Living In Thailand Blog
Thursday 30th November 2006
(Retrospective blog entry entered Monday 4th December)
My trip to Bangkok today (my fourth this year) shouldn't really be taking place and I have no desire to go but it is one of those things. Two years ago I got a nasty eye infection from a soft contact lens.
I had never had any previous problems with lenses and I will never know how the infection got on to my lens but the constant warm, humid climate in Thailand is a perfect breeding environment for bacteria, viruses, fungi and micro-organisms.
One day I felt what seemed like a grain of sand in my eye. I got home and took my lenses out but the sensation was still there. I went to the local private hospital and they confirmed it was an eye infection. The best guess was a bacterial infection and anti-biotic drops were prescribed but they had no effect.
The doctor then took another guess that it was a viral infection and prescribed an anti-viral cream but that was also ineffective. I saw about five doctors and eventually found one who wanted to be scientific and do some tests.
He diagnosed a fungal infection and prescribed specially made medication which was expensive and only had a shelf life of one week. These drops were highly toxic and stung like hell. My eye appeared to get worse. The grain of sand sensation remained and I had extreme sensitivity to light which is not the best thing in a country where the sun blazes constantly.
After using the medication for a long time I stopped and everything got better. The infection had actually gone but my vision wasn't quite right. I went back to see the doctor but was disappointed with his response. He just told me that my impaired vision in one eye was part of the ageing process but I knew that wasn't the case.
Another doctor I saw diagnosed the problem but didn't seem confident about being able to do anything to fix it. The infection had left a big scar on my cornea resulting in the cornea changing shape and causing irregular astigmatism.
This is one thing that eye doctors still have a problem with and unlike regular astigmatism it cannot be corrected with soft contact lenses or glasses. I was convinced that something could be done though and wasn't prepared to live the rest of my life with fuzzy vision in one eye.
I read earlier this year that Thailand's Queen had an eye operation at the Rutnin hospital in Bangkok. Some quick research revealed that this is Thailand's number one eye hospital so I made an appointment.
I saw a doctor there in September who told me the best thing to do was to use a hard contact lens. Unlike soft contact lenses which take the shape of the eye, semi-rigid lenses do not change shape but pull the eye back into a better shape. A lens was ordered for my bad eye and this trip was to pick it up and get things checked out.
The good news is that my vision is a lot better with the lens. The lens doesn't have any optical power; its sole purpose is to pull my cornea back into shape. I still have to wear glasses for mild myopia. I could have ordered hard lenses which also corrected my short-sightedness but wasn't sure how they would affect my close vision. For close work I have no problems and just remove my glasses.
The doctor at Rutnin knows the doctor who treated me previously as they have worked together in the past. He is also a cornea specialist and well respected. I honestly don't know why he fobbed me off by telling me the problem was to do with my age though when clearly it wasn't.
Generally, I have found doctors and dentists in Thailand to be excellent - especially dentists - but occasionally I have been disappointed. On one occasion while travelling, a doctor in Chumpon diagnosed a perforated eardrum when all that had happened was my ear had got clogged by some soft ear wax.
Going to Bangkok costs me Bt4,000 for the round trip flight and whenever I do so it seems a shame to spend that money and come straight back so on this trip I arranged to spend a few days in the capital just for the sake of bpai tiaow.
The other reason for going was to sell a camera lens. The new lens I want isn't available in Thailand yet but it is in Singapore where I am going next week. I won't get much for my old lens in Singapore where used goods aren't wanted but with second-hand goods being overpriced in Thailand, it is a good place to sell used items.
Today was the first time I have landed at the new airport and gone into Bangkok. It's a huge airport. I flew into Suvarnabhumi from Chiang Rai the day it opened for a connecting flight and we taxied for about 15 minutes. Today we didn't taxi for too long and my checked luggage arrived on the carousel remarkably quickly.
As I left the terminal I was expecting to see a taxi stand but there was no sign of any taxis. Instead there was an airport shuttle bus which went to a bus station at the airport. There were no tourists at the bus station and no English was being spoken. It wasn't a problem; in these situations I have enough Thai.
I was directed to a number 551 bus which went to Victory Monument and from there I completed my journey by BTS. The bus only cost Bt35 but the journey in one of Bangkok's famous traffic jams took longer than the flight from Hat Yai.
As the plane took off this morning flying over Songkhla, Phattalung and Nakhon Sri Thammarat there was a gorgeous blue sky and the most amazing cloud formations. The puffy white clouds were completely static and looked solid; almost as if you could climb on them.
As we started the descent into Bangkok, all that was visible was a grey, brown haze of polluted air with distant building barely visible. The economic migration into Bangkok from other areas of Thailand just continues to accelerate and as a result of more and more people moving into the city, the pollution continues to get worse.
Wednesday 29th November 2006
I am just about to go to Bangkok for a few days so this will be my closing blog entry for November. Occasionally I get frustrated in Thailand. The language is still a barrier, the bureaucracy is a headache, the carnage on the roads is disturbing and the differences in cultural values are significant.
The heat gets to me at times and occasionally I miss something from home. It's not perfect but it's still infinitely better than the UK and the thought of going back home is a nightmare. I'm not speaking allegorically; recently I had three actual nightmares in one week about going back to England.
What has happened to my country? Throughout 2006 I have heard nothing but bad things about the UK from a variety of different sources, not least from people who have written to me with questions about moving to Thailand. It was bad when I left in 2003 but it only seems to be getting worse.
I have heard it described by three different people as turning into either a police, fascist, or totalitarian state - which are all basically the same thing. Various commentators have forecast more race riots or even a civil war.
The culture of binge drinking continues, making many towns dangerous at night. Whenever I check Internet news sites about the UK there are always stories about 1) violence and 2) rising prices. The ironic thing is that as the country goes further into decline, it is becoming even more expensive to live there. It's depressing.
I read an update today on the story about the lawyer, Tom ap Rhys Pryce, who was mugged and murdered earlier this year. He had studied incredibly hard, gaining a first at Cambridge, before getting a job with a top law company in London. He was engaged and planning to get married this year.
It is just beyond me how two human beings can do something like this to another human being and in the process destroy the lives of the victim's family and fiancee.
The statement from his fiancee is heartbreaking and if ever justification is needed to reintroduce capital punishment, this is as good as any. Unfortunately, this type of sick attack on innocent victims is not uncommon in Britain where muggers commit crimes 'for kicks'.
Mrs ap Rhys Pryce, his mother, made a very interesting quote, "These children are not intrinsically evil. If they had been educated properly - given the right moral training - they would not have done this."
I agree and I believe that these social ills need to be tackled at the source. Children need the right education and especially - as Mrs ap Rhys Pryce said - they need moral training, which nowadays is sadly lacking among many young people.
Instead, the UK policy is not to tackle problems at their source but to turn the country into a police state. There are more surveillance and traffic cameras in the UK than in any other country. Police are routinely taking DNA samples and now they have machines to take and check fingerprints at the roadside.
It's an awful way to live because the dangers are still there, yet, in an effort to apprehend criminals and control social order, everyone's civil liberties are affected.
It is more expensive to travel from my home in England to Heathrow airport by train than it is to travel anywhere within Thailand by plane. The only benefit I get as a result of paying council tax in England is getting my dustbin emptied once a week.
Renting a very comfortable room in Thailand with absolutely everything included is cheaper than my council tax bill alone would be in England and the people who run my apartment dispose of my rubbish for free.
The minimum fare on the London underground is now £3 (Bt212), even for the shortest of journeys. Short journeys in Thailand cost me Bt10 or Bt20 and I went on one four hour train ride which cost Bt18. Eating out is something else that is expensive.
I can get a good, healthy meal in Thailand for less than a packet of crisps in England or I can have a fabulous lunch with world-class service at the Oriental in Bangkok (which I will be doing in a day or two) for less than a Chinese takeaway in my home town.
There would be no choice for me in England but to go back to full-time employment just to be able to survive and with that would return the office politics and backstabbing that were key reasons for my decision to leave England in the first place.
Neither has the fact escaped me that if I went back to England I would never have sex with a pretty girl ever again or be able to enjoy Thai massages for Bt100 an hour. These are not my primary reasons for living in Thailand (honest!) but these pleasures in life certainly aren't insignificant.
The other major source of discontent coming out of the UK is the unchecked immigration which is causing yet more racial tension. I read that when Poland joined the EU, Britain was only one of three countries with an 'open door' immigration policy.
The country was expecting 13,000 Poles and got 600,000. That's the official figure anyway but my sources say that the real figure is a lot higher. Many immigrants do jobs that no one else wants to do and they are good for the economy but their presence only gives disaffected youths something else to be resentful about and more social problems will be inevitable.
It should not be forgotten that my current status is that of an immigrant and it is perhaps hypocritical of me to be be discussing UK immigration policies while enjoying life as an immigrant in Thailand. I don't believe I'm the first to be guilty of this though.
It's a bloody mess. I am just glad there are countries such as Thailand in the world that give me options to escape and I'm glad I got out when I did. I still have ties to the UK and that fact makes me a little uncomfortable but there will probably come a time in the future when I decide to sell up and sever those ties altogether.
What makes me reluctant about doing this is Thailand's policy towards immigrants and the way the Thais keep foreigners living in the country on a very short leash. Unless you obtain Thai residency - which is rare - all foreigners live in the country on visas which last a maximum one year and they have to report to immigration every three months throughout the year.
Come visa renewal time, there are never any guarantees and the requirements change frequently. The bar is never in the same place for very long. The recent immigration changes probably resulted in some people deciding to leave. I am OK at the moment but my personal situation might change or new regulations might come into force making it difficult - or impossible - for me to stay in Thailand.
Even being married to a Thai woman gives you no rights. You still can't buy land and you need to apply for a new visa every year to stay in the country. One of the requirements for the visa is showing a certain amount of money in the bank.
At the moment it is Bt400,000 (I believe) but what if the Thai authorities were to increase that amount, and what if someone living in Thailand with a Thai wife didn't have enough in the bank? It is this aspect of living in Thailand that I really don't like; never being quite sure what is around the corner.
I don't wish to sever my ties with England only to find I am unwanted and unable to continue living in Thailand in a year or two. If that were to happen, however, there are plenty of countries I would be looking to move to rather than go back to England, which is about the least desirable option of all.
I think about these things but don't worry too much because of the law of impermanence. How I feel now is based on the situation now. However, nothing ever stays the same. The situation in both Thailand and the UK will change from year to year, and my thoughts and priorities in life will continue to change.
For the moment, living in Thailand suits me very much and I am grateful that I am able to do so. That may continue to be the case or maybe it won't but it's not important now and I will cross the various bridges when I come to them.
To read more about the sad decline of a once great industrial nation, you may wish to take a look at John Copeland's diary which is published once a week by a gentleman in Lincolnshire who does a great job exposing the truth about (in his words), "...the relentless social and economic decline of this sad little island."
Monday 27th November 2006
Thais tend to be a lot less opinionated than most Westerners. Farangs often have strong views on just about everything and Internet forums have given them a convenient way to argue and attack one another in public without resorting to physical violence although there was one case in the UK recently where an Internet chat-room argument resulted in physical violence. The Thais on the other hand, with their easy-going mai bpen rai attitude have more important things to do and just get on with life.
Of course, they have opinions about things but they just don't seem to have the same level of passion. Iss doesn't talk about her thoughts and opinions much but occasionally they spill forth and she was quite talkative this morning.
It started off with a story I hadn't heard about before but which has apparently been reported in depth by the Thai press. The live-in Thai partner of an Irishman living in Chonburi went off to sell ornamental fish one day and, with her out of the way for a few hours, he popped out for a takeaway.
He went to a nearby bar, rented a hooker, and took her back to his place - as we all do when the missus is out at work. He took a Viagra tablet and was probably drinking as well. Anyway, something didn't work out with his new friend; they started arguing and the end result was the girl being stabbed to death.
He went on the run and was arrested at a petrol station while trying to escape to Cambodia because someone recognised him and tipped off the police.
This kind of story isn't unusual in Thailand. The country has been a haven for mentally unbalanced farangs for years and many lose the plot completely. The recent immigration crackdown may improve the situation but the problem will only move to another country.
English language news sources may not cover every single incident involving brain-damaged farangs misbehaving in Thailand but the Thai press do and over a number of years it must influence the opinions Thais have of foreigners.
Iss told me today she is scared of farangs because so many are rok-jit. I didn't know this word but after consulting a dictionary, the best I can come up with is 'psycho'. Her opinion isn't only based on what farangs get up to in Thailand but what they get up to in their own countries.
She cited the United States as being particularly bad with crazy people frequently going into schools and shooting students. She has a point though and I couldn't really argue except that the last such incident (at the time of writing) was in Canada.
The situation probably isn't as bad as she believes it to be but I have to admit that crazy killers on the loose in society are far more likely to be Westerners. Psychopaths are not unknown in Thailand, the most famous one being the child murderer and cannibal Sii Uwe from many years ago (who was actually a Chinese immigrant), but it's fairly rare to hear about crazy killers in Thailand. The murder rate is higher than I'd like it to be but there are normally clear motives, two of the common ones being money and infidelity.
Despite the obvious dangers for Thai women when associating with farangs, her next story was about an agency in Isaan who have been ripping off poor Thai families with false promises of finding farang husbands for their daughters.
For a large part of the population - almost solely from the north-east Isaan region - the ultimate goal in life (and the only possible way of achieving a better life) is to get a daughter or two married to a foreigner. His money - like winning the lottery - can then pay for everything the family want or need because all foreigners (without exception) are fabulously rich, aren't they?
The bogus agency that was set up realised just how much some poor, rural Thais believe this to be true and ripped off a lot of money. They charged Bt5,000 initially to make a video of the girl and then a further Bt50,000. This is an enormous amount of money for rural Thais and many had to sell land or take out high-interest loans.
After cheating approximately 20 families, the agency then did a bunk with the money. It's a sad story but it's also a good illustration of the way many Thais from poor backgrounds perceive farangs (basically as a perpetual source of free money) and how much families are willing to invest to acquire one.
Not only are they willing to borrow a lot of money but they are willing to marry off their daughters to men the girls probably have no feelings towards just for financial security - they hope. It's sad but true and another little warning for the thousands of sad and lonely Western men looking eastwards for Asian brides. It doesn't always work out quite as the Internet agencies will have you believe yet the rush to find Asian brides shows no sign of letting up.
Sunday 26th November 2006
Three things have stopped me from taking photos recently. Firstly, I've been fairly busy. Secondly, the incessant heat which makes being outside for too long very uncomfortable and thirdly, a little bit of apathy.
However, I made an effort to get out into nature last week and visited a pond nearby which is home to a lot of lotus flowers and some birds. It's similar to the Thale Noi environment but on a much smaller scale.
Unfortunately, what birds I saw were too far away for any decent shots and the light was fading fast. I didn't get any photos but as I walked home I heard an unusual bird song just outside my apartment. I stopped and after a few seconds located the source. It was a solitary, brightly-coloured, parrot-like bird. What luck.
Slowly and quietly I attached the long lens to my camera hoping that the bird wouldn't fly off. It didn't. I got a few snaps and wondered how close I could get. To my surprise the bird didn't seem bothered by my presence at all.
It flew from a post to some bushes but I was still able to get more photos and I clicked away for a while. The bird was so relaxed that it eventually went to sleep. I felt pleased having spotted such an unusual bird in its natural environment.
Standing there with a conspicuously large white lens on my camera drew some attention though and some of the locals wandered over to see what was going on. One man, on seeing the bird, lunged forward to catch it with his hands and then put it back in its cage.
It turned out not to be a rare indigenous specimen in its natural environment but an escaped pet. Oh, well. In a couple of months, migrating birds from Russia and Europe will begin arriving at Thale Noi and I will make another trip there to see what I can see.
Bird photography is anything but easy. I was photographing what was basically a tame bird and, of the 60 or so photos I took, there wasn't one that was exceptional. Some of the bird photos I have seen on various web sites are truly stunning and I have to admire the skill, patience and perseverance of the photographers.
This photo was taken with what is now an old camera, the Canon 10D, and a Canon 300mm F4L IS lens. The exposure settings were ISO 200 and 1/200s at F5.6. On my shopping list is a 1.4x converter some time soon and eventually an upgraded body.
Digital photography has been a steep learning curve for me and I still haven't progressed very far up the curve. Only a few days ago I found out why the photos I upload to this web site look a bit dull and are never quite as vibrant as they look when I edit them in Photoshop.
Apparently, it has to do with the colour space Adobe RGB vs Standard RGB. It's just a shame to find out this kind of thing after having already edited and uploaded hundreds of photos using the wrong colour space. Mai bpen rai, as the Thais would say.
Saturday 25th November 2006
A new restaurant opened recently and I ate there for the first time last night. One of the waitresses was incredibly stupid and it was one of those occasions when I had zero tolerance for dealing with stupid people.
In UK sit-com terms it was a little like Victor Meldrew meets the Two Ronnies and Dad's Army; with me taking the part of miserable Victor, the waitress being a female version of Private Pike and the dialogue with her reminiscent of a Two Ronnies sketch. "I want fork 'andles." "You want four candles?" "No, I want fork 'andles."
First, she interpreted my request to sit near a fan as wanting to eat fried rice. If you know the Thai for these phrases, you will know that one word is similar but I don't know how she managed to misconstrue what I said so horribly.
I sat down near a fan and she stood staring at me with her pen and order pad poised. Not unreasonably - or so I thought - it might be nice to look at a menu first before ordering because I hadn't eaten there before and didn't know what food they had.
I asked to see the menu, "Kor doo menu noi, khrup?" Once again, she understood this to be something completely different and thought I wanted to drink beer. After all, I'm a farang right and farangs always drink beer, don't they?
I think that based on my appearance she had made some decisions about me when I walked in which then overrode everything else. She had already worked out in her mind that I couldn't speak Thai, couldn't read Thai and had come in to drink beer. Many Thais from her background have that same stereotypical view of farangs. She looked as if she may have been a bar girl at one time.
By this time, what little patience I had to begin with had totally evaporated and I was getting seriously pissed off. The stupid girl then barked at me to, "Speak English." I knew she wouldn't understand but I obliged. "Can I see the menu, please?" As predicted, this just resulted in a completely blank look.
A young lad working at the restaurant came over to see what all the fuss was about. I asked again - in Thai - to see the menu. She still didn't understand but he understood first time and brought me a menu.
My reading is still slow. It's getting faster gradually but I still need a while to read through a menu. Despite this, as soon as the menu was in my hands she had her pen ready again to take my order. I hate it when they do that. I didn't say anything but just made her wait.
As I was looking through the menu, a discussion began in the background on whether or not I was able to read Thai! WTF did they think I was doing? It's not as if the menu contained any pictures. Incredible.
The menu was mainly Isaan food, a lot of which is too spicy for me. I just ordered som tum bpoo and grilled chicken. I gave my order to the young lad and refused to speak to the stupid girl. As I told him gai yaang, she said bplaa meuk yaang and started to write it down.
No, you stupid girl, I want chicken, not squid and gai sounds nothing like bplaa meuk. This is what went through my mind but I didn't have to say anything because the young lad, who had no problems understanding me, told her what I had said.
This kind of thing is fairly rare now but it happens occasionally and when it does it is bloody annoying. What I think happens is that some Thais make up their mind about farangs before they know anything about the individual and it's all based on stereotypes. They then refuse to listen or even if they listen, they refuse to understand what they hear.
A year or two ago I would probably have blamed myself for my inadequacies with Thai but when the problems exist with so few people I now consider it to be their problem and not mine.
Friday 24th November 2006
Last month while teaching my students (who are hospital staff), two people visiting the hospital as patients saw me teaching and asked if I could help them. Both had the same request and it's quite a common one in Thailand.
They were writing - or had written - some kind of a thesis or paper in English and wanted it proofread. For reasons I will explain in a moment I am not keen on undertaking this kind of work but both parties asked very nicely almost to the point of pleading.
This morning I spent about an hour or so going through the second one and it is typical of many papers I have seen written by Thais. The words are English, sure enough, but almost every sentence is in 'Thaiglish' or, at worst, completely incoherent.
You end up not proofreading but completely rewriting the paper which is a different matter altogether. Sometimes you can understand what they are trying to say but, if the subject matter is complex, it is first necessary to try to find out what they are trying to say before you can even begin translating it into an intelligible form of English. This can become very time-consuming.
A couple of years ago I did this with two PhD students. I quite enjoyed the exercise but it took months to complete. At the moment I'm just not in the mood to rewrite someone else's 200 page thesis so it will be returned incomplete with an apology.
I said there were two requests and I did the first one a week ago. In that one the English was actually quite good and I suspect that another farang had already cleaned up a lot of stuff. When the woman gave it to me she seemed highly confident that there wouldn't be much wrong.
However, sloppy as I might be with my own work, when it comes to assessing another person's work I am quite brutal. Spelling gets dealt with obviously but I am just as strict about punctuation, appropriate tense usage and even the subject matter.
For instance, if someone analyses a problem and sets forth a series of recommendations to fix the problem, I don't think it is a good idea to say that these things 'might' help. It's not a very convincing argument to go ahead with the proposals.
Her paper went back with several corrections, a few suggestions and some questions. I told her to take a look and arrange another meeting to discuss any items I had corrected which she didn't understand.
That was a week ago and I have heard nothing since. I have an idea this may have been some kind of a vanity exercise. I have to admit that considering it was written by a Thai, it was pretty good, but it certainly wasn't perfect. Maybe she was expecting it to go back with a 'Well done, 10/10' but it didn't.
Be very wary of Thais asking you to proofread something. Before you commit to anything, take a look at some examples of their work to see how much needs correcting. In most cases there will be something in every paragraph and if they have a big thesis, the work effort will be significant.
A Thai guy who was rather full of himself introduced himself to me a while ago. He was a Fulbright scholar who had studied in the US and had opened a language school after returning to Thailand. We spoke for a while and then he asked me if, when he had introduced himself, I had thought that he was a native English speaker. "Er, no. You sound like a Thai speaking English."
His English was good but he had a few delusions about how good it actually was. I think that could also be the case with the lady who asked me to proof her paper.
On the same subject, I have a Thai language guide written by a Thai which has the most diabolical examples of English. The author has a long list of academic qualifications but it seems he was also delusional about his English ability with the decision not to get his book proofread by a native speaker before going to press.
As a race, the Thais are actually very modest but because of the hierarchical structure of society, certain people seem to have acquired a false impression of their own ability. Some university lecturers and people in authority are good examples.
University lecturers are treated almost like gods within the campus. Students just bow down, accept everything they are told and never question anything. The Thai education system is very one way. Lecturers lecture at silent students and that's it. No one ever questions their judgment or authority. It's the same with authority figures who are never questioned.
Without anyone to question or criticise them, a few get a little carried away with ideas of their own grandness and ability.
Tuesday 21st November 2006
This teaching lark is a funny old business. I had an unexpectedly great day yesterday with sanook jung comments from my students. Nothing is more important to Thais than sanook so it was praise indeed to hear that.
Today has been quite the opposite despite being far better prepared than I was yesterday. Based on some feedback from last week, I had a couple of games prepared (Thai students love games) as well as a teaching module for eating out at restaurants (which had been requested) and song lyrics for some of their favourite English songs (which had also been requested).
Today should have been even better than yesterday but the lesson fell flat with all three of today's classes. It's quite disheartening when that happens but because of the human dynamic involved with teaching there isn't much a teacher can do.
It doesn't matter how much preparation I do or how much energy I put into the lesson, if the students aren't up for it, the lesson will fall flat. Mai bpen rai. Better luck next time.
Teaching can be quite mentally exhausting on days like this. Students can (and do) switch off during lessons but the teacher can't. With Thai students it is necessary to try to read them continuously because they won't tell you anything.
If I had a Baht for every time I ask whether they understand something, I would be rich by now, but they never say they don't understand. Silence and blank facial expressions are the best indicators. Sometimes I am told by a third party that certain people don't understand but the favoured Thai solution when something isn't understood is just to stop attending classes.
As with so many things in Thailand, it is cultural. I have methods of my own to deal with subjects that I don't understand and they are normally quite analytical. I also have no problem admitting I don't understand something.
Most people get great satisfaction from helping others so when someone has a problem there are normally lots of willing volunteers. If you post a question on an Internet bulletin board, others will fight to give you an answer.
The first stage though is admitting that you don't know something. In Western cultures it is no big deal but with the Thais it goes back to the boring old 'loss of face' thing which prevents them from speaking out.
The Thaksin Shinawatra entry on Wikipedia has grown a lot since I last looked. It would appear that a Thai Wikipedian who goes under the user name of Patiwat has added a lot of stuff about Thaksin in recent months.
It's a good thing. With Thaksin allegedly planning to reenter Thai politics again some time in the future, everyone should be aware of what went on and not be allowed to forget. Some of the people (and things) Thaksin has been compared to are interesting: AIDS, Hitler, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein.
I was aware that he has received vociferous vocal assaults from Thai expats in the US and UK but I didn't realise that an actually physical assault had taken place. It happened at a Thai restaurant in London where a female Thai expat threw a glass at him.
He managed to pull the wool over the eyes of many rural citizens in Thailand who are poor and uneducated but Thais living abroad are a very different kettle of fish. Vocal assaults in the street have been quite common apparently which have no doubt added to his desire to return to Thailand where he can throw some money around and receive the adulation he is used to from his poverty-stricken grassroots supporters.
What was quite extraordinary during Thaksin's term of office was how another man who was remarkably similar in so many respects was doing exactly the same thing in a European country. Thaksin's biography could have been written about Silvio Berlusconi and vice-versa.
If the Thais aren't sure how to deal with Thaksin they should maybe take a few leads from the Italians who are about to put their ex Prime Minister on trial and if convicted he could face a 12 year prison sentence.
All the same ingredients are there - offshore companies, tax evasion, ownership in media companies, fraud, money laundering, conflict of interest. Both parties deny any wrongdoing, both harbour ambitions to return to politics and both, in all probability, will get off scot-free. There's justice for you.
The Nation has published details of the white paper regarding Thaksin's alleged wrongdoings. The list is surprisingly short.
There were another couple of people killed on Bangkok's roads today, this time by lunatic bus drivers. If you go back far enough in my blog entries you will find that I was almost killed by an illegal taxi driver in Bangkok earlier this year.
On my last visit to Bangkok I was travelling in a taxi behind a car that was hit and tipped on to its side by a pickup truck. The driving in provincial Thailand is bad enough but in Bangkok it is frightening.
I have another trip to Bangkok planned next week. If this blog goes very quiet from early December onwards, you will know the reason why.
Monday 20th November 2006
Where does the money go? Since I started keeping track of my spending in Thailand, I know exactly how much I spend but it still surprises me at times how much I get through.
I have lots of very cheap days, especially when I'm working. I can walk to work but even if I take a motorbike taxi it isn't expensive, just Bt20. I eat at the student canteen where I can get a meal for Bt25. Sometimes I buy fresh fruit for Bt15 and I normally get an iced coffee for Bt25. If I eat at one of the many small Thai restaurants in the evening the whole day won't cost much more than Bt100.
However, my average daily spending overall is around Bt1,400. There is my room of course which, with electricity and water bills, Internet and fridge rental comes to around Bt8,000 a month. My medical insurance is Bt15,000 a year and there are various visa and work permit fees throughout the year some of which require trips to Malaysia.
Travelling is a major cost but sometimes it is necessary and at other times I travel purely because I want to. I have just booked what I think is my fourth trip to Bangkok this year (I've lost track). I had to make two trips earlier in the year to get a new passport and another to visit a specialist eye doctor.
I need to go back at the end of this month to see the doctor again. I can't be bothered (and don't really have the time) to travel by bus so I fly. Each one way trip is Bt2,000 and hotels in Bangkok are at least Bt1,000 a night.
I don't mind staying in cheap places elsewhere in Thailand but a quiet, comfortable room is essential in Bangkok because of the noise, pollution and sheer craziness of the city. I have a Thai friend who works for a big travel company in Bangkok and yesterday I spoke to her for a long time on the phone trying to get a room sorted out.
I was horrified at the prices though. Many places quote in US dollars and it is now high season. I don't want to pay any more than Bt1,500 a night but some places were charging Bt4,000 or Bt5,000.
I found somewhere which is actually an old standby and not a hotel that my friend's company deals with. It's a lovely, quiet, peaceful place that's also in a fantastic location. It would be stupid for me to give details on my web site though because if word got out I would only screw myself next time I wanted to stay there.
I have also booked a trip to Singapore next month to see my brother who I haven't seen for a while. I prefer travelling alone but Iss has been giving me severe earache about not taking her on recent trips so she is coming along too.
Our fares (on wonderful Tiger Airways) were extremely cheap but airport taxes at Changi are high. Even so, it only worked out to about Bt3,000 each for the round trip. Of course, there will be a Bt500 fee each for departure tax because we are leaving Thailand.
I don't have any accommodation expenses in Singapore obviously but eating out and sightseeing gets expensive, not to mention that Singapore is packed full of the latest photography equipment and electronic goodies. The cost of the fares for both trips and my accommodation in Bangkok is already close to Bt15,000.
And then there will be the doctor's bill (the condition I am seeing her about is excluded from my medical insurance), food, transport, etc. I love books and there isn't a good English language selection where I live but both Bangkok and Singapore have good book shops.
I am looking to upgrade one camera lens in order to take advantage of image stabilisation, buy another lens and I want to upgrade my camera body whenever Canon decide to announce the 40D. I also need to buy more external hard drive storage because shooting raw images uses a lot of storage. I expect I will go into 2007 with a fairly hefty credit card bill.
These are the reasons why my average daily spending seems to be out of line with what I spend most days; it's because at certain times of the year my spending goes through the roof.
It is possible at times to live very cheaply in Thailand but I very rarely manage to do so. My cheapest ever month was February this year when I managed to spend less than Bt23,000. Some expenses are out of necessity and some are purely because it would be extremely boring not to go anywhere or do anything.
I didn't even mention Iss. The arrangement we have is that she stays with me because she wants to and she is perfectly free to leave at any time. I do not give her money every month as is the case with many farang men and their Thai girlfriends.
Earlier in the year I gave her Bt20,000 to put towards a laptop computer. At the start of the month she traded in the gold bracelet which I had bought her previously for another one and I paid for the upgrade. I give her a little money occasionally or buy something for her.
If we go anywhere or eat out together I pay but it isn't often because she is always at work. She won't spend a Baht in Singapore - which is perfectly fine - and on top of getting a free holiday she will also probably get a present or two. She doesn't cost me a great deal.
Millions of Thais live on Bt4,000 to Bt6,000 a month. I spend on average about Bt42,000 a month. I'm not in Bangkok or Phuket where decent accommodation is expensive, I don't drink, I don't have a vehicle and I'm not at all extravagant with money. I consider my lifestyle comfortable but modest.
Considering how cheap the essentials of life are in Thailand I am surprised at how much money I get through but the real cost of living in Thailand is higher than many people probably imagine.
Friday 17th November 2006
I visited a lone forest monk this morning who is reputed to have psychic powers. He is only a young man of 32 and has been at the small monastery - which is in the middle of nowhere - for 10 years. In that time he has gained quite a reputation for his devoutness and special powers.
It was the first time I have been to a temple with only one monk in residence. He does his alms round in the mornings and receives visits from lay people most days who come to make merit.
I was taken by two Thai friends who I know think I am a good person but I couldn't help feeling that this was some kind of a test. They had told me before that nothing can be hidden from this monk and that he sees everything.
If it was a test though, I think I passed. The first good sign was that the temple dogs took a liking to me. According to the Thais, animals can sense good people and are drawn to them. I didn't mention to anyone that I had a bag of Scooby snacks in my pocket which was the real reason for the canine interest.
I struck up quite a rapport with the monk and there were lots of khon dee and jai dee remarks. 'Goodness', for want of a better word, is very important to the Thais. Thailand has its fair share of bad people but being a good person in society is highly admired which is a very healthy attitude to have within a society.
I get quizzed fairly often by Thais about my impressions of living in Thailand. The questions are always at a fairly basic level. Is Thai food delicious? Can I eat spicy food? Are Thai girls beautiful? Are Thai people kind?
She was on the back of her friend's motorbike and a young lad on another bike tried to grab her bag as he rode past. Unusually for this kind of thing, he was alone. The muggers normally operate in pairs; the one at the front concentrates on riding the bike and the one on the back does the bag snatching.
The first attempt a couple of years ago was thwarted by the intervention of a stranger. Today, she managed to keep hold of her bag, I assume because the lad was on his own and it was difficult snatching a bag while keeping control of a motorbike.
The incident was not reported to the police and I get the impression that many crimes in Thailand aren't reported to the police. He had no licence plates on his bike and was wearing a full-face crash helmet. What can the police do?
The muggers are extremely cowardly. A few of my ex-students have also been victims but I have not yet heard of a male victim. The cowards always choose girls as their targets; little Thai-sized girls who are hardly likely to offer much resistance.
Thursday 16th November 2006
Bangkok is currently staging the World Toilet Expo. Did you know for example that, "In Thailand, the government adopts a proactive strategy to improve its public toilet facilities through nationwide campaigns and public education."
Well, I never. Unfortunately I won't be in Bangkok this week to marvel at the latest in toilet technology.
Following up on recent comments regarding the renewal of my driving licence and Thai bureaucracy - specifically how frustrating it can be and how, at times, you need the patience of a saint - I found the following in the book I am currently reading. The book 'A History of Thailand' was written by Rong Syamananda, Professor of History at Chulalongkorn University.
In 1856 the USA sent an envoy to Siam to negotiate a trade treaty. The envoy's name was Townsend Harris and before his journey a certain Mr Parks had given him a few pointers about dealing with the Siamese. I quote:
"Mr Parks informs me that I will meet a most friendly reception from the Siamese, but that I must be prepared for many and some unreasonable delays which greatly try my patience," and he went on with his comment of the Thais, "It is an old saying here (Bangkok) that those who come here for business should bring one ship loaded with patience, another loaded with presents, and a third ship for carrying away the cargo."
These comments from 150 years ago are (unfortunately) still uncannily accurate for present day Thailand.
Wednesday 15th November 2006
After making some comments recently to the effect that, in addition to his financial misdealings, Thaksin's human rights record should also be investigated, I am very happy to see that Thailand is doing just that. Thailand investigates drugs war.
It's a good start but we shouldn't forget the two gruesome massacres of young Muslim men at Tak Bai and Krue Se Mosque, nor the Muslim lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, who one day disappeared without trace from the face of the earth and has never been seen since.
Regardless or not whether Thaksin was making one of his frequent shopping trips to Hong Kong or admiring the cherry blossom in Japan when these incidents occurred, as Prime Minister at the time, he has to shoulder much of the responsibility. His comment after Tak Bai that the men only died as a result of being weak from fasting was sickening, showing just what a cruel and completely insensitive human being he is.
Once the murders of thousands of innocent people have been investigated it would then be interesting to find out more about the tactics and threats he used to gag Thailand's media.
Thaksin is suffering badly from homesickness apparently and is desperate to come back to Thailand. Word has it that he has made some enquiries but been told to leave it for a year. I can't quite make out why he is so desperate to return.
If the Thais do a decent job of investigating his time in office they should have more than enough evidence by next year to take him straight from the airport to a court of law and then to jail for a very long time. As more evidence comes to light I wonder whether his desire to return to Thailand will remain?
Realistically though, it is highly unlikely that he will be punished because the Thais never punish people like Thaksin. The most I can hope for (but which still hasn't happened yet) is that Thaksin will be barred from politics for the rest of his life.
Rumours abound that as soon as he gets back to Thailand he will run for office again which would be disastrous because he will use exactly the same tactics as before to gain power and everything would go back to square one. As the linked article above explains, the Thai system of government is fatally flawed and perhaps it really is a hopeless situation?
Using a quote I have used elsewhere on this site regarding democracy in Thailand from the book 'Loyalty Demands Dissent' by Sulak Sivaraksa:
"In 1957, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the worst tyrant we've ever had, abolished the constitution and dissolved the Parliament. He arrested and killed almost all the progressives, including intellectuals, journalists, and opposition politicians. Despite this, people still call him a great man. Why? Because we Thais have been completely brainwashed by our educational system to respect dictators and admire those in power, even if they are cruel and evil. As long as we retain this mentality, there is no hope for democracy in Siam."
Handouts to the poor in the form of populist policies which Thaksin used for purely personal reasons to secure the grassroots voting base which kept him in power have cost Thailand Bt200 billion. Typically, everything Thaksin did was financed using money from the Thai people but the returns only ever came back to him, his family and his cronies.
Yes, the poor did benefit a little under Thaksin, I admit, but he always had ulterior motives and his methods were never ethical. There are right ways and wrong ways to help the poor but what he did by robbing the country to buy votes was clearly wrong.
Tuesday 14th November 2006
Since becoming reacquainted with a copy of my first ever Thailand guide book, I thought it might be interesting to see how Thailand looked to foreign visitors in the 1980's compared to now. Using some facts and figures from the book (along with a few of my own memories from 1987) here are a few random observations.
- According to the book, Bangkok had a population of about four million back then. The official figure is now slightly less than seven million registered people but the actual figure must be double that or more I would imagine.
- Thailand's population was given as about 40 million in 1980 whereas now it is around 65 million. Just think how high it would be if there were no motorbikes in Thailand.
- Bangkok was on one level back then - street level. Today it is a city very much on two levels with many expressways and a new train system operating above the streets. (Three levels if you count the new subway, but that isn't visible.)
- Patpong was the 'premiere' Bangkok nightlife area (read sex and prostitution area) in the 80's. There are still go-go bars and brothels but it is now a rather sad tourist attraction with middle-aged farang women shopping for fake designer clothes. My abiding memory of 1987 Patpong was going into the Kangaroo bar and watching a girl perform the speciality of the house on my mate who was sitting next to me. The only entertainment in English pubs at that time was a jukebox and Space Invaders so this was a little different for a couple of London boys on holiday but I'm sure something similar would have done wonders for business at the Slug and Lettuce.
- In 1980, "plans were being promoted to develop Koh Samui." It had, "adequate but by no means luxurious accommodation." Indeed, when I first stepped foot on the island in 1987 there was hardly any development and there were just beach bungalows which were extremely basic. Mind you, they only cost about Bt50 a night. No one had even begun to think about an airport.
- In 1980 Pattaya was, "the greatest success story in the history of Southeast Asian resorts," and "everybody's paradise," with, "half a dozen or so international-class hotels." Some "visionary developers" foresaw "the transformation of the whole region into a Thai Riviera." I can't really comment except that I had a great time in Pattaya in 1987 but when I went back in 1992 I hated what it had turned into. I haven't been back since and now it would take wild horses to drag me there. There can surely be no more tacky and seedy a place in the whole of Thailand.
- Phuket was, "being developed as a major tourist centre," but is hardly mentioned in the book. Songkhla is actually given a lot more coverage than Phuket. That's something else that seems unbelievable now. I didn't travel to Phuket on my first visit to Thailand but went there in 1992. It was very pleasant and very quiet - even Patong. However, when I returned in 1996 the same thing had happened as had happened in Pattaya between 1987 and 1992. It had gone seriously downhill with all the development that had taken place.
- Visitor numbers to Thailand were quoted by the book as being "about a million" a year in 1980. I'm not sure what the current figure is but it is probably around 10 times that. One consistent fact is that Malaysians still outnumber all other tourists which is hardly surprising given they are only next door.
- A tourist visa cost US$5.00 (Bt100) - yes, that's right, one US dollar was Bt20. Interestingly, in the past 25 years hotel and taxi rates have changed very little. Thai Airways was the only domestic airline.
- The book has some very good cultural tips which are just as valid today as they were when the book was first published. It's interesting how farangs in Thailand (myself included) try to analyse and explain Thai cultural behaviour when it has all been done (and done very well) before, a long time ago. Niels Mulder was doing exactly this over 40 years ago and his work remains seminal.
As I continue to read through the book I may add some more items to this list.
Monday 13th November 2006
I had an unexpected, but pleasant, moment of nostalgia today while browsing in the library. An old-looking, red-jacketed book with 'Thailand' handwritten on the front caught my eye. Intrigued, I opened it up at a random page and was pleasantly surprised to find that I recognised the book instantly.
It was a copy of the first ever Thailand guide I bought. Titled simply 'Thailand', it is one of a series of 'Insight Guides' and was compiled by several authors (ISBN 9971-941-15-5). It is a soft cover book but the library copy had been covered with a hard jacket which is why it was unrecognisable at first.
It was first published in 1977 and this third edition (the same one as I have back in England) was published in 1980 which was around the time I bought my copy. It's quite difficult now to imagine how things were back then. The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand was first published in 1982 so that didn't exist.
No one I knew had been to Thailand and it certainly didn't figure as a package holiday destination the way it does now alongside Falaraki and Torremolinos. TV travel shows didn't feature Thailand and of course there was no Internet.
The Internet, despite not having been around that long, has become such a big part of our lives that it seems impossible to think back to a time when it wasn't there but actually we don't need to go back very far.
Information has reached saturation point now with, it seems, every backpacker and TEFL teacher in Thailand (and elsewhere) having a web site or blog, but circa 1980 it was a very different story.
I prized this book highly and read through it so often that eventually it became like an old friend. I borrowed the library copy today just so I could read it from a very different perspective. After all, I know Thailand a lot better now than I did in 1980 before I had even set foot in the country.
Nostalgic moments can also be a little sad though and I admit to having felt some sadness today. The thing I loved most before I came to Thailand, and when I first starting visiting in 1987, was the mysteriousness and exoticness of the country.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced before and everything was totally unfamiliar. I spent many vacations not wanting to do any more than wander around the streets exploring the unknown while taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Thailand.
However, that experience has gone forever. Firstly, Thailand itself has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years. Bangkok now, in certain areas, is just like any other big city with its shopping malls, McDonalds and Starbucks. It is no longer quite the exotic, Oriental city I first visited many years ago.
Secondly, the length of time I have spent in Thailand since first visiting the country has made me a lot more familiar and taken away the mysteriousness. Thirdly, since Thailand became just another two-week package holiday destination, most people have been to Thailand now and we are saturated with information about Thailand.
Nothing stays the same though, such is the impermanent nature of the world. I am glad I got to see Thailand before full-scale Westernisation started to take hold but it also makes me think about how much longer I will stay. One redeeming aspect is that Thailand's programme of Westernisation is 95% focused on Bangkok.
Thailand's capital has been turned into an awful place in the last 15 years but much of provincial Thailand remains pretty much as it has always been and unspoilt.
I'm certainly not complaining about improvements in infrastructure. Internationally connected ATM networks and the Internet are lifesavers but in a wonderfully exotic Southeast Asian country the last thing I want is British-style pubs and American mall culture and fast-food restaurants.
There are still some parts of the world that have escaped American Imperialism but not only do they not have McDonalds, they don't have much of anything. Earlier today I was looking at some Wikipedia pages on Burma.
The evil military junta has oppressed the Burmese people for many years but the lack of development and Western influence has done no harm apparently to the natural environment. Forests, forest animals, birdlife and coral reefs are all reported to be thriving.
I'm sure we can fix that though. It will need a regime change first before awarding the rebuilding of the country to Halliburton and then we can go about destroying the natural environment in the name of democracy. Come on George and Condoleeza, what are you waiting for?
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