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  • Living in Thailand Blog January 2010

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Sunday 31st January 2010

No man is an island. We all need support networks for those times when we have problems that require the assistance of others to fix. If you leave your home country behind (thus leaving all your support networks behind) to start living in a new country, how do you go about building new support networks?

It's an individual thing and depends very much on the type of person you are. What I have become increasingly aware of since moving to Thailand is that the approach I have chosen differs to that of most expats in Thailand.

Shortly after moving to Thailand, I ran into another newly-arrived farang who had done the same thing as me and left his homeland. I didn't know any foreigners at the time (because I had made no effort to find any) but he was always going on about his 'mates'.

The first thing he did after he arrived was to seek out the local expat bars in order to become involved with the local expat community that way. If he encountered any problem, he always had a 'mate' from the bar who knew the answer. This approach isn't unusual.

Since the advent of the Internet, some people rely on Internet forums. They live in Thailand but appear to spend all day wasting their time in the Thaivisa forums posting thousands of messages. Many expats simply choose to live somewhere in Thailand with a large expat community where they can speak English, eat Western food, and watch foreign sport on TV.

Maybe I'm unusual, but for me this kind of thing defeats the object of living in an exotic, foreign country where so much is different and where there is so much to learn and experience. I do not actively seek out foreigners, and I don't wish to live in an expat bubble.

What about problems? Generally speaking, foreigners can't fix problems in Thailand. If you rely on the expat community, the best that can happen is you will find someone who knows the right Thai person to talk to.

By simply getting on with life in Thailand and becoming involved with the local community, I have built up an influential support network in a very natural way. What's more, is that I have a direct relationship with the people who can help.

What you will find is that the local Thai community is extremely well-connected. In Thailand, it's not what you know but who you know, and Thais make a point of knowing lots of people.

Once you meet Thais, you then get introduced to people they know, and before very long you acquire a lot of contacts. You will probably also find that some of those people are very influential in the local community.

To do this successfully you need to meet the right kind of Thais in the right places. If you hang out at the expat bars all day you might be lucky, but then again you might not. Bar girls can be very effective helping you in some ways, but not others, and these girls don't tend to be very influential in the local community.

Working in Thailand (which means teaching English for most foreigners) is a highly effective way of meeting lots of very useful people. Also, just wandering around talking to local people can be very effective.

About five years ago, I went into a small coffee shop and started talking to the two girls running it. I became very friendly with one of them, Aor, and she is a good friend to this day (apart from the fact she's working in Spain currently).

It turned out that she had a very large circle of friends from her schooldays. After a while I was introduced to some of her friends, who then became personal friends. They have all sorts of connections, including some very high level contacts in business and local government. I've had problems fixed by these friends that I couldn't have fixed myself.

I'm not criticising anyone, and I would never dare to suggest how anyone should live in Thailand, but there are a lot more ways to survive in Thailand as a foreigner instead of simply locating the local expat community and then living solely in an expat bubble.

Although I don't seek them out, I don't completely shun the expat community either. There are some great foreigners living in Thailand; they are good people, and they are also very knowledgeable about Thailand.

It's good to have these people around but, because of what Thailand is, I have found that it pays to be a little careful when encountering foreign expats. Along with the good ones, I've met some really bad ones too.

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Friday 29th January 2010

Temple cat and pup - Click for larger image I can't figure out why Thais spend thousands of Baht on 'designer' pets when their temples are full of the most amazing cats and dogs that nobody wants.

There's a Buddhist temple next to where I work and I go there often in my lunch break. It's a really peaceful, tranquil environment, and thus a pleasant escape from the craziness that is ever-present outside. Sometimes I chat with the monks, but most times I just sit with the temple cats and dogs.

Temple pup and mother - Click for larger image I'm not really a dog person, but if I was looking for a pet dog the one in this photo would be perfect. He/She is just a ball of fluff, and as cute as any pup can be. Its mother is an equally sweet dog. She has a wonderful temperament and is gentle as a lamb.

'Temple dog' is an unflattering idiom for an undesirable man, and in the temples there are some really mangy mutts. They have crusty skins, no fur, and you can smell them from quite a distance.

However, they co-exist with some wonderful cats and dogs that would make ideal pets. It would be advisable to give any animal from the temple a good bath, a course of worming tablets, and the necessary shots, but apart from that you get a free pet.

Love animals - Click for larger image You will also be doing the temple a favour. Thais refuse to sterilise cats and dogs and therefore there are cats and dogs everywhere with no one to look after them. Some get killed in road accidents, some live a feral existence, and many get dumped at temples, but this then gives the monks a problem.

This sign outside a temple in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, which I've posted before, tells people to love and take care of animals; not to discard them or dump them at temples.


Never discuss politics or religion.

As I came out of the bank a few weeks ago I stopped to watch a squirrel running up a tree collecting nuts. As I did so, a Thai man stopped to do the same thing. We got chatting.

He was visiting from Trang, where he lives in the Amphoe Muang district. I told him about my visit to Trang a few years ago and how I had met and chatted to Chuan Leekpai (twice Prime Minister of Thailand).

It impressed me how such a busy man found time to talk to a passing farang. Generally speaking as far as politicians are concerned, southern Thais love Chuan, as well as Prem Tinsulanonda and the current PM. Their feelings towards Thaksin are completely the opposite.

The man I spoke to worked for the government but didn't hold the same views as most southern Thais. The conversation started well but didn't finish very satisfactorily.

I don't like discussing politics but some things make me angry. I've just been reading how Teflon Tony (nothing sticks) is about to face an inquiry over the Iraq war.

He will no doubt present a strong case and get away with everything.

The case for the war based on WMDs was very weak, and this threat turned out to be completely non-existent because of incompetent 'intelligence'. I have just read that US foreign policy has supported regime change for a while, but UK foreign policy has never supported regime change. This, ultimately, was the justification for the war.

It seems that Blair took this decision alone after a visit to Bush's ranch in 2002. But without being officially sanctioned, he had no right to do this.

If leaders can justify regime change for what happened in Iraq, how can those same leaders live with themselves by failing to act in Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and other countries where people live under oppressive regimes?

With Iraq it's difficult not to be cynical when we know who won the contract to rebuild the country, and which politicians had their fingers in the pie.

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Thursday 28th January 2010

Sitting in a seafood restaurant last night, a semi-derelict Thai woman appeared at the entrance where she loitered for a while.

Had this been Singapore - where I saw signs warning that loiterers will be prosecuted - she would probably have been arrested, but fortunately she was in Thailand.

After a few minutes she ventured into the restaurant and approached a table where four Thai men were sat eating dinner. She rattled a few small coins in her hand, begging them to give her some more money.

At this, the restaurant manager intervened. There were no harsh words and he showed no anger. He put an arm around her shoulder and led her away, explaining that she couldn't do what she was doing.

As he did so, she pointed at her mouth. She didn't speak but the gesture indicated she was hungry and that she was only begging for money so she could eat. The manager then instructed his cooking staff to make some fried rice for her.

She waited for a few minutes; a container of fried rice was handed over; and she left. I have never seen a starving person in Thailand.

My students have been collecting money for victims of the Haiti earthquake this week. Last week, my M4 students went to Phang Nga where they were doing some voluntary work for kids orphaned as a result of the Asian tsunami.

Last year, I read quite a few negative stories about Thailand's treatment of refugees. You can never entirely believe what you read in the news so I don't know how accurate the reports were.

Thailand is a wealthy country and there are many less fortunate people living in neighbouring countries who would like to live here. Thailand, however, (like all wealthy countries) has to draw the line somewhere.

Merit-making (tum-buun) is of the utmost importance to Thais, and it is carried out in various ways. A lot is done very conspicuously, and for quite selfish reasons. Money that has been collected is made into money trees and paraded around before being handed over, and the names of people who have donated are read aloud at temples.

However, there are still a lot of good deeds done quietly, and for unselfish reasons.

I received an e-mail from the International Medical Corps asking me to help publicise what they are doing regarding the Earthquake in Haiti.

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Monday 25th January 2010

I continue to be very busy but things will improve soon. The Thai school year will start to wind down soon and then I will get a long break.

It's crazy because there are people lining up at the moment offering to give me large sums of money, and all I need to do is contact them.

Mr Zulu (zulukwe@live.co.uk or zulujack@ymail.com; Tel / Fax: +27 865 385 504) wants to give me half the US$83.5M he has been stuck with, and David Morrison from Standard Chartered Finance & Securities (davismorrisson09@sify.com) wants to give me a cool half-million dollars.

It just doesn't seem fair that I should get all this luck when there are other people in the world who are more deserving.


When I first came to live in Thailand I was just like a tourist except that I didn't have to go home. I dressed like a tourist, behaved like a tourist, and had as much knowledge of Thailand, Thai language and Thai cultural behaviour as the average tourist ... which equated to about nothing.

When this stage wore off - as it inevitably does - my eyes began to open but instead of becoming more enlightened, I had more questions than answers. I remember the last half of my first year as being quite a frustrating time.

Since then I have read a lot, observed even more, and spoken to many Thais in an attempt to understand how Thais think. The point I have made often is that understanding belief systems and value systems is a key part to understanding cultural behaviour.

What is a shame now is that Thailand is no longer the exotic and mysterious place it once was for me, but at least I'm not as confused as I used to be.

However, there remain certain aspects of Thai behaviour that I still can't figure out. And I'm not sure I ever will.

Example 1. In the past - on several occasions - I have made arrangements to meet Thais and they haven't shown up, or called ahead to tell me they wouldn't be showing up. When I have called to find out where they are, they seem to have no sense of guilt for standing me up.

Last week, the girl I've been seeing recently arranged to visit me. She had something to do after work and this must have dragged on because she sent a message telling me to go ahead and eat without her. I ate alone and waited for her.

The time kept ticking on and eventually it got to 9:30pm. She still hadn't shown up so I called. She was at home. At some stage she had decided to go straight home instead of meeting me but it didn't occur to her, apparently, to let me know.

It wasn't until we spoke on the phone that she realised that I might actually be a little put out. Why? I simply don't know. She then turned up at about 10pm, but only because she realised after the phone call that I was a little upset.

Blocked pavement - Click for larger image Example 2. Whichever way I leave my apartment building, it's not long before I run into a blocked pavement. Thais go out of their way to block the sidewalks outside their homes and shops.

Sometimes it is because they want to make use of that space and they don't want other people walking through - even though other people are perfectly entitled to walk through. At other times they make an obstruction for no apparent reason. They don't gain anything from their action, but all it does is inconvenience pedestrians.

Why? Again, I don't know.

Blocked pavement - Click for larger image At one stage I thought the land outside a house or shop must belong to the owner of the property, but it doesn't. The local municipality here relaid the pavements in the central part of town a couple of years ago. This action confirmed that the land is public.

I also have a friend who is a local councillor and she confirmed that pavements and sidewalks don't belong to private individuals.

Thais don't seem to be too bothered but maybe that is because very few actually walk anywhere. I walk a lot and I rarely see Thai pedestrians. If they need to go 50 yards, they go by motorbike.

In addition to plants, I also frequently come across parked cars and motorbikes blocking the pavement.

As well as rarely seeing Thai pedestrians, I don't see people in wheelchairs, or mothers pushing babies in strollers. To try to do so here would be almost impossible, and quite dangerous.

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Monday 18th January 2010

Traffic light camera - Click for larger image I have stated on many occasions that probably the aspect of living in Thailand I like least is that of the general lawlessness, especially regarding traffic laws.

Many young males on motorbikes pay no attention to traffic laws and do whatever they want to do. Every day, I watch as motorcyclists stop momentarily at red traffic lights, and then go straight through if there is a gap in the traffic. Sometimes this affects me as a pedestrian attempting to cross the road.

I have been critical that police are rarely on hand, and that the technology used in other countries to control this kind of behaviour is virtually absent in Thailand.

But are things changing?

I was sitting idly on the back of a motorbike taxi waiting at traffic lights a few days ago and happened to look up. As I did so, I noticed a newly-installed camera. Looking around the junction, I noticed more.

At the next set of traffic lights I noticed the same thing. I don't know when they were installed. I have never seen them before and I am usually quite observant of my surroundings.

CCTV cameras have been an emotive subject since the adoption of their widespread use. Some see them as a good thing, while others regard them as an invasion of privacy and an infraction on human rights.

I am caught on the fence. I don't like Singapore's 'Big Brother' environment where everyone and everything is constantly monitored. On the other hand, if Thailand plans to use the technology to clamp down on obnoxious - and downright dangerous - road users, then I see it as a good thing.

How the cameras will be used has yet to be seen. I don't know whether they have been installed just to monitor general traffic conditions, or whether the intent is to enforce traffic laws.

Poster warning about speeding - Click for larger image Along with the cameras, I have also noticed that public information posters have started to appear recently reminding road users not to speed, and to obey traffic laws. The posters warn that offenders will be caught and prosecuted.

Perhaps things really are beginning to change?

A point I have made before is that my views are not just those of a farang living in Thailand trying to apply his own values to a culture he doesn't understand.

The vast majority of Thais feel exactly the same way as I do. The good people of Thailand are sick and tired of the selfish behaviour of a small minority who are out of control and who have no consideration for other people.

There are, however, some cultural differences between them and me in that I will complain and confront the offenders, whereas Thais won't generally interfere.

Will any of this make any difference? I don't know at the moment but I will give an update later.


Jenny massage girl - Click for larger image While ranting about Singapore a few weeks ago I mentioned how I'd been walking a lot and felt like a massage, but I wasn't prepared to pay the equivalent of Bt950/hour (SG$40). I also mentioned that the Thai massage girls working in Singapore weren't the best adverts for Thai feminine beauty.

The photo here is of Jenny, who gave me a wonderful massage on my return to Thailand for Bt100/hour (plus a Bt100 tip for looking after me so well). She has been doing massage for two years and I was her first ever farang customer.

The majority of tourists in this part of Thailand are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore. She doesn't speak a word of English but she is fluent in Chinese.

She's a pretty 22 year-old from Chiang Mai and there are thousands of girls just like her working in massage shops all over Thailand. The money she earns seems a pittance to Westerners (she works in a no hanky-panky place so she she isn't earning fat tips by giving 'extra' services), but she regards it as a good job and she seems satisfied with her salary.

The reason for this is because everything in life is relative. She was telling me that before she did this job she worked in a Bangkok sweatshop making polo shirts. Sometimes she worked 14 hours a day and she was paid Bt3 for each shirt she sewed together.

Yes, three Baht per item. She said she could do 100 shirts in one day, thus earning a massive Bt300.

Her family back home in northern Thailand work in the rice fields and that's what she did before she went to Bangkok. Working in the rice fields is back-breaking work in the fierce Thai sun, and it pays Bt100 to Bt150 a day.

Her story isn't at all unusual. The wealth gap in Thailand is vast. Some Thais are extremely rich but the majority lead lives of drudgery and earn just enough to survive on. Despite this, most Thais seem to be happy and contented with life.

At another massage shop I visited just before Christmas the girls couldn't have looked happier as they tucked into the Isaan staples of kaaw niaow, som-tum and gai yaang, while belting out Thai country songs into a karaoke machine.

Money can't buy you happiness. You only need enough for the essentials in life, but after that your happiness depends on other things. This can be easy to forget elsewhere but it's something I am constantly reminded of in Thailand.

This doesn't mean that Thais don't grasp for more money, because many do. However, not having money doesn't prevent them from having a good time.

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Sunday 17th January 2010

Since getting back to Thailand on New Year's Eve, life has been incredibly good and incredibly full. When life is this good, the last thing I want to do is sit at a computer. Part of me feels obliged to apologise for a lack of recent updates here, but another part of me says that there is no need to apologise for enjoying life.

I used to travel a lot. I don't think I enjoyed travelling for the sake of travelling, but I did so because I was dissatisfied with my life and was constantly looking for something better.

Since I moved to Thailand at the end of 2003, that need has gone away completely. The only contries I have travelled to are Malaysia and Singapore.

The downside with not travelling is that it gives you nothing to compare your current life with and, as a result, you can start to take a lot of the good things for granted. At the same time, you can start to fixate on the bad things. In essence, you begin to lose perspective.

My recent trip to Singapore brought a lot of things back into perspective. There are some good things about Singapore; but overall there is simply no comparison between living in Thailand and living in Singapore.

It is the same comparing Malaysia with Thailand. Thailand gets a lot of tourists every year and statistics show that the greatest number of tourists come from Malaysia. Every year, millions of Malaysians and Singaporeans spend time in Thailand to escape life in their own countries for a while. It is easy to see why.

There's a saying, "Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it." It seems that the biggest priority among most developing countries - including Thailand - is to reach the status of developed country. Malaysia has its 'Vision 2020' thing where 'The ultimate objective that we should aim for is a Malaysia that is a fully developed country by the year 2020.'

Apart from the fact it would be impossible to turn Thailand into a larger version of Singapore, would Thais really wish to live life as Singaporeans do? I know for a fact they wouldn't. Thais love all the material things of the developed world, but the lifestyle of most Thais is completely incompatible with the way people in developed countries are forced to live in order to make ends meet.


Fried grasshoppers - Click for larger image Fried insects are pretty popular among Thais. When I ask my Thai friends about this many tell me it's a practice that goes on in other parts of the country. However, I see a lot for sale down in the south so someone's gotta be eating them.

When you see them offered for sale it's obvious what they are but this vendor decided to put signs up in English, just in case there was any doubt among passing tourists.

The nickname of one of my students is 'Dtuk-a-dtairn' (grasshopper). The insects referred to as 'Worms' in the photo are not referred to as worms in Thai (nawn). They are referred to as rot duan, which means 'express train'. This must be an idiom for fried worms.

I remember a story a few years ago about a plague of locusts somewhere in the Middle East (maybe Israel?) Most people were horrified at the thought of experiencing a biblical plague first-hand.

Fried worms - Click for larger image However, there were Thai construction workers in the area and their view of the situation was 'free food'. Interestingly, while most kinds of insects are forbidden as Kosher food, there are four types of locust that Kosher laws allow to be eaten.

I can't bring myself to eat a fried insect but the Thais I have spoken to who do eat them tell me they are tasty and packed with protein.

Many years ago, when I was about 21 and working in the oil services industry, I was on a business trip and staying in a hotel. There was an old gay guy also staying at the hotel and he tried to hit on me.

He told me there was something he ate that was also packed with protein, but I have no desire to try that either.

If you're feeling adventurous in Thailand, and you could use some extra protein, one option would be to try the fried insects.

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Tuesday 5th January 2010

One of the university students I taught a few years ago is a wonderful girl. Katesarin is from a large, poor family in Trang (one of 12 children, I believe) and she is a good, honest southern Thai girl through-and-through.

She's tiny in stature, but she has a huge personality and her presence has the effect of being like an instant dose of sunshine.

She was a great student. She listened and paid attention to everything; made corrections as soon as she had left the class to show me next time; and she often brought in additional teaching material to help me out. She worked incredibly hard. In fact, she was a model student.

After she graduated she became a lecturer at the Faculty of Traditional Thai medicine. She put in the same devotion to teaching her students as she had done as a student herself. After her first year lecturing, the students voted her their favourite lecturer.

It was during this time that I didn't see her for ages because she spent every hour she was awake working for her students. However, we got in touch again when she needed some help with her PhD thesis that she was writing in English.

She wrote one of the most interesting Master's degree theses I have proofread. Her specialist field is a tribe of dark-skinned, curly-haired, pygmies living in Thailand known as the Sakai.

Some tribes are forest-dwelling nomads, whereas others have settled in villages. They are basic hunter-gatherers and because of their way of life, they have developed incredible knowledge about natural resources in the forest.

As part of her research she used to go off to live with them for weeks at a time, eating their food, washing in streams, and sleeping in a hammock. On one occasion she developed malaria. She would often invite me to go along but when it comes to the real outdoors, I am a big wimp.

I don't mind a little adventure during the day time, provided that I have a hot shower, real food, and a comfortable bed to go back to in the evening.

Her Master's degree covered the basic lifestyle of the Sakai, and for her PhD she concentrated on their medicinal practices. They use a lot of plants and herbs from the forest, and this of course fitted in perfectly with her lecturing role at the Faculty of Traditional Thai medicine.

She graduated in September.

I just received an e-mail from her. Her English isn't perfect but I know exactly what she means.

"Before Christmas, I went to Phangun and Samui Islands for observation about traditional knowledge. Beaches and sky are very beautiful but atmosphere is not good. In my mind, both of islands seem not located (I'm not sure about grammar) in Thailand, a large number of farangs are on the beach. So sadly, some hotels and restaurants are not allow for Thai people."

I seem to remember writing before that when I visit places in Thailand where there are lots of foreigners, it seems as if they are different countries to the Thailand that I live in.

However, I hadn't heard before that there are hotels and restaurants in these places that are off-limits to locals. I'm not sure exactly what she means, but that is really sad. I guess that the prices in the tourist areas would make a lot of hotels and restaurants off-limits to Thais anyway.

She's also right about the atmosphere. I find that in places where there are just Thais the atmosphere is always very friendly, but in farang tourist areas you start to sense the hostility and competition that exists between farangs in Thailand.

The fortunate thing is that these places are well-known, and thus easy to avoid.


New Year road death toll climbs to 309

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Monday 4th January 2010

It continues getting more expensive to withdraw money in Thailand at an ATM from a foreign bank account.

Some time in 2009 I started seeing an additional message when withdrawing money at an ATM, to the effect that the local bank would charge a fee of Bt150. My UK bank has just increased its charges for using an ATM abroad. These include a 2% ATM fee plus a 2.75% foreign exchange charge.

In addition, the UK pound to Baht exchange rate has suffered as a result of the global economic crisis. The cumulative effect of all these factors means that withdrawing Bt10,000 now costs me around £200, whereas a few years ago it was costing around £135. A big difference.

The UK pound to Singapore dollar exchange has also suffered recently. Looking at my records, I was getting just under 3 Singapore dollars to the pound a couple of years ago but last week my ATM transactions worked out at around SG$2.17. My other brother was there in October and was barely getting 2 Singapore dollars to each of his UK pounds.

I have thought about transferring a lump sum to my Thai bank account. After the initial charge it then wouldn't cost me anything to withdraw the money, but I will lose out if the exchange rate creeps up in the coming months.

As with anything involving economics, it is always a gamble.

I am still a bit puzzled by the Thai economy, and especially by the continued strength of the Thai Baht. I am puzzled because everyone in Thailand seems to buy things on credit and the country must be building up huge levels of household debt.

As I've stated before though, economics is a complete mystery to me and when it comes to predicting what will happen, I don't have a clue.

Looking at past predictions of so-called experts, they don't either.


New Year road deaths rise to 279

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Sunday 3rd January 2010

Happy New Year.

The New Year was started in Thailand as it always is (in fact, somewhat worse this year):

New Year's Day road deaths 37% higher than last year

It was with much relief that I returned to Thailand from Singapore on New Year's Eve. However, as I walked around in the evening I was once again reminded of the mayhem that exists in Thailand.

At best it's chaotic; at worst it's two steps away from being anarchic. As a pedestrian attempting to cross roads, I felt particularly at risk.

The majority of young Thais own motorbikes, and the way they choose to enjoy themselves is to race around with two, three, or four people on a bike. The term 'race' is no exaggeration.

As usual, there were no police on around and, as usual, despite all the media and government agonising, hand-wringing and rhetoric, nothing will ever change. It never does.

The statistics showed that 85% of accidents involved motorbikes, and that half the people involved in accidents were drunk. Neither of these statistics surprise me.

Nakhon Sri Thammarat has always had a reputation as being a bit of a wild province, and that's where most accidents occurred. I've never had any problems in Nakhon Sri Thammarat but my Thai friends have issued lots of warnings whenever I have visited.

I have a friend, Aoy, from Nakhon Sri Thammarat whose young cousin was shot dead at a temple fair by a teenager the same age. Other stories I've heard about the province indicate that the warnings are not entirely without substance.

Anyway, I'm very happy to be 'home'. Of all the places in the world I have visited, there is no place I'd rather be than here.

I didn't enjoy Singapore one little bit and when I look at the weather in the UK and how young Brits celebrated New Year, going back to the UK would be a nightmare.

Nowhere is perfect. It's simply a case of weighing up the pros and cons, and determining where suits you best.

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