Living In Thailand Blog
Sunday 21st June 2009
More skin problems.
After not having a reason to see a skin doctor since I got here, I've seen the same doctor twice in the last few weeks.
The insect bite fungus infection has gone but I suddenly found myself covered in small pimples. It looked really ugly. It was like a bad acne outbreak but many of the pimples were in places not normally associated with acne. I've noticed before that in hot weather I sometimes get a few small pimples on my forearms.
The weather has been exceptionally hot recently. You know it's hot when the locals keep complaining about the heat. I have acclimatised, but my tolerance to the heat now means that I subject myself to hot weather a lot more than I used to. A couple of times when I've got home from work, my shirt has been completely soaked from sweat.
The doctor (who is very competent in his field) once again made an immediate diagnosis. The problem this time was folliculitis, which he told me can be caused by over-sweating. Bacteria starts to infect the skin and this leads to the pimples.
He gave me antibiotics (Cifran), cetirizine hydrochloride (Cetrine), loratadine (Allerdine), and some unbranded cream to apply topically.
As with the fungal infection, the medication he prescribed quickly started to take effect. The condition has eased considerably and at this rate it will be clear very soon.
I will just take a moment to summarise my health problems in Thailand.
My health has generally been quite good since I got here. The worst thing that happened to me was getting a fungal infection in my eye a few years ago. I was wearing soft contact lenses at the time and somehow the infection got on to a lens.
The lens then held the fungus in place while it ate into my eye. The first symptom was the sensation that I had something in my eye. The doctors I saw at first diagnosed an infection OK but failed to diagnose the cause of the infection.
They treated it as a bacterial - and then as a viral - infection but to no avail. It wasn't until another doctor did more tests that a fungal infection was diagnosed. The anti-fungal drops were very unpleasant but eventually the infection went.
I was told I was very lucky not to have lost my eye. The infection left a scar on my cornea and this resulted in irregular astigmatism. The cornea now has a flat spot and this makes my vision out of that eye blurry.
The local doctors ran out of ideas regarding what to do about this so I went to the Rutnin hospital in Bangkok. This is Thailand's premier eye hospital.
The solution was a hard contact lens in the bad eye. It has no power but because it is hard it physically corrects the shape of the cornea. In addition to this I still need to wear glasses for mild short-sightedness.
It's not a perfect solution but it could have been a lot worse.
I have experienced about four bouts of food poisoning since I started living in Thailand (less than one a year on average). One was quite bad and needed an overnight stay in hospital. The others were unpleasant but not as bad.
Unfortunately, food hygiene at some places in Thailand isn't all it could be. The worst thing I have ever witnessed was to see about 20 rats running all over a restaurant kitchen. I had only just finished a meal cooked in that very same kitchen, and was walking past the kitchen on my way out.
As soon as the kitchen was empty, the rats would came out to scavenge for food. They were everywhere - including the food preparation surfaces. I told the staff but just got shoulder shrugs and uninterested faces. I have never been back to that place and I will never eat there again.
Other problems are just poor hygiene, contaminated food, and people unwilling to throw away food that has gone bad - for financial reasons.
My last tummy problem was caused by eating dried tamarinds. I normally buy these from 7-Eleven and I have never had a problem.
However, I bought some from a small shop that didn't seem to have much of a turnover. I think the tamarinds were very old and had gone bad. I only ate a few but that was enough to cause the problem.
A friend of a friend died of food poisoning which he contracted while vacationing in Thailand. It can be very nasty - even if it doesn't kill you.
After a commercial pilot died last week while flying a plane, I found out that pilots and co-pilots aren't allowed to eat the same thing on a flight. What happens when a pilot dies?
They are required to select different meals just in case of food poisoning. Food poisoning can be so debilitating that it could potentially threaten the lives of passengers if both members of the flight crew were to go down with it.
As in Colombia, where doctors are apparently very good at treating gunshot wounds, Thai doctors are very good at treating things that are common in Thailand. They are very good at patching up motorcycle accident victims, and they are good at treating food poisoning.
On my first visit to Thailand 22 years ago I went out with a couple of Thai girls in Pattaya to eat lunch. We ate seafood, including crab. Later on I started to have severe intestinal pains. I was in a bad way.
One of the girls took me to a doctor. The guy just saw the state I was in and knew immediate what the problem was. He gave me some pills. No sooner had I taken the first pill I started to feel better. It was like magic.
Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do to avoid food poisoning. You can't see the bacteria and the food may taste perfectly OK. I've had problems after eating a sandwich in a very fancy looking mall but never had a problem eating food from street vendors. Appearances can be very deceiving.
I try to eat at busy places. It's a good sign if a place has lots of customers, and it is unlikely that food will stay around for long if there is a high turnover.
Mosquitos need to be taken seriously in the tropics.
When I had my rash a few weeks ago, the pharmacist I spoke to told me about a problem with "Japanese". I don't think he was talking about problems with over-polite Asian tourists who keep bowing, but I think he was referring to Japanese Encephalitis. I did a quick search.
I didn't realise but this disease is a major problem in northern Thailand around Chiang Mai, where it is described as being hyperendemic. It occurs sporadically in the south.
Like all mosquito-borne diseases, it is nasty. I am quite paranoid about mosquitoes because of the dangerous diseases they can transmit. Be very careful of mosquito bites.
Apart from a couple of fungal infections and tummy upsets, I haven't been troubled by much else. Cold viruses strike as they do everywhere else in the world but these are unavoidable.
There are lots of STDs in Thailand but generally you will only be vulnerable if you use the services of commercial sex workers. The girls can look very alluring (I know) but some girls service an enormous number of customers and there are lots of diseases they can spread.
Even if you avoid catching anything that can be life-threatening, there are lots of STDs that are unpleasant, persistent, and untreatable. Once the virus infects your body, it's there forever. Also, condoms won't always provide a barrier.
If you need to get medical treatment in Thailand for anything, rest assured that the majority of doctors in Thailand are very good; medical facilities are excellent; and if you contract a disease or ailment in Thailand the local doctors will probably be quite clued up as to what it is, and how to treat it.
I've had a few problems with Thai doctors but most visits have been perfectly satisfactory.
If you start to get symptoms when you return home after visiting Thailand, make this clear to the doctor. I'm no expert but symptoms of a tropical disease may look like something else if the doctor isn't used to dealing with exotic diseases.
I have been using my health insurance to claim for these medical expenses. Up until a few weeks ago I thought I might go the entire year without making a claim.
The two visits to the skin doctor cost around Bt2,000. My insurance premium this year was Bt16,000. Since I took out medical insurance, the cost of the insurance each year has always been greater than the medical bills I have incurred.
Therefore, is the insurance worth it?
Looking at my medical history over the past few years, it isn't. However, what the insurance policy gives me is peace of mind.
Thailand is not the safest country in the world. If I were struck down by a nasty disease (or, more likely, a Thai driver) and needed intensive medical care, my insurance will allow me to get that care in the best facilities available.
Over the last few years I could have saved myself quite a lot of money by not having insurance but you can't really put a value on peace of mind.
I got my hair cut on Monday and there was a new girl in the shop. She hasn't learnt the ropes yet and was taking orders from the boss. After she dried my hair she was told to dry my shirt because it had got wet when they washed my hair.
After doing this she asked the owner of the shop if everything was finished. At this point I interrupted the conversation and told her no, because she hadn't massaged my shoulders yet.
She looked at me in the mirror and the expression on her face told me she didn't know if I was joking or not. She hesitated momentarily before going to work on my shoulders. It was great. For 10 minutes she massaged my shoulders and upper back using just enough pressure so that it was really enjoyable but without causing any discomfort.
A few years ago I was in a restaurant in Ayuthaya. There were no tables. Customers sat on the floor propped up on the triangular pillows you see a lot of in Thailand. After my meal I sat back and mentioned to the staff that I could really use a massage.
One of the young waitresses was studying massage at the time, so she obliged. She too gave me a very relaxing massage. It often pays in Thailand to be a little cheeky.
The subject of touch can be a little confusing in Thailand. There is probably no other country in the world with a higher proportion of massage practitioners per capita, and a lot of pleasure is derived through touch. However, there are times when touch can cause big problems.
I was invited to a girl's wedding shortly after I arrived in Thailand. At the pre-wedding party the night before, the music was so loud no one could hear anything. I couldn't get her attention so gently tapped her on the back.
She turned round with a look of horror on her face and I knew immediately that I had committed a serious social faux pas. Later, she told me that I couldn't touch her in any way at all with her parents and husband-to-be present.
After the party I was told I would be sleeping at a neighbour's house. The neighbour turned out to be a single mother who - I found out later - was very lonely.
I was put into her bed while she slept on the sofa but she decided she would join me later. That encounter turned out to be a very tactile experience but, just a few hours earlier, I had been given a severe talking to for innocently touching another girl on the back.
It's not actually that confusing.
Thais are very tactile. Most like to touch and they like to be touched. However, the culture they are brought up in is very hands-off, and Thai culture is extremely powerful. What goes on in private is one thing, but how Thais behave in public is very different to how they actually are.
You may see lots of sights contradicting this at Thai beach resorts but what goes on in those places isn't representative of normal Thai culture. The most touching you will normally see in public among respectable Thai couples is hand-holding but some won't even do that.
Girls hold each other's hands but that is quite normal. When I worked in Saudi for a while many years ago it was common to see men holding hands but Thai men don't go in for that kind of thing. They are too macho.
There are also some cultural rules regarding parts of the body and age. Another big mistake I made many years ago while joking with a girl was to tug her ponytail. This, of course, is the head, and the head is a sacred part of the body to Thais.
When you get a haircut in Thailand, the person cutting your hair will sometimes wai and apologise before touching your head. Obviously, they can't do their job without touching heads but they will still want to apologise beforehand. Most hairdressers don't, but I've known a few to do this.
The lowest part of the body, the feet, are considered dirty so touching feet (or touching, or pointing with feet) is not good.
Another mistake I made was - while in polite conversation - to touch an old man on the shoulder. (I was also told off for doing this.) The problem on that occasion was his age. Had he been younger than me it wouldn't have been a problem but age is revered in Asia.
Dealing with kids can be awkward. Thai kids are very tactile - in a good way - and it is natural for many people to want to pick them up or play with them - also in a good way.
During the week, I was mobbed by a group of young school girls who were fascinated by the farang in their midst. This isn't unusual. When they're on their own - or in a classroom - they can be quite shy but in a group outside of the classroom they are quite uninhibited.
My generous farang nose was of great interest and I burst out laughing when one girl said, "yaak jup jamook" (I want to touch your nose). I've had plenty of Thais stare at my nose but this was the first time I had heard a request to touch it!
The problem with kids is that Thais are only too aware that a small minority of foreign men who come to Thailand have an unnatural interest in children. For that reason some Thais are suspicious about farang men getting too near to Thai children.
It's a shame really because I don't think the paranoia that exists in so many Western countries about protecting kids from strangers does the kids any good. Thailand never used to be like that but things are changing ... because of Western influence.
I have Thai friends who have kids and the kids will come and sit on me or hold my hand. That's fine, but with kids I don't know I am now a little more cautious.
I hope that Thailand doesn't end up like a typical Western country in this respect. There will always be, and there have always been, a few bad people around but the vast majority of people are fine.
When my parents visited a couple of years ago, a Thai woman with a young baby handed over the baby to my Mum. She was thrilled. It's good that people have that trust and I don't think it makes for well-balanced human beings if we bring up children to think that all strangers are a threat to them.
Anyway to summarise, if you're in private, or if you're in a tourist resort, or if you're with a bar girl, pretty much anything goes. If you're with a respectable Thai girl in public away from the tourist resorts, it's best not to be too tactile.
Sunday 14th June 2009
This may be flogging the subject to death, but to begin with today I will continue with the Asian cultural notion of losing face. It's an incredibly important part of Asian culture to understand and having a basic understanding can account for so much 'weird' behaviour if you are new to Asia.
I said 'Asia' and not 'Thailand' because this is something that is common across much of Asia, not just Thailand. Here's a little story my brother in Singapore was telling me.
He was asked to make a presentation to some senior bank executives and was unfamiliar with certain procedures. He wanted to know if he should provide copies of his presentation to his audience on the day of the presentation or ahead of time.
In his office is a local lady who is employed to deal with such things so he asked her. To him it was a simple, innocuous question. Her answer, however, bore no relationship to his question. Puzzled, he thought she had misheard the question so asked it again.
At this, she ran out of the office in tears. Later on, she accused him of humiliating her in front of everyone. He was astounded at this accusation.
What had happened was that she didn't know the answer to his question and thought she would lose face by saying she didn't know. At first she just tried to sidestep the question by giving an irrelevant answer but then he persisted.
She then found herself in the impossible situation of being forced to answer a question that she didn't know the answer to. The obvious response of, "Sorry, I don't know, I'll find out," was one she was unable to make because of Asian culture.
To Western ears this seems utterly ridiculous but in Asia this type of thing isn't uncommon.
Many years ago I remember watching observational humorist, Jasper Carrott, on British TV. He was recounting a vacation to Asia and described behaviour he couldn't understand. He said that in a restaurant he would ask if they had something - tomato ketchup or something.
The waiter would say yes and disappear. At this, Jasper would assume the waiter would then reappear a few minutes later with the sauce ... but he never did. The sauce never arrived.
This behaviour seems so strange to Westerners that an observational humorist sees fit to use it in his comedy routine. All that is happening is that 'face' is coming into the play.
When asked if he has something, the man in the restaurant believes he will lose face by saying no. He therefore says yes, just to save face, but the reality is that he hasn't got what he was asked for.
I've had lots of problems in Thailand asking for information and especially directions. If the person I ask doesn't know they never tell me they don't know because of losing face. They simply make something up and send me off on a wild goose chase.
Now that I've given quite a few examples, you may wonder how you can avoid this. Unfortunately, you can't really avoid it but after a while you start to sense when you are being told the truth and when someone is saying something simply to save face.
It's what makes Asia such an interesting place in which to live!
When I used to visit Thailand as a tourist, the country seemed just about perfect. That's why - years later - I ended up living in Thailand. After I had made the decision to finally leave broken Britain, choosing where to go was exceptionally easy.
Of course, after living in Thailand for a while I realised the country wasn't perfect. It's not bad, but it's certainly not perfect. Presentation and image mean everything in Thailand, and a lot of bad stuff is hidden.
What is strange, is that even now I still have moments when everything seems perfect.
I was asked to participate in a ceremony last week in which students pay respect to their teachers. I was aware of "Teachers' Day" on 16th January each year but I didn't know about wun wai kroo. I therefore wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The teachers sat on a stage in front of the whole upper school while two senior pupils hosted the ceremony. There were various songs and chants and lots of wai-ing while one group of students played traditional Thai musical instruments.
On the previous day the students had made special garlands to present to their teachers. As my turn came, I was asked to take a front row on the stage and two of the best students from my top class climbed the stage.
The garland was placed on a tray. As they offered it to me they both prostrated themselves completely at my feet. As a farang coming from a society where there isn't a great deal of social hierarchy, I find this kind of thing quite difficult to deal with.
The Thai teachers take it in their stride and don't even bat an eyelid at such behaviour (no doubt, they did the same for their teachers when they were pupils) but I found the whole experience a little overwhelming.
I suspect that most foreigners witnessing such a ceremony would be completely blown away and would imagine that Thai students are without peer.
However, if you teach in Thailand you will realise that it's not at all perfect. Thai students can be very difficult to teach and a lot of this is because of cultural reasons.
Many visitors to Thailand are completely seduced by the experience and for some it can be life-changing (as it was for me). It's certainly not a bad place; in fact, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.
But as I've said many times, whatever is presented to you in Thailand is never quite representative of how things really are. It can take quite a long time to unravel the mysteries and secrets but if you are planning a permanent move you really need to know what you are letting yourself in for first.
Behaviour is contagious.
In polite Thai middle-class company the levels of politeness and the desire to please others can be quite embarrassing. What you find though is that other people's politeness rubs off on you, so you too become ultra-polite.
Conversely, after having recently taken up driving again - after several years of not driving - my road manners have deteriorated rapidly to the extent that I am no better than most Thais.
I always feel guilty afterwards but when this happens my reaction at the time is "You're not going to get away with that".
Road manners are absolutely appalling on Thai roads. It's like dog-eat-dog with everyone fighting to get in front of everyone else. What I should do is just ignore what goes on but I find myself deliberately making it difficult for ignorant drivers who are trying to get one over on me.
I need to fix this before something happens. It's not clever and it is only making a bad situation worse.
Is blogging dead?
A report last week implies that 'Amateur Hour' is over on the Internet. It was a novelty at first, but wouldn't it be better to get information from professionals who really know what they are talking about?
Another story that caught my eye was 'House viewings simply to be nosey'.
Technology has affected us in ways that maybe weren't anticipated before that technology arrived. During my time at a major IT company in the early 80's I was asked to write a paper regarding my views of the impact of Information Technology on society. In IT terms, the world then was quite different to the world now. My ideas were very idealistic (and totally wrong).
Instead of creating a world where we would all have enormous amounts of leisure time to enjoy ourselves, the technology has simply created a divided world of 'haves' and 'have nots'.
The other thing that has surprised me in recent years with the Internet, soap operas and so-called 'reality TV' is how many people there are who seem to have no interest in making their own lives interesting, but who are content with simply following the lives of others on TV, playing with social not-working sites, or posting messages on Internet forums.
Reality TV; the obsession with celebrity; and Internet obsession are all things that I find extremely sad. For the same reasons, it is clear why people view houses they aren't interested in buying just to be nosey.
When the Internet arrived and people started blogging this was just another way of people being able to live their lives through someone else. It was maybe interesting at first, but now that everyone and their dog has a blog the medium has become completely saturated.
I'm not convinced it is dead but I think that any kind of commentary nowadays needs to try to add some value instead of just describing a dull life.
My life is very dull compared to some others but I will try to add some thoughts and observations here instead of just telling you about the hot weather today. Scorchio!
Thai censorship and Thai sensibilities are very different compared to other countries. Alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and guns are censored out on Thai TV. If someone is seen drinking alcohol or smoking on Thai TV it is obvious what they are doing but viewers aren't allowed to actually see the glass or cigarette.
To me, this kind of censorship seems pointless. People see other people drinking and smoking all the time in real life so what difference does it make if they see the same thing on TV?
On the other hand, I have been quite shocked with the graphical content that appears each day on the front pages of Thai newspapers. Death rates seem to be a lot higher in Thailand than in most other countries and every day there are lots of stories about death in the media.
Newspaper editors think nothing of plastering pictures of the aftermath of a grisly murder or road accident across their front pages. You would never see this kind of thing in Western countries.
After David Carradine committed suicide in a Bangkok hotel and photos of his body were published in Thai newspapers it is understandable that his family were upset. But this is Thailand where value and belief systems are complete different to the Western world.
I have never really been able to get used to attitudes about death in Thailand, and I can only believe this is because of Buddhist beliefs.
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, death is pretty final to Western thinking. In Thailand though, that isn't the case. Death is just one part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. When you watch Thai boys racing their motorbikes, they aren't trying to kill themselves. All they are trying to do is speed up the inevitable cycle of birth, death and rebirth!
The nature of impermanence is also very important to Buddhists because accepting that nothing is permanent helps us not to get attached to things. Attachment is not a good thing.
Beautiful flowers are allowed to wither and die at the temple as a reminder of impermanence. Some temples house cadavers which monks focus on when they meditate. This is to reinforce the impermanent nature of life.
A road accident rescue centre near me has hundreds of photos on show from accidents its staff has attended. The photos are quite shocking but they underline an important aspect of Buddhism.
The Prince of Songkla university holds a 'Science Week' every year that is attended by tens of thousands of kids from all over southern Thailand. The most popular attractions by far are the cadavers put on display by the Department of Anatomy.
For the whole of 'Science Week' there is a long snake-like queue of eager school children outside the building waiting to be thrilled and terrified at the same time by a close encounter with a dead body.
The museums within Bangkok's Siriraj hospital are fascinating and well worth a visit but prepare yourself for lots of gory displays. There are foetuses preserved in formaldehyde and the preserved body of See Uwe, Thailand's most famous cannibal child murderer.
As I was writing this, an e-mail arrived from a Thai friend who is currently working in Spain. It was all about the Museum of Life in Thailand (although Museum of Death would be a more appropriate name). The e-mail was full of pictures of dead bodies.
A quick search reveals that this is actually an AIDS hospice in Lopburi. Some of the AIDS patients agreed that their mummified bodies could be displayed as exhibits after they died.
When newspapers publish similarly gory photos I don't believe they set out to shock. To Westerners the photos may seem shocking but to Buddhist Thais there isn't quite the same significance. Thais certainly have a morbid fascination with death.
Life has been incredibly sweet recently, yet just a short time ago it was completely the opposite. I left the UK for Thailand because I wasn't happy but then I had an unhappy time in Thailand.
For a large part of my adult life I have made an effort to understand what makes me happy, and since arriving in Thailand I have tried to understand some aspects of Buddhist philosophy.
Here are a few thoughts. This is NOT a guide to finding happiness (which is impossible for me or anyone else to write) but simply a few musings and observations. Don't take this too seriously but take from it what you will.
Set realistic expectations in life
I once heard a guy on the radio say that some days he wakes up feeling fantastic and that other days he wakes up feeling like crap. I guess this applies to most of us. Wouldn't it be great, he said, if you could find the secret to waking up feeling great every day.
From a Buddhist point of view there are some problems with his reasoning. The first is attachment to those great feelings on his good days. The second is grasping at a way to try to find a way to get those feelings all the time.
Nothing ever stays the same in life so attachment to anything (a person, a thing, a feeling, a state of mind) will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and suffering.
Desire, or grasping, for things also has the same effect. The problem with grasping is that when we have obtained what we were grasping for, we then start to grasp for more. We are never satisfied with what we have and in the quest for more we only become more dissatisfied.
Life is far too complex to try to control. We have good times and we have bad times. Trying to find a way to make life good all the time is futile. When you have bad times console yourself by knowing that good times will return.
When you have good times try not to get too attached to those good feelings because they won't last. Savour the good times because they won't be there all the time.
What got me down previously was that the bad times lasted so long (almost two years). It was the first time in my life that a bad cycle had lasted so long. However, this is very unusual. The world has been going mad for so many years that when the party eventually came to an end it was never going to be easy for anyone.
Don't let money rule your life
Something I heard recently from a fellow farang: "We do work we don't enjoy to get money we don't need to buy things we don't want to impress people who don't care."
I spent far too long living in a country, working for a company, working with people, and doing a job I didn't enjoy. Why? Because of a good salary and other financial benefits.
I now do work I enjoy with people I enjoy in a country I enjoy living in. My salary is a lot less but my income is ample and I am far happier.
I regard money as a necessary evil. I don't expect poor Thais to believe me when I tell them money isn't important because it is important ... to a certain extent.
We all need a certain level of income to be comfortable. However, after that, greed and the love of money can be a real problem for some people.
Without wishing to start talking about Thai politics again, a previous Thai Prime Minister was a classic example. Before he became PM he was immensely wealthy and had all the money he could ever spend. But he could never get enough. This lust for wealth and power was like a disease.
He could have been one of Thailand's best ever leaders but he ended up having to flee the country to live a life of exile. After his ordinary and diplomatic Thai passports were revoked, he now has to rely on countries sympathetic to him to issue passports so he can travel.
Although he still has wealth he has to look over his shoulder constantly and cannot return to his birthplace without fear of being thrown in jail. He is hated with a passion by half of his fellow countrymen.
Money is important up to a point but it isn't everything. An unhealthy lust for money and material things can ruin your life.
The other interesting thing about money is that once you start to forget about it and get on with the important things in life, money just starts to roll in.
There are two ways to attempt to get everything you want. The first is to want everything and to spend all your life trying to earn money to chase after those things. The second way is just to want less.
When I changed my lifestyle I got rid of a huge amount of things in my life - and I continue to have very few things in my life - but sometimes less really is more.
Think of others before yourself
JFK once famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Buddhism tells us to extinguish the idea of 'self' and 'ego'. Remove 'I' from the equation.
The world's richest people already know this. They understand that having enough money to buy anything they want isn't the key to happiness. This is why philanthropy is such a big thing in the lives of the world's richest people.
In recent months I haven't pursued any of the things I regard as being my interests. My teaching work is all about helping people and my latest relationship has involved a lot of emotional support and help.
Old students of mine still ask for help with proofreading, etc. By working I also help my boss. She has a business to run and it is very unpredictable. When she has students and needs people to teach them I do my best to help her.
I know that my efforts to help do not go unnoticed and it makes me feel good. It can feel so much better helping others than it can by selfishly doing things you want to do all the time. Ultimately, a purely hedonistic lifestyle isn't all that satisfying.
Follow your gut instincts
Of all the 'self-help' books I have seen, one only that I thought was of any value was 'Finding Your Own North Star' by Martha Beck.
Her assertion is that we all have the answers inside us as to what will make us happy in life. The problem is that our natural instincts are corrupted by external influences. We choose careers that we don't enjoy for reasons as stupid as earning lots of money.
If we pay too much attention to advertisers and listen too much to people around us we start making decisions about our own lives that are totally wrong for us.
Listen to the answers that are already inside you.
I can't really remember a time when I was happy in the UK. All the time I was in the UK the only thing that kept me sane was planning where I would travel to for my next vacation. I travelled a lot, not because I think I enjoyed travelling but because I enjoyed escaping from the UK.
I travelled to quite a few countries but Thailand was always very special for me. I don't know why exactly; but knowing why isn't always important in life.
I feel very comfortable with all aspects of life in Thailand. Since I left the UK at the end of 2003 I have never been back and I have no plans to go back.
If being somewhere, or doing something, makes you happy; go to that place, or do that thing! Don't waste your life doing things you don't like doing. living in places where you don't want to be just because you get a decent salary. Life is too short.
Take control of your life
Here is one of my favourite quotes, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" (Henry David Thoreau). Other sayings I have used to make changes are, "You can have anything, but you can't have everything," and "We only regret those things in life that we didn't do."
Security is a very basic human need but the desire for security can lead to a desperate, unsatisfying life. The biggest challenge I faced a few years ago was leaving behind the security I had, to actually do something I wanted to do in life.
If you try something and fail, at least you tried. There can be no worse feeling than getting to a point in life where it is too late to do things, and then regretting not doing those things earlier.
None of us can have it all. Many lifestyle choices are simply incompatible. We can't sail around the world forever in a yacht while raising families and giving them a stable home life.
I can't enjoy living in southern Thailand but still expect to be able to enjoy days in London as I used to. A choice had to be made and something had to go.
You can't have everything.
Whatever you want to do is possible but it will mean not being able to do certain other things. Take some time to decide what it is in life you want.
The important thing is to take control and actually do something. It's far too easy to stick to a way of life that is easy and comfortable, but is that what you really want?
Even though I've really messed people about by repeatedly stopping and starting this blog, the same people still come back to look.
Sunday 7th June 2009
The fungal infection on my arm that I contracted from an insect bite has all but gone. After finally managing to find a doctor who knew what he was talking about, the problem was very quickly fixed.
He accurately diagnosed the problem within seconds and the medicine and cream he prescribed have been highly effective. Unfortunately, the pharmacist and doctor I consulted before I saw him weren't quite as competent.
Generally, my opinion of doctors and dentists (especially dentists) in Thailand is very good. However, I have experienced and also heard about problems which do not inspire confidence. My theory is that a lot of the problems have to do with the Asian notion of losing face.
My GP in the UK has been doing the job for over 40 years and has vast experience. However, if he isn't sure about something, then he has no hesitation with referring a patient to a specialist. He doesn't try to make out that he knows all there is to know.
In the Western world there is no stigma attached to not knowing something or not having something, but that is different in Asia because of the notion of 'losing face'.
A few years ago I was travelling up the peninsula heading towards Hua Hin. I got as far as Chumpon but my ear got blocked. I couldn't hear anything on one side and it was quite disorientating. I called in to a hospital to get my ear cleaned out.
Instead of a quick clean to remove the blockage, the doctor told me I had a perforated eardrum. This came as really bad news so instead of continuing my trip I just went home.
When I got home I went to an ear clinic. The doctor there just used a machine to suck out some ear wax and all was well. The perforated eardrum diagnosis was complete rubbish.
Another problem was an eye infection contracted through wearing soft contact lenses. That also turned out to be a fungal infection but it took the doctors a long time to diagnose.
Fungal infections can be nasty. In 2003, a Thai pop singer - Apichet Kittikorncharoen - drove his car into a canal by accident. Fungus from the dirty water got into his brain and after spending four years in a coma he died.
There was a news report here a few years ago about a young girl in rural Thailand who was bitten by a snake. Her parents took her to hospital but the first doctor she saw said it wasn't a snake bite and refused treatment. Her parents then had to fight to get her treated.
I was relating these stories to a colleague last week and he told me about a farang woman living locally who contracted dengue fever recently. Her experience was exactly the same. She went to a doctor but he refused to do checks and said it wasn't dengue.
Her entire body had already started to turn a strange red colour and people were very worried about her. She had to see another doctor before finally getting the treatment she needed.
By relating these stories I am not scaremongering, or trying to denigrate Thai doctors - the majority of whom I believe are excellent.
It is just that if a doctor isn't sure about something he may try to 'save face' instead of simply admitting he doesn't know. If you suspect this might be the case, don't wait but get a second - or third, or fourth - opinion until you are satisfied the doctor understands your condition.
"Time, tide and Thai drivers wait for no man" is a modified proverb I heard from a farang living in Thailand. Another Westerner told me that you should treat roads in Thailand like rivers and just go with the flow.
I know other Westerners who are so laid back they are almost horizontal. Nothing makes them angry ... apart from when they drive in Thailand.
Relatively speaking, it's not actually that bad. From what I have read about driving in Cairo, driving in Thailand is a picnic. Also, Thais I know who have been to Vietnam come back shocked at how bad the driving is there.
Mostly my observations are based on driving in Hat Yai which for some reason seems to be a particularly bad example. Westerners I know who have driven all over Thailand (and Thais who come from elsewhere in the country) tell me that road behaviour in Hat Yai is worse than anywhere else in the country.
One reason I have heard for this (from Thais) is that southern Thais are more jai rawn (hot-hearted/hot-headed/aggressive) than Thais elsewhere.
Another big problem I have observed in the south is that there is almost no law enforcement. Again, this seems to be different elsewhere in Thailand - especially in Bangkok - where drivers will be ticketed for road offences.
Daytime driving - when people use their vehicles to actually go somewhere - isn't too bad, but there is a distinct change in the evenings. The evenings are when all the boy racers come out to play.
You can see that they aren't going anywhere but just driving around for fun. Naturally, this equates to driving at high speed, and with no speed cameras or traffic police to worry about some are reckless in the extreme.
Why is it like this?
One problem is driver education. A Thai girl I know wanted to get a driving licence so she went for education. She described what happened but it was nothing like my own driving lessons many years ago.
There is a paper test and some basic reaction and visual perception tests. The practical part just consists of a few basic manoeuvres in a car park. It is very easy to acquire a licence in Thailand but newly qualified drivers have no actual road experience.
When they first encounter a junction or roundabout they don't know what to do so just follow what other drivers do. This makes the problem self-perpetuating because new drivers pick up everyone else's bad habits.
I spoke the other day about value systems in different societies and I believe this is the main reason behind Thai driving behaviour.
We all know that driving fast is fun. I owned a couple of fairly fast cars when I was living in the UK and winding up a Porsche in third gear feels good. However, in Western societies safety is at the very top of the value system.
It doesn't matter how much fun an activity might be, if it isn't safe there will laws to prohibit people's fun. Try driving fast in most Western countries these days and it won't be long before the police or speed cameras get you.
In Thailand it is completely the opposite. The concept of sanook is extremely important. It's a difficult word to translate because it isn't really a straight translation of fun.
A sanook activity is any distraction from the drudgery of everyday life. Attending a funeral can be described as sanook. Westerners wouldn't normally regard funerals as fun but to the Thai mindset it is time off work or school (drudgery), a chance to socialise with a group of people, and free food. All of those things count as sanook.
Last year my classes were too large so this year they have been split and the workload is shared between two teachers. On the first day of the new arrangement, one half of the class disappeared with the other teacher. When they got back together again the first question was sanook mai? Was it sanook? Nothing is more important in Thailand.
If you are teaching Thai students good stuff but it is stuff they don't regard as sanook they will just switch off.
I don't like to say it, but safety for oneself or others is way down the Thai value system. Every year at Songkran and New Year thousands of Thais die in road accidents. Each year there is lots of rhetoric about the problem but nothing ever changes.
When you observe Thais enjoying Songkran you can see that they get carried away with having fun. Enormous amounts of alcohol are consumed and Thais think nothing of driving while drunk. It is inevitable what will happen and the road death statistics each year confirm the problem.
I also believe the general lack of law enforcement on Thai roads is related to the Thai value system. Thai society adheres to a strict hierarchical structure. Everyone knows their place in society and those high up in the hierarchical structure are very highly valued.
When Thai VIPs arrive in town it is incredible what takes place. Roads are closed to traffic and policeman and soldiers are to be seen everywhere. The policeman and soldiers on duty take this type of work extremely seriously.
They scrutinise everyone in the crowd and pace around like anxious fathers just before the birth of a first child. I'm not sure if it is law or protocol that restricts members of the public photographing Thai monarchy but if you pull a camera out to take a photo then you will find lots of police and soldiers homing in on you. This has happened to me twice.
How seriously do they take this? I have no doubt that Thai policemen and soldiers would lay down their own lives to protect certain people in Thailand.
Now, what about the case of kids - some as young as 8 or 9 - racing around the streets on 125cc motorbikes breaking every traffic law in the book? They are a menace not only to themselves but to everyone.
In the UK (and many other countries) this kind of behaviour would be regarded as a serious social problem and the police would take it extremely seriously. The kids wouldn't be dong it for very long before the felt the arm of the law.
But not so in Thailand. I see this all the time and I have to constantly watch out for teenage maniacs on motorbikes. The police don't seem at all bothered and when I explain what happens to Thais they just laugh. To them it's unimportant; a joke.
When I am almost run down by teenage motorbike racers and make my feelings known to the little hooligans, Thais look at me aghast because they can't understand what I am getting upset about.
From the examples I have given you can see that what is considered important in Thailand is different to what is considered important elsewhere, and what might be considered to be a big problem elsewhere is not considered to be a problem in Thailand.
In short, Thailand has a completely different value system to other countries - such as Singapore and many Western countries.
What's driving in Thailand like?
I lived in Thailand for several years before actually driving. Therefore when I took to the road there was nothing that surprised me because I had seen it all before. I would advise anyone planning to drive in Thailand to do the same and observe first as a non-driver.
In the UK I was taught how to drive defensively and how to anticipate every potential problem. This style of driving is essential in Thailand because everything you don't expect to happen WILL happen.
Thais don't drive like this. I have been on the back of motorbike taxis and the driver is focused on the end of the road 300m ahead. All he is thinking about is getting there as quickly as possible. He isn't thinking about the child or dog that may run into the road, or the vehicle that might back out of a side street.
When the unexpected happens (as it often does in Thailand) then an accident results. It's as simple as that because Thai drivers don't make any attempt to anticipate problems.
At junctions and roundabouts around where I live no one gives way. Everyone just merges and then deals with whatever vehicles they meet. This works most of the time but inevitably junctions and roundabouts are where most accidents occur.
Intersections are where I have seen most accidents take place and even if I don't actually witness the accident, I still regularly see piles of broken glass and the white lines that are sprayed on the road by police to indicate where an accident took place.
I need to use my mirrors a lot because there is always a vehicle (normally a motorbike) overtaking or undertaking. Thais enjoy speed and even when I am slowing down to stop at traffic lights there is normally a vehicle trying to overtake.
I have been told, and read, that in Thailand cheating and getting away with it is something to be proud of. This certainly seems to be the case. Motorbikes waiting at red lights will often just drive through the light if the junction is clear.
The worst culprits are young boys and you can see from the big grins on their faces that they think they have been very clever by doing this.
Vehicles to watch out for are motorbikes, pickup trucks, boy racers (lots of these), and young Thais in cars - of both sexes. Girls generally drive more carefully, but a few are as bad as the men regarding their love of speed.
Motorbikes appear out of nowhere. Last week I wanted to do a U-turn so pulled over and waited for a break in the traffic. I saw my break and pulled out but as I did so, two motorbikes just materialised in front of me. They came from nowhere.
Motorcyclists seem to think that road laws don't apply to them. They think nothing of driving on the wrong side of the road or up one-way streets the wrong way.
On the plus side, the hierarchical order that exists in Thai society at large also extends to the roads. Cars are above motorbikes in the pecking order and motorcyclists are aware of this. Hierarchy is determined by vehicle size.
Road laws don't apply. Just make sure you give way to larger vehicles, and if you want to be obnoxious regarding smaller vehicles they will give way to you.
Another big problem is that Thais will park anywhere they want to. It isn't unusual on a three lane road that one lane is entirely full of parked cars. If a Thai wants to park somewhere convenient but there isn't a space, he or she will just park in the middle lane and put the hazard warning lights on.
As you drive along you find two lanes of a three lane road blocked. Drivers of passenger vehicles will also pull up anywhere they want to pick up or drop off passengers. It makes no difference to them that they are causing problems behind.
There are two dangers you face on the roads in Thailand. One is other people driving recklessly and the other - if you are a passenger - is the driver of the vehicle you are in driving recklessly.
When you drive yourself you only have to be concerned about other people so the danger is reduced. Some of my most frightening experiences on Thai roads have been as a passenger on buses or in the back of sawng-thaews (converted pickup trucks with a flimsy roof and a couple of rows of seats in the back).
For some drivers of these vehicles, their main purpose in life is to have fun by driving as fast as possible. Transporting passengers means they can earn money while they have fun but they have no concern for their passengers' safety.
What vehicles can you expect to find on Thailand's roads?
In addition to the obvious cars, vans and buses, the proportion of pickup trucks and motorbikes is much higher in Thailand than in Western countries. After the USA, Thailand is the second biggest market in the world for pickup trucks.
Pickup trucks aren't bad in themselves but many pickup truck drivers are semi-rebellious type Thais. They are the type who don't like laws. They like to drive fast and they like to drink alcohol. I am very wary of pickup truck drivers.
I have mixed feelings about motorbikes. As a cheap method of transport for the poor masses, Honda has achieved far more in Asia that Volkswagen or Henry Ford ever did elsewhere.
However, what was intended as a cheap, reliable and affordable method of transport has turned into a Southeast Asian status symbol; and street racing on motorbikes has become a popular leisure activity among young males.
Many poor Thais can't afford cars, so to run mobile businesses and to transport their families around they have bolted on all sorts of weird contraptions to motorbikes. You certainly come across some unusual looking vehicles.
Much of Thailand's economy is agricultural and so this reflects in the road use. In some areas you may come across various animals using the roads. Poor Thai farmers use the same motorised devices intended for working rice fields as their road vehicles. Therefore in rural areas of the country you may run into some very strange vehicles on the road.
Bullfighting (bull vs bull) is a big part of the culture in southern Thailand and when preparing their animals for a fight day, owners will walk their bulls around the streets to exercise them. I come across these quite often.
To summarise, driving in Thailand isn't quite as bad as it seems. Driving yourself is safer because you only have to worry about other maniacs. When being driven by someone, you not only have to be concerned about the other maniacs, but also the maniac who is driving you.
The Thai value system places having fun above safety so you will meet lots of people on Thailand's roads who are there having a good time racing around and who have little regard for their own or other people's safety. You will meet some strange vehicles, especially in rural areas.
I still don't regard a car as being absolutely essential in Thailand. Public transport is cheap and plentiful, and I can manage perfectly well without a car. Having a car does save time and it is a lot more refined and comfortable than public transport. In addition, it allows you to get to out of the way places. Also, as I said above, it is safer driving yourself than allowing a Thai to drive you.
Thais are extremely status conscious and this has a huge amount to do with car ownership in Thailand. A Thai earning Bt12,000 a month will think nothing of buying a car on credit and paying instalments of Bt10,000 a month. I know people who do this. I have also spoken to farangs with Thai wives who didn't see the need for a car but who were nagged into buying one for reasons of status.
Some farangs own cars in Thailand for the same reason and it is very important for them to be seen by other farangs as they drive their cars around. There used to be a farang here who, when he saw me, was worried that I wouldn't be able to see him driving his car because his vehicle had tinted glass.
Therefore, whenever he saw me he would roll down his window so he made sure I would see him. A word of advice. If you are a farang driving a vehicle in Thailand please don't do this. When I observe such behaviour there is only one word that comes to mind and I really don't want to repeat it here. If you are British I think you will know which word I am referring to.
Monday 1st June 2009
What happened? I was doing this and then I stopped without giving any notice or a reason. I will try to explain.
The decision to give up my old life and move to Thailand took a long time to make and involved a lot of planning - mainly financial. It was a fairly simple plan but viable.
When I first moved to Thailand everything was fine but then some negative things started to happen. At first I walked around with that silly grin on my face that all newly arrived farangs seem to have. This look signals that the person wearing it still knows nothing about Thailand, and thinks Thailand is just too good to be true.
I started to get interested in Thai politics but then I started to get very upset with Thai politics. I could see obvious problems years ago that took the country a very long time to resolve.
The next problem was that after the immigration clampdown I found myself in a very tenuous position at work. For a long time I held on to my job by a thread before I eventually lost it. This made me feel very insecure.
After that came the economic crisis which started half-way through 2007 and got progressively worse. Falling stock markets, interest rates and exchange rates affected me badly and completely destroyed the plans I had been making for years.
In addition, I had started to feel a bit lonely. As a tourist, I used to think that all Thai girls were basically the same but I couldn't have been more wrong. After living in Thailand for a few years I started seeing huge differences.
I worked on a strategy to avoid the troublesome girls and meet the good ones but found it extremely difficult to meet the right kind of Thai girl.
2008 was the worst year of my life and 2009 didn't start off much better. My continued bad fortunes started to affect my thinking and writing. When I read some things I had written previously it was as if I couldn't recognise the author. I was starting to turn into someone I didn't like.
I made an attempt to rectify some things but there was so much that I pulled everything here and stopped. That's when everything came to an abrupt end.
Everything in life is cyclical though, and situations can change very quickly. I found a new job just before my paperwork was about to expire and it turned out to be a very good job. It was also secure.
The person behind Thailand's political problems made one last effort to get his way in April but failed. Hopefully, this will be the last we hear of him and the country he managed to divide can start to unite again.
My finances suddenly started to improve again quite drastically, and even though interest rates are still very low, the exchange rate has started to creep up again.
I then got together with a girl I have known for about four years but who I never expected to be with. I had been helping her try to resolve the problems with her boyfriend but the two of them were irreconcilable.
After one particularly difficult weekend for her she came to me again for support and the rest just happened. So far it looks good but time will tell.
Now, what about this blog?!
Thailand is simply fascinating and I have an urge to share my experiences. After almost six years here I still feel I am only just beginning to understand the Thais. There is so much emphasis on image and presentation in Thai society that outsiders see very little of what really goes on.
Every society has belief and value systems but they are all different. In Western countries they tend to be similar but Asian belief and value systems are completely different to those in the West. Coming up against these differences is what we refer to as culture shock.
It doesn't necessarily mean that one culture is better or worse than another. It simply means that each culture sets different values on different things.
The aspects I most enjoy about living in Thailand are studying the language and the cultural behaviour. What I am planning to do now is to cover these aspects of living in Thailand instead of focusing on negative things. Some things may seem negative but my intention is to attempt to explain, not to criticise.
I may not write very often; only when I think of something that may be useful to anyone with an interest in Thailand. The first article is about a recent experience and the notion of 'face'.
Last week I discovered what looked like a normal mosquito bite on my arm. It was a small bump that itched a little but I don't normally react to mosquito bites and they disappear within hours. It didn't worry me.
However, this was different. It started to turn red and developed into a rash, which then began to expand. It looked like a bruise, except it wasn't a bruise. After about five days I decided to take some action.
There is no primary health care in Thailand, unlike the UK General Practitioner system in England. This role in Thailand has been taken up by pharmacists. There are pharmacies everywhere and the pharmacists perform diagnosis and also prescribe drugs that wouldn't normally be available over the counter elsewhere.
The pharmacist I saw gave me some steroid cream for the rash but it didn't help. My next call was to a highly-regarded private hospital. This was not a good experience though.
I was told I would be seen by a specialist skin doctor but the doctor I saw was a young generalist who looked as if he had just qualified. He took a look at my rash and told me not to worry.
I was charged for this but wasn't happy that he wasn't a specialist so I complained. My complaints fell on deaf ears.
My next port of call was a local clinic run by a very good (and busy) skin doctor. While waiting to see him I looked at photos in his surgery of the most frightening skin diseases you could ever imagine. Seeing these made me feel quite guilty about seeing a doctor for a small rash.
He used a special camera attached to his computer to get a close-up view of my problem and very quickly diagnosed a fungal infection. He said the insect that bit me must have had fungus in its mouth.
He gave me tablets and some cream and the rash started to go down.
So what about the pharmacist and the private hospital? My theory is that fear of loss of face in Thailand will result in people (even professional people) giving bad information.
The pharmacist didn't recognise my problem as a fungal infection and by prescribing steroid cream he was problem turning a normal virus into an Arnold Schwarzenegger virus.
The private hospital is regarded as a bit of a showpiece by the locals but I don't think they wanted to admit there wasn't a skin doctor present because they were scared of losing face. If they had said there wasn't, no big deal, I would just have gone elsewhere.
But no. They told me I would see a skin doctor but he actually turned out to be a normal doctor with no specialist knowledge of skin. I didn't cotton on to this but my girlfriend asked a few questions and found out what was going on.
I have experienced this type of thing repeatedly in Thailand. If you ask someone for something they haven't got, or ask them something they don't know, they don't like to say they haven't got it or they don't know. They are afraid of losing face.
What they don't seem to realise is that not knowing is perfectly acceptable in the West, and that attempting to cover things up by lying or giving false information just makes things a whole lot worse.
The charge at the hospital went to my insurance company so I called in to the insurance company today to tell them about my bad experience. The non-confrontational nature of Thais makes them poor complainers. The guy I spoke to didn't seem that interested.
Also, he didn't seem to like the fact that I was complaining about one of Thailand's showpiece private hospitals. Thais are very sensitive about their image and don't like criticism.
Last week I was trying to teach my students about complaining but the information I gave them was quite irrelevant to Thailand because when Thais have a problem they approach it in a completely different manner.
I went to get a key cut today and although the shop was open there was no one there. I asked the woman next door and she said he was at lunch. I went to get an ice cream and returned but he still hadn't returned.
I waited for about 10 minutes and he finally returned. I asked him where he had been and he told me to have lunch. Following what I had been teaching my students, I tried to offer some constructive criticism.
I told him it would be a good idea when he goes off to leave a sign telling people where he is and when he will be back. To this suggestion, he just laughed.
I wrote about value systems above. Time isn't very important in the Thai value system so the fact he wasted my time doesn't matter to him.
With the hospital and pharmacist, keeping face and maintaining a good image is important, whereas being completely honest with patients isn't - even if it means misdiagnosing or missing things.
This is the kind of thing that used to make me angry in Thailand but now that I am starting to understand what makes Thais tick, I can often understand weird behaviour.
The new girlfriend came with a new car and she likes giving it to me to drive so that I can pick her up from work. The rest of the time it is mine to go where I please.
I owned cars in England but since moving to Thailand I have never felt that the time was right to buy a car. I have only driven here fairly recently and it has been fun. After observing Thai drivers I never imagined I would actually enjoy driving here.
The next piece I am planning to write is about Thai drivers and driving in Thailand. Again, I believe a lot can be explained by the Thai value system.
Even when I was writing with my poison pen I still received some great e-mails from some great people. A special mention of thanks to Ron and his partner in the States who are planning to move to Thailand in the future, and to Catherine in Bangkok who showed me how to see the good in people first, instead of the other way round.
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. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
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. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand