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  • Living in Thailand Blog November 2011


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Living In Thailand Blog


Monday 28th November 2011

So, instead of getting a car when they're old enough and having real fun going out to meet their real friends in the real world, American teenagers prefer to stay in and play with Facebook.

Why are US teenagers driving less?

The world is becoming a very sad place and I actually feel quite sorry for the generation of kids growing up now. They are going to grow up computer literate, but with absolutely no social skills at all. I'm glad I enjoyed my younger years when I did.

I still receive regular requests to join Facebook and each one goes exactly where the last one went. Straight in my trash folder. How many lives are being wasted with this nonsense?

With the fall of Communism in the late 80's, the Arab Spring this year, and the fall of various dictatorial regimes around the world, the message put out to the world is that Western style 'democracy' is a fine thing and that it is the only form of governance worth having. This is what United States foreign policy has been attempting to impose on the world for many years in the country's self-assumed role of 'world policeman'.

I get the theory but the reality is far from pleasant. In fact, politics in the West is normally selfish and quite nasty. The economic problems of the past few years wouldn't have happened had not politicians colluded with financial institutions in order to make themselves richer.

Once the damage has been done, they don't care. They walk away with a lot of money and then write autobiographies, do consultancy, sit on the boards of large corporations, do public speaking, etc., to make themselves even richer.

In this region it is hardly any better. Laos and Vietnam are Communist. Burma is a military dictatorship. Malaysia is a big ticking timebomb because of the racist policies implemented by ethnic Malays against fellow Malaysians who aren't ethnic Malay.

Despite what Singapore might think about itself, it has been a single party state for over 50 years and the government is quite dictatorial.

Thailand has been a 'democracy' since 1932 but everything is about money politics. I can think of a couple of Prime Ministers who made serving the people a priority over making themselves rich (Prem and Chuan spring to mind), but normally it's about money.

Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat became Prime Minister after a military coup in 1957. He died in 1963 while still in office. After his death it was found that he was worth about Bt2.8 billion.

Many Thai politicians are, as Thais themselves say, 'unusually rich'. Politicians like huge infrastructure projects worth billions of Baht because the bigger the project, the bigger the kickbacks. It's really quite ugly.

Thai politics also reminds you of a school playground where, if people can't get their own way, they make up tales or try to get people into trouble in sneaky, devious, underhand ways.

Bad blood floods parliament

Thailand's political parties are now accusing each other of trying to make political capital out of the flood crisis.

The Democrats are saying that the water situation was quite manageable earlier this year, but allowed 'corruption, miscommunications and nepotism' to let the situation get out of hand.

The government are saying that the Democrats knew they were going to lose the election and so let the reservoirs fill up, knowing that when the rains came there would be flooding. The accusation is that they did this to sabotage Yingluck's government.

Abhisit fires big parting shot

A politician's house was burgled recently and a large amount of cash stolen. Some people are saying that the amount could have been as much as Bt200 million.

We then hear that the break-in was staged to expose the politician concerned who is accused of corruption. The accusation is that the money was from kickbacks for awarding contracts for extensions to Skytrain lines. Suphoth still mum on origin of Bt18 million stolen from home

While Thaksin was in office, these kind of stories surfaced all the time. I was really pleased to see the back of him. When Abhisit was running the country there was very little of this.

However, now that Thaksin's sister is in the hot seat the stories have started again. I don't think the problem will ever go away in Thailand unless the Thais find a very different way to govern the country.

I think this applies to all countries. I'm not exactly sure how it can be done practically, but we all deserve something a lot better than we're getting at the moment.

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Sunday 27th November 2011

Minimum salaries for graduates in Thailand - Click for larger image Most Western economies are now in a real mess, whereas Asian ones are thriving. It's not really surprising when you start to look at the facts.

As a result of the flooding in Thailand, we all discovered (if we didn't know already) that Thailand has a huge manufacturing and assembly industry. There are many industrial parks located in the central region and some are huge.

I'm not sure what factory workers at those places earn, but in my region of Thailand a salary of Bt10,000 a month for factory work would be considered quite good.

When the current government were running their election campaign earlier this year they promised a minimum monthly salary of Bt15,000 for graduates (as shown in this photo). I know Thai teachers who were getting excited about this because it would mean doubling their salaries.

There are many Thais who earn less than Bt20,000 a month and who would consider Bt20,000 a month a lot of money. That's about £413 at current exchange rates. How can the West compete with countries where wages are so low?

There are also other reasons why Western economies are in such a mess.

'Disabled' wedding dance man jailed for benefit fraud

The main point of this story is that an immigrant in the UK was claiming disability benefits when he wasn't disabled. He also lied about other things.

However, even if he had been genuinely disabled, is it right - as an immigrant - that he was given so much by the UK government from UK taxpayers?

He only arrived in the UK in 2001. He was given free accommodation, allowances of up to £66,000 a year tax free, members of his family also arrived in the country and were paid to take care of him (even though he wasn't disabled and didn't need taking care of), and his education was paid for. He studied for a Master's Degree and PhD at the highly respected School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

He claimed in total around £400,000. He bought a property and rented it out while he stayed for free in a specially converted council flat paid for by taxpayers.

My parents who are now pensioners, and many other people like them born in the UK, have paid into the system their whole lives but get so little in return that they have to spend very carefully and live very modestly.

It's just not right, is it?

This is why China and the rest of Asia laugh at Western countries, and this is why Asian economies are currently quite healthy while Western ones are collapsing because of the huge amounts of debt they have taken on to fund their reckless spending.

China is by no means a model country, but some things they have got right. The UK politicians and bureaucrats who allow this type of thing to go on should be lined up against a wall and publicly executed.

The final irony lies in the last part of the story. Our immigrant benefit fraudster friend was found guilty and sentenced to be held at Her Majesty's pleasure for almost seven years. And during his time in jail, guess who will be paying to keep him?

I want to be able to say that I am glad to no longer be a UK taxpayer. Sadly, I can't. Even though I live many miles away, my main incomes arrive from the UK and every year I have to give HM's Inland Revenue a big, fat cheque. This makes me feel really good.

In addition, the UK's complete and utter mismanagement of the economy over recent years (especially during the Blair/Brown era) has totally screwed up the stock market, interest rates, and exchange rates against developing countries, which are now considered to have stronger economies than it does, and so I am now about one-third worse off than I was just a few years ago.

What isn't reassuring is that there could be even worse to come.

For some reason I thought a while ago that there would be a recovery in 2011/2012. That was before it was revealed how incompetently European governments have been acting in recent years. My optimism was completely misplaced and I was very wrong.

More areas in South declared disaster zones

There are no problems at all in Hat Yai at the moment. Everything is dry and the weather conditions are perfect. The Sadao reservoir, which is the one I believe caused the big problem last year due to mismanagement of the water level, is currently reported as being 35% full in this article.

The 2005 flood in Hat Yai occurred right at the end of the year so the danger hasn't passed yet. I was in Singapore at the time for Christmas and New Year. The rainy season isn't over yet and until it is there is still a risk of more flooding.

However, with last week's big storm now over and the town's flood defences looking to be in exceptionally good shape this year, many people - including myself - are becoming increasingly confident that flooding will not be a problem this year.

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Saturday 26th November 2011

Hat Yai has an excellent flood defence system. The rain has been torrential and almost non-stop all this week. Despite this, there hasn't been a sign of flooding anywhere and the water level in the main canal system is very low. Some canals are completely dry and the green flags are still flying.

Other areas aren't quite as fortunate. As the following report points out, "Most of Saba Yoi (district) is affected every year by flooding." It is not alone. There are many other areas of Thailand that are affected almost every year by flooding.

Five districts in Songkhla named disaster zones

Yesterday morning's TV news showed flooding in all of the adjacent provinces - Phattalung, Satun, Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala.

I received an e-mail about my reading Thai tutorials last week and it included the comment, "You know what it's like in Thailand trying to get a straight answer to a straight question."

Yes, I know only too well. This is especially the case with 'Why?' questions. You either don't get an answer at all, or it takes a very long time to find out the answer.

Ever since the big flood last year, I've had lots of questions in my mind but nowhere had I been able to find any answers.

Why did somewhere with good flood defences get flooded so badly? Why did no flooding occur at any stage during four days of constant, torrential rain? Why did a flood occur after the rain had stopped? Why did it flood so quickly and so heavily? How were people able to predict so precisely when the flood water would arrive?

I've been finding out slowly and I managed to get some more answers this week. I know some shop owners in the central business district quite well as a result of being a regular customer, and I also just stop by for chats now and again. They are well-informed people and not prone to idle gossip.

I was told (as I suspected) that some big mistakes were made last year. I also heard (again) the story about one district refusing to open a sluice gate, thus preventing the water from being able to run off properly.

The authorities know exactly what caused the issues last year and everything is being done this year to prevent a reoccurrence. The flood prevention procedures are being executed meticulously this year.

This year's effort is highly commendable and I have lots of praise for our local municipality. The one thing I haven't heard (and the one thing I am very unlikely ever to hear) is anything on an official level to say that mistakes were made last year.

One reader suggested recently that the reason Thais never admit to making mistakes, or admitting that problems exist, is due to losing face.

It's a very powerful part of the culture but, by the same token, being able to admit mistakes and acknowledge problems is a highly effective way in which to make improvements.

In a perfect world where no one does anything wrong and there aren't any problems, nothing changes because nothing needs to change. However, if problems do exist and nothing changes because all the problems are hushed up and not spoken about, then that is a problem.

If you've ever taught in Thailand you will know that it is a waste of breath to ask Thai students whether they have any questions or problems. They never do. Actually they do - lots, but they never admit to having any.

When I was a student it was always very different. If people weren't sure about something there were always lots of questions because they wanted explanations. No one was afraid to ask and there was no sense of shame. I'm the same now. I have no qualms admitting I have a problem or that I don't know something. However, I'm not Thai.

The standard 'Culture' section in Thai guidebooks is normally superficial and quite useless. The real culture-gap problems you experience if you live in Thailand are far more complex than simply not pointing your feet at people or touching anyone on the head.

You need to understand how Thais think and learn about Thai belief and value systems. It's the only way you will start to make any sense of what happens in Thailand. This is what I've been trying to do for eight years and I still have a long way to go.

My wife - Click for larger image Someone arrived here via a search engine last week after typing in "Thailand is a difficult country for expats to live in". Yes, sometimes it is because of the vast differences in culture. Most times it isn't, and things do improve the longer you stay in the country.

Why do people expatriate to Thailand? There are lots of reasons. I had many reasons but I guess the overriding reason was that I couldn't get the right balance between work and life in the UK. I had also started to hate my job with a passion, despite earning a good salary.

British backpackers in Thailand - Click for larger image Because of the high cost of living in the UK it is necessary to work a lot, and because of the competition for good jobs these days if you have a job with a decent salary you are put under immense pressure. If you hate that job, then life starts to become unbearable. This is what happened to me.

In Thailand I can have a very good life on a relatively small income from the UK and there is no need to work. That's the kind of work/life balance I always wanted. It's not that I'm lazy. I simply want to do the things in life that I want to do and not do a job just because I have to do it for money.

As I said though, there wasn't just one reason, there were several. At the age of 50 in the UK (51 now), there wouldn't have been much chance of me marrying a slim, attractive girl still in her 20's, as I did here. Many foreign men come to Thailand for that reason alone.

UK women are 'fattest in Europe'

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Wednesday 23rd November 2011

I'm writing this at 4:30am after being woken up by the sound of torrential rain and then not being able to get back to sleep.

The rain has been beating down with such intensity it is almost as if an angry god is trying to exact revenge on a misbehaving population. The Thai Meteorological Department issued a travel advisory at 10:30pm last night:

"During 22-24 Nov, the strong northeast monsoon prevails over the Gulf and the South of Thailand. Torrential rain and heavy to very heavy fall many places is likely in the southern east coast from Surat Thani southward. People in the risky area in the foothill near waterway and the lowland should beware of flash flood and flooding conditions. This areas are warned of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Trang and Satun. The strong wind-waves in the Gulf of Thailand are expected 2-3 meters high. All ships should proceed with caution and small boats keep ashore during the period.

The high pressure area from China remains over Thailand. Cool to cold weather still continue over upper Thailand especially in the North and the upper Northeast."

As I mentioned before, Hat Yai has a pretty solid flood defence system. There is a lot of commerce and the town gets a lot of tourists from Malaysia. This has made Hat Yai relatively wealthy by regional standards.

Adjoining provinces aren't quite as fortunate and don't have as much in the way of flood defence infrastructure. My wife was telling me last night that there has already been flooding in parts of Phattalung and Nakhon Sri Thammarat.

My biggest concern is still the water levels in the large reservoirs in outlying districts. My sister-in-law lives right next to Klong U-Tapao, the main artery that takes water away from the city to Songkhla Lake.

She reported yesterday that the water level was unusually high, and not commensurate with the amount of rainfall. It could be that the authorities have already been releasing water from the reservoirs in a controlled fashion to make more capacity for the current bout of heavy rainfall.

This is what didn't happen last year. I think the reservoirs were already quite full when the big storm arrived and it was inevitable that they would fill. When the water reached a critical level and was all released at once almost all of Hat Yai was subjected to a two metre flood.

Can the same thing be avoided this year? I don't know and the constant fear of another big flood is becoming very difficult to live with. It's really not pleasant.

I've just heard a helicopter flying above, and there was also quite an eerie wailing sound. However, the wailing sound was just a Muslim call to prayer. After recognising what is was, it sounded quite soothing. There is a large Thai-Muslim community in this area.

The rain has eased up now - until the next lot arrives - and I will try to get a bit more sleep before daylight arrives.

Sluice gate in Hat Yai, Thailand - Click for larger image A lot of the pre-flood political problems in Thailand were caused by the disparity in wealth and conditions of perceived wealthy Bangkokians and poor Thais in the provinces and rural areas.

After the flood hit, this problem was exacerbated. Everything was done to try to protect Bangkok, and sluice gates were opened or closed accordingly.

What this meant, however, was that all the water diverted away from Bangkok had to go somewhere else and other people suffered more as a result. Nonthaburi was one such area and the people living there aren't very happy.

Nonthaburi residents up in arms

The sign they are carrying says 'Bangkok + Bangkokians = Thailand, Yes or No?'

The irony in Thailand is that the extremely rich politicians claiming to be the champions of poor, oppressed Thais are actually the very people poor Thais have a problem with.

Can Thailand afford NOT to fix the country's flooding problems?

In addition to the massive damage done to Thailand's industrial sector, reduced tourist numbers, and general damage to the economy, the military alone need lots of money to repair damage.

Post-flooding military repair to cost Bt12 billion

Yet more unhappy flood victims:

Former House Speaker threatens to lead protest

Within the next four or five months I will need to transfer quite a large sum of money from the UK to complete our house purchase. With large amounts, even a small change in the exchange rate can make a big difference and it is very difficult to know when to act.

However, I think I may have overlooked something.

While at the bank today I enquired about interest rates. Interest rates on savings accounts in the UK have been a joke for some time now and it's hardly worth using them.

On the other hand, my Thai bank is offering 3.2% if I agree to deposit the money for four months without touching it. This sounds like a pretty good deal. They also have other deals depending how long you agree to commit your savings for. It may be better just to make the transfer now and not to wait.

If I do wait, the exchange rate may drop anyway. If I make a transfer now, at least I will get some interest from my Thai bank account.

It's a difficult decision. Where's that crystal ball?

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Monday 21st November 2011

Shortly after I arrived to live in Thailand - with absolutely no commitments, responsibilities or obligations - I went off travelling to explore various parts of the country.

On occasions, I remember some Thais telling me I shouldn't go. They actually looked quite frightened. When I asked why, they said because it was raining. Mmmm.

Rain wasn't exactly unknown of where I came from and most of the time it didn't stop people doing anything. I've watched West Ham play plenty of times, and even played cricket, in pouring rain. What's the big deal about rain in Thailand?

I found out last year in a big way and since then there are now times when I start to get quite frightened.

The scary rain arrived last night.

Just like last year, once it starts it never stops. It simply comes in waves. It beats down with extreme intensity for what seems like ages. Sometimes the intensity decreases but it doesn't stop. And then as the next wave of heavy rain comes in the intensity increases again.

As morning broke today it should have been very light outside but instead it was still black. The sky is completely grey with heavy rain clouds and there is not a patch of blue or clear sky anywhere.

According to the Thai Meteorological Department in their 7-day forecast, it is set to last until the 25th. However, when they release the next 7-day forecast it could just continue. The rainy season has been very dry so far, but could this be the turning point?

I have confidence that the town's flood defences can handle any amount of rain that falls directly. The system is actually quite efficient at channeling rainwater into a network of large canals and depositing it into Songkhla Lake.

What worries me most - and I only found this out last year - is what is happening to the large reservoirs in outlying districts. If the water level is being managed properly, there shouldn't be a problem.

If the water level isn't being managed and reaches a critical level the water will be released again, as it was last year. This huge amount of water will flow through Hat Yai, overwhelming the town's flood defences, and flooding will occur again.

Something else I am quite confident about this time around is that the situation is being monitored extremely closely.

Before last year's big flood there hadn't been a major flood for 10 years, just a minor flood in 2005. I have a feeling that there was a degree of complacency and that a few people had gone to sleep. I don't believe there is any way the same thing will happen again this year.

Everyone seems very focused and the people at the local municipality have been putting in a major effort this year to try to prevent another flood disaster - last year really was a disaster. In previous posts I have already spoken about some of the measures that have been taken.

English words and expressions make their way into everyday Thai fairly regularly. When new ideas, products and concepts come from the West, Thais will often just use the English word or phrase.

The latest example is 'big bag', an expression which I think every Thai in the country is now familiar with. I believe that what is being referred to are Hesco Bastions.

My wife went to a family funeral on Thursday and as she was returning she saw a huge truck loaded up with 'big bags' headed for Hat Yai. These are a lot more efficient and much quicker to erect than sandbag fortifications.

As for what will happen now, I don't know. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and my ears glued to the local municipality's radio station.

If flooding looks imminent my first priority will be to make sure there are supplies in the house for the baby, and the second will be getting the car to high ground.

We will need to get as much stuff upstairs as possible but some items will have to remain downstairs as they are too big or too heavy to move. Some things can be repaired after a flood, while other things are ruined.

I sustained about Bt30,000 worth of damage last year. My wife managed to get Bt5,000 compensation from the municipality. It's not really about money, though.

Flooding is a massive inconvenience and makes life very difficult for a long time. It also causes lots of mental stress.

In many parts of the world it is a threat that genuinely only occurs every 50-100 years. In some parts of Thailand it is an annual problem. Ayuthaya is particularly vulnerable and has now suffered two consecutive years of severe flooding.

Up until recently, Thais have always accepted flooding as one of those things that happens every year. However, as lifestyles are changing and more Thais have money to buy decent homes and possessions many are no longer prepared to accept it.

Thailand has built up a huge manufacturing and assembly industry as foreign firms have invested heavily in the country, especially Japan. A lot of this industry is based around Ayuthaya.

The foreign investors are obviously unhappy but they are saying they will stay, provided the country fixes its flooding problems.

This is what the government has pledged to do but the trouble with Thai politicians is that they promise the earth and quite often fail to follow up with their promises.

This problem is so big that it can't be ignored for much longer.

It's sad to see that Nok Air are suffering losses as a result of the flooding and closure of Don Mueang airport. I have used most airlines to fly up to Bangkok and Nok Air is my airline of choice.

I tried AirAsia a few years ago and although the flight to Bangkok was fine, my return flight was delayed seven hours. I got home at about 4am the following morning and had to work a couple of hours later. Never again.

Whenever I am at the local regional airport I always see AirAsia flights cancelled or delayed so make a point of not using the airline. Thai Airways is very good but it is also the most expensive. Nok seems to have the best compromise between reliability and price.

I also find that flying into Don Meung is a lot more convenient than Suvarnabhumi. That is, of course, when Don Mueang isn't under several feet of water.

Post-flood rehab plan for tourism sector

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Friday 18th November 2011

Don't believe ... - Click for larger image Recently I have spoken at length about how Thais insist on gossiping (nin-taa) and spreading rumours that are completely baseless. They seem to enjoy doing this.

It really started to get me down. Last year's flood affected me badly and I don't ever want to live through the same experience again.

At the beginning of the rainy season this year the rumours started again about more big floods coming our way. I could tell that the more uncomfortable I became, the more they enjoyed telling me. I started to get quite angry and there was no hard or scientific evidence to support their claims.

I simply dismissed the silly rumours initially, but when you hear something so many times from so many people you can actually start to believe what is being said.

The comment I made was that there should be more communication from the official channels with real facts, and that this in turn would kill off all the idle gossip and false rumours.

I took a walk at lunchtime yesterday and was amazed and delighted to see the sign above. It is from the local municipality.

According to my Thai-English dictionaries, kaaw leu kaaw aang translates to 'rumour, hearsay, unfounded/groundless news, stories, senseless gossip'.

The sign says not to believe such things, but to tune into the municipality's radio station to hear about the real situation regarding the threat of flooding. This is exactly what I said was needed.

The photo is still in the small camera that I carry around all the time. The next time someone starts to tell me senseless gossip I will show it to them.

The other idea I had was to offer a wager to anyone telling me there was jut about to be a flood. If it floods I give them Bt1,000, but if it doesn't they give me Bt1,000.

Idle gossip costs nothing but when dealing with money Thais are very careful. I doubt very much that the gossipers would be prepared to back up their cliams with hard cash.

Anyway, I was really pleased to see this sign appear.

We all know now that Thailand produces over 40% of the world's hard disk drives and that the flooding has put much of Thailand's hard disk drive industry out of action for a while.

This will have a worldwide effect. It also comes, coincidentally, just as my existing 250GB drives for photos are about to run out of space. I went out today to buy a couple of 1TB drives.

Computers and computer accessories are simply a commodity item these days and generally there isn't much variation in price. I went to an area where there are quite a few computer shops but I didn't check prices; I just used the same shop where I had bought my last two computers.

I also needed a white keyboard. This shop didn't have any, so I went to a few other shops. As I checked out keyboards, I also checked out prices for the same hard drives I had just bought.

I paid Bt6,900 for each drive. At the next shop the price was about the same. However, at the following shop, the exact same product was Bt4,300. I felt pretty sick. Why such a big difference?

I wasn't sure what to do but went back to the first shop where I had been a regular customer to ask the manager. The Thai way in these situations is never to get angry and start ranting, as Westerners might do. It doesn't work in Thailand.

I explained that I thought prices would be roughly the same everywhere and that I had chosen to buy at his shop because I was a regular customer.

There was no argument. He took the drives back and refunded my money. I went to the other shop where I bought the same drives for a lot less money.

I think that the first of the two morals to this story is that even if you think prices will be the same, always check first. The second is that is you have a problem and need to complain, do so as Thais do. I've lost my temper before in Thailand but getting angry never works.

It sometimes makes you feel better personally to let off some steam, but if you want a Thai to do something for you they won't deal with an angry person. When faced with an angry person they stop listening, avoid eye contact, and act as if you aren't there. Jai yen yen.

Everyone knew what the most important item on the new government's agenda was when it was elected, but I don't think anyone was quite sure when the government would start to act. Apparently, there was a secret meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday. Of course, the PM was far too busy helping with the flooding to attend and didn't know what was going on.

Govt takes dangerous path

Each year in Thailand there is an amnesty in which certain prisoners are released from jail. Previously, the amnesty has not applied to people involved with drugs or corruption. It has also only applied to prisoners in jail, not those on the run.

The changes to the terms of the amnesty, so we hear, will now make it applicable to people charged with corruption, and to those who are fugitives on the run living in other countries.

This doesn't need much explaining, but what will be interesting is to see what will happen next. The flooding issues have taken the focus away from Thailand's political turmoil for a while but at this rate the political problems show no signs of going away any time soon.

Of course, I was talking about rumours above and until details of this meeting are made public a lot of what is being said now is also hearsay and speculation. All will be revealed soon.

No public debate allowed in 'secret' draft on amnesty: Chalerm

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Monday 14th November 2011

Is Phuket about to run out of beer? Let's hope that supplies of "Connect 4", "Same Same But Different" T-shirts, and tattoo ink haven't been affected by the floods otherwise this could be disastrous for Patong.

Phuket tourism fears ripples from Bangkok floods

Once again, the shelves at Big C Extra were looking quite bare on our Monday morning shopping trip today. After much searching last week I managed to locate some cat sand, only to find today that the only brand of food our cats will eat is completely out of stock.

Also completely out of stock is the brand of ice coffee I drink for breakfast and Colgate toothpaste. You can still get most things if you are prepared to accept other brands.

We will now have to use Darlie toothpaste for a while, which incidentally was branded as Darkie toothpaste when I first visited Thailand in 1987.

There are a lot of good people in Thailand. Before last year's big flood here, there was a smaller flood in 2005. I was teaching at the university at the time and I was amazed to see what was going on over there.

Studies had been halted temporarily and everyone was helping to prepare supplies for the flood victims. Thousands of plastic bottles were being filled with clean drinking water and thousands of meals were being cooked and put into boxes.

The same kind of thing has been going on in Bangkok and the central region this year. Lots of people have volunteered to help the flood victims. Even animals are being helped.

There was a report recently that some people had abandoned their homes but left their pets behind. Obviously the cats and dogs were getting very hungry and a few days ago there was a TV report about someone going around in a boat to give them food.

These kind of stories are quite heartwarming.

Unfortunately, there are also some bad people in Thailand. You may not meet many if you come as a tourist but if you live in Thailand you come across them quite regularly.

According to a TV report this morning, some people have been collecting donated food and supplies and then selling it on to people in need. That's pretty low; roughly on a par with pocketing money donated to tsunami victims.

I find it quite sad that whenever there is an initiative to help people in trouble, there are always other people around looking to make some money.

Rice is not only the staple of Asia, but symbolically it is extremely important in Thailand. Rice farmers carry out backbreaking work for little compensation. Rice farming is also seasonal and so people involved in the trade need to find other work at certain times of the year.

The government introduced an initiative to protect the minimum price of rice in order to assist rice farmers. As soon as this initiative had been introduced, more bad Thais started to help bring in cheap rice from Cambodia. Rice sells for Bt15,000 a ton in Thailand but only Bt7,000 in Thailand.

Chuvit releases clips of Cambodian rice being smuggled into Thailand

Three army officers prosecuted for smuggling offences

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Saturday 12th November 2011

Green flag (no flood danger) - Click for larger image The southern Thai forecasters of doom and gloom, of which there are many, are going through a rough time at the moment.

None of their predictions of disaster are materialising and as a result they look thoroughly miserable. I feel quite sorry for them.

Whenever I see their miserable faces I think it would be good to have a minor natural disaster - such as a level 3.0 earthquake or an ankle-deep flood (without too much damage or inconvenience) - just so that the smiles would return to their faces for a while.

It started off at the end of last year when the huge earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that had been forecast to happen on the 30th December 2010 ... er ... didn't happen.

This event was supposed to wipe Hat Yai from the face of the earth but miraculously the town was still standing when the time arrived to welcome in the New Year. What went wrong?

At the start of 2011, an eccentric American geriatric by the name of Harold Camping tried to come to their aid by predicting the end of the world on 21st May 2011. Some good news at last.

The smiles returned to their faces again, but more intense disappointment was to come when we all woke up on 22nd May 2011 to find (once again) that nothing had happened. What's the deal Harold?

Harold, who had been performing his calculations on a Sinclair XZ81, put the blame on Sir Clive for a decimal floating point glitch in the Zilog Z80 processor and hurriedly revised his prediction for 21st October 2011.

An almost empty canal as a result of very little rain - Click for larger image With the end of the world forecast for 21st October and the rainy season in southern Thailand rapidly approaching, the mongers of doom once again had reason to smile.

In September they were telling me that there would absolutely, definitely be a flood halfway through October. Last year's flood was the biggest in the town's history but this one would be even bigger. They were smiling as they told me. Oh, happy days!

Well, October came and went. Not only was there no flooding at all - not even a little incy wincy flood - but the world didn't end either. At this point, some entered a serious state of depression and resorted to the Prozac bottle.

At the end of October they tried to be optimistic again by telling me that flooding would occur in November and December. Sadly for them, we are almost halfway through November and still a flood is looking extremely unlikely. It's been very dry, the green flags are still flying and the canals are still empty.

On Thursday I was told to be very careful in January because there will be a flood. They honestly don't know when to stop. I'm convinced that if we get through this entire rainy season without a flood, there will be some people who will be genuinely disappointed.

The Land of Smiles? I don't think I've ever met as many miserable, gloomy and depressing people as I have in Thailand.

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Thursday 10th November 2011

Floating gratongs from a couple of years ago - Click for larger image The Loy Gratong festival is normally one of my favourite days of the year. That wasn't the case today.

For almost every year since 2003 I've spent it at the Prince of Songkla university in the company of educated, middle class Thais and it is all very civilised. The university organises a big parade in the afternoon in which all the best looking female students dress up in traditional costume and smile sweetly at everyone, especially farangs with cameras.

In the evening people gather to loy (float) their gratongs (small baskets traditionally made from banana leaves decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks) in the most convenient body of water.

Today I had to work so I missed the parade. Loy Gratong is one of the busiest nights of the year and with my dislike of crowds and heavy traffic it is not one on which I would choose to go somewhere in the car. However, when you are married you find that quite often you have no say in certain matters.

Loy Gratong in 2007 - Click for larger image I was informed that we were going out to meet one of the wife's sisters to float our baskets. Not only was the traffic horrendous, but on days such as this the near lawlessness on Thailand's roads turns to total lawlessness.

We mixed this evening not with educated, middle class Thais, but with Thais slightly further down the social hierarchy. With so many people out on the roads it was just an excuse for quite a few to get drunk and race their motorbikes and pickup trucks around.

My not very good mood was only tempered by the fact that this was the baby's first Loy Gratong and we both thought that she should attend. Once the gratong had been floated we headed home, only to find that there were even more maniacs out on the roads. It was a huge relief to get home in one piece.

I know I go on about this; I know I sound miserable; and often I wish myself that it didn't make me so grouchy. I think it's a combination of age and having lived in Thailand for several years.

Loy Gratong in 2007 - Click for larger image It just gets extremely tiresome. Every time I step outside of the house I am confronted with grinning kids on motorbikes racing around at breakneck speed while trying to get their front wheels in the air. They mess with their exhausts as well and the sound from their little motorbikes is horrendous.

Our cleaning lady, who lives a few Sois away, told us that a grinning kid doing a wheelie on his motorbike knocked down and severely injured an old person recently. My wife complains about them every time she takes the baby out for a walk in the buggy.

She asked if we should inform the police, but I don't honestly think it would do any good. If they were interested in fixing the problem they would have fixed it by now.

By the way, this isn't the version you will get from the guide books and tourist brochures. Their version is the one I alluded to above; that of elegantly dressed, civilised Thais gently performing a traditional Thai ceremony against the backdrop of ancient temples.

The reality in many parts of Thailand is the one I have just explained. It's not quite as pleasant but if you come to live in Thailand you will find that there are several aspects of living in Thailand that aren't quite as the guide books and tourist brochures make out.

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Monday 7th November 2011

Lots of interesting little facts keep emerging as a result of the flood. I was aware that there were assembly plants in Thailand, but I didn't realise quite how many. Neither did I realise quite how big some of them were, or how much of the total world production of hard drive disks came from Thailand.

Escaped crocodile stories have been rife in the local news and now it emerges that Thailand has a huge crocodile industry - the largest in the world.

Thailand's crocodile industry

As I seem to remember, Thailand is the only country in the world that produces enough rice for export, in addition to its own needs.

There is an incredible amout of fruit grown in the country and the shrimp farm industry is huge. In the south - and increasingly in other regions - there is a lot of para rubber grown.

Thailand's tourism industry is the envy of most countries in the world.

Despite all this, you will often hear Thais saying this or that can't be done because Thailand is a poor country. This is garbage.

There may be a lot of genuinely poor people, but there is no way that Thailand is a poor country. It's a rich country with a lot of poor people.

Sometimes it is convenient to be poor. A few years ago when Nicholas Negroponte was touting the $100 laptop project, Thailand was one of the first countries to sign up under PM Thaksin (himself one of the richest people in the world).

I was a little surprised recently to see that Bangladesh has given aid to Thailand.

Bangladesh to provide USD1 million aid to Thailand

Bangladesh is a country I consider to be genuinely poor, whereas Thailand isn't.

I have genuine sympathy for the rural poor in Thailand because they lead difficult lives. However, I get a little irked when people keep trying to tell me that Thailand is a poor country. It isn't.

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Sunday 6th November 2011

Not directly related to Thailand, but I've just read an excellent article about the Eurozone crisis. There are no confusing technical terms; just simple explanations and a nautical analogy. The situation is really quite frightening. If the Euro capsizes it will affect the world, not just the Eurozone.

Is the euro about to capsize?

The British public have always been highly sceptical about the Euro (even if a few British politicians seemed keen on the idea). I have always been very sceptical, but before the recent problems started to surface I wasn't exactly sure why.

It didn't seem right that countries with such different economies and cultures should all be regarded as being the same. My limited knowledge of economics told me that a country's ability to control interest rates and the strength of its own currency was important.

If this ability was taken away by having a European Central Bank, then there would very likely be problems for certain countries.

Economics is a subject that I have never managed to get my head around. Apparently, so we are told, debt will never be a problem for countries that have retained their own currencies and central banks because they can print as much money as they want. But won't this cause other problems?

Keynes always gets a mention when the subject of economics is brought up, and this article is no exception. The article says Keynes suggested two options for warding off a recession - cutting interest rates and increasing government spending.

With interest rates already so low, it is difficult to get them much lower. And I could never understand how spending more money would help if a country was already heavily in debt, unless the spending fueled growth in the economy.

I started off by saying that this wasn't related to Thailand but the world we live in these days is permanently interconnected.

Thailand relies heavily on export markets and tourism, both of which will suffer if the rest of the world has further economic problems. I guess that in Thailand's favour, if the West suffers then the country will just look East. China offers lots of options and there are lots of East Asian tourists these days with money to spend on travel.

There are thousands of Europeans living in Thailand, many of whom live off an income from Europe. Brits have already seen the value of the pound fall by one third against the Baht in just a few years. There could be worse to come. Despite not being in the Eurozone, the UK won't escape.

Euro crisis 'chilling' UK: Cameron

I have been watching exchange rates very closely this year as I need to transfer quite a large sum soon. At the start of the year I was hoping that the UK to Baht rate would increase in my favour. The year started off quite promisingly but since then it has been up and down.

XE Currency Charts (GBP/THB)

If things continue to go downhill in Europe then there could be quite a plunge. Despite all the problems in Thailand with flooding this year, it doesn't seem to have weakened the Baht too much. If the rate looks set to tumble I may have to act sooner rather than later.

It is hard to believe how quickly all of these economic problems have descended upon us. Just four years ago everything looked fine.

I have survived so far, but depending on how bad it gets from now on I'm really not sure what my position will be in five years time, or even next year. The thought of having to do more teaching here is almost unbearable.

A few years ago I calculated what I thought would be my income now. The reality is that it is half what I had calculated. I had done the calculations based on interest and exchange rates at the time. I had also assumed that stock markets would continue heading basically in the same direction.

Of course, everything started to go very wrong in 2008. There was quite a good recovery in 2009/2010 but then a load more problems came out of the woodwork this year.

What next?

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Saturday 5th November 2011

A Honda Civic that was completely submerged in the flood - Click for larger image Exercise a little caution if you are planning on buying a used car in Thailand any time soon.

After last year's big flood in the south, one of the things that shocked me a little was to see how many flood-damaged cars were being repaired. The height of the flood was around two metres and many cars had been been completely submerged.

Used cars are expensive in Thailand for some reason - far more expensive than in the UK. My brother-in-law repairs a lot of accident damaged cars that in the UK would be scrapped. They are worth repairing because the repair costs are lower than the crazy used car prices in Thailand.

Cars damaged by flood water last year were being stripped down completely, dried out, and reassembled. After this was done they looked quite reasonable and everything seemed to function. However, flood-damaged and repaired cars are guaranteed to have problems in the future.

With so many electrical contacts inside the average car nowadays, any moisture will eventually lead to corrosion and this in turn will cause problems. The problems will probably be intermittent.

Flood damaged car being dried out and reassembled - Click for larger image I talked to an Australian about this subject. He told me that after the big Australian flood some cars there had also been repaired. The repaired cars then rusted from the inside out.

Rust protection is applied to cars on the basis that water will come from the outside. When cars fill up with water and the water comes from the inside, there is no protection.

At the Honda factory in Ayuthaya there were a number of new cars awaiting delivery to customers that were flood-damaged. They were scrapped. This was the only thing a large, reputable company could do in the circumstances.

If any large manufacturer tried to pass off flood-damaged cars as new they would be found out eventually and it would wreck their reputation.

Unfortunately, there are many used car dealers in Thailand who aren't quite as scrupulous and whose professional standards aren't quite as high.

My wife has four brothers and they all have auto repair businesses. They tell me that there are ways to tell whether a car has been in a flood.

They also buy and sell cars and the majority of cars they buy come from Bangkok. The used car market is very active in Bangkok and prices tend to be lower than in the provinces. Therefore, they make better profits buying in Bangkok.

Even if you don't usually get used cars inspected professionally before buying, doing so might be worth the money if you are planning to buy a used car in Thailand within the next year.

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Friday 4th November 2011

Here's an interesting follow-up to the piece I wrote yesterday:

Many city canals 'illegally blocked'

Selfish Thais - Click for larger image Some Thais, unfortunately, have a very selfish attitude. For example, people claim sidewalks which don't belong to them for their own use by blocking access to pedestrians using plant pots, etc. This happens everywhere.

Many Thai drivers are very selfish, driving with a "me first" attitude all the time.

Land is scarce in Bangkok and it seems that some people have filled in canals illegally in order to build apartments and golf courses. They want land for themselves and care nothing about the consequences of their actions. It's selfishness again.

A fire in a Bangkok nightclub over New Year a couple of years ago killed 66 people. The club was in an area that didn't allow nightclubs but the owners selfishly wanted to open one.

To get around the registration problem they registered the building as a private residence, but then it wasn't subject to safety inspections.

These examples may not seem related but the common theme is that some Thais will always put their own interests first and they have no interest in other people or the consequences of their actions.

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Thursday 3rd November 2011

Before last year's big flood in Hat Yai there hadn't been a major flood for 10 years. I think that maybe a degree of complacency had crept in and the sudden deluge took a lot of people by surprise.

With the big flood still fresh in everyone's mind, and also with horrific flood scenes further north this year, this rainy season has been very different.

I've been told that the big dam that caused the problem last year has been emptied this year. If the rumours about a rogue district refusing to open a sluice gate are true, then steps have been taken to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

The flood warning system has been updated and big posters have been put up all over town. A new website has appeared which provides information and also lets people view water levels at various places via webcams.

Hat Yai City Climate

This site has a Google map. If you zoom out you can see the network of canals that take water from the city out to Songkhla Lake.

Some years ago, as you can see on the Google map, a new road was built between Hat Yai and Songkla. This went right across the flood plain and I was told that this was probably what caused the big flood in 2000. This is another example of Thais shooting themselves in the foot.

However, I have subsequently been told that tunnels have now been dug under the road so that the water is no longer impeded on its way to Songkhla Lake.

Cleaning out storm drains - Click for larger image Workers from the local municipality were going around our neighbourhood today making sure all the storm drains were clear. They were cutting down weeds growing in the drains and sucking out muck with a huge truck operated vacuum system.

All small roads have storm drains. These channel clean domestic waste water and rain to large tunnels that run under large roads. This water feeds into a network of larger canals that snake around town and it ends up in a huge canal called U-Tapao.

Map of Hat Yai showing the large canal that runs through town.

Rubbish in storm drains - Click for larger image The water then makes its way out to Songkhla lake. It's actually quite an efficient system but it needs to be maintained so that it continues to function. If people cause blockages, either deliberately or by dumping rubbish, there can be failures.

Also, if huge dams outside town are allowed to fill up and are then emptied, the system can't deal with a sudden inflow of millions/billions of cubic metres of water.

You would think that local people would make a special point of keeping the storm drains clear because they play such an important part in the overall flood defence system.

Discarded mattress - Click for larger image Sadly, this isn't the case. It isn't unusual to see storm drains completely full of rubbish. I've even seen mattresses dumped.

The municipality seem to be doing all they can and their effort is to be applauded. I just wish that Thais would help themselves more. It's certainly not all Thais, but it seems to be a certain class of Thai.

I wrote recently about having a go at someone outside of our house who I caught throwing empty plastic bottles on a piece of vacant land. (Incidentally, it was the same piece of land you can see in the photo above with the storm drain cleaners.) This is the type of person who would dump a mattress in a storm drain and think nothing of it.

It's thoroughly selfish and irresponsible behaviour. I'm not sure what the answer is. Perhaps the starting point would be some big fines.

With any situation that you aren't directly involved in, it's easy to be an armchair critic and say that this or that should or shouldn't have been done.

In fairness to Thailand, water management is very difficult. There's a fairly large population and everyone requires lots of fresh water every day of the year. Thailand has a large agriculture industry and crops need water when it is dry. We also need electricity every day and the electricity generating company uses dams to generate electricity.

During certain times of the year in Thailand it is extremely hot and dry. At other times it is very wet with huge amounts of rainfall.

There is always going to be a delicate balance between storing enough water in dams for the fresh water and electricity we need, and having enough surplus capacity in dams to capture water during the rainy season.

It can be managed, though, and I am fairly confident that after this year - which was a major disaster for Thailand - we will see some big improvements.

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Wednesday 2nd November 2011

The following article ends with the question, "Was anybody listening?" Apparently not.

1983, 1995 and 2011: The more it rains

The risks have been known for a very long time.

La Nina to raise risk of flooding

In addition, Bangkok is also sinking by up to 5cm a year.

Bangkok at risk of sinking into the sea

I wonder how these tunnels are coming along?

Giant tunnels to ease Bangkok flood risk

Modern Thai house built in the traditional style - Click for larger image Bangkokians can't seem to make up their minds where they want to live. After the Indonesian earthquake and resulting tsunamis in 2004 there were reports of people in Bangkok leaving their high rise condos in case of more earthquakes.

More recently, there were reports that people were moving back into high rise condos to escape future flooding.

I still think that the traditional method of building houses on stilts makes most sense but that style of house has gone out of fashion.

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Visit Thailand

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.

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