Living In Thailand Blog
Wednesday 28th December 2011
It certainly did.
Had it not been for the birth of our daughter in March, I would probably have described 2011 as one of my worst years - even worse than 2008. This is purely in financial terms.
The money I 'lost' in 2008 all came back. That wasn't the case in 2011. When the stock markets started to go crazy earlier in the year it looked at one point that I could lose the money I needed to buy the house we are moving to soon.
That simply wasn't an option so I was forced to exit the market while I still had enough. To not have done so would have been gambling and I'm not a gambler. I had already lost a lot but what was at stake was too much to lose.
It hurt, and the money would have been useful, but what happened was beyond my control. I've done well in the past and just as every investor is told, "Investments can go down as well as up."
While this was all going on a terrible tragedy occurred in Singapore.
As a new parent myself, this story had a profound effect on me. My brother is a foreign exchange dealer in Singapore making stacks of money and I am very familiar with the high-salary lifestyles that Singapore expats lead.
I've just spent Christmas in the huge six-bedroom villa with swimming pool in Phuket that he paid cash for. He has a lot of colleagues in Singapore who also own expensive, fancy homes in Phuket.
The grief of the child's parents was unimaginable and all the money in the world wouldn't have brought their child back. While holding my own daughter, this story brought some perspective back into my life.
I'm a lot worse off financially compared to the start of the year but now I have a beautiful daughter. There is still enough money for the house and everything else we need. I'm not happy about what happened to the economy but I should be thankful rather than resentful.
The Mayan predictions about 2012 are interesting. I always thought the 'End of the World' stuff was rubbish and it turns out that this was right.
The Mayans predicted events after 2012, which they wouldn't have done if the world was to end in 2012. My interpretation has always been that it signalled the start of a new era of consciousness. The timing is uncanny.
The tumultuous events of the last few years came about because many things have been very wrong for a very long time. The financial sector has been selfish, greedy and uncaring about society at large. The Euro and European Union were not thought out properly and problems were always going to occur.
As with many things, situations often have to get very bad before they get better. At least the 'getting better' process may actually have started. I'm not sure that 2012 will be a lot better but I am hopeful for the future.
Another point of interest is how the world's population is continuing to grow. Just in the short space of time that I have been on the planet, the world's population has gone from 3 billion to almost 7 billion. The balance of power has also been gradually shifting eastward.
There are lots of new challenges because of this growth and shift of power, and the world my daughter has been born into is very different to the one I entered. I am more concerned about her future than my own.
What maybe sounds strange after all this is that I feel more contented now than I did at the start of the year. No one has been more surprised about my reaction to our child than I have.
I never wanted kids particularly and simply regarded children as being expensive and restrictive. I never had any plans to have children and wouldn't have worried if none had come along. I wasn't wrong about the expense and restrictions, but neither did I realise what joy they could also bring.
I always controlled my life very carefully but by doing this you can sometimes prevent things entering your life that would actually make you happier. Even at 51 I am still learning about life and I fully expect to still be learning right up until the day my bones are burned in a Buddhist temple somewhere.
Sometimes it is better to let go of the reins and just go where life leads you.
That was all a bit philosophical but at the end of the year it is usual to reflect back on the events of the past 12 months. I will return to the usual topics in the New Year.
On that note, I wish you a happy, prosperous, successful and contented New Year.
Monday 19th December 2011
The big story in Thailand this year has been flooding. I was involved in a big flood in Hat Yai last year and since then I have been taking an interest in the local flood defences.
What I have found as a result of taking a closer look at the flood protection infrastructure is that it is actually quite impressive.
Every small road has storm drains on either side which collect clean household waste water (everything apart from toilet waste) and rain water. Originally these storm drains were all open but the local municipality started to cover them with concrete a few years ago.
Not only do they look better covered, but this helps to control mosquitoes. Some storm drains remain uncovered but most, especially in the downtown area, are covered.
They use specialised cleaning trucks to clean the storm drains and I have seen workers pulling a large ball on a rope through the underground tunnels to clear blockages.
The water eventually makes its way to a large open canal that snakes its way through town. This canal has a number of sluice gates that can be opened or closed to regulate the flow of water in different places.
The water than makes its way into an even larger canal system that goes under the new road between Hat Yai and Songkhla and channels the water into Songkhla Lake.
The following web site has webcams with views of the canals in various locations and a Google map which shows the canal system leading out to Songkhla Lake.
With such a good system, why was there a problem last year?
Water isn't only to be got rid of when there is too much of the stuff. The average person uses almost 500 litres a day and we can't live without it. In addition, electricity is generated from dammed water. It is a vital resource.
Thailand is very wet during the monsoon season but there are also prolonged periods of very hot and dry weather. Water needs to be stored in large reservoirs so that there is always enough to meet our needs.
Managing the water level of reservoirs and getting the balance right is difficult. There needs to be enough so that the reservoirs don't run dry, but there also needs to be enough surplus capacity for when big storms arrive.
It's not always possible to get it right and sometimes lots of water has to be released which then causes flooding problems.
Some parts of Thailand are not fortunate enough to have such effective flood defences and when big storms arrive there is no safe place for the water to go. However, the government has pledged to improve the infrastructure nationwide and the situation should improve.
Proximity to the coast is another issue. It is more difficult to get rid of water from places that are a long way inland. Another problem experienced in the central region this year was that flood water wasn't flowing downstream in the Chao Phraya river because of high tides and tidal surges.
A lot more infrastructure needs to be built nationwide, and the whole system needs to be managed very carefully, but there is no reason why Thailand shouldn't be flood-free relatively soon.
I would imagine that the north and northeast regions will present more of a challenge as they are landlocked. Instead of just building infrastructure to channel the water out to sea, as happens in the south, reservoirs will also need to be built to store massive amounts of water.
Known in Thai as gam ling (monkey cheeks) the technique is well known in Thailand already and gam ling have already been built in some places. The new government initiative should see a lot more being built. It will be an interesting project to follow.
Another big challenge is that Bangkok is slowly sinking.
The age old flood problems in Thailand are reaching the point of no return. Flooding causes misery to lots of people and this year's flooding caused massive economic damage. In addition, if the problems aren't fixed Thailand risks losing many foreign investors.
The flooding this year was terrible but the disastrous events that struck central Thailand seem to have been the catalyst for much needed change.
Sunday 18th December 2011
There was more heavy rain last night - so heavy, in fact, that it woke me up - and there have been more showers today. The Thai Meteorological Department says that Tropical Storm Washi is currently moving through the lower South China Sea and will hit the east coast of Malaysia on the 21st.
By that time it will have lost some of its strength, but it will still cause heavy rain in the region from the 20th to 22nd.
With every storm that passes I keep thinking the danger of flooding is over, but then another storm comes along. The bad weather in itself isn't a problem for me. What is a problem is the fear of another flood. Ever since last year's flood I have felt very uneasy every time a big storm hits.
Saturday 17th December 2011
The weather in southern Thailand during November and December is a mixture of the best and worst weather of the year.
If it's not raining, it can be just about perfect. It's not stifling hot, like it is the rest of the year, and you are not constantly sticky from sweat. Nights are cool and it is such a pleasure to be able to sleep comfortably without A/C or even a fan. On the other hand, the weather can be quite depressing when it doesn't stop raining.
It rained all day Thursday, all Thursday night, all day Friday, and the rain has been sporadic today. It's still blowy and the strong gusts give the impression more rain is on the way.
In addition to gloomy skies and not being able to do anything outside, there is also the very real threat of flooding if a seriously big storm comes in. And that's exactly what is looking likely at the moment.
Tropical Storm Washi is looking really bad and according to a map I looked at showing the path of the storm, it is heading towards southern Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. It is due to arrive in this region on 22nd December and will then move on to Indonesia.
At least with all the technology we have available these days, we get a lot of advanced warning concerning weather systems. What should be happening now is that the relevant local authorities should be releasing water from local reservoirs to get the water level as low as possible before the storm arrives.
The water management here has been carried out flawlessly so far this year and despite a couple of quite heavy storms there hasn't been the slightest threat of flooding. I just hope that the people concerned continue doing a great job until the end of this rainy season.
Everything has been fine so far but the danger isn't over yet.
I've lived in Thailand for over eight years and I spend almost all my time with Thais. I've become accustomed to how Thais think, and what they say, but there are many things I still find very strange. They might believe that certain topics are perfectly natural but to me some things will always be a little peculiar.
We went to a Christmas fair today at the Catholic school where my wife used to work. It was a trip out and it gave her the chance to catch up with some of her old friends and colleagues.
My wife is quite dark-skinned ("farang chawp dum dum" is something I have heard many, many times). If she had fair skin I doubt we would be married because a Thai man would have snapped her up long ago. However, Thais have some very strange attitudes about skin colour and Thai men are very open about their preferences for fair-skinned girls.
Our daughter has inherited her skin colour from me and she's the same colour as a farang baby. Whenever we met one of my wife's friends today, our daughter's skin colour was the first topic of conversation.
There were lots of comments that she was lucky to have skin like her father, and not like her mother. They're right because there is enormous prejudice in Thailand and having fair skin will give her advantages later in life, but is it right to keep making the point and to be so open about it? Skin colour is a perfectly normal and acceptable topic of conversation for Thais.
My daughter's three year-old cousin is very dark-skinned and she started kindergarten recently. She is already being teased at school about her skin colour and gets upset at being treated differently.
I wondered how my wife felt today after hearing repeatedly that the baby is more beautiful than her. If the baby is lucky to have fair skin, does this make my wife unlucky? How does she feel? Do these comments hurt?
I spoke to her tonight about it and apparently she feels nothing. She has experienced this kind of thing her whole life and it really doesn't seem to worry her.
I brought the subject up years ago with a university student that I was teaching. Her view was that Thais don't have problems with discrimination and the proof of this is that they can talk about skin colour openly.
Her argument was that it is farangs who have the problem because talking about skin colour is almost a taboo subject. I thought this was quite an interesting perspective.
I really don't like political correctness because of all the nonsense it causes, but it seems wrong to me to discuss certain subjects so openly and freely simply because they are insensitive and unnecessary.
I used to work at a dental hospital teaching the Thai staff how to deal with foreign patients. One day I was shown around behind the scenes.
One of the pieces of equipment in the hospital was used to measure tooth colour so that fillings and dentures could be made the same colour as the original teeth.
When dental students got access to the machine the first thing they did was to measure the colour of their skin to see who was the whitest.
When experiencing Thai attitudes about skin colour for the first time, many farangs might be a little taken aback. Don't be. It's quite normal for Thais.
They don't mean to cause offence, and Thais will not be offended by comments about their own skin colour. Thai students tease other Thai students about skin colour all the time. I've even heard parents teasing their children about their dark skin.
Thursday 15th December 2011
This will be my ninth consecutive Christmas spent in Thailand.
I had hated Christmas in the UK for many years and when I arrived in Thailand one of the best things for me was that Christmas didn't really exist. There are elements of Christmas on display but it is a very different experience.
I ordered something yesterday from my local camera shop and was told the expected arrival date would be the 25th. There was no mention of Christmas. The 25th of December is just a normal day and nothing special.
I still don't miss the temporary insanity that happens every year in the UK leading up to Christmas. This year has been slightly different, though.
This is my first Christmas as a father and as a parent you automatically start looking at Christmas through the eyes of children. My daughter takes me back to a totally innocent time in my own life before I became cynical about the world.
I've been watching Christmassy things on YouTube with her and it has felt good. The whole Christmas industry is based on an idealised notion that has never, and will never, exist.
Every scene features a countryside cottage surrounded with virgin snow while a log fire burns inside and the interior is filled with perfect gifts, perfect food, and perfect company.
There is no hint of the huge Christmas crowds, the frenetic activity and tiredness, the drunkenness and obnoxious behaviour, the tackiness and commercialism, and the fact that one-third of Britons get themselves into debt just to suffer the Yuletide festivities.
Everyone realises this, of course, but due to the pressures of life these days we all need some form of escape and once a year we can escape to the idealised version of Christmas for a while before returning to reality. Alcohol also helps many people to escape the realities of life temporarily.
I used to dread Christmas shopping in the UK. I never knew what to buy and despite always saying I would do it early, I never did. There would always be a day or two during December when I would brave the crowds and spend hours trying to figure out what to buy. It was a nightmare.
I went Christmas shopping yesterday with my wife and it was a real pleasure. The only problems we experienced were things I mentioned previously. I had problems parking because many people had 'reserved' parking spaces by placing chairs and other things in the road.
We then had a terrible job trying to push the baby's buggy to the department store because of all the blocked and uneven sidewalks. You never see wheelchair users here. Anyone trying to get around in a wheelchair would have a terrible time.
It's easier for an able-bodied person pushing a baby buggy but still not easy. For most of the time we were forced to use the road, and Thai roads aren't the safest places on earth. This is just something that Thais are used to and I guess that it will never change.
Once we got to the department store it was a really good experience. There were lots of helpful staff and very few customers. I heard a Christmas tune or two but Christmas music wasn't blasting out everywhere.
The Christmas decorations were done in moderation, and done very tastefully. I was most impressed, and so pleased not to see any tackiness.
The department store had a free gift-wrapping service and the two staff assigned to carry out this task wrapped each parcel with great care. They did a really good job.
One of my gifts involved getting a painting framed and I went to a separate shop to get this done. There are lots of framing shops in Thailand and they do an excellent job. The choice of frames was huge and the finished frame was very professionally done for only Bt450.
I mentioned before that Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, 'does' Christmas better than Christian countries. I stand by that comment. Christmas has turned into a mass zoo of commercialism in many countries and it has been ruined.
It will be a little different taking a swim in my brother's pool before Christmas lunch, as opposed to getting wrapped up and walking to the local pub, but I am expecting Christmas this year to be a lot more enjoyable.
Monday 12th December 2011
During the flooding in Bangkok we discovered that some canals had just 'disappeared'. This was one reason why the water was taking such a long time to drain.
The canals, which were public property of course, had been 'claimed' and filled in by private developers so that they could build luxury houses, apartments, and golf courses.
National parks are public land and there are regulations that prevent private development taking place within them. However, this doesn't stop Thais building private houses, and even large resorts, in national parks.
Sidewalks are public property (as confirmed to me by a friend who is a councillor working for the local municipality) but it is common practice in Thailand for house and shop owners to 'claim' the sidewalk in front of their shop or house.
They construct elaborate barriers made from plant pots and other things which prevent pedestrians from using the sidewalk and set up tables and chairs to tell other people it is 'their' space.
Parking is a problem in many urban areas and one of the reasons is because house and shop owners 'claim' the public parking spaces in the road outside their property as their own. They place chairs or other objects in the road to prevent other people from parking but they have no right to do this. The road is public property and doesn't belong to them.
The small restaurant (I use the term loosely) structure in this photo has been built on public land by the house owner who lives on the opposite side of the road. The land doesn't belong to him but he saw that it wasn't being used so just 'claimed' it and constructed a restaurant.
I've spoken to Thais who have had boundary disputes with neighbours where the neighbour has erected a fence and at the same time claimed land from the adjoining property.
Claiming land which doesn't belong seems to be quite common in Thailand.
Sunday 11th December 2011
Regarding my comments about carrying children in vehicles in Thailand, Bangkok Barry writes:
"It is baffling to me that Thais cannot see the obvious, particularly about safety. The girl who introduced me to my wife had a brother who was killed after he was standing on the back of one of those lorry-buses. A motorcycle pulled out in front of the bus, as they so often do, the bus braked, he fell off and crashed his head on the curb. It was when we went to his funeral, not long after I moved to Thailand, that I realised monks might not quite be what I thought they were when I spotted a number of them heavily tattooed and smoking. Not quite the image I'd had up until then. Now, of course, I know many of them are criminals doing the Thai version of 'Forgive me Father, for I have sinned'.
I've attached a photo, very poor quality because it was taken through a dirty windscreen and I've had to copy it off my Facebook page, of a school bus. Kids just casually sitting on the roof and back steps, with one doing whatever with his mobile while standing. Would they believe they were putting their lives at risk? Not a chance.
I am constantly seeing people on bikes, on a dark street at night, with no light on their bike. Not only that, but they'll often be on the wrong side of the road too. Either these people are so stupid they don't deserve to live anyway, or they don't care about dying. Maybe they think if they die and are re-born they'll come back as a rich politician or something."
While driving between provinces in Thailand I encounter a lot of large tour buses. These things accelerate really slowly but they are capable of getting up to, and maintaining, very high speeds.
Considering how large they are (some are double-deckers), the speeds at which they travel are frightening. Once they have built up speed, the drivers don't like slowing down and the tactics they use to maintain their speed are quite intimidating.
Slower moving vehicles ahead of them are supposed to move out of the way when they see a fast-moving large bus looming in their rear view mirror, and when the buses overtake on the wrong side of the road vehicles travelling in the opposite direction are also supposed to get out of the way.
The right of way on Thai roads is determined by vehicle size and these are about the biggest vehicles you will see.
As might be expected, when people drive like lunatics there will inevitably be accidents. In Thailand accidents involving big tour buses happen fairly regularly. There has just been another.
In this latest accident, the driver is suspected of falling asleep at the wheel. This is another problem. Thailand is quite a large country and journeys by road from Bangkok to the far north or south can take about 12 hours. Drivers can get very tired and some try to keep themselves by drinking grating dairng type energy drinks.
I've had my car exactly a year today and in addition to the comfort and convenience, having a car has also done away with a lot of problems I used to experience regularly.
Firstly, I no longer have silly arguments with drivers who want to charge me four times the regular fare because I am a farang.
It is also a lot safer. Plane and train travel are probably the safest methods of transport in Thailand but on many routes the only options you have are minivans or big buses.
Unfortunately, minivan drivers are even worse than bus drivers. I have always hated travelling in Thailand by minivan because of the dangerous driving and the way passengers are treated so badly.
The term 'public transport' in Thailand is a bit of a misnomer. Many bus and van companies are privately owned and run. What this means is that they are run to make a profit. Customer safety and comfort doesn't really figure.
The majority of foreigners visiting poor countries are well-meaning and genuinely want to help those who are less fortunate than themselves.
Unfortunately, there will always be a few individuals who are willing to take advantage of other people's good intentions. It's sad but it happens everywhere.
Trying to help is admirable but make sure your money gets to the people it was intended for.
Whether on foot, in cars, or on motorbikes, Thais hate waiting for their turn. "Me first, me first."
Some more analysis of the flooding (and other events in Thailand) this year:
Tuesday 6th December 2011
Thais think differently: No. 297 Transporting Children
Some hospitals in Western countries will not allow parents of newly-born babies to take their infants home in a car unless the car is fitted with an appropriate baby carrier.
The UK now has laws which make it a criminal offence to carry a child in a car without the appropriate child restraint.
Apart from the legal aspects, Westerners understand that not securing a child in a car properly could be extremely dangerous in the event of an accident. (It's the same with adults wearing seat belts and motorcyclists wearing crash helmets but those subjects are off-topic today.)
Thais think differently.
To me, this was utter stupidity but she saw absolutely nothing wrong with the idea. This is how she has been brought up and she knows no better.
There are many things we don't agree on but most of the time I just let things go. It is difficult (often impossible) to make Thais see reason and I just want an easy life at home. However, my daughter's safety is an exception so I put my foot down. We went out and bought a baby carrier.
She has now outgrown the baby carrier and has moved to an upright baby seat. We had been given one as a gift but it is fixed and my wife wanted one that could recline, making it more comfortable when the baby wants to sleep.
We therefore have a spare seat that has never been used. My wife suggested that we try to sell it and so she has been asking people with young babies if they are interested.
No one is interested.
I also see an awful lot of very young babies being carried on motorbikes. (Click on photo for a larger image.) Most of the time the pillion passenger holds the baby but I also see solo riders operating the throttle with their right hand while carrying the baby tucked under their left arm. Amazing, but true.
It's frightening to think what would happen in the event of a serious collision, and serious collisions happen all the time in Thailand due to the appalling driving standards.
One of the frustrating things about living in Thailand (there are many) is that no matter how hard you try to convince Thais about certain things, they won't believe you.
I really had to argue with my wife to get her to see the sense of using a proper car seat for our child but when I have the same discussion with other Thais I can see from the look on their faces that they think it is me who is the crazy one.
It's the same with wearing seat belts and crash helmets, stopping at red lights, obeying traffic laws, not driving while drunk, not racing motorbikes in residential areas, etc. etc.
A few days ago I had a go at Thai shops and supermarkets for the sneaky tricks they employ trying to convince customers of bargains when the 'bargains' aren't quite as good as they are made out to be.
Of course, this type of thing isn't unique to Thailand. It goes on everywhere, including the UK. I've had problems with misleading promotion deals in Tesco Lotus, but Tesco employ similar sneaky tricks in the UK.
Something else to be careful of in Thailand is when buying items in different quantities. You might think that buying something packaged in a larger quantity would always be cheaper. Sometimes this is the case, but not always.
Here's a made-up example just to illustrate the point. You might see a double pack of toothpaste for Bt100. However, when you look at the single tubes you might find that they are Bt45 each. It would therefore be cheaper to buy two single tubes rather than the double pack even though the double pack, theoretically, should be cheaper.
This happens quite a lot and having some decent mental arithmetic skills helps. According to the article I've linked to above, this practice is quite common in the UK as well.
Sunday 4th December 2011
Shopping for certain things can be a problem in Thailand, especially if you want a particular brand. Local equivalents are a lot easier to source and a lot cheaper than anything imported. However, for certain things there simply isn't anything equivalent. Equivalent items don't exist.
When trying to shop for anything in Thailand, your best bet will always be Bangkok. If you live outside of Bangkok it adds another degree of difficulty. You either have to travel to Bangkok or find a reliable way of getting items sent.
When buying anything, I have always been a believer in buying the best quality possible. This philosophy has come about through personal experience. Whenever I try to save money by buying cheaply, it always costs me more in the long term.
After arriving in Thailand I was pleasantly surprised to find how cheap locally produced clothing was. The designs (all copies) were fine and the quality seemed OK initially.
The problem came shortly afterwards when the shirts I bought fell apart after about half-a-dozen washes. They looked so bad that I couldn't wear them and they had to be thrown away.
The friend I travelled to Thailand with in 1987 introduced me to Rohan clothing. It's not always the most fashionable clothing around (and it tends to be favoured by older, intellectual travellers) but the quality is amazing. No matter how many times you wash and wear Rohan clothing it seems never to wear out.
I have only just thrown out the Rohan clothing that I bought with me eight years ago. I can't buy any replacements in Thailand, and neither could I find any in Singapore.
I guess I could get some sent but it would add to the cost (Rohan clothing isn't that cheap) and I have had terrible problems with mail going missing since living at my current address.
In Singapore I bought some Columbia trousers. Columbia is quite similar to Rohan in terms of quality. The trousers weren't cheap but they are exceptionally light and comfortable, they wash easily, and like the Rohan gear they look as if they will last for a long time.
I have never seen Columbia trousers where I live in the provinces. I just tried doing a search to see if I could find a distributor in Bangkok. The first article I found was about an illegal Thai factory produce fake Columbia gear.
This is the other problem in Thailand. In addition to certain brands being difficult to obtain, when you do find what you're looking for there is a good chance it will be fake (kong bplom).
If you have people coming to Thailand to visit, you can always ask them but I am starting to suffer from greng jai. I have already asked my parents to bring out a Kindle book reader and some other stuff and I don't want them to fill their suitcases with my stuff.
Saturday 3rd December 2011
Television programmes in Thailand are abysmal.
The dramas and soap operas are full of actors who have no idea how to act without the prefix 'over-'. There is no gritty realism in any of the soap operas and nothing to show the poverty or hardship that exists in Thailand for the majority of Thais. I guess the reason for this is that TV, primarily, is a form of escapism for the very Thais that it doesn't portray.
The beautiful white-skinned soap opera characters all live in Bt100 million homes, drive Mercedes Benz cars, and dress for breakfast as if they are going to the opera.
Within any 10 minute period of a Thai soap opera you will witness the entire gamut of human emotion. Different music will accompany each scene depending on the emotion. A full orchestra will swing into action for moments of high drama, while silly little ditties will be heard during the lighthearted moments of romantic interplay between the perfect looking lead actor and actress.
The 'comedy' moments normally consist of a ridiculous looking, extrovert, and highly effeminate ladyboy, or perhaps some of the characters dressed up in utterly stupid disguises. These forays into comedy are accompanied by the same sound effects used in Looney Tunes cartoons.
Despite what I think, these shows are popular with Thais. Also popular are Japanese - and especially Korean - period costume dramas. These are actually done very well and lavishly produced; the costumes and scenery are spectacular; the actors can act a lot better than Thai soap opera actors; and some of the girls are very pretty.
On the other hand, as opposed to Thai TV, some Thai films are World Class. Not all, but some. I was once taken to the cinema by a Thai girl to see a movie that was even worse than the TV soap operas.
It was set in a Bangkok cinema and it was all about another Thai obsession: ghosts. Whenever a Thai movie or soap opera requires a horror dimension, it is always about ghosts. And where there are Thai ghosts there are Buddhist monks, which are the Thai equivalent to Professor Van Helsing in a Dracula movie.
The ghost movies always provide an opportunity for more 'comedy' moments when the ridiculous-looking frightened ladyboy meets a ghost. My ribs have started to ache just thinking about it.
The bad movie I was taken to see also had a toilet scene involving a horrendously obese male actor defecating and I found it quite disgusting. The Thais in the audience were hooting with laughter. In addition to the culture gap in Thailand, there is also a humour gap.
A Thai film won the Palme d'Or for best picture at the Cannes film festival last year: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives".
I found a copy on DVD earlier this year but wasn't that impressed. It just looked like a standard Thai 'nung pee' (ghost movie).
The best Thai film I ever saw was Naresuan Part 2. I was riveted throughout and fell instantly in love with the character 'Lurkin'. The film was shown with English subtitles. My Thai is good enough to get by in most situations but not good enough to watch an entire movie and understand enough to really enjoy it.
I spent a long time looking for a copy of the movie for home. I bought a VCD but of course there was no English soundtrack or English subtitles. More recently I have seen DVDs and at first I was optimistic that the DVD version would at least have English subtitles.
Alas, no. I can't really understand why this is. This really is a World Class movie and I'm sure it would be very popular with many foreigners. It is such a shame to make restrictions as to who can enjoy it by only having the soundtrack and subtitles in Thai.
More bad news for Thais who love to gossip about predictions of doom and disaster.
"The calendar used by the ancient Mayan civilisation does not predict the end of the world in December 2012 as some believe, according to experts."
With 2012 almost here, this must be devastating news for the thousands of Thai mor doo (fortune tellers).
Friday 2nd December 2011
I've been praising Hat Yai's flood defence infrastructure recently and I've just read that Yingluck is coming down today to take a look for herself.
Bangkok Barry's take on Thai doctors and dentists was a little different to my own:
"I came within a couple of days of dying earlier this year due to a mis-diagnosis that I had bronchitis rather than severe food poisoning. And a friend who had a heart attack was told he had indigestion. A bit worrying, that. One dentist I went to told me I needed four extractions. I went elsewhere and had one filling. A friend who was in need of sympathy pretended he had been in an accident and had whiplash, went to a private hospital - and the hospital confimed a neck injury that didn't exist. They even produced an x-ray confirming the injury, stating that he needed to stay in hospital for at least a couple of days for observation. I think the liklihood of any of these things happening in the west are remote."
As I said in my reply to Barry, this blog is about my personal experiences in Thailand.
My experiences, no doubt, differ to other people's but my experience with Thai doctors and dentists (with a couple of minor exceptions) has been very good.
The grass is always greener and other countries always seem so much better than they actually are when you just visit for a vacation.
I receive e-mails from various people about living in Thailand permanently after having visited for a vacation. Some people put a lot of thought into the matter, wanting to know every last detail, while others don't.
When someone tells me they spent two weeks in a Phuket beach resort and knew from that moment on that they wanted to spend the rest of the life in Thailand, my eyes turn to the sky. Two weeks in a Thai beach resort - two years for that matter - isn't living in Thailand.
People who go to live in other countries sometimes have problems even if the language is the same and the culture is very similar. Many Brits head for Australia, but there are quite a few who return.
The language barrier and huge cultural gap for Westerners in Thailand can make living there quite difficult at times. One way to ease the transition is by choosing an area to live in which you are surrounded by other foreigners. Many people go down this route. My chosen path was different.
To properly get a feel for Thailand you need to spend a decent period of time in the country and you need to get away from the tourist resorts.
How long? I would say at least a year, but it wasn't until after about four years that a lot of things started to fall into place.
This period of time has to be spent living continuously in Thailand. You can have a vacation in Thailand every year for 30 years and still not know very much.
If you decide to move to Thailand, don't burn all your bridges. Make sure there is a way back if things don't work out. Being 'trapped in Thailand' isn't much fun if things don't work out in Thailand, and neither can you return to where you came from.
When is a good age to move to Thailand? It isn't only old retirees who move to Thailand; a lot of young people experience Thailand, get bitten by the bug (or meet a Thai girl), and then return to live.
This is different for everyone and it really boils down to finances. Most people who move to Thailand need to work, and most jobs only pay enough to live on. Unless you are very fortunate to find a high paying job in Thailand, there's not going to be much money left over to save and make provisions for the future.
What this means, effectively, is that you will never be able to stop working. I know foreigners in Thailand in their 60's who are in this position and don't envy them at all. It's up to you, but I couldn't bear the thought of having to work until the grave.
It's not so much an age thing, but more to do with your financial position and personal circumstances. A 25 year-old investment banker with a few good bonuses under his belt could probably afford to retire in Thailand for the rest of his days. Some people will inherit wealth later in life.
If you are older, you will probably have assets already - house, savings, pension, etc - and surviving in Thailand shouldn't be a problem. If you're young and don't have assets, then really you should think about the future a little.
The future may seem a long way off if you are only in your 20's but if you settle in Thailand and then find that you can never afford to stop working it's not going to be much fun.
Thailand may seem like a paradise during that initial vacation but the reality of surviving in Thailand if you don't have much money is tough. Don't be under any illusions.
It's tough to earn money and, unlike the UK, if you arrive in Thailand as an immigrant you aren't going to be given a raft of benefits by the Thai government. As an immigrant who hasn't contributed anything to the country you will get what you deserve. Nothing.
I have long maintained that if Burma is ever truly opened up to the rest of the world it will spell trouble for Thailand's economy.
The country has a talented, hardworking labour force. Many Burmese currently work in Thailand. The Burmese workers can't get work at home and Thai employees know that Burmese work for a lot less than Thais.
Burma is rich in natural resources. In the past I have read about virgin beaches, forests and coral reefs. The lack of development also means that wildlife populations are a lot healthier compared to areas that have been overdeveloped.
You can enjoy a tropical Southeast Asian climate, but it is also possible to go skiing on Mount Hkakabo Razi.
Dictators don't give up their hold on power easily and Burma has been isolated from the West for a long time. Nothing is going to happen overnight but changes could be on the way.
Thursday 1st December 2011
My intention when I started this blog was to give a fair, accurate, balanced and objective view of what it is like living in Thailand as a foreigner.
I'd read plenty of travel guides about 'perfect Thailand' where nothing is ever bad, but this rose-tinted view of living in Thailand doesn't prepare you very well for living in the country.
There is good and there is bad. If you are to survive in Thailand you need to understand, and be able to handle, the bad aspects.
What is unfortunate after living here for several years (a long time after the initial novelty has worn off) is that it becomes a little too easy to focus on the negatives. Accuracy and objectivity have always been important to me, but at times I have really not enjoyed writing about the negative aspects of Thailand.
Just recently, with the baby now past the difficult stage, I've been enjoying Thailand again. I've been enjoying walking around the labyrinthine local markets that for a long time I had become bored with. I've been enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of being in Thailand - just as I did as a tourist some years ago.
A few days ago I was out wandering around and everything I saw and could think of was good. I mentioned above that fairness and balance were among my criteria, so here are a few things to balance the score up.
- Thailand's excellent doctors and dentists
In the UK I paid top money to see the leading partner at a dental practice. Despite this, after coming to Thailand my teeth still had lots of problems and were very sensitive.
I starting seeing Thai dentists (all female, by the way) who meticulously fixed each problem and after a while every problem disappeared. I now have no sensitivity and my teeth have never been in better shape.
In addition, I have had no big dentist bills. All the treatment has been really cheap with some fillings only costing Bt200.
I am not generally asthmatic but I have always had an underlying asthma problem which gets aggravated by other conditions, for example, colds or flu'.
This year hasn't been good and I've had a recurring chest/breathing problem. The first couple of doctors diagnosed bronchitis and gave me medicine. The medicine made me feel better but as soon as I stopped taking it the symptoms reoccurred.
After two visits to one hospital I decided to try another hospital and found a great doctor. He took a long time checking me out and diagnosed the asthma problem. I've now seen him twice and feel better than I've done all year. My energy has returned and life has improved dramatically as a result.
It doesn't matter how rich you are or what possessions you own, life isn't much fun if you don't feel healthy.
Since being in Thailand I have found all the dentists and the vast majority of doctors I've seen to be superb.
- Getting Christmas right
It's ironic that it takes a Buddhist country to get Christmas right. It's December now, but you would hardly know. You see an occasional Christmas tree or hear an occasional Christmas song and it actually feels quite good.
I started to hate Christmas in the UK at about the age of 10. I hated going into shops at the end of August to find Christmas paraphernalia everywhere and having my ears blasted by Noddy-bloody-Holder. Do people really need to suffer with the Christmas circus for four months of the year?
- Flood management (this year)
After last year's flood, and seeing the terrible floods elsewhere in Thailand this year, I was really dreading having to go through the same thing this year.
I am very happy to say as reported previously on this blog - that the flood prevention management in this part of Thailand has been excellent this year.
Credit to the local municipality and everyone else involved.
Now the Thai government needs to ensure that the same happens everywhere else in Thailand every rainy season. Where adequate flood defence infrastructure doesn't exist, they need to build it. This is actually looking quite promising.
- Traffic cops doing their job
There is a culture in Thailand of people doing whatever they want when driving, no matter how inconvenient their actions may be for other people.
Double-parking is a major problem. If there are no parking spaces Thais will just park in the middle lane of a busy road and turn their hazard warning lights on while they go to the ATM or buy food, etc.
Their selfish action puts a whole lane out of action. They just don't care, and most of the time neither do the police.
A couple of days ago I was downtown and saw a policeman on a motorbike clamping all the double-parkers. To release the clamp they have to pay a Bt500 fine and they also have to wait quite a long time.
This was right in the central downtown area where parking regulations are enforced quite strictly. What needs to happen now is for the cop on his motorbike to go a little further out. If enough people get clamped and fined, they might start being a little more considerate.
- Taking care of historic buildings
In Hat Yai there is just one little row of such buildings. For a long time these buildings have been crumbling from neglect, which I regarded as a real travesty. Buildings like this should be protected and preserved.
While on my little walk I was delighted to see that a new coat of paint has been applied recently. The buildings haven't been renovated painstakingly with incredible attention to detail as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang was, but at least the new paint should provide some protection from the weather.
OK, that's enough of the good stuff. Let's get back to everyday reality.
Thais aren't generally violent or aggressive (apart from when driving or studying at rival technical colleges), but they can be extremely sneaky.
Whether it's sneakily trying to get ahead of other traffic while driving, students cheating in exams, or bad Thais trying to scam tourists, they know every sneaky trick in the book. This sneakiness even extends to the large supermarkets and department stores.
On a number of occasions I have seen signs saying "reduced by x%" in the supermarket only to discover that the goods directly behind the sign aren't discounted.
If you fail to notice what happens at the checkout when you pay you can end up paying full prices for goods you thought were discounted. If you ask for an explanation you just get the usual blank stares and shoulder shrugs.
I mentioned recently that I am getting quite bored with Thai food. My wife, very fortunately, has just started cooking Western food and she is really enjoying it. She's quite good and I'm enjoying eating her food more than she enjoys cooking it.
She has one book of recipes so I decided to buy her some more. At one of the local B2S bookshops I saw a big sign written in Thai in front of the recipe books. "Buy two books, get 30% off." This sounded like a good deal so I selected two books. One was Bt250 and the other was Bt500.
Unlike the vast majority of Thai shop assistants, I can do basic arithmetic in my head. Mental arithmetic isn't a Thai strength. If you buy two items for Bt10 each you normally find that the Thai shop assistant serving you immediately grabs a calculator to work out the total.
10% of Bt750 is Bt75, and therefore 30% is Bt225. I calculated that the discounted price would be Bt525. When I went to pay at the cashier the amount was Bt675. I queried this and was then told that the 30% discount only applied to one item, and that it applied to the lowest value item. 30% of Bt250 = Bt75.
I went back to look at the sign again and couldn't find anything about this. I returned to the counter and remonstrated. It didn't say anything about only one item being discounted. I wasn't happy.
I've been through this kind of scenario many times in Thailand and I knew straight away that I was on to a loser. In this kind of situation there is no way the Thai will back down and no way Thais will admit to posting misleading information. That would be admitting they were wrong, and that, of course, would constitute losing face. It's the old, old problem.
I knew they wouldn't give in and I was annoyed at the way they had placed a misleading sign. I told them I didn't want the books, left, and went to buy them elsewhere.
It's like buying a mattress. Mattresses are always sold at a big discount and never for the supposed full price. Many goods in Thailand are 'on sale' 365 days a year which, in effect, means they are never on sale.
The next thing is that promotions such as the one I have just described may not be all they appear. It is possible to get bargains in Thailand but you need to be careful, and never underestimate the sneakiness of Thais.
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. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
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.
Images of Thailand