Living In Thailand Blog
Saturday 29th November 2014
Considering how many problems there have been in Thailand this year with surrogacy issues, this is the least Thailand can do. Apart from the fact that Thailand already banned commercial surrogacy in 1997.
This is so Thai. Laws mean absolutely nothing and many Thais will attempt to make money any way they can - legally or illegally. And when it is far more lucrative for the police to accept bribes for allowing laws to be broken, rather than enforcing laws, having laws in place makes absolutely no difference.
Will the country ever change?
This report has all the usual phrases that appear in reports related to fatal road accidents in Thailand, of which there are many: "The truck was travelling at high speed...", "the driver lost control of the vehicle...", and of course "the brakes failed..."
Thais are such wonderful drivers that accidents are always due to some kind of mechanical failure or the fault of another driver. Of course, it is never their stupidity.
Will Thais ever learn?
China regularly executes corrupt officials. In Thailand, nothing normally happens to 'big people' who get caught with their hands in the till. They are moved out of the way, but they don't generally spend any time in jail. Thaksin is still wandering around the globe a rich and free man.
John Laird explains it like this:
"Since feudal times and continuing through the decades leading up to Thailand's financial crisis, loyalty to and favours for friends and relatives within the patronage system were the "normal", preferred and effective ways of doing business - preferred over an abstract system calling for strict observations of laws and regulations, which at the close of the 20th Century was still seen as somewhat alien to Thai society.
Add to this the common Thai perception that the legal system does not really apply to "high status" Thais. A feeling has permeated Thai society ever since feudal times that the country's high-status elite are a special class deserving of respect from "ordinary people" and deserving of special treatment, often including exemptions from regulations.
In modern times, this elite includes the old aristocratic families and the newly-rich, Chinese-Thai business families who have prospered from the country's free-wheeling entrepreneurial environment."
Laird talks about this aspect of Thai society in his book and gives examples. The way that this latest massive corruption case is being handled is therefore quite unusual.
Included in their list of wrongdoings was citing the monarchy, and for this some of the people have had their royally bestowed surnames withdrawn.
The BBC gives a few more details on this story. There was a strange opinion piece on the Bangkok Post website, but now it seems to make a bit more sense.
Power is everything in Thailand and one of the problems with Western style democracy in Thailand is that elected politicians have very little. Another problem is that if the politicians are corrupt themselves they have no will to cut off their own revenue streams or implicate themselves.
When Prayuth took over it was probably the first time that the person leading the country had both the power and a moral compass that was pointing in the right direction.
Human rights groups are still unhappy about the situation, but something like this had to happen otherwise nothing would ever have changed. Prayuth has suspended the democratic process until 2016, making lots of people unhappy, but Lee Kuan Yew has admitted doing this with Singapore and no one outside of Singapore complains.
One of LKY's quotes from 1986:
"What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend."
I'm sure that Prayuth would like to call elections again, but being a pragmatic Thai who knows only too well how Thailand works, he knows exactly what will happen.
Corruption causes huge problems in Thailand. Policemen who pay up to Bt5 million to get promoted then have to recoup that money and so there is more corruption. It is the same with politicians who spend millions of Baht buying votes in order to get elected.
With so much sunshine in Thailand, I was wondering why there was so little solar power. Solar power is clean and renewable, unlike conventional methods of generating electricity. The answer, apparently, is corruption.
Malaysia is another country fighting corruption and on my recent visit to Penang I picked up a free magazine which included an interview with Datuk Paul, who is the Minister of Department for Integrity, Good Governance and Human Rights.
Under a section titled 'The Dangers of Corruption' it says:
Datuk Paul stresses that corruption exists in every society. The measure of each society, then, lies in how they react to it and how they deal with it. That is the major change taking place in Malaysia now.
Where corruption flourishes and is accepted as a way of doing business, the consequences are quite serious: poor economic growth, unacceptable employment rates, a widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and an overall decrease in the standard of living.
And those are just the first-level consequences, Datuk Paul explains. These conditions can, over time, give rise to issues far more complex and difficult to address, such as social unrest and political instability owing to a dissatisfaction within the population from income inequality, a system that favours the rich and powerful, and high unemployment rates.
The subject of corruption in Thailand is a little more complicated than it is elsewhere. Before a system of central administration existed, provincial governors and other officials were not remunerated for their work directly.
Instead, they skimmed some money from the top of the provincial coffers to compensate themselves. Anything up to 10% was deemed acceptable.
Similarly, tax farmers (normally Chinese) were hired to collect taxes and they used a similar system to remunerate themselves, only they could skim up to 30% before people starting asking questions.
The reforms in the 5th reign did away with this type of thing, but the old habits continued and they continue to this day. Many Thais responsible for large budgets still seem to think that it is acceptable to skim some money off the top for themselves.
In addition, Thai culture lends itself well to practices that would be regarded as corruption in other countries. Laws and regulations are regarded as foreign abstract entities in Thailand and as such are not regarded very highly. What are important to Thais are personal relationships and where some relationships are concerned it is appropriate to give such things as 'gifts of goodwill'.
It is also well known that in certain professions people pay for promotions and that certain illegal practices can be overlooked by the greasing of palms.
As I've mentioned before, the best book I have read on the subject is Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan's Corruption & Democracy in Thailand
Thursday 27th November 2014
My first trip to Thailand was exactly 27 years ago, half a lifetime ago. I celebrated my 27th birthday in Thailand in November 1987 and last week I turned 54, also in Thailand. I found out today that the friend who I travelled with on that first trip died yesterday; he was only a little older than me. This has come as something of a shock.
Pattaya 1987 - me on the left when I used to have brown hair and John, my travel buddy, in the middle. I still keep in touch with Piak, the Thai guy on the right, and he visited me in Thailand last year.
That first trip was an incredible experience and will never be repeated. Thailand was an entirely different place back then. Pattaya wasn't very developed and it was actually very pleasant. We had just arrived from Samui, where I was bored out of my skull. There was absolutely nothing there apart from coconut trees. Pattaya was perfect in 1987, but when I went back in 1992 it had changed beyond recognition and I hated it. I have never been back since and have no desire to go back.
I was completely naive about Thailand; as green and as wet behind the ears as it is possible to be. This is the best way to experience Thailand. The more you understand about how things work in Thailand, the more difficult it is to like the country.
We hadn't communicated much in recent years, but in his last e-mail he told me that he had been to the optician because of vision problems. The eye doctor diagnosed ocular cancer and this resulted in him having an eye removed. This was quite a quite a shock, but at least I thought the cancer had been removed.
He didn't tell me that the cancer had spread to other parts of his body. He was out cycling with another one of my old friends a couple of weeks ago and seemed fine. Apparently, his condition went downhill very rapidly after that.
I wasn't expecting to write this today. I had planned to write about corruption in Thailand following the recent discovery of a massive corruption case that has even shocked Thais. Corruption is such a way of life in Thailand that Thais don't normally bat an eyelid when they hear about corruption, but this case involves billions of Baht.
I was also going to talk about Buddhism, having just read an excellent e-Book about the subject. Buddhism isn't a religion. The author of this book refers to it as a philosophy and I have also done the same in the past. It's neither, really.
Buddhism is actually the most perfect understanding and analysis of the human condition that has ever been written. The human condition affects us all, and has always affected us, which is why Buddhism is just as relevant today (maybe more relevant) than it was during the lifetime of the Buddha.
The problem with most books about Buddhism is the cryptic and inaccessible way in which they are written, with all the Sanskrit and Pali terms. The message is there somewhere, but it is difficult to find.
Buddhism is a vast subject. You can study for a degree in the subject or you can study your whole life and still not know everything. The Buddhist thinking that I apply to my own life is a lot simpler.
I try not to continually grasp for things, whether they be material goods or states of mind, because I know that this leads to suffering. I understand that nothing in life is permanent and I try not to get attached to anything because it is dangerous forming attachment to things that won't be there forever.
I still have issues with Buddhism with subjects such as reincarnation and how not to be attached to my children, who are the most precious things in my life. However, a basic knowledge of the subject has helped me a great deal in life. Unfortunately, it has also highlighted how un-Buddhist many Thais are.
This short book is written in a way that makes the subject very accessible and very easy to understand. The author points out that it isn't a religion and that no blind leaps of faith need to be taken.
It was actually the Buddha who said that no one should believe anything they are told. You should analyse everything that Buddhism says and make your own decisions. As a logical person, I have done this and there is still nothing about Buddhism that I disagree with or can't accept.
Because it isn't a religion, no one needs to convert and people who follow other religions can simply implement Buddhist thinking into their own lives. An understanding of non-attachment and impermanence can make the subject of bereavement easier to deal with but, as I said, with people who are really close I still have a few issues.
If I get time later, I will write more about the subject as I understand it with a very low level of knowledge.
This year has been really bad. The year started with my son being born with pneumonia and spending time in an ICU ward. This was followed by my daughter experiencing a regression of the problem that she was born with.
My father and uncle have undergone heart surgery recently and several people I used to know in the UK have died. 2014 hasn't been a particularly good year.
Monday 24th November 2014
Thailand is a land of contrasts and contradictions. Most provincial towns are dreary, dull places with Gulag style grey concrete buildings that look particularly depressing under the grey, rainy skies of the rainy season. Thais flock to live in towns because of the employment opportunities they offer, and thus towns quickly become overcrowded.
The vehicles they use cause road congestion, noise and air pollution, and with so many people trying to coexist in relatively small spaces tempers get frayed and behaviour gets fractious. Thai towns are convenient for many things, but they are not particularly desirable places in which to live.
The countryside, on the other hand, is a world apart. Thailand is a fairly large country, covering a large distance north to south, and much of the land is set aside for agriculture. This makes for many beautiful settings. The same can be said of the coastal settings that haven't yet been destroyed by mass tourism.
In addition, these areas are sparsely populated and the attitudes of the people living there are completely different. People are not so uptight about life all the time; they have space, fresh air, and time to talk.
Recently, I talked about an area near my home that I have just discovered and going there is like being in a completely different part of the country. Having such a place to escape to is essential for my mental wellbeing and I made another quick trip yesterday.
There have been frequent heavy showers this month as it is the rainy season, but when it isn't raining at this time of year the weather is almost perfect. Yesterday evening was such a time. I was about to tackle yet another basket full of laundry that needed ironing, but the weather was perfect, as was the light. As someone who has been keen on photography for over 30 years (well before the advent of digital cameras), I notice light.
There were quite a few cows grazing and wandering around. I have never seen any dairy cows in Thailand and don't know if any exist. One owner I chatted with told me they are sold for meat. Very few Buddhist Thais eat beef and local beef tends to be very tough.
In typical Thai steak restaurants there is normally a choice of local beef or imported beef. The local beef is a lot cheaper, but it can be like eating shoe leather.
There were also a lot of bulls, but they serve a very different purpose. There is an old tradition of bullfighting in southern Thailand, but unlike bullfighting in Spain it is bull versus bull without any matadors.
The bull fighting arena is quite close to this area and there is a bout coming up on the 2nd December. Just before each bout you will see lots of men walking their bulls to get them in shape for the fight.
Of course, the main purpose of the fights is to provide a vehicle for gambling. Many Thai men love to gamble.
Other wildlife I saw included a variety of birds, including lots of cattle egrets, and one snake.
The reason I go is just to unwind and de-stress because urban Thailand tends to be so chaotic and fast-paced. The best medicine for me is being out in the countryside near to rice fields.
Local rice fields
Due to the fact that this area is only ten minutes from where I live, it allows me to visit often. Up until recently I had no idea that such a place existed so close to my home. I was delighted to find it.
This garbage centre is less than a kilometre from where I live and I believe it is the source of the foul smell that occasionally fills the air.
I hope that the new power generation process reduces the smell. There was a grand opening that was attended by the mayor and other local dignitaries, as well as lots of municipality staff. After the opening they all went for lunch at the same place where I was buying some take-away food.
Friday 21st November 2014
The Thai Embassy in Japan has just issued some advice for Thais when visiting Japan. Some examples:
- Drivers must stop at zebra crossings, and wait for people to cross the road, without honking the horn. (Thais never stop for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings.)
- Do not interrupt salespeople who are helping other customers. (This is very common in Thailand. As I am being served, it is common for someone to start asking the sales assistant questions as if I'm not there.)
- And just because you have kids doesn't mean you can cut the queue. (I wrote about queue jumping previously.)
The advice also includes tips on dining and mobile phone etiquette. It surprised me that there was only one piece of advice about driving. If I were to issue advice to Thais on the correct way to drive when abroad it would fill a small book.
A lot of inconsiderate behaviour in Thailand is down to the fact that most Thais have never been outside of Thailand and have nothing to compare it with. They think that what happens in Thailand is normal, whereas, it certainly isn't. It's good that more Thais are travelling abroad and seeing what life is like in other countries.
Thursday 20th November 2014
A lot of stories reported on Thai news never make it to the English language newspapers and websites in Thailand. My wife often tells me about a news story that I didn't know about. Here are two examples from this week:
The first involves yet another road accident, but with a twist. I don't know what caused the crash, but suspect it was the usual reasons. The driver was injured in the crash and the truck he was driving was carrying food and drink.
Lots of people rushed to help. Unfortunately for the driver, they rushed to help themselves ... to the food and drink on board his truck. No one bothered trying to assist him, despite the fact he was injured.
The second story involves a young girl of about 12 studying at Pratom (junior high school) level. She had an iPhone 5, but was desperate to upgrade it to an iPhone 6. She had saved some money, but was still Bt3,900 short.
Being an enterprising young lady, she contacted the owner of a mobile shop and offered him money plus sex if he would part-exchange her iPhone. Fortunately for her, he declined her offer and contacted her parents.
Occasionally stories pop up in the local media about university girls selling their bodies to acquire mobile phones and clothes, but when a 12 year-old does it even Thais are shocked.
I was passing the local Apple shop last week and went in to take a look. A bunch of senior high school girls were lusting over the display of iPhones and it seems to be a real obsession with school kids. If I want to know anything about any mobile phone I just ask my wife's 13 year-old niece.
I still have an ancient Nokia, bought in the days before smartphones. Thais laugh at it, but it still does what I want it to do. I have no interest in Facebook, games or messaging, and if I want to do something on-line I use my computer.
The other consideration is cost. A top iPhone 6 model would take a serious chunk out of my monthly income, but to most Thais the price is equivalent to several months income. Nonetheless, they continue to lust after mobile phones and other material goods, often getting themselves into debt to acquire things that they don't need.
This 'grasping' is a problem anywhere, but in Thailand where 95% of the population claim to be Buddhist, it is especially sinful because it goes against everything that Buddhism teaches.
The first example above is an illustration of how greedy many Thais are becoming. There are lots of very good people in Thailand, who are genuine kind and considerate towards other people. On the other hand, there are a lot these days who are utterly selfish and don't consider others at all.
Wednesday 19th November 2014
I think it was Raffles who came up with the idea of the 'Five Foot Way' when he was planning Singapore. They are a good idea in regions where there is frequent heavy rain.
The last remaining Chinese shophouses in Hat Yai
In this region there are lots of small, family-owned businesses and the Chinese shophouse model works well. On the ground floor of shophouses - which are built in rows all joined together - there are shops, and the living quarters are above.
The second floor is built with an overhang (of approximately five feet) and thus the passageway underneath remains dry in wet weather. It is convenient for pedestrians and with potential customers walking in front of shops looking at the goods it should be good for shopkeepers.
That's the theory.
Five foot way in Hat Yai, Thailand
The problem comes with shop owners claiming the piece of covered pavement in front of their shops as their own. I know that when Lee Kuan Yew started Singapore's transformation from Third World to First, there were many problems in Singapore with street hawkers not wanting to move.
The problem was solved eventually and vendors who had previously operated on the streets were moved to specially designated areas called hawker centres. These areas had electricity and running water and therefore food hygiene was improved. It also removed the mess from the streets, cleaning up the city, and making life easier for pedestrians.
The development of Thailand is several years behind developed countries and the country has issues that other countries solved 50 years ago.
The area where I live has a few old style Chinese shophouses remaining, but not many. However, even with more modern buildings the trend of building an overhang on the second floor has continued. This is good, but the other trend is to use the dry area for personal use and to physically block it so that pedestrians can't pass. This isn't good, especially when it's pissing down with rain and you don't have an umbrella.
The following photo is the sight that greeted me a few days ago when I got caught in heavy rain without an umbrella.
Blocked to pedestrians
The rainy season has arrived and at the moment it rains several times a day, sometimes heavily. A few days ago I was walking in the downtown area and had forgotten my umbrella. It started to rain heavily and although I found some covered walkways to be clear, most weren't. I was forced to walk in the road in the rain and it is really annoying.
I was pleased to see that action is being taken in Bangkok to remove vendors from pedestrians areas and relocate them in hawker centres. In the past, Thailand has used Singapore as a role model for certain things and the country seems to be following Singapore's example.
I suspect that the Thai street vendors will object in the same way that the Singaporean street vendors objected. Street food is an important part of Thailand's culture and the vendors have just as much right to make a living. At the same time, other people need access to the sidewalks.
There is also the issue of safety. The vendors stalls often have metal poles that just out at about eye level and if you accidentally walk into one you could lose an eye. Vendors who cook food also often have big woks of boiling oil or red hot charcoal burners close to where people walk and these could cause massive injuries.
Wheelchair access in Thailand
Thailand is a lot bigger in terms of population and area in than Singapore. If the Thai government genuinely wants to clean things up they will face lots of opposition, but to succeed they need to press ahead. Sidewalks in many areas of Thailand are completely impassable. The situation is inconvenient for most people, but a real problem for some, for example, the elderly, wheelchair users, and parents with baby buggies.
A pickup truck involved in a fatal road accident in Thailand? What a surprise.
The death and injury toll has now risen:
This second report also mentions that more people have been killed when a train hit their car on a level crossing. This happens a lot in Thailand.
Tuesday 18th November 2014
When I was single and before I had any commitments in Thailand I used to like to travel around the country. Late in September 2006 I decided to go first to Bangkok, then onwards to Sukothai and Chiang Rai. It was a good trip.
However, before I was about to go my local Thai friends started to express great concern. When I asked why, they said that it was raining. They explained that rainy weather was dangerous.
I laughed. In the UK, rainy weather was annoying if I had to walk to the train station for my commute into London or if I wanted to play golf or cricket, but I never regarded it as dangerous.
I went ahead with my trip and filed what I had been told about rain in my long term memory banks under the category 'Weird Thais'. Sukothai was quite wet and the river banks were swollen, but I still didn't regard it as dangerous.
Many years later I was hit by a major flood and afterwards I started to feel very nervous during heavy rain while living in the same house. Shortly after that, I became acutely aware of how Thais drive and saw that in very rainy weather when roads became very slippery that drivers drove just as fast and just as crazily.
This morning, as I was about to set off on the school run, it was raining heavily. As a result, I felt nervous about the risk of vehicles being driven too fast and then losing control and colliding with my car.
With the high risks of flooding and road accidents in Thailand during the rainy season I can now understand why my Thai friends were concerned many years ago.
Thailand is a very difficult country for foreigners to understand and things that seemed strange to me many years ago are only beginning to come clear. It took about four years before I started to see the country properly, and even after 11 years I still learn new things all the time and there are still some aspects of Thai behaviour that I don't understand.
It embarrasses me now to think how I arrogant I was as a tourist having visited the country a few times. I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did, which was nothing. I still see this behaviour with some tourists, and especially on certain Internet forums. You need to first know quite a lot about Thailand before you can start to realise how much you don't know.
Here's an example. Some people may already know this, but many others won't. I only found out earlier this year.
Arriving in Thailand for many foreigners is an almost euphoric experience. There's a kind of liberating freedom that you can do anything and it also feels good to think that you are anonymous. No one knows you, no one watches you, and no one cares what you are doing.
I first realised that this wasn't correct when I started teaching. Students would tell me often that they saw me here and there doing this and that. When I started working full time I had never met the owners of the language institute, but they knew me by sight and had even formulated an opinion about me.
Many Thais, such as security guards, vendors and shop assistants, have jobs in which they have time to observe a lot about what is going on around them. Farangs in areas of Thailand where there aren't many other farangs stick out like a sore thumb and there is no anonymity at all. You may not think that you are being watched, but there are people watching all the time.
The thing I found out this year is that certain members of the public are employed as kind of undercover police. They have other jobs, but they are also paid to observe what is going on in their communities and to report anything suspicious. Someone I know is such a person and when I found out it really surprised me.
As I said yesterday, CCTV cameras are becoming quite prevalent in Thailand. If you don't do anything wrong you have nothing to worry about, but never think that you aren't being watched.
Monday 17th November 2014
Before I left the UK in 2003 my local council had plans to install more CCTV cameras; there were already quite a few installed. This was (and probably still is) quite a contentious issue in the UK and divides opinion. Some see it as an invasion of privacy, while others welcome the idea.
I am of the view that I don't commit criminal acts and therefore I have nothing to fear. Furthermore, the use of CCTV cameras may deter people from committing criminal acts and, if they still decide to commit crimes, the cameras may help in apprehending and prosecuting them.
There are now lots of CCTV cameras appearing in Thailand and with so much crime in Thailand I only see it as a good thing.
From the Bangkok Post:
"According to a source from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), the BMA has now finished installing 27,000 new CCTV cameras throughout the city, and it is expected to install about 20,000 more CCTV cameras by the end of next year as part of measures to help protect Bangkokians against crime. The cameras were installed in high-risk areas, with links to police stations and district offices."
A regular feature of Thai TV news in the morning these days is showing some form of crime captured on CCTV. Last week, there were two incidents that stuck in my mind.
The first was yet another lunatic driver who was driving way too fast and lost control of his pickup truck (it's always pickup trucks, isn't it?). Unlike my friends who were driving too fast last week and hit a tree, he didn't hit a tree. His truck careered on to the sidewalk and ploughed into a group of people who were buying food from a street vendor.
A man accompanied by his five year old daughter saw the truck coming and tried to protect his child, as all parents would do. He was killed and his little girl was left in a coma. Yet another family destroyed by an insane speeding Thai driver who thought that it was clever to drive fast.
The second incident involved a Russian girl in Bangkok. She had just left a 7-Eleven store and was walking along a small Soi. A Thai man started to follow and then broke into a trot so that he could gather momentum to strike her.
He had a house brick in his hand and struck her with great force on the back of the head. She fell to the floor, but didn't lose consciousness. He then attempted to drag her into an alleyway with the intention of raping her.
He couldn't have realised how tough some farang girls are, and she managed to fight him off. I expect that she had a sore head for a few days, but at least she wasn't raped.
Some signs I saw, from the olden days when Thailand used to have elections, indicated that the implementation of CCTV cameras was a key election policy of the Democrat Party.
Democrat Party election pledge
This is a good move, but I would suggest that the most urgent thing Thailand needs to do now is to start monitoring the roads using this technology in order to remove drivers from the roads who routinely put other people's lives at risk with their reckless and dangerous driving.
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