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  • Living in Thailand Blog July 2011

 

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Sunday 31st July 2011

After last year's devastating flood, everyone (including myself) is concerned whether there will be more flooding this coming rainy season. Big floods in Hat Yai's recent history have always occurred in November.

I have discovered that it is a waste of time asking the locals for their predictions.

When I moved into this house last September I asked if the area suffered from flooding. I was told categorically by every neighbour that the problem of flooding had been consigned to history. It used to be a problem but there hadn't been a flood for five whole years and so there would never be another problem ever again.

Two months later we were hit by the biggest flood in the town's history.

If you ask someone now, they will tell you categorically that there will be a flood this year and it will be as big, or bigger, as last year.

Basically, predictions are based on what has happened in recent years. If there was a flood last year, then Thai 'logic' asserts that there will be another flood this year.

A couple of days ago I was talking to another Thai and the subject turned to flooding. She looked me straight in the eye and told me without any question of doubt that there would be another big flood this year.

I was interested as to why she was so convinced, so asked the question. She told me she knew because this is what the fortune tellers are saying.

If you are a tourist or new expat in Thailand you are often told things in a very convincing way and because you have some respect for the locals (and because you think there is some logic behind what is being said) you believe what you are told.

After several years of living in Thailand you start to realise what is going on. You realise that there is no logic or scientific basis, but that most beliefs have a superstitious element.

What's my view about more flooding this year?

Unfortunately, my fortune teller is having a rest at the moment and so I had to resort to some more scientific prediction methods.

By talking with some locals last year I got the dates of all the major floods in living memory. After a little more research I discovered that each one had occurred when there was strong La Niña activity.

I figured that the best way to predict flooding was to keep a close eye on La Niña conditions.

I checked recently and there is about a 10% chance of La Niña conditions occurring later this year. La Niña doesn't guarantee a flood but it makes the chances higher.

On the basis of this data I figure that there is a 5-10% chance. Most Thais would probably look terribly confused if you mentioned La Niña or El Niño. However, there would be instant recognition if you told them you knew this because a mor doo had told you.

This is what you deal with all the time in Thailand.


My colleague mentioned that he was trying to convince his 25 year-old brother to spend a year teaching in Thailand for the experience. A good idea or not?

It sounds like he is making quite good money but still doesn't have any commitments. He doesn't have much experience of life outside the States and a year in Asia would be a good thing. After a year he will be able to find work easily when he returns and he will just pick up where he left off. Simple.

The expats in Thailand are often thought of as old farangs who are past their best and only in Thailand because of the young flesh they can experience. However, I've met quite a few young farangs who have settled in Thailand and have no plans to return home. I feel quite sorry for a lot of them.

Let me explain what happens.

Most people dislike things about their own country and when they visit Thailand for the first time they find a complete absence of the things they don't like.

There are many social problems in Thailand but these are well hidden from view and do not start to appear until after living in the country for several years.

Most Western countries have a strict rule of law and although it is accepted as being a good thing, people can start to feel quite restricted. The feeling in Thailand is that people can do what they want and no one cares.

Most average men in Western countries have a torrid time with females of their own kind and some actually start to despise them. On the other hand, even an average Joe will get lots of attention in Thailand and for many Western males, Thai girls are the main attraction.

In summary, Thailand on the surface can seem like a little slice of heaven. After a year it still seems good and many people decide to stay longer. The longer they stay, the more difficult it gets to go home.

The practical aspects of going home, such as getting a job, become more difficult and the desire to go back also diminishes.

Foreigners can find work easily enough in Thailand - and the pay is a lot more than local Thais get - but it is still only just enough to live on. It's difficult to save money and don't even think about a pension scheme.

The years fly past and they are good. Most foreign men get involved in long term relationships and there comes a point when going home isn't even an option.

What you need to bear in mind is that unless you are exceptionally rich, talented or lucky, you will only ever earn enough money to live on.

This means that big expenditures and the chance to retire properly will always be out of reach. Renting a small room, riding around on a Honda Wave, and never buying much are things that a gap-year student might be comfortable doing but when I see farang guys in their 50's and 60's living the same way, it's a bit sad.

Thailand is a great place if you have enough money, but a very tough place if you don't. There is never a right age to move to Thailand because everyone has different circumstances but you really need to be self-sufficient financially and have enough to live the life you want to lead.

In the current economy it is tougher than ever to make a living. If you think you can make a living from the Internet, forget it unless you are quite exceptional. The people who got into the game early do OK but now it is tough.

If anyone tells you otherwise, it is only because they want you to invest in their get-rich-quick scheme.

If you need to earn money in Thailand, that normally means teaching English. You can earn enough in a month to rent a room and have a decent life but when your Thai girlfriend wants you to buy a car, buy a house, and have children you will need a lot more.

And no matter how much you enjoy teaching, there will come a day when you are simply too tired to do it any more. You really don't want to end up in a position where you can't retire.

Spending a year in Thailand when you are young is a great idea but you need to have some discipline. Go home, earn money, build assets, and return later once you have enough.

There are lots of farangs in Thailand who are quite bitter and twisted. They came, they stayed, they can't go home, they have very little money, they have no options in life, and they need to work until the grave.

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Thursday 28th July 2011

Thais are obsessed with skin colour.

The skin whitening sector of the cosmetics market is huge and in every commercial break on Thai TV there will be at least one skin whitening product advertised.

The natural skin colour of Thais is quite varied. Thailand is at the crossroads of India and China and over many centuries people from these countries - and elsewhere - have added to the gene pool.

Some Thais do have very fair skin (though not quite as snowy white as the soap opera actors), especially those with Chinese lineage. Conversely, many southern Thais, especially those who work outdoors, have quite dark skin.

Why? It's all about social status and being better than others. Apparently, England was the same before the Industrial Revolution when England had an agrarian economy and most people worked in the fields. Pale skin was highly sought after in those days because it was an external sign that the person didn't work in the fields.

Later on when most people worked indoors, tanned skin became de rigueur because it indicated that the person could afford holidays abroad to warm countries.

Unfortunately, it goes a little further than simply a social status indicator in Thailand. It is quite noticeable that in more upmarket companies only fair-skinned staff are recruited.

Despite being no more than airborne waitresses, the job of air hostess is considered quite glamorous in Thailand. However, a girl's aspirations to be a trolley dollie could be severely set back if she has dark skin.

At school Thai kids pick on their dark-skinned classmates. My wife is quite dark and she was teased at school. Her entire family is quite dark and one of her nieces especially so.

After all the misery caused by last year's flood, one of the most heartwarming moments was when some of my wife's relatives came over to the house to help us clean up. They brought my wife's three year old niece and she got stuck into the clean up operation trying to handle a mop twice her size. It was really sweet.

Nong Cream started Anubaan (kindergarten) this year and shortly after starting she told her mum that some of the boys were picking on her for having dark skin. She wanted to cover herself in powder to make herself lighter. She's three and already other people are starting to give her an inferiority complex about her skin colour.

This is Thailand.

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Wednesday 27th July 2011

DHL passport replacement service - Click for larger image The British Embassy in Bangkok has stopped issuing standard 10-year replacement passports. I think this is quite old news but I only found out fairly recently. British nationals now have to get their passports replaced at The Regional Passport Processing Centre in Hong Kong.

The British Embassy in Bangkok will still assist with emergencies. For more information see the British Embassy Bangkok website.

If you are resident in Thailand and need a replacement passport, how do you get one from Hong Kong? Fortunately, DHL provide a service.

They will send off your application and send back your new passport by return. The fee is just Bt962. I thought this was something of a bargain.

I had to replace my passport at the British Embassy in Bangkok a few years ago and because I don't live in Bangkok it meant staying in Bangkok for several days. The airfares, hotel accommodation and other expenses were far more expensive.

The British Embassy state that it isn't advisable to be in Thailand without your passport so there is no need to send your old one when applying for a replacement. However, you are responsible for physically cancelling your old passport (with a pair of scissors) after the new one arrives.


Education visa - Click for larger image Staying in Thailand for longer than a standard vacation can be a problem. One alternative is to get an education visa. When I was in Bangkok recently I saw language institutes offering one-year Thai courses with an education visa included in the price. The institute will also prepare all the visa paperwork for you.

There is nothing better you can do if living in Thailand than to become more familiar with the language. I don't know what these one year courses cover, but I would imagine they cover some basic reading as well.

You don't need to be able to speak fluently or to be able to read everything that's put in front of you (I can't) but there are often times when a little basic knowledge proves to be invaluable.


Here's an interesting (language related) article from The Telegraph today:

If you don't speak English you can't belong in Britain

"The inability to speak a host country's language reinforces dangerous divisions in society - and it is a very reasonable requirement of any immigrant."

Incidentally, I don't believe Thai immigration will ever impose such a requirement (and even if they did, it would be ignored after a few months). Foreigners living in Thailand are rarely expected to be able to speak or read Thai (the opposite, in fact), and furthermore Thailand wouldn't want to do anything that might affect the money being brought into the country by foreign residents.

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Tuesday 26th July 2011

I was recently talking to a farang teaching in Thailand and what he told me sounded just like the old days. He's teaching without a proper visa or work permit, and staying in the country on back-to-back border stamps.

He was a nice guy and highly unlikely to cause any problems but when foreigners can stay in the country like this indefinitely, living 'under the radar', it means that bad foreigners can abuse the system. It's also especially worrying that sex offenders can find jobs teaching Thai children so easily.

The JonBenet Ramsey case a few years ago turned this into an international issue and all of a sudden Thai immigration became a lot stricter. It was a good thing. Now, however, everything seems to have reverted to how it was. The only difference these days is that foreigners arriving by road into Thailand only get a 15 day stamp instead of 30 days. I don't know what's going on.

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Monday 25th July 2011

I was suffering from a painful, productive cough a few months ago, which - to my great surprise - was diagnosed as acute bronchitis. I was surprised because I associated bronchitis with smoking and I have never smoked.

The drugs that were prescribed cleared it up but I went down with exactly the same thing shortly afterwards. This entailed another trip to the hospital and more drugs.

A couple of weeks ago I started to feel short of breath, especially at night. It started to keep me awake during the night and I also developed a dry, non-productive cough. I thought it might clear up by itself but it didn't so I went to the hospital yet again. I felt pretty rough.

Because it was a recurring problem the doctor suggested having a chest X-Ray and ECG. He wanted to see whether there were any underlying problems with my heart or chest. There weren't.

So, what is the problem?

I was speaking to an Australian who spends part of the year in Thailand and he suffers from the same thing in Thailand. His theory is that it is caused by the many open canals, but I wasn't convinced.

The air quality is bad in Thailand's urban areas. Vehicles aren't subject to any form of emission check, as they are in developed countries, and it isn't unusual to see diesel-engined trucks spewing out clouds of black smoke.

There is rubbish strewn everywhere, and many areas look like building sites with dust blowing around everywhere. It is not a good country for contact lens wearers, and the airborne pollutants can't do your lungs much good either.

Many workers who work outdoors wear surgical masks in an attempt to keep the muck out of their lungs.

However, I think my problem may have been a bit closer to home. We have a cleaner come in twice a week and we keep the house as clean as possible but up until recently we didn't own a vacuum cleaner. Thai houses don't generally have carpets and thus I didn't think a vacuum cleaner was necessary.

We have two cats and cat fur on the sofa was beginning to be a bit of a problem so my wife asked for a vacuum cleaner. I bought one a few weeks ago and since then she has been going crazy with it.

It is one of the cyclone, bagless varieties and already I have emptied the dust chamber about half a dozen times. I've been amazed at the amount of fine dust and other fine particles it has sucked up.

I also gave all of our fans a thorough cleaning. Over time they collect dust on the safety cage and the fan then blows dust back into the room.

Everything has now been vacuum cleaned a number of times - including our mattress - and already I am feeling better.

My assumption that vacuum cleaners were only necessary if a house had carpets was completely wrong. Dust can settle in lots of places and unless it is removed with a vacuum cleaner it will become airborne and then be breathed in.

My wife thinks that about half of Thai households has a vacuum cleaner. If you are having similar problems I would first suggest investing in a vacuum cleaner and removing as much dust from your living environment as possible.

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Sunday 24th July 2011

With such intense media interest in her life, it seems almost unbelievable that Amy Winehouse's untimely death wasn't the front page headline story this morning. The tragic events in Norway have overshadowed everything else.

One BBC reader commented that whatever people thought of Amy Winehouse, she was someone's daughter. I thought it was a very poignant comment.

It has been said so often - to the point of it being a cliche - that there is no greater love than that of the love a parent has for a child.

Despite my fairly advanced years, I am now finding this out first-hand as a new parent. Apart from the relationship with my own daughter, it is making me look at everything and everyone differently. Those who are parents will know this already.

A young lad I know here was in trouble recently for staying out late and not telling his Mum. He was upset that she had locked up his motorbike for a couple of weeks but I immediately sided with his mother and gave him a bit of a lecture.

He's a nice lad and, at 18, thinks he is adult enough to handle everything but he will always be his Mum's little boy and she will always worry about him.

I never had an issue with Amy Winehouse, but I couldn't relate to her (or people like her) either. I couldn't relate to the hair, make-up, tattoos, addictions, or behaviour.

An alcoholic, balding (but ponytailed) farang in Thailand referred to me as boring some years ago. This was on the basis that I wore normal clothes, had normal hair, didn't have tattoos, took work seriously, and didn't go straight to the nearest bar to get drunk every day as soon as I had finished work.

If not being 'boring' meant being like him, then I was very glad to be boring.

I can't understand why some people feel a need to make statements with their appearance, and I can't understand why - with so many opportunities in life to learn, to make ourselves better people, and to make life better for others - some people's only desire in life is to abuse (and eventually destroy) their bodies with drugs and/or alcohol.

Certain areas of Thailand attract foreigners that have the same need to make statements with their physical appearance and to abuse their bodies with alcohol and drugs, and I can't relate to them either.

At the moment I feel genuine sadness for the parents of the victims in Norway and for the parents of Amy Winehouse. They won't be thinking of what she turned into later in life, but instead they will be thinking of the cute little girl they raised from birth. It has been a very sad weekend.

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Sunday 17th July 2011

Yingluck's party made all sorts of promises during the election campaign (and consequently won the election) but many people (including myself) remain sceptical that she can actually deliver.

If, by next year, workers don't get a minimum Bt300 per day wage, 12 million students don't get tablet PCs, and graduates don't get a monthly starting salary of Bt15,000 per month, they may sue - and seek the dissolution of - the government. Too right.

Pheu Thai may be sued by workers, students university graduates: Democrat

Goodbye floods - Click for larger image As far as I'm concerned, these particular issues are trifling little matters compared to Peua Thai's promise to stop all flooding in Thailand.

Thailand has never been able to prevent flooding, and flooding occurs almost every month in various parts of the country. If you've ever been affected (as I was last year) it is a major headache. The infrastructure that would be needed to prevent flooding would be absolutely huge and horrendously expensive.

When I saw the campaign poster about this I couldn't believe what I was reading, but when Peua Thai also renege on this promise will they be sued? Will anyone even remember?

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Friday 15th July 2011

I just took a look at the US National Debt Clock. Frightening.

US Debt Clock

The widely talked about $14 trillion debt is already very close to $14.5 trillion, and $15 trillion isn't far away.

S&P says it may downgrade the US's triple-A debt rating

Gold price hits all-time high on US debt concerns

The following article was interesting:

Is the US in denial over its $14tn debt?

It talks about many Americans still having a frontier mentality, believing they are independent rugged individuals who don't need any damn government help or interference. Yet, they continue to take money from the state for healthcare, pensions and other benefits.

The article states that the idea of Alaska being the last frontier for rugged, independent individuals is a myth because Alaska is the most heavily subsidised state in the country.

Another worrying statement was to do with how much influence rich individuals and companies have over the United States government. No elected government can afford to upset these people and therefore the US can't increase taxes.

Western countries make accusations of corruption and business politics in places like Thailand, but are they really any better?

European countries aren't any better off and don't have the enormous resources of the USA. Stock markets don't know what to do in light of the Eurozone debt crisis and simply continue on their rollercoaster ride going wildly up and down every day.

Crazy times.

I watched Wall Street II a few months ago and Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gecko, spoke of the 'Ninja' generation. The generation he refers to has 'No Job, No Income, and No Assets'. It's probably quite accurate for a lot of young people these days.

Another phrase being used is the Jilted Generation.

I was always quite envious of people born just after WW2. Their careers coincided with a huge boom in the Western economy and they retired with their final salary pensions intact.

I just caught the end of the good times. In the mid-70's it was relatively easy to find jobs with the biggest and best companies. A degree wasn't required and so I never bothered with university.

Pension schemes and other benefits were good, and jobs were for life (unless you really screwed up). Having this kind of security meant that taking out a mortgage was no big deal.

The housing market hadn't yet started to go crazy and even properties in central London weren't that expensive. On the minus side, interest rates at 14% didn't make mortgage repayments much fun.

The good times started to disappear in the early 90's. Companies that had never laid people off started to do so, and final salary pension schemes started to be closed.

By the Millennium things were so bad that I had to get out ... and that's why I'm in Thailand now. It was probably the best decision of my life. I'm not sure what I would do now if I was starting out on my career again, but fortunately that's something I don't have to worry about.

However, the amount of debt owed by Western countries is starting to worry me and I can't understand why so many people seem to think that the borrowing can go on forever without a need to pay loans back.

The reality checks have already started, Greece has put austerity measures in place, and I suspect that there is a lot worse to come yet.

We have entered a period of crazy, unsettled times but that seems to be how the world will operate from now on. I don't like the way things are but it is too late for anyone to do anything now.

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Wednesday 13th July 2011

Who would want to be Yingluck right now?

I get the impression that she is fairly intelligent, well-intentioned, and that she is very much her own person. However, she wasn't elected to be Thailand's new Prime Minister on the basis of being her own person.

The people who gave her the power will want their power back, and she will also be up against Thailand's most powerful institutions. The power struggle will be huge - as it always is - and Thai politics is always grubby.

Thailand's Shinawatras: From clan to dynasty

Debate about the Bt300 minimum daily wage is raging in Thailand and taking up lots of air time on TV. Manual workers (including those from Thailand's poor neighbouring countries) are delighted, but many Thais - from economists and academics to the average person in the street - are very sceptical that it will work.

I made a mistake with the example I was given earlier. A small restaurant might expect total takings of Bt2,000 a day, not Bt2,000 profit. Having to pay menial workers the minimum wage could actually wipe out all the profit.

There was talk on TV last night of price rises in the housing market and for any goods or food produced in a factory. Labourers and factory workers earn very little in Thailand and having to pay them the new minimum wage will result in increased prices to consumers.

It's not fair that they earn so little and it is only right that they should get a better deal but I have some doubts about how this is happening. Also, as I said earlier, I'm not sure where the money for all these handout policies is coming from.

Thais are very stubborn and have very fixed ideas about how much something should cost. If a bowl of som-tum is Bt5 more than they think it should be they will stop buying.

The irony is that as wages increase so will prices and people will be no better off. Thais get highly excited if you talk about salaries in the UK but what they completely fail to understand is that everything is vastly more expensive in the UK.

Thailand's election: the economic fallout

Some people lauded Thaksin's economic success but his tenure was during a time when it was difficult not to make a success of the economy.

As we all know, the bubble finally burst and the post-financial crisis economic landscape looks very different.

On the other hand, tourist numbers to Thailand continue increasing to record levels, investors continue to invest, and Thais continue their spending sprees (albeit, mostly with borrowed money).

Economics baffles me completely and Thailand's economy is more difficult than most to predict.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Politics in Thailand has never run smoothly and there is no reason to believe that the recent election changed anything. If anything, it has only sown the seeds to make things worse.

Yingluck is still enjoying her honeymoon period at the moment and everything is quiet but this won't last for long.

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Tuesday 12th July 2011

After I moved to Thailand and started writing about my experiences a fellow Brit called Dave, who had retired to Hua Hin to play golf, wrote to me.

We exchanged the usual chit-chat about Thailand and Thais, and in one piece of correspondence he included four pieces of advice for me:

  1. You can take a girl from the bar but you cannot take the bar from the girl
  2. The only thieves in Thailand are those you invite into your house
  3. If it is easier to tell the truth Thais will still lie
  4. Conning and cheating are skills that are applauded not denigrated

After visiting Thailand for 24 years and living in the country for almost eight years, it's not actually bad advice.

All that I would add (as I've said before) is that all Thais are different and to generalise like this about a whole nation isn't fair on the many good people in Thailand.

However, for a lot of Thais it's perfectly accurate and, knowing what I know now, I can expand on some of this.

I worked out very early on that it wasn't a good idea to get involved with bar girls; I haven't had any problems with thieves; I've been lied to on countless occasions; and item 4 is spot on.

Conning and cheating take many forms. Many Thais are very clever at conning and cheating, and take great pride when they get away with it - as evidenced by the big, stupid grins on their faces.

ลักไก่ - (luk gai)

luk (like kamoy) means 'to steal', or to do something surreptitiously; gai means 'chicken(s)'.

The literal meaning is 'to steal chickens' but this is actually a Thai idiom. One of my Thai dictionaries defines it this way: to steal in, slip in; to sneak (in, by, through, around).

It's doing something that isn't right - and which adversely affects other people - purely to get ahead of others.

The example my wife gave was someone who knows an employee at a bank or post office and uses their personal contact as a way to jump the queue.

I've asked other Thais to give me examples and more often than not their example is related to driving. Thais hate waiting anywhere while driving and there are several little 'tricks' that I see played out every day on Thai roads that do away with waiting.

They are all illegal (and highly inconsiderate to other road users) but there is no law enforcement, so there is virtually no chance of getting caught. Thais - normally Thai males, and especially teenage Thai males - pride themselves with their ability to 'steal chickens' and immediately after they drive through a red light you normally see a big, stupid grin on their faces and the front wheel of their motorbike lifted into the air in jubilation.

They've just cheated and got away with it, so a celebration is in order. Mostly, it is motorcyclists who ignore red lights but car drivers also do it and they are just as bad in other respects.

There is no respect for lane discipline in provincial Thailand (Bangkok is a lot better) and often Thai car drivers will simply use the lane with least traffic, regardless of which way they want to turn. Once they get to the front of the queue they will then push in, or just wait to turn while holding up traffic behind them because they're in the wrong lane.

If Thai drivers want to go straight on at a set of red traffic lights, an alternative to running the light is to turn left, do a U-turn, and then turn left again. This happens all the time.

Luk Gai

Quite often, they won't even bother doing a U-turn, but will just execute a little swerve. To their minds this is the same thing and perfectly OK, but it's simply a case of running red lights which is illegal everywhere.

Luk Gai

Yesterday, with the baby in the car, a pickup truck driver decided to just run the lights as I was turning on a green light. It was a typical boy-racer truck with lowered suspension, blackened windows, and a huge, stupid exhaust tailpipe on the back.

I was furious. He sped off and his erratic driving just got worse. I watched as he switched lanes continuously and at one point almost hit a woman and her young child trying to cross the road.

We caught up with him in traffic and I made my feelings very clear. Most Thais are non-confrontational but some aren't and they take advantage knowing that other people will back down, thus allowing them to do what they want. This guy was confrontational.

He lowered his window and stared. I did the same. I guess he was expecting a mild mannered Thai, but instead he encountered a furious farang with steam blowing out of his ears.

Thais can figure out other Thais but farangs are an unknown quantity. Foreigners are normally physically bigger and their different eye colour makes them look fierce. Thais normally tend to be afraid of foreigners if they are on their own.

As soon as he saw me his expression changed. He started smiling and apologising. It was too late and his apology fell on deaf ears. I continued my rant and only stopped at my wife's insistence.

Her view is that it is wisest just to ignore morons like this. She says it is dangerous because bad Thais may have a gun. I can see her point but there are times when I can't control my temper.

An example would be when someone does something that could harm my daughter - like he did. At times like this I don't care how many men there are, how big they are, or what weapons they may have. I was ready to pull his head off.

I calmed down eventually, we did our food shopping, and then went home. We had to go out later and took the same route. I had been stewing on this and at exactly the same place, exactly the same thing happened. I lost it again.

This time was different. The previous guy knew exactly what he was doing but this one looked as if he had just arrived from feeding his buffaloes in the countryside and really didn't have a clue why I was angry.

I'm sure he thought red traffic lights were just for decoration.

When not driving I very rarely get angry here, but while driving it happens every time. The stuff that happens on Thai roads is beyond belief. One day, when I get some free time, I will get some examples on video.


Few things scare me as much as Thai drivers. From today's news, here's the latest mass killing on Thailand's roads:

Head-on truck-van smash kills seven students, driver


Thailand has a notorious reputation for the illegal smuggling of exotic and endangered animals.

Thai Police Continue Crackdown on Exotic Animal Smugglers

It would appear that bad Thais even travel around the world to continue the trade.

"Chumlong Lemtongthai, 43, has been described as a "leading figure" in international rhino poaching."

Rhino horn 'kingpin' Lemtongthai in South African court

For some Thais nothing is ever more important than money and, no matter what the consequences, they will stop at nothing to acquire it. Their greed is an obsession and however much money they have, they always want more.

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Saturday 9th July 2011

Thailand is a country of enormous contrasts. The vast gap between rich and poor is what is behind all the political instability.

I have met some highly intelligent Thais, but I have also met many people who hardly know what time of day it is. I have met the kindest people you could ever care to meet, and I have had the misfortune to encounter some real rogues.

Horror stories about the environment aren't uncommon. Beautiful environments have been ripped up to make way for development, and it isn't unknown for toxic waste to be disposed of wherever it is most convenient. In general, Thais are terrible litter louts and think nothing of throwing litter anywhere whenever they have something to discard.

Rubbish scavenger - Click for larger image On the other hand, many poor Thais make a living picking up litter and separating it into waste that can be recycled. They take anything recyclable to one of the many small, local recycling facilities and get a few Baht for their efforts. This allows them to eat and it helps everyone else.

Recycling centre - Click for larger image When I moved to my house I threw a lot of stuff out. I'd throw something away, and by the time I had walked back to the house someone had retrieved it from the bin to reuse or recycle. Even old cardboard boxes have value.

Many things that I consider as useless, Thais will continue to use. I am constantly amazed when I visit my brother-in-law's car repair business. He repairs cars that would definitely be written off as insurance losses in other countries.

Wrecked pickup truck undergoing repair - Click for larger image Part of the reason for this is the ridiculous prices for second-hand cars in Thailand. Even old pickup trucks can be sold for Bt300,000, so if he can repair a truck for Bt200,000 it is worth repairing.

Still, with less vehicles being scrapped it must be better for the environment.

It is the extreme contrasts and contradictions in Thailand that make writing about the country difficult. We all tend to generalise but for every generalisation you will always be able to find exceptions.

As with all other countries, there are good things and bad things; good people and bad people.

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Thursday 7th July 2011

I think we're all agreed that petrol prices are too high and that the high price places a huge burden on motorists. What if your government were to announce big cuts in the price of petrol? How would you feel?

Christmas has come early in Thailand this year. This is exactly what the newly elected government has announced will happen next month. This is great news.

Since the baby arrived a car has been essential but it needs to be filled with petrol fairly regularly and each trip to the petrol station costs me almost Bt2,000.

The reduction isn't trivial. I've been paying about B38 per litre recently and the reduction being talked about is about Bt7.5.

Thais love their cars, trucks and motorbikes, and I suspect that many other people will be feeling just as happy, regardless of their political persuasions.

I also know some teachers who are very happy about the Bt15,000 per month minimum wage for graduates (coming next year, apparently). Their salaries at the moment are about half that, so it's a huge increase.

Thais are very good at pleading poverty. If there's a problem and you suggest a solution that requires spending some money, the usual answer is that there isn't any money available.

Now, all of a sudden, there is money everywhere. Students entering Pratom 1 (children aged six) will all be getting tablet PCs and there will be free Wi-Fi. This isn't a one-off handout, but will apply to children entering Pratom 1 every year.

The government has promised that country-wide infrastructure will be built to manage water so that droughts and floods will no longer be a problem. Graduates will be paid a minimum Bt15,000 a month and manual workers a minimum Bt300 a day.

Pensioners, who are somehow supposed to be able to survive on Bt500 per month, will be getting an increase. The policy of subsidised healthcare for everyone will be continued and there is talk about improving transport infrastructure.

This is all great news but where is the money coming from, and are these policies sustainable?

I totally agree with some of these policies. The success of a country comes from the ability of its citizens and therefore the education system is of paramount importance. Teaching is a highly respected profession in Thailand but the average teacher's salary is a joke.

The Thai teachers I know all have to do private tutoring in their own time to make ends meet because they couldn't survive on their paltry salaries alone. They are all graduates and introducing a minimum wage is very good news.

Their low pay isn't a result of schools not having any money. Thai schools tend to be big with 3,000 students of more. Student fees are about Bt10,000 a term and there are two terms each year.

A lot of money goes into Thai schools but not much goes out in the way of teacher salaries. This will balance things up and make the situation a lot fairer.

On the other hand, a minimum daily wage for unskilled workers could be a problem. The example I was given (by a Thai) was a small restaurant that employs three unskilled workers.

Burmese workers in Khaolak - Click for larger image Meals are typically sold for around Bt30 and after paying for rent, food, electricity gas, cooking oil, etc., there isn't exactly a lot of profit. The total profit may only be Bt2,000 a day. If the staff bill has to be raised to Bt900 then that is nearly half the profit.

The consensus seems to be that the new minimum wage rules won't be adhered to or some businesses will close. There is also another possibility.

Thais are always looking to get the cheapest labour possible and consequently there is a huge Burmese workforce in Thailand. Burma has many problems, there is little work there, pay is very low, and Burmese workers will work elsewhere for almost nothing.

Go to any building site in Thailand and it is likely that there will be Burmese labourers working there. In places like Phuket near the Burmese border, the workforce may be 100% Burmese.

Burmese workers rebuilding Khaolak after the tsunami - Click for larger image The 2004 tsunami devastated the beach resort of Khaolak. Subsequently, the rebuilding work was carried out by armies of cheap Burmese labour.

The new wage laws are a good thing but instead of improving pay for low-paid Thais, what could happen is that jobs are lost because more Burmese workers are employed.

It is widely known that Thaksin is dictating party policy from abroad even though it is his sister who was elected.

Thaksin didn't invent any of his economic policies but the term Thaksinomics has been used to describe his approach.

Analysis: A "Thaksinomics" renaissance in Thailand

This article estimates that the cost of Pheu Thai's policies will be Bt264 billion. It could actually be a lot higher.

I am still giving the new government the benefit of the doubt but after hearing so often (from Thais) how poor Thailand is, I'm not quite sure where all this money is coming from.

Opponents of the government will simply say that this is a cynical attempt to curry favour so that Thaksin will be allowed to return without having to face a jail sentence.

We shall see what happens in due course.

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Tuesday 5th July 2011

What is the most corrupt country in the world?

A farang friend of mine living in Thailand gets very defensive if anyone says anything about Thailand being corrupt. His view is that all countries are corrupt, but they are corrupt in different ways.

His argument is that in other countries only very rich individuals and corporations can take advantage of corruption because it requires huge amounts of money for lobbying and donations to political parties.

In Thailand, his reasoning goes, corruption is open to everyone because in most cases it only takes a very small amount of money - maybe just a couple of hundred Baht. This, he maintains, is a lot fairer.

After just watching 'Inside Job' I would be inclined to agree.

This movie was recommended to me by a friend in the States last year but it took ages to get hold of a copy in provincial Thailand. I got a copy just as my DVD player broke and it then took Power Buy two months to fix it under the extended warranty agreement.

Most of the story is well known. Some very clever people took an enormous number of very high risk loans, packaged them up, tied a pretty ribbon around the outside, and then made them look attractive to investors. The people making the loans didn't have any accountability for the money being paid back so they aggressively loaned money to anyone and everyone.

With everyone buying houses, house prices rocketed. People borrowed even more, probably believing that property prices would continue rising forever, and when the bubble finally burst a lot of people lost everything.

At the same time as selling dog turds disguised as diamonds, the investment bankers who knew what was going on started to take out insurance policies against the dodgy investment vehicles going bad .. which they surely would.

In the meantime, they continued to sell the bad investments to clients while knowing that when they went bad they could claim on their insurance policies. It was a win-win situation for the bankers and a lose-lose situation for everybody else.

One large investment bank even took out insurance against the insurance company going bankrupt when all the loans went bad and all the insurance policies would have to be paid out. They certainly had all their bases covered.

When the bubble finally burst the investment banks and insurance companies involved ran out of money. The government (in the form of ex-investment bank employees) agreed a bail out and took over the insurance companies.

The first thing they did with the bail out money was to pay out the insurance policies owed to one of the investment banks - one of the very parties that had been responsible for the crisis in the first place.

One theory I hadn't heard before was that this was partially a result of the end of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended there were lots of intelligent mathematicians and scientists who no longer had anything to do so they started working on complicated financial scams.

The big ratings agencies were also in on the act and colluded with the investment banks. The dodgy investments all carried the highest possible investment ratings, thus making them attractive to pension funds and the like.

The beauty of the scam was that the ratings agencies had no liability. If they were proven wrong about one of their ratings regarding an investment, company or country they simply said it was an opinion, and an opinion only.

Several academics were also implicated. They wrote very favourably about certain things and were paid handsomely. The fact they were paid was never disclosed.

I was warned that this was a movie that would make my blood boil and that is correct. Why did this happen?

Basically, it was all to do with human greed. While millions of people were losing their jobs, homes and savings, a very small number of morally bankrupt people got very rich. Did they need all the money they made?

Not at all. Someone in the film stated that these people didn't want one home; they wanted five. And they also wanted a luxury apartment on Park Avenue, a yacht and a private jet.

Many used prostitutes and many used cocaine. Cocaine, apparently, stimulates the same area of the brain that is stimulated when these type of people make money. Making money is like a drug to them and the consequences don't matter.

After the Great Depression lots of regulation was put in place so that financial institutions didn't go out of control. These regulations worked well for 40 years.

During the Reagan/Thatcher era everything started to be deregulated. Banks and other financial institutions started making risky investments with customers' money and some people lost everything.

The people right at the top of the treasury department and financial institutions in the US were those most opposed to any kind of regulation.

At one point an attempt was made to introduce some regulation into the industry but the woman tasked to do this, Brooksley Born, was told very strongly not to do anything.

I was affected by the economic collapse a few years ago and at one time I genuinely feared I would lose everything I had worked and saved for. The year 2008 was the worst year of my life.

I just left my investments where they were and since about May 2009 everything has returned to how it was before the crisis. This doesn't mean that the same thing won't happen again.

Now that everyone knows what happened and realises that it wasn't an accident you would think that measures would have been put in place to prevent a reoccurrence.

The most worrying part of the film was being told that this didn't happen.

President Obama said all the right things when he took office but then appointed the same old faces from the same old investment banks (one in particular) to the highest positions in the treasury and federal reserve.

So, what is the most corrupt country in the world?

I know many people from the States and they are very honest. I wouldn't say that the United States is the most corrupt country in the world but because the country is so powerful, when corruption does occur, it tends to occur on a huge scale and it affects the rest of the world.

In comparison, whatever corruption takes place in Thailand is peanuts.

If you haven't seen it, 'Inside Job' is a movie worth watching. If you were affected by the crisis it will make you angry. You may also wonder, like me, why more hasn't been changed and why so many people escaped criminal convictions.

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Monday 4th July 2011

The result of the Thai election was inevitable. There were lots of gloomy faces in southern Thailand yesterday evening but at the same time there will also be lots of kids looking forward to having a computer each to use and free Wi-Fi (now is the time to buy shares in World of Warfare); lots of new graduate teachers looking forward to doubling their monthly salaries; lots of manual workers and labourers looking forward to getting a big rise in their daily wages; lots of old people looking forward to getting a rise in their monthly pensions; and lots of people in general looking forward to never having to deal with floods and droughts in Thailand ever again.

"laa-gon naam tuam naam lairng" Bye bye!

Free Wi-Fi - Click for larger image Minimum Bt15,000 per month for graduates - Click for larger image
Goodbye floods - Click for larger image Yingluck - Click for larger image
Thaksin's sister vows to do her best as Thailand's PM

The circus has now finished for the time being and it's time to get on with other more important things in life. I wish Yingluck well and if she can reconcile the country as she says she can, it will be the best possible thing for all Thais.

Her every word and action will be scrutinised and analysed. She has made lots of promises and she will now be expected to deliver. Anyone can make promises but delivering them is always the difficult part.

The issue that will be most closely followed is what happens now regarding her older brother. This particular issue is extremely sensitive and if not handled well it has the potential to ignite a lot more problems in Thailand.

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Sunday 3rd July 2011

Imagine a large school anywhere in the world where - to be truly democratic - the teachers and the students can vote for whichever teacher they want to be headmaster.

The position of headmaster is a powerful post. The encumbent has prestige and also the ability to control the school budget. Along with justifiable school expenses, he can add in things for himself, and he can also purchase goods from companies that he owns.

One devious teacher, desperate to be rich and powerful and spotting an opportunity, offers the students free icecream every day, subsidised uniforms and books, and a revised curriculum. They can even design their own uniforms. English lessons will now consist of watching fun movies, boring subjects will be removed, breaks will be lengthened, lesson times reduced, and sport and daytrips increased.

The students, who always hated school because nobody took care of them, love this teacher and he wins by a huge margin. The teacher becomes headmaster and keeps all his promises. He pays for the students' treats out of the school budget, and he now has the power to take care of himself rather well. He becomes very rich and starts turning up to school in a new Mercedes.

He and the students are extremely happy with the new arrangement. However, the other teachers and the students' parents aren't happy. They can see very clearly what is happening. The students aren't learning anything and the money they are paying in school fees isn't being used properly. The school starts to look tatty and academic standards start to fall severely.

Complaints are made and directed to the headmaster. He listens carefully to the complainants and suggests that to be truly democratic he will organise another vote. He won't make any decisions himself, but he will let everyone else at the school decide through the democratic process. He loves democracy and he lets his love of democracy be known at every opportunity.

He campaigns on the same platform and, of course, he wins again very easily because he is very popular with the students and there are far more students at the school than anyone else. If anyone complains again he will simply organise another vote, knowing that he will win every time.

Who is right? The headmaster, the students (who form the majority), or the other people involved who can see what is going on? Knowing how the school was being run, would you send your child there? What would be a better way to choose a headmaster who would do the right things for the school and not do things purely for himself?

It's all very well to praise 'democracy' and to say that whatever the majority want must be right, but as I've pointed out in this purely hypothetical example, it isn't necessarily always the best solution in every single situation.

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Saturday 2nd July 2011

Peua Thai campaign sign (This is what southern Thais think of Thaksin) - Click for larger image How long should it take to make the decision to give up doing something on the basis that it isn't working, and that it can never work?

Since 1932, Thailand has had 18 coups and rewritten the constitution 17 times (I think those figures are correct). Tomorrow's election won't change anything. The country is deeply divided and the divisions have only got bigger since Thaksin arrived on the scene some years ago.

Thaksin has been living outside the country as a fugitive since he fled to avoid a prison sentence for corruption. None of the campaign signs mention his name or show his photo, but this election is all about him.

He is hated by one half of the country and loved by the other half. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow's election, one half of the country won't be happy.

The Thai military - who, of course, are completely divorced from politics - have already issued some 'advice' that Thais should vote for 'good people'. Read into that what you will, but if the military don't get what they ask for, we can only guess what will happen next.

Thai army chief Prayuth urges vote for 'good people'

One group of activists want to do away with Western style democracy and go back to how things were before 1932.

Vote No - Click for larger image The People's Alliance for Democracy - campaigning with pictures of animal heads on the shoulders of politicians - want Thais to return blank ballot papers. They are urging people to do this to protest that the system isn't working and that it needs to change.

No matter who wins there will be further problems, and it doesn't matter how many more elections are held because nothing will ever change unless the system changes.

There are some fundamental problems that I don't hear anyone addressing at the moment. This is probably because the issues aren't 'politically correct'. The simplest explanation - as usual - comes from Mulder.

Thai society is based on hierarchy, privilege and patronage. It is always assumed that relationships are unequal and, indeed, no one in Thailand is ever created equal.

Western concepts of law and democracy are based on all people being equal, as set out most famously in the United States Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..."

And there, in a nutshell, is the basic problem.

The other problem is that Thais relate to, and have relationships, with people, not concepts.

There is nothing inherently bad about Thailand or the Thai people but the belief and value systems in Thailand are completely different to those in the West.

Something may work in one society but when you foist it on to another society where it is irrelevant, unsuitable, incomprehensible or inappropriate, then you will have problems. It's not rocket science.

The PC brigade won't accept this because they argue that all people are the same but if you've lived in Thailand long enough and have read and observed enough to know how Thai society works, you will know that they aren't.

To understand Thailand, read the right books. The best place to start is with Mulder:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon US

To understand how Thai 'democracy' works, you would also do well to read what Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan have to say on the subject.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

And while you're at it, why not find out a bit more about Thaksin Shinawatra, the hero of poor, downtrodden, rural Thais?

Amazon UK

Amazon US

In case you're wondering, I own all of these books and refer to them often.

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