Living In Thailand Blog
Wednesday 31st January 2007
At the same time I started Internet banking in 1999, I started maintaining a spreadsheet of my UK bank account. One of the things I use the spreadsheet to calculate is exchange rates when I draw money from ATMs abroad. Exchange rates tend to fluctuate a lot and can make a big difference to your financial health while travelling or living abroad.
I made a couple of trips to the USA in 1999 and got between 1.53 and 1.58 dollars to the pound. The following year (September 2000) I went back again and the rate had dropped to 1.35. On that trip I bought a fairly expensive 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter for my film camera.
When I got my credit card bill it was quite a shock. Last week the dollar to pound exchange rate was almost 2:1 making this a good time for Brits to visit Disneyland.
The Baht to pound exchange rate also fluctuates a lot. My records only go back to 1999 and I have no actual figures prior to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 - which resulted in the Baht being devalued - but on my early trips to Thailand (1987 to 1996) I was getting around Bt40 to the pound.
When I was in Thailand in January 2002 one pound bought around Bt61. I went back to Thailand at the end of 2002 and the rate had gone up to around Bt66. In February 2003 it had continued to go up and I was getting around Bt67 or Bt68.
Towards the end of 2003 when I arrived in Thailand to live it had fallen to Bt64 or Bt65 but by February 2004 it was up to a very healthy Bt71. The rate was high throughout all of 2004, peaking at almost Bt74 to the pound in December.
Throughout 2005 it remained consistently above Bt70 right until the end of the year when it fell to Bt69. 2006 didn't start well with a rate of Bt66 and although it climbed to Bt69, the rate never went above Bt70 all year.
I began 2007 living off my earnings in Thailand but I made a withdrawal from my UK bank account last week and was shocked to see a rate of Bt63.5.
Bt10,000 at the best rate (73.68) cost £135.73 whereas the same amount at the worst rate (61.2) cost £163.35. It makes a big difference.
Note: These aren't official exchange rate figures. They are based on making a withdrawal from an ATM in Thailand and dividing that amount by the amount in pounds that appears on my UK bank statement. In addition, there is a small charge of just over £2 for each ATM withdrawal.
Tuesday 30th January 2007
I often talk about how impressed I am with the public healthcare system in Thailand. The doctors and nurses work tirelessly to ensure that people with serious medical problems get a better quality of life, many of whom are poor from rural communities.
For those living a long way from the public hospital close to where I live, a nearby temple has accommodation available for Bt5 a night for relatives of the hospitalised people to stay in so they can be nearby. The focus is all about care and quality of life; not money.
On about four occasions I have seen doctors at small independent clinics who have refused to charge me. One eye doctor who did this a couple of times told me that he has enough money to live comfortably so he doesn't need any more. He works now only to serve the local community. Also, he's a devout Buddhist and the good he does in this life will serve him in his next rebirth as he continues to deposit more into his Karma bank.
Another country that is often cited as having an excellent public healthcare system is Cuba. It's not perfect but Cuba has a high ratio of doctors per person and - like Thailand - making a profit is not what the system is about.
So, what else do these two countries have in common apart from having world-class public healthcare systems? At the moment - in the eyes of the international community - they are both bad boys for (and let's use that stupid term again) being 'undemocratic'.
Cuba, of course, is communist with that 'nasty' Mr Castro running the country and Thailand is undemocratic for staging a coup and getting rid of that 'nice' Mr Thaksin who upheld the American values of democracy and capitalism.
Ignoring these two naughty countries for a moment, let's take a look at a model society, indeed, the country which leads the free world and one which every other country should strive to emulate (or else they'll bomb the hell out of you): the United States.
There was a very interesting and well written story on the BBC a few days ago about American health care. Sick people in the United States (especially if they are poor) are treated a little differently to Thais and Cubans.
Being a truly capitalist society, the system in the United States isn't really about healthcare; it's just another business and that means making profits. Money is the overriding driver. The following comments in quotes are from the BBC article.
"Most of the money seems to go on overheads and on profits for the many private companies providing care, the hospital groups, the drug manufacturers, and above all the insurance companies."
The article mentions a minor operation that cost 78,000 US dollars. What? How can that be justified? Of course, another problem in the United States is the farcical litigation that exists.
With multi-million dollar law suits being thrown around all the time at the drop of a hat (or a cup of hot coffee), doctors and hospitals need to have massive amounts of insurance to cover themselves.
With such stupid prices for healthcare it is essential to have medical insurance - if you are lucky enough to be able to afford medical insurance. The insurance companies in America must be laughing all the way to the bank.
"As a jolly man selling life insurance pointed out to me the other day, most personal bankruptcies in the US are the result of illness."
What do Americans do who are sick and don't have medical insurance? If they are lucky enough to have a little money they can go to civilised countries such as Thailand or Cuba (although visiting Cuba is a problem for most Americans) where doctors will help save their lives. If they don't have the money and they suffer from life threatening illnesses, they die.
What a great system that is. It's what happens when you allow capitalism to flow unchecked. All that matters is money so that investors who have invested capital see a growth in profits. But instead of being ashamed and embarrassed by the system, the Americans are doing their best to force their style of 'democracy' and capitalism on the rest of the world.
There must be a lot of people in Washington now rubbing their hands together at the thought of getting a foot in the door in Cuba now that Castro is gravely ill and probably won't live much longer.
Drug companies are probably the greediest culprits of all. The pharmaceutical industry is no longer an industry about improving quality of life for the human race; it is an industry primarily about making money - lots of money. Once again, Thailand has upset the international capitalist community and especially the pharmaceutical companies by producing cheaper versions of patented anti-Aids and heart disease drugs.
The pharmaceutical companies are upset that such a move will affect their profits whereas Thailand has done this so that people suffering from certain diseases get a better quality of life. To the capitalist way of thinking, money is everything and quality of life is nothing.
But this is how America wants the rest of the world to be and if other countries try to resist they will face military force, economic blackmail or - if they are really unlucky - a visit from Condoleezza Rice.
Perhaps now with Nancy Pelosi leading the House of Representatives and the Democratic Party finding a voice in American politics again we will start to see a few changes. I hope so.
Monday 29th January 2007
The BBC has finally woken up to the problems at Suvarnabhumi. It's better late than never, I suppose. One thing the BBC report mentions that I hadn't heard about before is ghost sightings. To anyone familiar with Thailand and Thai people this will come as absolutely no surprise.
The Thais are obsessed with, terrified of and fascinated by ghosts all at the same time. Ghost movies are more popular than any other kind of movie, students read books containing gory ghost cartoons and every TV soap opera will have frequent story lines about ghosts. Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. As I said yesterday, the supernatural is taken seriously in Thailand.
Sunday 28th January 2007
Do Buddhist monks have supernatural powers? Many Thais believe that some do; the powers being obtained through meditation. I went to a fairly big merit-making ceremony today at a temple about 30 minutes drive from where I live in a remote part of Songkhla province.
As usual, I had my camera and was taking photographs. I hadn't photographed any monks but my friend warned me that if I did, I should ask permission first. She said they don't always like it and anyway, the photos won't turn out properly.
It was really strange that she said this because of an incident many years ago when I was on holiday in Thailand. I had been on a boat trip around Phang Nga bay with a couple of German friends to see James Bond island and the other big limestone karsts that jut out of the sea.
On the way back we stopped at a temple next to a cave where there were lots of monkeys. I like watching monkey antics and had my camera with me. It was a Canon A1 film camera that had been a faithful servant to me for many years and had never gone wrong.
While photographing the monkeys I also snapped one of the monks. This was in the pre-digital era so of course I had no way of seeing the result. After I returned home and got the photos developed, the photo of the monk was blurred and unusable, indicating that the shutter had malfunctioned or that something else had gone horribly wrong. The photo had an almost ghostly look to it.
I wish I had a scanned copy to show here but all my old negatives are sitting in a cardboard box back in the UK.
The camera had never gone wrong before and never did again. It was just that one photograph. I am the world's biggest sceptic but thoughts started to go through my mind that a force not of this world had been involved due to the subject I had attempted to photograph.
I'd almost forgotten about the incident but as soon as I heard my friend's words today it all came flooding back.
I was outside my apartment last night waiting for the same friend to pick me up but she was late. The security guy must have been feeling bored and - seeing me hanging around - decided to have a 'man-to-man' chat. The conversation was similar to ones I've overheard between sexpats where there is obviously no higher order brain function going on.
Their thought process is controlled by a tiny, primitive nodule in the brain that has somehow escaped evolution for 15,000 years and is only concerned with alcohol and sex. The conversation went a little like this.
Did I drink whisky? No. This met with a disapproving look; after all, I'm male aren't I? Did I drink beer? No. This resulted in a look that was not only disapproving but also disbelieving and suggested I may have been lying.
There were three very attractive girls standing nearby who were also waiting for a lift. The security guy leered towards them and asked if I thought Thai girls were beautiful. Yes. Did I like Thai girls? (Having said I didn't drink whisky or beer, I guess he thought I was gay.) Yes, I do like Thai girls - very much.
Next question. Did I like massage? Yes. He then tried to sell me a massage service for which, no doubt, he gets a small commission. It cost Bt150 an hour. I told him it was expensive and that where I normally go is only Bt100 an hour.
Ah, but with this one the girl goes to your room. My response was an emphatic no, no, no, no, no; and I will explain why.
When I used to come to Thailand as a tourist I would always try to get massages done in my hotel room. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why. When I came to Thailand to live (which was also the time I actually started to learn about the country) I did this at the first place I stayed at. Big mistake. In fact, huge mistake.
Up until that point I had had a pretty good relationship with the girls on reception. However, as soon as massage girls started going to my room, attitudes towards me changed. When they saw me they would force a smile but the banter stopped. Basically, my reputation had gone down the pan and there was no way to retrieve it.
It's one of those things now that I would not even think about doing. In Thailand you have no secrets. There are always people in the same places every day who have lots of time on their hands and don't miss a single little thing. The Thais also like to gossip (nin-taa in Thai).
It's a recipe for disaster bringing an assortment of girls - or just one unknown girl - back to your room and once you have a reputation, that's it. If a really cute girl turns up in the neighbourhood who you would like to get to know you might just as well forget it.
Despite what many foreigners may think about Thailand and the reputation the country has, please believe me that the Thais are a very conservative race of people.
I like to live a respectable life in Thailand mixing with respectable people but fairly frequently that primitive part of the brain kicks in with me as well. I like to believe that it doesn't control my entire existence but, nonetheless, it's still present.
There are lots of sensual pleasures to be had in Thailand but if you care about what people think of you it pays to use a little discretion. As they might say where I originate from, "You don't shit on your own doorstep."
Saturday 27th January 2007
I used to find it a little strange that many Thais I speak to have no great desire to travel abroad, favouring instead trips to other areas of Thailand if given the opportunity to travel. For many of my southern Thai friends, a journey to northern Thailand figures at the top of their travel wish list.
However, I am beginning to think the same way. Since I came to live in Thailand I have done remarkably little foreign travel compared to the previous 25 years of my life. The trips I have done since living here have been confined to the Malaysian peninsula, either to Malaysia for visas or to Singapore to visit my family.
Trips to Singapore are also good for a 'First World' fix and to buy camera and computer equipment. Thailand is poor in this respect. The best that Thailand has to offer is in Bangkok but what is there is way behind Singapore.
The few camera shops selling good equipment in Bangkok are poor cousins compared to the better shops in Singapore and - for computer equipment - Panthip Plaza, for example, is no comparison to Funan IT Mall or even Sim Lim Square.
Going down to Singapore briefly two or three times a year satisfies my desire for foreign travel and for the rest of the time I am quite content to spend the rest of my time in Thailand. Why bother going elsewhere when you are already in what is almost the perfect country?
Having said that, Luang Prabang in Laos is a place I would like to visit at some stage. The only thing that makes me reluctant to go is that it is very well known to tourists and I cannot stand to be anywhere that is swarming with tourists.
Western travel magazines are very good at telling the world about 'unspoilt' travel destinations thereby ensuring they will be completely ruined with 12 months. The irony appears to have been lost on them, however.
Working part-time, I don't get any vacation time as such but my employer is very accommodating and has never said no so far when I've asked for time off. When the time comes this year to go travelling somewhere my only desire at the moment is to return to Chiang Rai which made such a big impression on me last year.
I have been thoroughly enjoying reading a book I picked up at the university library recently written by John Blofeld, a former cultural attaché to the British Embassy in Chungking who then worked at the United Nations in Bangkok.
I would like to share a few selections here because I believe it will be a difficult book to find. It was published in 1972 and I can't even find an ISBN number. If you can manage to track down a copy, it is highly recommended reading provided, that is, you have an interest in Thailand.
It's a very sympathetic account of the amazing reign of King Mongkut - Rama IV. In part, it was written to counter the frivolous accounts of Anna Leonowens which harmed the King's reputation during the time she worked in the royal palace as a governess, but it is also to make known the King's remarkable achievements in a reign of just 17 years.
Before King Mongkut ascended the throne, Thailand was a closed country to the West. There had been relationships with foreign countries during the Ayuthaya period but these ceased to exist after the war with Burma. Despite this (with the assistance of missionaries), he learnt how to speak, read and write English. He understood the threat of European colonialism and used his outstanding skills of diplomacy and negotiation to ward off these threats.
Other accounts I have read about the era of European colonialism in Southeast Asia do not make me proud to be English. What is also rather unfortunate - based on my observations of farangs in Thailand - is that nothing much has changed, apart from the fact sex tourism didn't seem to be an issue back then. We have jet travel and the Internet to thank for that.
"Missionaries apart, the farang community in the City of Devas comprised a rather dubious collection of people more or less inimical to the King and to the interests of the country. The consuls and more substantial merchants were empire-builders, eagerly looking forward to the day when Siam would be annexed by Britain or France; the rest included a large number of dangerous adventurers who had come to make money fast by sharp dealing or by stirring up or aggravating various kinds of trouble.
The most influential of the farang residents in the City of Devas were the consuls and the very active and vociferous missionaries. There were also traders and sea-faring men, to say nothing of the ne'er-do-wells. Towards the end of his reign, the city attracted so many scoundrels and adventurers from abroad that the King became thoroughly disillusioned with farangs in general and even began to have doubts about his good friends, such as Sir John Bowring.
On the whole, the King had a poor opinion of American missionaries; it occurred to him that they largely consisted of nonentities who could find no religious employment in their own country; and, judging from the quality of some of those active in this century, he was probably quite right in that assumption.
The appearance of farangs struck the Siamese as being ludicrous - big, clumsy creatures with over-large noses, eyes so pale as to suggest cataract, faces bearded (the Siamese have always detested beards) and voices much too loud.
Also they seemed very ill-mannered people: they would sit with one leg crossed upon the other, thereby exposing the sole of the foot as though to indicate utter contempt for the person sitting next to them; and they would even allow a hand, elbow or some other part of them pass or remain over the head of someone seated near them.
As though that were not enough to put them beyond the pale, they had the filthy habit of wearing their shoes in the house! How could one learn to tolerate such savages?"
The King, however, was tolerant to all farang visitors, allowing missionaries to enter the country, set up churches and preach to the local people in an attempt to convert them. Despite the hospitality shown to them, they apparently felt at liberty to openly attack the Buddhist religion and Thailand's system of polygamy.
What did he look like? Photos of him exist but photography was in its infancy and photographs vary greatly. The book gives an account of his appearance.
"Built rather sparely, the King was about five foot eight inches tall, that is to say rather above the average for a Siamese of his generation, and he is described as having an erect, commanding figure.
His eyes were his best feature; his mouth was rather large and drooped on one side as the result of an illness suffered in middle age, and his right ear was slightly deformed for a reason not given. During his monastic days, he had lost all his teeth and those in his lower jaw had been replaced with false teeth made of red sapan wood, which may not have looked at all strange in the days when the teeth of almost every Siamese were stained with betel-juice.
On the whole, his features were regular, apart from the perceptible drooping of one corner of the mouth, and his complexion is said to have been good.
It seems reasonable to suppose that King Mongkut was not a good-looking man, but that he had a rather kindly face which, though the expression was a little too austere, plainly revealed great strength of purpose and was, in its way, attractive.
Though his hair was inclined to be thin, it was still completely black when he came to the throne at the age of forty-seven and there was no tendency towards baldness which, in Siam, is regarded as a lamentable condition."
Palace life was equally fascinating with the King being the only adult male in residence among three or four thousand women. Women living at the palace were allowed to keep male children but only up until the age of seven. Monks and doctors were allowed to enter the palace but only to perform essential services. The Thais did not believe in having eunuchs to attend to the King's ladies so other women performed this role as well. A female police force was employed to maintain order.
"In such a community it was natural that bickering or open quarrels among the ladies were rather frequent; even stealing was not unknown among the menials, and the police force of amazons had plenty of work on their hands."
The King performed an exceptionally busy schedule.
"At 7am he rose. (King Mongkut in fact arose two hours earlier to perform his devotions, which included the recitation of sacred texts and the practice of meditation.)
At 8am came a light breakfast consisting of rice porridge flavoured with egg, shrimp, fish or pork. (King Mongkut's meals were served to him in porcelain bowls from which he ate with chopsticks, this being the aristocratic way of eating in the days when the common people generally ate with their hands. He often used most of his breakfast hour for granting private audience to foreigners.)
At 9am, officers of the guard were received and, at ten, came the first big meal of the day. At eleven, surprisingly enough, the monarch was expected to retire to bed - presumably for the purpose of begetting children. (We know that King Mongkut did not shirk this responsibility, the number of his children being variously given as 81 or 82.) In this matter, enjoyment, prestige and statecraft were all involved."
His working day continued until 2am or 3am the following morning when he would sleep for a few hours before rising at 5am again to begin another busy, engagement-filled day.
I'd like to include more from the book but obviously I can't. However, if any of this has been of interest you should try to locate a copy. The full title is "King Maha Mongkut of Siam" by John Blofeld.
Friday 26th January 2007
Following the brief spell of cool weather experienced here recently (cool being a relative term), the heat has returned with a vengeance. There is a myth perpetuated by some people that the month of April constitutes the hot season in Thailand. This is certainly not the case.
In southern Thailand there are just two seasons. One is hot and wet; the other hot and dry. That's the polite version. It was actually a Thai who told me the two seasons are the hot season and the ******* hot season.
The heat starts to build around this time, peaks in April and there is no real respite until around October time. It's honestly no fun. I realise that some seriously cold weather has just hit the UK and people there would probably love some warmth but extremes of temperature at either end of the scale aren't comfortable.
I have never had much tolerance for very hot or very cold weather. I went outside at lunchtime today and came back with a headache that sent me to bed for a couple of hours. For the last four months or so I have managed to live without air-conditioning (it helps that my apartment receives no direct sun) but the time is coming soon when I will have to switch it back on.
I heard about another road accident today but with a twist. One of the secretaries at work told me that a cow hit her car this morning although I suspect it may have been the other way around. She was quite shaken up and told me the animal will probably be destroyed. Poor cow.
"The corruption disease spread like when one was bitten by a vampire, he or she turned into another vampire and bit other people more."
These words were spoken by Tortrakul Yommanak who is investigating corruption and problems at the new airport. The full report can be found here.
I spoke recently about how I am trying to learn some Thai proverbs and idioms. The Nation ran a lovely piece on the new airport using a number of Thai proverbs to describe what went on there. Old Thai proverbs shed light on airport fiasco. Here's an example:
The contractors had to pay bia bai rai thang ('I have to pay money under the table all the way'). With the cost of the bia bai rai thang, the contractors had to compromise on the quality of the jobs they were hired to do.
Many things change in this world but basic human nature doesn't which is why so many of these old proverbs from all cultures remain uncannily accurate.
How much of a deal is the head and feet thing in Thailand? It's one of those subjects that guidebooks go on about in their obligatory section on Thai culture, as do the pub experts on Thailand who go for a month every year.
It's easy to get the impression that a toe pointed in slightly the wrong direction or accidentally touching someone's head is a serious social faux pas and likely to result in a big scene.
The truth is that after living in Thailand for a while I had almost forgotten about the whole issue. I had a little reminder yesterday though when I got my hair cut. Before she began to cut, the hairdresser wai'ed my head and apologised in Thai for what she was about to do.
It was about the third or fourth time she has cut my hair and I honestly can't recall her doing this before but she said she does it every time. I have never noticed any other hairdressers do it either and I've had my hair cut many times in Thailand.
On the same subject, I am sure that the, "Sit down, sit down," business you get all the time is related to head height. If Thais are sitting down and you are standing over them it does seem to make them very uncomfortable. When they keep telling you to sit down, I don't think it is purely for your own comfort.
When it comes to touching heads, you only have to worry about strangers and how often do you touch a strangers head? Normally it just doesn't happen whether you are in Thailand or anywhere else. I made a horrendous error shortly after arriving in Thailand when I gently tugged a girl's ponytail who I had been joking with.
I wasn't really thinking at the time but I knew that I had done a bad thing when I saw her reaction. Generally though, I learn from my mistakes and I never did that again.
With feet, I sometimes find myself sitting on the floor with Thais and avoid just sticking my legs straight out in front of me but it's no big deal. I have actually been offended by Thai feet at times because they aren't always in the best of condition but what offended me didn't seem to offend other Thais.
It's really nothing to worry about. You might want to avoid doing what Benny Hill used to do with the little bald fella when he slapped him repeatedly on the head. If you don't know someone, especially someone of the opposite sex, it is best to avoid all physical contact although this doesn't always work the other way round.
On public transport I have had the person next to me rest a hand on my knee (normally an old lady but sometimes a man) and it's nothing to get upset about. If Thais are sitting, try to get down to the same level and don't sit somewhere resting your feet on the table. Be extra careful around monks and treat Buddha images with the same reverence as you would a monk.
Even if you do make a serious social error it is unlikely that anything much will happen. Thais understand that most farangs are ignorant about their culture and therefore make allowances. There is also the greng jai thing going on which will prevent them from saying anything to you.
Once you get to know Thais well they aren't shy about putting you right if you make social errors but that process can take quite a long time.
Thursday 25th January 2007
You have to feel sorry for Thailand at the moment. For the last few years there has been nothing but problems. In addition to southern insurgency, political unease and corruption, the tsunami dealt a huge blow to the country's tourism industry and bird flu didn't do much for the poultry business.
The latest problem is Legionnaire's disease in Phuket after four foreign tourists contracted the disease while staying there last November.
My gut feeling is that the next three months will continue to be difficult but after that things will start to improve. Let's hope so.
Land of Smiles is perhaps Thailand's most famous sobriquet but it is also a Land of Contrasts. It is also a land where image and appearance are favoured over truth and substance. This it what makes it such a fascinating country to live in. I never cease to be surprised at the things I continually discover.
The image of Thailand presented to the world is pretty tough to beat. Magnificent beaches, ancient cities, an elegant and refined culture, and Bangkok - a vibrant, modern metropolis with new hi-tech transport systems and ornate temples standing beside gleaming shopping centres such as Siam Paragon. But there is another side to the country.
My student who was involved in a motorbike accident has returned but another one has now gone missing. When I asked what had happened to him I was told he had fallen from a lamppost. Fair enough, I fall off lampposts all the time and ... I know it's a stupid question, but ... what was he doing up a lamppost?
Turns out he was doing something with electricity cables. Mmmm ... time for another stupid question. Why was he doing that? Shouldn't he be leaving that sort of thing to the local electricity company? It was then that I got the full story.
He lives near a large shanty area which I have been to a few times. It's a collection of shanty buildings constructed from corrugated iron and orange boxes next to the railway tracks. I don't know what the population is there but it must be several hundred.
The people living there are not prevented from doing so but live outside the local community apparently. Because they don't have addresses the local municipality can't (or won't) provide electricity and water supplies.
The Thais are a pragmatic race though and for every such obstacle there is a solution. My student lives in a house nearby which has an address and therefore he has electricity and water. What he has done as a little sideline is to provide these services to some of the shanty dwellers.
Incidentally, an English word has been borrowed for such domiciles and given a Thai pronunciation. The Thais refer to them as sa-lums.
I haven't seen the arrangement firsthand but the general description was one of several electricity cables and water pipes running between his house and the nearby corrugated shacks. It's a lucrative business apparently - and perfectly legal I am told - but not without risks.
Last year, a resident of one of the shacks he supplies electricity to didn't pay so he cut off the electricity supply. The guy was angry and attacked him with a club which resulted in a neck injury and time off work.
It's good at least that electricity isn't just stolen as is the case in many other developing countries but shouldn't there be a better arrangement than this? It's the reason I get cynical when I hear people going on about multi-billion Baht shopping centres in Bangkok selling Bt20 million Ferraris and Porsches.
While there are people in the country living in shacks with no electricity or water who have to take feeder supplies from nearby houses (which involves private citizens shinning up and down lampposts messing around with electricity cables) and meanwhile billions of Baht are being invested trying to turn parts of Bangkok into Orchard Road, something ain't quite right.
Using Singapore as some kind of a role model for Thailand is all well and good but sort out the basics first - just as Singapore did with the HDB programme many years ago. Again, a lot of what has happened in Thailand (especially Bangkok) in recent years is a legacy of the last administration and I am hoping for a few policy changes now to restore a semblance of common sense in the country.
Wednesday 24th January 2007
This doesn't seem to have been picked up on by the foreign media (hardly surprising given their ignorance regarding what really goes on in Thailand) but there have been a number of reports in the English language Thai press about the new airport.
Initially, I attributed the issues to teething problems but new stories are appearing all the time and the root of the problems would appear to be a lot deeper than just teething problems.
By sheer coincidence I went through Suvarnabhumi on the day it opened as that was the day I had arranged to return from Chiang Rai. I was struck by its size and how long it took to taxi to the terminal.
There weren't many passengers and considering it had just opened there weren't really any problems. As you would expect, there were lots of staff running around on what must have been a very busy day for them.
I was there again in December and it was busy - very busy. What didn't help was that several functions were still not working. At check-in the luggage was being moved by hand and check-in counters were being announced with hand-written cardboard signs. It wasn't exactly a hi-tech experience for what is the world's newest airport.
I wish I had bookmarked the links to earlier stories but I didn't. There were problems with taxi drivers not being happy and on one day the drivers staged a blockade. My experience of getting into Bangkok from the airport was a pain and it took a long time.
There were reports of female staff being hassled by construction workers. Other reports say the terminal building gets too hot and that the A/C can't cope. The toilet facilities have been criticised and sure enough, I found that to be the case immediately after arriving from Chiang Rai when it took me a while to find one.
Apart from the hassling of female staff, most things could have been put down to teething problems but the stories have started to get worse. Cracks have now started appearing in the runways and terminal building. On the runways and taxiways an area of 70,000 m2 could be affected.
Already it seems that the airport may have reached its capacity and there was talk recently of Thai International Airways transferring its domestic flights back to Don Muang. Just why are there so many problems - some very serious - when this is still a new airport?
You have to bear in mind who was Suvarnabhumi's biggest champion and who it was organised a lavish celebration (at the expense of Thai taxpayers) for the inaugural flight a long time before the airport actually opened. According to him, this was going to be a showcase for Thailand and would help everyone in Thailand by making the country the region's major air hub.
As usual, his rhetoric was world class but the reality of what was going on was somewhat different.
It's strange, but I don't know too many ordinary Thais who are having problems thinking what to do with the extra money they have received since the airport opened. But that's not to say that nobody benefited. Some did and they benefited handsomely.
It was a massive project with massive funding and, inevitably, massive corruption took place. Investigations are currently being conducted as to what is behind the structural problems but it isn't inconceivable that short cuts were taken and quality sacrificed in order for unscrupulous and corrupt people to pocket the difference in building costs.
The purchase of bomb scanning equipment is the most well known corruption case but I read reports last year that suggested every single sub-contract awarded was subject to some form of corrupt deal. There was some more info on the bomb scanning machines today from The Nation.
A company called Patriot Business Consultants was trying to arrange the deal but the Thais discovered Bt800 million could be saved by purchasing the equipment directly from GE InVision Technologies (who, by the way, had already offered bribes to get the business). As an aside, I would be interested to understand what value Patriot Business Consultants proposed to add to the deal for their Bt800 million fee.
The machines were purchased directly but the Bt800 million saved as a result of not going through Patriot Business Consultants was never accounted for. Where did that money go?
Another investigation is trying to find out why the terminal building layout was altered to give more space to a duty-free company called Kingpower. It would be interesting to know who has vested business interests in Kingpower and what money changed hands for this convenient change in plans.
The man at the centre of this huge corruption scandal knows what is happening and knows his days are numbered. Recent events inside and outside of Thailand have not been a coincidence as he has staged a desperate 11th hour two-pronged attack to try to save himself.
The first involved hiring a US PR company and meeting with foreign media in Singapore to try to rescue his image and prove his innocence to an international audience. He has tried to portray himself as an innocent victim of a political conspiracy when all he wanted to do was uphold the values of democracy and capitalism. My arse. The second was to try to discredit the current interim government by causing problems within Thailand.
I just wish that the government would get the evidence they have out in the open as quickly as possible because that will be the only way to stop the endless political turmoil that is going on now. Let the world - including Thailand's rural poor - know the truth about what really went on. One corrupt man's insatiable greed cannot be allowed to hurt an entire country of over 60 million people forever.
Monday 22nd January 2007
This article about tourism in Thailand is quite interesting and fits in with a lot of my observations. It's official: Thailand no longer wants to be a 'cheap destination' but wants to attract 'quality travellers'.
In other words (as I've been saying all along) Thailand wants foreigners who don't care how much money they spend in the country. The Thais have noticed that despite unfavourable economic conditions, hotel room rates have continued to increase without any loss of business.
Not only have I abandoned my plans to go to one of the islands in Trang province next month because of stupid hotel prices but last year I had lots of problems finding accommodation in Bangkok that wasn't vastly overpriced. I refuse to be willingly ripped off in Thailand. If nothing else, it's unethical to pay the rich owner of a hotel more to stay for one night than he pays his maids to clean rooms for a month.
In Khaolak, for example, most of the rebuilding since the tsunami is comprised of very upmarket, expensive accommodation costing up to Bt10,000 per night or more.
It's easy to understand this strategy but it's sad to see the obsession with money above everything else. Khaolak now has no atmosphere compared to a few years ago. The expensive resorts are walled off and have security guards. Outside, there isn't much street life and the vibrant street life that exists in Thailand is one of the country's best aspects.
It's a divided resort and if the same strategy is employed elsewhere then other places will become divided. All this extra income will go to the wealthy Thais who can afford to invest in property, thus increasing the wealth gap in the country even more and that could create social problems.
As I said recently, I don't like greed and neither do I like exploitation. Khaolak is a good example of this. Hoteliers want the highest possible rates from rich European and North American guests but how much of that money finds it way to poor Thais?
In Khaolak, very little. Because of its proximity to Ranong and the Burmese border, there are thousands of Burmese employed there who work for even less than poor Thais from the northeast. The expensive resorts have been built using mainly cheap Burmese labour and it is Burmese that do a lot of the menial jobs.
They live in shacks on the construction sites in quite appalling conditions. You don't have to take my word for any of this but if you get the chance to visit Khaolak, do what I do and wander around the construction areas talking to the workers. After that, visit one of the Bt10,000 a night luxury resorts to see the contrast.
With all this talk about 'quality' travellers it will be interesting to see what happens with regard to sex tourism which, undeniably, is a major tourism draw. Even though the Thais might not be very proud of the reputation the country has, the millions of single males arriving each year bring in an enormous amount of money.
With the Thai obsession for money, they won't want to do anything to jeopardise income and therein lies the dilemma. I expect they will continue to use the same tactic as is used now - denial.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand and doesn't officially exist. For example, huge buildings with hundreds of pretty girls where you can take a bath with a naked girl who will bathe and massage you provide just that service - bath and massage. That's all you pay for and it doesn't break any laws.
In the highly unlikely scenario that a soapy sponge around your private parts might have aroused a few passions you decide you want sex - and she agrees - that is just sex between two consenting adults which doesn't break any laws either. Simple, isn't it? There is no prostitution in Thailand.
Sunday 21st January 2007
On inter-provincial bus routes in Thailand the bus will stop occasionally and on will jump several food vendors. The ones in the photo are just selling fruit. Others sell drinks, rice, grilled chicken, etc.
Also popular are small birds' eggs but from which type of bird I'm not sure - maybe quails?
Eggs are a good example of strange logic when it comes to food. When you think about it, eggs aren't a very nice thing to eat. What is strange is that I have no problem at all eating chicken eggs but cannot bring myself to eat eggs from any other type of bird. Why is this?
I was once given a fried goose egg while visiting the United States but couldn't eat it. It looked the same as a chicken egg apart from being about four times the size. I have exactly the same issue with the bird eggs in Thailand and can't bring myself to eat them either. Similarly, I can eat liver, kidney and stuffed lambs' hearts because my mother used to prepare these dishes when I was growing up but I find disgusting the pig offal that the Thais eat. Strange, isn't it?
The same person who gave me the goose egg (my cousin in Colorado who is a bit of a joker) also got me to try Rocky Mountain Oysters on one occasion. I didn't get very far with those either. If you're not sure what they are, ask a cowboy.
The hotel dilemma for my parents has been resolved. I did some research today and found a great place. The first place I tried sounded promising but it didn't live up to my expectations and reminded me somewhat of a British holiday camp. The staff were very friendly but the hotel needed some renovation.
The second place was fantastic and I knew straight away it was what I wanted. It's a fairly new hotel and everything still looks brand new. The rooms rates are a paltry Bt1,000 for ordinary rooms (which aren't ordinary at all) and just Bt2,200 for magnificent suites. A hotel of this quality would be about four times as expensive in Phuket.
Compared to the stupid prices I saw yesterday for average and below-average accommodation in tourist areas, there is no comparison. There is also another big difference between tourist and non-tourist areas.
The hotels in tourist areas always have reasons to jack up the prices even further. It's always 'high season' (apart from a few months of the year when no one goes because it rains all the time) and when there are holidays it then becomes 'peak season'.
There are 'peak season' rates for Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year, Thai New Year and the owner's daughter's birthday, etc etc etc, and if you stay at New Year or Christmas you must have the compulsory Bt2,000 gala dinner option. Outside the tourist areas there is a just one price most of the time. What's more, the girl who helped me today seemed determined to give me a discount.
She told me the walk-in rates which were fine. I didn't ask for a discount. But then she asked me if the booking was for a company because they can give discounts to several companies. I said no but told her where I worked.
Straight away, she said, "That'll do," and gave me the discounted price with no proof that I worked where I said I did. My faith has been restored again. I was getting quite angry yesterday at how hotel rates in tourist areas are so much more than they should be for Thailand but after today's experience I feel very happy with the outcome.
Some Thais display "I love farang" stickers and it is hardly surprising although the stickers should really read "I love stupid farangs who just hand over their money." Take away the farang tourist industry and accommodation operations on pieces of barren land near the sea would struggle to survive.
But with the farang tourist industry, not only do they survive, they positively prosper. Good luck to them but I'm afraid that this farang won't be contributing to their cause. I have some major issues with greed and think it is the worst of all sins.
Most of the problems in the world now can be traced to greed. It troubles me especially, living in a country where so many good people have so little. This was what led to the big falling out I had with my last landlord who was a very greedy man and it's one of the reasons (there are plenty of others) why I have such a big problem with Thaksin.
One of my e-mail correspondents told me of a bad bus accident in Chiang Mai that killed 22 teachers. It was a shocking incident. Not only will friends and relatives be grieving but so will many students.
I don't know what happened exactly, and this is a terrible thing to say, but after travelling on public buses on many occasions this kind of incident doesn't really surprise me. In the last week I have taken several ordinary non-A/C bus rides and a few of them have been crazy, one in particular.
There must have been 90-100 people on the bus. On each set of two seats there were three people sitting and every available inch of space was occupied with people standing. Despite this, the bus was still the fastest vehicle on the road as we overtook everything else.
The driver's driving style was either full acceleration or heavy braking. There was nothing in between. He braked so heavily at times that with the windows open, all that could be smelt inside the bus was the smell of burning brake linings.
It only seems to be a problem with the non-A/C buses. Most of the A/C bus rides I have taken haven't been too bad and the drivers seem to be a bit calmer. Perhaps it's just the effect of the heat?
I only hope that this terrible incident in Chiang Mai involving so much loss of life was a genuine accident and not something that could have been avoided. I know I talk far too much about this subject but the senseless loss of life on Thailand's roads when so much death could be prevented is something that I just cannot simply accept and ignore.
I have seen more road accidents in the three and a bit years I've lived in Thailand than I ever saw before I arrived. Here is a photo from the accident I saw today. I was in a sawng-thaew and just snapped it quickly as the driver drove around the cars involved.
One was a pickup truck and the other was a large Japanese saloon - maybe a Toyota Camry - from which this front section came from. No one was injured but it occurred on an innocuous piece of road where there were no reasons for accidents to happen. It happened, like the rest, simply because of how the Thais drive.
Saturday 20th January 2007
Yesterday I mentioned that one of my pet hates in Thailand is minivans. Let's explore a couple more. First is the use of the word 'paradise' in descriptions of every single Thai hotel and guesthouse located within 100 yards of a beach. Second is being ripped off.
My parents are arriving for a flying visit fairly soon and I am trying to arrange an itinerary for them. I have got them booked into a local hotel in Thai-Thailand for when they arrive and depart. It's the best hotel available where royalty and dignitaries stay if they come to town. It's a very plush place and the rate is Bt850 a night. No problem.
For the middle part of their trip I thought we would go to the seaside. I didn't want to go too far or go anywhere too touristy and thought that one of the islands in Trang province would fit the bill. I've spent a good part of this afternoon researching places though and that doesn't seem to be the case.
I am probably five years too late and those small islands seem to have gone mainstream already. I can tell by the prices. The rip-offs start to occur as soon as you cross the border between Thai-Thailand and farang-Thailand.
My parents are getting on in age so I can't stay anywhere too basic because they need a certain level of comfort. However, to get anywhere I would consider suitable for them means paying over Bt3,500 a night which is crazy. I need two rooms for two nights.
In addition to the Bt14,000+ for accommodation, the boat fare is Bt450 per person each way, therefore another Bt3,600. By the time we've added on meals and expenses it will be Bt20,000 and we are only actually staying one full day.
I don't object to paying out money if I'm getting good value but I object to being ripped off and it happens every time I venture into farang-Thailand. The last occasion was when I went to meet a friend on Koh Lanta. I could almost hear the greedy Thais rubbing their hands together as the stupid farangs handed over their cash without even thinking.
It doesn't take a long time living in Thailand to get an understanding of how much things cost and how much people earn. Bt20,000 is five months wages for some Thais which helps to put things in perspective a little.
I've just about given up on the idea now. I am fed up looking at overpriced accommodation on the Internet (lousy mosquito-infested bungalows without any hot water for Bt2,000 a night) described as paradise-this and paradise-that.
The marketing is aimed 100% at stupid farangs who don't have a clue. There's no way the Thais would pay these ridiculous prices. I'm now looking closer to home. There are some very comfortable and well-appointed large resort/hotels near the sea in Songkhla where rooms cost only a little over Bt1,000.
In farang travel brochure terms the location doesn't have quite the same 'paradise' factor and Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't made any movies there but who cares? Another benefit of remaining in Thai-Thailand is far fewer farang package tourists and backpackers to spoil the atmosphere.
Strange creatures women. Treat them well and they spit in your face but treat them badly and they come running back for more. I don't exactly treat Iss badly but I don't give her much money and when we are together we spend the whole time teasing each other and trading insults - all in a fun way, of course.
In addition to her regular Thai nickname I have given her several others, none of which are very flattering, and the way I address her when messing around is quite offensive in Thai. It's the kind of language that could get me into a lot of trouble if used with a stranger. By the way, it's a reciprocal thing and she gives as well as she gets.
She loves it. She has disappeared temporarily to spend some time with her family but called last night almost begging me to insult her. When I did, she collapsed in laughter. This morning she has been using text messages to keep the banter going.
Yesterday I caught one of the apartment receptionists eating som tum bplaa-raa and some horrible-looking, discoloured hard-boiled eggs. I don't mind regular som-tum but not the bplaa-raa variety which stinks. Many Thais love it though, and not just those from the north-east where this dish originates.
I gave her a good ribbing about having bad breath and she lapped it up. I can now see this becoming a standing joke whenever I see her. The Thais are a nation of jokers and tease each other relentlessly. Some of the teasing appears to be insensitive but no one takes offence. You have to know though what you can joke about and what you can't.
People carrying a little extra weight will often be called oowan by their friends (Thai for 'fat') but it's not considered to be an insult. If Thais don't joke with and tease you it just means there is still a barrier to overcome.
Once they start calling you names, you know then that you have been accepted.
Friday 19th January 2007
Today's word is surly. It was that time again to run to the border for another passport stamp and then to get my work permit extended to stay in synch with my visa. It's a fairly painless experience but not a very pleasant one. In the Land of Smiles not a single person has smiled today.
The day started with me needing to use a minivan and if you've read much elsewhere on this site you will already know they are one of my pet hates in Thailand. Most of the vans are completely clapped out. The seats are knackered, making them very uncomfortable after a while, the A/C hardly works and the vans are claustrophobic.
About the only place that isn't claustrophobic is next to the driver but (once again) I wasn't allowed to sit there. If a farang-sized person sits up front there is only room for two people whereas they can get three or four Thai women and children in that same space.
The primary objective with the vans is to fit in as many people as possible. If they are forced to leave without a full quota of people they creep around at a kerb-crawling pace trying to pick people up. Once the van is full, the driving style changes to flat out and that isn't much fun either.
There is no consideration for passenger safety or comfort - just get as many people in to maximise the profit on each journey. A few months ago I saw a van listing heavily by the side of the road which had obviously been abandoned. When I looked underneath I saw that the front suspension had just collapsed; the result of constant overloading, crazy driving and lack of maintenance.
The drivers can be very surly and aggressive. You are supposed to just sit where they tell you and shut up. Don't try to sit elsewhere and don't dare complain about overloading. I did last year and almost got into a fight with the driver after he had stopped for passenger number 19 in a van with 14 seats.
At the border there have been changes. The immigration booths have been relocated and the same digital pod cameras that I first saw at Hat Yai airport on my last trip to Singapore have been installed. Everyone entering and leaving Thailand by road or air now gets photographed.
As usual, the immigration guy was very surly. My sawutdii krup and kop khun krup was completely ignored as he stamped my passport without so much as looking at me or saying a word. It was then time to do the farcical walk over to Malaysia and come straight back again.
Malaysian immigration never have much to say but I got asked a couple of questions today. Did I stay in Thailand and, when I told him yes, did I stay in Phuket? I managed to say simply no and resisted the urge to explain I hate Phuket and wouldn't live there if you paid me.
Coming back into Thailand, there was more surliness. The guy questioned me in Thai which isn't a problem but might be for the majority of farangs in Thailand who can't understand any Thai. He simply wanted to know what I did and where I worked. Perhaps he also wanted to know whether I understood any Thai?
It was then a case of going back to where I'd started off and then going in the opposite direction to get my work permit sorted out. Again, this was straightforward but there were no smiles and no words spoken - apart from asking me for the money. The girl who served me has served me several times before but her face never cracks. She is efficient but an occasional smile would be nice.
I saw no other farangs at immigration today. That may just have been because I made an early start but on the other hand it may be that the immigration changes have got rid of a lot of the perpetual 30 day stamp residents. A year or two ago, there were always quite a few at the border.
Every time I encounter immigration now I get the impression that the changes are serious. There will still be a handful of long-term expats who maintain that nothing has changed and you can still do whatever you want in Thailand as long as you bribe the right person but I'm not so sure anymore. There is some serious stuff going down in Thailand these days and we haven't seen the last of it yet.
My next prediction is a big crackdown on English teachers. With yet another farang child sex offender arrested last week who had been 'teaching' English in Bangkok, there will be pressure from abroad to put and end to this, as well as from Thais wanting to know more about the middle-aged foreign men teaching their children.
It won't be any loss to Thailand. There are thousands of university educated, hard-working Filipinos with genuine teaching qualifications quite willing to accept teaching positions in Thailand for a fraction of the salary demanded by unqualified farangs and, what's more, they don't represent a danger to the students.
The BBC ran a nice piece about foreign parents who had adopted Thai children coming back to Bangkok for a series of events and for the children to get an opportunity to meet their birth parents. It must have been a very emotional time for all involved.
I have visited the Songkhla Babies' Home on a few occasions. The first was out of curiosity, having passed by many times and seen the 'Visitors Welcome' sign outside. I donated some money and went back for a second visit with pens, writing pads and Thai language material suitable for tiny tots.
I went with Iss and one of the carers told us that the kids get lots of material things donated but what they really needed was a teacher. I went back a third time to volunteer my services but was told they had already arranged for someone to come from Denmark or somewhere to teach. That was my last visit but I must go back again soon.
Sure enough, the kids do get a lot of donations. Merit-making (tum-boon) is a big part of Thai culture and what better way to make merit than to help out orphaned children? Pickup trucks and cars arrive frequently with nappies, milk powder, clothes and school equipment.
All the kids really want though is some love and affection. It was quite heartbreaking for Iss and I to sit on the steps surrounded by a big group of three year-olds who grabbed hands, arms and legs and didn't want to let go.
What upset me the most was seeing how normal they were. As they played, there were no signs of self-pity yet these were kids who had nothing apart from a few clothes and a bed to sleep in.
Adopting other people's children doesn't seem to be part of the Thai culture. It is not unusual for relatives to bring up a child but it seems to be kept in the family. Fortunately, foreigners do not think that way and many give good homes to Thai children who haven't had the best of starts in life.
I had a most unwelcome reminder of the UK this evening. I don't have a TV in my apartment but the restaurant where I ate did. Two news items are currently front page headlines back home. The first is the weather but that came as no surprise.
Hurricane force winds that are strong enough to cause structural damage are not unknown in the British Isles. It was the second news item that made my stomach turn.
I have often mentioned the British culture of confrontation - which is the direct opposite of the Thai culture of non-confrontation. It's really ugly and the sad fact is that a lot of British people thrive on it. They like nothing more than a pub fight or a slanging match or some road rage. If they can't be involved directly themselves then they seek it through television.
For years the TV soap opera EastEnders has been all about confrontation and now, of course, we have so-called reality TV. This is where a few volatile people are confined in close quarters and made to do demeaning tasks until they reaching breaking point and get confrontational with each other. This is what the producers and the viewers want. It's sad but true.
While eating my dinner tonight I had to endure an ugly, spoilt little girl with half a brain cell (who I have never heard of but who - apparently - is a UK tabloid celebrity now) berate an Indian woman. The little girl was so full of anger it made for quite unpleasant viewing.
The look of anger on her face brought back many memories of my days in England when I saw so many people with similar expressions. They lead unhappy lives which they try to cover up with the acquisition of material things or getting drunk but they are still unhappy inside - and very angry. It doesn't take much at all to light the fuse and then they explode.
It is this kind of behaviour that I do not miss the slightest in Thailand. I've had a few run-ins and a few angry confrontations but they really are rare. Thai culture is so much more civilised than British culture.
It also saddens me to witness how a country which was once the centre of a great empire and one which has contributed so much to the world has degenerated so much in such a short space of time. Have Britons nothing better to do these days than to watch half-witted morons confronting each other on television?
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