Living In Thailand Blog
Saturday 28th May 2011
Another interesting BBC article. It's not about Thailand but it's something that is relevant to me at the moment.
I'm certainly not depressed (actually I'm quite enjoying it, especially when Ellie gives me a big smile) but, as everyone tells you, the change to your life after becoming a parent is enormous.
The baby is now our first priority and everything else comes a very distant second. Since she arrived I've had no time at all to do the things I used to enjoy doing. She also has a minor medical problem but the time it takes to administer the treatment isn't minor and the ongoing treatment has entailed several visits to the local hospital each week.
We are very unfortunate that we live fairly close to the hospital. Mor Or (as it is known) is the only hospital of its kind in the south of Thailand and many people have to travel from much further away.
Yesterday I was talking to some parents from Phuket and Nakhon Sri Thammarat who had brought their children for treatment. During the last couple of months I have spoken to people from all over the south of Thailand who have had to make the journey.
I only had to work for an hour yesterday morning and then had the rest of the day 'free'. However, we had to go the hospital for several hours and after getting home we had to go again in the evening. The day disappeared without me having any free time to myself.
The washing machine runs every day and there is always a pile of clothes to be ironed. We've been employing someone to clean and iron for several months and I don't know what we would do without her. I also have to make frequent shopping trips.
We can't just go out on a whim these days, as we used to. Each time we go out my wife needs to prepare a bag for the baby. There have also been times when the baby has put quite a strain on our relationship.
I spoke to her about this article and she remarked that when she was working it was only for a limited number of hours. When work finished she was then free. Looking after the baby is a 24 hour job and now she is never free.
Combined with all the additional expense, it makes you wonder why people would ever choose to have children! Up until recently I didn't think I would ever be a father. It's a good question!
Without the baby, I think our lives would be very empty now. It's also another age-related thing. When I was younger I was very selfish but now I get more out of giving than taking. I don't think I would have been a good father when I was younger and I would have felt a lot of resentment.
Now, however, I enjoy it and I am looking forward to being able to influence Ellie's life in a good way, just as I try to do with my students.
It is also rewarding. The only reward we get at the moment is a big smile from her when she's happy but I'm sure there will be lots more in the future (along with the problems that children inevitably bring).
Also, when she's old enough to do housework I will be able to save money by no longer employing someone else to do it. I've already been looking around for a chimney sweeping kit before she gets too big to get up the chimney.
Thursday 26th May 2011
I wasn't planning on writing anything today but I just read a great article on the BBC news site. Great, that is, if you are a fan of language and cultural behaviour.
The article examines differences between the Germans and British. The German language, we learn, has no term for 'small talk'. Germans regard British small talk exchanges as a complete waste of time and they actually regard some phrases as being deceitful.
I can understand why. How many times do we tell people we will see them again when actually we have no intention of ever seeing them again? But these little phrases are there for a purpose even if we don't mean what we say.
Old farts like me will remember Sergeant Wilson from Dad's Army prefixing every request he made with, "Would you mind awfully?" This was in the capacity of an army officer talking to his subordinates! Of course, this took the British stereotype to the extreme but it was there for comedic purposes. We do, however, use lots of little phrases to make requests and commands sound less harsh.
Germans, apparently, regard these little comments as a waste of time and go straight for the imperative, but of course this sounds rude to British people. If someone tells you to, "Open the door," how would you react?
While I was reading this I was thinking of the differences between English and Thai. If Germans think English has lots of unnecessary phrases just for the sake of politeness, Thai goes one or two steps further.
First, there are the polite particles used by males and females that often get used with every sentence - sometimes even multiple times in one sentence. Leaving out a krup or a ka can make you seem extremely rude in Thailand.
Just as the British use words to make requests sound more polite, listen out for the na's and noi's in Thai. There are lots of words and particles that are unnecessary (according to the Germans) but used only for politeness.
Thai uses several personal pronouns, and honorific titles are extremely important. Use the wrong personal pronoun or call someone by the wrong title and they may not actually say anything (normally Thais keep their ire to themselves) but you will cause offense.
Thai has two words for many nouns and verbs - informal and formal - and there is also a completely different set of vocabulary for royal terms.
We normally "gin kaaw" when we eat rice but in certain situations talking with certain people, using the informal verb to eat can give people a very bad impression of us.
Language is so much more than simple verbal communication. It tells us so much about the people who use it, their values, beliefs and cultural behaviour.
I am by no means a gifted linguist, or even a cunning linguist. However, I make an effort with Thai simply because it's very useful in everyday life and also because I find the things behind language quite fascinating.
Regarding saying things that we don't mean just to be friendly and polite, Thais are far worse than the British. I have met Thai girls who I stayed with all day long and they treated me as if I was the most wonderful person on earth.
When it was time to part company they made a point of writing down my phone number and e-mail address. They seemed so enthralled with me that I was sure I would be hearing from them again very soon. But then I never heard from them ever again.
This has happened more than once. It should serve as a warning to foreign men who meet Thai girls in Thailand. The girls have this way of making you seem like the most wonderful man on earth but their real feelings are normally quite different.
Wednesday 25th May 2011
Most Thai TV shows are an insult to the intelligence of anyone with an IQ greater than their shoe size but occasionally something worthwhile watching shows up on one of the cable channels - normally from abroad.
The Asian Food Channel has been running a show (Blood, Sweat and Takeaways) where a group of youngsters from the UK get to experience first-hand what it takes to get food to their supermarkets at home.
The youngsters involved exhibit similar personality traits to 'Big Brother' contestants but if you can get past that, the show has some quite insightful moments.
First they were in Indonesia before moving across to Thailand. They worked in paddy fields and then went to the capital. In Bangkok they spent time in a tiny room in Klong Toey preparing freshly caught fish for the market. Not a pleasant job.
Next they went to a huge chicken factory somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok. Thailand is one of the biggest exporters of chicken in the world and life inside the factory was a real eye-opener.
It employs thousands of Thais. They are all dressed in white suits and masks and they work silently.
Live chickens enter the factory at one end where they are hung on a conveyor belt. Their first stop is the 'killing room' and after that they continue their journey on conveyor belts where they are prepared to be sold as food.
The workers have five seconds to complete each task - 12 birds or pieces of meat per minute. The foreigners could only manage six per minute.
The taking of any form of life is absolutely forbidden in Buddhism so how Buddhist Thais reconcile this type of work with their religion I don't know. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that they have no choice.
The workers come from poor areas of Thailand - mainly Isaan. They live in a workers' dorm and earn Bt5,000 per month. One girl who was interviewed had a young son being looked after back in the village by her parents. This is very, very common.
Of her Bt5,000 salary, she sends Bt3,000 home each month. Her accommodation costs Bt1,000 and she manages to live on Bt1,000 a month. She sees her son about twice a year.
It's incredibly sad but many poor Thais live similar existences. One statistic the girl mentioned was that only 5% of people in Isaan live at home. The other 95% are working elsewhere in the country so that they can send money home.
The group also spoke to girls working as prostitutes in Bangkok for basically the same reasons. They earn more than the chicken factory workers but their work doesn't do their physical or mental health any good.
Many Thais can't choose.
While in Bangkok recently it was once again obvious that some Thais are very, very rich (but I knew that anyway). The tax on luxury European cars imported into Thailand is something like 327% but there was no shortage of Porsches, Mercedes, BMWs, etc.
On the way to the airport I saw a huge billboard advertising a housing development where houses were being sold for between Bt40 million and Bt100 million.
This huge wealth gap forms the basis for all the political problems in Thailand. Those without opportunities just want a few more opportunities.
What surprises me is that I don't hear anyone demanding anything that will really make things fairer. Electing already rich people who will just feather their own nests while giving the poor a few handouts won't really make much difference.
What would make a huge difference is building huge industrial and technology parks in the provinces. It would provide employment for local people and allow people to live where they were born.
At first it would be necessary to import certain skills but education facilities should also be established so that in the future local people would have the necessary skills.
Communities would stay together, the wealth gap would decrease; and by actually doing something worthwhile outside of Bangkok instead of just tourism, it would help Bangkok which is already choking on pollution and overcrowding.
Perhaps this is already taking place but I haven't seen much evidence. Whenever I talk to low-paid workers anywhere in the country they are either from Isaan or Burma. Wealthy Thais must love having such a huge source of cheap labour at their disposal but continuing this trend won't heal the deep rift that now exists in Thai society between the haves and the have-nots.
An election has been called but no matter who wins, it will only mean that one half of the country will be unhappy with the outcome and the troubles will continue.
I've been a bit critical of Singapore - and I still am regarding certain aspects* of the country - but I am actually a great admirer of Lee Kuan Yew. Very few people have the vision and intellect he has, combined with the ability to plan in the long term, and the ability to actually turn plans into reality.
Singapore is tiny whereas Thailand is much bigger in terms of area and population so to effect change is far more difficult but the Thais could make a start. The problem is that most plans in Thailand are short term and self-serving.
The Nation ran quite a good piece on Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew recently, comparing Thailand to Singapore, and in the process the Thai journalist was quite critical of Thailand.
What Thailand really needs is a Lee Kuan Yew type visionary who has the ability to develop and carry out long term plans for the benefit of all Thais, not just himself, his family and cronies. Misguidedly electing someone on the basis of their surname, in my humble opinion, is not the way to go.
I found a clip of the show I mentioned above on YouTube but it only includes the part about the Thai prostitutes working in Bangkok. It's worth watching if only to watch the American guy giving a master class on stupidity.
Prostitution in Thailand is an extremely emotive subject with everyone having their own view but I can't imagine the girls would be selling their bodies miles away from home with other people looking after their kids if there was an alternative way for them to earn a decent living.
* For example, the exploitation of poor foreign workers, the draconian policies regarding freedom of speech and some other basic human rights (Singapore rejects British author Alan Shadrake's appeal) and the beatings and hangings that are carried out regularly in Singapore prisons.
- Of course, things will not change in Thailand because the rich have absolutely no reason to institute any changes. They like things just the way they are. The only way that change can come about is through an inevitably bloody revolution, the foretaste of which we saw a year ago. That was just the beginning, I fear. I am a firm believer that in not too many years from now Cambodia and Vietnam would have changed places with Thailand. They will be the countries setting the pace and Thailand will be the country mired in war and internal conflict. It is perfectly obvious that those countries are moving ahead as quickly as Thailand is regressing into political and social warfare.
The red shirts messed up last year by becoming too militant - although they probably saw that merely talking has absolutely no effect - with their 24-hour ranting reminding me of Hilter. The words were similar and the delivery identical. Their worst mistake was to raid the hospital - there could be no worse PR than seeing sick people being evacuated.
Singapore is a good example of it being possible to have a good dictatorship. Sometimes - often - people must be coralled into heading in the right direction rather than everyone pulling in different directions. If the dictator has the right intentions then it works. Mostly, they don't.
Sunday 22nd May 2011
I filled the car up this morning and noticed that the price per litre had dropped by almost Bt2 since I last filled it up. The price of oil has dropped recently but normally this doesn't equate to lower fuel prices - a complaint I often hear from the UK.
There are regional variations in the cost of fuel in Thailand just as there are elsewhere. I paid Bt37.86 per litre today and, at current exchange rates, that works out at about 77 UK pence. An article I found on The Telegraph web site tells me the average price per litre in the UK is about 135p.
Of course, most of the money you and I pay for a litre of petrol goes straight into the government's coffers - Petrol Prices Breakdown.
The bastards tax us on the money we earn, the money we spend, the interest on the money we save (for what little it's worth these days at current interest rates), the money we inherit, and after all this if we were fortunate enough to make a profit on anything we bought they hit as with capital gains tax as well.
My current car has a 3 litre engine, as did my last car in the UK. Cars with big engines use a lot of fuel but they're safer to drive, as well as more fun. I was fortunate enough to have owned 'fun' cars in the UK when it was still fun to drive there.
With the price of fuel now and the obsession with catching motorists driving in excess of speed limits that were designed for Morris Minors, Ford Populars, and Austin A50s I doubt that driving is much fun.
I complain bitterly about the lawlessness on Thailand's roads and the woeful lack of law enforcement, but driving (once you get outside of the congested city centres) is still fun and it's still relatively affordable.
Tesco and Carrefour dominate the large supermarket sector of the Thai economy. Both are foreign-owned (British and French, respectively) and this upsets some Thais. It's a regular political issue and some Thais even make a point of boycotting these stores.
I can understand their grievance but in a free market economy the best will succeed. Thais like free markets as long as the situation benefits them. When it doesn't they get upset and throw their toys around.
The Thai branches of Tesco and Carrefour carry mainly Thai goods and employ a lot of Thai staff. Consumers like them and they are good for the economy even though some of the profit leaves the country.
I don't see any point moaning and complaining. Thais themselves are quite free to set up Thai-owned businesses to compete and that's how it should be.
This week, however, I have seen it from the other side. There are no superstores near to where I live and a few enterprising people have opened small minimarts. They are typical of the 'Mom and Pop' operations we hear about.
They have a small turnover and no purchasing power. They buy their stock from the big supermarkets and make a very small profit on each item. Their location and opening hours are convenient for local people even though prices may be a bit higher.
We have such a shop on the corner of our Soi and the owners are always friendly and helpful. Their shop has been very useful at times.
Last week, Tesco opened a branch of 'Tesco Express' just a hundred yards or so down the road. It's a smaller version of their large superstores and it carries the same goods but there is less choice.
Tesco and Carrefour purchase an enormous amount of produce so they have enormous purchasing power. They can buy cheaply and then sell cheaply while still making a profit.
This new branch of Tesco Express has been packed since it opened and it must be hurting the little minimarts. The small places can't reduce their prices because they are already working with a minimum profit margin. I suspect that a few will go out of business.
It's sad. On one hand I agree with the free market economy but it will be a sad day when all the small independent places have been forced to close down because they have been put out of business by the huge mega-companies.
I will use the new Tesco but I also have in mind to continue my support for the smaller, independent places.
- Carrefour has sold its interests in this part of the world and Big C bought them up in Thailand. I think Big C has a Dutch link, but it might be wholly Thai now. I don't know.
The locals, of course, had the chance to develop their own supermarkets but didn't have the vision to do so. Nothing new there. Besides, it's a nasty foreign concept, lacking Thainess to deliver good, clean service at cheap prices. I have been in too many dingy, un-lit, cobweb invested Thai stores to have any sympathy. On one perfectly-Thai occasion I wanted to buy the Bangkok Post, but they had the previous day's copy still on display. The owner refused to sell me the current issue as yesterday's hadn't been sold yet. How can you deal with that kind of mentality?
Friday 13th May 2011
Thais won't get their hair cut on a Wednesday but they don't have a problem with Friday 13th. Foreigners are the opposite. Where did all this superstitious nonsense come from?
I mentioned previously that our own personal value systems change throughout our lives. Every time I visit Bangkok I wonder if I will suddenly feel different about the Thai capital.
I've never wanted to live there before but perhaps this time I will feel differently?
The answer is that nothing has changed. It's one of the world's major cities with a wealth of things to see, things to do, things to eat, and things to buy. But it's not for me. In fact, I find that I dislike the capital a little more with every visit I make.
There are some places in the world that I never want to visit again. Bangkok isn't one of them. I will visit again and in the future I look forward to visiting with my wife and daughter. Ellie is half Thai so there are some things she needs to see in Bangkok because they are a part of her heritage and identity.
But as a place to live, absolutely and most definitely not. Three, four or five days at a time will be perfect before going back to a much more relaxed and comfortable way of life.
One thing that Bangkok has in common with the rest of Thailand is that it is almost impossible at times to cross the road and it is very dangerous. In the past, foreigners have been killed while trying to cross roads in the Thai capital.
Pedestrian (zebra) crossings are a waste of paint in Thailand because Thai drivers never even consider stopping. On my breakfast stroll this morning a pedestrian got an angry blast from a bus driver for having the audacity to cross the road on a zebra crossing in front of his bus.
There are pedestrian bridges in some places but not everywhere. Traffic lights are only programmed for traffic. There is no allowance in the traffic light sequence for pedestrians to cross.
I've been on my own this week and despite my ageing body I am still fairly agile. If I had my daughter with me I would be terrified about trying to get across busy roads with her. It can't be much fun for old people either who aren't quite as mobile.
This is yet another problem that Thailand needs to fix - not just in Bangkok but everywhere.
This morning I finally felt good about Bangkok ... as I got in the taxi to go to the airport. I was so desperate to leave that I arrived at the airport about fours before my flight was due to leave.
Sometimes I feel as if my life is cursed. I was looking forward to getting home and enjoying some peace and quiet. The first sign that something was amiss was all the parked cars near my house and the taxi not being able to turn down my Soi.
One of the local males is going to be ordained as a monk and so of course a big street party has been organised. A huge marquee has been erected in the street and one of the houses it is in front of is mine.
It's fortunate that I don't want to go anywhere because I can't get the car out even if I wanted to. The Soi has been blocked completely at one end making things inconvenient for lots of people, but who cares about other people.
The worst thing about all this is that they are blasting out Thai country music at a Spinal Tap level of 11 and the party is due to go on through the night. Unbelievable.
There is only one thing keeping me from going crazy at the moment. On the way home from the airport I passed the development where our new home is being built. It's really quiet and peaceful and there won't be any of the annoyances that exist where I currently live.
If you thought that Buddhist Thailand was peaceful, calm, tranquil and soothing ... think again. Thais love to make noise and when they aren't blasting out music they are racing around in cars and motorbikes with noisy exhausts.
Thursday 12th May 2011
Honest Bangkok taxi drivers (just like their Singapore counterparts) work hard. Cabs are expensive to buy or hire, petrol is expensive, and there isn't much profit with metered fares. They need to put in a lot of hours to make a living.
However, there are those who aren't prepared to work hard. They're the ones who hang around areas with lots of tourists trying to get agreed fares without using their meters.
There's a guy who does this outside the hotel where I'm staying. He sits at the end of the Soi hassling all the foreign guests entering and leaving the hotel.
I keep telling him every day that I'm not interested but he won't give up. He wants to take me to the airport tomorrow. I told him he could if he uses his meter. His reply was that it is the same price.
The metered fare here from the airport was Bt250 (including the Bt50 surcharge for the airport pickup) and he wants to take me there for Bt450. I guess that maths wasn't his best subject at school.
Bangkok, like many large cities around the globe, can be a lonely and unfriendly place despite there being so many people.
I've hardly spoken to anyone since I got here. When I talk to people they are either suspicious or downright rude. When people talk to me I am suspicious, but you need to be suspicious of people here because there are so many bad Thais looking to scam foreigners.
Lots of people live in condos and that too normally means being lonely. My house in the south is in a real community where all the neighbours look out for each other. My brother has lived in condos for years in Singapore and despite occasional encounters in the elevator no one gets to know each other.
Bangkok feels like a pool of sharks. The sharks swim around ignoring each other but they are all waiting for one shark to run into problems so that they can get their next meal.
I wandered around some back streets in the Bangrak area this morning and it was quite pleasant. The street life was exactly the same as in the provinces, apart from the fact that no one spoke to me.
As I said before, all the ingredients of 'Thainess' are very much present in Bangkok but if you keep close to the BTS and follow the standard tourist trail they are easy to miss because of all the Westernisation that has taken place.
I have deliberately avoided the big shopping centres on this trip. I only go to these places if I need to buy something but I don't currently have a shopping list.
I can't think of anything more boring than walking around shopping malls if you don't need to buy anything. The minute I go inside these places I start yawning even though I'm not tired.
My impression is that it must be quite difficult to learn to speak Thai in Bangkok. If I speak Thai people answer in English most of the time. It's stupid to continue a conversation with me speaking Thai and the Thai speaking English so I just revert to English.
It's a big show of face for a Thai in Bangkok to speak English so I guess they see it as a loss of face if you speak Thai. Whatever.
Foreigners can still learn, obviously, but there is no necessity to learn as there is in other more remote parts of Thailand.
Today I overheard two French women talking. One answered her phone and immediately went into fluent Thai. She was very, very good. I can tell if foreigners speak Thai well or if they speak Thai like me. For most it is the latter.
I went back to the translation agency to collect my paperwork. That was the entire reason for this trip. With my flight booked tomorrow it would have been bad news if there had been a problem but all was OK. The service they provided saved me a huge amount of hassle and was worth Bt2,000.
The three sheets of paper I now have in my sweaty hands have cost me quite a lot of money in Embassy fees, agency fees, air tickets, hotel rooms and expenses. In addition I've also had to spend five pretty miserable nights in Bangkok.
Never mind. Getting the bits of paper was my mission and it seems to have been successfully accomplished.
My ramblings since I arrived in Bangkok should tell that I haven't really enjoyed it, however, there's a lot to do and see in the capital so I felt obliged to balance things up.
But actually I've hated almost every minute I've been here. Every time I visit Bangkok it is worse than the last. A few moments on this trip have been tolerable but I haven't really enjoyed anything.
Today, Bangkok really depressed me. It started off when I took the BTS to Ploenchit to get my paperwork. Whenever I'm on the BTS it reminds me of Singapore and that is depressing in itself. It's efficient and clean but absolutely soulless.
Certain types of people also depress me. Seeing lonely old farang men who are obviously teaching English going off to their next teaching assignments with gloomy expressions on their faces is depressing.
Seeing farangs who aren't teachers but who try to give the impression they are hotshot businessmen depresses me. Watching snotty 'hi-so' Thai girls who are so stuck up their own backsides playing with their i-Phones depresses me.
I don't like being in places with lots of tall buildings, especially if those places are also very crowded. The combination of tall buildings and crowds makes me feel claustrophobic. I want to escape but there is nowhere to escape.
The weather has been awful this week. It's hot and steamy all the time but there has also been rainy and the skies have been continually grey. I wasn't sure whether to bring my SLR camera gear with me. I'm pleased I didn't because as well as being heavy, the light has been terrible for photography.
When I start to feel like this about a place and/or a situation I feel tired all the time with no energy. That's how I feel now.
To cheer myself up I went to the Oriental Hotel for lunch. Lunch at one of the world's top hotels with fantastic service cost me less than the Indian meal I had on Sunday. The hotel is quite low-key and they have a dress code which keeps out farang kee nok and other riff-raff.
I also picked up a couple of books. One is by Niels Mulder and the other is co-authored by Pasuk Phongpaichit. Anything written by these authors (and also Chris Baker) is worth reading if you have a genuine interest in understanding Thailand.
After feeling so depressed about Bangkok today I read Mulders comments in the preface to his book (Thai Images - The culture of the public world) and was reassured to hear that I'm not the only one.
He started visiting Thailand in 1965 and his first stop was Bangkok. Later on he moved up to Chiang Mai.
"These days, however, I avoid the capital. If, during my first year, Bangkok made me happy and feel alive, it now depresses and tires me. Life there rapidly lost its charm during the early 1970s; in 1975 I chose the capital of the North."
I wonder what Mulder feels about Chiang Mai these days? On my last visit the Amphoe Muang district of Chiang Mai was reminiscent of Patong without the sea. Many areas of Thailand have now been completely ruined by the huge influx of farangs in recent years.
I was also depressed by the advertising on the BTS and around the downtown area. It doesn't matter what is being sold, it's not the product that is being sold, but the 'lifestyle'. Oh how I hate that word when it's used in an advertising context.
Mobile phones and condos are advertised in exactly the same way. The developers of condos have obviously paid an advertising agency to come up with a load of bullshit as to why living in their square high-rise box with a few windows is better than living in another square high-rise box with a few windows.
One even featured the slogan, "Not constructing a building; constructing a lifestyle." Pass the sick bag, Alice.
I find the big, new, fancy shopping malls the same. I visited one a few years ago (Siam Paragon, I think it's called) and one floor was devoted to 'lifestyle'. That word again. It was full of ridiculously priced consumer goods. Most people can't afford the stupid prices and all these places do is make people feel dissatisfied with what they have already.
Thais are supposed to be advocates of Sufficiency Economy, which is an excellent philosophy based on true Buddhist principles. This is exactly the opposite of what you see in central Bangkok where greedy materialism is everything, yet it is the same country. Thailand is a country full of contradictions.
This is why so many Thais are confused and dissatisfied because they constantly receive different messages. Buddhism tells them not to grasp and not to become attached to the material world, yet they are constantly bombarded with powerful advertising messages that tell them the opposite.
I can't wait to go home tomorrow.
Wednesday 11th May 2011
My aches and pains were a lot better this morning. I'm either recovering or the drugs are doing a good job at masking the pain.
Once again it's back on to the polluted, noisy, crowded streets of Bangkok in the intense tropical heat and humidity.
Out in the provinces I never get approached by Thais offering to 'help' me. In Bangkok it happens all the time. I always stop to listen but I wouldn't trust any Thai who approaches me on the street further than I can spit.
They're actually quite convincing and I can understand why tourists get taken in. They speak politely and they sound quite credible. One guy today told me he was a project manager and pointed to a building across the road where he worked ... supposedly.
They aren't too pushy but they ask if they can help and they offer advice. If you don't know Thailand these people are easy to believe but if you know Thailand you realise they are lying through their teeth.
The guy this morning told me that Wednesday is a special cleaning day in Bangkok and that everywhere is closed. Yeah, sure. He told me that if I wanted to shop today I was wasting my time. Yeah, sure.
I didn't pursue the conversation but no doubt he knew somewhere where the shops were open - quite possibly a gem shop - and he could take me there. All this out of the goodness of his heart, of course.
If I had been looking for somewhere to get a haircut and he had told me all the barbers were closed today that would have been believable.
Superstitious Thais believe that getting their hair cut on a Wednesday is unlucky and therefore lots of barbers are closed on Wednesday.
But all the shops? Did he really expect me to believe that? Did I look like a fresh tourist who had just stepped off the banana boat? I continued walking and all the shops were open, of course.
Just after that a tuk-tuk driver pulled up and offered me a tour of the city for Bt20. This is yet another scam that is carried out on tourists every day of the year in Bangkok.
Remember that a good Thai will never approach you on the street. Never. If you are approached by a Thai in Bangkok then that person is up to no good, no matter how friendly or genuine he/she seems.
The exception was when I was approached after leaving the British Embassy on Monday. The guy knew that farangs often need translation services after visiting the Embassy and he was just trying to get business for his company because it's a competitive market. He took me to his office and I could see that it was all genuine.
As usually happens to me, I have had enough of Bangkok after a few days and I'm ready to go home already. Lots of foreigners choose Bangkok for what it has to offer but Bangkok isn't for me. It's a personal choice.
I talk a lot about value systems, mainly comparing the value systems of entire societies. In addition to that we all have our own individual value systems and we all regard some things as being more important than others.
Our individual value systems also change as we get older. For example, most people find the things that were important at 20 or 30 are no longer important at 50.
In the provinces I sometimes get food cravings that can't be satisfied locally, but they could be satisfied in Bangkok. Some things are difficult to buy locally whereas they would be easy to buy in Bangkok.
There are many things I can do in Bangkok that I can't do in the provinces but the overall quality of life in Bangkok is far worse.
The house I am buying, which is quite large, is about Bt6 million. To buy somewhere in Bangkok with the same amount of space would probably cost about Bt20 million or more.
At any time I can jump in the Escape and escape to the countryside or beach where I can find complete peace and tranquility. The environment I live in is better for my wife, daughter, cats and me.
One of the sayings I live my life by is, "You can have anything, but you can't have everything." Would I give up my comfortable life in the provinces in return for being able to buy certain things or to eat certain food occasionally? My answer is no, but that's just me.
After weighing up all the pros and cons, Bangkok isn't for me personally. Of course, we all have our own value systems and many foreigners choose to live in Bangkok because it is right for them.
Happiness and contentment in life depend on doing what is right for us individually and not following trends or blindly doing what other people do.
Another good thing in Bangkok is being able to find lots of English books. My local bookshops sell mainly Thai books with just a tiny selection of English ones.
However, even with good restaurants, good shopping and good bookshops it still isn't enough to make me want to live in the capital.
As I write now it is 3pm. My aches and pains feel a lot better but my throat is beginning to suffer. I've spent all day walking around and the pollution is as bad as ever. I have never smoked but just being in Bangkok must be the equivalent of being a 20-a-day smoker.
Bangkok is very different to the rest of Thailand in some ways but in other ways it is exactly the same. The difference is that a lot of the 'Thai-ness' is just below the surface instead of being the main event. All the same ingredients are there but you have to look a bit harder to find them.
One thing I don't particularly like is the way that Thais gossip about foreigners, thinking that the foreigners can't understand what they are saying. I think it's rude.
They whisper and if it wasn't for one thing I wouldn't know they were talking about me in most cases but they can't stop themselves from referring to me as farang. I can always pick that word out no matter how softly it is spoken.
In the past I've confronted Thais who I heard talking about me. Their usual reaction is to act shocked and to deny saying anything but I know what I heard. They do it quite openly because they don't think there are any foreigners who can understand what they are saying.
If you are a foreign male in Bangkok you get approached by Thai men who thrust pictures of naked girls in front of you and want to take you to a brothel. They get a hefty commission, of course.
My response these days is to ask in Thai if one of the girls is his wife. This really pisses them off.
I think it's fair. I may have insulted him and his wife but he has just insulted me with the presumption that I am a sex tourist. One insult deserves another.
On the way back it was dark and everything on the river was lit up. Additionally, there was an electric storm in the background with occasional bolts of lightning lighting up the sky. It was quite spectacular.
Nowhere else in Thailand can offer anything like this. Then again, there are sights elsewhere in Thailand that Bangkok can't offer.
My feelings are still the same. I will continue to visit Bangkok but I wouldn't want to live there permanently.
One of the defining characteristics of the British is a keen sense of fairness. Brits will endure a hell of a lot as long as everything is fair but they will not stand for anything being unfair.
The expression, "It's not cricket," means something isn't fair. If Brits lose a game of cricket that is played fairly they will accept defeat graciously. If something unfair causes them to lose, such as ball tampering, they will not be at all happy.
The ongoing political problems in Thailand are all based on the fact that life is very unfair for Thais. Some privileged Thais get everything whereas most of the population get nothing.
When Thais see something unfair that works against them they will fight, scream, protest, riot on the streets and burn buildings.
However, when they see something unfair that benefits them they simply turn a blind eye and say nothing. They just make sure they do their best to hide what is unfair by using their own written language.
I ran into more dual pricing problems today and this is a perfect example of something that is grossly unfair.
It just seems hypocritical to me that on one hand Thais will protest in the streets about injustices that affect them, but on the other they are perfectly happy to see foreign visitors treated unfairly.
Ever since I started to see what goes on (since the time I started to read Thai) I have performed a personal protest of my own by boycotting anywhere that wants to charge me the foreign price. If I can't get in for the Thai price I simply walk away.
I know that this won't make any difference at all, but at least it makes me feel better.
Tuesday 10th May 2011
God knows what the masseuse did to me on Sunday night but instead of getting better, the pain is only getting worse. I could hardly move this morning. I have severe aches and pains all over my body and I feel as if I have played a complete game of rugby against the All Blacks.
What they do when they finish the foot massage is get you to sit on a low stool and then roll the bones in their forearms over the two large nerves in your shoulders that go up to your neck.
If they sense that you are in any pain or discomfort (as I was), instead of backing off they just do it harder. I should have told her to stop but I persevered - like a real man - and now I am suffering.
I used to go for massages regularly but since I met my wife I have hardly been. Perhaps my body has got too soft, or perhaps she massaged sensitive areas too hard? I don't know.
The pain was so bad that I was forced to go to a pharmacy today to buy medicine. The pharmacist gave me Orphenadrine citrate and Paracetamol (Norgesic) and Diclofenac sodium.
I haven't been to Bangkok for a while; I have free time because someone else is processing my paperwork; but I can't get out and about because I'm in too much pain. It sucks.
It's midday now as I write and the good news is that the drugs are working. I have finally started to feel better and hopefully I should feel well enough to go out a little later today.
You have to realise that the vast majority of masseuses in Thailand have absolutely no medical or anatomical training at all. Most get some very basic training or watch someone else a few times before being let loose on the general public.
Most masseuses working in Thailand are poor girls from the north and northeast who do it because it's the only way they can make money to send back to their families.
Some get proper training but they are in the minority. A friend of mine trained properly, opened a shop, and now he teaches other people. Another friend got a job as a masseuse at the Banyan Tree and her training was very extensive. However, you won't get a massage at the Banyan Tree for Bt150. As is always the case in life, you get what you pay for.
With Thai massage the girl will sometimes walk on your back. If she's small it is OK but I don't allow heavy girls to do this for fear of being permanently paralysed.
You wouldn't let an untrained person perform medical or dental work on you but an untrained masseuse has the potential to do quite a lot of damage.
Shortly after midday I felt well enough to go out but that presented another problem - where to go.
I bought Nancy Chandler's map of Bangkok a few years ago and I find that the format makes it easy to see where everything is very quickly. I scanned the map for ages and couldn't decide where to go.
The problem wasn't that there isn't much to see in Bangkok. On the contrary, there is an awful lot to see.
One problem was that since I first visited Bangkok in 1987 I have seen most things at least once. The bigger problem was that I can't stand going to places swarming with tourists - and everywhere in Bangkok is swarming with tourists.
It doesn't matter how spectacular somewhere might be, if there are tourists everywhere in their shorts and Teva sandals I don't want to be there.
In the end I decided to go to the Siriraj hospital museums. I've been before but the museums there are pretty unique and worth a second visit.
The boat fare was Bt14 - slightly cheaper than the Bt600 I was quoted last night. In a way you can't blame Thais entirely for these outrageous attempts to rip off tourists. If all tourists just laughed and told them to go away, they would stop.
However, the reason they are still around is because there must be enough stupid farangs in Thailand to make it worth their while.
Not many farangs disembarked at Pier N10. Mostly. they go to the well known tourist attractions along the river but at Pier N10 there doesn't appear to be anything. That was good.
I am always trying to find areas of Bangkok that look the same as they did on my first visit 24 years ago. It's impossible now but the street and market adjacent to Siriraj are pretty close.
There are no elevated roads, no BTS, no MRT, no high-rise condos, hardly any farangs, lots of food stalls on the street, and the incessant manic buzz of tuk-tuks going up and down. I ate some cheap street food and then went into the hospital.
They have a guest book that they ask you to sign and I noticed that farangs have found this place but not too many. The other thing I noticed immediately was that the entrance fee for foreigners was twice as much as the Thai price.
Of course, as usually happens in Thailand this information was written in Thai with the Thai price written in Thai numerals. I would expect that 99.999% of foreign visitors don't have a clue what goes on because they can't read Thai but this happens everywhere.
I read the sign out loud and told them I was Thai. Obviously they knew I wasn't but I got the Thai price. I always try to get the Thai price because I believe the dual pricing policy is a national disgrace and should be banned. Most of the time I am successful.
Once they can see that a foreigner knows what is happening I think they feel guilty, but most of the time foreigners don't have a clue and don't say anything so they feel no guilt.
I would like to see dual pricing taken up at government level, with the Thai government discussing this policy with foreign governments.
As a result it should be banned in Thailand or reciprocal agreements should be put in place so that in all countries there is a special price just for visiting Thais. Sometimes the difference is a factor of 10. Lots of Thais travel abroad these days and if they got treated the same way as foreigners get treated in Thailand, what would they think?
But I digress.
The museum is not only the most ghoulish museum I've been to, it is about the most ghoulish place I have been to, full stop.
There are a couple of buildings and they reek of death and formaldehyde - probably because they contain so much death and formaldehyde.
In one building there are photos and body parts of people who suffered terrible deaths and the museum curators have pickled the complete bodies of criminals who were given death sentences. Some are just labelled as rapists and murderers but one is the infamous cannibal Sii Uwi who came from China and ate Thai children.
The other building is an old building with lots of teak inside. It contains an anatomical museum and - once again - all the exhibits are real.
There are more pickled cadavers, entire skeletons, and lots of abnormal foetuses. These museums are not for people with weak stomachs but they are quite fascinating and they are unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.
Unfortunately, my aches and pains started to get bad again so I went back to my room early. The massage I had on Sunday night was definitely not a good idea.
My entire spending today was less than half the cost of the Indian meal I had on Sunday. I ate Bt40 noodles for lunch and Bt37 rice for dinner.
Even in Bangkok it's possible to live cheaply but if you live in Thailand and eat the standard dishes day after day it gets incredibly boring. In Bangkok you can get anything, but all this choice comes at a price. Good foreign food is a lot more expensive than local food.
Monday 9th May 2011
Hat Yai is the largest city in southern Thailand but compared to Bangkok it is just a tiny pinprick on the map. Bangkok is huge.
There are pros and cons. It doesn't take long to get from anywhere to anywhere in Hat Yai but it does in Bangkok. After a few years in Hat Yai you know - and have been to - everywhere, but in Bangkok I'm sure there are always new places to explore.
I guess that you have more anonymity in Bangkok. In Hat Yai I am not anonymous. At the airport yesterday a woman I had never met said hello and then told me exactly where I lived. There were also two of my past students on the plane. Depending on how you feel about this, it is either a good or bad thing.
I was up very early this morning in order to get over to the British Embassy before 8am. I figured it would take a while getting through the morning traffic. I was the first one there and there weren't that many after me. I thought it would be very busy. On the way we passed the American Embassy and there were crowds of people waiting outside before 7am.
The security at the British Embassy is possibly the tightest security I have ever seen anywhere. I guess that it has to be these days.
I was served by a Thai member of staff who spoke fluent English. She was very polite and efficient and I was in and out very quickly. I had followed the instructions on the Embassy web site closely and made sure there were no holidays this week.
My affirmation to marry would be ready in the afternoon and so I went off to find somewhere to translate the affirmation and take it to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had already decided it was worth paying someone to do this in order to avoid the hassle.
Just as I was walking away from the Embassy a Thai man called me and flashed a business card for exactly the services I was looking for. I went with him to his office nearby.
Just adjacent to Ploenchit BTS station is a small road with several such companies. They offered to collect my affirmation from the Embassy in the afternoon, translate it, take it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then collect the verification.
In essence, they would do everything and all I would need to do is collect the completed paperwork from their office on Thursday. This sounded perfect and the cost was only Bt2,000. I had to give them power of attorney to collect my documents but that was all.
After doing this I was left with the whole of the rest of today, and also Tuesday and Wednesday, free. However, all was not well.
The foot massage I had yesterday also included a shoulder massage and it hurt. This always happens to me. The nerves in my shoulders are sensitive and whenever Thai masseuses sense I am in pain they start to push harder. They seem to think that the best thing to do is to inflict as much pain as possible.
The result was aches everywhere this morning - a really tight headache, aches in my neck and shoulders, even my legs, and a general feeling of not being at all well.
The weather was also hot today and while pounding the streets doing what I needed to do it was obvious that the headache was only getting worse.
I had a free day in Bangkok but I just spent all day in my hotel with the air conditioning on, It was a waste but I knew there was no point forcing myself to go out while feeling so bad because I wouldn't enjoy it.
Here are some more observations of Bangkok. As with everything I write, don't take anything too seriously.
The driving is more disciplined, as I wrote yesterday, but drivers drive quickly and with a very determined sense of where they're going. It wouldn't be much fun driving here if you weren't sure where you were going and if you were driving slowly. That would describe me so I think I'll try to avoid driving in Bangkok.
Bangkok is so different to the rest of the country in so many respects that it is almost as if the capital is a separate country within Thailand.
Not only are English skills a lot better, but Thais in Bangkok know what they are doing. The Embassy staff and the girl I dealt with this morning at the translation company were very efficient.
A lot of my frustrations in the provinces are a result of Thais not having a clue about what they are doing. I write from the perspective of living in the provinces and every now and again I need to remind people of this. Most of what I write about doesn't apply to Bangkok.
While downtown this morning using the BTS, I was reminded of Singapore. Bangkok has some modern transport systems with the BTS and MRT, there are lots of high-rise condos being built, and the expats walk around with an exaggerated sense of self-importance sneering at other farangs.
However, alongside all these things you can still see Thais doing what they have always done. The fried rice and som-tum vendors are there on the streets and I expect they always will be.
The slums and grubby areas in Singapore were bulldozed many years ago and the only reminder of these places is in old picture books.
In Bangkok you continually alternate between First and Third world. This is what makes Bangkok interesting and why Singapore is so sterile.
This evening I went out looking completely normal. I wasn't wearing the tourist uniform of shorts and activity sandals (I never do) and I wasn't carrying anything - no map, no backpack, etc.
However, I was still hassled to death. Some of the touts are really persistent, especially Indian tailors. I normally just ignore them and don't say anything but tonight I had to reply to get a couple off my back.
They are only interested in naive tourists so answering, "Eight years," to the question, "How long you stay here?" wasn't the answer he wanted.
Another Indian tailor followed me and clung like a leech. In the end I told him, "Mai sonjai" - I'm not interested. They live in Thailand and speak Thai so they understand. I often find that a few words of Thai is all it takes to let them know you're not a tourist and then they leave you alone.
This idiot still wouldn't give up and asked in Thai why I wasn't interested. I just walked off. If someone tries to sell you something you don't want do they really think you are obliged to explain why you don't it?
I was just about to get the Bt3 ferry back to my hotel and a Thai tuk-tuk driver tried to get me to go in his tuk-tuk. I asked how much and he told me Bt100. I laughed and told him Bt3 was better than Bt100. His friends also laughed but he kept trying.
There are boats that go along the river stopping at each pier for a few Baht. I was thinking about going to the Siriraj hospital museums tomorrow but wasn't sure where to get the boat. I've been before and the museums there are fascinating.
I asked a guy at the pier and he said I could get a boat at the same place tomorrow. When I asked how much he told me Bt600. Yet more laughter. It's just one rip off after the next here. I guess there will always be stupid farangs who pay the rip off prices so there will always be opportunist Thais making a living this way.
I'm not really enjoying this trip. I used to travel a lot and I always travelled alone. It was never a problem.
However, I've been living with Bpom now for over a year and we haven't spent any time apart up until now. We also have the baby now, plus the two cats, and it's difficult being away from my family.
I'm also getting older and that makes a difference. I was talking to a guy at the Embassy this morning who I guess was about the same age as me and he has been travelling all his life. He has just been in Cambodia and Laos where he remarked about the behaviour of the young backpackers taking drugs and getting drunk. He said it was OK for him a few years ago but he has no interest now. We do change as we get older.
Work has just started on the new house I am buying and my only real interest at the moment is moving in next year and turning it into the perfect home where I will spend my remaining days with my family.
Slightly longer term, my goal will be to spend time educating Ellie and making sure she is fluent in English as well as Thai.
Sometimes trips like this can't be avoided. I needed to make this trip and I needed to come alone because the baby is too young and there are also some other reasons why Bpom and Ellie need to be at home this week.
Sunday 8th May 2011
I like chocolate but I don't - and I couldn't - eat it every time I'm hungry. I like Bangkok but I couldn't live there. However, it remains one of the great cities of the world and in the past I have enjoyed visiting for a few days at a time. I am happy to live in provincial Thailand with access to Bangkok just over an hour away by plane. I'm writing this from Bangkok in a hotel room with a view of the river.
The colours of the sky changed significantly flying up today from Hat Yai. The sky started off a beautiful shade of blue with big, white, puffy clouds that looked just like huge balls of cotton wool in the sky.
As we approached Bangkok everything turned grey and that's how it stayed after landing. The pollution never gets any better but, on the plus side, it is significantly cooler than the south. It's humid but there is no sunlight because it is blocked by the smog.
I'm not a frequent visitor to Bangkok and I don't have a regular place where I stay. However, there are some places in Thailand I wouldn't dream of going to. There is about as much chance of me staying on the Khaosan Road as there is of me going to Pattaya. The Sukumwit Road is also another place I avoid these days.
On my last couple of visits I stayed in Soi Kasemsan near the MBK centre. I stayed a couple of times at an apartment building that rents rooms by the day and last time I stayed at the Reno hotel. This time I needed something different.
I hate places in Thailand that are swarming with farangs and that creates a big problem with Bangkok because there are farangs absolutely everywhere. I have quite enjoyed visiting the Thonburi side of the river on previous trips and that's where I am staying this time.
It's relatively quiet, the hotel is good, and getting across the river only takes a few minutes on a Bt3 ferry. In the evening there are very few farangs around, which is something I wouldn't be able to say if I were staying on the other side of the river.
Flying into the old airport is a joy since the new airport opened. It's quiet, it doesn't take long to get through after landing, and it's nearer to the city centre.
The taxi driver was a nice guy. He was from Nong Khai and has been driving a taxi in the capital for 10 years. He plans to work another five and then he will return home after saving enough money.
He doesn't enjoy Bangkok but like many Thais he has no choice. He has been forced to go where there is work. He owns his own cab as opposed to renting one and that's why he has to stay for another five years. He told me that if he rented a cab he would have gone home already.
I had a terrifying incident a few years ago when an unlicensed taxi driver, also from Isaan, almost killed me. He didn't know where he was going and ended up on the expressway to the airport.
As we approached the toll booths he decided he wanted to exit so just came to a halt in the fast lane, thus forcing speeding traffic coming up behind us to screech to a halt. A policeman pulled him over, arrested him, and flagged down a legitimate taxi to take me back to my hotel. I was convinced we were both going to die and I was shaking with fear.
That's why I am always pleased to get a good taxi driver in Bangkok.
When you get a taxi at the airport now they give you a form with the driver's details and a number to call in case of a problem. This is a great improvement to how things used to be.
With so many bad Thais in Bangkok making a living by taking advantage of foreigners it is good that the relevant authorities are doing things to protect visitors.
The driving discipline is so much better in Bangkok than Hat Yai. Hat Yai is home to the worst, most aggressive, lawless drivers in Thailand. This is based not only on my own observations but also from what I've heard said by many other people.
For example, there is lane discipline in Bangkok. In Hat Yai it doesn't matter which direction drivers want to go, many simply go in the lane that has least traffic and then cut across. They don't care about holding traffic up behind them if they are in the wrong lane.
Bangkok is huge and there are lots of cars but because drivers are more disciplined it seems that driving in the capital is a lot less intimidating than driving in Hat Yai.
Because there are so many farangs, prices are stupid and so many bad Thais come to Bangkok from all over the country just to rip off tourists. I find that I get stopped all the time here by someone wanting to take me on a tour or rent me a prostitute.
After checking into my hotel my first stop was for food but the last thing I wanted was Thai food. I like Thai food but you have to understand that I live in an area where only Thai food is available. Being in Bangkok, it is a great opportunity to get good food that is different to my usual fare.
The hotel is just across the river to the Shangri La hotel and I have eaten at an Indian restaurant just outside the Shangri La a few times. I went there again today I was shocked by the prices.
The curry for Bt300 didn't seem too bad but Bt140 for a plate of rice when I normally pay Bt10 left me reeling a little. Never mind, it's not often.
There were also some massage shops down the same Soi with girls outside looking out for farang tourists. They were asking for Bt300 an hour. This may not seem much to a tourist who has just arrived from London but it's three times what I normally pay.
This is what happens in areas of Thailand where there are lots of tourists.
When I come to Bangkok now it is interesting for me to compare Bangkok with life in the provinces. Some things are better and some things are worse. Some things are cheaper and some things are more expensive.
Traffic discipline is in a different league. In Bangkok it is quite good but in Hat Yai traffic laws are not followed and they are not enforced. I've already mentioned lane discipline. The taxi driver today told me that drivers get fined for using a mobile phone while driving. That never happens in Hat Yai.
He also told me that that taxi drivers get fined for not wearing their uniform, for not displaying their taxi license, and for driving with someone else's license.
Drivers don't park wherever the hell they like in Bangkok. In Hat Yai there are a number of busy three lane roads. One lane is always full of parked cars and motorbikes. When people wish to shop or visit the ATM they simply park in the middle lane of a busy road and put their hazard warning lights on.
This happens every single day on every busy road all day long. These busy three lane roads are reduced to one lane even during rush hour. It's a disgrace what happens and it's also a disgrace that the police do nothing about it.
Prices of things also vary except in 7-Eleven stores where the prices are the same across the country. Street food in Bangkok is about the same price as elsewhere. My meal today at an Indian restaurant cost Bt777 for a curry, rice, naan bread, lemon juice and coffee.
At home I could eat local food for a week for that amount.
The taxi fare from Don Meuang airport was cheaper than the taxi fare to Hat Yai airport and it was a much greater distance. This is because Bangkok taxis have meters and they don't in the provinces.
Petrol in Bangkok seems to be a Baht or so cheaper per litre than in Hat Yai. The problem is that any saving will be negated sitting with the engine running in one of Bangkok's famous traffic jams.
Property prices in the capital are expensive. I saw two bedroom condos for sale that were more expensive than the four bedroom/four bathroom detached house I am buying - and the house I am buying is on one of the most expensive developments in the area.
I had a foot massage this evening for Bt150. When I was up in Chiang Mai the foot massages were about the same price or even cheaper. In central Hat Yai you pay Bt250. This is because all the massage shops in town operate a price fixing cartel.
There are pavements (sidewalks) in Bangkok that pedestrians can actually walk along. In Hat Yai everyone makes a point of deliberately blocking the sidewalk outside their shop or house so that pedestrians can't pass.
Where's the wildlife in Bangkok? I haven't seen a rat, a cockroach, or even a mosquito. These are everywhere in Hat Yai.
In Hat Yai I communicate in Thai because English skills are so bad. However, with so many tourists in Bangkok many Thais living and working in Bangkok have reasonable (but not great) English skills.
Many Thais in Bangkok don't like farangs speaking Thai because they probably see it as a loss of face or believe that their English is better than the farang's Thai. They pretend not to be able to understand and display a puzzled expression.
If I could be bothered I would play games with them but I can't. If they want to speak in English, that is fine.
After over seven years of teaching myself to read Thai, my reading skills are quite good now. I still can't pick up a novel or newspaper in Thai and read it as I would read an English novel or newspaper but I can easily read just about every sign I see.
It's second nature now so I take it for granted but I'm sure I would miss a huge amount of information if I couldn't read. It's also very useful for practical purposes.
At the same time, it isn't quite as essential to be able to read Thai in Bangkok as it is elsewhere in Thailand because everything is written in English. Not many restaurants in Bangkok have menus just written in Thai but that isn't the case once you get into areas of Thailand where there are few tourists.
Thursday 5th May 2011
Since our daughter arrived I haven't really had any time to do this. A new baby is very demanding on both parents and I am also trying to do other things.
I'll try to keep this going but updates will be sporadic depending on how much free time I get.
I'm not looking forward to my forthcoming trip to Bangkok (because of the unnecessary bureaucracy I will inevitably encounter), but these days this kind of trip on my own will be the closest thing I get to a holiday so there is a positive side.
Here's a little catch up today as I've had a few spare hours.
I was pleased recently to receive two e-mails from readers of this blog. Both people share a similar view of Thailand as myself and it is always good to share thoughts with like-minded souls.
I've received some strange correspondence over the years from some strange people and on a few occasions I've been forced to stop writing but that is one of the hazards of the Internet.
If you're a balanced person without an agenda please feel free to say hello. If you're an obsessive Internet stalker without a life in the real world, it's probably best if you didn't.
One of my new correspondents inspired me to do two things that I have been meaning to do for ages, but which I'd been procrastinating about due to a lack of motivation. For that I am very grateful.
The idea of constructing a canal through peninsula Thailand to connect the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand has been banded around for hundreds of years.
Not having to go all the way around the Malay Peninsula would save ships a lot of time. It would also take business away from Singapore's port, which is currently the busiest in the world.
In the late 19th century when Singapore was under British colonial rule and Thailand was very concerned about being colonised by a European colonial power, a deal was made between Britain and Thailand not to construct the canal. This was to protect Singapore's economy and presumably, in return, to keep the British out of Thailand.
Even during recent election campaigns this old project has resurfaced but nothing has been done.
I saw on the BBC web site today that Thailand is collaborating with Burma to build a new deep sea port in Burma:
Details are a bit sketchy but instead of being a canal the route will consist of roads and railways because of the distance. However, in essence it would accomplish the same thing as the Kra Isthmus Canal - a shortened trade route between China and the West.
With its military junta the partnership with Burma could be problematic, and Singapore will be just as concerned about this as it was over one hundred years ago. With all the countries involved now being part of ASEAN I guess there will be lots of high-level political discussions.
However, as we have seen recently with the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia there isn't a lot of love lost between the ASEAN nations and if one country has a chance to improve its economy it won't matter much if another country's economy gets screwed as a consequence.
Singapore, with its vast financial reserves, owns a lot of businesses and assets in Thailand and it was Temasek Holdings - Singapore's sovereign wealth fund - that bought Shin Corporation from fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin in 2006. The issue was very controversial in Thailand and some Thais today still have bad feelings towards Singapore.
Perhaps this latest project will never be completed but it's a very interesting development and I will be looking out for future updates.
We have cable TV but only because my wife is a typical Thai and doesn't seem to be able to live without staring at mindless rubbish on the idiot box. I lived without a TV here for about five years and only bought one to watch DVDs.
One of the English language channels we get is Channel NewsAsia from Singapore and there is lots of talk at the moment about the forthcoming general election.
It's strange that they are talking about the election as if someone other than the PAP has a chance of winning. From the outside it may look a little different but my perception of the Singaporean political system is that it isn't much different to Zimbabwe or Burma.
Admittedly, the regime isn't quite as tyrannical but after being a single party state for over 50 years and taking a very hard line with opposition parties I can't see the PAP relinquishing its power any time soon.
Singapore has to be one of the most unusual nations on earth. The country is very closely controlled and freedom of speech is restricted but you can't really argue about its economic growth and success. Perhaps it will be for this reason alone that Singaporeans elect to keep the same government in power?
If you've ever visited Singapore you will know how clean and efficient it is. My brother lives there and I have visited many times in the last few years. Spending time in First World Singapore is always very welcome after the craziness of Third World Thailand but after about a week I am always ready to go back to the madness and near anarchy.
Apart from being expensive, I find Singapore a little too over controlled. With all the CCTV it does feel as if Big Brother is constantly watching you.
I'm also not keen on the 'Kiasu' culture, the obsession with money and possessions, and the conspicuous displays of wealth. 5 C's of Singapore
Here in southern Thailand many Singaporean tourists arrive to spend a few days in carefree Thailand for some entertainment as well as cheap food, clothes and massages.
With Singapore also being so small geographically it seems that people living there feel the need to escape more frequently than people living elsewhere.
A very intelligent friend in the US asked what I thought about the border skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia. I can't even be bothered to read updates any longer because I am bored with the whole thing.
When I take a look around me I can see lots of serious problems in Thailand that need to be fixed. They could be fixed if there was a will but nobody seems particularly bothered.
My view is that Thailand needs to get its priorities right but 'right' depends on a society's value system. As I've said many times, the Thai belief and value systems are very, very different to Western ones.
Our cleaning lady arrived yesterday clutching an official-looking document. It was duly handed over to my wife who read it with great interest. Intrigued, I asked what it was.
I wasn't very happy to find out this was the latest doom and gloom prediction for the end of the world. It's coming soon, apparently. I don't know who is publishing this material but because it is typed professionally and looks official (and because superstitious Thais are so gullible) these things frighten people.
For most of last year I kept hearing about the massive tsunamis that would occur simultaneously in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand on 30th December 2010. This - I was told - would result in huge destruction with hundreds of thousands of people killed.
Well, that date came and went and nothing happened. Surprise, surprise. Doesn't anyone spreading the current rumour remember what happened (actually, what didn't happen) last year?
There was something on TV the other night about a guy in Taiwan (Teacher Wang) who is predicting a magnitude 14 earthquake along with 170 metre tsunamis on May 11th.
He has advised people that the only way to survive is by buying a shipping container in which to live. Quite a few people have followed his advice and now the police are investigating whether he has been colluding with the company selling containers.
I wish Thais would just screw up and throw away these meaningless bits of paper predicting disaster instead of passing them around and filling everyone's head with doom and gloom.
Additionally, I would like to see the police track down and take action against the creators of this nonsense.
As I've pointed out before, a Thai will often tell you something he believes to be completely true because someone has told him. Before you know what has happened, a nonsensical story or belief is now set in stone and believed by everyone.
I was taken in several times when I first moved to Thailand because people told me things so earnestly but after a while I realised that most of what I was told was rubbish.
Our daughter recently had an operation to lengthen her Achilles tendons. The staff at the hospital were all first class and I couldn't have wished for more. One of the nurses who works in the clinic that we attend every week even came for an informal visit on her day off. That was a really nice touch.
The only negative - yet again - was bureaucracy. The doctor who performed the operation checked Ellie the following day and said we could all go home. However, there was some kind of a paperwork problem and because of this we had to hang around for three hours before we could leave.
I don't know what the problem was. Perhaps something was typed in the wrong font, the ink was the wrong consistency, or the paper weight was wrong? No one ever told us. We spent a whole day getting paperwork from another hospital only for this hospital not to like something about it.
This happens every time in Thailand and I just don't know why. I get the impression that instead of a degree of bureaucracy being required to support other processes, processes are invented to support the bureaucratic process in order to keep people in jobs. It's all back to front.
If you are a foreigner with a desire to live in Thailand, at least make sure you can afford to live in Thailand. By this I mean afford to live without working because if you are relying on a salary that suddenly stops then you won't be able to afford to live in Thailand.
Every foreigner living in Thailand these days is supposed to be on some kind of an official visa and built into the visa process is the requirement to prove that people have a minimum level of income. However, some people (probably because they can't satisfy the financial requirements) insist on skirting around the visa process.
I've had farangs approach me in Bangkok begging for money and there is an old farang living locally who I sometimes see busking. It's not really busking because he can't sing and he can't play the guitar but I think Thais feel sorry for him so drop a few satang into his guitar case.
It's pathetic. I can't think of another word.
Another farang I know in his 60's doesn't have a Baht saved. He teaches when he can and lives from hand to mouth. He has a drink problem and whenever there is money in his pocket he pisses it up the wall.
When his funds run out he asks other farangs for loans. He normally manages to pay these back but the people he keeps asking are all bored with his juvenile behaviour. He comes across as quite a nice guy but I will never be able to understand how anyone can live the way he does.
He is already having difficulty finding teaching work because Thais want young (and also good-looking) teachers. What's he going to do when he can't find any work? Sign on for social security and unemployment benefit?
What is it about Thailand that makes people stupid? They wouldn't expect to be able to live anywhere else without any money so why do they think Thailand should be any different?
I'm getting really fed up lending people money. I had a problem last year with the woman living opposite who I later found out is a professional beggar. She took advantage of my good nature and scammed me for a small amount.
I had to help my little sister out last year because after the birth of her child her responsible Thai husband lost Bt70,000 in illegal betting shops gambling on European football.
She has started to work again and it was causing her a lot of stress thinking about paying me back the Bt20,000 I loaned her so I told her there was no need. It's a gift to her daughter.
I don't mind helping people who are genuinely in trouble but I am no longer prepared to be a bank dishing out interest free loans every month just because I can manage my money and other people can't.
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