Living In Thailand Blog
Wednesday 29th June 2011
All Buddhist Thais regard themselves as good Buddhists and object to any inference that they aren't.
Buddhist precept number 5:
I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness. (From Wikipedia)
More than 4 million Thais alcoholic: survey (out of a total population of about 67,500,000)
Apart from the obvious problems of having so many alcoholics in society, a major reason for the horrendous carnage on Thai roads is drunk driving.
Yet another child molester who fled to Thailand and then found teaching work.
Tuesday 28th June 2011
Until I lived in Thailand I never realised how big a problem flooding was in the country. Last year, many areas of Thailand had their worst flooding for a very long time. There were more bad floods in southern Thailand earlier this year, further flooding in Surat Thani a little later, and the north has just been hit.
Some areas of Bangkok could be uninhabitable because of flooding within 25 years. The book I've just read analyses some well known Thai novels and regular annual flooding is a theme in the novels.
Efforts have been made to improve flood defences in certain places but what has been done is nowhere near enough. Many rural areas that are affected regularly have no flood defences at all. When it rains heavily there is nowhere for the water to go.
When you talk to Thais about the situation they are resigned to it. They say that Thailand has no money and regard a flood the same way as a Canadian might regard a snowstorm. It just happens and it's unavoidable.
Many Thais don't have much of value, and plastic chairs and tables withstand floods quite well. One old woman even told me that floods were fun. There's a bit of cleaning up to do afterwards but they don't lose much of value.
Thaksin's latest political party - the one he is running from Dubai - has promised to put a stop to flooding in Thailand. They've also promised computers and free WiFi for all schoolchildren and stated they will raise graduate salaries.
Previously, Thaksin promised to end the drug problem in Thailand and to put an end to the problems in the south. That was about eight years ago, and if I remember correctly he said that each problem would take about six months to fix.
Meanwhile, one group of activists want to get rid of all politicians because they are all corrupt and cause suffering to the people. It's not a bad idea.
Thaksin has the poor in his pocket, however, and they will never accept politicians they regard as elitist - even though Thaksin is far more elitist than any of the rest. They were all hoodwinked by a few populist policies and a lot of lies.
As Mulder points out, Thai society is organised on the principles of hierarchy, privilege and patronage. In essence, the principle that all men are born unequal.
When you try to incorporate Western concepts such as law and democracy that come from countries where all men are born equal, this is where the problems begin.
I find this really sad:
The hackneyed old phrase, "Get a life," never seemed more appropriate. How many new 'friends' did you make on Facebook today? And how many real friends have you made in the real world so far this year?
Monday 27th June 2011
My parents were born a couple of years before the outbreak of WW2. They didn't have the easiest start to life. That generation worked hard, saved money, and took little from the state. Many people of that age had (and still have) a big aversion to borrowing money. If they didn't have the money for something, they didn't buy it.
How things change.
The US is $14 trillion dollars in debt. The report I've just read says that this figure (because it's so big) is impossible to comprehend. An easier way to comprehend it is that the level of debt grows by $40,000 per second.
It would appear that most countries in the world have huge debts, apart from China, which is the country that has been lending all this money.
Where has all this money gone, what was it used for, and was it really necessary to borrow such huge amounts?
The house of cards eventually came crashing down a couple of years ago and it hurt a lot of people, myself included. When this happened you would have thought that people would have accepted the fact they had been borrowing too much and that it was time to administer some bitter, but essential, medicine.
But, oh no.
Greece, where it is apparently a national pastime not to pay taxes, racked up huge debts but no one wanted to take the medicine. Rather than go along with the government's austerity proposals, Greeks went on strike.
It is the same in the UK.
The financial wizards who run our economies decided that the best way to cure the problems caused by over-borrowing was to lower interest rates to levels never seen before. This would stimulate the economy, according to their thinking.
Instead, immediately after all the problems people start to borrow again because borrowing is cheap. This has resulted in high inflation, high food prices, and - in some places - a property bubble.
No matter how many serious problems there are with the economy, it would appear that some people will never accept having to live within their means. Whatever they want, they just buy on credit. I can't understand this mentality.
There are plenty of companies in Thailand offering car loans and they advertise aggressively. Most Thais don't seem to care what kind of house they live in, but having a car is the ultimate status symbol - and Thais are extremely status conscious.
The adverts normally feature a poor Thai who desperately wants, but can't afford, a car and the finance company appears like a magic genie with the cash required.
The poor Thai now has to make car payments that he can't afford, in addition to interest on the loan that he can't afford either. This is why there are so many used cars for sale in Thailand. Thais buy cars that they can't afford and these then get repossessed and offered for sale again.
I'm not sure what the current rate of inflation is in Thailand (and even if I did, the official rate probably wouldn't reflect the real rate) but Thailand has got noticeably more expensive in the last couple of years.
The government may not have probably vast amounts, as has happened elsewhere, but there is a huge amount of household debt. All of the Thais I know who buy anything of any value buy the items on credit in instalments.
Thailand and other Asian countries had a wake up call 10 years before the West had a wake up call.
When it comes to financial problems, though, people seem to have very short memories.
I was confident a short time ago that Western governments would do whatever was necessary to fix the problems, but now, having seen so much resistance to basic common sense, I'm not so sure. I also think there's some trouble brewing for Thailand in the near future - a combination of huge household debt and continued political instability.
The problem is that if a tiny majority can make a killing while the rest of the world suffers, they will continue to do the wrong things for their own selfish greed.
Wednesday 22nd June 2011
We all have bacteria in our stomachs. This is what breaks down our food. It is 'good' bacteria and a perfectly normal part of the digestive system.
This 'good' bacteria varies from place to place and this often causes slight tummy upsets when we travel as our stomachs adjust to the different bacteria.
After having no problems at all with Thai food, I have had problems eating Western food in Singapore. It doesn't take long for our stomachs to settle down and there is no real discomfort apart from the inconvenience of a few hurried toilet calls.
On the other hand, if the bacteria is 'bad' it can be a very different experience. As we've seen in Europe recently, bacteria can kill if ingested.
A friend of a friend contracted severe food poisoning in Thailand some years ago. He attempted to get home but died before doing so.
Another farang has just died of food poisoning in Thailand:
The problem is that bacteria is invisible to the naked eye and it is impossible to tell if food is affected.
I've eaten at the grubbiest looking street stalls in Thailand and never had a problem, but I once contracted food poisoning after eating a sandwich from a place located in quite an upmarket shopping mall.
Thais understand Thai food and there are few problems. Not many understand Western food. They continue to sell bread long after the expiry date, and the sandwich I ate probably contained bad mayonnaise or something.
My wife didn't realise that defrosting frozen food and then refreezing it can be dangerous. It is probably the same for many other Thais. Thais don't seem to have a great understanding of food safety and hygiene unless they have undergone specific training.
Saturday 18th June 2011
Last month I saw that an Australian had fallen to his death while engaging in the Internet craze of 'planking'.
I'm normally the last person in the world to know about Internet crazes and thus 'planking' was new to me.
There's a bit of an uproar in Thailand at the moment because of the publication of a photo of a man 'planking' while wearing the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.
A reward has been offered for details of his identity and if he turns out to be a real monk he will find himself in hot water.
Religion is one of the three cornerstones of Thai society and accounts of monks behaving inappropriately don't go down very well.
Something that you hear and read in Thailand occasionally is that farangs (as Thais call us) simply find it impossible to understand certain facets of Thailand, Thainess, or being Thai.
I'm getting close to finishing Mulder's 'Thai Images - The Culture of the Public World'. This is the second book about Thailand I have read by the same author.
Mulder is in a league of his own (and has close to 50 years of experience) but many other foreigners who have lived in Thailand for a long time also have a very good understanding of the country.
They probably find it a little insulting to be told that as a foreigner it is impossible for them to understand certain things.
If you want to really understand Thailand, read Mulder. His writing style isn't always easy. It's very academic and the vocabulary is quite tough - even for those with above average vocabulary skills.
He writes concisely but as a result I often find myself reading sentences several times to try to understand what he means. With almost everything he writes I can think of real-life examples that I have experienced personally.
There is an explanation for almost every aspect of Thai behaviour that may seem strange to foreigners. There are explanations why certain concepts imported from the West can never work in Thailand: basically because they completely contradict the very things that Thai society is founded on.
On the surface Thailand may look very familiar to the new foreign visitor. Under the surface, it couldn't be any more different to Western countries. If you plan to live in Thailand, deal with Thais, or have a relationship with a Thai girl (or man) you need to understand these differences otherwise Thailand can be a minefield.
What's the best and quickest way to understand? The best way is to live and work in Thailand alongside Thais while observing every aspect of Thai behaviour and trying to get to grips with the language. At the same time, read Mulder, and relate what you see and experience to one of Mulder's explanations.
It isn't a quick progress. It took me about six months just to start seeing below the surface, and about four years before I started to get a reasonable idea. After almost eight years I still have a long way to go and I still learn new things almost every day.
It's one of the things that makes living in Thailand so interesting.
7-Eleven has a virtual monopoly on the minimart sector of the Thai retail industry. Wherever you go in Thailand, there will be a branch of 7-Eleven nearby.
They're pretty good. The food and drink selection is fairly comprehensive and you can pay bills for most things at the checkouts. This latter facility is very handy. There are a few smaller minimart chains but they are tiny compared to 7-Eleven.
I mentioned recently that a branch of Tesco Lotus Express has been opened near my house. It would appear, from the size of the stores and the format, that they are a direct competitor to 7-Eleven. I have since heard that other branches have appeared locally.
Tesco is a competitive and successful company and it seems that they have got a little frustrated with 7-Eleven's stranglehold hold on the minimart sector of the market.
More competition can only be a good thing for consumers so I think this is a positive development.
On the same subject, Carrefour opened a large superstore in Hat Yai about 6-7 years ago. When it opened it seemed a lot better than the old Tesco Lotus store that had been open for a while. However, that was 6-7 years ago.
Since then, Carrefour has got tattier and Tesco Lotus has just undergone a major refurbishment. The Carrefour trolleys are terrible, whereas the Tesco refurbishment included replacing all the trolleys with brand new, turbocharged, easy-to-drive ones.
The previous situation has been reversed and now Tesco Lotus looks a lot swisher. Things can change very quickly and you can soon fall behind if you aren't always trying to stay ahead.
Friday 17th June 2011
"Most people dream of escaping the rat race, but could stress and long hours be the route to a good life?"
I found this article interesting but - having made the decision some years ago to change my life completely and escape the rat race - it misses some important points.
My life in the UK had become unhappy and the primary reason was work. I made a conscious decision to 'downshift' so that my life would be happier. I knew that financially and materially I would be worse off but those considerations weren't important.
That was then, but what about now?
I started collecting my occupational pension last year and I also have other incomes, as well as property that I own outright. If I had wanted to, I could be sitting on a Thai beach right now sipping cocktails, and I could quite easily afford to do that for the rest of my days.
Instead, I am still working relatively hard and I have taken on some quite major responsibilities in the past year, meaning it will be a very long time before I can even think about sitting on a beach again.
Why? Why didn't I take the easy option?
The reason, very simply, is that I don't want to sit on a beach. Put me on the kind of beach or island that you see in the tourist brochures and after a quick walk around to see what's there I start tearing my hair out as a result of extreme boredom. This kind of hedonistic existence is also very selfish and lonely.
I don't have any interest in islands or beaches at all. I love mountainous areas with lakes and rice fields, and after that I'd much rather be in an ugly provincial Thai city rather than on a boring beach. It's just the way I am.
The worst thing you can do to a busy person is give them nothing to do.
The article doesn't seem to differentiate between stress (a bad thing) and having enough things in life to do (a good thing).
Contrary to Todd Buchholz, we don't need and love the rat race. I hated it then, I hate the thought of it now, and returning to that way of life would be my worst nightmare. We all have things that we enjoy doing and things we hate doing. The ideal is to fill our lives doing the things we enjoy doing, and avoid things we hate.
This latest theory, apparently, wants me to return to commuting several hours a day, wants me to work in faraway places where I have to live away from home, wants me to work around the clock at times, and wants me to work under immense pressure as a result of people having no consideration for others and unrealistic expectations.
It's all black and white (we either work like slaves working long hours and doing jobs we hate) or we break away and do nothing. But where are the important shades of grey?
Bookshops (especially those in the United States) have shelves packed full of 'self help' tomes telling us how we can lead better lives.
The article points out that many of the authors are being hypocritical. They tell you to return to a simpler life (which is impossible), while they, "rush around flogging books and DVDs about the merits of slowing down."
I believe that many people in the rat race are unhappy and dissatisfied. (Thoreau's quote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" always comes to mind.) I also believe that most people would be unhappy and dissatisfied doing nothing in life.
Of all the so-called 'self help' books I've browsed through or read, the only one I ever thought was any good was Martha Beck's 'Finding Your Own North Star'.
The premise of the book is first to listen to yourself and to identify what it is in life that will make you happy. This is highly personal and will vary for every individual. The author doesn't pretend that there are any silver bullets that will make everyone happy because there aren't.
This sounds straightforward enough but how many graduates make career decisions based on how well a certain profession pays? Or maybe we do something to impress others?
It is so easy to start going down a path in life that is tangential to the path we really should be going down. At first we may only be a little way from happiness but after many years we can end up being a very long way from having a happy life. This is what happened to me.
Ignore advertising. Ignore 'lifestyle' magazines that tell you what to do and what things to buy to make you happy. How do they know? The only person who knows is you. Disregard money. As long as you have enough, that's all you need.
We all have the answers to our own happiness already. Listen to yourself. What activities make you feel alive? What things can you do where you become so engrossed that you forget about time and everything else?
Are there situations in which you can't stop yawning? Do you have a need to just get away from your working environment at every opportunity you can?
These are all signs that shouldn't be ignored.
I don't wish to add my name to the list of 'self help' gurus but for many years I struggled to find a happier life for myself after the happiness had disappeared from my life (despite being quite well off financially and materially).
The article I linked to above frustrated me a little because this latest book is still not giving people the right answers.
No one else can tell you what will make you happy. The only way is for you to find the answers that already exist inside your own mind.
A few years ago a Malaysian visitor to this site wrote to me after seeing that I had changed my life to escape the rat race. He wanted to do the same but was afraid of the usual things.
He did it eventually and I received an e-mail today telling me he was working on a farm in Taiwan. He's very happy.
The other thing you realise at a certain age is that the years pass very quickly. At 20 it may seem that life is eternal, but at 50 you have a slightly different perspective. It is said that you only regret the things in life that you didn't do, rather than the things you did even if they weren't successful. At least you tried.
What are you waiting for?
Monday 13th June 2011
I didn't realise this, but the following report says that in the past Asian countries either didn't understand India or didn't want to do business with India. Now, however, that has all changed.
India is building huge car production facilities and it is also setting up factories to make parts to supply the factories. The country is also better positioned than Asian countries further east to export finished products to Europe and the Middle East.
English skills are also good in India, as they are in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, but not in Thailand. English native speakers will always complain about the English in places like India and Singapore but at least they can communicate, even if it is difficult at times.
The Thai economy relies a lot on car assembly. However, Thailand continues to look inwards all the time with a short term view and the country is perpetually embroiled in petty political, power and class struggles that are only set to get worse later this year.
One of the most interesting comments in the article about India was that Indian companies are looking at China 25 years in the future. As was the case with Singapore, huge success can only come about as a result of very long term planning.
I've heard lots about the ongoing development in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Burma will be a massive economic powerhouse in the region if the country ever gets a decent government, and another report I have just read was about Indonesia:
All of these countries have problems, but some countries seem better positioned than others to overcome the problems.
The economy is booming in Indonesia, apparently, but:
"Corruption and red tape still affect Indonesia and cost the economy millions every year."
India has suffered a lot from corruption but there has been an effort to deal with it.
Most Asian countries are notorious for excessive bureaucracy, red tape and bureaucracy, and Thailand isn't immune. Thais are very good at saying the right things but after all the rhetoric has been spouted most things just stay the same.
I want Thailand to be successful but the more I read about other developing countries and the more I observe what is happening in Thailand, the more concerned I become for the country.
The following link shows economic growth rates in the Southeast Asian countries. The report is a bit out of date now - 2006 - which is probably why there is a comment about Thailand continuing to benefit from political stability. Thailand has the lowest growth rate.
Saturday 11th June 2011
Am I an optimist or a pessimist? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? I suspect that often I come across as negative and a bit of a pessimist but I would prefer to think of myself as a realist or a pragmatist.
I also try to think logically. Regarding the glass, if it's being filled it is half-full. If it's being emptied it is half-empty. If there is no context then I can't give you an answer.
I enjoy life but I object to being deceived and I try not to delude myself. Perhaps a lot of my attitudes now are as a result of being deceived in the past? If other people deceive us then maybe are to blame (initially), but if we delude ourselves then we only have ourselves to blame.
We can always be hopelessly optimistic but most of the time we will only end up being disappointed. If we are realistic we may be pleasantly surprised occasionally but we won't often be disappointed.
I read a report about pensions recently that summed up how so many people delude themselves: Retirement: 3 million pin their hope on winning the lottery.
If we always believe that our troubles will be solved by winning the lottery or by travelling to somewhere different, we are deluding ourselves because that's not how life works.
The stories about the end of the world recently got a lot of press. Harold Camping's followers believed that they would all be 'raptured' to heaven when the world came to a sudden and abrupt end. More delusion.
There was an article on the BBC news site about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and Camelot. This man and this place may never have existed but there is still an endless fascination. Why?
People have a need to believe that somewhere there is a perfect place, with chivalrous knights as inhabitants, and the hero is someone who will one day to return to rescue his people.
What all these things have in common is a reluctance by people to accept the reality of their lives, and instead to place their faith in something else. In a nutshell, delusion.
One of the (many) things I like about Buddhism is that no leaps of faith are necessary and no big promises are made. The basic premise is that life is suffering.
As soon as we come into the world we start suffering and as our bodies deteriorate and our minds become corrupted we suffer more. This is exactly what happens, and then we die.
Is this being miserable and pessimistic? To some it might sound that way, but when you analyse the human condition, Buddhism is about the most accurate analysis you can get.
I enjoy life but I have a very realistic outlook. I don't walk around constantly grinning from ear to ear but occasionally I am pleasantly surprised, and rarely do I suffer huge disappointments. Life is all about setting expectations and my general philosophy is to hope for the best but to expect the worst.
Friday 10th June 2011
From the book I'm currently reading (Thai Images by Niels Mulder):
"The deeper image that emerges is that of a society driven by the quest for rank and prestige, in which the old idea of titled position has given way to the preoccupation with diplomas and profession. University education, and a degree, are the marks of accomplishment, graded according to the prestige of the institutions and faculties concerned."
Provided a family can afford it, education for offspring and the attainment of qualifications is a real obsession in Thailand. This is particularly so in the south. Mulder goes on to say that there is little real interest in the subject matter, but students just cram at the right times to get through exams. I wouldn't disagree with this.
It would be unheard of for one my students not to go to university. I teach at a fairly good school and the only reason for studying there is so that they will get accepted into a university when they finish.
So many Thais have degrees these days that it has become the minimum qualification and without a degree forget about any kind of job, unless you want to sweep floors or collect garbage.
I don't have a degree because when I left school it wasn't necessary. I went on to work for one of the most successful companies there has ever been and I did well. Many of my contemporaries did the same. There are lots of people in the UK around my age who are very well respected and who earn huge salaries but didn't go to university.
However, Thais don't understand this and look down on anyone without a degree - including foreigners. After working at a university for four years, getting a good reputation, and then being offered a full-time job, I was virtually kicked out when it came to light that I didn't have a degree.
Some farangs lie about their qualifications but I don't like to lie so I told the truth. My tertiary education was spent doing an HNC because I believed the practical content would be more useful after I left school than a degree. It's quite a respected qualification in the UK but in Thailand you either have a degree or you don't and there are no shades of grey.
Many degrees do not equip students to actually be able to do anything. When they graduate they are completely useless.
The Nation tells us today that out of the 400,000 students who graduate in Thailand each year, only 100,000 get jobs. A few years ago they published the same statistics and both figures were higher.
However, of the students that gain vocational qualifications, 90% of them find jobs. That's probably because after these students qualify they can actually do something.
That was the thinking behind the UK Higher National Certificate and why it is respected in the UK. I will never forget one incredibly stuck up Thai woman working at a Law Faculty who looked at the piece of paper representing my four years of hard study and sneered down her nose at me, "It's ONLY a certificate."
For years and years Thailand has been churning out graduates like a sausage factory churning out sausages. The problem is that the majority are completely unskilled.
The report in the The Nation also mentions how ASEAN countries will soon start to allow migration of labour across borders (a similar arrangement to the EEC) and how Thai workers could suddenly find that there are a lot of skilled workers to compete with.
Filipinos have good English skills (which, generally, Thais don't) and the article tells us that Vietnamese workers are 'hardworking and patient'. Burmese workers also work hard and they will work for a lot less money than Thais.
This is another example of image coming before substance in Thailand. It's all fine and well to boast how many graduates the country produces each year, but unless they can actually do anything productive they are useless.
Meanwhile, it would appear that other countries in the region are more interested in building workforces with real skills rather than just churning out graduates for the sake of it.
A lot of Thai graduates end up doing menial jobs or working in retail. It isn't unusual for security guards or 7-Eleven staff to have Bachelor's degrees.
I worked for a while at a technical college in Thailand. Students from technical colleges are looked down upon by university students. However, at the college where I worked there was a petroleum department. Possibly, it is the only one of its kind in Thailand.
The students there learnt real skills and when they graduated they didn't even need to apply for jobs because the oil companies would come to the college to recruit new hires.
Oil companies are big payers in Thailand and some of the students from the technical college go on to earn huge salaries.
I also know Thais who have never experienced life outside of a university environment. They do a Bachelor's Degree, Master's Degree, get a job lecturing, and then do a PhD. They might have a lot of knowledge in one very specialised, obscure field but outside of that they are useless. They have lots of letters after their name but tiny salaries.
And when the big-paying oil companies are looking to hire staff for big-paying jobs they go straight to where they know the skills are.
Image is important and we were always taught that first impressions count, but if there is no substance behind the image then the pretence won't last for long.
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