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  • Living in Thailand Blog February 2007


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Living In Thailand Blog

Wednesday 28th February 2007

Occasional food poisoning is something I am resigned to in Thailand. If you stay in Thailand long enough, there's a good chance you will suffer from a few tummy problems. My first bout was on my first trip 20 years ago in a seafood restaurant in Pattaya. I'd been taken out by two girls and they ordered a crab. It tasted OK but by the next morning I was in serious trouble.

The girls were fine. They took me to a local doctor who gave me two types of pill and I was feeling better soon afterwards. Since then I've suffered about half-a-dozen times. One bout a couple of years ago was really bad and I went to hospital writhing in agony. They kept me in overnight on that occasion.

A friend of a friend - an American - actually died after contracting food poisoning in Thailand a few years ago. It can be very serious.

A big local story at the moment concerns a food poisoning incident. The first I heard about it was last week when I was told that some people (that is, more than one person) were admitted to hospital after eating steak but the person that told me didn't know which restaurant was involved.

I got some more information from various other sources yesterday. The restaurant involved was Sizzler, which is quite a large chain and very popular. The steaks they served up are alleged to have contained maggots. The other piece of news I heard was that the people involved were two university students and that they are claiming compensation of Bt1 million each.

Up until now American-style litigation hasn't managed to reach Thailand but if it does it will be interesting to see what happens. This case could set a few precedents. I hope they just throw it out and give the girls a free meal otherwise there will be all sorts of incidents being reported with people trying to get money for nothing. This is one crazy part of American culture the Americans can keep.

The incident happened on Valentine's Day. At the same time the girls were tucking into some juicy worms, I was eating sashimi two floors below them at a different restaurant. I could actually have been eating at Sizzler but we decided to eat Japanese food instead.

What is maybe interesting, from personal experience, is that external appearances bear little relationship to actual hygiene standards. I often eat at local restaurants and from street vendors which look pretty filthy but have never had a problem.

I think I may have located the source of my recent mosquito infestation. Yesterday I woke up with about six fresh bites and there were three mosquitoes in the room that I'm sure hadn't been there when I went to sleep.

There is an internal courtyard in my apartment building with a fairly large ornamental fish pond. While looking at the fish this morning I noticed there were swarms of mosquitoes flying around. At least now I know where they are coming from and I have already started shoring up my defences on that side of the room.

I've tightened up a loose mosquito screen covering the vents in the bathroom and my next job is to fix the large gap at the bottom of the door. Previously I was a bit puzzled because the locals told me this time of year is not known for being problematic regarding mosquitoes. It appears that the problem is very localised to where I live.

My electric mosquito zapper is being charged up as I write and I will be out there later reducing their numbers.

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Monday 26th February 2007

There are times when my Thai friends must think I am really miserable, and even a little rude. It's unfortunate but once again what it boils down to are some cultural differences.

My life is basically broken down into a number of tasks. Some I have to do, some I should do, and some I want to do. My time is precious to me and I never seem to have enough of it so I don't like to waste it. That's one reason why I don't bother with television.

Yesterday there were a number of things I wanted to get done but I was also aware of something I needed to do and that was to visit some friends who I haven't seen for several months. They are a lovely family with two very nice kids who I am very fond of. Do Do is a very gentle little boy and Di Di, his younger sister, thinks the world of me. They are cute kids. I've watched them grow up over the last three years and they have changed completely in that time.

My plan yesterday was a quick visit just to show my face and to let them know I hadn't forgotten them, and then to go back home to continue doing my other tasks. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

My arrival signalled that it was time to go bpai tiaow. There is no real direct translation and, as much as anything, bpai tiaow is a cultural thing. It just means to go somewhere (anywhere) in a group where the primary objective is sanuk. What this generally equates to with Thais is eating.

So, we all jumped in the car and headed off. Aachom, the father, is a qualified Thai massage teacher. The first stop was at the house of one of his students for a house-warming party and naturally it was all based around food.

The locals in this part of the world love kanom jeen and it doesn't need much of an excuse for them to organise a kanom jeen feast. It consists of thin white noodles, various curries and assorted raw leaves and vegetables.

I don't like it very much and one of the reasons is that the Thais always eat it cold. It is prepared hot, of course, but served up hours afterwards and by that time it is cold. It's the same with kaaw gairng, the various rice-based dishes that are prepared, stored in pots, and then eaten hours afterwards. I prefer my food hot and freshly cooked.

In Thailand, it is considered rude not to eat when offered food and this is a constant problem for me. Sometimes I am not hungry, sometimes I don't fancy what's on offer, and sometimes it's a combination of both - as was the case yesterday. I had only eaten about 45 minutes before and I certainly didn't fancy kanom jeen.

What always happens is that I try to refuse politely and explain why. This is never accepted and I am asked to 'just eat a little', at which point a plate of something I don't fancy appears in front of me. Sometimes I try to eat a mouthful but yesterday there was another problem because I wasn't feeling very well as a result of the intense hot weather.

I didn't eat anything and I probably caused offense. However, I'm not sure if forcing myself to eat and then throwing up would cause more or less offense.

After the house-warming party I thought we were heading back but no. We started heading towards the Satun border and ended up at my friend's sister's house which was right out in the sticks. Once again, lots of food was placed in front of me and once again I tried my best to decline politely.

The icing on the cake came when a plastic bag appeared full of something quite disgusting looking. I was asked if I knew what it was and I had to say I didn't. It was kai mot - ant eggs. I was then taken out to the tree where the ants live to see where the eggs came from.

This particular species of red ant is fairly large, quite aggressive and able to deliver a painful bite. A few weeks ago on another bpai tiaow outing with different friends we encountered some of these ants and they got into the car where I was bitten several times.

I was told then that their eggs can be eaten but I wasn't expecting to be offered a sample so soon. I'm afraid I am not very adventurous with 'unusual' food and no matter how many times I am told aroi aroi I am not going to eat ant eggs.

By the time I eventually got back home it was late. I had spent far too long outside again and was feeling the effects of the heat so didn't feel like doing any meaningful work. My day had disappeared, we hadn't been anywhere particularly exciting, and it seemed that the only thing I'd done all day was decline food I didn't want to eat, thus offending every Thai I had come into contact with.

I really appreciate my Thai friends but I don't appreciate the way I am 'hijacked' at times to go bpai tiaow when I want to do other things. It happens fairly often. The food issue is something else that I find mildly irritating. I am a little obstinate and if I don't want to do something I won't do it. If people constantly nag me to do something that I don't want to do, it only makes things worse and then I start to develop a bit of a bad mood.

My dilemma in Thailand is choosing to be selfish and do what I want to do or to conform to Thai culture and go against what I want to do in order to please others. It depends - to an extent - what kind of mood I'm in. Yesterday, unfortunately, I wasn't feeling well because of the intense heat and I wasn't in the best of moods.

Yesterday wasn't a great day. Miserable buggers, those farangs.

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Sunday 25th February 2007

It's too hot to go outside but that's good because I need to continue my Thai studies. Compared to English, there are some aspects of Thai that seem easier and some that are more difficult. Just getting the right sounds to come out of my mouth is tough. I still can't say ngaan properly and I don't think I ever will.

Sentence structure is very different to English but fairly simple almost to the point of being 'pidgin' if translated directly. Verbs aren't conjugated but often there are several verbs for the same action and several nouns for the same thing. Nouns have no singular or plural form.

There are also notable differences between the four regional dialects. Most Thais can understand the central dialect (paasaa glaang) but foreigners who are only familiar with the central dialect will have a hard time understanding regional dialects. Classifiers are another problem area.

The English language uses classifiers (for example, a loaf of bread) but only for some things whereas they are used for everything in Thai. In English we would say two glasses of milk and it is the same in Thai but with a different sentence structure - nom sawng gaew (milk two glass).

In Thai though it is necessary to say 'children two people' if talking about two children (dek/look sawng khon) or 'cat two animals' if talking about two cats (maow sawng dtoo-uh). These need to be learned and most phrase books and dictionaries list the commonly used classifiers.

Even this is not straightforward. Elephants are very special creatures in Thailand so have their own classifier instead of the regular one used for other lowly animals - chaang sawng cheuak (two elephants).

Kings are also very special in Thailand so have a special classifier - ga-sut took ong (every king). In the fabulous Naresuan movie, King Naresuan is called affectionately Ong Dum (Black Prince) by the people close to him.

There are classifiers for specific objects and classifiers based on characteristics such as flat things, or round things.

In the excellent 'Thai Reference Grammar - The structure of spoken Thai' by James Higbie and Snea Thinsan I noticed that there is a classifier for 'lump-shaped objects' and now I am confused.

Which of the following is correct?

ผู้หญิงฝรั่งสองคน or ผู้หญิงฝรั่งสองก้อน

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Saturday 24th February 2007

"Mai jep, mai sabai." Probably the closest English expression for this Thai phrase would be, "No pain, no gain." Read on and all will become clear.

At the end of a fairly lengthy walk yesterday in an area I don't visit often I spotted an authentic Thai massage shop. It was a scorching hot day and my legs and feet ached so I went in for a reflexology session.

Massage in Thailand can mean a number of different things. There is a trend now in tourist areas to open what are referred to as spas. These are very well appointed, comfortable places where the emphasis is on relaxation. You can get soothing oil and aromatherapy massages while listening to the type of music that is sold outside BTS stations - the kind with waterfalls splashing and birds tweeting in the background.

Farangs like these places and Thais like the amount of money they can charge rich farangs, with some places offering single treatment sessions for the same amount as many Thais earn in a month. The girls (and they are mainly girls) working in upmarket spas are normally very respectable and there is definitely no funny business.

Their training can be quite extensive. My friend, Aor, who works at one of the top spas in Thailand underwent training for about four months in massage techniques and anatomy and she also had to study English every day.

Many hotels - and a number of independent massage shops - offer basic massage services. It's not unusual for hotels to have in-house massage shops. They normally offer traditional Thai, oil or foot massage. In my experience, the girls have little training and don't really understand what they are supposed to be doing.

Nevertheless, it can still be a pleasant experience provided the girl doesn't have a bad attitude to her work. Unfortunately, I've run into quite a few girls with bad attitudes who insist on running the A/C at 15 degrees and kneel there watching TV while mechanically kneading my leg as I shiver trying to keep warm.

I tend to find that most of the girls working in these cheap places are from the north and northeast where finding work can be difficult. When you get chatting to them it isn't unusual to find that they have a child or two being looked after by their parents and they send money home.

They either work in their place of employment or go to hotel rooms. Just as most of the masseuses are girls, most of their customers are men. The massages are cheap and the girls earn very little. In shops that charge Bt100 an hour for Thai massage the girl might get Bt40 of that plus whatever she earns in tips.

Offering 'additional' services is one way to increases their earnings but not all girls do and it certainly shouldn't be expected. Even in areas of Thailand that are notorious for sex and prostitution it doesn't mean that you can just grab massage girls as four Russian men discovered recently. Many girls just aren't interested, some might if they feel comfortable with the man, and some hardened girls are downright cynical.

What I mean by this is that during a regular massage session they will do everything they can to heighten the man's sexual tension and then ask for Bt2,000 for some basic relief at which point the man is probably at the point of no return and will hand over whatever she asks for.

The authentic massage places that I started off talking about are different altogether. The one I went to yesterday just has two communal treatment rooms with mattresses on the floor - one for men and one for women. There are no 'VIP' rooms in these places and not even curtains. Everything is completely in the open.

Compared to the sweet, young things working in the other places, the therapists in the traditional massage shops can be a bit scary but they generally understand what they are doing and, for example, they can tell you about the various reflex points in your foot and which organs in your body they correspond to.

For me personally, it is not a relaxing experience. I have some intensely sensitive points on my body and it takes the masseuse about five seconds to find all of them. Once they do, they then put as much pressure with their fingers, elbows and wooden sticks on those points as they can. It's bloody painful.

My session yesterday started off OK with some friendly chat but by the end we weren't talking. I felt a bit angry at the woman because it seemed she was doing whatever she could to deliberately inflict pain on me and she was angry at me because she said the session wouldn't have any benefit unless I relaxed. What she failed to understand is that it is difficult to relax while being tortured.

There was some discussion among the staff and it seems that other masseuses have had similar experiences with farangs. Certainly as far as authentic Thai massage is concerned, farangs seem to have a lower pain barrier than Thais or other Asians.

Today I do actually feel better so perhaps the Thais are right. "Mai jep, mai sabai."

Since I arrived in Thailand I have avoided getting sunburnt ... up until yesterday. The weather is brutally hot at the moment and when I went out yesterday I forgot to take my hat. I have a stupid Japanese soldier-style hat with a flap of material at the back to keep the sun off my neck. It gives the locals a good laugh but it does exactly what it is meant to do.

I did my best to keep in the shade as much as I could but of course it's not possible to do this all the time. By the time I got back my face and neck were on fire and I was (still am) a serious lobster colour.

In miserable countries such as England where the sun is absent for six months of the year some spring sunshine always feels wonderful. In countries such as Thailand, however, the sun becomes a bit of an enemy and is something to be avoided. I now take the view of the Thais that to strip off and deliberately expose your body to the full strength of the midday sun borders on insanity.

Earlier this year there were some predictions that 2007 would be the hottest year ever recorded, beating the previous hottest ever year which was 1998. It has to do with greenhouse gases and El Niño.

Judging by how hot it is at the moment, the forecasters could well be right. I was talking about this to one of my Thai friends last night and she reminded me that now isn't even considered as being the hot season. Roll on October.

Australia, Canada, Britain and Japan have all issued warnings about possible terrorist attacks in Bangkok. I was also given a personal warning to be careful in big cities in Thailand between 23rd and 26th of this month and March 13th, the anniversary of the founding of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgency organisation.

I don't know what exactly is behind these warnings but the person who told me is very well-informed and has the right kind of contacts to give the warning a lot of credibility.

I haven't stopped thinking about the movie I watched a couple of days ago - Naresuan Part II - and I am feeling a strong urge to go to see it again. It's a refreshing change from the many films I've watched over the years that have been instantly forgettable as soon as the credits start to roll.

What was so great about the movie? Without doing a review - which I am ill-equipped to do anyway - I will try to explore a few of the themes of the movie.

WARNING - there may be a few plot spoilers here so stop reading now if you think this will spoil your enjoyment of the film.

Firstly, it draws heavily on the three cornerstones of Thai existence - Nation, Religion, King. Ong Dum's first loyalty is to Siam and the Siamese people. His adviser and mentor is a wise Buddhist monk and his people love and respect him as a great king and leader.

There is much obeisance to Buddhism. When Ong Dum and his princess (Maneechan) hug, the monk appears and reminds them that they are in a temple. When he takes refuge during the rainstorm in the old lady's house and one of his men asks for alcohol she reminds him that it is the Buddhist Lent when alcohol shouldn't be drunk.

The theme of the King as a father-figure to the nation is strongly represented. At one point he and his men walk among ordinary people and he asks that they don't address him as a king. He doesn't want the people to know who he is so that he can gauge their happiness.

Ong Dum is visibly saddened when the old, blind lady tells him of her hardships since the kingdom went to war. Her son was sent to fight and without people to work the rice fields the price of rice has risen.

There is lots of moral goodness which is of enormous importance to the Thais. As a forerunner to the Geneva Convention, there were rules of war even then. One rule was that survivors on the losing side of a battle could collect their dead. One man doesn't wish to respect this but Ong Dum does. Later, the two assassins sent to kill Ong Dum choose to take his side instead as he is a good man.

Not least, there is lots of romance and some very touching love scenes. Ong Dum, who is tired, asks Maneechan if he can rest his head on her lap. She tells him he can lie there for as long as he wishes while she strokes his head. He tells her that he could lie there for eternity but he has much to do.

When Ong Dum tells Boonting to check on the King of Krang and his daughter, Lurkin, who are imprisoned, someone asks why he sent a prince to check on them and not an ordinary soldier. Ong Dum asks the person whether he has noticed that Boonting has fallen in love with Lurkin?

Ong Dum spares the life of Lurkin and her father who are originally sentenced to be burned to death but they are imprisoned instead. Later in the film, Boonting suggests to the King that they should release all prisoners.

Ong Dum tells Boonting not to treat him as if he stupid. He knows the real reason for Boonting's suggestion and tells him to go to find and release his princess. The earlier scene where Lurkin escapes and is chased on horseback by Boonting before they fight in the water and then kiss is beautiful.

The moral goodness continues with good eventually defeating evil and brains defeating brawn. In addition to a great storyline and some magnificent acting (I was getting seriously worried about Thai actors after watching the way they ham it up in TV soap operas); the scenery is spectacular and the special effects effective without being completely over the top as is customary with most of the rubbish coming from Hollywood.

The elephants as weapons of war are fearsome as well as magnificent creatures. And as for the Thai women; it's difficult to imagine women from any other country being able to demonstrate so much elegance, grace and beauty. Thai women are without doubt the most beautiful in the world - it's not just physical beauty but the whole package.

Yes, I think I will be heading back to the movie theatre fairly soon.

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Friday 23rd February 2007

Routine motorbike accident in Thailand - Click for larger image Here's the aftermath of the motorcycle accident I witnessed today. It happened at low speed and the people involved only suffered from a few scrapes and bruises. Of course, I only actually see a tiny proportion of the many accidents that occur.

Throughout Thailand every day there are hundreds of minor incidents like this one, along with a number of fatalities and serious injuries.

I have never had any desire to ride a motorbike in Thailand even though having one would be handy at times. The driving standards are appalling and most accidents are a result of driver stupidity. Sometimes while on the back of motorcycle taxis I think to myself this is crazy.

The drivers tear along narrow streets full of parked cars and concealed entrances with their eyes focused 100 yards in the distance. They make no allowance for anyone doing anything unexpected when this is a country where people do unexpected things on the roads all the time.

Despite all the evidence, Thais still insist that motorbikes aren't dangerous and many foreigners also ride them. Foreigners tend to drive a little more defensively apart from one guy I saw who was riding his bike as if he had a death wish.

It's a personal choice - as is everything in life - but a motorbike in Thailand is not for me.

What depths has the BBC sunk to? Normally, cliché-ridden accounts of the horrors of being a Thai prostitute only surface in books written by slimy sexpats trying to make a few bob to fund their sordid existences. I expect better of BBC journalists, especially Kate McGeown who has written some good articles in the past.

Here's my cut-and-paste guide:

Start off by talking about Thailand's notorious reputation as a hub of sex tourism and then describe the experiences of Noi/Lek/Daeng/Pim*, an innocent girl from Nong Khai/Korat/Udon Thani/Roi Et* whose friend told her about a job in a bar in Bangkok.

Talk about the aspirations of Noi/Lek/Daeng/Pim* earlier in her life and how she wanted to become a nurse/doctor/scientist/teacher/actress*. Talk about her tough family life from a rice-farming background with an alcoholic, abusive father who has lots of debt; but always with a kind, loving mother.

Move on to how shocked she was when she realised there was more to her job in the bar than mixing cocktails and filling up the peanut bowls. Next, graphically describe her first experience with a paying customer - a fat, rude, aggressive, uncaring sex tourist - and how she wept all night after he had gone.

Describe how inhuman the men are who pay for sex and how uncaring their employers are. Describe how Noi/Lek/Daeng/Pim* is now resigned to her way of life and how she just looks at the ceiling while servicing customers and thinks of the money she is earning that can pay for her family's medical bills, her younger sister's education and the sick buffalo.

Try to finish on an optimistic note by highlighting a few NGO's who help girls like Noi/Lek/Daeng/Pim*, and how these organisations are giving the girls a chance in life.

* Delete as applicable

Prostitution in Thailand is not a very pleasant subject and I do sympathise with some of the girls but making them all out to be innocent victims isn't accurate. Not a few are greedy and cynical. They go into prostitution because they are lazy and it is the easiest way to make a lot of money quickly.

I know lots of decent, hard working Thai girls who do honest work for Bt4,000 to Bt6,000 per month and girls like this make up the vast majority of the female population. They are fully aware they could go to Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket and sell their bodies to make far more but they would never dream of doing such a thing. They aren't greedy girls and although they don't earn a lot, it's enough for what they need in life and they maintain their respectability.

I am also aware of many lonely foreign men who come to Thailand who are just looking for someone to love. I am aware because some of them write to me. They meet bar girls purely because they don't have the time or the language skills to meet regular Thai girls. They are good men who are honest, generous and treat the girls with lots of respect.

It is not right to continually perpetuate the myth that all Thai prostitutes are poor little victims who have no other choice in life and that all of the men they come into contact with are evil monsters.

I get annoyed with this kind of reporting not just because it is inaccurate and unbalanced, but because it gives foreigners who don't know any better the wrong impression of Thailand. Prostitution is a very complex issue which deserves better than this clichéd rubbish the BBC has seen fit to peddle.

They've taken one girl, Pim from Phetchabun, and used her story to describe the entire industry. They have also made some crass generalisations about the men who associate with bar girls.

Last, and not least, what kind of impression does this type of story give to readers about foreign men - like me - living in Thailand? Sorry Kate but you need to do some more research.

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Thursday 22nd February 2007

The excellent Thai healthcare system I have often written about takes mainly the Western approach to medicine but in this region of the world it is not surprising that there is much evidence of Eastern and Thai traditional medicine.

The traditional cures and treatments can be divided into those which are pure bunkum and those which are legitimate alternatives - or complementary treatments - to Western medicine. Perhaps the most obvious example in Thailand is Thai massage which balances the body through manipulation of the musculo-skeletal system.

Herbs and plants can contain chemicals with potent medicinal powers and these have been known about for thousands of years. One of my ex-students researched the Sagai people for her Master's degree. Thailand's northern hill tribe people are well known but less is known about the Sagai who are another of the country's minority ethnic groups.

They have African-looking features; being small of stature, very dark-skinned, with curly hair. They live in remote, isolated forest regions and take care of themselves. My student told me they have an excellent knowledge of their environment and know exactly which herbs to use for various ailments and how to prepare them.

The newest faculty at the Prince of Songkhla University is the Faculty of Thai Traditional Medicine (web site in Thai) which runs quite happily alongside the Faculty of (Western) Medicine.

There has been an ongoing dispute between Thailand and Japan over a herb called Pueraria mirifica, known in Thai as 'Kwao Kreu'.

Indigenous to Thailand, it is claimed to have many rejuvenating properties but two Japanese companies have patented the cosmetic applications of the herb and the Thais regard this as no less than theft.

Although there is no doubt that some traditional cures work, there is also a strong desire with some people to believe in mysticism and esoteric cures. It's similar to a belief in spirits where people want very much to believe that there is more to this world than there appears to be.

A woman up in Roi Et province has been making a good living selling magical leaves from trees that originally come from Vietnam. It is claimed that these leaves cure all sorts of ailments, including cancer.

Whether the leaves do contain chemicals with medicinal properties is uncertain but she has no shortage of customers. I guess the other thing is that in many cases, if a person believes they will get better, they will. The mind is a powerful force when it comes to healing the body.

I like the holistic approach of Eastern medicine. I'm sure that many illnesses these days suffered by Westerners are related to stress but it is only ever the physical symptoms that get treated.

A health store (very similar to Holland & Barrett in the UK) opened near to me recently. They sell all sorts of lotions and potions. One potion claims to cure all manner of illnesses including flatulence, air bubbles in the heart and 'tight-fisted'. I'm not sure what is meant by tight-fisted but where I come from it has a very different meaning.

I also couldn't help notice the small jars of 'Pink Nipple Cream' complete with 'before' and 'after' photos. Personally, I don't have a problem with brown nipples but I think I need to find some volunteers so I can conduct tests to see if this really works - all in the name of consumer protection, of course. I wonder if Chotiros Suriyawong - she of the sexy, black dress notoriety - would be interested in my scientific experiment?

In most Thai towns and cities you will find Chinese medicine shops. I visited a Chinese doctor once and have described the experience elsewhere on this web site. Just to recap, his office was one of the dingiest and dirtiest places I have ever set foot in.

On his desk was Chinese tea drinking paraphernalia and several overflowing ashtrays from where he smoked continuously, while occasionally spitting into a spittoon on the floor next to his chair. He did his diagnosis by feeling my pulse and looking at my tongue.

The prescription he wrote out for me was in Chinese, written with an old-fashioned ink pen and was quite a work of art. I went to a Chinese medicine shop to get what he had prescribed and the bill was quite a shock due to the amount of Ginseng in the prescription.

I had to infuse the herbs twice a day and drink the resulting 'tea'. It was quite disgusting and didn't help the eye problem I was suffering from but it was an interesting experience.

I've had about six bouts of food poisoning in Thailand over the years. The worst part is when I eventually stop visiting the toilet and try to get some food back in my completely empty stomach. I always suffer from severe abdominal cramps at that stage.

I could never find anything to relieve the pain but Iss bought me a couple of strange looking bottles of Thai medicine. The first one was pure white and the second, dark brown. Among the ingredients are sodium bicarbonate, powdered rhubarb, oil of peppermint, camphor, glycerin, alcohol, menthol.

Both have been quite effective reducing the pain. With any of the alternative cures that are available, I think they are worth trying and if they don't work for you, there is little lost.

Well, I am just about to get ready to go for one of my twice or three times weekly Thai massage sessions. That certainly does the trick. My current masseuse took me three years to find and she is a little treasure.

King Naresuan the Great - Click for larger image What a great day it has been. After a thoroughly enjoyable massage session I went to see the King Naresuan movie. Wow, what a movie. A three hour foreign movie with subtitles may not sound like everyone's idea of fun but it is an amazing film and the time just flew.

There is now another Thai goddess in my life to idolise (sorry Lanna). The feisty warrior princess, Lurkin, played by Inthira (Sai) Charoenpura was gorgeous. There is just something about lovely Thai girls who are a little bit tomboy-ish and a bit feisty that really gets my pulse racing. Sai's elder sister, Mai - a well known singer in Thailand - isn't too shabby either.

It's a great, great movie and everyone that gets the chance should go. The Thai movie industry seems to be very healthy at the moment and deservedly so when it is making world-class films like this.

The photo of King Naresuan the Great is one I took in Ayuthaya a couple of years ago and shows him climbing a wooden stockade with a sabre in his mouth assaulting the Burmese invaders.

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Wednesday 21st February 2007

There's been a bit of an outcry in the past week about a young actress who turned up at an award ceremony in Korat in a very revealing dress. I noticed the story but paid little attention as I really can't be bothered with tabloid-type news. Today, for the first time, I saw a photo of the dress and my immediate thought was that it looked remarkably similar to the one Liz Hurley wore some years ago (but without the safety-pins).

The reaction in Thailand towards young Chotiros Suriyawong, however, has been a little different to that experienced by Hugh Grant's ex-girlfriend. Hurley's dress catapulted her to fame but in ultra-conservative Thailand, people aren't quite as impressed with the flagrant display of flesh.

She's also a student at Thammasat which doesn't help. Thammasat decided not to suspend her but made her work for 15 days helping handicapped children. She has also been filming a movie and I heard that the director has now cut all the scenes involving her.

It's just another example of ultra-conservative values in Thailand. This may confuse tourists who have visited Go-Go bars in Pattaya, Patpong, Patong or Nana Plaza but what goes on in those places is about as far removed from Thai culture as you can get. The Thais really are a conservative race.

The girl who told me about this and showed me the photos today had a serious look of disgust on her face. What is interesting is that she is certainly not a big, fat lump of lard with a chip on her shoulder. She is a stunning girl with - in my opinion - a prettier face and more shapely body than the actress in question. (I should also add that she's already taken, very much in love with her Thai boyfriend, and planning to get married next year.)

Just because a Thai girl 'has it' she won't necessarily 'flaunt it' and that accounts for the vast majority of girls here. It's not unusual for them to use pins in between the buttons on their blouses just in case a little hole starts to gape open and they are also very careful not to reveal any cleavage if they have to bend down for anything. Yes, I notice these things!

When I think about how bar girls in Patong have lifted up their tops in the past to show me everything and have then burst out laughing I can understand why Thailand sends out mixed messages to foreigners but what happens in tourists areas shouldn't be confused with genuine Thai culture.

As The Nation pointed out, the story has also exposed a certain amount of hypocrisy in Thai society; the same kind of hypocrisy that rears its head every Songkran when warnings are issued to girls thinking of wearing tops with 'spaghetti straps'.

The Thais can be very puritanical at times but sex and sexiness is a big part of Thai society. The huge bathhouse brothels that are conspicuous in every large city aren't there just for tourists. Girls are expected to be extremely sexy when entertaining men, advertising goods or attracting customers but Chotiros, in trying to further her career by looking sexy, has been savagely criticised. There are lots of double standards operating in Thailand.

A promotion girl advertising JRD motorbikes - Click for larger image This blog entry is now starting to sound as if it is full of contradictions and this is why Thailand can be such a confusing place. I can go to the local supermarket and see nothing but very conservative girls doing their shopping and hanging out with their friends but advertising a pickup truck or a brand of motorcycle will be two (or more) girls dressed in very sexy outfits.

No one bats an eyelid. For these promotion events it is expected that the girls will look very sexy and they do. However, if a university girl changed from her black skirt and white blouse into something similar to go out for the evening she would be in a lot of trouble and the target of much gossip.

Also, the way a girl dresses doesn't necessarily have any bearing on her character. A girl may look very sexy but still have very conservative attitudes. You can look but you definitely can't touch.

I was trying to keep away from the political stuff but I saw that Somkid has resigned from his new appointment.

Appointing him was a really strange move by the current government but it could have been brilliant ... possibly ... maybe. In a 'poacher-turned-gamekeeper' role there would have been no better person to expose and discredit Thaksin and 'Thaksinomics'. (Not that the Thais really need anyone to do that when they have Suvarnabhumi.) It was a high-risk move for Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to take but it didn't work out.

Without exception, every Thai I have spoken to this week has condemned the appointment. They don't believe that leopards can change their spots and they don't trust Somkid or anyone else who had close ties with Thaksin. They tell me that Somkid has a brilliant mind regarding economics but he isn't a morally good person. The Nation didn't like his appointment either. I don't know enough about him to be able to form an opinion but reports say he has tried to distance himself from Thaksin.

If he had remained in the job it could have led to more unrest so he resigned.

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Monday 19th February 2007

More desperately sad news this morning when I received a phone call telling me about events in the southern provinces last night (including the one I'm living in - Songkhla). Not having a TV, I missed the news as it happened.

There are some big ethnic-Chinese populations down in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Also, many Chinese Malaysians had come across the border to celebrate Chinese New Year. Entertainment venues were hit and a couple more schools torched. Teachers and schools have been primary targets since the problems flared up again at the beginning of 2004 and as a result many children are missing out on their education.

Rubber tappers are afraid to go out at night and apparently fruit is just rotting in fields because people are too scared to go out to pick it. The economy in the region is dying. Electricity cables and generating stations have also been targeted to disrupt life further. Almost 2,000 people have been killed since January 2004.

Thaksin took a hard-line approach with the separatists. The current government has offered to negotiate with them. Neither approach has worked. The separatist terrorists are not rational people and are therefore impossible to deal with on a rational basis.

Do they think that by continuing to kill people, destroying the economy, closing down schools and refusing to discuss what they want, that one day they will just wake up to find they are living in an independent state? It's not going to happen. I think they understand that what they are demanding is unreasonable so they know there is no point entering into any serious negotiations.

I am beginning to think that Thaksin may have had the right idea but the way his hard-line approach was applied indiscriminately wasn't right at all. The two massacres that took place in 2004 made me feel sick to my stomach.

This is one of the biggest challenges the Thai government faces and they are going to need lots of assistance from Malaysia. The border wall between Thailand and Malaysia is being extended to prevent terrorists from being able to run back into the Malaysian jungle for cover. This should help but it's not the answer. What the answer is; I just don't know.

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Sunday 18th February 2007

I turned on my air-conditioner last night for the first time in about five months. Friday was very hot during the day but there was a strong breeze and clear skies. Because of the clear skies, the temperature dropped quite nicely in the evening.

Yesterday was just as hot but muggy and humid. There was hardly any breeze and when I went out after 9pm last night it was still as hot as during the daytime. Upon getting back to my room I felt most uncomfortable. I was about to open the door and turn on the fan but knew it wouldn't be enough so resorted to A/C.

It wasn't on for long - maybe 30 minutes - and once I'd cooled down I just opened the door again but the fact it went on at all confirms that the hot season is on its way.

The Thai hot season is not at all pleasant and from now on it will only get worse before peaking in April. Southern Thailand is more moderate weatherwise than the rest of the country with smaller seasonal variations in temperature.

Other areas of the country are cooler in the cool season but hotter in the hot season. One place that I find really unbearable in the hot season is Bangkok. The acres of concrete and tarmac act as big heat storage devices and the traffic pollution seems worse than ever when it is very hot.

The hot weather doesn't agree with me but it certainly seems to agree with the local mosquito population. My room is normally mosquito-free but in the past couple of weeks I have done nothing but squish the little pests.

I was awoken one night last week by that worst of sounds; the high-pitched whine of a mossie in my right ear. Yesterday I got three or four during the daytime and thought the room was clear but I found another in the bathroom as I took a shower.

That one got dealt with but two more appeared as I lay in bed reading. They also got dealt with but there were another two flying around this morning. I just can't figure out where they are getting in.

It can't be doing my Karma much good but I don't have any compunction about killing mosquitoes. Not only are the bites extremely irritating but they spread some very nasty diseases including malaria, dengue fever and even elephantiasis.

Do they actually serve any useful purpose? Even the most obnoxious creatures usually do some good but I can't figure out what good mosquitoes do. They are about as useful as Victoria Beckham.

It wasn't mosquitoes that disturbed my sleep last night but a constant cacophony of ear-shattering firecrackers and a fireworks display at 1:30am directly outside my room. This is quite normal for Chinese New Year, especially in a town with a large ethnic Chinese population. Welcome to the Year of the Pig.

I'm not a big fan of Chinese New Year and find the firecrackers quite tiresome. These are the type that are banned in many countries and really have the potential to shatter eardrums. When they go off it sounds like a war zone and at times they go off continuously.

After all the noise, things go very quiet - too quiet, in fact. It's a long holiday in Thailand and some businesses close down for a week or more. I went out for lunch yesterday and ended up walking a long because so many restaurants were closed.

At CNY you realise just how much Chinese influence there is in Thailand and how many businesses are operated by Thai-Chinese.

How dangerous is Thailand? The answer to that question is difficult to answer because 'dangerous' is a relative term. A few locals consider the area I live in as dangerous and one of the girls on reception has even expressed concern about me going out alone in the evening.

The local supermarket stays open until 10pm and last night I popped out for some bread. I wasn't concerned in the least. There is a minor bag-snatching problem in the area but the perpetrators - normally two young oiks on a motorbike - only ever pick on small Thai girls.

I won't let Iss go out late at night alone (she has already survived two bag-snatching attempts since I've known her) but the brave little rascals don't target big, ugly, hairy-arsed farangs so I don't feel particularly threatened.

A South African guy started writing to me a couple of years ago with lots of questions about Thailand. His plan was to spend six months in Thailand each year and last year he showed up with his wife. They rented a place very close to where I am and we became friends.

A couple of months ago they had to go back home to sort out their affairs but hope to be back in Thailand soon. He wrote a few days ago telling me that in the nine weeks they have been back they have experienced four attempted robberies.

The BBC ran a report on the crime problems in South Africa and the situation is terrifying with around 300 murders or violent assaults every day. I had a great holiday there around seven years ago and hoped to return one day but with crime escalating out of control the way it is, I honestly can't see myself going back unless there is a radical improvement.

It's such a shame because the country is beautiful, the climate is good, the wildlife is completely out of this world, the people are friendly, and I had some of the best food and wine I have ever tasted in my life at bargain prices.

My South African friends obviously regard Thailand as being extremely safe compared to what they are used to. They can't believe that people can just walk up to an ATM in the street and withdraw money without fear of being robbed. I sleep with my door open and just a mosquito screen between me and the outside world; something that would be most unwise in other parts of the world.

In the last couple of weeks there have been a number of very disturbing reports from the UK about gun crime, with shootings in South London, East London and Manchester. Apparently guns have become a fashion accessory among street gangs and there is an active trade supplying weapons. The UK is now probably one of the most dangerous places in Europe.

Since arriving in Thailand I have never had any great desire to return to England apart from maybe during my first year when I was still finding my feet. Now, not only do I have no desire to return but the prospect of going back positively frightens me.

Tourists from Singapore, one of the safest countries on earth where violent crime is almost non-existent, may have a few concerns about visiting Thailand but I think it is probably fair to say that most visitors - especially those from South Africa and the UK - will find Thailand a lot safer than their home countries.

Considering that I have lived in Thailand a little over three years, my Thai is still woefully poor. At times I feel thoroughly ashamed that my ability speaking, reading and writing the native language (in what is now my country of abode) is the equivalent of a very young Thai child. It's disgraceful.

I was speaking to the owner at a local restaurant who is an artist and I wanted to know if she knows the artist whose paintings were on show at the exhibition I went to last week. She used to be a lecturer at one of the big universities in Bangkok and not only did she know him but she had actually been taught by him occasionally.

Anyway, after I had got that piece of information she went off in Thai and for the next couple of minutes I hardly understood a word she said. I stood there nodding my head like a bemused Phuket tourist. What may come as a surprise is that in the past couple of weeks I have received lots of compliments about my Thai from Thais. What's going on?

Firstly, the Thais are a very kind race and compliment people easily. Secondly, because so few foreigners speak any Thai at all, it takes very little to impress them. At times, a foreigner only has to say 'thank you' in Thai in order to receive a somewhat patronising, "Poot geng."

In my case though, I wasn't being complimented patronisingly. They honestly thought I could speak well and I will explain why.

In Thailand, when engaging in conversation with strangers, the same questions are asked time and time again. Here are a few examples:

"How long have you been in Thailand?"
"Which country do you come from?"
"Do you like Thailand?"
"Do you like/Can you eat Thai (spicy) food?"
"Where are you going?"
"Where have you come from?"
"Have you eaten rice yet?"
"What have you bought?"
"How much was it?"
"What do you do?"
"Where do you work?"
"How much do you earn a month?"
"Where do you stay?"
"How much do you pay for accommodation each month?"
"Are Thai girls beautiful?"
"Are you married yet?"
"Do you have any children?"

It doesn't take long to learn the standard questions and how to answer them. It's the same in restaurants where interactions with wait staff are much the same every time. In many situations it's easy to give the impression (to both Thais and foreigners) of being able to speak Thai well when the reality is very different.

It can take several minutes answering (and asking in return) these basic questions - which might give the illusion of being a proper conversation - but this level of conversation is still firmly in beginners territory. Don't be deceived. Not until someone can pick up a Thai newspaper and translate the stories into English are they getting anywhere near being fluent.

Whenever I read statements or hear about foreigners who claim to be fluent in Thai, I wonder if that really is the case? Not including Andrew Biggs, I can count on one hand the number of foreigners I have heard speaking what I consider to be fluent Thai.

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Blog entries 1st to 17th February 2007

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