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  • Living in Thailand Blog July 2007


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Living In Thailand Blog

Tuesday 31st July 2007

My blog has gone a bit philosophical this week. I'm not sure why but I will continue. I mentioned earlier how some basic Buddhist concepts have helped me to look at my life and yesterday I talked about attachment. Today, I will discuss 'grasping'.

Now, before any real Buddhists get upset with my pretentiousness, all I am trying to describe here is my interpretation of certain Buddhist concepts. Buddhism is a vastly complex subject which is very difficult to understand and comprehend, and which takes years of study and meditation.

Please bear in mind this important distinction. I am just a lay person who has read a little and made a few interpretations; not a wise old forest monk who has spent years meditating, learning and who really understands the subject.

There was a report in The Nation yesterday showing that the happiness index in Thailand has continued to slide - most notably in Bangkok.

Certain Thai governments (yes, him again) measured Thailand's success using only GDP figures, which are completely irrelevant. All that really matters in people's lives is how happy and contented they are so I think the 'happiness index' is a good measurement.

It's particularly relevant in Thailand where, culturally, sanuk and sabai are far more important than money or material things. The results were interesting.

Thais are happiest, apparently, in the poorest part of the country - the northeast. In the north and central regions they are also fairly happy but where there is most money (Bangkok and the south) they are least happy.

Whilst I don't disagree that these findings are correct, I disagree with the way all this unhappiness has simply been blamed on the current political situation. Nonsense.

Still, when we have problems it's convenient to have a simple scapegoat to blame everything on rather than to get to the root of the real problem which takes time and effort.

If that were really the case, the decrease in happiness would be countrywide and - even if all the political problems were resolved tomorrow - I don't believe it would make much difference.

I firmly believe that 'grasping' is causing the unhappiness and it is worse in certain parts of the country because there are more things constantly pushed into people's faces to grasp for.

Poor northeasterners are hardly likely to have much to lust over. When I was up there a few years ago in a small, rural village next to the Mekong, as long as people could huddle around a cheap karaoke machine with some Isaan food and a few bottles of beer, they were genuinely happy and contented.

It's a different world in Bangkok though. Walk into Siam Paragon, for example, and there are all kinds of things to lust over, most of which are completely beyond the means of the majority of Thais. These are 'lifestyle' items, we are told. This is a word that is seen a lot in Bangkok nowadays for anything extravagant.

Vastly expensive condos overlooking the river are 'lifestyle' apartments and fancy shopping malls selling Ferraris and state-of-the-art audio equipment are 'lifestyle' malls. With most people unable to afford what's on sale, the fact they are on display just leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness (or, in Buddhist terms, suffering).

I'm very aware of the problem but even I get swept along in an orgy of desire when I go to one of these places and it afflicts me a lot in Singapore. It's a temporary sensation for me but for a while I become quite dissatisfied with what I have as I lust over new camera equipment, computers and flat-screen LCD TVs, etc.

There is nothing wrong with wanting, and getting, something new. The material things I have give me a lot of pleasure and I expect I will be upgrading my computer and camera body in the next year.

It starts to become a problem though when people can't control their desires. The problem is that the wheel never stops turning; manufacturers never stop introducing new products, and advertisers never cease telling us that without these new products our lives will be empty and meaningless.

By its very nature, the problem is worse in locations where there is more money because people with money are the ones being targeted. Perversely, the people who should be happiest and most comfortable in life are often the ones who are least happy - even if they try to fool themselves into thinking that by having material things they are happy.

I've tried to stop grasping in my life, and removing myself from certain external sources has really helped. Materially, there is not a lot to lust after where I live but whenever I go to Bangkok or Singapore the grasping starts to resurface.

I haven't owned a television for about two years so TV adverts have no effect on me. Back in England, the source of a lot of dissatifaction came from magazines in the Sunday newspapers that are full of advertisements to 'make my life better'.

Rather than trying to fight it, just removing the source of the dissatisfaction has helped and - believe it or not - not having succumbed to all the advertising has not made me any less happy in life. On the contrary, the more I have got rid of and the less I crave for, the happier I have become. Less really can mean more.

Grasping, I should add, extends to more than houses, cars and TVs. For some men, the girl they are with is never enough and they always want someone new. This can be a real problem in Thailand where there are lots of them and seemingly endless opportunities to meet new ones. It's kind of different but it's still grasping.

Just like attachment, grasping is a powerful force and it can easily take over our lives if we let it but it is not a good thing.

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Monday 30th July 2007

I was missing a trick when I used to work from Wednesday to Friday. Since changing my working days (working from Monday to Wednesday instead) it seems I am always getting days off for Thai holidays. This week I have two and after returning to work on Wednesday for one day I will get another four days off. It's a tough life sometimes.

Yesterday, I mentioned attachment and what a powerful force it is. I'm not sure that many people realise just how powerful it is but it should never be underestimated. It was the one thing that almost stopped me coming to Thailand.

After reaching 40 I started to plan the second half of my life and figured I would be making some major changes. I had a pretty good idea what those changes would be but at the time I was still in full possession of everything in my old life.

I started to break the chains early in 2002 but the process took about 18 months to complete and it was the most difficult period of my life.

It's easy to visit Thailand, do a few sums in your head, and then work out that without having to wait for full retirement, it would be possible to move there and live well without needing any more money than you already have.

This is how my thinking went. My house could either be sold or rented out and the income from renting it out, or the interest from the money in the bank as a result of selling it, would cover all my living expenses in Thailand. I wouldn't even need to work.

With no dependents or other financial commitments, there was nothing to stop me. Or was there? This was when attachment started to be a real problem.

My original idea was to take a one year sabbatical from work and this had already been agreed with my manager and HR; the idea being I would not actually quit my job. However, a couple of months after this happened, redundancies were announced and the first phase asked for volunteers.

This created my first dilemma. The severance package was quite attractive but it meant burning a major bridge and my salary wasn't insignificant - and neither was my pension. At the same time, however, my gut feeling told me that if I took a year out, I wouldn't want to go back so I might as well burn the bridge anyway and take the money.

It was the biggest decision of my life and one that I didn't take lightly. For several months the stress made me feel quite unwell. For mainly financial reasons, I had lots of attachment to my job. Anyway, I decided to quit.

The next piece of attachment was to my house. I was the second owner and it was like new when I moved in. I'd kept it very well and was very house proud. The decision to move to Thailand meant either selling it or renting it out.

I decided against selling. It's the ideal type of property to let out and the location is excellent. Keeping it allowed me to remain in the booming UK property market and I also had a place to live in if ever I decided to return. The problem though, with renting it out, was attachment and the thought of strangers living in my house - even sleeping in my bed.

This was something else that caused me lots of mental anguish and it was another big hurdle that I had to overcome. In fact, at one stage I didn't think I could let go. This was a particularly depressing period for me, having already quit my job and then realising I may not actually be able to do the thing that I'd quit my job to do.

I also had a car at the time - a late Porsche 944S2 which had had one previous owner and was in excellent condition. This was the final evolution of the 944 and Porsche had done a good job ironing out small problems and increasing the original 160bhp power output to 211bhp. It wasn't the fastest or most expensive Porsche in the world but it was a lot of fun to drive.

Once again, attachment became an issue as I really didn't want to sell the car. I thought about putting it into storage but that would have been a crazy thing to do. Storage is expensive and the car was depreciating in value significantly every year anyway. I would have been throwing money away by doing this but attachment is emotional, not logical.

The only sensible thing to do was to sell it but it was an extremely sad day when I drove it for the last time to a dealer in the pretty Suffolk village of Lavenham, handed over the keys, and returned car-less.

What else? I remember at the time being concerned that I may not be able to retain my mobile and land line phone numbers. These things don't matter at all now but at the time I even had attachment to things as insignificant as phone numbers.

Relaxing on a beach in Thailand while on vacation, planning what you could do, and actually making the plan happen are very different things. Having more material things back home to convert into cash and monthly income can be a good thing but generally, the more you have, the more attachment you will also have.

Moving to another country to begin another life means detaching yourself from lots of things and people in your old life and if you are someone who suffers from attachment it can be a difficult process. What's more, you may not even be aware that you suffer from attachment until the time comes to start severing the bonds.

It can be done though and the one thing I will say is that once you leave your existing environment, the things you were once attached to very quickly become unimportant. The problem for me now is that since arriving in Thailand I have now developed attachment here and don't want to leave!

It's something I am constantly aware of - and it's a fundamental aspect of Buddhism - but for most human-beings, breaking the bonds of attachment can be a very difficult thing to do.

With any problem, the first stage of fixing it is to recognise the problem. I know people who have dreams but who also have tremendous attachment. The attachment is so strong they are unable to break free from the things they are attached to in order to do the things they really want to do.

It's a sad way to live life but, as I said earlier, attachment is an extremely powerful force.

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Sunday 29th July 2007

Today is Wun Kao Pun-saa, the start of the Buddhist Lent (or Rains Retreat). Traditionally, it is a time when Thai men enter the temple to be ordained as Buddhist monks for three months during the rainy season. The Thai term for going to ordain is bpai buwat.

It's a wonderful idea. Buddhism is a wonderfully logical philosophy (I don't particularly like the word religion) and even though I have only the most basic understanding, some Buddhist teachings have helped me in my life - even if I have interpreted those ideas to suit myself.

Many of my problems in life were (and still are) caused by grasping and attachment. Acceptance of impermanence helps to eliminate attachment but it is an extremely powerful force and one that still holds me.

I don't grasp for as much as I used to but I still try to cling on to the things that make me happy and comfortable ... such as remaining in Thailand. This is attachment and, sure enough, the anxiety about whether or not I will be able to remain as long as I want to is already causing problems.

I only suffer because I have attachment and if I didn't have attachment I wouldn't have any suffering. It's not good but for many sentient beings it is sometimes very difficult to break the chains of attachment. However, I digress.

In olden times, the three month Rains Retreat gave Thai men a chance to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha to help them in their lives and, in addition, while they were in the temple they weren't wandering around the country damaging young rice plants.

In modern times with paved roads it isn't as important to keep people inside during the rainy season to stop them damaging vegetation but most Thai men are still ordained for a period of time. The minimum age is 20 and most do it before they marry.

The process seems to have little to do with Buddhist teachings these days but is all about making merit for the man's parents. If he is married, half the merit he makes goes to his wife so by doing this before he has a wife, his parents get the full quota.

Some men still ordain for three months (some for longer) but many just wear robes for a short time - maybe just a week or two. They make the same amount of merit regardless of how long they ordain for and that's all that seems to be important. They can't really learn much in a week.

It's a shame really that so many Thai men squander the chance to learn more about Buddhist teachings but 'Buddhism' in Thailand today seems mainly concerned with merit-making (for selfish reasons), blessing ceremonies, and hokey Animist superstition. The Jatukham craze is the perfect example.

In the book, Phra Farang, the author - who ordained as a monk in Thailand to learn the Buddha's teachings - describes how the monks were always being invited to blessing ceremonies (for which they were paid). Whenever someone got a new car or a new house the monks would go along and, on one occasion, they were even asked to bless a new washing machine.

It's not unusual in Thailand to see daubs of paint inside cars where the owner has had the car 'blessed'. This stuff has much more to do with Animism than Buddhism but it's nothing new.

One account I read described how King Mongkut (Rama IV) was horrified with what he found when he entered the temple, observing monks drinking and womanising. He spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and started some major reforms. In more recent times, the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was very outspoken about the state of Buddhism in Thailand.

I guess that as long as people are happy and don't harm others, that's all that counts. It just seems a shame that for people already living in a predominantly Buddhist country, they miss a great opportunity to learn more about the nature of human existence - which is basically what Buddhism teaches.

Being an important Buddhist day today, I wonder what my students are up to? Perhaps next week when I ask them, I will get a few different answers? Maybe a few went to the temple today.

They always get asked what they did last weekend because even after 10 or more years of studying English, many can still only speak in one tense. "Last weekend, I go to shopping."

It's quite insightful to find out what they actually do on their days off. Sleeping is popular. "I slept." "What, all day?" "Yes!". (Anyone familiar with Thais should not be too surprised by this answer ... nawn sabai.) Playing computer games is another favourite pastime but nothing educational, of course.

Occasionally one will say they read a book but further questioning reveals it wasn't so much a book as a comic. Sad really but this is Thailand.

Last week, I met a teacher from Phitsanulok who was in town for a meeting. We exchanged smiles and this must have given her the courage to start a conversation. It wasn't long before she asked, "Where are you come from?"

I don't always correct Thais outside of a classroom environment but as a teacher it doesn't sound very good using such poor English so I pointed out the error and gave her two ways of asking the question correctly. She responded by telling me that's how she had been taught by her Thai teacher.

Ever since I started teaching English in Thailand I have immediately jumped on any student who asked, "Where are you come from?" I tested some of my current students last week (much to their horror) and the first fill-in-the-blank question was, "Where ______ you come from?" Disappointingly, a significant number still answered 'are' instead of 'do'.

When I go over their test papers next week, a few are going to be in a lot of trouble! One of the problems is not so much trying to teach them new material but trying to get them to 'un-learn' (how's that for good English?) what they were taught by Thai teachers in the past.

The other problem is farang 'teachers' who don't actually have a clue about teaching and just because they understand what the student is 'attempting' to say, don't correct them. The importance of correcting students was stressed over and over again on my TEFL course and it really is so important.

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Saturday 28th July 2007

As a non-Thai-speaking tourist visiting tourist areas of Thailand, I used to get ripped off, lied to, cheated and deceived fairly often. It's just part of the package for tourists coming to Thailand.

As a resident living outside of the tourists areas and able to 'get by' fairly well in Thai, it's not a big problem now but I still get occasional problems.

Before going down to the wedding in Singapore, I needed to buy some shoes. Shoe prices ranged from about Bt1,000 to Bt5,000 and the ones I eventually decided on were priced - the assistant told me - at Bt2,400.

They seemed to be about 'middle-of-the-range' shoes so this price seemed to be about right but (if the truth be told) I can't really tell the difference. The guy said there was a 20% discount, thus the price came down to Bt1,920.

I asked - tongue in cheek - if I could have them for Bt1,900; another Bt20 discount. He told me there was absolutely no way I could pay that price because he would then be losing money on the shoes. I just told him OK, I'll take them.

At this point, if it had been a small shop, I would have handed over Bt2,000 and received enough change for a local style meal. However, I've had lots of problems buying bags, clothes and shoes from small shops in Thailand. The quality is often poor, they won't exchange goods if there is a problem, and they certainly won't refund money.

After getting stung a few times, I resolved only to buy from reputable department stores. What is interesting is that prices in the big stores are often cheaper than market stalls. But on top of that you also get a proper guarantee and they will help if there is a problem.

The store in question was Central department store so when it came to making the payment we headed over to one of the cashiers. It was then that the guy started trying to sell me a discount card for Bt50. I asked why and he told me I would get 20% off with the card.

"What?" I asked, "Another 20%?" No, he told me, the same 20%. But you have already given me a 20% discount so if buying the card doesn't give me any extra discount, I don't want it. No thanks.

This caused a big problem and he then took the shoes away in a gesture saying that he wasn't going to sell them to me. I was furious because the deal had already been done and now he was reneging.

The conversation quickly exhausted my Thai language skills though and even if they could understand me, they were refusing to understand me - as Thais will do if don't like what they are hearing.

I needed the shoes quite badly and up until that point had had a hard times finding anything suitable. I just agreed - grudgingly - to buy the discount card.

Armed with my new discount card, I went to pay again but when the woman swiped the bar code, the price came up as Bt1,400. I still got the same 20% discount, thus bringing the price down to Bt1,120.

I therefore paid Bt1,120 for a pair of shoes the salesman had sworn minutes before he could not sell for less than Bt1,920 otherwise he would be making a loss. At times, it seems that you can't trust anyone in Thailand. You can, of course, but there is always someone trying to make a few extra Baht from stupid farangs.

The shoe saga had actually gone on for several days. I knew I wouldn't have time to go shopping for shoes in Singapore so I needed to buy some before I travelled. There are lots of shoe shops in Thailand with lots of shoes so no problem I thought. I was wrong.

It is a task I dread these days; the main reason being that Thai shoe sales staff won't leave you alone. As soon as you enter the store, they are on to you in seconds and follow you around continuously, holding up the most inappropriate footwear you can imagine with expectant looks on their faces.

No one ever asks you what you are looking for - they just guess. I was after a pair of black, formal shoes. The sales staff kept holding up the creepiest sandals I have ever seen; the kind retired, farang pensioners in Thailand wear with black socks.

A friend of mine visited from the UK last year and we went out looking for shoes for him. He got so fed up with this behaviour that we just left and he didn't buy anything.

Needing shoes desperately, I persevered but I liked very few shoes on display and it seemed that whatever ones I liked, they didn't have the right size. This caused more problems.

One guy did his best to convince me that a pair of shoes that were miles too small were OK really and I would get used to them. When he realised I was unconvinced he tried to sell me a pair that were miles too big, suggesting using inserts to make them fit.

I know I'm just a stupid farang but I've always taken the view it is easier to buy shoes and clothes that are the correct size in the first place.

Not having my size, he still wasn't going to let me leave. First he offered to get a pair the right size from a shop on the other side of town. I eventually agreed to this plan but that was before he discovered the other shop didn't have my size either. His next idea was to get shoes from Bangkok but that plan also failed.

In another shop, the only pair I liked turned out to be an odd pair. One shoe was my size but the other wasn't. On top of the stress of being about to photograph a wedding, I did not need any of this but sometimes in Thailand even the simplest of tasks can become irritatingly frustrating.

I just read a disturbing report on the BBC News Site - Undercover in SE Asia's brothels. It mentions one place in Thailand I visited for the last time 15 years ago but I was so disgusted I have never been back and I never want to go back again.

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Friday 27th July 2007

Gibbon at Songkhla zoo, Thailand - Click for larger image I went to Songkhla zoo today. Songkhla town is one of the best kept secrets in Thailand and the zoo there is one of the most amazing zoos I have been to. What makes it so different to any other zoo I have been to is that so few people visit and consequently the animals don't behave like normal zoo animals.

It's not the easiest place to get to and if you don't know exactly where you are going, and/or can't speak Thai, you will probably have problems finding it. Also, it has not been designed for pedestrians, which most non-permanent residents are.

I hadn't been for a while because of the weather. Walking around the zoo is a major work-out because of the hills and the distances you need to cover. This year has been very hot, making visits to the zoo very hard work but the weather was cooler today so I paid a visit.

The zoo, naturally, has a dual pricing policy. Locals pay Bt50 and tourists pay double that. For the first time ever, I managed to pay the local price by telling them - in Thai - that I lived here and wasn't a tourist. I didn't even need to show any evidence.

Deserted Songkhla zoo; just me and a lot of animals  - Click for larger image Today's visitors were one group of schoolchildren who were being taken around in a big bus. They were the only visitors I saw all day apart from a family of four. One of the zoo staff was taken by the novelty of a farang visitor (see yesterday's blog entry) and offered me a lift in the bus.

However, instead of observing animals in almost a completely natural un-zoolike environment, the kids were being shown parrots riding mini-bicycles and sea lions balancing beach balls on their snouts. This wasn't really what I came to the zoo to see so I therefore slipped away quietly.

In every other zoo I have been to in the world, the animals are completely jaded with humans because they see so many every day. At London zoo you can jump up and down waving your arms in front of the monkey cages but they won't pay any attention.

It could not be any different at Songkhla zoo where, for most of the time, the animals see very few humans. On a visit last year I got to play with a tiger cub and it was a great experience; tigers being my favourite animals.

There were none around today but as I rounded the corner to where the tigers are kept, I startled two tigers. They had quite a fright and retreated to their covered enclosure but all the time they watched me intently.

I guarantee that the interaction between humans and animals at Songkhla zoo is unlike any other zoo. In fact, it can be a bit eerie walking around with lots of dangerous animals in the vicinity and not a human in sight - neither a zookeeper or another visitor.

If one of the dangerous animals were to escape, you wouldn't stand a chance as any cries for help would not have a hope of being heard.

During the course of the day, I managed not only to startle tigers but also zebras and tapirs. Not since I went to South Africa have I experienced that feeling of being so close to dangerous animals, in such a natural environment, with so few people around, as I have experienced at Songkhla zoo. If you're down in the south, I highly recommend making a visit.

The zoo is about 1.5km from the main road. To get there (if you don't have a vehicle), there are motorbike taxis waiting on the road but getting back is another matter. In the past I have managed to hitch a lift but today the zoo was deserted.

As I was about to leave to embark on a very long walk, I saw the same girl who had earlier offered me a ride in the bus - a Muslim girl, actually. I asked her how I could get back and one of the male members of staff took me back on his motorbike.

Whatever derogatory comments I may make about the Thais from time to time, they are generally a very kind race of people and this kind of thing is far from unusual. Often, you only have problems with people who actually drive other people around for a living.

Discounting the rogue tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, I have been shown many acts of kindness from complete strangers in Thailand at those times when I have been stranded somewhere without a vehicle. Khon Thai jai dee maak.

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Thursday 26th July 2007

As farangs in Thailand, are we just a novelty? Just strange looking creatures to be toyed around with temporarily to take the boredom out of boring lives?

I mentioned yesterday being treated like a celebrity at times and I'm sure many visiting foreigners have experienced the same thing. You meet a Thai and get invited for dinner, or to their house, or even to something as special as a wedding, and you find that instead of being an ordinary guest, you are in fact an honoured guest.

It feels good and it's one of the things that makes visiting Thailand so special for so many people. However, after living in Thailand for a while you start to realise that your celebrity status is fairly short-lived. From being an honoured and special guest one day, you are forgotten the next, and quickly consigned to history.

I remember reading somewhere about a guy who was leaving Thailand after several years and he said that he was leaving the country without having made one genuine friend.

With one exception (and she's now working in China), the long-term friendships I have made in Thailand are only as a result of me making an effort to stay in touch. Many Thais have been keen to get to know me but the novelty wore off very quickly and I never saw heard or saw from them again.

Even now, I have names and numbers in my phone as a result of meeting new people who became very excited and insisted on exchanging numbers but they never called me, I never called them, and now I can't remember who they were or even where I met them. And they probably forgot about me a lot sooner than I forgot about them.

Of the five library books I have on loan at the moment, two mention this 'novelty' aspect regarding farangs in Thailand. One is fairly recent and the other is from a long time ago. However, with all the old accounts of Thailand I have read (even those going back as far as 300 years), a lot of what was written is still very applicable today.

The first book is called Phra Farang - An English Monk in Thailand, written by an Englishman who ordained as a monk in Thailand. After ordaining, he had lots of problems with the other monks being unfriendly, or even surly, towards him.

After a while, he realised why. As a farang monk in Thailand he was very unusual and, as a result, was singled out for special treatment. This caused resentment among the other monks and the temple boys who - behind his back - referred to him as the 'superstar' monk.

This had all been brought about by the novelty value of being a Westerner in Thailand in saffron robes. However, just being an ordinary Westerner is often all it takes, especially in areas of Thailand where there aren't many other Westerners.

Here are a couple of extracts from the other book, Foreign Records of the Bangkok Period up to A.D. 1932, a book, incidentally, that is full of wonderful quotes and observations about the Siamese. The first was written under the heading 'Siamese defects':

"Few Siamese seem really capable of grasping the serious nature of work. A Cabinet Council will break off suddenly in the midst of a discussion to admire some new European toy brought in by one of its members. For, like children, the Siamese have a passion for novelty, and that not only in things but in persons. They are always delighted to get a new man out from Europe, but with the novelty the charm is apt to wear off.

I have never, I think, seen the Siamese so serious, with attention so riveted, as when for several weeks in the spring of the year, during the time the south wind blows steadily, they assemble in thousands every afternoon for hours at a stretch to fly their kites in the Premane ground. That for them is the real business of life."

And trying to answer the question why the Siamese employed so many foreign advisers on high salaries but ignored any advice they were given:

"The passion, moreover, for novelty, which characterises all Siamese, probably had some influence in leading them to seek the services of so many foreigners."

It's nice to think we are appreciated for our charming personalities, good looks, knowledge, experience or intellect, whatever, but often the interest in a new farang is no more than would be shown towards a new computer or motorbike. It's quite exciting at first but the novelty fades very quickly.

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Wednesday 25th July 2007

It happens to me every time.

Whenever I come back to Thailand from Singapore (after getting a little reminder of the developed world) I have a hard time adjusting. For Singapore, read any developed country - it's just that since arriving in Thailand, Singapore is the only developed country I have visited.

There are lots of reasons.

The country has been in a political mess for a long time. Many parts of Thailand are still basically feudal but - with a rapidly emerging educated, middle class - the Thais are still fighting to establish some form of democracy that actually works and cannot be manipulated by an elite minority which benefits only that elite minority. This fight has been going on since 1932.

There has been an improvement with the situation in the south recently but it is still a long way from being resolved fully.

So, how is Thailand tackling the problems? I'm sure some good stuff is being done somewhere but you can't help but notice that the main focus seems to be based on Animism. The Jatukham Ramathep craze has reached stupid proportions.

With businesses near to where I live closing every week due to a faltering economy, they are being replaced by amulet shops. The Thai economy in general is suffering (and is not being helped by a very strong Baht which is affecting exports) but in Nakhon Sri Thammarat - the home of Jatukham Ramathep - there is a big economic book taking place.

If you have a problem in Thailand, what do you do? You buy a big amulet to hang around your neck. And what if the problem is really big? You shove a couple of monks in a plane and get them to bless amulets as they fly above the affected areas.

It sounds ridiculous but it is taken deathly seriously in Thailand.

After getting back from Singapore, urban Thailand always looks like an unfinished mess, there is indolence and apathy everywhere, and half the population seems to have a death wish.

At the risk of beginning to sound like a broken record, I will describe what I saw last night as I went for dinner. I walked to the restaurant in light rain and the roads were very, very greasy. On the way, I couldn't believe how fast and how recklessly young Thais were riding their motorbikes.

The speed they ride at makes you think their lives depend on getting somewhere urgently but these are Thais who never worry about doing anything or getting anywhere quickly. My students casually wander into class 30 minutes late without a care in the world; it can take Thais months to make simple decisions and several weeks for something as simple as getting a piece of paper signed.

No one is ever in a hurry in Thailand ... apart from when a vehicle is involved.

What was also disturbing was how few crash helmets I saw (on people's heads, that is, and not including the ones sitting in handlebar baskets). Passengers in this part of Thailand aren't required by law to wear them so they never bother and even though drivers are supposed to, only a small percentage do - especially in the evenings. What I saw was an accident waiting to happen.

Fast forward approximately one hour and I walked back from dinner along the same route. In the middle of the road were two motorbikes lying on their sides; one still had its lights on. There was no sign of the drivers or passengers but a small group of onlookers had gathered so I asked a few questions.

The accident must have only just happened and the police hadn't yet arrived to spray white paint around the outline of the motorbikes before they could be removed.

Three people had been involved and had already been taken to hospital. I asked a simple, "Jep mai?" and the guy I was speaking to pointed at his head and contorted his face, as if to say there had been some nasty head injuries.

Even though I missed the accident, I would bet money on the fact the people involved were young lads (teenage or early 20's), they were driving like maniacs, and they weren't wearing crash helmets.

If you were wondering why there is such a high ratio of females to males in Thailand (6:1 at the university where I teach), this is one of the major reasons. The young lads are very good at killing themselves on motorbikes and they do it with big smiles on their faces. Sanuk, na?

And here's my dilemma. It seems like such a hopeless and stupid country at times, but there is no denying that Thai people are just so bloody nice. They are incredibly sweet and kind and friendly and whatever other pleasant adjectives you want to use.

Despite what the cynics might say, the smiles are genuine most of the time, and where I am (where there are relatively few farangs), I am treated almost like a celebrity at times. It's a crazy country but - at the same time - it's impossible to dislike.

That's from a general viewpoint. From the viewpoint of a single man in his mid-40's, most of those lovely, smiling people are young, attractive females.

Yes, I know this sounds pathetic and that there are far more important issues in life, but it makes one hell of a difference in life when all day long you have pleasant interactions with young, attractive females. And by that, I don't necessarily mean any more than just friendly smiles.

The Singaporeans I met weren't unfriendly but, typically for a developed country, everyone is far too busy to stop and pass the time of day. I actually have problems in Thailand if I need to be somewhere at a certain time, with people continually stopping me to pass the time of day.

This is what makes me such a helplessly confused person. Do I want the cold efficiency and logical reasoning of the Western world but where life can be so cold and lonely; or Thailand where there is never any shortage of warm, human interaction but where efficiency and logical reasoning are as alien as a plate of pie and mash?

Maybe I'll figure it out one day? Or maybe I won't ... Meanwhile, this rambling blog of a confused man who continually fluctuates between loving Thailand one day and wanting to leave the next will continue in a rambling and confused style.

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Tuesday 24th July 2007

I have seen very few snakes in Thailand that haven't been in captivity. Normally they are captive. There's the famous snake farm (Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute) in Bangkok where they 'milk' poisonous snakes to make antivenins; various zoos; and, nearby to where I live, is a restaurant that specialises in snake blood cocktails.

They have several cages full of live snakes ranging from Bt300 for some kind of black and yellow banded variety to Bt1,000 for fairly large cobras. It's really a Chinese thing aimed at visiting Chinese Malaysians.

After selecting your snake, the proprietor slits its belly open with a sharp knife and drains the blood into a glass where it is mixed with honey and Thai whisky before being drunk. I think the gall bladder is also eaten but I'm not sure about the details.

In the wild I've only seen a couple of snakes. They weren't all that big and didn't look very dangerous. In fact, most have been dead in the road as a result of being run over by cars or motorbikes.

That was until a few days ago.

At the university where I work is a small stream of very clear, shallow water. There are quite a few fish and sometimes, during my lunch break, I stand on the bridge for a few minutes watching the fish. As I was watching last week, a large snake - six foot plus - swam into my field of vision.

What is strange is that when I first saw it, nothing out of the ordinary registered. It was as if seeing a large snake swimming in the water was as normal as watching the fish. However, something then registered in my brain and I felt a strange tingling sensation all over my body as the adrenalin surged through my veins.

It hid in some reeds for a while with just its head above the surface flicking its tongue in the air before disappearing back from whence it came. I am no expert but I am quite sure it was a king cobra. The pictures I have found on-line look remarkably similar.

Snakes, of course, are common in Thailand but because they are shy creatures, they aren't seen very often. An ex-student of mine did a field survey out by the local airport a couple of years ago, recording every bird, mammal and reptile she saw and in her list were lots of cobras and king cobras.

In Songkhla there is a large macaque population and it is a popular leisure time pursuit for local people to feed them. Where the monkeys live are a number of vendors selling peanuts and bananas. I was chatting to one of the vendors one day about the monkeys.

He told me they didn't like dogs and were afraid of king cobras. "What? King cobras here?" I asked. Yes, lots of them, he told me. Now, where did I put my snake boots?

Snakes aren't the only shy creatures in Thailand. The Thais themselves are so shy that at times it can be quite debilitating, especially when it applies to students who are too shy to speak in class.

As I sat down for lunch last week, a third year undergraduate was actually brave enough to speak with me and I am always pleased when that happens. She was from Yala and her English was pretty good. She wasn't an unattractive girl, either.

On the basis that she was from Yala, I asked if she was Buddhist or Muslim. She was Muslim but from her appearance it was impossible to tell. Many of the Muslim girls on campus wear Muslim dress but not all of them and some are as sexy looking as any other Thai girl you will ever see. Forget the stereotypes.

On campus it is immediately obvious that there are far more girls than boys but she actually gave me a statistic that I hadn't heard before. The ratio, she told me, is 6:1.

I'm now teaching at two places and the other place consists of mainly boys - a thoroughly nice bunch of boys, I should add. They aren't really boys but young men of 19+.

A couple of weeks ago, after finding out where I worked in the afternoon, I was met by a small delegation who were rather keen to take me to the university (one has a car) so they could have lunch with me. It was quite funny.

As it turned out, on the pretence of wanting to have lunch with me, I was the only one who actually ate anything. As I ate, they sat there in silence with eyes agog and mouths wide open, periodically wiping the saliva from their chins.

And to think, there was actually a time in the distant past - based on personal observations - when I honestly thought that Thai men weren't interested in Thai girls. Seriously - I'm not joking. As a tourist, I use to see hundreds of girls, yet no sign of a Thai man showing any interest in them at all. And those girls had nothing good to say about Thai men.

What I failed to realise was the men are only uninterested in a particular type of Thai girl; the type that congregates in well-known Thai tourist areas preying on gullible farangs.

To have ever thought that Thai men aren't interested in Thai girls is so ridiculous it embarrasses me to admit it now but, as an ignorant tourist back then who only ever experienced tourist Thailand and not real Thailand, I didn't know any better.

I've mentioned a few times in the past the lack of 'rage' emotions in Thailand that are so common in the Western world, most notably 'road rage'. Every single day, I see incidents on the road that would lead to major altercations in England but the Thais don't even react.

Occasionally they get a bit 'jai rawn' (hot hearted) but it's nothing too bad. However, there is one major exception and that is if damage occurs to an expensive car being driven by a rich Thai.

A few years ago, an expat living in Pattaya told me about an incident where a Thai riding a motorbike crashed into a new Mercedes Benz. The driver of the car took a gun from the glove compartment and shot him dead.

I was relating this story to some of my students recently and it was one of those weird moments when Thais look at me silently, almost in disbelief as if I am a bit stupid.

They told me that it isn't an uncommon phenomenon and has happened where I live several times in the past couple of years. The stories, no doubt, appeared in the Thai press but I didn't see anything in the English language press.

There was another incident in Bangkok recently involving the son of a former Miss Thailand who was driving a Mercedes when he was involved in a scrape with a bus. He was so incensed at the damage to his shiny car that he drove it into a bus stop killing one person and injuring several others.

He then described bus staff as "uneducated and low-class." Nice guy. The Nation covered the story.

Many farangs arriving in Thailand for extended periods buy motorbikes and quickly adopt local driving habits. They ride around without a care in the world as if nothing can go wrong. A number each year end up going home in coffins.

Even if Thai pickup truck or bus drivers don't get you, be very wary about riding your Honda Dream too close to expensive Japanese or German vehicles, especially highly-prized Mercedes Benz models.

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Monday 23rd July 2007

I mentioned a couple of days ago that by the time I am old enough to get a retirement visa in Thailand, I may not actually wish to live in Thailand any longer. Different places and different situations have suited me at different stages of my life and things change quite frequently.

Every decision I have made in the last 20 years has been with this in mind and it's the reason why I have never married. As an institution, marriage has always seemed to me to be too restricting and not just in the obvious sense of having a monogamous sexual relationship (well, I believe that's the theory).

This doesn't sound very 'Christian' but I think it actually fits in with Buddhist philosophy quite well. Buddhism tells us that absolutely nothing in life is permanent. It also warns us of the dangers of becoming attached to things (people, places, objects, ideas, states of mind, etc) that aren't permanent because becoming attached to anything that isn't going to last forever will give us problems later on.

As I tell Thais who ask about my religion, the piece of paper known as a birth certificate that I was presented with shortly after entering this world (a time when I was unable to make any decisions for myself) describes my religion as Christian but the way my mind works as an adult is much more closely aligned with Buddhist thinking.

My views on Singapore are a good example of how things change. I visited for the first time in 1990 en route to Australia, went back again in 2002 (also on the way to Australia), and it was my first stop when I left the UK in September 2003.

My brother had just moved there from Sydney so I crashed at his place for a while before going to Australia and Bali, and then travelling up through Malaysia to finally arrive in Thailand.

Back then, I hated Singapore. I couldn't wait to leave and had no interest in going back. It represented too many of the reasons why I had left England in the first place. I had been a cog in the capitalist machine for many years, working hard under pressure to make faceless shareholders money and although my salary was good I was very unhappy.

Singapore, with its intense focus on business and materialism, was exactly the same as far as I could see and I rebelled against it. I wrote some pretty nasty stuff about Singapore at that time and it was good to escape to a simpler way of life in Thailand.

However, because of my family ties, I continued going down there two or three times a year and, after a while, there came a time when my views started to change. Nothing had actually changed in Singapore but I had started to change as a result of living in Thailand.

There couldn't be two more different countries. The authoritarian Singapore government has turned the country into the ultimate nanny state and Singaporeans are quite fearful of the rule of law. On the other hand, in the 'Land of the Free' there are extremely strong notions that people can do whatever they want and there is little rule of law.

The population of Singapore is 76% Chinese and those Chinese are descended from mainland Chinese immigrants who had extremely tough lives. They came from terrible poverty on overcrowded boats and many died on the journey.

The ones that survived the journey faced awful conditions when they arrived and worked extremely hard just to survive. However, many became successful and that same work ethic still exists. During the British colonial period, British forms of law and administration were introduced. One of Raffles' contributions was planning the layout of the city.

During the brutal Japanese occupation in WW2, Japanese soldiers meted out the most severe punishments for minor infringements. It was an evil regime but the brutal punishments were very effective deterrents.

When Lee Kuan Yew (who had lived through the Japanese occupation) started his blueprint to build modern-day Singapore, he took elements from different cultures as he thought best. The country is administered in a very British fashion with a British sense of fair play. There is no corruption.

The justice system is extremely harsh but it works and there is probably no safer place on earth. The debates will rage on whether Singapore should continue executing drug smugglers or punishing vandals by caning them but law-abiding people (who make up the vast majority) have nothing to fear and everything to gain with such a regime.

With all this - and the Chinese work ethic - it makes Singapore a pretty unbeatable combination. When we started hearing about 'Asian Tiger' economies a few years ago, I wasn't sure if Singapore might start to suffer from competition but Thailand, for example. is still at least three generations away from being able to compete. From what I have seen, Singapore has nothing to worry about regarding competition from its Southeast Asian neighbours.

What I like about Singapore nowadays, compared to Thailand, is that the government and the citizens can be bothered to address social problems. The way this is done is very 'nanny state' with government poster campaigns used to get messages across but it works.

This entire region is currently suffering from a dengue fever outbreak. It has made a lot of people in Thailand sick and killed 21 so far this year. In Singapore there is a massive campaign to eradicate the problem and it's being taken very seriously. What's happening in Thailand? Nothing, as usual - at least nothing I am aware of.

I love being able to cross a road in Singapore without being in fear of my life from maniac drivers who won't stop for pedestrians under any circumstances. While travelling on buses in Singapore I don't get the impression that the driver is driving the bus purely for his own amusement while attempting to kill his passengers.

I love the overall cleanliness and the fact I can use a public toilet without it making me feel queasy. While there, a disgusted expat mentioned that she had been to somewhere where she had seen not only a rat but also a cockroach. Wow. I can't go anywhere in Thailand without seeing huge rats and cockroaches running around all over the place and that includes some restaurants I have eaten at.

City planning in Singapore has been done exceptionally well. All of the old Chinese shophouses have been gorgeously restored (and have preservation orders to protect them), the architectural design of the new buildings is stunning, and despite being a very crowded island there are lots of parks, trees and open spaces.

Pavements are maintained well for pedestrians and when you look up at buildings you don't see an ugly mass of electricity and phone cables as you do in Thailand.

On this last trip I noticed lots of new taxis. The old ones are being phased out because they don't meet new exhaust emission standards. The taxis Singapore are getting rid of are probably cleaner environmentally than most vehicles in Thailand.

Shopping is a joy in Singapore. I do not class shopping as a leisure pursuit but I enjoy photography and need to upgrade photography and computer equipment occasionally. Not only is the choice of goods so much better in Singapore but prices are actually significantly lower.

The food there offers the best of all worlds. Food centres sell cheap Asian rice meals but Western food that actually tastes like real Western food is also available everywhere.

The Singapore transport system is world class. The MRT is unbeatable and growing all the time. Every single taxi has a meter and there is never any stupid arguing about fares that always happens in Thailand. The computerised method of calling for a taxi in Singapore has to be the most efficient in the world.

A 30 minute journey to Changi in a new Mercedes cost marginally more than the 15 minute journey between the airport and my apartment in Thailand. Thai taxi drivers do not like meters. At Hat Yai airport the drivers run a cartel system where they agree a fixed price between them and then stick to it so that passengers have no choice but to pay. During the daytime I can take a sawng-thaew for Bt15 but at other times of the day the over-inflated taxi fare is my only option.

So now, you are probably thinking, why don't I just move to Singapore if it's that great? For one, it is always different living somewhere rather than just visiting. I enjoy visiting Singapore but I'm not sure I would want to live there permanently. And besides, being such a small island I would probably develop 'island fever' after a while.

With a high standard of living comes a high cost of living. To live a decent life there would mean earning a decent salary and that is going to take a lot of work. Once that happens, the balance in life can disappear and then I could find myself back to where I was in the UK.

Thailand isn't perfect but it's cheap. My financial model allows me to have a fairly good life in Thailand but wouldn't extend to living in Singapore. Singapore is easy and cheap to visit from southern Thailand and I am happy to continue visiting a few times each year while continuing to base myself in Thailand.

With every trip though, it gets a little harder returning to Thailand. I just wish the Thais would change their attitudes a little and apply a little more effort because if they did, life could be so much better for everyone.

The excuse is always that Singapore is rich and Thailand is poor but this is nonsense. In terms of natural resources it is Singapore that is the poor country and Thailand that is the rich one. It has little to do with money. The only differences are attitudes and work ethic.

Unfortunately, nothing is going to change in Thailand any time soon because the culture is just too strong. Mai bpen rai.

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Sunday 22nd July 2007

What a difference a few degrees in temperature makes. I slept very well last night without needing a fan. I don't like sleeping with the A/C on and only do so on a few occasions each year when the temperature is too hot to sleep. Some heavy rain and overcast skies have brought about a very welcome reduction in temperature. My room thermometer is showing 26 degrees this morning.

It normally sits at a fairly constant 28 degrees. This necessitates needing to run a fan (at least) and maybe the A/C if I return from a walk or other physical activity. When the temperature outside gets really hot, the room temperature rises to 29 or 30 and this is when my A/C normally starts getting used for extended periods during the daytime.

Throughout the entire year, my room temperature may only vary between 25 and 30 degrees, which doesn't sound much, but it makes an enormous difference.

A few nights ago I was taken out for dinner by a friend and one of her friends. I sat between two good-looking Thai girls hoping that I would be spotted by lots of people who knew me but sadly no one noticed.

It's good being a farang in Thailand sometimes because Thai girls will act and talk in your presence as if you aren't there - presumably on the assumption you can't understand anything. The conversation was interesting but first a little background.

A few years ago I got to know one local girl very well and - through her - was introduced to her network of friends. They are all around 30, all from good families, all have good jobs, and all are very respectable girls. Why they associate with me is still a mystery. A few are married and of those who aren't, most have Thai boyfriends.

Girl 1 from the other night is getting married in September to a guy she has known for less than a year - which is a little unusual. She was with her previous boyfriend for seven years but found out he had been messing around. One of his 'gigs' (a popular word in Thailand nowadays to describe someone who is 'more' than a friend) was an airline hostess.

She was incredibly cut up and cried her eyes out for a long time. She then found a guy of 31 who had never had a girlfriend before and they have decided to get married. Just as we finished eating, her ex phoned and it seems they still have very strong feelings for each other.

What seems to have happened is that she was so hurt by his unfaithfulness that she then went looking for a 'safe' boyfriend. She showed me a photo of the new guy on her mobile phone and he isn't the best looking Thai man I have ever seen. I could understand why he had never had a girlfriend before. However, he is unlikely to go out looking for gigs so he won't hurt her like the other one did.

Girl 2 is a fun girl with a high-powered job and some pretty powerful family connections in local politics. She has stress in her job but never shows it. She's never in a bad mood and never frowns no matter how tired or busy she is.

She has no shortage of admirers but there is one guy at work who has been relentlessly pursuing her for years. When she started her current job she used to find flowers on her desk that had been sent by him. As well as being fun, she is also romantic and she loves this kind of thing.

Her colleague is almost a perfect match for her ... apart from the fact he is already married with a daughter. However, this doesn't stop him chasing her every day of the year and, not only this, but he gets wildly jealous when she talks to other men. It's weird.

She told him she isn't interested while he is still married but he isn't interested in divorcing his wife. She has therefore also chosen a 'safe' boyfriend, a businessman in Bangkok who she very rarely sees.

Not only do they rarely see each other but they don't speak very often either. His loves in life are business and money but all she wants is for him to call her and ask how her day was. He doesn't appear to have a romantic bone in his body though.

He has plenty of money (successful business, four bedroom condo in Bangkok, two new BMWs, etc.) and has just given her Bt400,000 as the down payment on a new car but she isn't particularly interested in money. I feel that both girls - despite appearing to have blessed lives - are heading towards marriages that won't make them truly happy.

I could be wrong but the body language and facial expressions that went along with the girlie talk makes me sure I am somewhere near the truth. So, what's the moral of this story?

Many Thai girls have big problems with Thai men being unfaithful. It's something that many of them dread happening and if it does happen they get themselves into a bad state. It's not that common in Thailand for women to remarry. The men all want virgin brides and are not generally interested in divorced women.

The fear is so great that it seems a girl who isn't marrying purely for money (and there are plenty in Thailand, especially from the northeast, who will marry purely for money) will choose to marry a 'safe' man she doesn't truly love who she thinks will be faithful rather than a man she really loves if she thinks he will stray later on.

I have been surprised often in Thailand seeing the most stunning looking girls with men (both Thai and foreign) who just don't look to be in the same league.

This lack of trust in Thai men extends to all men and it can take a lot to win their confidence which is why relationships with Thai girls can often be quite rocky early on. Do not underestimate the importance of faithfulness. For many Thai girls there is no more important characteristic in a man but unfortunately for them, they live in a country where being unfaithful requires very little effort.

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Saturday 21st July 2007

That was rather a long fishing trip. I know from my stats that this blog had a couple of regular readers (had being the operative word in that sentence) and I apologise for the lengthy, sudden and unannounced absence.

Where to start? I guess that first, an explanation might be appropriate and, of course (as you are fully aware), I hadn't really gone fishing.

At the start of the year I was asked to photograph a wedding. The request came from a friend of my brother's in Singapore and although my initial response was 'no way', it was made in such a way that I found it difficult to refuse.

If you search for tips on wedding photography on the Internet, the first piece of advice you will normally find is not to do it. It's a huge responsibility and a great way to lose friends. But, as I said, I couldn't really get out of it and thus it played on my mind for a long time.

I took the view that all I could do was prepare as best I could and do my best on the day. The problem though is that I am a bit obsessive. When it came to doing as much as I could, there was always another lighting technique to learn or more practice shots to take.

The event preoccupied me for months but it came and went a couple of weeks ago and there were no huge disasters so I can now relax a little. One of my Thai friends has already asked me to take photos at a wedding on 19th August but there is no pressure as there was in Singapore.

In addition, it gets ever more difficult these days just to remain living in Thailand. I don't disagree with the new measures Thai immigration are taking because the country has had a big problem with farang trash for many years.

However, as is always the case, when a minority abuse a situation it eventually impacts everyone. It's crazy that for so many years anyone could live in Thailand invisibly on a permanent basis (with the full blessing of the law) just by going to the border every 30 days. Is there another country anywhere on earth where that would be possible?

The original intention was a gesture by the Thais to make it easy and convenient for casual tourists to visit Thailand for short vacations but a lot of dodgy characters used this little loophole to remain in the country for years and years, and no one knew anything about them.

For the past few years I have been living in Thailand on a non-B visa which has been acquired through work. However, my current contract finishes in September and I still don't know whether it will be extended. If not, then I won't be able to get another visa.

A couple of months ago I started looking around for more work. One of the problems I faced was not wanting to work full-time. The last thing I want to do in Thailand is spend evenings and weekends working, as many people do who work in language schools. A few hours, three days a week suits me very well.

At one time, I had two jobs lined up but both messed me around. One decided that my qualifications weren't good enough. They wanted someone to teach a very basic level of English but wanted the person to have a degree in law and a PhD. I won't write down my thoughts when they told me this but good luck to them in finding a suitable applicant.

The salary was a joke but I had only gone for the job so I could get another visa. I'm sure there are lots of foreign law students with PhDs who would prefer teaching English in Thailand for Bt19,000 a month rather than getting a big salary at a city law firm.

The other employer - after first having asking me to run a short introductory course - kept me waiting two months before making a decision to continue. Anyway, I am working there now and even if the contract for my existing job isn't extended, I should have work until sometime early next year.

Being under 50, and thus too young for a retirement visa (despite meeting the financial requirements), I don't have many options. A non-O visa is one option but would mean a trip back to the UK to visit the Hull Consulate. These visas are not easy to obtain in countries near to Thailand.

Just living as a tourist in Thailand nowadays means only being able to stay in the country for 90 days in any six month period. Being outside of Thailand during the hot season wouldn't be a bad thing and it would be an opportunity to see a few more places.

My only objection would be living in hotels and guest houses. I hate the thought of an itinerant way of life and I like the comfort and security of a semi-permanent location. If I was forced to live outside of Thailand for part of the year I would still keep my rented accommodation on in Thailand for when I was back in the country.

A second room in another country where I could spend the other six months of the year would be another option but I'm not sure where. Nowhere else is quite like Thailand, unfortunately. I also wouldn't want to start all over again learning another language. Learning one (Thai) on a permanently ongoing basis is tough enough.

My future in Thailand is still in doubt but I will cross bridges as I come to them. Fortunately, my financial situation is good so if I'm not working or if I have to go back to the UK for a visa, it's no big deal. I have a little over three years to wait before being eligible for a retirement visa and that time will pass quickly.

As one correspondent reminded me, I shouldn't wish my life away even if - at times - it would be more convenient to be a little older. Besides, in three years time I may have decided that I don't want to remain in Thailand any longer.

Another reason for my little break was general disillusionment with the Internet. I never realised before the Internet came along just how many sad, lonely, bitter and twisted people there are in the world. It would appear that for many now, the Internet is their only contact with other people and it provides the only outlet for their bitter and twisted thoughts.

If I walked into a pub full of such people I would walk straight out but the on-line world brings us all in touch with people we would normally choose to have nothing to do with.

It was more than this though. Some correspondence I became involved with was deeply analytical about Thailand and made me think, what is the point of all this deep analysis? Does it make people happy? It wasn't making me happy.

In Thailand it is not good to think too much. The barest sign of a furrowed brow will result in a, "Khit maak," remark which is not a good thing. Often in life, stupid people are a lot happier than intelligent people.

The farangs I see in Thailand that seem happiest are the ones who think no more about where their next Singha or bar girl is coming from. By contrast, the intellectuals analysing all aspects of Thai culture and behaviour can seem a miserable bunch.

I have no desire to turn into a typical Thailand expat barstool drunk but, at the same time, it's probably not a bad idea just to get on with life a little more instead of analysing everything to death.

Regarding subjects to blog about, I am always happy to receive suggestions. What is a little disappointing however is when I get a suggestion, act on it, and then receive no follow up feedback. This is what happened after a couple of requests I received concerning Thai language reading tutorials.

Some things in Thailand never change. The rains have just started to arrive and with them there has been a rise in traffic accidents. Whenever there is heavy rain I hear ambulance sirens soon afterwards. I was driven home by a friend the other night in rain and we saw a pickup truck that had careered into the back of another pickup truck.

The Thais just drive too fast, with too little attention, and they don't make any allowances for slippery conditions. A German tourist was killed in Ayuthaya in yet another bus crash last week. It's madness.

Thaksin is still up to all his old tricks but now trying to deceive English football fans. I just wish they would read some more to really find out about him but in this MTV age when attention spans are only long enough for amusing 30 second video clips, no one is interested in really finding out about anything.

Something else that never changes is the infatuation farang men have for Thai women and the way they are attracted to the wrong kind of women like magnets. I continue having great relationships with lots of Thai female friends but continue hearing from foreign men about women they meet who sound perfect at first but then try to scam them.

At times it seems as if we are talking about different countries. It's the same country, of course, but my view of Thailand is very different to the tourist view (thankfully).

If you want to meet a decent Thai girl, don't come to Thailand on a mission. Just come to enjoy Thailand and to learn about the language and culture. If you ignore the women - well, not ignore them but just treat them as normal human beings - the good ones will flock to you.

If you come as a desperate, lonely, vulnerable man on a mission to find a wife, you will appear like an injured fish in the ocean. And just as sharks sense the presence of injured fish for an easy meal, so unscrupulous Thai women will sense the presence of desperate, lonely, vulnerable foreign men for easy meals.

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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. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia. used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.

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.

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