Living In Thailand Blog
Monday 29th November 2009
It has just emerged that a so-called 'Private Investigator' who was paid £500,000 to help in the investigation used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle, while ignoring all the tip-offs he received.
It is beyond me how anyone could do this but not all people think the same, or have the same moral code. After the Asian tsunami, friends from abroad contacted me wanting to send money to Thailand but they were worried that the money would be stolen.
Some time after the tsunami it came to light that donated money had indeed gone into people's pockets. What the Madeleine McCann story illustrates, however, is that there are bad people everywhere.
At first it can seem that Thais aren't very charitable but they understand crooked Thais better than anyone. If you simply hand over money, then there is a good chance that not all of it will go to the cause it was meant for.
What happened after the tsunami is that many Thais loaded up their pickup trucks with food, blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, etc., and delivered this stuff directly to the victims - thus ensuring there were no middle-men who could help themselves.
There was a blood drive at the school last week. These are held fairly regularly and lots of people donate blood. The girl I wrote about recently needed new blood and it's great that there are so many willing donors in Thailand.
Merit-making is extremely important to Thais and there is no better way of making merit than doing something that helps save lives.
Most Thais are actually very caring people and will help in many ways, but when it comes to handing money over they are wary because they know only too well what will probably happen to the money.
After recovering a lot of money on my stockmarket investments so far this year, problems in Dubai have renewed stockmarket concerns.
It has hurt me financially (on paper), but at the same time I have to admit to feeling a sense of Schadenfreude about what has happened.
In the last few years I have become sick and tired of the many e-mails and photos I have been sent of the 'wonderful' things happening in Dubai. It's not really wonderful though, is it? Especially when most of the construction work has been carried out by slave labour. A monument to vanity and greed is probably a better description.
With one-sixth of the world's population living in poverty and not having access to fresh water, building an extravagant playground in Dubai for the world's super-rich never seemed quite right to me.
Perhaps we really are entering a new era in consciousness? It's not long now until December 2012.
Sunday 29th November 2009
As the world started to emerge from the recent economic crisis, there were lots of warnings about protectionism. The general consensus was that protectionism won't prevent future problems, and that it will only make things worse.
That may be the case but protectionism is alive and well in this part of the world.
Malaysia adds up to 300% tax on imported cars (Import Duties on Motor Vehicles Sold in Malaysia), while Protons and other home-produced cars are sold at a loss, or a very small profit.
If you are a Malaysian of average means, you don't really have any option other than to buy a Malaysian-made car.
Malaysia has laws (Bumiputera) to ensure that Malays always get a better deal than non-Malays in Malaysia, including Malaysian nationals of Chinese and Indian ethnicity.
On a trip to Penang I booked a hotel on-line and was told it was the cheapest price. When I checked in, the guy checking in before me had a much lower rate. I asked why and was told it was because he was Malaysian.
Thailand's dual-pricing policy is well known. Unofficially, many Thais will simply charge foreigners a higher price. It is also done officially (national parks, historical monuments, etc etc) and often an attempt is made to hide what is happening by advertising prices using Thai numerals.
I went to the Hyundai showroom yesterday to get an idea of prices. In most countries a Hyundai car might be a cheap option, but in Thailand they are expensive. This is because of import duty.
Import duty varies in Thailand, but for high performance vehicles with engines larger than 3,000cc pushing out more than 220bhp it's a whopping 328% (Thai Customs Department).
This is why the new Porsche Caymans I saw for sale in Bangkok a few years ago were around Bt12 million, and why used models I saw advertised recently were around Bt6.5 million.
I browsed through a Thai newspaper today as I ate lunch. Like most Sunday newspapers, there were features on so-called 'lifestyle' items that normal people can't afford.
A lot of this nonsense is allowed to continue because people still regard Thailand as a poor country. Thailand isn't a poor country at all; it's a very rich country. The only thing that makes it look poor is that the distribution of wealth is very uneven.
Thailand doesn't have a national car maker but lots of foreign-made cars are assembled in Thailand. Cars assembled in Thailand are a lot cheaper than imported cars because they aren't subject to these ridiculous taxes. Protectionism. This even applies to cars from the same manufacturer.
For example, not all Toyota models are assembled in Thailand. If you want a model that is assembled elsewhere and needs to be imported, it will be far more expensive than an equivalent 'assembled-in-Thailand' model.
Unfortunately, 'assembled-in-Thailand' equivalents aren't always available so if you want a particular type of car that isn't assembled in Thailand, the only way to get it is to pay a stupid price.
The USA and European Union have gone the other way. An example is that it is very easy for Thai shrimp producers to export to the United States, to the detriment of home-grown producers.
With a globalised economy this doesn't seem fair. If other countries were to do the same it would hurt Thailand's exporters, and also Thais wanting to travel abroad.
Either all countries implement protectionist policies - similar to Thailand and Malaysia - or all countries do away with them. I can't understand why Malaysia, for example, is allowed to protect its own car market by imposing high duties on imported cars, yet this isn't done by countries importing Malaysian cars.
Why should the benefits be all one way?
Tiger Woods crashed his car and now the police want to talk to him. Did we forget that he's half Thai? Why is this such a big story?
Friday 27th November 2009
Of course, the accidents I witness personally are only a tiny fraction of the total number of accidents each day.
Thais get away with their appalling driving most of the time but when you drive that badly it can only be a matter of time before your luck runs out.
In addition to witnessing actual accidents, I also notice a lot of freshly painted outlines of road accidents that the police do when they visit the scene of an accident.
If you come from overseas and have been taught how to drive properly it's safer to drive yourself but this doesn't prevent you from being involved in road accidents.
Thai drivers do lots of things while they are driving ... apart from actually concentrating on their driving.
A law was introduced a few years ago to make mobile phone usage illegal while driving, but in this part of Thailand the law is completely ignored, and the police do nothing to enforce it.
You can be the most careful driver in the world but you can't do much about a Thai in a pickup truck shunting you in the rear while you are waiting in traffic.
I rented a car last weekend and I'm wondering whether renting a car whenever I need one will be a better idea than buying one?
If I buy a car I will have all the running costs - plus depreciation - and I won't use it every day. Renting may actually work out cheaper and it is hassle free.
I will make my decision some time next year.
Wednesday 25th November 2009
I asked my students to make tourist information leaflets for places of their own choosing. The objective was to assess their writing skills. Whenever they do anything like this, assessing their work always fascinates me.
Their attention to detail is amazing. I also saw evidence of this at the Loy Gratong festival at the beginning of the month. Some of the gratongs there took several people several days to make, and they were works of art.
One group of my students created a woven paper design, which must have taken ages to do, and other designs were equally intricate. Some of their writing is beautiful and must also have taken a long time.
What wasn't quite as impressive was the content. A lot of stuff was simply copied from the Internet, including text and photos from my web own site (they don't know it's mine). I think I need to plan a lesson on piracy and copyright violation!
Where they attempted to write original text, the grammar and sentence construction was pretty poor - even with the older M6 students. This is a common problem among Thai students. In Thailand, image wins over substance every time, and that applies to most everything.
In Thailand, what you are told, what you are shown, and what you are led to believe very rarely represent the truth.
There was a comment on one leaflet that I found very interesting. The students wrote on their leaflet, "Is your life too serious? Then visit Bangkok!"
When I used to have a proper job in the UK and came to Thailand for vacations, Thailand was the perfect antidote to my stressful life in the West. Nothing was serious and there was no stress.
The general craziness was all part of the fun because everything was so different to life back home. As a tourist, it's easy to fall in love with Thailand - especially if you are a single male tourist.
However, when Thailand becomes your regular home instead of just a 'vacation escape' the general craziness that was once so much fun can start to have the opposite effect it once did when you were a tourist.
Vacationing in Thailand and living in Thailand are two very different things.
Tuesday 24th November 2009
Watching a little Thai TV news yesterday with female Thai friends, it was reported that 21 young boys (not yet 18 years old) had been arrested for gang-raping a girl in Chonburi province. Apparently, she was the girlfriend of one of the boys but he obviously thought more of his friends than he did of her.
I can only assume that the poor girl (who is still a child) will be mentally scarred for the rest of her life.
Rape seems to be fairly common in Thailand. The Nation reported today that, on average, two children under 15 are raped each day in Thailand. I don't know what the figure is for people over 15 but I suspect it is quite high.
With gang rape, it isn't unusual for one of the rapists to record what happens on a mobile phone to be shared with friends later.
In the books I've read about Thai society a lot is written about individualism. This confused me at first but it depends how you define individualism.
To me, individualism means individuals setting themselves apart from the crowd (in a good way) in the way they think and behave. Using that definition, Thais are not individualists because most simply follow what other people do.
If you define individualism as individuals believing they have the right to do whatever they want to do with no consideration for other people, then Thais are individualists. This is aided in Thailand by very weak (and often non-existent) law enforcement.
With car and motorbike usage, Thais will drive how they want and park where they want. What they do is dangerous and inconsiderate but they don't care, and they don't fear the law. The roads are dangerous and sidewalks are constantly blocked making life difficult for pedestrians, but nobody cares. Street racing (organised and unorganised) is another big problem.
While living in communal buildings, many Thais think it is perfectly acceptable to make as much noise as they want any time of the day or night with no consideration for other residents. I know this from first-hand experience. Many Thai men will smoke wherever they want, throw cigarette butts wherever they want, and basically do whatever they want. Thailand, the 'Land of the Free' where Thais are free to do anything.
The crimes committed against females are just an extension of the right some (not all) Thai men seem to think they have of being able to do whatever they want to do.
I like lots of aspects of Thai society but there are some that I definitely do not like, especially the behaviour and attitudes of a certain sector of Thai men combined with lax law enforcement.
Monday 23rd November 2009
I took this photo yesterday at the famous Phra Mahathat temple in Nakhon Sri Thammarat. This is where the Jatukham Ramathep craze originated, and a few years ago Thais were being trampled to death in stampedes for new issues of Jatukham Ramathep amulets.
Back then, the amulets were changing hands for ridiculous amounts of money and every new shop that opened was a Jatukham Ramathep amulet shop. Jatukham Ramathep fever created an economic boom in Nakhon for a while, and during the height of the craze it was almost impossible to find a hotel room in town.
Why the frenzy? While the craze was in full swing the Thais I spoke to believed that because of the Saksit power contained in these amulets, while wearing one they would be protected from absolutely everything.
There was even one story circulating at the time about how a man was saved from being shot because the amulet he was wearing had deflected the bullets.
I have my doubts about the power of amulets, but what I have no doubt about is the power of Superdog. Who needs superstitious amulets when you have Superdog to protect you?
It isn't unknown for a TV advertisement to popularise an old song. I remember that this used to happen in the UK quite often. It happens in Thailand as well.
Thais have been going crazy recently for the old Doris Day number 'Que Sera Sera', which features in a Thai TV ad for life insurance.
In the ad, a group of cute tiny tots sing away in English while the adults watching them in the audience fight to hold back their tears.
Last week at the school I saw a class of first year junior school girls up on stage singing the same song. (If something is popular in Thailand, everyone else follows.)
Little Thai kids are amazingly cute and I have to admit that despite all my cynicism, it brought a lump to my throat.
Just like the Jatukham Ramathep craze and all the other past crazes, the Que Sera Sera craze will die out soon, and Thais will find something else to obsess about.
It has been a tad wet this week in Songkhla province. It rained heavily overnight on Thursday and continued all day on Friday. Then it continued on Saturday and Sunday, all day and all night. The rain isn't just a Manchester drizzle; it is torrential.
The canals are just about full and some outlying areas have been flooded. Flooding is an old problem but improvements to the flood defence infrastructure in recent years have helped central areas.
When I set off for Nakhon yesterday I could hardly see anything out of the car windows, but Nakhon was fine. I saw on the TV news that other areas are being affected but it seems to be quite localised.
One problem I didn't anticipate because of the wet weather is that I haven't been able to buy bread for the last couple of days. The bread shelves at the supermarkets and the smaller minimarts have all been completely empty.
After I visited Tesco for a second successive day yesterday only to find bare shelves, I asked why. The answer is panic-buying. A woman working there told me that when it rains heavily, Thais are scared of floods so they stock up with food.
She advised me to go early in the day instead of in the evening when I usually shop.
A quick update - and hopefully the closing chapter - on the sick girl I've been trying to help recently.
She used to be one of my massage girls but there was a falling out earlier this year. A few months ago, she called me on a very busy day and told me she was stuck in another province and had lost her money so she couldn't get home.
What was I supposed to do? I couldn't go to meet her and it was impossible to send money. I told her to explain her situation to a van driver and to pay him when she got back.
I don't know what she was expecting me to do but I could hear in her voice that she wasn't at all happy with me. Tough. After that we had no contact for a long time.
We got in touch again recently and that's when the calls for money started. Two hospital visits and more medicine last month cost me Bt2,500.
This month I gave her another Bt7,000 - Bt2,500 for a blood transfusion and the rest to pay her rent and buy food so that she didn't have to work and could rest for a while. That amount is plenty enough for a Thai to live on for a month. Her basic wage is only Bt4,500 a month.
I don't owe this girl anything and I'm under no obligation to help her but I chose to help her out of pity. I thought I had done the right thing under the circumstances.
Last Thursday - five days after giving her enough money to last a month - she called again to say the money is all gone and that she wants more. She hasn't even paid her rent yet, which isn't due until the end of the month.
I was furious. What really got me upset was that she was laughing as she told me. Laughing at the stupid farang, I guess.
Every time she has come to me for money I have given it to her. I guess she just thought this would continue, and that I would never refuse. Well, she guessed wrong. I told her she has had enough already and hung up.
She hasn't called back and I don't think she will. I will try to help anyone, provided that they try to help themselves and that they don't take advantage. She has no interest in helping herself and the final phone call showed that she was trying to take advantage of me in a big way.
I've been tolerant with her all along but I have limits. The money is no big deal, even though I could think of better ways to spend Bt9,500 in Thailand; and if I wanted to give money away, there are a lot more deserving people than her.
I've known for a long time that her health hasn't been good and I don't believe she was lying about the hospital treatments, or faking being ill. What I think she was doing was using her health problems to elicit sympathy so that she could extract money from me.
There is only one loser here and it isn't me.
I never stop learning in Thailand and this episode has been a big lesson for me. It doesn't mean that I won't help anyone again; I will assess every situation on its merits and do what I think is best for any given situation.
However, I do feel as if I have been made to look a little stupid this time, and as a result it will make me think a lot harder in future when Thais come to me begging for money.
Monday 16th November 2009
My mood has been bad today. I went out for a meal this evening, hoping to eat alone, but someone at the restaurant knew me and called me over to her table. She was with some friends who I didn't know.
After the introductions they all started throwing the classic Thai stereotypes about farangs at me. On another day I would have joked about it, but not today. I got a little over-aggressive describing their misconceptions.
It started off when they offered me food and remarked that foreigners can't eat spicy food. Then it went on to farangs only being attracted to short, uneducated, dark-skinned, rice-farmers' daughters from Isaan. "Why is this?" they wanted to know.
Oh no, do I really need to go through this yet again? These views come from people who have never set foot outside of Thailand.
Someone called me strange yesterday (farang bplairk), but in a nice way. She was right, based on what Thais see of farangs in Thailand.
A few days ago I ventured - very briefly - into expat land. This is most unusual for me, but the experience confirmed that I am indeed strange. The guys there live constantly in an expat bubble and the centre of their world is their bar.
They have no (or very limited) Thai language skills and their opinion of Thais and Thailand seems to come from watching people walk past their bar while they have a cigarette in one hand a beer in the other.
I ate at the bar and when the waitress asked what I wanted to drink I ordered an orange juice. The idea of a farang not drinking beer was too much for her and she guffawed loudly.
The typical expat guys are perfectly entitled to live in Thailand however they want, and I'm not making any judgments, but it irritates me when Thais base their opinions of every single farang on the planet purely on the expats and tourists they see in Thailand.
I notice a big change in students who study abroad for a year. Not only does it do wonders for their English language skills, but they also start to change the way they think.
It's a shame that more Thais don't get the chance to experience life in another country because their insular views really aren't healthy.
If you read good material about Thai society you will read lots about the system of patronage and patron/client relationships.
Whereas many Westerners strive to become successful as individuals, and want to be self-reliant, there are many Thais whose sole objective in life is to find someone to take care of them. They want a patron and they are quite happy to fulfil a subservient role as a client, provided the patron will take care of them.
To what extent does this take place?
A few years ago there was a big scam that affected many Thais in northeast Thailand. A bogus company had been set up that guaranteed to find farang husbands for poor Thai girls. Thais perceive all foreigners to be infinitely wealthy, and thus they make good patrons.
It cost a significant amount of money to invest in this scam and poor families were selling everything they owned just so that they could find their daughters 'rich' farang husbands who would be able to look after the girls and their extended families.
They lost their money, of course, but this story just goes to show the importance, and to what extent Thais will go, to find a patron.
There is no shame in asking other people for help. I've had to do it many times. However, Westerners tend to realise that in order for other people to help them, they must help themselves. This is where things are different in Thailand.
Once a Thai has found a patron they seem to regard it as mission accomplished. They can simply sit back and their patron will deal with everything. This aspect of Thai cultural behaviour has created a culture of dependence.
The girl I've been helping recently wanted help with money but she wasn't prepared to help herself by not working stupid hours. It took a lot of convincing to make her do the right thing.
I have tried to set her up with a new (better) job. She has a number to call and the owner of the business is expecting her call. In order to help herself, all she needs to do is to make that call.
However, she won't do it. She doesn't need to start immediately but when she has recovered sufficiently I think this job will be better for her. I keep chasing her up to see if she has called the woman, but she hasn't.
My reminder calls are obviously starting to annoy her now so the Thai solution is just to stop answering the phone.
While working at the university I met a lot of students doing international programmes. They have to write in English but their English is appalling. Some have asked me to proofread documents and theses, but it isn't proofreading as I know it.
I take their mangled assortment of English words (commonly known as Thaiglish), try to figure out what they mean, and then construct proper sentences. This kind of work takes ages.
I do this for free. After I've given my help you would think the Thai students could at least help themselves by using the corrections that took me ages to make?
I just received a thesis from a girl whose work I have corrected before. She is about to print a final version and wanted me to do a final check. Considering that I've already corrected individual chapters I thought it would be a breeze.
As I started to read her document, it was full of Thaiglish. I still have the original version with my corrections, so I checked. When I started to check I found that she hasn't used one of my corrections. I hit the roof and sent her a very strongly-worded e-mail.
She made some lame excuse about following the advice of her Thai advisor, who no doubt has a string of Thai PhDs but the English language ability of a two year-old.
Ever since I arrived in Thailand, I have gone out of my way to help Thais as much as I can. I give them my time and my experience, most times for free.
The least they can do if someone is trying to help them is to help themselves, but they won't. It's infuriating and at the moment I'm just not interested in helping Thais any more. I don't want to be a selfish, self-centred farang, but sometimes this seems to be the best policy in Thailand.
On the same subject, Thai politics has always been a joke and I refuse to be drawn in to it, as I was at one stage. What's the biggest problem?
In his book, 'Money Politics, Globalisation, and Crisis - The Case of Thailand', John Laird states:
As suggested throughout this book, the biggest hurdle impeding Thailand's political development, its sustainable economic development, and its attainment of a genuine quality of life, is the patronage system which permeates Thai society and politics.
Another major problem in Thailand is arrogance. Thais are reluctant to change anything because they always believe they know better than anyone else. The Thai way of doing things is always best.
Obviously, my student's university advisor with his wall full of degrees knows far more about the English language than a stupid farang who 'only' has a certificate.
Thais are generally lovely people but they have certain traits and beliefs that make you want to pull your hair out at times.
For further reading about Thailand's system of patronage I would recommend the aforementioned book and Mulder's analysis of Thai society. Details can be found on my bibliography page.
As a foreign man in Thailand, do not underestimate the lengths a Thai girl might go to in order to secure a patron.
My first girlfriend was divorced with two kids but didn't tell me until 10 months after we met. Thai men aren't interested in girls who have been married and have kids, and she thought that I would be the same so she didn't tell me.
When I came along, she must have seen me as a pretty good bet and was worried that she might lose me. She lied about contraception and within a few months of knowing me, presented me with the news that I was going to be a father. Great.
This might have been good if we had planned everything together but it was a very unilateral decision. A little while later she slipped on the bathroom floor at her grandmother's house and miscarried.
It was all very sad and I felt genuinely sorry for her, but I have to admit to also feeling a sense of relief. It was a huge lesson for me and subsequently it made me very wary of Thai girls (a wariness that continues to this day). My life now would have been very different if the pregnancy had gone ahead.
There is a massive gulf between Thai and Western culture and if you don't understand certain aspects of Thai culture you can easily find yourself in situations that you may rather have avoided.
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