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Monday 31st January 2011

Chinese New Year 2011 - Click for larger image I did a PADI Open Water scuba diving course in the UK in 1996 and then took a vacation in Thailand to do some diving in warm tropical waters where there was lots to see.

The final part of my course in the UK involved doing some open water dives at Chesil Beach in Dorset. It was freezing. I was wearing a 7mm wetsuit but it was still damn cold. The visibility was next to nothing and I don't recall seeing much other than a few discarded shopping trolleys. It wasn't much fun.

My chosen destination in Thailand was Kata Beach in Phuket. Even then, Patong Beach wasn't to my taste and Kata was very quiet.

I had visited Phuket four years previously in 1992 but since then there had been tremendous change. In 1992 Patong was actually fairly quiet and completely different to how it is today. I had experienced the same thing with Pattaya, witnessing a massive change between 1987 and 1992. Things change very quickly in Thailand, and not normally for the better.

The diving around Phuket was wonderful but there was even better to come. The people working in the diveshop told me and my dive buddy that there were a couple of spare places on a liveaboard that was going out to the Similan Islands that night.

Similan Islands, Thailand - Click for larger image I'd never heard of the Similan Islands and had to make a quick decision. Everyone told me how fantastic it was so I decided to go.

It was a slow boat and we set off in the evening. The journey took about eight hours. I fell asleep and when I woke up we had arrived. It was still dark so I went up on deck to wait for the sun to rise. I will never forget that morning.

As the sun started to rise there was an orange glow behind one of the islands and gradually everything started to light up. At the same time the sea turned from black into the most beautiful light turquoise colour.

Sorry about the small photo but it was taken with a film camera and I only have a small, low resolution scan. The original negative is in my loft back in the UK.

The sea was absolutely teeming with fish. The water was so clear and the visibility so good that you could easily see all the way to the bottom.

It was my first trip on a liveaboard and the diving couldn't have been easier. For each dive it was simply a case of walking to the diving platform, putting on a light wetsuit and diving equipment, and jumping off the back of the boat.

We saw an enormous amount underwater, experienced some magical views out of the water, ate some great food, and met a lot of good people. It was a really memorable trip and one that can now never be repeated. At the time there were very few dive boats going out to the Similans and our boat was the only one at several dive sites.

After my 1996 trip to Phuket I started to dislike the commercialisation, overdevelopment, general tackiness, greedy Thais, rip-off prices, and the behaviour of certain tourists. I stopped going. I started going to Khaolak instead. Khaolak is located in Phang Nga province on the mainland a few hours north of Phuket. It's a very scenic area and at the time it was very quiet.

The area started to get quite developed but Khaolak was a major victim of the 2004 tsunami and the enormous damage from the tsunami set its development back several years.

In Khaolak I did my diving with Seadragon and went on two more liveaboard diving trips to the Similans. (I notice now that prices have just about doubled since my last trip.) It was still good but it had become noticeably busier. Instead of just one or two boats at each site, there were several moored together and lots of divers in the sea.

I stopped diving some years ago for various reasons. However, other people didn't and from the reports I have heard the Similans have just got busier and busier. This is what happens to all the world's beauty spots.

The constant crowds these days have taken away the magic of visiting Phi Phi but it is still an immensely beautiful location - Click for larger image Another example is Phi Phi island. My first ever trip to Phi Phi in 1992 was magical but then (especially after the filming of The Beach) it became a zoo.

I saw recently that the Similan Islands are suffering from bleached coral and may be closed to divers: Diving paradises may be closed

We've had really strange weather conditions recently and La Niña has been blamed. The changes in sea temperature that occur during La Niña may be responsible for the coral bleaching but pollution from dive boats and bad diving practices have also been blamed for contributing to the problems.

I find it sad that even during the short space of time I have been visiting Thailand (nearly 24 years) I have seen many beautiful places completely ruined by tourism.

There are many places in Thailand that I have stopped going to now. These include all the major tourist resorts, which I only go to when I need to meet someone. Fortunately, Thailand is a big country and there are still lots of unspoilt places.

These days I concentrate on trying to find places that the tourists haven't gotten to yet.


Chinese New Year 2011 - Click for larger image The watch I wear today is the same one I bought for diving in Phuket in 1996. It's been a great watch but the rubber strap needs to be replaced often - once a year or more.

Last week I went to get it replaced again and the shop assistant told me he had a silicon rubber version that was more expensive but it would last longer. This sounded like a good idea.

When my wife saw it, her first remark was that it wasn't beautiful. No, it's a watch strap. Its purpose is to hold my watch in place and I want one that won't need replacing for a while. I don't care if it doesn't look beautiful. It's not important.

Chinese New Year 2011 - Click for larger image You hear this all the time in Thailand. I got my car re-registered recently and my brother-in-law remarked that it is a beautiful number. I often see mobile phone SIM cards being sold with 'beautiful' numbers.

Beauty is highly prized in Thailand but image over substance goes a little too far. I appreciate good, clean design but function is always the most important thing for me. This is another example of how I find I am different to the locals.

Thais dress their kids up whenever the opportunity arises so they look beautiful. Thai kids do actually look very cute. The little ones at the school were dressed up on Friday for various end of school year activities and while out buying baby gear yesterday we saw a 'Chinese Doll' competition going on for Chinese New Year which will take place later this week.

Here are a few of the snapshots I took of the kids involved.

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Sunday 30th January 2011

Flood marker in Hat Yai - Click for larger image A marker has recently appeared in town to record past flood levels. The flood we had at the beginning of November, which affected me quite badly, was the worst ever.

For those not familiar with the Thai year numbering system, 53 (2553 in full) is 2010, 43 is 2000, and 31 is 1988. Just add 543. Each of these floods occurred in November.

What I didn't realise at the time was that it wasn't a completely natural occurrence. There was a lot of human interference.

Some large reservoirs in outlying districts had reached, or were just about to reach, capacity. A decision was taken by someone (I haven't a clue who) to release the enormous amount of water that had accumulated after several days of exceptionally heavy rain.

From the little I have heard, this decision was made because had the dams burst their banks in an uncontrolled manner it could have caused loss of life. Fair enough.

I assume that all the water was released at the same time because it arrived very quickly and there was enough to cause a two metre flood across a very large metropolitan area. That's a lot of water.

I'm not criticising anyone because I assume that the right people made the right decisions based on the best information they had at the time. But to mitigate a worse disaster from happening, was it necessary to release the whole lot at once - if that's in fact what happened?

I'd love to know more about the sequence of events that took place on that night but I doubt I ever will. I'd also like to know what, if anything, is being done to prevent this from happening again. Can, in fact, anything be done?

The last big flood occurred 10 years before this one and the locals seem convinced that it will be another 10 years before the next big one, but with nature there are no guarantees.

In my brief 50 year lifetime, I can't ever recall hearing about so much severe flooding around the world as there has been in the past year.

'I don't want to die' in South Africa floods


After recent events in Tunisia, the world's eyes are now focused on Egypt. Egyptians say they want 'real' democracy, a cry that has been heard in Thailand many times and continues to be heard as the Red Shirts begin organising more protests. But:

Poll says majority of Thais willing to sell their votes

I am a little tired of hearing the word 'democracy' when there is absolutely nothing democratic about wealthy politicians manipulating the democratic process by buying votes.

Why not just call it patronage, or find another term, but don't keep calling it something that it isn't.

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Saturday 29th January 2011

As everyone looks towards Asia for the next economic boom, we should all be aware of the demographic time bomb that is ticking away in certain countries. Not by coincidence, many of the countries affected are the ones whose economies are currently doing very well.

I just read about how a quarter of shoplifters arrested in Japan last year were pensioners: Japanese pensioners' shoplifting hits record high

The goods stolen weren't luxury items but basic necessities such as food and clothes.

As economies get better, people want more materialistic lifestyles and they stop having babies. At the same time, as health care has improved we are all living longer. This means that countries have a lot more older people to take care of but there are less young people to do the caring and pay into the welfare system, if a welfare system exists.

South Korea has transformed itself from a poor country into a major economic power. Lots of goods available in Thailand are manufactured in South Korea and the quality is good.

However, South Koreans are so obsessed with education and getting well paid employment so that they can indulge in the materialistic lifestyle they enjoy, that having babies is at the bottom of their list of things to do.

South Korea's Birthrate World's Lowest

Singapore is well known for its materialistic lifestyle, low birthrate, and government incentives to try to encourage Singaporeans to have babies.

Singapore's declining birth rate one of people's top concerns

Since the 1970's, China's birth rate has been plummeting. This video chart shows how birth rates are falling and life expectancy is rising at the same time. China (the big, blue balloon) is quite dramatic.

Amazing Video Chart Showing China's Fertility Rate Dropping Off A Cliff

This is one problem that Thailand doesn't seem to have. With no welfare system to speak of (the state give old people Bt500 a month), people still look to their children to take care of them in old age as they have always done. Children are a Thai person's pension and health insurance all rolled into one.

My wife has seven brothers and sisters and one of my students told me a couple of days ago that her mother comes from a family of 15 children.

This isn't something that will have much effect this year, or next year, but 50 years down the line the economies of Asian countries might look a lot different to today if individual countries don't take measures to resolve this serious problem.


After we moved into this house, one of the neighbours across the street came across and asked to borrow money. I wrote about this before.

She was carrying a young child and told me she was pregnant with another (a lie, as it turned out). She said she had a cash flow problem and needed to buy milk for her child. She promised to pay the money back the following week, which she did.

The day after she paid the money back, she asked for another loan. I thought this was a bit strange but gave her the money she asked for. She also paid this back when she said she would.

My wife wasn't very happy about what was going on and told me she was imposing a Bt1,000 limit on loans. The woman asked for another loan and once again I gave her the money. Bpom's view was that she would keep asking for bigger loans but then one day she would stop repaying them.

After the big flood we spoke to a lot of our neighbours and they all knew what was going on. They told us not to trust her.

With the final loan she paid some back but not all. She kept giving me a date when she would pay me back but when that date came around she would give me a new one. This went on for a while and just before Christmas she told me she would pay me back in the New Year.

After the New Year she started to ignore me. Last week I popped out to the local minimart and I saw her walking the other way. At first she tried to avoid eye contact but then she finally gave in. She looked at me and told me she had no money. I think by this she meant that she wasn't going to (or couldn't) repay the money.

It doesn't matter to me. It's a piddly amount of money that would barely cover the cost of getting a pizza delivered. I feel sorry for her.

I just can't work out why she did what she did. By borrowing money knowing that she knew she couldn't repay it, all she has done is lost another person who could possibly help her out in the future if she has a genuine money problem.

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Friday 28th January 2011

Another teenage brat motorcyclist involved in an accident - Click for larger image After getting a car I knew it would only be a question of time before a motorbike or pickup truck came crashing into it. The only thing I didn't know was how long it would take.

It took just over a month.

On Tuesday I was waiting at some traffic lights to turn right. It was in the afternoon before the rush hour so the traffic was relatively light. There was no rain, it was daylight, and visibility was perfect.

I had my indicator on and when the lights changed I took off slowly and turned right. As I did so I heard a crunch from the rear driver's side. I looked in my door mirror and saw the teenage school kid who had just hit my car with his motorbike for absolutely no reason at all. I guess he was about 15. He was still upright on the bike.

I imagined we would both stop, take a look for damage, and, if there was any, exchange insurance details. But oh no. He was off like a bat out of hell. There was traffic ahead which he could get through easily but which obviously I couldn't. I didn't get his number. He was gone without trace.

The damage isn't too bad but it will need to be fixed at some stage.

Later that evening I went out for dinner with my wife and we saw another motorbike accident involving a teenage school kid (photo above). This bike had all the boy-racer bits and pieces that Thai males decorate their vehicles with.

This happens ALL the time - many times each day. You also see lots of underage kids riding motorbikes. Some are so young that their feet can't even touch the ground yet this doesn't stop them racing around with another two or three friends of similar age on the back - all with big, stupid grins on their faces.

Every teenage boy in Thailand has a motorbike and they all want to ride their bikes as fast as possible on the public roads. They all believe they are highly skilled drivers but in fact they are a menace to other road users.

The police around here do nothing about their reckless driving. Occasionally they stop motorcyclists who aren't wearing crash helmets (very common) and check licences and vehicle documentation. Sometimes they also search for drugs. However, no action is ever taken about speeding or dangerous driving.

For each offence there is just a small fine. As far as I know, there is no points system in Thailand as there is in civilised countries. Drivers do the same bad things every day knowing that there is very little chance of getting caught, and even if they are caught they will only have to pay a few hundred Baht and they will never lose their licences.

Without any law enforcement, some drivers take matters into their own hands.

It isn't unknown in Thailand for the owner of an expensive car to pull a gun from the glovebox and shoot the motorcyclist who just crashed into his car. Quite right too. If a few more teenage brats were shot then they might start to respect other road users a little more.

I wasn't happy and I'm still not. But what can you do? This is Thailand. You can be the most thoughtful, careful driver in the world but with so many boy racers and morons driving around on Thailand's roads without any effective deterrents it is impossible to avoid them.

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Wednesday 26th January 2011

I noticed a day or two ago that the UK pound to Baht exchange rate was almost back to 50 again. However, it has dipped again since then. Who knows what will happen next?

Thailand's ongoing political problems won't be going away any time soon; in fact, there's a lot worse to come. This will continue to affect the economy: Red-shirt rallies spook businesses

The head of the Thai central bank tells us he needs to weaken the Baht but there are concerns about inflation: Baht slide triggers inflation worries

A strong Baht has a negative impact on tourism and exports, which are both vital sectors of the Thai economy.

World food prices continue to rise and Thailand produces a lot of food so the country is well positioned in that respect (World food prices enter 'danger territory' to reach record high). The assembly plants that put together foreign made cameras and cars, etc, seem to be doing quite well and labour is cheap. This is also good for Thailand.

Davos 2011: World leaders warn on rising food prices

On the negative side I would imagine that tourist numbers are down, mainly due to the strong Baht, and unlike other Asian countries Thailand doesn't do very well with outsourcing services that require use of English because English language skills are generally very weak.

The UK economy is just as difficult to predict. With interest rates now having been so low for such a long time, inflation is beginning to become a problem and this is prompting calls for interest rate rises.

The general consensus seems to be that the first rate rise will be held off until late in 2011 but then rate rises will occur regularly, getting back to 4-5% in a couple of years. The current government's austerity measures will start to bite hard this year but they should result in a big improvement in the budget deficit.

I also believe that the London Olympics next year will be very good for the UK economy.

I am certainly not an expert in the field of economics. The way the stock market works is a completely mystery to me and quite often it does the opposite of what I expect it to do. My stock market investments are in the hands of some very clever fund managers with proven track records.

Investments are a gamble. I am gambling that the UK economy will come back strongly in a couple of years and that interest rates will get back to 'normal'. Despite Europe's current woes, it is mainly European products that the emerging economies want to spend their money on.

In Thailand a car is the ultimate status symbol and a Mercedes Benz is the ultimate car. I would imagine that other Asian countries share a similar view. I believe that certain European companies will do well from the boom in the emerging markets.

Thailand doesn't have much vision for the future. Singapore has shown again and again that it predicts future trends and places itself well to take advantage of them. Thailand simply jumps on whichever bandwagon is currently doing well.

I've read positive things about Vietnam and even Laos. It is quite possible that these countries could overtake Thailand and if Burma ever gets a decent government it will be an economic powerhouse in this region.

Countries such as Singapore, India, Malaysia and the Philippines also have good English language skills: Slowest growth among peer countries predicted for Thailand. Thailand really could do with its own Lee Kuan Yew and a little more forward thinking.

Something else the Thais need to accept is that long term investment is just that. It might be a very long time before money is recouped but most Thais only have a very short term view when it comes to money.

I feel obliged to add a statement that none of this should be taken as investment advice! It's just a personal view that is probably completely wrong and shouldn't be taken seriously (the same as everything else I write here).

I'm not an expert and, as one reader kindly pointed out, I have a low IQ. I've made many investment mistakes in the past. I didn't do well during the recent economic crisis, whereas if I'd been cleverer I could have used it as an opportunity to set myself up for life.

There were lots of big losers, but there were also a few big winners.

My current strategy is to continue investing in the UK and Europe for the next few years. I think these economies will recover (even if the Eurozone ends up being split in two) and that there will be a correction in the Thai economy. I am waiting for this to happen before transferring any more money than is absolutely essential.

On a final note, my best friend at school has worked in the City of London's financial sector since he left university. When I bent his ear one day about giving me some good investment advice, he told me I might as well put the money on a horse. He was serious.

When I need to find another job teaching English in Thailand again, you will know why.

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Tuesday 25th January 2011

Dealing with local immigration used to be a nightmare and one guy in particular was extremely obstructive. Whenever I went in he would always be reading a newspaper with his feet on the desk and he always had a reason why he couldn't do something for me.

Everything changed a couple of years ago. The immigration office suddenly became highly efficient and there was a dramatic change. The obstructive guy disappeared and they even posted their service level agreements in public, stating how long each service would take to complete.

I was highly impressed.

Today I was chatting to one of the local market vendors who I know very well. She was just about to go off to lunch with a Thai man I'd never met before and she told me he worked in the immigration office on the border.

We had a quick chat and he asked me what I thought about the service I receive at immigration. I told him that these days it was excellent.

He told me that all the changes came about after they got a new boss. The new boss is only 38 so to get to that position at such a young age he must be very good.

It just goes to show what can happen when you put the right people into top jobs.

As I have said many times, Thailand is a country of extreme contrasts and contradictions. Sometimes it seems that no matter how bad something is, it will never change.

At other times the Thais demonstrate just how well they can do something when they want to. I mentioned recently how some (not all) of the current generation of young Thais give me lots of hope for Thailand in the future.

Thailand now is already very different to the Thailand I first visited in 1987. I suspect that in another 20-30 years the country will be very different to how it is now.

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Sunday 23rd January 2011

As both a prospective father and a teacher of Thai kids I found this interesting:

Are strict Chinese mothers the best?

In my experience of being a teacher here, Thai kids always want everything to be 'fun' but, as the article points out, "nothing is fun until you're good at it." Unfortunately, most aren't willing to put in the hard work to become good at anything and therefore 'fun' activities are always simple and a waste of time with regard to actually learning anything.

There were also some comments in the article about the lack of creativity among Asian students. "They were simply incapable of picturing an abstract situation and of entering into a game." This is what I have found with a lot of my students.

The Thai school environment - at least where I work - is very gentle and centred entirely around the students. The kids have complete power and don't like being forced to learn. Teachers who attempt to apply 'tough love' by actually trying to discipline the students and teaching them something are unpopular and soon find themselves out of work, as my colleague last year found out.

The education system in Thailand is weird. The curriculum was obviously written by several different groups, all of whom had their own reasons for including certain things, and who never spoke to each other. There is a vast range of subjects but many are completely irrelevant to the needs of today's kids.

Thai school children spend all day at school but quite a few have no intention of studying. They talk, sleep, play, or do other things unrelated to what they are supposed to be doing. After school they all trot off to tutoring schools where they do the same thing.

After tutoring finishes they go home to do their homework and sleep. After a few hours sleep they repeat the process the next day and most also have more tutoring at the weekend. They also go to tutoring schools during their school holidays. From what I can make out, Thais basically follow the Asian education model.

With all this time in the classroom the poor kids look constantly tired. You could understand if this method resulted in brilliant students but it doesn't.

The thing about Thailand is that Thais are very good at copying something and making it look (on the surface) like the same thing elsewhere. When you dig a little deeper you find that it isn't. Image always comes before substance in Thailand.

Thai students spend a lot of time in classrooms; they all look very smart in their uniforms; around 700,000 students graduate with Bachelor's degrees each year; and anything shown in public is always meticulously rehearsed. When Thai schools send their marching bands (all Thai schools have one) out on to the streets, expect to be very impressed.

But the reality is a little different. A high percentage of Thai graduates leave university without any real skills and then can't find work. Many Thai students learn English for 12 years, or more, but can't put together even the most basic of sentences. Many kids just mess around or sleep in class.

The model may look the same as other Asian countries but my colleague who taught in Korea says it is very different. Korean students actually learn to speak. Thai students get their heads filled with grammar and rarely get the opportunity to practice speaking.

The average Thai student's knowledge of English grammar will be far better than that of the average student in England. Ask them the structure for the past perfect or present perfect continuous and they will tell you, but ask them a question and either they can't understand the question or they won't be able to answer correctly.

My colleague's analogy is that it is like trying to teach someone to drive without ever driving. Their theoretical knowledge of driving is superb but if you put them in a car they haven't got a clue.

With all the hours Thai kids spend in the classroom it is impossible for anyone to concentrate the whole time but the powers that be seem to think that the amount of knowledge a child has is related to how many hours the child spends in a classroom. If they spent one-third the amount of time in the classroom but actually studied properly they would learn far more and they wouldn't be so tired.

Most Thai teachers teach by rote and, apart from being immensely boring for the students, it stifles the students' creativity.

Our child hasn't been born yet but I am already rebelling against the Thai education system. Parents in Thailand who can afford it send their kids to be educated abroad.

A mixed race child in Thailand should have some major advantages. The ability to speak English like a native without any trace of an accent plus the ability to speak Thai without any accent like a Thai is the biggest advantage of all.

While a child is still young, the part of the brain containing the language acquisition device is still functioning. Any child born and raised in Thailand will automatically learn Thai. I will see it as my job to provide enough input in English so that the child also picks up English naturally.

There are some excellent Thai students. I've taught some very talented, hardworking youngsters and they are a real pleasure to teach. At university level some choose the easiest courses possible, such as travel and tourism, but others work really hard. The medical, dental and pharmaceutical students stand out in terms of hard work and dedication.

Thai kids are no different to kids anywhere else. They're interested in the same things and they have the same ability. I feel quite sorry for a lot of them because they don't reach the potential they are capable of.

There is a certain nationalistic arrogance in Thailand which prevents change because the Thai way is always best. It is still a source of pride among some Thais that Thailand was never colonised during the colonial period.

The arrogant nature of some of the early colonial powers, the use of 'gunboat diplomacy', and the complete lack of respect for the citizens of countries they colonised is a sad part of European history but the legacies the colonists left behind didn't exactly disadvantage Singapore or Malaysia.

When I asked my students recently to design a poster outlining what they would do if they were Prime Minister, there were a lot of comments about changing the education system.

It's like a lot of things in Thailand. Thais know that things are wrong but nothing ever gets changed because those who currently have the power to make changes resist change.

My guess is that lots of change will start to take place with the generation after the current generation of youngsters.

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Tuesday 18th January 2011

South Africa and Colombia are generally regarded as dangerous countries with high crime rates. These two countries occupy first and second positions in the list of Murders with firearms (per capita) (most recent) by country

Third in the list may surprise some people. It is Thailand, the friendly, gentle Land of Smiles where taking any form of life is a major Buddhist sin.

Zimbabwe, in fourth place, is a long way behind Thailand.

There are lots of unlicensed firearms in Thailand and, with the military and police being such powerful institutions, there are lots of people who have guns legitimately. Where there are lots of guns there will be lots of deaths caused by firearms. Sometimes these are 'accidental'.

A few years ago, the teenage daughter of one of my adult students had one of her Achilles tendons shattered when an idiot fired a gun into the air at a celebration for New Year. He obviously didn't realise that what goes up must come down.

At one stage the doctors thought she would never walk properly again but they performed a lot of surgery and she made a decent recovery. She will be limited now with what she can do but at least she can walk.

An eight year old child in Ratchaburi province was killed by an 11mm bullet a few weeks ago when idiots 'celebrating' New Year started to fire guns into the air: Firing guns is not celebratory

At other times incidents involving weapons are not accidental. Thais are very vengeful and this is the main reason why Thailand is third on this list. They are also susceptible to 'red mist' situations.

Thai culture is non-confrontational and a lot of emotions are suppressed. However, this means that Thais have no safety valve to let off steam in a controlled fashion. When a Thai gets pushed far enough and the 'red mist' descends anything can happen. When this happens the results aren't generally pretty.

There have been a number of shootings locally since I have lived in this part of Thailand, the worst case being when an angry rubber tapper shot and killed eight people who consistently kept him awake at night by playing loud music: John Denver karaoke sparks Thai killing spree

A friend's 13 year-old cousin was shot and killed by boys of a similar age at a temple fair in Nakhon Sri Thammarat because he said something they didn't like.

A doctor jogging at the university where I used to work was shot and killed one evening; the owner of a local massage shop was shot and killed; a woman driving home from work was shot and killed when she got caught up in the crossfire between two gangs; a gunman with a gun in each hand shot up a restaurant only yards from where I used to stay.

The list goes on.

I've talked a lot recently about the Third World driving standards in Thailand. I get really mad at times and react angrily. A few days ago my wife had a serious talk with me about this.

Last week, an airline pilot driving to Bangkok airport was involved in a road-rage incident where the other driver rolled down his window and started shooting: Road-rage suspect a Petchaburi native: police

Bpom's view is that you never know who might be carrying a gun. There are lots of guns in Thailand and, as someone once said, there are lots of Thais who are stupid enough to use them.

Bpom, like many Thais, just ignores bad driving (the same way that she ignores all inconsiderate behaviour in Thailand) because being Thai and based on experience she knows that to react is potentially dangerous.

This is the reality of the Land of Smiles.

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Monday 17th January 2011

Social instruction - Click for larger image As a tourist and as a new expat, my interests in Thailand were superficial. I have always found Thailand a fascinating country, which is why I am here now, but over time my interests have changed.

Shortly after I came to Thailand to live I started to get interested in cultural behaviour. Not the standard list of superficial 'Thai culture' found in every guide book about Thailand but a deeper understanding of why Thais think and behave the way they do.

I don't like mysteries but after arriving in Thailand I found that I didn't understand many things. I mentioned recently that 'why' questions very rarely get answered and so most of the time it was pointless asking anyone.

The longer you live in Thailand, the more you find out, and one little obscure thing can suddenly provide the answer to something you've been wanting to know for years. There are also some very good resources among the dross.

Mulder's 'Inside Thai Society' was a revelation. It's an academic analysis of Thailand that is sometimes quite difficult to understand, especially for someone like myself with a low IQ. However, after reading it several times Mulder's analysis started to explain things that I hadn't previously understood.

This morning I had to drop the car off to have a few more things repaired at 8am and then I needed to buy something but the shop didn't open until 9am. I had an hour to kill so decided to wander around a nearby temple.

Inside the temple is a Tessabaan (government) school and and an Anuubaan (kindergarten). Consequently, there were lots of young Thai kids around.

Monk teacher - Click for larger image As I passed a large meeting room in the temple I saw a monk giving instruction to lots of little kids. I guess they were about four or five years old. Interested to hear what was going on, I sat down for a while and listened.

It was all about what is expected of Thai children by adults and Thai society at large. They were told that they were expected to be thoughtful/considerate/helpful (naam-jai), polite/courteous/well-mannered (suu-paap) and to show discipline/orderly conduct (winuy).

Were they just told once? No, a ritual was performed where they all had to repeat these things over and over and over again. This is the rote learning that Thailand's education system is so famous for.

They were told repeatedly, "Dek deu, mai dii; dek dii, mai deu". Stubborn/obstinate/headstrong children are no good; good children are not stubborn/obstinate/headstrong.

They were asked what happens to stubborn/obstinate/headstrong children and the monk demonstrated that they would be punished with a whack on the backside.

The whole lesson was devoted to this kind of social training. After observing this I was once again reminded of what Mulder had to say.

"The influence the state has on religious education appears clearly in the current curriculum, that was enacted in 1978. It is the lasting heritage of Prime Minister Thanin Kraiwichien (1976-77) who came to power in the counter-revolution of 1976, shortly after the 'fall' of Vietnam to communism and the unruly days of open democracy (1973-76). Proceeding from the old idea that the order of society follows from the individual conduct of its members, he wanted to strengthen the moral fibre of the nation. To this end, the subjects of good conduct, ethics and religion were to be given more prominence in (especially) elementary school education, at the expense of the more academic subjects. Accordingly, seventy-five percent of school time in the fifth and sixth grades is now devoted to the socialisation of tractable subjects of the state."

Like many things in Thailand, I am not implying that this is wrong (although I have a few doubts). It's just different to the model I am familiar with.

I wasn't subjected to all this moralising when I was in elementary school about how to be a good, tractable subject in society. Instead, many Western countries prefer a strong rule of law and harsh punishments to deal with people who behave in a way that is socially acceptable.

Thailand has a very weak rule of law but instead of concentrating on punishing social miscreants the country has taken a course to prevent social problems early on. This is more closely aligned with Confucianism than with any Western model, except maybe in some very liberal Western societies.

This is just one of the aspects of Thai social behaviour that I find interesting. The only trouble with trying to over-control people is that it can stem a person's ability to think, and also if people react negatively later on in life, they can go completely the opposite way.

Thai kids get into the habit of learning by rote at an early age and this stays with them throughout the rest of their education - at least up to high school and maybe beyond. Without a teacher to follow, many are lost because they have difficulty thinking for themselves.

With Thailand being predominantly a Buddhist country, the moralising that takes place at home and school is also backed up with warnings of karmic retribution. Tum dii, dai dee; tum chua, dai chua (do good, get good; do bad, get bad).

It's easy for foreigners to criticise Thailand but it works - kind of. There is very little policing but society hasn't broken down. It's crazy at times but amid the chaos there is a degree of social order, albeit a Thai version.

The only thing that worries me is that Thai social order seems to hang by a thread and once certain barriers are broken the social order can easily turn to anarchy, as we have seen in the past.

For anyone with a genuine interest in Thailand who wants to see more than beaches and bars, Mulder's is the book I recommend above all others. Unfortunately, there isn't a large print version with easy-to-follow pictures for intellectually challenged English teachers but I have found that using a magnifying glass and reading aloud helps.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Friday 14th January 2011

Moon hotel - Click for larger image When I have watched Thai teachers in the classroom it has been a very one-way affair. The teacher talks and the students listen. This is the way it has always been in Thailand and this is what Thai students expect.

I don't believe it's a particularly good way to teach. It's boring for the kids and they don't develop the ability to think for themselves. Rote learning is perfect for some things but not everything. If I give them something that involves thinking for themselves they often find it difficult.

I have tried to develop a two-way approach in the classroom, even though it is difficult because of certain Thai cultural traits such as greng jai (not wanting to impose on others), kwarm ai (shyness) and kao-rop (respect).

Corruption - Click for larger image I have probably learnt as much from my students as I have taught them. They have lots of local knowledge, lots of knowledge of all things Thai, and through them I have started to understand how young, middle class, educated Thais think.

Mostly, it's very positive. They are very astute, very aware of the country's problems, and they have good moral values. They give me hope for the future.

The problem they face is that the old guard whose interest it is to keep everything the same way are still very powerful. I can't see change coming in the lifetimes of today's young Thais, but I think that the next generation will start to see a lot of change. You can't change culture overnight.

We did some stuff on the second-conditional recently and I asked them to design a poster based on the statement, "If I were Prime Minister, I would ..."

I was very interested to see what young Thais perceive as problems in Thailand and what they would do if they had the power.

Improve pay for teachers in Thailand - Click for larger image Whenever I do this kind of thing with them some of the artwork is very good, there's some good humour, and above all there are some very good ideas. The English isn't always perfect but they still manage to get their messages across.

Sometimes I think that things will never change in Thailand because the same problems keep happening over and over again. However, working with today's generation of youngsters gives me a lot of hope for the future.

The messages from all students were quite consistent. Get rid of corruption, improve the education system (I particularly liked the comments about paying teachers what they are worth to society and not the joke salaries that Thai teachers receive), narrowing the wealth gap, helping poor Thais, and unifying Thailand.

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Thursday 13th January 2011

I asked Bpom a while ago when pregnant women in Thailand stop working. They don't. They work right up until the time they give birth.

This sounded strange so I wanted to know why but ever since I've lived in Thailand I've never had much luck with 'why' questions. They normally don't get answered. Either the Thai can't explain in English and doesn't think you will be able to understand in Thai, or they just don't know the answer.

If they don't know the answer then this becomes a 'loss of face' situation and the Thai can start to become uncomfortable. If I don't know something I tell people I don't know. If Thais don't know something, they either act very strangely or make something up and send you off on a wild goose chase.

No one seems to know why pregnant women aren't allowed to rest before the birth and it seems to be a case of it has always been this way. Perhaps it goes back to the time when nearly all the population was working in agriculture and the village couldn't afford to lose a pair of hands for more than a day or two?

Last week I had all sorts of problems with her. She continually complained about pain and cried all night. I told her not to go to work but got the usual, "I have no choice." I had to remind her (again) that she does have a choice now.

Anyway, last Thursday she stayed at home and I went to work. I made sure she was OK and that she had enough food in the house.

I went to work and just before my first lesson an angry looking headmistress appeared at the classroom door beckoning me outside.

One of Bpom's teacher friends had called her and got a lot of bad news. This went back to the headmistress and consequently I was ordered to go home to take care of my wife. We then spent the whole morning at the hospital.

There is lots of contradictory behaviour in Thailand. If Bpom's wellbeing was that important to them they wouldn't expect her to be working now, but they do.

The hospital carried out a few tests and everything is quite normal. We saw the same doctor that she visits once a month at the clinic and every time she complains about pain he tells her to rest. But how can she rest when she is expected to carry on as usual at work?

The doctor signed her off for a week and I've been taking care of her and the house. She's been fine and hasn't experienced any pain. However, she went back to work today and I know that she will start to have problems again.

While at the hospital I asked the doctor why Thai women don't get any time off before giving birth. I thought he would know and that as a professional person he would give me a professional answer.

His reaction? He laughed raucously and said goodbye.

Amazing Thailand.


With Bpom out of action and me having to do everything in the house, I have been overloaded. We interviewed a woman yesterday about doing the cleaning and ironing and I think she will start coming two days a week. She has good references and used to work for my boss so I know we can trust her.

With labour being so cheap in Thailand, she wanted more than I expected but if she does a good job and can be trusted it is OK. She said she can also take care of the cats if we go away for a few days and that will be very useful.


Now that Bpom has returned to work I have to drop her off and pick her up. I hate driving in Hat Yai at the best of times, but during the morning and evening rush hours it is a nightmare. The traffic is as bad as Bangkok and there are thousands of motorbikes. The motorbikes appear from nowhere and I almost hit two this morning.

On our trip to Phattalung a couple of days ago it was a pleasure driving around in the countryside but busy Thai cities are a completely different proposition.


On the subject of driving, Bpom wants to drive the car. She told me she could drive but my definition of driving is slightly different to hers. She believes that 'driving' is putting the car in gear, pressing the accelerator, and making the car go forward. That's about all you need to do to get a driving licence in Thailand.

My definition is a little different. Like most people from Western countries, I believe that being able to drive means having the ability to drive safely in all conditions regardless of any difficult situation you may encounter.

It is common knowledge that a husband shouldn't teach his wife to drive but I let her drive the car in Phattalung for a bit where the roads were empty. It wasn't easy for me when she kept doing stupid things but if she is going to drive properly there is no alternative. The driver education here is a joke.

It will be good for me if she can drive because then I can go off and do some travelling. She won't be able to take the baby on her motorbike (although many Thais do) and if she is dependent on me I will have to stay around all the time. I don't want to be house-bound just because we have a baby.


Computerised wheel alignment in Thailand - Click for larger image Prices continue to go up steadily in Thailand. There are lots of dim-sum places in town and I had it in my head that each portion was Bt10. That must have been a while ago because it's now Bt14. Depending how you look at it, that's 'only' Bt4 extra or a 'huge' 40% increase.

It's the same with everything. My income has gone up a lot recently but we've taken on extra costs and with everything going up in price I don't feel much better off.

It's still cheaper than the UK but only for labour and locally produced goods (and houses, of course). I had to get a puncture repaired last week and the whole procedure was only Bt150. The garage offered a computerised wheel alignment service for only Bt300 which I though was very cheap.

However, new tyres, which I assume are imported, are about the same price as the UK.

Anything imported from abroad is expensive. First, there is the cost of transportation and secondly, most things from abroad are considered luxuries and so a luxury tax applies.

The tax on a high performance car from Europe can be as much as 327%. I have been paying Bt132 (about £2.76 at the current exchange rate) for small bottles of HP sauce whereas the price in the UK is about 81p. Despite what some people think, not everything is cheaper in Thailand. Some things are very expensive.


Dim-sum - Click for larger image It was our first visit to this particular dim-sum place. We sat down and as usual I became invisible. Since moving to Thailand I have developed the remarkable chameleon-like ability to blend into my surroundings so that no one can see me.

The waitress went straight to Bpom and completely ignored me. She asked Bpom what she wanted to drink and instead of then asking me, she screwed up her face and pointed at me as if to ask Bpom, "What does 'e want?"

In the waitress's mind I was simply a farang who was unable to speak or understand any Thai, I didn't know anything about Thailand, and therefore it wasn't worth speaking to me directly. I was with a Thai and the sensible thing to do was to speak to the Thai person.

This happens all the time.

In my mind, I've been living here for over seven years and visiting Thailand for over 20 years. My Thai isn't great but it's certainly good enough to order a cup of coffee. I can also read Thai menus quite easily which is something Thais never expect a foreigner to be able to do.

My impression is that this type of behaviour is rude to the extreme. There is a strict hierarchical pecking order in Thai society where everyone knows their place and they also know where other people fit in. They know who they can boss around, and they know who they have to defer to.

Based on my age, my occupation, or my overall wealth, a Thai man of equivalent social status would garner a lot of respect in Thailand - especially from a waitress in a dim-sum restaurant. However, because of my external appearance and because of Thai perceptions of foreigners, I get treated almost with contempt.

These days it makes me quite angry.

I'm not sure who to blame. Is it Thai ignorance or is it simply the fact that millions of foreigners have come and gone in the past without learning anything and as a result this is now how Thais view all foreigners?

All I know is that it will continue to happen everywhere I go.


What young Thais think about sexual equality in Thailand - Click for larger image The importance of merit-making for Thais and sexual inequality in Thai society are not completely unrelated.

Merit-making is normally carried out through Buddhist monks, and the Sangha (the association or ordained Buddhist nuns and monks) is very much male-dominated.

From Mulder:

"As monks, men are representative of the virtue of Buddhism, and of the sacred and its power. Monks provide a fertile field (na bun) that enables people to cultivate the merit they need to enhance their chances for a better rebirth, or even for the improvement of their current circumstances.

They serve as a field where people can cultivate merit (na bun), and thus assure themselves of auspiciousness and continuity in the present and beyond. Monks extend blessings to institutions, things, and people, and it is through supporting them that the layman gains merit and beneficial karma (kam)."

This deep need by Thais to make merit, and the fact that Buddhist monks are a requirement in making merit, means that men will always hold a special place in Thai society even though it is the hard-working women that hold everything together ('the hindlegs of the elephant').

Bpom expressed a desire to make merit yesterday. It's important to her as a Buddhist Thai and she believes that it is especially important at the moment because she is pregnant. She has been told this by her friends and family and she believes the best start she can give our child in life is by making merit at the temple frequently before the birth.

I maintain an open mind regarding this kind of thing. My belief system is different but I don't believe that one is wrong or that one is right. If something makes her feel good, then it's fine by me.

From Mulder:

"The common understanding and practice of Buddhism remains animistic in the sense that merit-making is generally understood as a mechanism to ensure safety and auspiciousness, and thus the institutionalised Buddhism of the masses has become a powerhouse for individual and communal protection."

Making merit - Click for larger image The session yesterday was a little different and actually it was quite good. My main complaint about a lot of merit-making in Thailand is that it is animistic and has nothing to do with Buddhism. Yesterday, however, we both sat down in the presence of a monk and he spoke about Buddhism.

He spoke about Buddhist sins. We were reminded not to harm any form of life; reminded not to steal; I was warned that I should not take pleasure from any woman other than my wife; we were told about the dangers of intoxicating substances (drugs and alcohol) and how they affect right speech and right thinking; and warned about telling the truth and not lying.

The morality aspects of all religions are roughly the same and if everyone adhered to them the world would be a better place. The Thai proverb "tum dee dai dee, tum chua dai chua" is basically the Thai version of, "What comes around goes around." We would all do well to remember this.

Bpom read some passages of Pali text and I could hear that she was having a few problems. I have heard from Thais before that they have problems with Pali and Sanskrit.

Many Thai students complain that Thai is a difficult subject. I wondered why because Thai is their native language. They find it difficult - among other reasons - because they have to learn about ancient languages and because they have to learn polite and royal vocabulary that is seldom used.

Hat Yai Nai temple - Click for larger image I was also given a book to read about Buddhism written in English. I have read lots of these in the past but Buddhism is such a huge and difficult subject that I am always willing to read more to see if I can understand it better.

This one is about 'voidness' or 'emptiness' of the mind. It sounds a strange concept in a world where we are always encouraged to fill our heads with knowledge but from the day we are born our minds are continually cluttered and corrupted with defilements. It is about removing the clutter and corrupted thoughts from our minds.

I find some aspects of Buddhism easy to comprehend because they make perfect sense but there are also many aspects that I find extremely difficult.

The author, if anyone is interested, is the Venerable Varasak Varadhammo.


Crazy weather this past year and it just goes on:

Philippine floods kill 40 and affect one million people

Death toll mounts from flooding in Rio de Janeiro state

Floods ground Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa

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Blog entries 1st to 12th January 2011

 

 

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