Living In Thailand Blog
Sunday 28th February 2010
On this day during the Buddha's lifetime, 1250 Buddhist monks from many different places came together to pay homage to the Buddha without making any prior arrangements.
Thais perform a ceremony called wien-tien (wien 'to go around' and tien 'candle'). Carrying a lotus flower, a lighted candle and incense sticks, it is customary to walk around the main temple building three times in a clockwise direction.
Wien-tien - according to my dictionary - is also the Thai idiom for 'gangbang', which is rather unfortunate.
Thai Buddhism in practice is just about making merit at the temple on auspicious days and so various merit-making activities take place on days like today. Lots of people down on their luck go to the temple to beg.
People trap birds in cages, bring them to the temple, and then take money from other people to release them. I covered this earlier in the month.
There is a lot of building going on at the temple and a better way to make merit (in my opinion) is to donate to the building work. For Bt20 you can write your name on one of the bricks that will be used to construct a new temple building.
This is what I did, and this is what the girls in the last photo are doing.
Friday 26th February 2010
I've never been very good with money and investments. I've lost money on equity investments, and on the odd occasion when I've done well it was only because of luck. My investment portfolio is less now than it was five years ago. If only I were clever.
I got some people in from the local garden centre today to sort out the pot plants on my terrace. The woman told me that one of my plants (an hibiscus, I think) was now worth about Bt1,000. I bought it between five and six years ago for about Bt150. That's not a bad ROI.
It was quite small when I bought it but now it's a fairly good size. I've never taken particularly good care of it; one pot change to a larger size, an occasional watering, and the removal of some large, ugly caterpillars last year with voracious appetites. Nonetheless, it continues to thrive.
Instead of one, perhaps it would have been a better idea to have bought several thousand?
9:30pm Thai time. Thais were glued to their TV sets this evening as the cameras zoomed in on red-shirted Thaksin supporters in tears.
I have so much to say but it will only upset Thaksin supporters so it is better left unsaid. People tend to get very emotional about this subject instead of sticking to the facts. To get some of those facts, I would urge people to read the book I referenced below.
I don't know if Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker are planning to write an update, but if they are it would be very interesting.
The sad thing for Thailand is that this is not the end of the problems. This decision will only be the catalyst for more problems. Bt30 billion is still a large war chest.
Thailand needs to be united for the good of all Thais. For as long as there is this huge rift in Thai society, the country as a whole will never reach its true potential.
Thursday 25th February 2010
The rumbling volcano that I mentioned previously is set to start erupting tomorrow.
These days I try to avoid talking about politics or religion but sometimes it is unavoidable. The problems that have plagued Thailand for several years now are very much political in nature.
The strictly hierarchical structure of Thai society means that Thailand has never been a very fair country. There are quite a few Thais who are rich by international standards, which equates to being very rich in Thailand.
On the other hand, there is a large mass of low-educated rural poor mainly involved in agriculture who work very hard but who earn barely enough to survive. They don't go hungry but their lives aren't exactly exciting or full of opportunity.
I was always quite surprised at how little resentment there was among the 'have nots' in Thailand towards the 'haves' and I always attributed this to Buddhism. If what we have in this life is a result of our actions in a previous life, then we have no one to blame but ourselves and thus there is no one to resent.
Among the rural poor there always seemed to be a sense that nothing could change their situation so they just got on with life.
And then Thaksin arrived on the scene.
At the time, Thailand was still struggling from the problems of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. To many Thais, Thaksin, an enormously wealthy businessman, seemed to be the only person who was capable of getting Thailand out of trouble. He seemed, as one person said at the time, a 'breath of fresh air'.
Thai politics had always suffered from corruption and Thaksin claimed he could solve this. He was rich already, he said, so there was no need for him to be corrupt.
I don't really want to go into my views on Thaksin, but his thinking, strategies and populist policies were very different from previous Thai Prime Ministers.
For further reading, I highly recommend 'Thaksin - The Business of Politics in Thailand' by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker; ISBN 974-9575-55-5.
He made an effort to win the hearts, minds, and most importantly votes of the rural poor (who represent the majority of the Thai electorate). With so many supporters he quickly became an unassailable force in Thai politics, and at the same time the thinking among Thailand's poorest citizens began to change.
Whatever your views on Thaksin, the thing that cannot be denied is that he is an incredibly divisive figure. People love him or hate him - in equal measures - and now Thailand is split in two; red shirts on one side and yellow on the other.
When Thaksin fled the country after the 2006 coup, his assets remaining in Thailand (worth Bt76 billion) were seized by the Thai government. The court case that is currently being contested concerns these assets and a decision will be given tomorrow.
More details about the Supreme Court ruling: Thai court to rule on ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra
Whichever way the ruling goes tomorrow, half of the country won't be happy. There is no getting away from that, and there isn't an outcome that will please everyone. It might pass peacefully, or there could be problems.
Who knows what will happen? All will be revealed soon.
Wednesday 24th February 2010
With regard to the tone of Thai words, the most natural way to learn is by listening to Thais and copying parrot-fashion. This works well with commonly spoken phrases.
For example, you hear phrases such as glup baan and gin kaaw so often that you soon automatically start speaking the words for 'house/home' and 'rice' with a falling tone.
If you can read Thai - and provided you can remember the tone rules - it is easy to work out the tone from the spelling of the word. There are a couple of exceptions where pronunciation doesn't match tone rules but they are very rare. Generally, all words follow these rules.
มา (maa come)
The word for 'come' begins with a low class initial consonant and is followed by a live syllable = mid tone
ม้า (maa horse)
The word for 'horse' uses a tone mark and so different rules are used.
Low class initial consonant + second tone mark = high tone
หมา (maa dog)
The word for 'dog' loses the tone mark again but adds a silent hor heep in front of the initial consonant. The hor heep character (normally an 'H' sound) isn't voiced in this word but it is a high class consonant and is there purely for tone purposes. The fact that the word now begins with a high class consonant changes the tone.
High class consonant followed by live syllable = rising tone
If this sounds confusing, it gets worse. There is another word for dog that is completely different (suu-nuk). Once you've learnt the vocabulary for everyday speech, you then need to learn the polite versions. For the equivalent English nouns and verbs, you will find that Thai - more often than not - has more than one word.
There is yet a third set of vocabulary for royal words but even Thais have problems learning these. Vocabulary and pronunciation also vary quite a lot from region to region. Thais from Bangkok are just as confused as foreigners when they hear the southern Thai dialect.
Written Thai tends to be a lot more formal than spoken Thai. When trying to read pages of written text, the vocabulary and sentence structure is tough if you are only familiar with spoken Thai.
I've spoken to university lecturers who tell me that Thai students doing Bachelor's and Master's degrees have real problems writing Thai.
Everyday speech can be quite easy because of the simple sentence structure but there are varying degrees of difficulty with Thai ranging from easy to extremely complex.
Tuesday 23rd February 2010
Thai is an impossible language at times (most of the time, actually).
The latest girlfriend speaks very little English, which is good for me practising my Thai, but not so good when it comes to communicating clearly. She's coming over this evening and I called to ask her to buy some food on the way and bring it over.
The Thai word for 'want' is 'ao', while the word for bring is a kind of compound verb (which uses the same word for bring) 'ao object you want brought maa'.
I asked her to bring food 'ao ahaan maa' (or so I thought).
The problem with Thai, a tonal language, is that maa spoken with different tones can mean 'come', 'dog' or 'horse'.
Also, in Thai, the word order is 'noun-adjective' instead of 'adjective-noun' as in English.
My simple request to bring food was met with howls of laughter because it sounded to her as if I said, "I want dog food." She offered to bring a can of Pedigree.
This joke will now go on indefinitely. Thais love to laugh at my crude attempts to speak their language and they have good memories. Iss, my ex-girlfriend, still teases me over simple pronunciation mistakes I made years ago.
I also play the same game and have never let her forget how she once called a 'kitchen' a 'chicken'.
Laughing, joking and teasing are important aspects of behaviour to Thais. Whatever you do, don't be serious. To not smile or laugh, but to have a stern face (naa-duu) is not a good thing and can actually scare Thais.
The sooner you start to tease (lor len) Thais and they reciprocate, the better, because then you know you have been accepted.
I thought it was normal practice but after a few months they all but disappeared. It was a craze.
Subsequently, I have witnessed many crazes. Somebody does something; everyone else follows until they get bored; the craze dies out; a new craze comes along; repeat steps 1 to 4. That is the normal cycle.
Shortly after the mosquito swatters, Thai girls started weaving pieces of coloured tinsel into their hair but that craze didn't last long. There was a huge craze last year with hair extensions and shops were opening specifically to match the demand.
Before that, the really massive craze was for Jatukham Ramathep amulets. Again, shops were opening just to sell amulets, and other shops started selling amulets alongside their regular goods.
At the height of the craze, which started in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, you couldn't find a vacant hotel room in Nakhon. One woman was even stampeded to death in the rush to get a newly-issued amulet. Eventually that craze also died out.
Around where I am, there has been a craze for coffee shops. It seemed for a while that every new shop that opened was a coffee shop. When I first arrived, there were only a couple of shops but now they are everywhere.
What seems to have saved a lot of them from closing down is Wi-Fi Internet access. Nearly all of the coffee shops offer a Wi-Fi service and they get customers who want to surf the net.
The coffee shop craze died down but after that came the craze for restaurants selling cheap Japanese food. Again, when I first arrived there were only a few places selling Japanese food but now there are loads.
Another craze started more recently and it is currently in full swing. Everywhere I go now, I see adverts for fish spas. These are the places where you put your feet into a tank of water containing small fish (Garra rufa and Cyprinion macrostomus) which then feed on the dead skin, debris, and detritus left on your feet.
When I used to scuba dive I was always fascinated by cleaner stations where large marine animals go to be cleaned by small fish and shrimps. (The small fish are rewarded for their services by not being eaten.) With fish spas it is the same principle, except that humans are the beneficiaries.
During my aquarium outing on Friday I saw that a fish spa has opened there too. I was getting everything at Thai prices that day and the fish spa was only Bt50 for Thais (normally double for foreigners). So I had a go.
It really is the strangest sensation. The fish don't waste any time and as soon as your feet enter the water they are besieged with dozens of fish nibbling away. It's a very tickly feeling but you get used to it.
Now I've tried it, I'm not sure I will go again. I suspect that is the case for most people, so I wonder how long this particular craze will last for?
After being attacked by flesh-eating fish, I was attacked by a chicken. I was walking around a small Muslim fishing village where there were ducks and chickens everywhere. I failed to see a young chick and got too close, whereupon the mother hen came flying into my leg making quite a racket.
I was a bit startled but it gave the locals a laugh. I was attacked by a monkey on Langkawi island in Malaysia some years ago. A Japanese girl offered me a crisp and as I put my hand in the bag a monkey came flying out of a nearby tree. It bit the bag and sank it's teeth into my finger drawing blood.
I quite fancy visiting the tiger temple in Kanchanaburi province but considering my luck with the local wildlife, it probably isn't a very good idea.
Sunday 21st February 2010
I have a great life in Thailand and I really don't enjoy writing about negative aspects of the country. I'd be happy just writing about the good things, but there are things in Thailand that just aren't right.
I went to the local aquarium on Friday and it was a thoroughly good experience ... apart from a couple of little things.
First, the motorbike taxi driver insisted on accompanying me to the ticket counter instead of just dropping me off. This was completely unnecessary but then I discovered that he was trying to get some commission for taking me there.
Lots of Thai businesses work on a commission basis. The girls I know who run a spa pay hotel staff 20% if they take a guest along. It's a fair system if someone brings customers to your business who wouldn't otherwise have gone.
If you are a single male and check into a Thai hotel, the bellboy showing you to your room will probably enquire as to whether you want some female company. If you do, he will be very willing to help because he gets a commission for doing so.
However, when I tell a motorbike taxi to take me somewhere, I don't expect the driver to try to get a commission on top of the standard fare just for doing his job.
At the aquarium ticket counter I saw the sign above. It probably doesn't mean much to foreigners who can't read Thai because the only parts they can read are the parts they are meant to read.
I started teaching myself to read Thai about six years ago and although pages of written text are still beyond me, signs like this are easy.
If standard numbers were used on the sign (as they are most of the time in Thailand) foreigners could probably guess what was going on, but to make the cover-up complete, Thais use Thai numbers when they want to post information that they don't want foreigners to understand.
The price for Thai children is Bt80 and for Thai adults is Bt150, compared to Bt200 and Bt300 respectively for foreigners.
This dual-pricing system is widespread in Thailand. It goes on officially and unofficially. At places like historical parks, zoos, museums, etc., it is official but hidden from view by displaying Thai prices using Thai numerals.
Unofficially, foreigners will simply be charged more for the same thing when Thais are selling goods and services. And it's not just farangs.
In southern Thailand where there lots of Malaysian tourists, the Malaysians get ripped off just the same. That's fair though, because Malaysia has laws to ensure that Malays in Malaysia get a better deal than foreigners, and even non-Malay Malaysians. Malaysia struggles for harmony as tensions bubble
The way to get around it is by speaking (and reading) Thai. When I visited Kamphaeng Phet last year I used this strategy to get the local price when visiting the historical park and a museum there. I also got the Thai price at the aquarium on Friday by telling them in Thai that I wasn't a tourist. (Because of this, the taxi driver didn't get any commission.)
If they want evidence, I have found that my Thai driving licence sometimes works. This dual-pricing policy can put the staff in an awkward position. They don't make the decisions but just follow instructions.
I would expect that most foreigners just pay without any fuss, but occasionally the staff get a problem. Thais are non-confrontational and if they have to deal with a stroppy farang creating a disturbance, it is easier just to charge the local price.
I've spoken to a lot of Thais about this and explained that it doesn't happen in Europe and North America. I'm sure that if someone tried this in the UK they could be taken to court, they would probably lose, and they would probably have to pay compensation.
The fact that the practice is hidden in Thailand, by using unfamiliar letters and numbers, indicates that there is guilt, but it continues nonetheless.
There still seems to be a belief among some Thais that all foreigners are rich and all Thais are poor. You only have to look around at the cars driven in Thailand to see that not all Thais are poor. As I've stated before, imported luxury cars from Europe are ridiculously expensive in Thailand.
At the bank recently I was standing behind a Thai woman paying more money into her account that already held Bt6 million.
On the other hand, there are farangs in Thailand struggling to get by. I know one guy working as a teacher who has no money behind him at all. His teacher's salary lasts him about three weeks, and he then tries to live the last week of the month on about Bt1,000.
I don't think anything will change. This system works well for the Thais, and because most foreigners in the country are tourists who don't speak or read any Thai they don't complain.
If you live in Thailand, it takes no longer than about six months to learn to read enough Thai to understand signs like this. If you challenge the system, I have found that in most cases you will be charged the local price.
Good news for Thais: Nap 'boosts' brain learning power
Thursday 18th February 2010
However, as soon as it gets to around this time of year, I realise that I haven't acclimatised at all ... and that I never will. The hottest part of the year is April, and by mid-February it is already getting very uncomfortable.
Still, it's better than this: Oh Snow! Britain On Weather Alert Again
Southern Thailand experiences less variation in temperature throughout the year. There is no cool season; just hot and wet or hot and dry.
Northern Thailand has a genuine cool season - when overnight temperatures can get down to around zero - but the hot season is hotter than in the south.
If you search on "hottest city in the world" you will see that Bangkok's daily average temperature throughout the year is higher than anywhere else, even though other places do experience higher temperatures periodically.
With so much concrete and tarmac in Bangkok in which to store the heat, and so few green spaces, Bangkok can be quite unbearable during the hottest time of the year.
Also, getting back to the theme of Chinese immigration, a lot of light-skinned Thai-Chinese came from cold parts of China and they have only lived in the heat for a couple of generations. Dark-skinned Thais, as would be expected, have more resistance to the heat.
I took to wearing a wide-brimmed hat some years ago whenever I go outside. I did so because going out in the hot season for any length of time had started to make me physically ill.
Nowadays, I feel really exposed if I go outside without my hat. My face ends up bright red even after being in the sun for only 10-15 minutes.
You will also find that Thais set themselves a schedule to avoid the worst of the heat. They might appear lazy sleeping during the day, but many wake up very early and busy themselves before sunrise and after sunset.
I try not to be a slave to air-conditioning but there are times when I am forced to use it. Prickly heat powder, applied after your pre-bedtime shower, can also help.
Dehydration can be a big problem because you lose so much fluid through sweat. The body only needs to get slightly dehydrated before it can start to seriously affect your normal functions.
If you drink only when you feel thirsty, then it is probably too late. I drink a glass of water as soon as I wake up and continue to hydrate throughout the day. If you drink coffee, tea, alcohol or other diuretic substances, you need to drink more water.
I also drink at least one glass of electrolyte solution a day. They're quite tasty and not expensive. If sold separately, the sachets cost about Bt8 each but I buy boxes of 50 sachets for Bt175, which works out a lot cheaper.
This Chinese New Year was one of the busiest I have ever known. Were there any Chinese left in Malaysia over CNY, or did they all cross the border into southern Thailand?
I spoke to an English guy living in Malaysia who was part of the mass exodus that drove up to Thailand for the holiday. He told me the roads heading north were packed and that there were huge traffic jams.
I was also told that hotels in Hat Yai were completely full, which is something that hasn't happened for quite a long time.
Malaysia is a strange country. Islamic law doesn't apply to non-Muslims living there but some of the stuff that goes can't be very conducive to providing a happy atmosphere. Allah row reflects Malay racial identity fear
If canings were meted out in Thailand for drinking beer and having sex, there wouldn't be very many people able to sit down. Malaysia canes three women over extramarital sex
I don't particularly like laws and regulations, and neither do I particularly enjoy paying taxes. However, I understand and accept why societies have rules, regulations and taxes. Some people don't, apparently.
Thailand is now a divided country and most of the problems can be traced back to one wealthy man who allegedly devised all kinds of clever schemes to avoid paying taxes. From what I've been reading, not paying taxes in Greece is a national sport and now the country has big economic problems.
Thais generally do not like laws and regulations (especially while driving), but laws and regulations are normally there for good reasons.
A big fire at a Bangkok nightclub killed 67 innocent people who were there to enjoy New Year's Eve. The nightclub was located in a zone where nightclubs were banned. This 'inconvenient' law didn't suit the owners and so they registered the nightclub as a private residence (and also forged a signature).
As such, the building wasn't subject to the normal safety inspections that entertainment venues are subject to. The rest is history.
Finally, it looks as if some justice will be done. Charges over fatal Thai Santika nightclub fire
Hopefully, more justice will be served on Friday 26th February.
Tuesday 16th February 2010
Some years ago, I met a Greek Cypriot guy who went on to give a master class in how not to behave in Thailand.
I was sitting alone having dinner one evening when he just invited himself to sit down with me. He started to talk and if there had been a donkey with us, the poor animal wouldn't have been walking for very much longer due to the disappearance of its hind legs.
George needed to talk, and he needed someone to listen to him. On that day, I was his unfortunate victim.
He had worked in the UK and he spoke fluent English. He expected Thais to be fluent in English as well; and he got angry with them when he realised they couldn't understand what he was saying.
His wife had died and he was in Thailand for a couple of weeks looking for a replacement. He was flying around the country using Internet dating agencies to meet women.
The type of women he had chosen to meet couldn't speak English either, and he couldn't speak a word of Thai. However, his selection process seemed to mainly take place horizontally in his hotel room so I'm not sure that verbal communication was all that important.
George was a buffoon but he was harmless and he made me laugh. At his request, I agreed to meet him the following night. I took my girlfriend, and he brought along one of his dating agency women.
The two Thai females didn't see eye-to-eye and exchanged not a word all evening. I hardly spoke because with George it was almost impossible to get a word in edgeways, and anyway, when I did say something he didn't listen.
He also had a habit of talking with a mouthful of half-chewed peanuts. This particular trait of his didn't go down very well with Iss, my girlfriend at the time.
At one point in the evening he got quite upset with the waitress for putting ice in his beer. He told me that the room maids had also done things wrong in his room, and that he would always explain the problem nicely before shouting at them.
He didn't seem to be able to grasp the fact that many Thais do not understand the English language, foreign food, foreign drink, or foreign customs.
I don't know whether he returned to Cyprus alone or with a new Thai wife, but I suspect the former.
The majority of Thais I meet have travelled very little in Thailand, and only a tiny minority have travelled abroad. Their view of the world outside of Thailand isn't all that wide.
Thais working in farang tourist resorts who deal with foreigners all the time have a better understanding but outside of those places knowledge of foreign ways is scant, to say the least.
George may have thought that shouting at Thais was the best way to educate them, but it really doesn't help. You just have to accept that certain concepts are completely foreign to Thais, in every sense of the word.
I popped out yesterday and felt hungry so decided to get a snack - some breadsticks and a cheese sauce dip. The breadsticks that the girl gave me were sugar-coated. I didn't realise until I'd dipped the first one in the cheese sauce and taken a bite.
Thais like sweet things and don't really understand that other people might not. Cheese is a foreign invention so how are Thais supposed to know that it isn't eaten with sugar? Salad dressings are often very sweet, and it isn't unusual to order a coffee that comes automatically with lots of sugar.
The concept of eating meals in courses is also a strange one to Thais. With Thai food, you order lots of dishes and they come to the table quite randomly whenever they get cooked.
Soup may be an appetiser in the West, but in Thailand it is just another dish. If I eat Western food here, I always ask for my soup first but sometimes it arrives during the main course, and sometimes as a dessert.
There are occasions when it comes first - and I think they have finally understood - only for the main course to arrive just as I finish the first spoonful of soup.
Once Thais have been shown something, or had something explained, they are actually very good. But for many things, they simply don't understand because no one has ever explained.
It would be exactly the same for Westerners trying to serve Thai food if they had no idea about Thai food. Unlike George, there are many times when you just need to be patient and show a little understanding.
Monday 15th February 2010
It's quite understandable. Why buy one imported car when you can buy three locally assembled pickup trucks for the same price?
The market is flooded with assembled-in-Thailand cars and trucks but these only cover a fairly narrow range. Pickup trucks are extremely common (Toyota and Isuzu); followed by small, mid-size, and a few large saloons, mainly from Toyota and Honda.
There is a little bit of variation but not much. It gets very boring.
The Honda Jazz is a fine little car but as I was riding along the other day on the back of a motorbike taxi, I saw about seven white Jazz's parked in a line.
Honda make some interesting vehicles, as do Toyota, but unless they are assembled in Thailand they are subject to high import duties. Consequently, you don't see too many NSX's, S2000's, RAV4's, MR2's, etc.
This is a real shame.
My home in the UK is a few minutes' walk from Ford's UK Headquarters and it is an area in which every second person seems to drive a Ford. Fords are really boring in Essex and East London, but in Thailand a Ford Focus actually starts to look quite exotic against the thousands of small Hondas and Toyotas.
Occasionally you see some very old imported cars. The local share taxis around here are 50 year-old Mercedes that have had Japanese engines transplanted. They are falling apart but they still ooze lots of character.
I have also seen old cars from the UK that are quite rare in the UK these days. I would imagine that some are quite easy to maintain, but you have to give credit to Thai ingenuity when it comes to keeping an Austin Allegro running. The Austin El Aggro was a dog even when new.
Also, like the share taxis, many have lost their original engines and have had Japanese engines fitted instead. These are more reliable and easier to get spare parts for.
I spotted this old Opel this morning with its American-styled bodywork. It has been repainted and is currently undergoing further restoration. Checking on Wikipedia, I think it's a P1 model, which was produced from July 1957 to July 1960. It's not often that I come across a person or a thing that pre-dates me so I was quite excited.
They look like fun but would one of these old cars really be practical in Thailand? It's an individual choice but if I were planning to drive into deepest, darkest, remotest Thailand (or maybe into an area with insurgents), I think I would feel happier being in a 'boring' new Jazz rather than an 'interesting' 50 year-old jalopy.
Sunday 14th February 2010
The year of the tiger is meant to herald big changes and social disorder. I think Chinese astrology could be quite prophetic this year.
Thailand appears quiet on the surface but I keep noticing red-shirted and yellow-shirted rallies on TV, reminding me that beneath the surface there are still lots of problems. Just like a rumbling volcano, the situation will erupt sooner or later.
After all the bad news regarding companies in the last couple of years, the focus has now turned to countries. It may the Year of the Tiger in the East, but in Europe it seems to be the Year of the PIIGS.
I'm not an economist but I always had my doubts about a common currency shared by several countries. The countries of Europe are very, very different regarding wealth, natural resources, education, people's attitudes to paying tax, work ethic, culture, etc etc.
It always seemed to me that individual countries needed to be in control of interest rates and the strength of their own currencies in order to handle specific economic conditions related to that country.
Of course, with a common currency and interest rate among all the Euro countries that is impossible. Will Greece go back to the Drachma or will the other Euro countries bail it out? It's all quite worrying.
I didn't get much sleep last night. The fireworks and firecrackers started just before midnight and went on for several hours. The firecrackers in Thailand are the authentic type that are banned in most countries; the noise they make is ear-shattering.
It is always at this time of year that I realise just how many people of Chinese origin there are living in certain parts of Thailand. It's easy to forget because the assimilation of Chinese immigrants into Thai society has been so complete.
Chinese Thais share Asian features and they also use Thai surnames (although these will often contain the original Chinese surname). This would be like a Chinese person in England called Fred Smith, or Werner Schmidt in Germany.
I had previously been told that 50% of the local population was of Chinese ancestry. I spoke to some of my students last week and they told me 80%. I then did a quick check and out of 20 students, just one was pure Thai. Nineteen out of 20 had Chinese parents or grandparents who had emigrated to Thailand from mainland China.
Some of the kindest, gentlest Thais I have met have been Thai-Chinese. They have been successful at blending all the good things regarding Chinese wisdom and culture with the best aspects of Thai culture.
For Chinese New Year, Thai-Chinese prepare tables of food which they display outside their houses and shops. They also believe in ancestor worship and the fires you see burning in the streets act as celestial mailboxes.
There are shops that sell all kinds of things made from paper, and by burning these things people can send them to their ancestors. The most basic item is money - from the Bank of Hell.
I always thought this was a strange name for a bank. Apparently, Christian missionaries trying to convert Chinese to Christianity warned them they would go to hell if they didn't convert. The Chinese thought hell was the English translation for the afterlife in general and didn't see anything bad with the word.
Apart from money, you can buy paper clothes, houses, cars, electrical appliances, and anything else that would improve your ancestors' lives.
Have a happy and prosperous Year of the Metal Tiger (hopefully without too much social disorder).
Saturday 13th February 2010
The side road in this photo (click on the thumbnail for a larger image) intersects with a dual-carriageway and therefore vehicles cannot turn right. If you want to turn right, you first need to turn left and then do a U-turn.
Or at least that's the theory if you're the kind of person who obeys traffic laws.
Many Thais have no respect for traffic laws and will just do whatever they want. At this junction there is a constant stream of motorcyclists making illegal right turns. When I decided to take a quick snap, I only had to wait about a minute before getting my photo opportunity.
They shoot up the wrong side of the road against oncoming traffic, before moving over to the correct side of the road.
If you drive in Thailand, you need to watch out for this kind of thing constantly. As a pedestrian in Thailand, always look both ways when crossing the road - even if traffic should only be coming from one direction.
Did you also notice the lack of a crash helmet? Again, this is extremely common in Thailand despite it being against the law. The same goes for ignoring red lights, talking on a mobile phone while driving, speeding, driving while drunk, etc etc.
I mentioned a poster campaign recently warning drivers that they will be caught and punished for breaking traffic laws. However, nothing has changed. What I have come to realise after living in Thailand for six years is that despite all the hot air and rhetoric, nothing ever changes.
Friday 12th February 2010
It's no secret that lots of foreign men run into problems when they meet Thai girls who work in tourist resort bars. It's also no secret that most of the girls working in tourist resort bars come from the Isaan region. As a result, Thai girls from the northeast region have gotten a bit of a bad press.
Find the right Isaan girl, though, and there is probably nothing better. Thai girls from the more affluent central and southern regions can be quite demanding, devious, and a real headache at times (trust me on this one).
A reader has set up a site called Thai Home Stay ... Isaan Style and there is a section on the site for matching foreign men with local Isaan village girls. The idea is to match good-hearted foreign men with good-hearted Isaan girls.
Sounds like a good idea, and there is no charge.
Monday 8th February 2010
Back in the mid-90's, I got an Internet connection at home before most other people. Of course, being such a novelty, it was quite addictive.
Social networking sites, as such, hadn't been invented then but after a while I joined a travel-related web site that was actually a social networking site. It had a large and active membership base, and there was lots of interaction between members.
It was fun at first because it combined my love of travel with a way to get to know new people. The problem was that it became quite an obsession. The amount of time I was spending on-line was becoming a problem for me, but I could tell that other people had an even bigger problem.
I could see that for some people the site had replaced their real lives. They spent all their time there, while starting to have relationships and arguments with people on-line who they hadn't even met.
In my sad existence back in the UK it was difficult to break away. Moving to Thailand, however, changed everything. Suddenly there were lots of real things of interest in my life again and there was no need to look for an on-line alternative to real life.
I logged out for the last time shortly after arriving in Thailand and I have never been back.
Since then I've had lots of requests to join Facebook but because of my previous experience I have never joined. I know how addictive these things can be, and how much of a waste of time they are.
I got so much pressure from Thai friends to join Hi5 (the social networking site popular with Thais) that eventually I joined just to keep them happy. I didn't use it much and then I stopped using it altogether.
My view has always been that Internet addiction is the same as any other kind of addiction. When the addiction gets to a point where it starts to affect your real life, then it is dangerous.
If you have more on-line 'friends' (who you've never met) than real friends, and you are spending more than one or two hours a day on-line doing unproductive things, then you have a problem.
The Internet is a wonderful thing and I would be lost without it. Apart from the obvious things like e-mail and news, it has made living in Thailand very easy. Internet banking allows me to run my UK bank accounts as if I am in the UK, and I can do all the other things I need to do (tax returns, etc) on-line.
It is normally the first place I go to find information, and it is a fantastic resource for lesson planning.
It's an incredibly useful resource but that's all it is. It isn't an alternative to life. For a long time I have realised that excessive time spent on-line is potentially quite dangerous so I wasn't surprised to see that Internet addiction leads to depression.
One group of people I've noticed a big problem with are older, single men. They sometimes get almost evangelical talking to me about the wonders of the Internet.
Males, generally, seem to have a far bigger problem than females in this respect. There are a few forums I look at occasionally and the people who spend all day, every day wasting their time in forums are always men.
In years to come, people will use the Internet as it should be used, but because it is still such a novelty at the moment to many people, there are quite a few who can run into problems by spending too much time on-line. Be careful.
Sunday 7th February 2010
Now that they have my e-mail address, a few have started forwarding junk.
The e-mails typically consists of 10 pages of e-mail addresses at the beginning where this rubbish has been forwarded so many times.
Next, there is a piece of 'Internet wisdom' followed by examples of the wonderful things that will happen to you if you continue the chain ... and examples of the terrible things that will happen if you don't.
I normally just delete them (at my peril), but I happened to look at one and there were examples of 'cause and effect', as outlined in some Buddhist reading material.
Just like the Old Testament, some of it is pretty harsh. I also have a small book on the same subject that I picked up in Singapore a few years ago. I happened to browse through it the other night and it pulls no punches.
It is very specific about what you should and shouldn't do in your lifetime; and it is equally specific about the consequences if you go against the advice. Here's an example:
If in the past or present life one uses cruel and inhumane ways to torture or kill people and animals, in this life one will meet with tragic death.
To accompany the text, there are also some very graphic illustrations putting the words into pictures.
There are quite a few warnings about cruelty to, catching, and confining animals.
Why is it that some people are born with hare-lips? It is because in the past they used hooks to fish, causing much hurt to the fish.
I'm not sure about other parts of the country, but in the south caged birds are very popular.
They are caged to be looked at, listened to, or entered in singing competitions. Birds with good voices can be worth tens of thousands of Baht.
From my little book:
The reason why one is always mistakenly thrown into prison is because in one's past life, one often put animals into cages.
When we plant "freedom-seeds", we will get "freedom-fruits". Don't ever put cats, dogs, birds into cages. When we deprive others of their freedom, we will lose our freedom. The freedom we have now is the result of our past good Karmic deeds.
Although you may provide food to animals you keep in cages, you are depriving them of their freedom. Your next life may be long, but you will live with limited freedom. As such, keeping animals in captivity is not worth doing, rather let them be free.
One of the ways Thais make merit also involves caged birds, but I find it a little perverse. Birds are caught and caged, only to be released later for money.
To me, this isn't merit-making but simply an easy way to make money by exploiting people's beliefs. Merit isn't made by handing over money to 'fix' a problem that was deliberately made in the first place.
Nonetheless, cages full of birds with someone asking for money to release them is a common sight in Thailand.
I've mentioned this before, and it relates to what I was saying yesterday about teaching in Thailand.
I've not heard of Thai students being violent towards teachers, in fact, violence is unheard of at the places where I have taught. However, there is a notorious problem in Thailand between male students at certain rival technology institutes. From what I can gather, the violence sometimes erupts into running street battles.
Thai authorities are trying to figure out how to fix the problem: Prison trips mulled for violent students
Bad behaviour is quite normal among Thai boys and young men, but this kind of thing is an exception. Many Thai males are prone to frequent displays of macho behaviour (as constantly demonstrated on Thailand's roads) and put in the wrong kind of environment, this excess of testosterone can develop into violence.
Unfortunately, the technical colleges - which tend to have far more male students than civilised female students - do appear to create such an environment.
I don't need the Internet or TV to know when Manchester United are playing, or when they score.
From my humble abode in southern Thailand, I can hear distant cheering whenever Wayne Rooney finds the back of the net.
Asian fans of English football have no sense of belonging to a footballing community in England. Thai, Malaysian, and Singaporean fans appear to enjoy the game but they all support either Manchester United or Liverpool.
Whenever they decided to give their allegiance to a specific team they obviously decided that it might as well be a successful team, and so they chose appropriately.
I had no such luck.
Being born - and having spent my formative years - within walking distance of Upton Park, I had no such choice. From the moment I was born I was cursed with being a West Ham supporter. And sometimes it really does feel like a curse.
I had a season ticket for three seasons and I attended many games throughout the 90's. There have been good times, but unfortunately there seems to have been a lot more bad times.
This season boded well initially with a new management team that got off to a good start last year. But then it all started to go horribly wrong.
Recently, the arrival of new owners, three new strikers, and an 'easy' fixture against lowly Burnley inspired renewed optimism among the Upton Park faithful. But that would be too easy for West Ham.
In my next life I am hoping to be reborn in Thailand, in which case I will then be able to freely choose a football team to support.
Saturday 6th February 2010
Teaching is a job I could never, ever contemplate doing in the UK. Just being a student in the UK education system was enough to put me off the profession for life, and stories like this simply reinforce my views: Teachers 'lack violence training'
In Thai schools there is a big difference in behaviour between boys and girls, but even with the most badly behaved students I can't believe it would be necessary for teachers to have to undergo violence training.
When we talk about so-called 'developed' and 'developing' countries, some aspects of society really cause you to question these definitions, and how we determine whether a country is 'developed' or not.
After previously having absolutely no interest in teaching whatsoever, I now teach in Thailand. I am probably not alone.
So, what is the deal with teaching in Thailand. Is it a good thing, or is it something purely for those losers who have no money of their own, no other sources of income, and who can't make money any other way?
I've noticed a tendency over the years for some farangs not teaching in Thailand to take potshots at those teaching in Thailand. I've been teaching for a while and (briefly) this is my current view.
The first thing to be aware of is that teaching posts vary enormously. There are education facilities catering to all levels, and there are good and bad places. Therefore, it is impossible to make generalisations.
Thai students can be very able, and also very keen to learn. Teaching them can be extremely satisfying while, at the same time, it can stretch a teacher's knowledge (a good thing in my view). A good Thai student's technical knowledge of the English language will exceed that of most native speakers, even if they can't actually speak very well.
Finding the right post is important and should result in the job being very rewarding. On the other hand, some places are a zoo. There are quite a few kids who have no interest in learning, and you are wasting your time if you try. If you to want teach in order to get results, you may as well go and teach at one of the monkey schools on Koh Samui where they train monkeys to pick coconuts, rather than a bad school.
Is it a job for no-hopers who have gone to live in Thailand and who can't support themselves any other way? Sometimes, but not always. There are some very clever people teaching in Thailand who have already had successful careers back in their countries of origin.
Perhaps they are retired, or perhaps they just wished to escape the rat-race. Don't make too many assumptions about foreigners teaching in Thailand because they come from all different backgrounds.
Does the job require a high skill level?
This depends. I've taught young kids through to PhD students, and they all have the ability to throw some interesting questions at you. My real education regarding the English language began when I did my TEFL course, and not a week passes when I don't learn something new.
However, I've heard of very effective teachers who don't have any technical skills. They just happen to be very effective communicators and they have the ability to put things over in a way that is understood by their students.
What about money?
The detractors will sneer at a teacher's salary and tell you that even Thai prostitutes make more each month. I have no doubt that the prettier ones do, but they also make more than most people in Thailand.
My wage is almost four times that of a junior Thai high school teacher ... and I work a lot less hours. For what I do, I don't have too many complaints, especially when I see what Thais are earning.
Also, since the UK pound to Thai Baht exchange rate has fallen from around the mid 70's to just over 50 Baht, my Thai salary has been worth a lot more to me.
The average salary should be enough for a foreigner to cover the basics of life, to live to a fairly decent level, and to have a little fun.
I have to admit that if I was just relying on my Thai salary it would be a struggle, but I could manage - just about. Fortunately, I don't depend on my Thai salary and for the last six or seven months I haven't used it. My Thai salary is accumulating in the bank in case I decide to buy a car later this year.
What are the other benefits?
Some benefits are tangible, and others not. There was a time when I used to arrange my own visa and work permit extensions. I did this because a previous employer was not interested in doing it for me.
Now, however, my employer does this. These days, I have virtually no bureaucracy to deal with. Once a year, my employer asks me to sign a few papers and they sort out all my paperwork - visa, work permit, tax, etc. It's a real blessing.
The holidays are also good. I work a five-day week (many Thais work six or more) and I get lots of holidays. The summer holiday is about two months, mid-term about one month, and there is a break at Christmas at my school. This leave is all paid.
As a teacher in Thailand, you garner a lot of respect. You also become very well known in your locality. This can be a good or bad thing, depending how you look at it.
As a non-working farang you can be almost anonymous but as a teacher you have no anonymity. Wherever I go these days, people who know me say hello. I have nothing to hide so I don't mind.
Other benefits are that many of my pupils' families have businesses and restaurants around town. It isn't unusual to get free meals, discounted meals, and other gifts of kindness.
Also, you tend to meet wonderful Thais if you are working in the teaching profession. Out on the tourist trail, it seems at times that every Thai in the country is simply trying to rip you off. But not if you work alongside them.
This also applies very much to meeting Thai females. I wouldn't recommend Pattaya bars as good places to meet Thai girls but I've met some great girls who are Thai teachers.
What are the negative aspects?
The only one I can think of is the amount of time I spend teaching and doing other teaching-related activities. I don't actually do too many hours in the classroom but I always seem to be preparing/printing/copying material or marking work, etc.
This is the main reason I'm not too active here these days, and it also affects other things I would like to do. Part of my summer holiday will be spent just trying to catch up on things.
So, that's a brief summary. I don't really need to teach for financial reasons but I will probably continue to do so for a year or two because there are lots of benefits, and also because I enjoy it.
One thing I only mentioned briefly - and it is an important part of any job - is job satisfaction.
To know and understand something, and to be able to explain it in such a way that someone who didn't previously understand can now understand, can be enormously satisfying. (It can also be enormously frustrating when they don't understand, but hopefully that doesn't happen too often.)
If you want to earn a decent amount of money as a TEFL teacher, don't come to Thailand. Your pay will only barely cover the cost of living.
But if you want to live in Thailand primarily for the lifestyle, and you want to do a job that can be enjoyable while at the same time giving you lots of benefits, teaching is a good option (and maybe the only option for most).
Monday 1st February 2010
Just as names go in and out of fashion in Western countries, Thai nicknames (play names, as the Thais call them) do the same thing.
My name hasn't been fashionable for many years, and the same goes for the names of many of my contemporaries. In England for a long time now, it seems that every male child is called either Ben, Jack, Joshua or one of the other names that are currently in vogue.
There are quite a few Thais in their 30's or older named Gai (chicken) but I haven't got a single Gai among my students at the moment. It's the same with other traditional Thai nicknames. Amongst Thai kids these days, there don't seem to be many Bplaa's (fish), Goong's (shrimps), Gop's (frogs), Maew's (cats), etc.
Thai nicknames seem to reflect the state of society, and they constantly change. Also, parents will sometimes give siblings matching nicknames. A family I am very friendly with have a boy and girl named Dodo and Didi, and two sisters I know are called Em and Om. Twin boys I met a few years ago were named 'Benz' and 'Bee-Em' (I think the father liked German cars).
Reflecting the materialistic nature of Thai society, there was also a baby boy I knew named Nokia. Two sisters I have just heard about are called 'Jackpot' and 'Bonus'.
My niece (who is half-Thai) doesn't have a Thai nickname. I think it's a bit unfair because Thai nicknames are such fun. Occasionally I get asked if I have a Thai nickname but I haven't gone down that path yet - and I'm not sure that I will.
When I first arrived in Thailand, some Thais would tell me their nickname in English. I felt a bit foolish after a while when I realised I was the only one calling them Chicken, while everyone else said Gai.
Most Thais don't see anything strange about their nicknames at all. As a foreigner, they might only seem strange if you understand what they mean. There are exceptions, though.
I was talking to a Thai dentist a few years ago. She was a very clever girl and had studied abroad for many years. I asked her name, to which she replied Gaang. Then, with a look of complete bewilderment and disbelief on her face, she said, "Yes, my parents called me fishbone."
As a kid growing up in East London, my parents took me and my brothers down to Cornwall to stay on a farm during the summer holidays. It felt great being in the countryside, watching and listening to the farm animals. Once we returned to London, the countryside seemed as if it was a million miles away.
Here in Thailand, I get transported back to my childhood every morning - just before sunrise - as cockerels begin to crow. There are chickens running around everywhere. I mentioned temple cats and dogs a few days ago, but within each temple you will also find lots of chickens.
Bullfighting is big in southern Thailand, where it is part of southern Thai culture. The bulls are pitted against each other. There are no matadors, as there are with the Spanish version.
It's all about gambling really, and a lot of money is wagered at each event. The owners take great pride in their animals and pamper them to make sure they keep in good shape. You often see the bulls being taken out for walks around these parts.
One owner has recently started parking his bull outside my room, where there is grass on which it can graze. Now, in addition to roosters giving me my early morning call, I get to hear the bull as well. It's great!
What I really need to complete the picture are some sheep and goats. I have never seen a sheep in this part of Thailand but goats are popular with Muslims. With any luck, a family of Thai Muslims will take up residence nearby and bring their herd of goats with them.
There was a good article on the BBC web site this week: Why do people often vote against their own interests?
I know quite a few Americans from my time working and vacationing in the States. They are kind, intelligent, caring, and enormously hospitable people. However, some of the extreme right-wing anti-Obama e-mails I receive from them regarding politics, social security and foreign policy, etc., give a very different view.
A piece in this article might explain why (even though the author of the article disagrees):
"It might be tempting to put the whole thing down to what the historian Richard Hofstadter back in the 1960s called "the paranoid style" of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington."
There was another quote I liked:
"As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing."
The same applies with blogs.
A frequent visitor to Thailand is "puzzled" why I talk about Thai road users and their obnoxious behaviour.
My first reaction to this is quite defensive. If you can't understand something I write, or you can't figure out when I'm being serious or joking, you should probably read another blog about Thailand that is easier to understand. There are plenty around.
This blog is about 'living in Thailand', not 'visiting Thailand as a tourist'. The two things are very, very different.
If you only visit Thailand, it means that you live elsewhere. Your real life - and all the crap that goes with it - exists in the place you call home. Your problems at work, your major purchases, your payment of taxes, your fights with government and bureaucracy. All of these things - and more - are all at home.
When you visit Thailand, it is most likely because you want a temporary escape from these things.
All visitors to Thailand have an agenda. On my last international flight to Thailand I sat next to a first-time visitor. His only interest in Thailand was whether or not he would be able to get a suntan. (Tip: If you want to impress Thais, keep your skin as fair as possible.)
Some people come for scuba diving, or just to play in the sea and enjoy the warmth of the sun. With Europe so cold at the moment, it is easy to see why. Some really enjoy the food and maybe they want to learn how to cook Thai food.
It might be to enjoy the cheap massages and pampering that is available in Thailand; or more probably a combination of all of these things.
Thailand is one of the major sex-tourist capitals of the world and many visitors are single males. They also have an agenda.
The point I am trying to make is that when people arrive with fixed agendas, they are so focused on that agenda that they either fail to notice other things or simply regard those other things as minor annoyances that are almost insignificant.
When you live in Thailand, everything changes. You might work, and you might face problems at work. You need to start dealing with Thai bureaucrats, whether you work or not, and that can be a headache.
As a tourist you might have noticed a few maniac teenagers on Honda Waves racing around, but as a resident you encounter these everywhere you go.
This blog is not aimed at people who plan on spending a couple of weeks at a Thai beach somewhere once a year. It is aimed at people who, like I did, are thinking about moving to Thailand to live.
It is not intended to be another artificial travel guide selling dreams, written with rose-tinted spectacles, and only written in order to sell copies.
It is intended to be an accurate and balanced view of living in Thailand from a farang perspective. You will find very positive observations about Thailand, but I also include the proverbial 'warts and all'.
If my view of Thailand doesn't meet with your dreams and expectations, there is no shortage of other information.
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand