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  • Living in Thailand Blog May 2016

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Monday 23rd May 2016

I've mentioned before that huge fires occur frequently in buildings in Thailand. There are various reasons for this. Many old buildings are made of wood and become extreme dry in the hot season. At certain times of the year it is extremely hot and this year has been the hottest hot season for 65 years.

 

A fire in Hat Yai that I stumbled into recently on my way home

A fire in Hat Yai that I stumbled into recently on my way home

 

Thais cook using gas powered open flame hobs, many of these are portable and can get knocked over easily. In addition, some Thai developers just ignore building regulations. Therefore, not all buildings are inspected for fire safety, and some buildings don't have adequate fire escape facilities. The standard of electrical wiring is generally poor and Thais like to run 130 different electrical appliances from one power socket using extension leads, adapters, sellotape and paper clips, etc.

 

Electric meter installation in Thailand

Electric meter installation in Thailand

 

I talked to some foreigners who were staying at a guesthouse affected by the fire in the photo above. The building didn't even have a fire alarm and guests were alerted by a member of staff knocking on the door. You would think that all buildings offering accommodation would, at the very least, be required to have a working fire alarm, but TIT.

There has just been another big fire and at least 17 young girls have been killed in a fire at a school dormitory.

17 girls dead in fire at school dormitory in Thailand

Thailand school dormitory fire kills 17 schoolgirls

Blaze at Wiengpapao

So far, no cause has been given. I can't even begin to comprehend the pain their parents, friends and families must be suffering right now. The youngest students were the same age as my daughter.


I've written about some of the problems with the Thai education system. Here are a few more.

"Students in an online survey said teachers traded grades for helping their work, buying tutorials, or sex."

Full story here:

Teachers often give good grades in exchange for special favours: poll

With all this extra tutoring in Thailand, which is there basically to supplement the low salaries that teachers receive, there are quite strong implications that a student's grades will suffer if they don't attend.

This poll also confirms that corporal punishment is still very much in existence within Thai education establishments.

"Fifty-five per cent of the students said they had been hit by their teachers in the last year: 43 per cent recorded being hit on the hand, 41 per cent on the buttocks."

A friend of mine thought that a good way to improve her Thai would be by sitting in with a group of young students. However, there were two problems.

Firstly, even by the age of five or six the kids' Thai language skills are normally way beyond that of most foreigners and the foreigners can't keep up. Secondly, she couldn't bear to see the teacher hitting the children so often. Unfortunately, this seems to be the Thai way.

I went to a stationery shop a while ago to buy some pens, pencils and paper, etc, for my daughter. My wife also asked me to buy a steel ruler. Naturally, I just assumed she wanted it to draw straight lines. I was wrong.

If she wants our daughter to do something and isn't getting the response she wants, she stands there with the ruler whacking her hands until she complies. In other parts of the world parents and teachers have carrots and sticks. In Thailand there are just sticks.

After my wife finished her art degree she went on to do a teaching diploma. She should therefore understand teaching techniques and know how to motivate and encourage students. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

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Sunday 22nd May 2016

Previously, I wrote about ATM scams in Thailand, most of which were carried out by foreign criminal gangs. The gangs installed card readers and cameras in random ATMs and preyed on unsuspecting members of the public. With data from the card readers they were able to make copies of ATM cards and their cameras captured the PIN number. With these two items they were able to empty the accounts of their victims.

Thai banks are now issuing ATM cards with embedded chips to put an end to this problem, however, the procedure to get a new card is different to the ststem I am used to with UK banks. When my UK bank issues me a new debit or credit card, the card arrives in the post with instructions to sign it and destroy my old card. Effectively, I don't have to do anything. Easy. But in Thailand, nothing is ever as straightforward.

My first gripe is that my bank didn't notify me about this important change. I heard from my wife who heard about it on one of her social media accounts. I then had to go to a branch of my bank to get the new card. Every Thai with an ATM card has to do the same and when I went on Thursday there was a huge queue of people.

I waited for almost an hour and when it was my turn the bank employee started to fill in forms and make copies of my bank book and driving license. This is typical in Thailand. Thais use centralised computer systems, but every item of buraeucracy needs copious copies of paper documents and endless rubber stamps. Every person working in every office in Thailand has a drawer full of rubber stamps and different colour ink pads. It's like going back in time about 100 years.

My application seemed to be progressing, but then it all started to stall. Right at the start I had asked whether a Thai driving license could be used for identification and was told yes, however, they then decided that they needed my passport. All the forms were torn up and I was sent on my way. I said I would return the next day, but it was a Buddhist holiday and the branch would be shut. I was informed, thought, that branches in department stores would be open so the next day I made my way to Tesco Lotus.

The branch at Tesco Lotus opened at 10:30am and I was waiting outside the door at around 10am so that I was first in line. Two minutes later a very long queue had formed and arriving at 10:35am would have added about an hour to my waiting time. I handed over my passport and bank book and got my new card quite quickly. It was free.

These days I am affected a lot less by bureaucracy than used to be the case when I was extending my visa and work permit every three months, but whenever something new crops up it always takes time and multiple visits to achieve anything.

My wife needs to do the same thing, but her bank will charge her. I find this difficult to understand. My bank charges customers for ATM cards (I get charged Bt200 per year) and and they also charge if I use an ATM machine in another part of the country. The current ATM system is flawed and is susceptible to fraud. The banks have the responsibility of fixing the problem, but they want to charge customers when it isn't the fault of customers. This seems to be a fairly standard practice in Thailand.

A few years ago the owner of my housing development decided to change from well water to mains water. It was his decision, but when the local water company came to install water meters at each house each house owner was given a bill for the meter. I disagreed, but there was nothing I could do.

When my car was in the garage for engine work recently they called to say that something else needed replacing and would cost an extra Bt9,000. I asked what, but Thais have their own vocabulary for car parts and I didn't understand. I figured that it must have been necessary so agreed.

Later on I discovered that the mechanic had broken the pulley on the end of the crankshaft that drives the serpentine belt and this was what I was being charged for. They broke it, but I got the bill.

They washed my car, which was thoughtful, but the pressure washer knocked off some of the individual letters that make up the decal on the car with the model type. At first they claimed the letters were already missing, but they weren't.

After looking in the car wash area they found one, but not the other. I asked what they were going to do and it became obvious that they weren't going to do anything. The letters aren't sold individually, only in sets. If I want a new set I will have to cough up Bt1,200 and pay myself.

The Thais have a great knack of absolving themselves from any financial responsibility. If they are performing a service and break something or want to change something, the cost always seems to get passed on to the customer.


There are two things that are quite unusual for me in Thailand. It is unusual for me not to lose my temper when driving, and it is very unusual for me to lose my temper in any situation in which I am not driving.

Sure, I get frustrated often enough in Thailand because Thais do things very differently to foreigners, but this is my 13th year and I'm so used to it that these days I just let most things go. However, last week I had a bit of a tantrum in public.

My run of bad luck this year just continues. So far it has been several water leaks in the house, lots of car problems, problems with two fridges, problems with two ceiling fans, and various other things. Last week my pressure washer broke, I put my foot through the decking above the fish pond and was lucky not to break a leg, and then the food steamer started leaking water all over the kitchen counter.

I went to a large electrical appliance store to buy a new steamer. One member of staff playing on a mobile phone looked up at me, ignored me, and went back to playing with his pals on Facebook. Then the same thing happened with a young girl.

I looked at the kitchen appliances and there were only two brands of steamer, Philips and Tefal. I decided on the Philips because it was on offer and had the money in my pocket. I kept waiting for a member of staff to carry out the sale, but they just kept playing with their phones.

I then noticed the girl gesturing with her eyes to one of her colleagues to deal with me, but her friend wasn't interested either. It's a very large store with probably upwards of 100 staff. It was just after lunch on a week day and there were almost no customers. I was a customer wanting to make a purchase and I was being deliberately ignored.

I've written quite a lot about the Thai red mist phenomenon and potentially dangerous it can be but, suddenly, I found myself in a red mist moment. It's quite unusual for me, but I think it was a result of lots of little frustrations during the course of this year that have accumulated, festered and not been released. Suddenly, I exploded and I can rant quite well in Thai.

This kind of behaviour is very un-Thai and, frankly, quite upsetting to Thais. I wasn't proud and shortly after I felt quite guilty, but I had had enough. The Thai staff didn't know how to react and in situations like this they just smile and laugh, but this actually made me more angry.

Tha sale went ahead and the girl who had ignored me and then gestured to her friend dealt with me. She explained the terms of the warranty, took my money and gave me my receipt and change. She then apologised and I apologised to her for losing my cool.

She explained, in Thai, that she couldn't speak 'farang' and that is why she ignored me. Many Thais seem to think that all white Caucasians come from the same country (pra-tet farang) and speak the same language (paa-saa farang). They have no idea that white Caucasians come from lots of different places and speak all kinds of different languages. When they say 'farang' they mean English.

 

Really?

Really?

 

This is quite a common situation. Last week I went into a restaurant and a woman spoke some English. "You want to eat food?" she said in quite a patronising manner. "No, I want to see a movie. Can I have a menu, please." She then refused to give me a menu because they didn't have any English menus. By this time I was getting quite irate and repeated my request.

Reluctantly, she gave me a menu and I heard them discussing whether I could read Thai or not. I skimmed the menu, which is something I can do very easily, made my selection, ordered in Thai and the patronising woman disappeared upstairs never to be seen again.

I've been ignored in restaurants many times. The staff can't speak English and assume that I can't speak or read Thai, therefore, any attempted communication is futile. Instead of wasting their time dealing with someone they believe it is impossble to communicate with, they just ignore me.

It's obviously not a problem in tourist resorts where Thais do speak some English and where Thais rely on foreigners for their business, but outside of the tourist resorts it is a different story.

Now, I do understand that the vast majority of foreigners in Thailand can't speak Thai and many of those who can speak Thai can't read Thai. It is therefore a reasonably fair assumption that a foreigner can do neither.

The thing is, I have lived in Thailand a long time, I have made an effort with the language, and I now think of Thailand as home. I just want to be treated like a normal person but, based on my outward appearance, it doesn't happen and I have to endure being treated like a fresh-off-the-boat tourist.

It depends on my mood. Sometimes I can tolerate it, but at other times it irritates me intensely. This year hasn't got off to the greatest of starts and I have been a little more irritable than usual.

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Monday 16th May 2016

After the driest rainy season I can remember (the flood warning flags remained green throughout the entire rainy season, indicating no threat of flooding at all) and the hottest hot season in Thailand for 65 years, the weather has finally started to break. It has rained a few times this week, it rained last night, and it just started to rain again at 2pm. It feels wonderful.

The last four months have been brutally hot and, at times, quite unbearable. We are now entering the time of year that I enjoy most in southern Thailand. The mornings are generally pleasant, storm clouds start to roll in during the early afternoon, the afternoon rain clears the air, and nights aren't too hot.

The rainy season comes in the last three months of the year and although it can also be very pleasant, it gets a bit tiresome if it rains too much. Also, if flooding occurs it can be very disruptive to life. I really enjoy May to September, but this is the low season in Thailand. The terms low season or high season can mean different things to different people, but don't be deceived in to thinking that the low season is an undesirable time to visit Thailand because there are some major benefits.

The first is the cooler temperature that the rains bring. It may not be to everyone's liking, but it doesn't bother me and actually I enjoy the thunderous, dramatic skies and great photographic light that come with the rain clouds.

Secondly, if I go to any of the tourist areas there is a general absense of tourists, which is a good thing. Thirdly, with the reduction in tourist numbers and a lack of demand for hotels, there are some great hotel bargains. Thailand must be one of the cheapest countries in the world for hotels even during high season, but during low season the bargains get even bigger.

Fourthly, I don't need to water my garden every day and with everything turning green the countryside just looks a lot better.

It's not always perfect. When I was teaching it seemed that every day the rain started just as I finished and was about to go home. I didn't have a car at the time and tuk-tuks can never be found in the rain, or the driver asks for a ridiculous fare. But I find that the benefits of this time of year outweigh getting caught in an occasional downpour.

High season in the major farang tourist resorts coincides with the worst of the winter in Europe and comes at a time in Thailand between the rainy and hot seasons, so it isn't too wet or too hot. Hotel prices go up because of the laws of supply and demand, but also because some Thais feel they can justify raising prices on the basis that it is high season.

 

Deserted beaches and hotel bargains in the low season - Nakhon Sri Thammarat

Deserted beaches and hotel bargains in the low season - Nakhon Sri Thammarat

 

I went to Lanta Island once and had a miserable time because it wasn't very attractive and I had never before encountered as many greedy Thais as I did on that trip. I enquired about accommodation at one place that was obviously empty. I asked for a discount and was told there were no discounts because it was high season. The answer defied logic as well as defying the laws of supply and demand.

There are certain things I don't enjoy in life. I don't like crowds, I don't like traffic jams and (being a cheapskate) I don't like paying overinflated prices. It figures then that I'm not a fan of the high season in Thailand because I encounter many of the things that I don't like.


I only ever received extra tuition twice in my life. At junior school level, believe it or not, I was regarded as quite bright and in a previous era I would have sat an 11+ exam and gone to the local grammar school. However, the grammar school where I lived closed just as I was about to leave junior school and my parents knew my education would suffer at the local comprehensive.

I sat entrance exams for an excellent public school (in the UK, public schools are actually private schools) and to prepare me for this I received some tutoring. I passed the entrance exam, but didn't go to this school for financial reasons. I ended up at a comprehensive school and that's when things started going wrong in my teenage life, but that is another story.

When I reached my tertiary stage of education I encountered calculus for the first time. My ultra-trendy, progressive comprehensive school didn't include calculus in its maths syllabus, but I remember spending a lot of time doing Venn diagrams and other such nonsense. Consequently, I had difficulty with integration and differentiation and asked a friend of mine to help.

He was one of these people with a brain the size of a small planet and sailed through an acturial science Master's degree at LSE, one of the top universities in the UK. He lived nearby and came to help a few times. That is the entire history of my experience with extra tuition.

My daughter started the third year of Kindergarten today and on Saturday I took her to her new teacher's tutoring class. This extra tutoring starts at Kindergarten level and continues throughout a child's formal education in Thailand. Early on, it is just Saturday mornings but by the time Thai kids reach high school level they are doing tutoring weekends and every evening for every subject.

This has always struck me as very wrong. The kids get robbed of their childhoods, they become very tired, and they become very negative about formal education. The method of teaching is boring and instead of being inspired to make learning a part of their lives, the opposite happens. Whenever they have spare time they engage in any mindless activity they can that doesn't involve learning anything.

I could understand it if Thailand was producing generation after generation of genius students, but this obviously isn't the case. After years of study, kids are graduating with Bachelor's degrees and getting jobs as security guards or chamber maids. Even in jobs that are regarded as being important to society, such as nurses and teachers, they earn a pittance.

What is this extra tutoring all about?

I've seen the education system from within as a teacher and from outside as a parent. As is always the case in Thailand there is never one simple answer; it is always a mixture of things. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Thais are serious about education, but education isn't effective because they can't seem to get away from the traditional rote-learning method. One suggestion I have heard is that they have seen the economic success in Japan and South Korea, know that these countries are big on tutoring and have just followed the model hoping for the same sort of success.
  2. There is a big emphasis on image in Thailand and teachers have to do lots of administrative work, for example, preparing extremely detailed student reports so that parents have a good image of the school. I saw one of my classes once a week and got about 40 minutes actual teaching time. There were roughly 40 students in the class, therefore, on average I spent about one minute per student per week. However, I was still expected to produce a detailed analysis of every student's capabilities.

    Teachers are under so much pressure to do the administrative stuff that they don't have sufficient time to do the actual teaching and the only time this can be done is out of hours during extra teaching sessions.

  3. Number three, and I think this is the major reason, it is to supplement salaries that are far too low to live on. The only way a teacher can survive is by doing this extra teaching. As a teacher, my wife started on a salary of about Bt7,200 per month and five years later this had risen to Bt8,200 per month.

    To put this in perspective, while my daughter was at her tutoring class on Saturday I bought about three months' worth of cat food, fish food for a couple of months, some new pond filters, some groceries, and paid for her tutoring classes this month. This was just a small part of my monthly spending and I got through about Bt5,000. How can anyone live on a slary of Bt10,000, or less?

    The tutoring classes cost Bt1,200 per student per month, so if 15 students attend the teacher will earn Bt18,000, which is far more than a teacher's fulltime salary. Bt30,000 per month is about the minimum amount needed to live in Thailand and if they do enough tutoring they can make this amount combined with their regular salaries.

I was against my daughter doing any extra tutoring, but my wife signed her up without consulting me. She was worried that my daughter would fall behind, there is a lot of emphasis on exam results (even for four and five year-old kids), and teachers make it clear that kids will probably fail if they don't attend the tutoring sessions. I don't like the system and I don't like the way parents are pressured into doing it, basically to supplement teachers salaries, but that's the way it is. Thais always have their own way of doing things and when you live in Thailand you can't fight the system.

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Wednesday 11th May 2016

I'm a bit confused, but it's probably because of my age.

If I wanted to sell a car - which happened to be a Proton - and placed an advert somewhere, I couldn't include a picture of a Porsche in the advertisement. Well I could, I guess, if I included the words 'This image is for advertising purposes only and is not representative of the actual product being sold' (or something like that), but whoever came to look at my Proton, as nice as Protons are, wouldn't be very impressed if they arrived expecting to see a Porsche.

 

Germany's finest

Germany's finest

 

Malaysia's finest

Malaysia's finest

 

This applies to most things and it would seem to be obvious. Lots of goods are sold on-line these days and if you want to sell something it is important to have good product photos. The photos need to make the item look its best, but any photos used do actually need to be of the item being sold. I can't advertise something mediocre using a wonderful photo of something else that isn't the thing I am actually selling.

The one thing this doesn't apply to, apparently, and I don't know why, is food. How can a manufacturer of food sell food products in packaging that has photos of delicious looking food on the outside when, inside, the actual product looks nothing like the photo? Yes, the packaging always has the clever bit of legalese stating that the photo is only for advertising purposes, but why is this acceptable for food when it wouldn't be acceptable for anything else?

Answers on a postcard.

 

Burger packaging

Burger packaging

 

The actual burger

The actual burger

 

A strange thing happens to farangs who visit Thailand for the first time, and I was equally as guilty of this after my first one or two visits. After their visit they want to be able to give knowledgeable advice about Thailand to other farangs, even though they have very little experience of Thailand themselves.

I don't know how, but I came across such a thing recently while wasting my time on the Internet. One person who has never been to Thailand asks for tips about the country and another person who has been to Thailand for a total of two weeks comes up with a whole list of do's and don'ts.

The piece of advice this genius had given was for tourists to eat at 7-Eleven, which is where the burger above came from. I found this advice rather unusual and contradictory to any advice that I would dare to offer visitors to Thailand.

I use 7-Eleven quite a lot. I pay bills there, pay for air tickets that I buy on-line, buy sweets (candy) for my kids, milk, bread, fizzy drinks when my wife needs a Coke fix, etc. 7-Elevens are ubiquitous in Thailand and they are handy to have around.

The one thing I don't buy, if I can possibly help it, is pre-cooked frozen food. Food stalls and small restaurants are even more commonplace in Thailand than 7-Elevens, tuk-tuks and stray dogs. Apart from the kaaw gairng places that have pre-prepared curries, most places cook food to order and as well as being cheap, the food is normally quite good.

The only time I would consider eating a 7-Eleven frozen meal that is defrosted in a 7-Eleven microwave oven is if I was starving hungry and there were absolutely no other options available, which there usually are.

It just seemed very strange that someone would actually advise tourists visiting Thailand to eat at 7-Eleven, but that is the Internet for you. Anyone can recommend anything, and they do. Do you want to meet the perfect Thai girl of your dreams? Then go to a Pattaya beer bar. Sure, it's advice, but not very good advice.

Undoubtedly, there is an enormous amount of information on-line but, believe me, a lot of it should be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

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