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  • Living in Thailand Blog May 2013


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Living In Thailand Blog

Tuesday 28th May 2013

A man steals a car in China. In the back of the car a two-month old baby is fast asleep. When the thief realises, he strangles the child and buries the body in snow.

Chinese anger at murder of carjacked baby

He has just been sentenced to death. I don't think many people will feel much sympathy for him, especially parents of young children in general, and this child's parents in particular.

Death for man who stole car, murdered infant

Evil exists in this world. We can't prevent evil people coming into the world, but we can deal with them appropriately when they commit evil crimes.

An innocent off-duty soldier who has served his country and is father to a young son is walking in a London street at 2pm in the afternoon. He is run down in a car by two insane fanatics who then proceed to decapitate him in broad daylight with crude kitchen knives and machetes. The police intervene quickly and immobilise - but do not kill - his assailants.

It's not long before there is criticism of the police and security services in various ways, and video footage of the incident is sent to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) for further analysis. Apparently it is standard procedure to involve the IPCC in such incidents, but why so much focus on the police and not the murderers? The expression Brits might use to describe this is 'arse about face'.

The two murderers are being treated under armed guard at a London hospital at UK taxpayers' expense and after they are sentenced they will spend many years in a UK prison at taxpayers' expense. They will not be executed because the death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1965.

In a few years' time China will be the world's leading economy. The country of my ancestors, a world power up to WW2, and a country that has given so much to the world, has become an embarrassment and a laughing stock.

China 'to overtake America by 2016'

I wouldn't like to be in the UK right now. This tension has been brewing for a long time and it only takes one incident to ignite the flames. There were real flames a couple of years ago in the London riots.

The TV footage I watched this morning was of furious Brits who have had enough of what is happening to their country. The politicians spout lots of rhetoric, but don't have the balls to do what is really necessary to fix the problems. This is going to get a lot worse.

I was perhaps more shocked to read about rioting in Stockholm than problems in London. You just don't expect this kind of thing in Sweden.

Stockholm riots throw spotlight on Swedish inequality

Interestingly, in Lee Kuan Yew's attack on welfare states (see below) the two countries he cites are Britain and Sweden. Could it be that the reason these countries attract immigrants is because of their generous welfare systems?

Not only do generous welfare systems cause huge amounts of debt, but they can also be the underlying cause for other problems in society. Could this be another way in which the East has got things right and the West have got things wrong?

The same TV news channel I was watching - Channel News Asia - then previewed a show in which they will discuss whether the improving economies in Asia mean that Asian countries should set up welfare systems. This was interesting considering Lee Kuan Yew's views and that Channel News Asia is based in Singapore.

I believe that welfare systems are inherently good, but the problem is that they are abused. If countries manage their welfare systems well it shouldn't be a problem. It's interesting watching the power shift from West to East and observing the new problems that both East and West are facing.

We live in interesting, but also worrying and unsettled, times.

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Saturday 25th May 2013

I will have lived permanently in Thailand for 10 years a little later this year. I was 42 when I arrived. If you are over 40 and living in Thailand, the following sketch should be quite amusing. If you are over 40, single and living in the West, it could possibly be quite concerning depending how close to the truth you think it is.

"Alec is 42 this morning and therefore has nothing further to contribute to society, so today's the day Alec goes into a home for middle-aged men."

In the home, he is told, "From now on, more and more of what you do in your life will be a waste of time. Now, what you have to adjust to is a world in which people no longer fancy you."

I saw this Armando Iannucci sketch years ago in the UK and it stuck in my mind. It's hilarious, and I think that many single men over 40 can relate to it. The best humour is always about subjects that are close to the truth and touch a raw nerve. I was reminded of this sketch after looking at some of the cartoons I mentioned yesterday.

In the sketch no one is interested in men over 42 and they are put into a home with men of a similar age where their only pleasures are beer, videos and newspapers.

This is exactly what I found in real life the UK. In my 20's and 30's I was selfish and focused on the things that I wanted to do. Once I hit 40, I was of no interest at all to the opposite sex, apart from those who I wasn't at all interested in.

In Thailand not only have I got the young wife and family life I would never have had in the UK, I have the kind of house and lifestyle that I could never afford in the UK. Moving to Thailand gave me the chance to have the things that had become unattainable in the UK because of the high cost of living and the fact I had passed the age of 40.

Living in Thailand isn't suitable for everyone, but for many men of a certain age and income it gives them a second chance in life, and the chance to have a much better life than they had previously.

Most expats in Thailand are male, and most are older men. It's not really very surprising. Yes, I moan like hell about Thai driving and there are other aspects of the country that I dislike. But would I want to go back to the UK? No way.

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Friday 24th May 2013

A friend in the UK sent me an e-mail with the subject: "A short insight into Thailand, or why the Englishmen are going there..." It contained several cartoons, which I can't include here for copyright reasons. The cartoons are quite amusing and sum up the relationship that most expats in Thailand have with the country.

Your first encounter with Thailand makes you think that Thailand is the best country in the world and it becomes a kind of addiction. The addiction is worse if you also get involved with one of the country's lovely young girls.

To cure the addiction, the only way for many is to go to live in Thailand. Once you do that, the country starts to look very different after a few months.

As you stay longer not only does it continue to look very different, but certain aspects of Thai behaviour start to drive you absolutely crazy. You can see what I mean by reading this blog and many other online resources about Thailand.

Despite this, the worst nightmare for most expats (including myself) would be if they had to go home or had to leave Thailand. It's strange in some ways, but then again it isn't if you have been through the process and have lived in Thailand long enough to know what it is really like.

This is ambivalence again, the very thing I wrote about last week. Most expats in Thailand seem to have opposing and contradictory attitudes towards Thailand at the same time, and there are very good reasons for this.

One of the cartoons features an old man talking about Pattaya, his newly adopted home. He sums up all the crazy points about living in Pattaya and then finishes by saying, "I love this town, no matter how bad it is, it's still a million percent better than what I had back home."

I will write more about this subject later.

Mike Baird's Cartoons

About three years ago, just before I got married, I moved from my rented room into a rented house because we needed more space. We now live in our own house. The rented house needed a lot of things doing to it, as does this one.

New houses in Thailand are cheap compared to Europe, but they come with very little as standard. If you buy a new house you have to spend quite a bit more getting it to a liveable standard. What do I mean?

England is a cold country and new houses have central heating systems. Thailand is a hot country, but developers don't supply any air-conditioners. If you leave windows open the house will become infested with mosquitoes because the developers don't install insect screens.

New houses in the UK usually come with fitted kitchens. Most new Thai houses don't. Our developer offered a very basic counter, gas hob and sink, which we declined because we wanted a proper fitted kitchen. Other new houses have absolutely nothing in the kitchen, apart from four walls.

The house we rented was fairly new and needed lots of things doing as well. The first owner didn't have any money and the second owner bought the house to let out and wasn't interested in doing anything. I paid to have things done myself.

I had looked at larger rented apartments, but they were in excess of Bt12,000 a month and were still quite small. The rented house was Bt4,500 and a lot larger. It still worked out cheaper, even if I needed to pay for jobs myself.

During this time I've had a lot of dealings with tradesmen. I've also had a lot of dealings with office and sales staff after I put down a deposit on our house. The experience has been interesting and extremely varied.

The first problem that I encountered was reliability. Many tradesmen turned up very late or not at all and my wife and I wasted days hanging around waiting. Some were complete cowboys and it will be a long time before I forget the plumber from hell.

He came in to do a few simple jobs and wreaked havoc. While fitting a toilet squirter he drilled through the tiles into a water pipe. He then had to smash all the tiles off to repair the pipe. This took hours and ended up being a real mess.

His attempt to fix a blocked drain started off with him smashing all the tiles around the drain hole with his large screwdriver and hammer. I made sure that he never returned.

One guy who came in to clean an A/C unit arrived when my wife was alone and she left him upstairs. Later we found that he had helped himself to a gold bracelet in the bedroom. We went to the police when we found it was missing but they couldn't do anything and we had no proof.

Many tradesman just wanted to do everything as quickly as possible and weren't worried about how things looked. For example, one installed a ceiling fan and got the fan working but just left a huge mass of wires dangling from the ceiling. The fan worked, but it looked terrible.

Some would stand on things that were likely to break and one guy fixed his loose hammer by thumping it on one of our freshly painted walls. Another plumber was halfway through a job and just left. I thought at first he had gone to lunch and would return. He didn't.

I called his boss and found out that he had gone to the temple to make merit. This, apparently, was a perfectly valid excuse. I demanded that someone else come to finish the job. He hung up on me and when I called back he wouldn't answer his phone.

On the other hand, I have dealt with a few real artisans and craftsmen. It has been a pleasure. The carpenter who installed our built-in cupboards and wardrobes was a highly skilled worker. Interestingly, the people who are good workers also seem to be a lot more reliable.

The man Starmark sent to install our kitchen was excellent. He did a top job and there have been no problems since he did it. The electrician who wired in the new appliances has also been very good.

I've just had another very good experience having some tiles fitted in the kitchen. Initially, I spoke to the same guy who had the good sense to put out the fire a few weeks ago. He's a humble painter, but if I was employing people in Thailand I would hire him in a heartbeat.

He told me that the worker who lays tiles wasn't around, but that he would contact me the next morning at 9am. I had some doubts - based on previous experience - but at 9am he was at the door with the right man.

It turns out that the tile setter is Burmese and the painter speaks three languages - Thai, Burmese and Mon. In the recent past there were a lot of Burmese workers in Thailand but a lot have now returned home as a result of the Burmese economy improving. There are still quite a few Burmese in Thailand and it is really useful having people who can speak Thai and Burmese.

We discussed the job and I asked when he could start. "Tomorrow, at 8am." Brilliant. The tile setter turned up at 8am as promised and spent all day doing a great job. Today, he came back at 8am again and finished the job.

There was one small problem (not his fault) with removing a power socket and not connecting the extractor hood before tiling over the hole. Along with the electrician, who has helped me many times, this was fixed quickly - and today is a holiday. For all his help in the past, I gave the electrician Bt1,000.

For a day and a half's skilled work the tiler only asked for Bt2,000. I gave him Bt3,000, which is probably what I would have to pay a plumber in the UK for an hour's work. He seemed quite happy and we discussed some more work that I want done.

Many of the workers here live in a 'camp', which is just a ramshackle collection of shacks made from old wood and corrugated iron. It must be hotter than hell and it is infested with mosquitoes.

The guy's wife is also here (she did the grouting today) and she is six month's pregnant. It can't be easy. In the UK a good tradesman would be quite a wealthy man. In Thailand there are lots of skilled workers who earn a pittance and live just above the poverty line. I try to give a little help to people who help me and I've received a lot of help this week.

At times like this it is great living in Thailand. Now, if only I didn't have to drive in Thailand ...

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Thursday 23rd May 2013

I read somewhere recently that one in five products sold all across the world comes from a Chinese factory. The proportion of Chinese-made goods for sale in Thailand is probably higher due to the country's proximity to China and the high demand for cheap goods.

The majority of things that I buy in Thailand are labelled 'Made in China' and my experience of Chinese-made products has been quite varied.

My neighbour is really busy and I offered to cut her grass for her. I was half-way through doing it yesterday when my garden shears fell apart. They aren't very old and have had fairly light use. They were made in China.

I tried to repair them, but couldn't. The part that tensions one blade against the other is plastic and is secured to a metal nut only by an interference fit. Trying to put the shears back together again just doesn't work.

When our house was being built I bought ceiling fans for every room upstairs. The developer put them into storage and installed them when the house was finished. When I started to use them last November, one had a blown bulb.

I went back to the shop, expecting them to hand me a replacement. Instead, they said that the bulb needed to be ordered. Almost seven months later, it still hasn't arrived. Poor quality and difficulty getting replacement parts can be a problem with Chinese-made products.

The Clarte air cooler that I bought broke after about two months and getting it repaired took almost another two months. It came back and broke again after another two months. When they repaired it for the second time they replaced the motor with a less powerful one and so far it has been OK. The original motor being too strong was probably a design flaw. This is another product with a 'Made in P.R.C.' label.

Other things I've bought have been fine. I bought an attractive full-length mirror today that was made in China. The price was good and it is unlikely to go wrong. A lot of the baby gear we have bought in the last couple of years has been made in China and there haven't been any problems.

Many Western manufacturers with a reputation for high quality products now have factories in China. With good management and Western style quality control there isn't a problem. An Apple device made in China will be the same as an Apple device made anywhere else.

If the products are designed in China, there can be problems. I often find that Chinese designed look exactly the same on the outside as other products, but the quality inside is a problem. This is gradually getting better.

A few years ago Chinese manufacturers started making camera tripods that were copies of expensive Gitzo tripods. They looked fine, but people found that they didn't stand up to real world situations and fell apart in the field. I even remember looking at a website where one guy had broken down a Chinese ballhead to analyse the engineering inside. It wasn't very good.

However, I've read reports more recently where people say that quality is improving. When I was a lad products made in Japan were a bit of a joke, but this hasn't been the case for a long time. Electronic items from Japan have been excellent for a very long time, and if you want a car that won't break down buy a Japanese brand.

South Korea never seemed to go through this poor quality period. It seems that LG and Samsung electronics, and Hyundai and Kia cars have always been well-built and reliable.

Western manufacturers elect to have factories in China not only to save costs, but because the workers are diligent, skilled and flexible. Armies of cheap workers can't hurt profits, either.

How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work

The quality of goods produced in China will keep improving over time and it therefore seems that few manufacturing jobs will return to the West. How will Western countries respond? Cheap goods are good for consumers, but consumers need to earn money as well otherwise they can't consume.

As I see it, there are two economic models. Firstly, there is the cheap labour model that can be seen in India, China, Thailand, the Philippines, etc. Then there is the high tech model espoused by Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

Maybe Western countries have got so far behind now that they can't catch up. Maybe the social welfare systems that Western countries have to continue to support mean that they can never compete with countries without such systems.

In his memoir 'From Third World to First', Lee Kuan Yew is scathing towards welfare states:

"Watching the ever increasing costs of the welfare state in Britain and Sweden, we decided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that when governments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the head of a family, the drive in people weakened. Welfare undermined self-reliance. People did not have to work for their families' well-being. The handout became a way of life. The downward spiral was relentless as motivation and productivity went down. People lost the drive to achieve because they paid too much in taxes (to support the welfare state). They became dependent on the state for their basic needs."

Perhaps LKY was right to a certain extent? I have a few concerns about the strength of his words because not all people who don't or can't work are lazy scroungers. In any society there will always be some people who genuinely need help, and that help should be a basic human right.

When the current financial crisis broke a few years ago, I was fairly confident that Western countries would bounce back. Now, I'm not so sure. There will always be a few very talented people in the West who will continue to do well.

The people I'm no longer sure about are the millions of average Joes who have gradually been losing their jobs to workers in Asia. I am an average Joe myself, but I left school at a time when lots of good jobs were available to people like myself and managed to have a fairly satisfying career, even though the good times could ideally have lasted for a few more years.

It worries me, and it worries me more that politicians don't seem to have a clue how to fix the problems. The West could do with a few Lee Kuan Yews - people who have long term vision, the intellectual capacity to know what they need to do, and the political skill to make the necessary changes.

There have been some pension changes in the UK recently and Thailand is partly to blame (along with the Internet). I will now need to wait a year or two more for my state pension, and foreign wives of British citizens who have never paid anything into the system will no longer receive anything. That's only fair.

Most Brits who have paid National Insurance contributions all their working lives are angry that so much money is paid out to people who have never contributed. Foreigners living in Thailand don't receive a bean from the Thai government, and I don't think that many expect to get anything. That is different for many foreigners who go to live in the UK.

Rise in men marrying Thai brides 'behind foreign pensions increase'

Wives of Brits to lose UK pension

It's good that the British government is finally taking some steps to ease the burden on the social welfare system, but it all smacks of being too little too late.

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Wednesday 22nd May 2013

There was another safety pin problem last night as the whole of southern Thailand was plunged into darkness. At first I was told that it was a local problem. That assessment was soon upgraded to the entire province, then to five provinces, and eventually to the whole of southern Thailand.

Apparently the problem was at a main power station in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, where they must use enormous safety pins. The Nation reported that it was only a brief outage and that power was restored in some areas after 35 minutes. We lost power here for about three hours and it was longer in a few other places.

I lost power to my house for about five hours as a result of the electrical fire a few weeks ago and small blips occur all the time. Regular flooding and power cuts are a way of life for many Thais and life just goes on.

We used to live in an area that flooded regularly and therefore have quite a good stock of battery-powered lighting and batteries. If you live in a part of Thailand that is prone to flooding you need to keep supplies of food, water, batteries, a battery powered radio, and other essential items.

Even if there is no risk of flooding, it is good to have plenty of torches (flashlights to our friends in the United States) and batteries to make life easier during power cuts.

Occasionally, power cuts are more serious. Samui, the popular farang tourist island in the Gulf of Thailand, didn't have any power for about four days at the end of last year. I discovered then that Samui gets its power from the mainland via an undersea cable, and the cable was the cause of the problem.

When I first visited Samui I don't think the cable existed. Back then there was no airport, no large hotels, and all the small bungalow operations had their own electricity generators.

Many hotels in Thailand have generators as do hospitals, of course, where a lack of power could result in critically ill patients dying.

I keep meaning to buy an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for my computer. My poor computer has survived all the power cuts so far, but my luck will surely run out eventually. These devices give you enough battery power to finish what you are doing and do a safe shut down.

I use a desktop computer these days as I tend to stay in one place more and like the big screen. One of the big advantages with laptops is that they all have built-in UPS, provided that the battery is in good condition.

The expensive pump in my fishpond lasted two months and then suffered an irreparable failure after a power cut. The person who supplied it refused to change it because the damage was caused by a power cut. What am I supposed to do? Predict power cuts and turn off the pump before one occurs, or perhaps buy a UPS for every electrical device in the house? This is Thai aftersales service for you. I now use cheap water pumps and the cheap pumps seem to have no problem surviving power cuts.

Another item I may need to buy is some emergency lighting units. These have rechargeable batteries and just sit there charging when all is well. In the event of a power cut, and if it is dark, the emergency lights switch on automatically. Most public buildings in Thailand have these, and having one or two in the house would be useful.

The Thai for power cut is 'fai dup'. If you are in Thailand and want to know why there is no power, or if you notice Thais running around repeatedly saying, "fai dup, fai dup," you will know what has happened.

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Monday 20th May 2013

I was suffering from a few twinges of guilty last night. We ate at a very riep roi restaurant, which is tastefully decorated in the traditional Thai style and we were served by some very polite waitresses. The owner came over to engage in some polite small talk and remarked how our daughter has grown since he last saw her there. There were smiles and polite conversation all round. This was Thailand the Land of Smiles that the guide books refer to.

One of my ex-students was also there celebrating her 20th birthday with her family and friends. She was one of my biggest fans when I was a teacher and wrote some very flattering comments about me for the student assessments of their teachers. She made a big fuss of me last night and I met her mother, who also made a big fuss.

After all this adulation and extreme politeness, I thought about some of the things I have written about Thailand recently. Do those things apply to the people at the restaurant last night? No, of course they don't. It's always easier to generalise, but generalisations never apply to all people, especially in Thailand.

The wealth gap and the gap in social classes and education in Thailand is vast. Thais themselves use the terms 'Hi-So' and 'Lo-So' (high society, low society) to broadly divide society into two groups. The reality is that there are far more than two groups.

You meet an incredibly diverse range of people in Thailand and whatever you may think about one group, it won't apply to another group. The educated middle classes are growing and when I'm in their company I don't tend to have many problems. There are cultural differences, but there is normally also quite a lot of common ground.

The majority of the population in Thailand is poor with only a very basic education. I have some sympathy for them, but either as a result of ignorance or bad manners, or both, many are highly inconsiderate to other people.

Depending on which type of Thais are around at any one time and the situation you are in, the politeness can be stifling, or it can seem like anarchy. I spent more than two years living in a rented house located in a very Lo-So area and it bordered on anarchy. Where I live now is completely different and it gives me a very different perspective on Thailand and Thais.

That is, until I leave the safety and politeness of the housing development and venture into real Thailand again. The speeding pickup trucks and minivans soon remind me of the reality of living in Thailand.

It was the same last night. I felt a bit guilty at the restaurant while talking to very polite Thais, but as soon as I started to drive home I was reminded by Thai drivers why I say the things I do.

Since living in this house I have been spending a lot of time at home. I need to isolate yourself from the madness that exists in Thailand to avoid going mad myself. I only go out when I really need to. It is the same for civilised Thais. Tourist areas in Thailand are already quite well insulated and isolated from the outside world.

I used to work at a combined university and hospital campus. Everyone working there was quite well educated and polite. Many of the staff had spouses who also worked on the campus and many lived in staff accommodation on the campus. They didn't need to go outside for much, and there wasn't a great desire to go outside.

The campus was isolated from the rough world outside and some of the Thai staff I spoke to told me how they didn't like to go outside because of the rudeness and inconsiderate behaviour that exists.

Any discussion about Thais and Thailand in general is really quite pointless. The various groups in Thai society are so diverse that depending on your situation and the people you mix with, it will always be a very different experience.

If you work at a good university and live on campus, you will see one side of Thailand. If you teach at a rough public school and rent a house in the kind of area where I used to rent a house, you will see a very different side. If you drive in Thailand you will see a very different side to the country.

Where I am now, I see both sides. If I could choose only one it would be a very easy choice. Unfortunately, I can't.

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Sunday 19th May 2013

Electrical fire - Click for larger image On my first trip to Thailand in 1987, I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant on Samui Island with my travel buddy as dusk was approaching.

Thais have a fondness for coloured fairy lights and it was the job of one of the staff to turn the decorations on; a routine task, except the 'switch' to do this wasn't one that I was familiar with.

The young lad held two pieces of wire in his hands, each with a safety pin inserted through the plastic insulation, and then joined the safety pins together. Connection made, it was suddenly Christmas as all the lights started to glow.

My buddy and I looked on aghast; we were both computer hardware engineers and used to slightly higher standards. This was one of my very first 'Only in Thailand' moments. There have been many more since that day.

This kind of Thai 'solution' demonstrates some of the things I have been writing about recently. Firstly, it takes a lot less effort to join two pieces of wire with safety pins than to install a proper switch, and the easiest option is always taken - the path of least resistance (no pun intended).

Secondly, it shows the Thai disregard for safety, even if the people involved had realised that this could be dangerous, which they probably didn't. They probably had no idea that poor electrical connections result in high resistance that can lead to electrical fires.

Thirdly, many Thais don't seem to realise that actions have consequences. For example, when you start letting off fireworks in a crowded nightclub on New Year's Eve there is probably a good chance of starting a fire.

I woke up exactly two weeks ago on a Sunday morning to the strong smell of an electrical fire. Obviously, I was concerned that it might be inside the house. Fortunately, the fire was outside.

Our house is in Phase 1 of the development and Phase 2 is in the early stages of construction. Electrical power is needed for Phase 2, of course, and they have tapped into the power supply in Phase 1.

The guy who did the work was possibly the same person I met on Samui Island all those years ago. It's a three phase supply, therefore the supply is over 400 volts and the circuit draws a lot of current.

More overhead cables - Click for larger image The safety pins used to make the connection obviously weren't large enough, there was a massive amount of heat generated, and the rubber sheathing used on the large cables are flammable.

The heat was so intense that it melted an aluminium box and the fire took hold of the rubber sheathing and started to burn. This all started around 6am and I wasn't too concerned at first. The workers were aware of the problem and had informed the security guards.

However, after a couple of hours had passed the fire was still raging and no one had arrived to do anything. I made two visits to the security guards, who informed me that they had notified the relevant people and were still waiting. They said it would be a problem on a Sunday

They didn't have a fire extinguisher and informed me that there was one in the office. As it was a Sunday, there were no staff in the office and all the doors were locked. If you have a house fire in Thailand, make sure that it doesn't happen on a Sunday.

Something else that can be added to the list of things on the Thai value system that isn't considered very important is time. Since I have lived in Thailand, weeks (probably months) of my time have been wasted waiting around for Thais who showed up very late or didn't show up at all.

Three hours after this fire had started and the relevant people had been alerted, still no one had turned up.

The big sheathed cables go underground and by this time the fire eating away at the sheathing had almost reached the ground. It was getting nasty and I was getting more concerned.

One of the workers who was doing some painting was also concerned and decided to turn a hose on the fire. I wasn't sure of the wisdom of dousing an electrical fire with water, but it did the trick.

Some electricity company workers turned up a few days ago to repair the damage and erected yet another pole and more overhead cables - the very things I was complaining about recently.

This is Thailand.

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Saturday 18th May 2013

I moan about Thai students a lot, but they're not all bad. When I was teaching high school girls, a handful of the students were excellent. They were the ones who actually sat and listened to what I was saying and it was a real pleasure teaching them. They were good, very good. Not only could they follow the lesson content, but they could think for themselves and they asked good questions. There aren't many like this, unfortunately, but they do exist.

The minimum qualification in Thailand for any job is a Bachelor's degree and this means that right up to the age of 21 you meet students who only study because they need to in order to get that minimum qualification. Most aren't very bright and really can't be bothered.

After graduating, however, it is a different story. Those students that continue to study after getting their Bachelor's are the ones who study because they want to.

When I worked at the local university I met and taught quite a few students doing Master's degrees and PhDs. They are very knowledgeable and once you get to know them they stop being so guarded about Thailand. Over the years I have been told many interesting things about Thailand by post-graduates.

I still keep in touch with one of my old students quite regularly. I helped Kate initially when she was doing a Master's degree and now she is Dr Kate. Thais are obsessed with titles and paper qualifications.

Thai teachers are expected to have a Master's degree and university lecturers are expected to be PhDs. If a university lecturer doesn't have a doctorate, he or she is expected to study for one while working.

PhDs are popular with politicians as well. Thaksin liked to style himself as Dr Thaksin and our local mayor puts the Thai consonants for D and R before his name on posters. In Thailand, nothing is more important than social status or the things that advertise social status, such as fancy cars and lots of titles. Experience and knowledge count for nothing. Gaining a PhD is the ultimate accomplishment for some Thais, even if their thesis is really obscure or was written by someone else.

However, the majority of students work hard, studying all night, and their chosen areas of research can be quite interesting. Science students often have a torrid time during the period when they are doing the lab work needed to get the results to support their thesis. For weeks on end they virtually live in the lab 24 hours a day.

Back to Kate. I was interested in her research right from day one. Her Master's degree thesis was about the Sakai tribe. Thailand has quite a few minority ethnic groups, the best known possibly being the hill tribes of northern Thailand.

In the jungle areas of southern Thailand live a group of dark-skinned, curly-haired, pygmies. They are quite self-sufficient, but pressures from the outside world and habitat destruction mean that they will probably disappear in the near future.

While studying for her Master's, Kate went to live in the forest with them, sleeping in a hammock. She even offered to take me on one occasion, but I declined her offer. I've never been very good at roughing it and prefer my creature comforts, especially as I get older.

She sent me extracts of her thesis to proof-edit and it was all very interesting. She then started working as a lecturer in the university's faculty of Thai traditional medicine. Thai traditional medicine was also her PhD thesis. She revisited the Sakai with a particular interest in how they treated disease using natural remedies.

Since that she has done more research about Thai traditional medicine. She has been out to collect and analyse plants, and has interviewed many traditional healers.

I used Tea Tree oil for some teenage skin problems many years ago and found that it worked a lot better than regular medicine. There is a lot to be said for natural remedies.

She sent me another short extract this morning and I had a quick scan through looking for any mistakes. It's not work; I do it because she is a friend and because she has helped me in the past.

Some of the proof-editing work I used to do was really boring. Her work never is. Two subjects that interest me very much in Thailand are the Thai value and belief systems. These subjects interest me because they explain so much about the kind of Thai behaviour that used to mystify me.

When Thais behave in ways that seems strange to Westerners, the reasons can usually be traced back to the local belief and/or value systems.

Thais are highly superstitious and great believers of magical and sacred power. This may not be very evident if you are unfamiliar with Thailand, but once you are familiar you see the signs everywhere.

I discovered today that two species of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family are used by Thais as magical good luck charms (the same as amulets) and to attract members of the opposite sex, in other words, a love potion.

If you thought that love potions only appeared in the realm of fairy tale stories, medieval Europe, or Haitian voodoo practitioners, think again. Love potions made from plant extracts are still being used by some Thais.

One of the biggest problems that foreigners have when first visiting Thailand is basing their thoughts, ideas and perceptions about Thailand while only looking at the surface. This isn't entirely their fault. The surface is the only thing that Thais want foreigners to look at, and they hide a lot of things that exist under the surface from the gaze of foreigners.

On the surface, Thailand doesn't seem very different to the Western world. Thais drive the same cars, use the same computers, shop in similar shopping malls, wear similar clothes, etc etc. The outward appearance of the country looks quite similar, but it belies the fact that under the surface things are very, very different.

This is why foreigners familiar with Thailand have adopted such terms as, 'Only in Thailand' or 'TIT' (This Is Thailand).

When you go to live in Thailand the things that were hidden to you as a tourist eventually start to break the surface. It can take a long time and you're not going to find out anything while sitting on a beach in Phuket for a couple of weeks.

Many foreigners, including myself, decide to move to Thailand permanently before really understanding the country. The learning process begins once you have relocated.

If you can adjust and accept the differences once you become aware of them, it isn't a problem. However, these differences aren't trivial. I've written many times about how safety, for example, isn't important to many Thais. It isn't a high priority in their value system. Living in a country where lots of people have no concern for their own or your safety isn't something to be taken lightly. This particular issue is the aspect of living in Thailand that I dislike the most.

If you can't adjust and accept, and you have burnt all the bridges and therefore can't return to your old life, it can be a major problem.

Some Thai values and beliefs affect you, while others don't. The ones that don't can be quite amusing, but don't laugh as Thais take them extremely seriously. My wife has been spending hours on Thai websites recently trying to find a new name for her sister. Life hasn't been going well for her sister and the reason for this, obviously, is that she has the wrong name. The solution is simply to change her name.

My previous girlfriend did the same thing, and when I was teaching, some of my students told me that they had changed their names. My wife and I had nothing to do with the choosing of our daughter's real name. My wife has a friend who has big books on the subject and by inputting various data she told us what our daughter's name should be.

Thailand and Thai people may look similar on the outside to what you are used to, but Thais think and behave very differently. This shouldn't be forgotten if you are considering making a move to the country.

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Friday 17th May 2013

Retirement 'harmful to health', study says

This BBC article caused a lot of people to respond with comments and as I am retired it is aimed indirectly at me as well. It may be true for a few people, but it's complete rubbish as far as many people are concerned. As with all things in life, including what I write here about Thais, generalised statements are never accurate for all people.

My job in the UK had become unbearable. Changes in technology meant that my work kept changing and eventually I ended up doing something that I wasn't cut out for and didn't enjoy.

The next step was for my employer not to give me any work. Every employee became self-employed within the company and it was the employee's responsibility to find projects to work on. In those periods where none were found, it became very uncomfortable. I had to account for every minute of my time, and that included time when I had nothing to do.

Managers stopped assessing people and assessments were done by peers. In many cases, these were people you were competing against and it was another factor that increased the overall stress level.

With redundancies occurring all the time, you were never sure if it was going to be you next. I got to the stage where I genuinely thought that I was going to suffer from some kind of mental breakdown and I knew that I had to make some major changes in my life.

I can't quite figure out why anyone would think that leaving this kind of pressure-cooker environment is detrimental to someone's health. Really?

In Thailand I have always taught because I chose to teach. I was never forced to. The English language doesn't change every five minutes, as the IT world does, and instead of skills becoming obsolete after a few years, the more I taught the better I became as a teacher. As a teacher in Thailand, I never experienced anything like the pressures I experienced in the UK. Sure, there were a few difficult people, but nothing in comparison.

What about the financial aspects of retirement? The assumption with the report seems to be that people retire in the same country that they worked in. If I still lived in the UK on my current income I would be a pauper because it is so expensive there. If I lived in my own house I wouldn't be able to rent it out and would lose that stream of income. The bottom line is that I couldn't afford to live in the UK, and anyway I have no desire to live in the UK.

In Thailand I have a very comfortable house, my wife and I have our own cars, and we have a good life. We have to watch our spending a little these days as a result of the falling Pound to Baht exchange rate, but we still live far better than most Thais and my standard of living is better than it would have been if I'd stayed in the UK.

I am not the kind of person who has a problem keeping busy, in fact, quite the opposite. I never have enough time to do things. I have a fishpond, garden and house that keep me busy. This website keeps me busy and it is something that I enjoy doing, unlike my old job. There are also other activities I enjoy doing that take up my time.

In addition, there are the intangible things about retiring in Thailand. I became terribly bored in the UK because that is where I had lived since I was born. Nothing was more boring than traipsing to the same old shops and seeing the same old things. I am used to many things in Thailand now, but it still very different to my old life and I never get bored.

The weather is another factor. I hated English winters, not only for the cold, damp conditions but also because there was so little daylight in the winter months. It made me depressed.

I'm not a sun worshipper, but never having to deal with cold weather makes me feel a lot better. UK pensioners may be forced to sit in a miserable room with miserable weather outside trying to keep warm with a single bar electric fire and worrying about their electricity bills, but I don't have that problem.

In the UK I did know some people who retired and then died soon afterwards. We all need something to occupy us and if you don't prepare for retirement very well, it can have a detrimental effect. If money is also a problem, it will only make things worse.

The report is written in a very academic style, which gives it some weight, and presumably the author is a highly paid PhD. The conclusions no doubt apply to some people, but as some BBC readers commented, "It is complete tosh."

Here's a link to the full report"

Work Longer, Live Healthier

So, is a move to Thailand the solution to all your retirement worries? Unfortunately, no.

Firstly, moving halfway around the world wouldn't be suitable or practical for many people. Secondly, the financial benefits only apply if you move from the developed to the developing world. Singapore is the only developed country in this region and there is no way that I could afford to live in Singapore. That applies to all developed countries.

If you have an income from the developed world there are financial advantages to living in the developing world, but at the same time you are subjected to all the Third World behaviour that is part and parcel of living in the developing world. I wrote about some aspects of Third World behaviour in my post yesterday.

Nowhere is perfect, but some places suit some people better than others.

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Thursday 16th May 2013

This time of year is blazing hot in Thailand. It feels like a furnace in the south, but the south is probably where it is coolest. The capital is extremely hot because all the tarmac and concrete in Bangkok acts like a thermal battery and keeps the heat in. The north and northeast regions have hotter hot seasons than the south.

April in Thailand is regarded as the hottest month of the year, but there was quite a lot of rain in April this year (here, at least) and it cooled things down. May has been dry and very hot.

Another young child has died in Thailand after being left inside a closed vehicle with no ventilation for several hours. The same thing happened quite recently. It's hot enough outside, but unimaginable what it must be like inside a closed vehicle.

Teacher faces suit over child's death

This happened to some police dogs in the UK and there was outrage. In Thailand it happens to children.

So, what is the value of a child's life in Thailand? The school responsible for this latest tragedy has offered to give the child's parents Bt30,000 - about US$1,000. Some years ago a child was savaged by a Rottweiler and the dog owner offered the child's parents Bt500 in compensation.

Unbelievable. Life is certainly cheap in Thailand.

Over the years I've heard some good quotes from expats to describe Thai behaviour. One I heard recently was that Thais can't see that actions will have consequences.

This is quite true. They do the most stupid things as if there won't be any problems, but anyone can see that there will be problems. In many cases, big problems.

What is truly remarkable about this observation is that Thais are supposed to be Buddhist, aren't they? Buddhism is all about cause and effect. Every action has a consequence. If you observe how many Thais actually behave, it becomes clear that they aren't Buddhist at all.

As I was driving home today, I saw a woman on a motorbike driving very precariously in the fast lane of a very fast road. She was in that lane because she wanted to do a U-turn. As I got nearer I saw a very young child riding pillion, and as I passed I saw another very small child sitting in front of her. It made me shudder.

Neither of the kids was wearing a crash helmet, and even if they were, crash helmets wouldn't provide much protection in a high speed accident on that particular road.

The way that Thais behave is a result of their belief and value systems. Westerners value safety very highly, and thus it is very high in the Western value system. In the Thai value system it is very low.

The behaviour of Thai drivers is the best example of this, but there are others. If you observe construction workers in Thailand, you will see them doing dangerous work dressed in flip-flops and floppy hats.

The street vendors who clutter up pavements construct their stalls with sharp metal poles sticking out at eye level, and some vendors set up charcoal burners that glow red-hot and are situated where a passing child could easily inflict serious burns.

Children are regularly transported on motorbikes on dangerous roads, and even when they are taken in cars and pickup trucks they are never seated in proper child car seats. Adults seldom bother with seat belts in cars and many Thai motorcyclists never wear crash helmets. These things are against the law, but many Thais have no regard for laws.

Driving while using a mobile phone; ignoring traffic lights; speeding; driving drunk; using handmade sidecars on motorbikes; driving the wrong way along roads; more than two people travelling on a motorbike; people riding in the back of open pickup trucks. All of these things are illegal, but action is very rarely taken.

Many Thais have no regard for their own or other people's safety, or even the safety of their own children. It's often a case of mai bpen rai gone too far. When I have spoken to Thais about these things in the past they laugh and think I am overreacting. So far, they have never had a problem so why would there ever be a problem?

They don't know, or don't care, that road deaths in Thailand are far higher than the vast majority of other countries. I just can't work it out.

As usual, hundreds of people died in road accidents over the Songkran period this year. It happens every year as regular as clockwork.

I saw a woman on TV whose child had been killed in an accident. She was obviously grief-stricken and very emotional. Nothing in life can be worse than the loss of a child. So why do Thais drive in such a way that guarantees lots of road deaths? The crazy drivers have children of their own and it could be one of their own children next. Why? Why? Why?

Perhaps this is another example of actions having no consequences? When they drive like they do, they don't stop to think what the consequences might be.

I am completely ambivalent about living in Thailand. Really, I have a great life. I live in a house that is far bigger and better than I could afford in the UK. I have a young, attractive wife. I don't need to work. I can live well on an income that wouldn't go very far at all in the UK. All these things are great.

However, every time I leave our quiet, peaceful housing development and go on to the roads outside I am reminded that everything could be taken away in an instant through no fault of my own.

The selfishness, crass stupidity, lack of respect for laws, and lack of consideration for other people's lives of some Thai drivers could end everything.

Readers of the BBC news site outside of the UK are presented with advertising. The BBC is funded by licence fees in the UK, but there is no funding outside and so they raise money by advertising.

Sometimes I see adverts from the Tourist Authority of Thailand. It's typical tourist Thailand. The actor is located in a perfect part of the Andaman Sea, a million miles away from lunatics in pickup trucks, telling the camera that Thailand is paradise and that he doesn't want to go home.

Many tourists fall in love with a perception of the country that is artificial. Many don't realise that it is artificial and some move to Thailand. Living in Thailand is very different to being a tourist.

There are very good things about Thailand, but there are also very bad things. What can you do about the bad things? Many expats probably could leave Thailand, but they know deep down that life wouldn't be as good elsewhere. You just have to put up with the bad aspects of the country.

I have tried to isolate myself as much as possible from the problems that exist outside generally. The area where I live now is perfect, but of course I can't stay at home all the time.

When you analyse what is wrong, it really just comes down to the problems on the roads. Problems elsewhere may be frustrating, but they aren't life threatening.

I try to keep my driving to a minimum and I am very aware of the Thai drivers that need to be given a very wide berth.

I also hope for luck, and if I was religious I would pray. I can only do so much to protect myself and my family, but I can't stop Thais from doing the stupid things they do, such as ignoring traffic lights.

Ambivalence. This is a word that comes up often when talking to other Thailand expats.

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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. 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 - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, 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.

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