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  • Living in Thailand Blog January 2006

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Tuesday 31st January 2006

Thailand is a land of amazing contrasts and contradictions. For every bad thing you experience, you will experience an equally good thing. For every stupid piece of behaviour you witness, you will see something that will impress even the most cynical of individuals.

This morning I had to make a trip to the local hospital for an old, recurring problem which can actually be traced back to my first visit to Thailand many years ago. On that trip I got quite a bad ear infection and ever since then my left ear has a habit of clogging up.

When that happens I foolishly poke around trying to unclog it but that only makes things worse and the ear normally gets infected again. A quick trip to the ear doctor is then required. He sucks the muck out with his special device, prescribes some drops for the infection and everything settles down again until the next time.

Although I have visited the local private hospital quite a few times, the experience never fails to impress me. I live close by now and can walk there in five minutes. On the way I pass a small shanty area which houses a number of poor Thais.

Their accommodation is awful but they have cars, TVs, mobile phones and plenty of food so they are not exactly living in poverty. It's a bit of an eyesore with stray dogs and chickens running around everywhere but the people are nice and I often stop for a chat.

Walking into the hospital is like walking into another world. It is like a 5 star hotel and a haven of peace and tranquility from the streets outside. It is ultra-clean and feels so peaceful that I imagine a Feng Shui expert was consulted with the design.

The girls on reception are all 'Hi-So' Thais and exceptionally refined. These girls (and all female employees working for high class establishments in Thailand) couldn't be more different to the farm girls working in the bars of Pattaya and Patong Beach.

As usual, I was treated with the utmost respect and attended to very quickly. As a matter of course they check your weight and blood pressure before you see the doctor. The doctor was quick and efficient and it was a relief to hear the machine sucking out everything in my ear that shouldn't have been there.

My hearing was restored instantly and then it was a quick trip to the pharmacy on the ground floor to get some ear drops. The entire visit took about 20 minutes and there was nothing to fault or criticise from beginning to end.

The girls working in the hospital are just the most amazing females. Not only are most of them exceptionally beautiful with perfect skin and delicate bone structure, but they are just so incredibly refined.

There was just one thing that spoilt an otherwise faultless experience. While waiting briefly to see the doctor, an old agricultural-looking man sat there with a finger up his nose to the first knuckle. I just wish they wouldn't do this so openly in public. It's not very nice but the Thais don't seem to regard it as being a problem.

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Monday 30th January 2006

What do you think is the best thing about living in Thailand? Is it the year round warm weather? The beaches and islands? The food, maybe? The friendly, smiling, easy-going people? Perhaps the pretty girls or the easy availability of all kinds of sensual pleasures?

Although none of these things go unnoticed, for me it is something else. Put simply, the thing I like most about living in Thailand is the work/life balance. Let me explain.

A few years ago in the UK my life had become a stupid mess. A typical week for me started by packing a suitcase on a Sunday evening before travelling to wherever in the country I had to work and then checking into yet another dull business-class hotel.

When people are working away from home they are not expected to do much apart from work so that was basically what I did all week, except when eating out with people I didn't particular want to be with because I had been working with them all day.

At some point on Friday evening I would go back home where I would check my mail, do my laundry, etc. I'd continue my chores on Saturday and maybe spend some time in a boring UK High Street. I couldn't be bothered to do much because I still felt tired from my week at work. Sunday morning was restful but before I knew it, it would be time to start packing that suitcase again. What a great life.

The benefits were having a 'good career' (a high salary, medical insurance so I could get treated for the nervous breakdown I was about to have and a pension which would give me money when I was too late in life to enjoy it), money in the bank, a Porsche in the garage and a nice house that was paid for.

Money was never really a problem but time was. I never had the time to do what I wanted to do and whenever I did get some free time I always felt tired. The only time of the year I really enjoyed was when I was on vacation but only enjoying life for five weeks a year isn't ideal.

Switch to Thailand. For my main job I work two hours a day for three days a week. I also teach three other students four hours a week over those same three days. This means that every week I have four straight days off and even on the days I am working I don't bust a gut.

It gives me time to travel but sometimes I don't want to travel. Let's take my last four days off. On Friday I went back to the dentist again. I mentioned below I want to get a lot of dental work done this year. Not only is it cheap in Thailand but I also have the time and time is important.

The tooth currently being worked on needs root canal treatment and then will I need to get a crown fitted. This might take up to eight visits, and that's just one tooth. There are others I want fixed too.

How many people in developed countries are just too busy at work to keep going to the dentist? Probably quite a few. So what happens is that people prioritise work above their own health and only go to the doctor or dentist when it is urgent. Unfortunately though, their overall health suffers as a result.

During the rest of my time off I studied a little Thai (but not as much as I should have), prepared a few lesson plans, wrote a three-monthly report for my students, downloaded and listened to several podcasts, surfed around the Internet endlessly and completed a task I have been trying to get done for at least three years.

After I got interested in web site work I wanted to play around with databases. I made a few attempts to set up my computer but despite spending a fair amount of time I ran into problems and aborted my attempts. This weekend I managed to install the Apache web server, PHP and MySQL on my machine.

Any other novice who has attempted to do this will know it is not the easiest thing in the world but one thing you do need a lot of is time. Downloading and installing is straightforward enough but getting the configuration right so everything works can be a nightmare.

Many hobbies these days involve computers and computers just continue to get more complex. Digital photography is an example. Photography used to be a matter of clicking the shutter and sending your film off to the lab.

With digital images the photographer is now in charge of the whole end-to-end process and although this needn't be complicated, in order to get good results there is now an enormous amount of software available to post-process images.

Just one application that I use - Adobe Photoshop - is an incredibly complicated piece of software and to get the most from it requires learning and understanding how to use it. Again, the most valuable commodity in this situation is time.

At one stage in my life I couldn't sit down for hours on end at a computer learning how to do something new but now I can and that's because I am living in Thailand. Because the cost of living is so low I don't have to spend my whole life working.

Of course, there are other factors involved. I am not a greedy person and want very little materially. I could afford to buy a car but I don't want to and the same applies to living in a better place. I am quite content with what I have already and, for me personally, having the time to do things I want to do is far more important than owning things.

Losing this almost perfect balance between work and life that I have in Thailand is the number one factor stopping me from moving back to the 'developed' world.

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Sunday 29th January 2006

For the second consecutive day I was woken up this morning by firecrackers going off for Chinese New Year. My first visit to Hat Yai four years ago coincided with Chinese New Year and I found the atmosphere quite exciting but it all seems a bit tedious now.

I think that most civilised countries have banned Chinese firecrackers. They are excruciatingly loud and can probably deafen someone. When they keep going off - as they do at Chinese New Year - it sounds like a war zone.

Perhaps I'm just getting old and grumpy but this year I just can't be bothered to leave my room for CNY. I will be glad when it's all over and everything returns to normal. It's a long holiday for the Chinese and it isn't until CNY that you realise how many ethnic Chinese there actually are in Thailand. Many restaurants and businesses run by ethnic Chinese Thais close for up to 10 days and it's a real pain

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Wednesday 25th January 2006

Are there really far more females in Thailand than males? I don't mean the difference of just a few percentage points but a significant difference. Last year a British ex-pat called Dave, who now lives in Hua Hin, contacted me. He counts people when he is out and about in Thailand to check on the ratio of females to males and believes there is something like four females to every male.

When I first read his e-mail it struck me as slightly bizarre but I knew what he meant. Everywhere I go in Thailand I see far more females than males but I couldn't work out how nature could let this happen.

When I looked up some statistics on the Internet I saw what, logically, I would have expected. At birth there are more males born but by the late teenage years there are more females. Because of all that testosterone floating around males engage in activities where they are more likely to kill themselves. Young Thai males are very adept at killing themselves on motorbikes.

However, the statistics tell me a different story to what I see with my own eyes. I was sitting in one of the university cafeterias tonight with two of my students - both female. I have about 40 students at the moment and only two are male.

One of them mentioned that a mutual male friend of ours liked to eat here when he was studying at the university because there are so many girls. This fact hadn't escaped my attention as I sat there admiring the view. There must have been 30 to 40 girls for every male and a fair percentage of the males were obviously gay.

She went on to say she thought the ratio of females to males in Thailand is about 4:1 - the same theory as Dave's. My other student agreed. I still can't figure out where all the males are. They must be somewhere because I still find it difficult to believe there is such a huge gender imbalance but I can't ignore what I see every day.

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Tuesday 24th January 2006

Iss starts the day by asking if she can buy underwear today. "Of course you can," I tell her, momentarily forgetting which country I am in. What she really means is can she buy underwear with my money. She costs me so little that it isn't a problem. Oh what fun, a shopping trip.

Taking me clothes shopping must be a girl's worst nightmare. My suggestions that Bt99 underwear from the local rag market is just as good as that expensive department store stuff don't go down well and by the time we get to the department store I am magically transformed from a semi-respectable, mostly sensible adult male into a juvenile schoolboy.

As she looks at bras and panties I do my best to locate the largest, ugliest undergarments I can find and hold each one up for her to look at. My offers to check cup sizes using my hands also don't go down well. My behaviour is really pathetic and I think I only do it in an attempt to alleviate the boredom. My final embarrassing act, once she has selected what she wants, is to try to negotiate a huge discount with the sales assistant. This also does not go down well, with Iss or with the sales assistant.

Today I had to do my 'Alien Registration' bit with the local immigration office. All foreigners staying in Thailand for more than 90 days are supposed to do this but it's a fairly new experience for me as immigration didn't tell me about this requirement until quite recently. There are no problems. The guys working at the immigration office are very reasonable.

My afternoon teaching schedule has been cancelled due to sickness and general unavailability. Instead I visit the dentist again for a small problem and am seen by the most attractive dentist I have ever seen in my life. What a pleasure looking up at her just a few inches away as she fiddles in my mouth. I don't feel any pain whatsoever.

My two English conversation students this evening inform me that Sondhi Limthongkul is speaking on campus. A little while ago I vowed to ignore Thai politics as it was making me depressed. However, three days ago - purely by chance - I found myself chatting to the former Prime Minister at his home in Trang and now the man who is currently causing huge political turmoil in Thailand is just next door. We go off to see him.

Unfortunately, the hall he is speaking in only holds 500 people and already there are over 1,000 people inside. No one else can get in so we are forced to leave. As we step outside though we see Sondhi standing around smoking and talking on his mobile phone.

Try as I might, I can't ignore or avoid Thai politics right now. The political climate is getting very heated. Today's allegation, I hear, is that Thaksin hasn't paid any tax on the sale of his mobile phone company. I don't know what the truth is but this is the rumour that is currently going around.

The southern Thais are a breed apart. The TRT party only won one seat in the south, I believe, at the last election and the whole of the south is very anti-Thaksin. Sondhi's support in Bangkok is growing but Thaksin still has a lot of support among Thailand's rural poor in the north and northeast. After all, he has promised them he will end poverty in Thailand in a couple of years time so why shouldn't they be happy with him?

I still can't figure out what all this is leading to. It seems that Sondhi is touring the south (I heard that yesterday he was in Trang) and discontent with the government is growing but Thaksin still has another three years left in office. Presumably Sondhi is trying to get his message across to as much of the population as possible by touring the country and it seems to be working.

But even if he succeeds in getting everyone discontented with the current administration what can happen with another three years before an election is due? Well, for those who know a little about Thai politics there are a few obvious answers but will history be repeated? All we can do is wait and see.

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Monday 23rd January 2006

A lazy day. I walked around Trang a lot at the weekend with a heavy camera bag in very hot weather and it has caught up with me. If the current temperature is anything to go by, this coming hot season is going to be unbearably hot. The room I am in now is very cool - which was one of the reasons I moved - and I expect I will be spending a lot of time in it during the coming months.

Sondhi Limthongkul's public assault on Thaksin recently seems to be having an effect. I read today that Thaksin's family business - Shin Corp - has sold off its mobile phone division to Temasek, the secretive Singaporean state-owned investment and holding company.

This move apparently is to deflect conflict of interest accusations. It's just one part of his business empire though so doesn't go anywhere near far enough and, even though his corporation may now be a little smaller, I guess the US$1.9 billion dollars Shin Corp received softened the blow a little.

My girlfriend also mentioned that Thaksin has asked Prem Tinsulanonda to advise him regarding the troubles in the south. Thaksin's worst trait is his arrogance and this move is a major milestone. It's way overdue though. He should have realised long ago he needed help because he doesn't have a clue how to resolve the situation and everything he has done so far has only made things worse.

He probably couldn't have asked a better person so I have to give him credit. Prem is a very well respected ex-Prime Minister who has an enormous amount of political experience and is now a member of the Privy Council advising HM the King. Born in Songkhla, he understands the mentality of the southern Thais and the southerners have a lot of respect for him. It's a good move.

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Sunday 22nd January 2006

Just back from a weekend in Trang which was a nice change of scenery for a couple of days and fairly interesting. I met and talked to Chuan Leekpai, Thailand's last Prime Minister who was running the country until Thaksin came to power in 2001. He came across as a very humble, modest and compassionate man.

I was honoured to be able to speak with him and didn't think it appropriate to ask any searching political questions but I did get a chance to talk about Thai politics with one of his advisors, a man who has governed southern provinces in the past and who also advises Apirak Kosayothin, the current Bangkok governor. All I can say after speaking with him is that none of my observations about Thai politics were very far off the mark. He basically confirmed all of my thoughts.

I am planning to add a page about Trang to this site soon.

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Wednesday 18th January 2006

The Koh Samui rapists and murderers got their sentences today. It was as expected. Their crime was heinous and damaged the tourist industry that so many Thais rely heavily on. A very public example has therefore been made. The judge remarked, "To prevent others from committing similar acts, the court rules that the two defendants be sentenced to death." They will die by lethal injection. She was 21. The two men are 23 and 24.

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Tuesday 17th January 2006

For the second time since I came to Thailand I had a tooth filled today and I would just like to make a few comments about Thai healthcare professionals.

Elsewhere on this site I have made some less than complimentary comments about the 'Thai way' of doing things. What I mean by this is the obsession with image over substance, and taking short cuts where obviously making some money is the highest priority item and takes precedence over safety, convenience and common sense.

I am pleased to say that the Thai health professionals I have encountered have been some of the most professional and honest people I have ever come across. Their concern has been for nothing other than the well-being of their patients. I have even been seen for free on a few occasions by eye doctors.

The dentist that has been doing work on my teeth is a student. Yes, a student. My initial reaction to having a student work on my teeth was, "You must be joking." I am reluctant to let trainees cut my hair, let alone fix my teeth.

However, I was reassured that she was very good and now I have absolutely no problem with letting her work on my teeth. What is interesting is that at the dental hospital I have never dealt with a man. In addition to my dentist; her advisor, the dental assistants, the X-Ray technicians, the admin staff, and the consultants I have seen have all been women. They are all totally dedicated to their careers, work hard and strive to continually improve their skills and knowledge.

When I say student, she is not a stereotypical student. It's just that she isn't fully qualified yet. She is a post-graduate student with many years of practical experience. She is very conscientious, very competent and does a great job.

I thought that my dentist in the UK was a top professional but some of the things the Thai dentist has found (mostly badly done fillings) have made me think again. Aesthetically some of the fillings he did were not good and X-Rays have shown up pieces of old amalgam fillings left underneath newer composite fillings.

The Thai dentist's fillings look more like original teeth than teeth containing fillings and I have been very pleased with the results. It is also reassuring to think that what is being done will prevent problems in the future. The icing on the cake is what this work is costing me. Work that takes her several hours because it is quite tricky typically costs about Bt250 per tooth because she is a student.

I didn't make many New Year's resolutions for 2006 but one I did make was to get as much dental work done as I can this year. It was about 10 or 11 years ago that I last got a lot of work done but much of it needs redoing now. After finding a good dentist who does work for next to nothing it seems crazy not to get the work done. I figure that once she has finished, everything should be good for another 10 years at least.

When Thai politicians start to think and behave like the country's doctors and dentists there won't be a country on earth to touch Thailand. But what are the chances of that happening?

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Saturday 14th January 2006

It's Children's Day and the day begins watching my friends' daughter perform Thai dancing. Thai kids are great. They are totally unaffected by the greed that is creeping in from the West and slowly eroding the moral fabric of Thai society. Most of the children here don't get much in life, compared to their Western counterparts, and it is nice that one day a year they get fun activities and food laid on for free.

Lots of Thai businesses open their doors for the kids and many people volunteer their services to keep them amused and entertained. There's a great community spirit in Thailand and children play a special part.

That was the good news but I caught a few not-so-nice stories on the BBC web site. The two Koh Samui fisherman who raped and murdered Katherine Horton, the British tourist, are facing sentence. The PM has asked for the maximum penalty - death - not for the horrendous crime on an innocent young woman, but because of the damage done to the country's image (and presumably the country's tourist industry). Nothing is more important in Thailand than image.

The PM was also in the news following more anti-government protests in Bangkok. I find this all very puzzling. The Thais had four years to work how Thaksin operated but at the end of his first term in office they voted him back in with an enormous majority (well, not in the southern provinces).

Now there is unrest barely a year into his second term but he hasn't changed, in fact he has moderated his policies a little in the last year. People are upset because Sondhi Limthongkul has wound them up and Sondhi seems to have a personal axe to grind with Thaksin.

But why has it taken Sondhi to get everyone worked up? Couldn't they see what was going on and didn't they listen to foreign commentators, human rights groups or press freedom movements? The answer, apparently, is no (apart from those southern Thais again).

To balance the story I should add that a group of counter-protesters gathered to show their support for Thaksin. They were from Chiang Mai, the PM's home town, a province that has done rather well since Thaksin came to power. There seems to be no lack of investment in that particular province.

The weather has turned damn hot again in Thailand. The last few months have been very wet, the rain causing floods and lots of inconvenience. However, at least it was cool. Now that the rain clouds have gone it is blisteringly hot and this is just the beginning.

From now until the peak of the hot season in April the temperature will just keep rising. Last year the temperature remained high in May, June, July, August and didn't really start to cool down until September. Thailand in the hot season is no fun.

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Friday 13th January 2006

The PM has finally admitted what everyone knew already. Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Muslim human rights lawyer, had been defending Muslims involved with the southern insurgency problems. Also, if I remember correctly, he had started a petition to remove martial law in the southern provinces. In March 2004 he 'disappeared'. Yes, this is what happens in Thailand if you upset the wrong people.

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Tuesday 3rd January 2006

I see on the BBC News web site that another Brit backpacker has been murdered in Thailand. It's becoming a familiar story. Thailand is not as safe as some people imagine. The general sense of lawlessness in Thailand is worse on the islands and Samui in particular has a reputation for criminality. Visiting tourists, especially young girls travelling alone, need to be very careful and should think twice about going too far off the beaten path.

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Monday 2nd January 2006

Just back from my first visit to Koh Lanta. Despite all the hype I've been hearing, it left me disappointed and quite resentful. You can find out more by going to my Koh Lanta page.

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