Living In Thailand Blog
Saturday 24th June 2006
I still feel as rough as hell because of this cold virus but, having escaped Bangkok, I can at least breathe fresh air again which is a relief. I enjoy Bangkok for a few days at a time when I am healthy but I couldn't live there permanently. After a few years of living there your lungs must start to look the same as a heavy smoker's.
An Australian friend mentioned in an e-mail that an Australian girl had been shot in Thailand. I have not been keeping up with Thai news lately so didn't know about this but I found the story on-line. It happened in Kanchanaburi where she was shot while in a bar.
Traditionally, the favoured Australian resort in Southeast Asia has always been Bali but they stopped going there initially after the bombings and then when the Balinese had the audacity to arrest some Australian drug traffickers. Singapore was boycotted in a similar fashion when the Singaporeans went one step further and executed an Australian drug trafficker.
Since the problems in Bali I have noticed more and more Australians in Thailand and I was just waiting for something to happen to an Australian national here to see what their reaction would be.
There seem to be four theories about the shooting. The first is that she annoyed a couple of Thai men the night before by getting drunk and loud in the bar and they came back to get her. The second is that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a couple of bored teenagers high on booze and drugs rode by with a gun.
The third is that the killers had been hired by the owner of a rival bar and did this to put the bar she was drinking at out of business. (Again, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.) The fourth is that some other customers in the bar insulted the two young men as they rode by so they came back and started shooting.
Whatever happened, it is a reminder that behind the sweet smiles there is a sinister side to Thailand. The country's murder rate by firearm is the third highest in the world after Colombia and South Africa and there are something like 10 million illegal firearms in the country.
Contract killings are fairly common. The murders are normally Thai on Thai but farangs are sometimes involved. It pays in Thailand to keep a low profile, live a quiet life and try not to upset people.
My cold has prevented me from doing much today so I stayed indoors and spent quite a long time reading a very long forum posting at Thaivisa.com. The first thing to note is that, based on some excellent postings, there are a number of very intelligent farangs living in the country. I just wish I could meet a few. Why is it that the only farangs I ever meet are sexpats driving round with St George's flags on their cars?
The thread in question was about the political situation in Thailand - an ugly subject if ever there was one. I have tried to ignore Thai politics because it was making me depressed and it's been fairly easy lately because of a political truce during June for HM the King's 60th jubilee celebrations.
However, I had noticed that Thaksin has crept back again recently despite the fact he said he was standing down. He maintains that the country needs him and is doomed without a 'strong leader' at the helm. Once the June truce has finished it seems that all hell could break loose.
My journey around the Internet today following this story led to some Thai bulletin boards with no shortage of rumours. Some are plain crazy and many are quite scary. An intelligent and fairly credible poster at Thaivisa.com has suggested that people living in the country with visa runs pending do them now as he predicts a closing of the borders soon.
The political protests we saw at the end of 2005 and at the beginning of 2006 remained peaceful for several reasons. For a start, and most importantly, this is an auspicious year in Thailand. Secondly, the PAD didn't want to give Thaksin any excuses for seizing control by declaring martial law. Thirdly, there is a determination among many people to be democratic and not to resort to violence.
But what has this all achieved? The bottom line - with Thaksin just stepping back in where he left off - is absolutely nothing. This doesn't bode well for Thailand and there is a lot of sinister stuff being talked about that will tear the country apart if it is true.
What is going on involves such sensitive issues that I do not feel comfortable discussing them here. It really makes me think about my future in Thailand though.
Friday 23rd June 2006
The British Embassy opens at 8am and I make sure I get there early. I just want to get this task done so I can forget about it and start to do fun things again. I arrive early and another guy is already waiting there. I am now getting quite good at being able to identify farang types and he looks to me as if he is living in Pattaya on a retirement visa.
He's a nice enough bloke but the faded tattoos on his arms and his manner of speech tell me that he didn't have a career at Goldman & Sachs before he retired to Thailand. He could have been in the forces or been a lorry driver or something and he is quite typical of many of the guys I see who have retired to Thailand. There is a little Thai lady with him who is getting on a bit and doesn't say a word but looks totally loyal to him.
We exchange a few questions and answers and sure enough, he is on a retirement visa living in Pattaya.
The only other person there is a dumb looking backpacker girl who has lost her passport. This doesn't surprise me when I see how carelessly many people treat their passports. It's a very important document and should be guarded like any valuable possession but I have seen people just leave them lying around like packs of cigarettes.
She has done nothing to find out what is required for a new passport despite the fact it is very clearly laid out on the British Embassy web site. She probably spends hours on Hotmail telling her friends about her fabulous experiences on Koh Phangan at full moon parties but doing some decent research was obviously beyond her capability.
I hear the poor woman official telling her what she needs to do only for the girl to reply that she has a ticket back to the UK next week after she hears that it will take two weeks to process. She seems typical of stupid farangs who get themselves into trouble by being careless or stupid and then just expect the Embassy to sort everything out.
I had read some bad reports on-line about the British Embassy in Bangkok but my experience was very good. I called earlier in the week and was dealt with quickly and courteously. It was the same when I visited today.
However, I had done my research, I had bothered to find out beforehand what was required and I arrived with everything in order. With the new biometric passports being issued now they are particularly fussy about photos because they measure facial features from the photograph and store that information digitally within the passport.
Working in the British Embassy in Bangkok can't be much fun with so many British idiots in the country. There are the guys with no money who don't want to go home so they stay but every day they add to their overstay fine which is no longer insignificant since it went up to Bt500 a day in March.
Some steal or cheat to get money and end up in trouble with the regular police as well as immigration. Then, as soon as they get banged up, it is the poor guy from the Embassy who is sent to see them.
Others come with no medical insurance and when they get ill or injured expect the good old British Embassy to come to their rescue. If ever the Embassy staff are surly or impolite I can fully understand why but, as I said, my experience was very positive.
My only gripe is that when I went to give the guy my birth certificate he said it wasn't required. When I read the requirements on their web site this was the one thing that was a real problem for me to get. After much effort I got an official copy from the UK and then to be told it wasn't required didn't go down very well.
I go to Siam Square for a coffee and while there spot another well-known farang stereotype - the English teacher. There are a lot of language institutes in this area and a lot of male farang teachers aged 30+. I can tell they are teachers because they look nothing like teachers.
Normally, teachers look weird but studious but these ones just look weird. The standard 'uniform' seems to be a fairly smart pair of trousers and black leather shoes, a long-sleeved shirt open at the neck (no tie) and a small backpack rather than an attache case.
A lot have male-pattern baldness and have gone for the 'shave the whole head' approach. As a way to disguise baldness, this is about as effective as wearing a very bad wig. It just makes it so obvious where hair grows on their head and where it doesn't.
I notice a lot are smoking heavily and they don't look particularly happy. This doesn't surprise me. I have been in Bangkok for less than 12 hours on this trip and I am already planning to go home. Prices are going crazy here and it strikes me that to live in a nice place and lead a decent lifestyle in Bangkok now you need to be earning a serious amount of money - not Bt30,000 as an English teacher.
My next stop is Siam Paragon to see what all the fuss is about and it is exactly what I imagine. It is just another monument to greed and consumerism when all around there is filth and poverty with many poor Thais living in corrugated slums.
On floor two there are Maseratis and Ferraris for sale as well as top-end audio equipment. It's just rich men's playthings and the whole place starts to make me feel nauseous. There is a good bookshop though and I pick up a couple of Thai language book/CD learning courses but by then I've had enough.
My original plan was to spend the weekend - and maybe more - in Bangkok as I don't have to return to work until Tuesday. I normally enjoy my time in the capital but I am not well at the moment. A few days ago I started to get a bad throat. This went down to my chest making me wheezy and a bit asthmatic. I do not suffer from asthma normally but whenever I get a cold I get these symptoms.
Feeling the way I do, Bangkok must be one of the worst possible places to be. This is the wet season now and leading up to the afternoon and evening storms it gets very humid. Not only is the air heavy and hot but it is very badly polluted. The traffic situation just gets worse and worse. I buy some photographic lighting equipment that is just impossible to get hold of in the provinces and go back to my room to book a flight back home tomorrow.
Thursday 22nd June 2006
Sometimes I feel as if all I ever do in Thailand is deal with bureaucracy in order to be able to live and work in the country. Every 90 days I have to leave the country and re-enter to get another stamp in my passport. Once that is done I have to get my work permit in synch which involves getting my employer to fill in forms, making photocopies of my passport and work permit, and then making two trips to the Department of Labour to first apply for, and then collect, my work permit extension. The whole thing takes about 10 hours of my time and costs just over Bt1,000 in fees and transportation costs.
That's the easy part though. Once a year I have to get my visa renewed which means more paperwork and a trip to Penang. My visa has now expired but I am OK for a while because I got another 90 day stamp fairly recently.
This time there is another issue. Because of all this bureaucracy, my passport has become quite full. I have just two empty pages left. The new visa will use up one and the trip to Penang will mean another four stamps which will use up at least half of the other page.
Immigration have already been very helpful trying to use any available space in my passport for stamps, thus preserving the empty pages, but there is no avoiding the fact it will become completely full soon. If I get my new visa done in this passport I will only have the hassle of getting it transferred to a new passport later so I have decided to bite the bullet and apply for a new passport now.
Tonight I will go to Bangkok for that purpose.
Thursday 8th June 2006
The nation has been gripped by the 60th anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej's ascension to the throne. Today was a sea of yellow with everyone wearing their yellow shirts - the colour of the King. Tomorrow is the big day and many events are planned in the coming weeks.
As might be expected, Bangkok is at the centre of the celebrations and the Chao Phrya river will feature heavily as the royal barges are put on display. The Thais do this kind of thing exceptionally well and I am truly disappointed at not being able to get to the capital this weekend.
However, my dislike of crowds lessens the disappointed slightly. It will be a magnificent spectacle but Bangkok will be heaving with people. In addition to the foreign tourists, many provincial Thais are making their way to Bangkok. Train tickets from Hat Yai to Bangkok have all been sold and I expect that is the case with air tickets. Finding a hotel room in the City of Angels could also be tricky at the moment.
It is difficult to convey in words how the Thais feel about their King. When they speak of him they normally use the possessive, "My King," and not 'the' King. It is not just respect and reverence they feel, but genuine love and it is a result of the tireless devotion with which His Majesty has sought to help the people of Thailand during his reign.
Wednesday 7th June 2006
The university has been packed with new students this week so I assume that the academic year has just begun. Although I work on the campus, I don't actually work for the university so I have never really figured out the term times.
There are long periods of time when I see very few students which I assume are holidays and brief spells when I see thousands. They appear to have an awful lot of vacation time. New undergraduates in Thailand look unbelievably young, especially some of the girls. A few today could have passed for 12 or 13 but I guess they must be 17 or 18.
I bumped into an old student of mine who is now doing a Master's in forensic science. He was an excellent student when I taught him and I think one of his major strengths is that he has direction and focus in his life.
When he was doing his Bachelor's, he knew exactly what he wanted to study next and he knows exactly what he wants to do for a job. When people are focused, they use their energy well and don't waste their time.
A lack of focus is not only a problem for many Thai students but I think for many people in the world today. With many students I have attempted to teach they haven't got a clue what they want to do. They go to university because it seems the right thing to do and just choose an easy subject. These are always the students who have no interest in learning English.
When they finish their degrees they still don't know what they want to do and just drift along. If we don't know where we are going, how can we get there? I think it is so important to have some goals in life.
Monday 5th June 2006
I haven't lived in Thailand three years yet but I am already getting a little jaded and it isn't a good thing. Today I decided to be a tourist again and it was good fun. I did what I used to do all the time when I visited Thailand as a tourist, and when I initially came to live here . I just set off with my camera and walked for several hours.
One reason for doing this was to consciously avoid taking Thailand for granted. It's so easy after a while to become cynical and I don't want to do that. The second motivator for going on a long walk today was the weather.
Back in England I used to think it was a great day when I saw blue skies and bright sunshine. In Thailand I am starting to hate those kind of days. It just means another day of sweltering heat. I close the curtains, switch on the A/C and plan to spend as much of the day in my room as I can.
Nowadays, days with grey, overcast skies are good ones. It's so nice to be able to walk around without feeling the oppressive heat of the sun. My walk was in two stages. I did some research for one of my web sites at first but I started to get quite annoyed with certain people.
Whenever I have cross words with a Thai these days, nine times out of ten it is to do with some kind of a transportation issue. Drivers of all kinds of vehicles in Thailand seem to go out of their way to be rude and obnoxious. Not all, but a fair few.
I think that part of the problem is the farangs they normally deal with. Today I was trying to get information about boats to various islands off the coast of Satun and I know that this is usually the domain of backpackers. Even though I wasn't wearing shorts or Teva sandals - or carrying a backpack - I couldn't disguise the fact I am a farang and that was enough reason for the guy to treat me like an idiot.
What really annoys me is that I get treated with so much respect by Thais where I live and where I work but as soon as I stray on to the tourist trail I am suddenly transformed into a farang kee-nok.
Once I had got the information I needed it was time to get off the tourist trail. What I like to do, wherever I am in Thailand, is watch where everyone is going and then go the other way. I love straying into areas where tourists don't go and just talking to people.
My little walk took me into two of the local red-light districts. The girls seemed very happy today. There were a lot of Malaysians in town over the weekend and I assume that business was good but now that their tricks have gone home they are touting for business again.
Generally, the girls are OK but they are devoid of the 'sweetness' that the riep roi girls have and so many have tattoos. It is quite unusual to see good girls with tattoos but the hookers wear them like part of a uniform.
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.
Booking.com 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 Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com 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.
Images of Thailand