guys who arrived to install the cable TV were also a couple of clowns. This should have been the simplest job of all but they turned a simple job into a farce.
I was out most of the day yesterday with my wife. We returned in the evening and were watching a movie upstairs when we heard the sound of gushing water downstairs. Whenever water starts flowing in the house, the pump we had installed to fix the low water pressure problem kicks in and it starts to flow with some gusto.
I ran downstairs to find a pipe in the downstairs bathroom had come off. We did a temporary fix and I bought a replacement this morning to fix it. The original problem was a result of more bad workmanship.
We were lucky the problem occurred when we were in the house otherwise it could have been a lot worse.
Thais have their own way of doing things and some of the things that 'professional' tradesmen do are quite unbelievable. Tradesmen must hate being watched all the time but when we were having work done on the house I had to watch constantly because I couldn't trust what they were doing.
The general lack of regulation in the country means that anyone can set up in any kind of business. This happens to some extent in the UK but in places like Germany you know that if you get anyone in to do a job they will be highly qualified and very competent. This isn't so in Thailand.
At some stage I should write more about our house renovation. One piece of advice I can give is to try to get a reliable person with lots of contacts to act as a foreman. The guy who made and installed the burglar bars fulfilled this role for us.
All the people he recommended to do various jobs around the house were fine. The dodgy plumber was brought in by our landlord and thus was an unknown quantity. The cowboy cable TV installers were supplied by the cable TV company.
Thais are perfectly capable of doing good work and if you can find someone who takes pride in his work he will often know other like-minded people who work the same way.
A small update. My car service was a very satisfying experience. I'm so pleased to be able to say this after quite a lot of moaning about Thais recently.
The service was finished ahead of the scheduled time and from what I can make out they did a thoroughly good job. They changed the engine oil, transmission oil, transfer oil (whatever that is) and associated oil filters.
A few other parts were also changed and the only problem I reported (some brake noise when braking very gently at low speed) was fixed. I even noticed fresh grease on the door hinges.
The service was carried out at one of the Ford main dealers in town and despite being quite a major service the total cost was only just over Bt4,000. There was a 20% discount on the engine oil and I got a free T-shirt and calendar.
The last couple of cars I owned in the UK were Porsches and service time was never much fun. In Thai Baht at current exchange rates I always expected a bill between 30,000 and 50,000 Baht depending on what needed doing.
Moving to Thailand requires having to make certain sacrifices in life. I thought that my days of being able to own affordable fun cars were over but I am having a blast with this Escape.
It's a very different driving experience to driving a Porsche but just as much fun in a different way. It's a fairly big car but the steering is very light, it's very nimble, there is a lot of power on tap, and there is switchable 4WD for more traction when needed.
Provided nothing disastrous happens in the next 12 hours I should be off for a little trip to Phattalung tomorrow, driving to some pleasant but little-known areas around the northern part of Songkhla lake.
We are now well into farang tourist season and as well as being crowded, the well-known tourist areas will be charging top rates now. Thais love the idea of 'high season' when they can jack up prices as much as they like knowing that farang tourists will simply cough up.
I met a friend in Koh Lanta at New Year a few years ago and it was one rip-off after another. This left a very bad taste in my mouth and a very bad impression of Koh Lanta.
There are still plenty of places left in Thailand where foreigners don't get ripped off but they are a little off the beaten track.
Monday 27th December 2010
In the downtown area of Hat Yai there is a small Soi that is lined with 'Karaoke' bars. In fact, there are quite a few places like this but I am referring to one particular place. No Karaoke singing is performed there but 'Karaoke bar' is simply used as a euphemism for a place where men can rent prostitutes.
If a single man checks into a hotel anywhere in town, the hotel bellboy will carry his bags and show him to his room. The bellboy will always enquire as to whether the man would like some female company for the night.
If the man is interested, the bellboy will most likely take him to this Soi where he can take his pick from the female employees of the many 'Karaoke bars'. This is not done as an act of kindness. By introducing a customer the bellboy will get a Bt500 commission.
This is done very discreetly without the customer even noticing. The price for the girl will automatically be raised by Bt500 to cover the bellboy's commission and the bellboy will return later to collect his money. He will earn more money this way than he earns in his regular job in one day.
Most men will have a hotel room and this is where they will normally return with their rented women but occasionally they won't have anywhere to go.
If this happens the girl will suggest a particular hotel nearby where rooms can be rented by the hour. It's a real fleapit of a place but it serves a purpose.
I was teaching a group of employees some years ago and one of the men - who was a real character and quite a good laugh - used to work at this hotel. The staff were fully aware of what went on and they amused themselves by looking through peepholes at the action going on in the rooms.
I remember years ago, before I lived in Thailand, reading comments from some foreign men who were paranoid about this kind of thing and believed their sexual antics would be turned into a 90 second sex movie and sold at the local markets along with all the other pornography.
I can't believe that all hotels in Thailand would make it a policy to install peepholes and two-way mirrors in guest rooms but it probably goes on in some cheap hotels in places that are notorious for prostitution, such as Dannok on the Thai/Malaysian border.
I received an e-mail today from a Thai that gives advice on how to check for two-way mirrors.
The first image is a normal mirror:
And the second is a two-way mirror:
I have no idea whether this works or not.
Sunday 26th December 2010
I know I sound grumpy quite often these days but there are a couple of reasons for this.
The first is the Victor Meldrew syndrome whereby men appear to get grumpier as they get older. In fact, they don't actually get any grumpier at all because exactly the same things irritate them in life. All that happens is that as they get older they can't be bothered suppressing their thoughts any longer purely for the benefit of other people.
After years of being irritated by the same things they feel confident enough at a certain age just to say what they think without worrying about offending others. It's quite liberating.
The second reason is that after living in Thailand for a while, certain Thai behaviour starts to become quite irritating.
You can always tell tourists and newbie expats because they constantly gush about how sweet, kind and friendly the Thais are, and they won't have a word said against them. They actually get very defensive.
I went through that stage but I recovered. Just to give a little example, one of the things that has really started to irritate me happened twice today. I was out with my wife and that is significant because this little annoyance only happens when I'm with a Thai person.
My Thai isn't great but after seven years I can manage basic questions and answers. If I am with a Thai and ask another Thai person a question in Thai, they never reply to me.
It's as if I suddenly turn invisible and they give the answer to the Thai person I'm with, without even looking at me. If I ask another question the same thing happens. The conversation becomes triangular with me being the corner of the triangle that no one can see.
If nothing else, it's rude.
Another thing that happens sometimes is when I ask a question in Thai and I can see that the Thai person is really struggling to answer. Is it because they don't know the answer? No, it's because they are trying to think of the answer in English but they don't know how to say it.
If I ask the question in Thai why do they think I won't be able to understand if they answer in Thai? And why do they always assume that all farangs will be able to understand English? Many can't.
Many actually have no idea about the world outside Thailand. They do, in fact, seem to think that all farangs come from the same place and speak the same lingo. Occasionally you hear them saying paa-saa farang when they are talking about the English language.
Anyway, enough of irritating Thai traits. Christmas was just a normal working day here for me and it passed very quickly without any fuss.
Happy New Year and as soon as I can I will start to write about the more positive aspects of living in Thailand. I can't promise to be any less grumpy but as ever I will try to keep a balanced perspective.
Friday 24th December 2010
I mentioned my centipede encounter to some of my students yesterday. They are all familiar with such creatures and many find them in their homes. They described them as being 'very dangerous' - as dangerous, in fact, as a snake. I was told that some people may die after being bitten.
I was also told of a belief in Thailand that killing them brings bad luck. I didn't know about this but even though I know now I would do exactly the same thing next time. It posed a serious risk of injury to me, my pregnant wife, and our two cats. Faced with the same situation again, a Thai superstition would be the least of my worries.
My boss - another Englishman - told me that they used to employ a teacher who was bitten. A centipede crawled into his hat and when he put his hat on it bit his head. This guy had been around a bit, apparently.
He had lived in Africa, he had been bitten by a snake, and he had even been shot. Despite this, he said the centipede bite was the most painful thing he had experienced.
This story was shown on Thai TV news a few days ago and because of what I explained previously the details were a lot more graphic. The BBC report is tame by comparison but foreign news channels seem to work to a set of guidelines that don't exist in Thailand.
When you read the BBC report you get an idea of what he was up to but there is no detail. There was a lot more detail given on Thai TV and he really is a sick bastard.
Obviously, Thais realise that this kind of sick individual isn't representative of all Western men but for those of us trying to live decent lives in Thailand this kind of thing will turn some Thais against us.
Some of the victims he sexually abused were as young as 18 months. How do you deal with someone like this? I have a good idea what I would do and I would start by introducing him to a box full of the venomous centipedes I encountered on Wednesday night.
What's also concerning is how easily criminals on the run from the police can still hide in Thailand for many years. This was always the problem when foreigners were allowed to stay in the country indefinitely on 30 day stamps.
After a number of high profile cases involving sick foreign men and Thai children the immigration rules were tightened up in 2006 but now they seem to have been relaxed again.
And anyway, it doesn't matter how strict the immigration regulations are if they aren't enforced. A teacher I worked with last year had overstayed for well over two years with no problems at all and I'm sure that lots of other foreigners do too.
In all the time I have lived here I have never been randomly asked to show my passport. It's a problem obviously if you leave and re-enter the country but if someone enters as a tourist and stays for years illegally without trying to leave the country it is easy.
When I first started living in Thailand I used to carry a copy of my passport around with me that showed my visa details. Technically, it is a legal requirement for Thais to carry their identity cards and for foreigners to carry something similar at all times.
After a while it became obvious that no one would ever check so I stopped doing it. I would have no objections if I were to be stopped in the street occasionally and asked for these details. I have nothing to hide and I am hiding from no one.
With this type of thing there will always be the crowd who object on the grounds of personal liberty and civil rights, but it would remove a lot of bad foreigners from Thailand and it would deter others from entering the country.
The vast majority of expats in Thailand are good people. However, this is normal and, as I said previously, when life is normal it isn't news and so people outside the country don't get to hear about it.
News is only news when something happens that isn't normal and thus when a big story breaks about a foreigner living in Thailand it is normally a bad story.
Whenever this type of story breaks I also wonder what my family and friends think of foreigners living in Thailand.
Thursday 23rd December 2010
We had a most unwelcome visitor in the house last night - a giant centipede about seven inches long with a proportionally fat body. I've never seen anything like it before. Its external shell was almost scorpion-like and my wife told me that they are quite venomous.
Apparently the bite is very painful, causing a lot of swelling, and anyone bitten requires hospital treatment.
When we first moved into this house it was full of unpleasant wildlife. There were swarms of mosquitos, cockroaches, lizards, small and large spiders, and various other things. During the very wet weather last month we had a lot of frogs come into the house too. One day I went to put a shoe on and almost jumped out of my skin when I found a frog inside.
Like many Thai houses, there is no front door but just metal shutters at the front of the house. These keep people out but it's easy for reptiles, insects and rats to get in.
Because of this, one of the first I did was to get a guy in to install a barrier between the two downstairs rooms. We only use the front room as a garage but our living area starts after this barrier.
It consists of a glass door and also a steel burglar door which incorporates a mosquito screen. The gap at the bottom of the door is sealed with a stiff piece of rubber. So far it has been effective at keeping most things out and along with the mosquito screens I had installed on every other door, window and air brick the house is now mosquito free.
We still get more cockroaches than I would like but I think I know where they get in and I need to seal up their entrance.
Last night the cats were in the bedroom. We don't mind if they are sleeping but when they start playing the level of craziness stops us from sleeping. We tolerated them for a while last night but I decided to take them downstairs.
Just as I got downstairs I saw some movement at the bottom of the security door. At first I didn't know what it was but then I saw that this huge centipede was forcing its way through the rubber seal. It was strong and came straight into the house.
The older cat freaked out. I think all animals have a natural fear of snakes and anything else that wriggles like a snake. The younger female was born without a sense of fear and was fascinated. She's a crazy feline.
I didn't know what to do. I had no idea at first that this thing was venomous but I wasn't going to handle it. I grabbed a can of cockroach spray and gave it a good spraying. This stuff is quite strong and it slowed the centipede down but it didn't stop it.
By this time, Bpom had appeared and gave me instructions to finish it off with something heavy. I did so with a hammer. I was really shaken up and whereas I had felt sleepy a few minutes earlier, the adrenaline rush had woken me up completely. The cats were allowed to go back upstairs after this little ordeal.
A farang friend mentioned a few weeks ago that he had been watching TV in his house one day, saw some movement out of the corner of his eye, and then realised a snake had come into the house.
You don't see these creatures very often (this was my first encounter with a giant centipede after living here for over seven years) but every now and again you get a reminder that you are living in a tropical country.
It's the same in Singapore. Singapore is very First World but it is right in the middle of tropical Southeast Asia. You don't normally see much wildlife but it's there and it's very natural for it to be there.
I've seen big monitor lizards running around in the Singapore and one day one of my brother's friends went back to his apartment where he saw a big commotion because there was a huge Burmese python in the swimming pool.
I don't enjoy this type of thing, and I suspect that is the case for most people, but there's nothing you can do about it. This part of the world is home to lots of such creatures and if you want to live here then you are going to encounter them occasionally.
I have no photos, unfortunately. I normally like to record everything with a camera but sometimes dealing with certain situations takes priority over taking photos.
I found a photo and some information here: Thailand: Dangerous Animals
When all the red-shirt protests ended earlier this year the protesters hadn't got what they wanted (dissolution of the government) and as far as I could work out nothing was done by the government to try to narrow the huge gulf in Thailand between the haves and have-nots in Thai society.
It was always obvious that any period of peace was only going to be temporary and that the protests would recommence sooner or later: Red-shirt resurgence looks nightmarish for Abhisit
The protests are peaceful now but the situation was also peaceful in March this year when I was in Bangkok and went along to chat with the red shirts. As we all know, the peace didn't last long.
I wrote recently about the huge disparities in wealth in Thailand and the fact that Thailand isn't a poor country. Thailand has massive natural resources and a tourist industry that is the envy of many other countries.
The problem is that the wealth distribution is very unfair. The rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer. In other countries, such as South Africa and Brazil, having rich and poor communities living side-by-side leads to violence.
This isn't the case in Thailand for a number of cultural reasons. However, under Thaksin's leadership, Thailand's poorest individuals started to get a little bit more than they were used to and now their attitude has changed.
I am no fan of Thaksin and I believe that he always had ulterior (greedy) motives for everything he did but the legacy he left behind is that Thailand's poor will not now go back to how things were before he came along. And I have a lot of sympathy for them.
This very serious problem isn't going to go away until there is a genuine effort to flatten out Thailand's pyramidal social hierarchy and to give the underprivileged sectors of Thai society some real opportunities in life, not just pay them a bit of lip service and dish out a few populist handouts.
I am disappointed that this didn't happen after the last lot of protests finished but the reasons behind it run very deep and have existed in Thailand for as long as society itself: The Privileged Elite Versus The Common Man
What we saw earlier this year was just the start. There are a number of major events currently in the pipeline that will eventually result in huge social problems for Thailand unless there is a concerted effort to prevent them from happening.
The only way to do this is to make life fairer for all Thais and not to maintain the current system where a small percentage of Thais get everything, while the majority get almost nothing.
Tuesday 21st December 2010
Compared to Western countries, many aspects of living in Thailand are different. Some things are so different that they seem positively weird. Some things are just weird. Thai censorship is weird.
On every TV programme there is a little symbol at the bottom of the screen indicating the age group the programme is suitable for. This consists of a Thai letter and a minimum age. That's fair enough and completely in line with other countries.
So what about the actual things they censor?
Well, despite what your impressions of the country might be after that last trip to Pattaya, Thais are ultra-conservative. Really; I'm not joking.
As I remember it, British TV was quite racy. I remember watching some very steamy sex scenes and seeing lots of body parts on TV when I was in the UK. There are still limits but there isn't much that isn't shown.
I have never seen anything even the slightest bit sexual on Thai TV. The most flesh you will see on Thai TV is in the adverts for skin whitening lotion where pretties in their underwear try to make us believe that the lotion they are advertising was responsible for their milky white look, and not the fact that both their white-skinned parents are from a cold part of China.
What else doesn't the Thai censor like? Guns, cigarettes and alcoholic drinks are pixelated out because seeing these things on TV can obviously cause social disorder. Everyone knows what these things look like, and it is obvious what the actor is holding, but viewers can't see the actual objects.
I could understand all this, but what really gets me is seeing the things that are allowed.
Thailand is actually quite a violent country and there is a high murder rate. Murder victims are always photographed at the scene of the crime and these photographs generally find their way on to the front pages of Thailand's major newspapers.
Many's the time I have been in a restaurant and picked up a newspaper while I was waiting for my food to arrive, only to find myself looking at a dismembered, bloody corpse which was the result of a gory murder or a particularly nasty road accident.
This seems to be perfectly acceptable but watching someone on TV take a sip of wine from a glass isn't. I just can't figure this out.
Death and dismembered corpses are apparently quite acceptable in Thailand. There's a science week at the local university once a year which is attended by tens of thousands of school kids from all southern Thailand.
The anatomy department put their cadavers on display and there is always a long line of kids outside waiting to walk past them so they can be fascinated and horrified at the same time. Some Buddhist temples also display cadavers and I think the reason is so that there is a permanent reminder of the impermanence of life.
Near to where I live is an accident rescue centre. I don't need to tell you about Thai driving standards yet again, but suffice to say the fatality rate on Thailand's road is very high.
The volunteers working in the rescue centre are the ones that go to scrape the victims off the road and take their remains back to the morgue. They take photos and these are displayed at the centre. You don't want to look at these if you are a little squeamish.
What prompted me to write about this today?
I just checked The Nation and saw a story about a girl who had hanged herself while being watched online using a webcam : Woman kills herself in front of online audience
When I clicked, I saw that there was a photo of her swinging by the neck in her room with the police present. Unless standards have changed in the UK since I left, I can't quite imagine anything this graphic being published in a newspaper anywhere in the West.
The whole attitude to death and to corpses is very different to what I, and I suspect many other Westerners, are used to.
Sunday 19th December 2010
I remember watching a TV programme in the UK years ago about some old guy who arranged trips to Bangkok for groups of geriatric British males so that they could find Thai wives. I don't remember much about the detail but the sheer crassness of what was going on left an indelible impression on me. It was a master class on how not to meet Thai females.
The guy running these trips was supposedly well-versed in the art of finding suitable Thai women but I seem to remember that he changed his partners quite regularly and viewed Thai women as disposable objects. If things don't work out with one, well, there are plenty of others, aren't there?
It was sad, but sad in a pathetic way. The men featured on the show didn't have a hope of meeting women except very poor ones from Southeast Asia who were in desperate need of money, and the only men the women could ever hope to meet were old farangs who no one else was interested in.
These relationships can work but unless both parties make a big effort to bridge the culture gap, it is more than likely that the relationship will fail.
The men were introduced to groups of Thai women at a hotel somewhere in Bangkok and proceeded to make their selection just as you would select a fish displayed at the front of a typical seafood restaurant in Thailand. "Yeah, that one looks OK, I'll take her."
After the initial selection, the men were seen proposing marriage 30 minutes after meeting the woman for the first time while, at the same time, trying to convince the lucky girl why she should say yes.
One scene I remember quite well was a guy from the north of England (Blackpool maybe?) giving a Thai women the big sell on his three-bedroom, ex-council, semi-detached house. He was totally sincere but he had no clue that the things he valued and the things she valued were completely different.
One of the common themes with my writing here (repetitive as it is) is the huge difference between Thai and Western value and belief systems. However, ignore these at your peril if Thailand, or a Thai women, figure in your future.
I'm married now but every day there are reminders of these differences and even though I've lived in Thailand for a while now, and I know what Thais are like, it can still cause some friction.
The complete contempt regarding law - even by people you would normally regard as moral, upstanding members of the community - is still something that I can't quite come to terms with.
When I agreed to buy a car last week, the most important thing was money. In the Thai value system, nothing is more important. I was taken straight to my bank where I had to transfer enough funds for the down payment and also some extra for the car registration to be transferred and insurance.
The next day, the finance was sorted out to pay the balance. This was all done very quickly. If you owe a Thai money it has to be paid immediately. One of my previous landlords almost had palpitations if it took me longer than a day to pay my rent after he'd slipped the bill under my door.
However, after money everything else is in second place ... by a long margin. Although part of the money I paid was for insurance, nothing has been done about it yet and no one seems concerned.
If I mention it I get that irritated look that says I am always worrying about things that aren't important. Why can't you just shut up and stop worrying?
My view is that driving a fairly expensive car with no insurance in a country with such a high road accident rate and some of the worst driving standards in the world isn't a good idea. This is the difference between being a farang and being a Thai.
My wife has been driving a motorbike for half her life and has never bothered with a licence. I want to put this right soon but she regards it as perfectly normal and doesn't see any need to bother with a licence.
When you realise that the process for getting a licence in Thailand doesn't involve demonstrating any real road skills, she is right. Having a licence in Thailand doesn't make you a better driver than someone without a licence but that isn't the point.
The fact that driving tests are a joke is something that needs fixing but two wrongs don't make a right.
As I think I mentioned recently, Thais don't put much effort into prevention. They let things happen and then deal with the consequences.
So, are Thais always wrong and farangs always right? No, but as is the case with most things, going to extremes isn't always the best course. Quite often, somewhere in the middle is probably about right.
After I arrived in Thailand I started to observe how Thais think and I wondered if I worried about things too much. The problem with worrying about everything is that most things we worry about never happen and therefore we waste a lot of time and energy worrying unnecessarily.
However, after trying not to worry about anything I found that problems started to occur that would have been quite preventable if I'd worried a bit more and taken action beforehand. Do you see the problem?
Living in Thailand and observing how Thais think and behave gives you the opportunity to see a completely different way of approaching and tackling problems.
What I've found many times is that there are merits in both approaches, but that neither is completely satisfactory. Buddhism advocates the Middle Path and if you can compromise, find some middle ground, and take the best from both worlds it is often the best way.
Try not to worry too much, definitely don't worry about everything, but - unlike most Thais - try to think ahead a little about possible problems and try to take actions before problems occur in order to mitigate them.
Most of the time it is a lot easier to prevent a problem rather than trying to pick up the pieces after the problem has happened.
The expression mai bpen rai often goes way too far here.
Here's some more Thai wisdom. It makes complete sense but because I am so stuck in my farang ways (and also because I am a typical obstinate, stubborn male) I often find it difficult to heed good advice.
For several years after I first arrived in Thailand I never drove. I started to drive fairly frequently a couple of years ago using other people's cars and now I have a car.
The driving standards (as I've mentioned repeatedly many, many times) are absolutely appalling. Every time I go out in the car I am confronted with drivers doing things on the road that would never happen in a developed country.
And every time I see this crap going on I react. I blast my horn, I use hand gestures, and I use all sorts of vocabulary I thought I'd forgotten.
I could actually run a special class for Thai students on the art of English insults, obscenities and vulgarisms. I wouldn't need to prepare any lesson plans. All that would be necessary is for me to drive around for half an hour with a car load of students.
It all started again this morning two minutes after I had left home to take Bpom for a pregnancy scan. She got a bit upset with me. She told me I already know the driving standards here are awful so why not just accept it and ignore what goes on?
Let's face it, it's going to happen every time I go out. If I go out tomorrow, it will be the same; if I go out next week, it will be the same; if I'm still driving in Thailand in 20 years time, it will be the same. I'm not going to change anything, and getting worked up about the monkey antics on the road each time I go out isn't going to do my blood pressure any good.
She's right, of course, but for the reasons I gave above I just find it difficult stopping myself reacting when Thai road users do the things they do.
What's the best way to describe the average Thai driving style?
I could make a list of all the things that I encounter all the time that are obviously wrong but the list would be long and messy.
One way I can think of describing it is to imagine driving as if you are the only road user in the entire country. Imagine what you could - and what you would do - knowing that there wasn't another car on the road.
You wouldn't need to worry about road signs, traffic lights or indicators because those things are only for the benefit of other cars.
Now, if you can imagine a significant number of people driving cars; every single person in the country above the age of 13 driving a motorbike; lots of teenage street racers; an assortment of farm vehicles and modified motorbike sidecars which people use to operate mobile food stalls, etc; no police, no traffic cameras, no other deterrents, and then if you can imagine everyone driving as if they were the only person in Thailand using the road ... then that is what it is like.
I need to add one thing here. I have travelled around Thailand a fair bit and from my experience the worst driving I have experienced anywhere in Thailand (by a long way) is in Hat Yai. Thais from other parts of the country who have moved to Hat Yai for work tell me the same thing.
I'm not quite sure why this is. I visited Phattalung province last week and the roads were so quiet and civilised, even in the main town. That has also been the case with other towns in Thailand I have visited. I am also told that the traffic police in Bangkok are a lot stricter about enforcing traffic laws in the capital.
Considering that Hat Yai is where I do most of my driving, my views on Thai driving are no doubt more extreme than if I lived elsewhere.
The cats have finally settled down. When I picked the second one up last week, she was half the size of the male we had brought home a few days earlier. From the moment she arrived he has been a completely different cat.
It's good that he now has a companion but I was concerned at first because of how roughly he played with her. I was quite worried that with no one in the house he would injure her, or worse. However, everything has been fine.
They play really well together and she gives as well as she gets. She now instigates some of the play fight sessions. She still has a big size disadvantage but that should improve soon now that she has started eating solid food. There were also a few toilet training problems with the new one, which we never had with the first one, but that little problem is also OK now.
They are constantly together and if one were to disappear now the other one wouldn't know what to do. It was definitely a good decision to get two.
I feel a little guilty because I always said to myself that if ever I got a pet here it would be an animal from the street or temple. There are so many abandoned animals in Thailand that need homes that it isn't necessary to buy a pet.
In my defence, the two cats we now have aren't quite the same as your average Thai street cat and the other reason is that I was 'told' in no uncertain terms that we are not having a temple animal.
If you get involved with a Thai female, be she a wife or girlfriend, it is likely that she may be completely dependent on you regarding money but for some reason the Thai girls always seem to have far more power in a relationship than they should do.
Thursday 16th December 2010
The new cat arrived a day earlier than expected. I think she's the same breed, except this one has a tail so I'm a bit confused. She's black and white, about six weeks old, and half the size of the male we got last week. She's tiny.
There seems to be a misunderstanding between me and the first cat. I thought the idea of getting a little sister was to provide him with a little companion and playmate for when there are no humans in the house.
He thinks I have provided him with a small, mobile target with which to hone his hunting skills. Since last night there have been constant running battles all over the house and the sound of the new kitten yelping as her big brother attempts to perfect his 'lion death grip' on her.
There appears to have been a truce called this morning and all is quiet on the eastern front. I hope they will settle down soon.
The new car also arrived earlier than expected when my brother-in-law turned up at the school in it yesterday. It looks as good - if not better - than the one I saw for sale at a local dealer's and because I'm not providing anyone with a fat profit it was Bt100,000 cheaper than the dealer's car.
It drives very nicely. My original idea was to buy a Honda CR-V but I think I made the right choice with the Ford. It's very solid and doesn't float around like the CR-V I test drove. It's also considerably more powerful (but it uses a lot more fuel as well).
I think I would still have been pleased with a CR-V even though when I was researching on the Internet I read comments about it being a girlie, hairdressers' car. Anyway, I'm pleased with my final decision.
I have made the down payment and I'm just waiting to get the finance, insurance and registration sorted out. My brother-in-law is also going over it in his garage to confirm there are no problems. From first impressions it looks as if the previous owner took good care of it.
It has a large sunroof, which is an unusual option in Thailand. You hardly ever see sunroofs or convertible cars. I was pleased, but not so the wife. We went for a little drive and as soon as I opened the sunroof I was told to shut it again.
Thais hate the sun and shun it whenever they can. On buses and minivan journeys the first thing the Thai passengers do is close all the curtains so they can sleep.
Coming from a cold, damp, miserable climate I still have a soft spot for the sun although I have to admit it does get too much here at certain times of the year.
Wednesday 15th December 2010
I'd almost forgotten what time of year it was.
Christmas in provincial Thailand is how Christmas should be everywhere. For the most part, life is the same as at any other time of the year but occasionally you walk into a shop that has a few Christmas decorations or is playing some Christmas songs (not every shop) and you are reminded that it is December.
There are many reasons why I decided to leave the UK, which I won't go into here, but one of the things I had started to hate ever since I was about 31 and discovered Santa didn't exist was the entire Christmas thing that begins at the end of August and then goes on for the rest of the year.
I couldn't stand being blasted with Christmas carols when I went shopping in September, couldn't stand the crowds, couldn't stand the obnoxious drunken behaviour, couldn't stand people throwing up on the train on the way home, couldn't stand the crass commercialism, etc etc.
On top of everything, the UK weather in December is depressing beyond belief and after the enormous build up to Christmas it all comes and goes in a flash and the experience is entirely underwhelming.
I had started to become so miserable at Christmas that I made Scrooge look quite charitable. Since I started living in Thailand, however, (where the Christmas circus doesn't take place for several months each year) I have started to feel quite good about it again.
Before I lived in Thailand, the last time I remember feeling good about Christmas was when I went to a Christmas market in Stuttgart. The mainland Europeans still show some class, whereas Britain has turned into a horrible tacky little island.
The irony is that Thailand is a Buddhist country where Christmas has no meaning. Thais like decorations and flashing fairy lights and it keeps the farangs happy. Otherwise, I doubt there would be any signs of Christmas.
We now have a cat. My parents had a cat before they had any kids; my brothers and I all grew up with cats in the house and we then went on to own cats in our own houses. My wife likes animals and so I guess it was inevitable.
I saw two kittens for sale recently that looked ideal but when we went back last Saturday only one was left. The really cute tortoiseshell female had been bought by a Malaysian. We bought her brother and he's turning out to be a lot of fun.
The vendor told us he was a Persian. I thought he had a busted tail and we haggled the price down from Bt2,500 to Bt1,500.
Subsequent investigation on the Internet has revealed he is not a Persian at all. He's a Japanese Bobtail (the same breed as Hello Kitty) and his tail is the result of a genetic mutation.
I also read on the Internet that this breed is energetic and likes to play at every opportunity. This is something of an understatement. He plays with us at night while we are trying to sleep and I think his mission is to see how quickly he can destroy the house. He's doing quite well.
It doesn't seem right leaving him on his own while we are out so the plan is to get him a little sister. The same vendor should have a new supply tomorrow. I expect we will have to pay more than Bt1,500 this time but from what I can gather (Internet information again), this is really cheap compared to buying the same breed in the West.
I haven't added cats to my list of shopping recommendations in Thailand because even though they are cheap, it will be a bit more complicated taking a cat home compared to a fake Rolex watch or a badly made suit from an Indian tailor.
Sending mail out of Thailand is never a problem but the incoming mail service is completely hopeless. Over the years far more letters sent to me from abroad have gone missing than have arrived. It's annoying that birthday and Christmas cards don't arrive, but when important documentation doesn't arrive it's a major headache.
My plans to stop work soon will mean getting another type of visa. The two options open to me are a marriage or retirement visa. I am eligible for both but I need to arrange some paperwork.
One requirement for the visas is having a certain amount of money in a Thai bank account or proof of income. I don't want to transfer more money to my Thai bank account at the moment because the exchange rate is so bad. My UK income meets the requirements for both these visas but I need written proof.
I requested a couple of letters from the UK recently to confirm my income. Neither has arrived. With one, I e-mailed the sender a jpg image of my address written in Thai which she stuck to the envelope. The other letter was just addressed in English but the Thai postal service should be able to deal with English.
That was about three weeks ago. I was hoping the letters would have arrived by now and I was planning a trip to the British Embassy in Bangkok at Christmas so that they could verify the information and then give me a letter for Thai immigration.
Without the letters there won't be any point going to the Embassy. These need to be original letters so I can't get them sent by e-mail. I could request they are sent by courier (expensive) or get them sent to my parents in the UK who will visit next year.
Neither of these alternatives is very convenient and it would just be a lot easier if the postal service here worked as it should do. I really don't know what the problem is.
It was a problem at my old apartment and now that I have moved it is still a problem at my new house.
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