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  • Living in Thailand Blog October 2006

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Tuesday 31st October 2006

As October 2006 comes to a close, I would like to reflect a little and try, if I can, to offer a little hope. I am the first to admit that I find the world a difficult place to comprehend these days but maybe not all is lost yet.

I have been fortunate to be able to see quite a lot of the world - not as much as some, but more than many - and it is a beautiful place. It is full of natural resources which are more than adequate to provide everyone currently on the planet with a good life.

Technological advancements in the last 20 years have brought science fiction to life and, as a result, many things are much more convenient for us now. I run what remains of my life in England from thousands of miles away using the Internet and it works seamlessly.

Medical advancements have enabled us to live much longer and healthier lives and, with scientists cracking the human genome code, it will only get better in future.

Technology has provided us with ways to guarantee food sources and to travel around the planet as easily as getting on a bus. Life for those of us alive now is pretty bloody wonderful. Or is it?

Despite all the progress we have made as a race, we seem hell bent on destroying the very planet we live on and everything we have created. The Stern Review that has just been announced makes for a frightening read. This, and Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth suddenly have a lot of people thinking about the state of the planet and it is not before time.

The planet is in trouble. Big trouble.

Buddhism teaches selflessness but nowadays nothing - it seems - is more important than self, even in Buddhist countries. The individual is everything and nothing stands in the way of what the individual wants, regardless of how damaging the consequences of individual actions might be.

Human nature hasn't actually changed much - people have always been self-centred and selfish - but the world has changed. Populations in developed countries have increased (with the US population recently exceeding 300 million) and many people in developing countries with huge populations such as India and China now have money to spend on consumable items.

Everyone wants - and takes it as some kind of a birthright - to have a car. As cars are produced, the manufacturing process pollutes the atmosphere. As we generate more electricity to produce and use consumable items, we create pollution and as we drive cars we create pollution.

At the same time we use up more of our natural resources and as we encroach on forested land, destroying vegetation, we reduce the earth's natural ability to deal with pollution. It doesn't take the mind of a genius to figure out that this behaviour is unsustainable and the two resources I quoted above warn us that severe problems will occur very soon if we don't change our ways.

Everyone is aware of this (or at least, they should be) but two prevailing attitudes exist. The first is one of not caring. I talked the other day of people who don't really care or think about their own future when making decisions. That is one thing but when, collectively, our irresponsible and selfish actions affect the planet and millions of other people, not just ourselves, that is another thing altogether.

The second attitude is one of not believing that individuals can make any difference so there is no point in changing behaviour because it won't do any good. All I can say in response is that everything that happens in life starts with an individual or a few individuals who educate others and who then get more individuals to work together collectively.

Life has been good for a lot of people for a long time. Even during times of war, the general public does not suffer directly as was the case in my parents' generation. War for many is just TV news. The good life and the freedom we have has created a mind set where we expect a lot and it is an affront to our civil liberties for someone else to tell us that we can't do or have something.

However, I think that this has started to change and that the changes are a result of complete necessity because if we don't start taking care of the planet, we are going to lose it. The Stern Review states that to start fixing problems now will be relatively cheap but the longer we wait, the more expensive it will become.

The scary part is that if we wait too long, some effects of global warming will be irreversible. What will be interesting now, having been handed this information, is how our leaders and policy makers respond. What will they do to combat the problems?

The Kyoto Protocol was a good start but it didn't work fast enough, nor was it powerful enough. It had no effect on the two biggest polluters in the world. America chose not to ratify the agreement because it wasn't in their economic interests and China wasn't obliged to reduce pollution, being a developing country.

With the latest information being made available, will it just be a case of increasing taxes to try to stem the production of greenhouse gases and will that really work? The price of petrol has increased massively in my life time alone but such is our love affair with the automobile that it hasn't done much to deter people from driving cars.

The world is at a crossroads but hopefully, in years to come, we can look back at 2006 as a turning point. What category do you fit into? Don't care? Don't think you can make a difference? Believe that if we all think about the big picture instead of just ourselves, we can make difference?

As individuals, the future of the planet is in our hands.

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Sunday 29th October 2006

What a wonderfully harmonious country this is. The new receptionist at my apartment building is a Muslim girl and no one bats an eyelid. It is so absolutely normal in this part of the world that up until recently I would never even have considered mentioning the fact.

However, after recent events in the UK and other countries it might just be worth making a point. Nobody employs 'token' Muslims here or makes a big point about 'accepting' Muslims. They are just normal people, the same as everyone else, and that's how it should be.

Most of the Muslim girls and women in this part of Thailand just wear head scarves, which are normally in pastel shades. It is fairly rare to see the full, black veils worn by Muslim women elsewhere. One of my current students, who is Muslim, does not wear a head scarf to work but wears one when she is at home.

This is totally irrelevant to the discussion but she is a lovely looking girl - the prettiest student I teach at the moment - and because I have never seen her wearing a head scarf I only know she is Muslim because I was told she is.

Quite a few of my past students have been Muslim and I have noticed with many of them that their best friends have been Buddhist Thais. The different ethnic groups do not form little cliques as they might do in other countries.

To hear some of the generalisations I hear nowadays about Muslims is actually quite hurtful when I think of the lovely Muslim people I know in Thailand. If only those hateful people could spend a little time with some moderate Muslim families in southern Thailand. It would be good education for them.

The harmony that is present in Thailand even extends to animals. At a temple I visited today were cats and dogs sitting side-by-side waiting for scraps of food and I have just witnessed a lovely sight on the way back from dinner this evening. A stray pup and a kitten were running around together as if they were inseparable. Where one went, the other followed.

You won't find many more pleasant countries to live in than Thailand and much of that has to do with the tolerance people show towards other people. In these troubled times with all the hatred and intolerance that exists, Thailand is a shining light that other countries ought to try to follow.

My primary reason for visiting Khaolak last week was to meet friends from England but I was also keen to catch up with some people in the local area who I have become friendly with over the last five years. Unfortunately, some have left including the dive master who guided me on one of my trips to the Similan Islands.

I was told he had gone to America but after dropping him an e-mail I found out that he has actually gone back to England. He's living just outside Manchester; doesn't have a job yet, and says it is depressing. I can well believe that after living in Thailand.

I am a firm believer that the best way to take the fun out of something you enjoy doing is to start doing it for a living. No matter how much you may enjoy scuba diving, most diving jobs don't strike me as being very appealing.

It can't be much fun constantly running Open Water courses or babysitting novice divers. There is a lot of work involved organising day dives and it's impossible to relax if you are responsible for the safety and enjoyment of paying customers.

Guy's job was very different though and was probably the cream of diving jobs. The company he worked for just run liveaboard trips to the Similans. These islands, as well as being one of the most beautiful parts of Thailand, are one of the premier diving locations in the world.

Combine that with the comfort and convenience of liveaboard diving, and for anyone who loves diving it's about the best job you can get. So, why has he given it all up to go back to dreary England?

He mentioned that there was a bit of an exodus among the staff at the same time he left. The tsunami stopped everything in Khaolak for a long time but even when things got going again it was never the same as before.

I too noticed that Khaolak is a bit depressing these days. The emphasis now is on very upmarket resorts where rich farangs stay inside their luxury hotels all day being pampered by gracious Thai staff and the sense of fun and community in the area that used to exist seems to have disappeared.

His main reason for going back though is because he and his Thai wife have a daughter and he wants to try to give her a better life. He's a thoroughly likeable lad and the sacrifice he has made for his daughter didn't surprise me at all. That's the kind of person he is.

I'm not sure how long he has been in Thailand but it's a fairly long time and he had carved out a very nice life for himself. Whereas he had his own place in Thailand, I assume that he is living with friends or family in England. The prospect of spending the winter in Manchester with the miserable British weather (and people) isn't one that I would relish and it probably won't be easy for him or his family to adjust.

It must have been a tough decision to go back but I'm sure that he thought about it long and hard and decided it was the best thing in the long run for his daughter. By going back he has proven himself to be one of the exceptions.

A little while ago I wrote about people being 'Trapped in Thailand' and it is a phenomenon I have observed quite often. Young guys come out to Thailand and get hooked on the lifestyle (which is very easy to get hooked on).

They find work and even though they may not get paid much by Western standards, they live well because the cost of living is cheap in Thailand. A decent place to stay doesn't cost much and neither do the essentials of life. The weather is good (if a little too hot at times), everyone is relaxed and, of course, there are pretty and available girls everywhere.

Before they know it, several years have passed by and they are still in Thailand. It's OK up to a point but few build up any capital to fall back on later. Even if they do save some money it's not likely to be much.

I read a posting on an Internet forum some years ago from someone who had been teaching English in Thailand and was boasting about having saved Bt1 million. That is quite an amazing feat on an English teacher's salary but that amount isn't going to go very far if you aren't working - especially in a Western country.

Earning just enough to have a good life in Thailand is good while it lasts but doesn't give you many options later in life. Raising and educating kids is an expensive affair if you want children (or even if you don't want them but suddenly find yourself with a pregnant Thai girlfriend). If you rely on your salary and can't work (for some reason) - or if you want to stop working - that is also a problem. There won't be any social security payments coming your way in Thailand.

Life expectancy is increasing all the time. A couple of hundred years ago I would probably have reached the end of my natural life already by now but I did an on-line quiz the other day and based on my lifestyle I should live until I'm around 86. That still leaves me with a lot of years to feed, house and clothe myself. It's unlikely that I will reach that age in Thailand where I face Thai suicide drivers every day but who knows, it could happen.

It's good to live for the moment; not to worry about things that may or may not happen in the future or to dwell on things that happened in the past but - to me, at least - it just seems to make sense to think a little about the future in order to make sure we do enough in our early years to ensure that we can survive adequately later in life.

I feel a bit sorry for the young guys who get seduced by Thailand and come here to live when they still haven't done enough in life to be able to properly afford it but, at the same time, I don't have much sympathy for people who never think about anything and make decisions in life that are irresponsible.

Nothing in life comes free. You can't expect to be able to live an easy life in Thailand without having first put in a lot of effort but apparently some people think they can.

It's a different story for the guys coming out who are a bit older, especially those with no dependants. Most have accumulated enough money or property during their working lives (and/or have company pensions) to secure their futures. Those, for example, who own property outright with no mortgage (in the UK especially) are sitting pretty.

A property can provide a regular income from letting it out and the value of UK property has increased significantly in recent years. If the time comes to sell, even the proceeds from the sale of a modest UK property will go a long, long way in Thailand.

Money in the bank earning interest is also a good way to fund living in Thailand provided the amount is enough to be able to allow you to live on the interest alone without keep dipping into the capital.

It's a will-power thing again and not having any will-power is what gets many farangs into trouble in Thailand. It can be a cruel country for those with addictive personalities.

Thailand may seem like heaven on earth to someone in their 20's and there may be a strong desire to abandon the rat race early for a little piece of paradise but if you are wise you will do enough first to secure your financial future before telling your boss what he can do with his job and jumping on the first plane to Bangkok.

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Saturday 28th October 2006

Some of the searches that people do to find this site are interesting. One guy wanted to know how to pick up Thai bar girls. That's easy. You just point her out to the mama-san and hand over the bar fine. Next question.

Sometimes searches highlight problems I am aware of with this site. A search that came in yesterday was someone wanting to know how to pronounce 'greng jai'.

เกรงใจ

This is the Thai phrase for showing consideration to others. I have used transliterated versions elsewhere on this site but I did so before I started reading Thai so they are inconsistent and misleading. What I have come to realise is that transliteration systems are diabolical; the official system being one of the worst, in fact.

What I tend to do now is transliterate myself to give a more accurate phonetic spelling. I don't do this with well known transliterated words and place names even though they may be inaccurate. If I used Dtrung instead of Trang it would be a more accurate phonetic spelling (and Thais might actually understand what you were trying to say) but farangs wouldn't understand and they wouldn't be able to find information in search engines because Trang has become the de facto transliteration.

Let's get back to the phrase above. The first character is a vowel and it's quite a tricky one. This vowel can be used on its own or with other vowels to form vowel combinations. In this phrase it is used on its own.

One of my books says the pronunciation is 'ay' and another says it is /ee/ where 'ee' is pronounced like the 'a' in 'pale'. Yet another suggests it is like the 'ai' in 'plain' which I guess is the same as 'ay'. Lonely Planet suggests 'eh'. Did that help? Are you beginning to understand the limitations of transliteration systems?

It's a bit like the 'a' in 'any' but how do you write that without confusing anyone because an 'a' on its own would normally be pronounced like the 'a' in cat? It's a bit like an 'e' but your mouth has to be quite wide to make the right sound and it's a long sound, not a short 'e' as in 'bet'.

This is a long vowel and the syllable is live because it is possible to continue voicing the sound in a droning voice.

Vowels and consonants are not necessarily written sequentially in Thai and this one is written before the consonant or consonant cluster.

The rest of the letters are easy. กร is a consonant cluster 'gr' but many books will transliterate the first character wrongly as a 'k'. It's 'gr' as in 'grate', not 'kr' as in 'crate'.

The first character in this consonant cluster is a mid-class consonant and the second is low-class. For the purpose of tone rules, if two characters in a consonant cluster have different classes, the class of the first one is used.

The tone for a mid-class initial consonant and live syllable combination is mid-tone.

The final consonant of the first word is an 'ng' sound which is very easy when it ends a syllable but not so easy when it begins one.

The second word is easy but once again the vowel is written before the consonant. The vowel sound is 'ai' (a short vowel) and the consonant (mid-class) is a 'j' sound in English although many books will transliterate it as 'ch'. It's a live syllable because it can be voiced in a droning sound. We therefore get 'jai' and (again) a mid-class consonant with a live syllable gives a mid-tone.

The version used in the initial search was actually quite accurate - 'greng jai' - as long as the 'e' in 'greng' is voiced with a wide mouth. Both words are mid-tone which makes the pronunciation nice and easy. Perhaps graing jai or grayng jai might be better? Not really though because if you take the English word 'grain' and stick a 'g' on the end, that wouldn't be an accurate pronunciation either.

The truth of the matter is that with many Thai words there is no entirely satisfactory way to write them in English. This is why there are so many systems in use, why they are so confusing, and why Thais can't understand you when you read transliterated sentences from phrase books.

The only real answer to escape this nonsense is to learn how to read Thai.

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Friday 27th October 2006

What can you do about on-line plagiarism? Earlier this year, a Bangladeshi pimp running a callgirl service in Bangladesh (with, incidentally, some of the ugliest girls I have ever seen) copied my entire 'Thai Girls' page to use on his Geocities hosted web site.

Where I had mentioned Thai place names he changed them to Bangladeshi place names, where had I mentioned Thailand he changed it to Bangladesh and where I had mentioned Thai girls he changed it to Bangladeshi girls but he didn't change anything else. I was livid when I found out.

I contacted the Yahoo! legal people (Geocities is part of Yahoo!). They deleted the page and gave him a warning but I had to send lots of e-mails and swear that what I was saying was the truth. It was a long, drawn-out process and a real pain.

This morning I discovered another Geocities site that has stolen content from this web site. They have used one of my photos and my exact, unedited text for a web site about Bangkok Tailors.

This site, at least, has given me a credit and a link back but I would rather that the author had contacted me in the first place to ask permission instead of just stealing my content.

I am debating whether to go through the same procedure with Yahoo! again to get the page removed or just to leave it. He may actually bring me some more traffic.

It also happens with observations about Thailand but they are much harder to prove because the authors write about the same ideas using their own words. With the guys who just cut-and-paste though, there is absolutely no doubt.

With its legendary 'mai pen rai' attitude to life, Thailand is an incredibly easy-going and relaxed place to live. I do not dispute that. However, when in Thailand it doesn't mean that laws, regulations, rules and plain, old common-sense can just be ignored - as some people seem to think.

If you think you can do whatever you want, without any sense of responsibility towards yourself or other people; and that being in Thailand somehow makes you immune from problems, that is a misconception.

I'm writing this because there is a certain type of farang who seems to think this isn't the case. From my observations, they rarely appear to live in Thailand but visit fairly often for short periods in a carefree 'vacation-mode' atmosphere and espouse this view that in Thailand it is not necessary to worry about anything. "Don't worry about it," is their mantra.

I was mildly irritated recently when one of these idiots suggested I need to 'chill out' for daring to suggest that there are a few things in Thailand to watch out for.

It's a numbers game of course and some people do get away with things for a long time but it is more a question of luck. This is what prompted me to write a section elsewhere on this site which I called 'How's Your Luck?'

It's always better to use some examples with this type of discussion so I will attempt to recall a few from over the years.

The Canadian divemaster who took me on my first ever scuba dive in 1992 was run out of Thailand. He was accused of causing a boat to sink in Phuket. I never found out if he was really guilty or whether it was a false accusation but, either way, he got into a bad situation with the kind of Thais who you really don't want to get into a bad situation with.

Whatever happened, he was messing around in an area containing boats owned by these people. After the accusations he was forced to go into hiding and then had to leave Thailand. The next time someone suggests it might be fun to mess around with boats that don't belong to you and tells you, "Don't worry about it," there could be very good reasons to worry about it.

I met a guy in Koh Samui some years ago who was also involved in the dive industry. I seem to remember he was Austrian or German. He did what many farangs dream about and bought a fat, low-rider motorbike to cruise around a tropical island on.

He had no insurance and no crash helmet. While cruising around one day he was hit by a car being driven by another mafia-type Thai. He was lucky to get away with his life and spent a long time in hospital which left him with scars and disabilities.

He had to pay for all his medical bills. His motorbike was written off and he had to pay for the damage to the car - even though the accident wasn't his fault. It cost him a small fortune. However, there are still plenty of people who will tell you not to worry about anything when riding a motorbike in Thailand.

They will tell you not to worry about having a valid licence, accident insurance, medical insurance, or wearing a crash helmet because they ride a motorbike every time they visit Thailand and have never had an accident so, obviously, you will never have an accident. That's logical.

I've written elsewhere about the Thai man driving his expensive, new Mercedes around when it was hit by a motorbike. He got out and shot the rider of the bike dead. It was another Thai he shot but he must have have been so enraged that I don't think he would have done anything different had it been a farang.

The other section I wrote - How's Your Luck? - was prompted by seeing a collection box sitting on a bar in Patong for a guy who used to drink there but who was in hospital in a critical condition. Medical insurance? No, don't worry about it. While you are in hospital get someone to stick a cardboard box on the bar and your fair-weather friends will pay for all your hospital bills. Who needs insurance when you have drinking buddies?

Dangerous roads in Thailand? Nah, don't worry about it despite the fact that more farangs go home in coffins as a result of road accidents than anything else - and that includes pedestrians. Wanna do some drugs? Don't worry about it (until you're in jail).

Wanna do some deep diving and get narc'ed? Don't worry about it (until you're in a hyperbaric chamber or a morgue). The British owner of a dive shop in Thailand told me of a group of divermasters who had become involved in a silly game to see who could dive deepest.

One of them lowered his dive computer into the deep on a fishing line to a depth which is extremely dangerous for humans. Fooled by what had happened, one of the others tried to beat him and killed himself. Yes, believe it or not, the effects of diving at depth still exist in Thailand, the land where you don't have to worry about anything

Wanna have a few beers and drive home? Don't worry about it (until you're in hospital or a morgue). Wanna ride a motorbike without wearing a crash helmet? Don't worry about it (until your head hits the concrete).

Wanna work and don't have the proper visa or work permit? Don't worry about it. That's what I was told when I started to apply for the paperwork to allow me to work legally. I was told that the laws weren't for people like me; that they were only for Burmese, Laotians, Filipinos, Indians, etc.

Well, I'm certainly glad that I did worry about it because I would have had a big problem now since the new immigration regulations came into effect had I heeded the advice given me.

I don't wish to scaremonger but I am just getting fed up with the idiots who keep telling people that they can do what they like in Thailand without having to worry about anything. What sort of a country do they think this is?

As I said above, it is a very easy-going, relaxed country in which to live but that doesn't mean you can be completely stupid and irresponsible. Bad things do happen in Thailand and by exercising a little common sense you can avoid a lot of problems.

Wearing crash helmets or seatbelts, having sufficient insurance, not driving under the influence, avoiding the wrong kind of people, etc etc, are just as important in Thailand as they are everywhere else.

Thailand has a strange effect on many visiting farangs. As soon as they enter the country they lose the plot. It's not unknown for people who have never ridden motorbikes to rent a motorbike without a valid licence, without insurance, without wearing a crash helmet and to ride it around on a cocktail of viagra and alcohol with a hooker on the pillion.

I get the impression that the most dangerous thing in Thailand for many visitors is themselves.

Recently, I have been helping an English guy in his efforts to relocate to Thailand. We've been exchanging e-mails for a while. He is completely the opposite to the 'Don't worry' crowd. He worries about every little detail.

I've been trying to calm him down a bit but at least he thinks about things and I find his attitude far healthier than the people I have already described. He worries about things but by the time he gets to Thailand he will have everything covered and will be able to relax, knowing that there won't be any nasty surprises in store.

There's a fine balance between thinking about things enough to anticipate and plan ahead, and being obsessive about things which can cause anxiety. However, this attitude of not worrying about anything is just stupid and irresponsible and it catches up with most people eventually.

The most care-free days of my life were spent as a tourist in Thailand but I always noticed a difference in behaviour between the tourists and the guys who had been living in the country for a while. It is not until you live in the country for a few years that you become aware of the reality of living in Thailand whereas the armchair experts who visit for a few weeks each year don't, no matter how many Thai stamps they have in their passports. I am still very relaxed about living in Thailand but I am not naïve.

Did any of this worry you? Don't worry about it. This is Thailand, remember. "Mai pen rai."

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Thursday 26th October 2006

I was asked by one of my e-mail correspondents recently why it is necessary for people with one year non-B visas in Thailand to leave and re-enter the country every 90 days. I wish I knew. I had to go to the border today.

The trip to the border takes about 70 minutes and costs Bt50 each way. Once at the border it is just a case of getting an exit stamp in Thailand and walking into Malaysia. This always seems farcical because as soon as I get an entry stamp in Malaysia I turn around straight away to get an exit stamp and walk back into Thailand.

Filling out forms and dealing with Thai and Malaysian immigration takes about 45 minutes. It doesn't cost anything but I always notice money changing hands. The immigration guys never ask for money but minivan drivers tell their passengers to hand over small amounts of money in Baht or Ringgits. It's completely unnecessary but they do what they're told.

I only saw one other farang today. It could be that the new regulations have frightened away some of the 30 day border runners or it might just have been that it was early and they were still in bed nursing their hangovers.

The Thai immigration official was exceptionally pleasant today. They are normally a little surly and don't say anything. My "Sawatdee krup" is normally ignored while they just take my passport and do whatever is necessary. In my experience, rarely do they smile or speak much.

There was a Malaysian in front of me who looked a bit lost. A Thai guy - who I presume was his minivan driver - told him to hand over Bt20 with his passport but the immigration officer refused to take it.

After I passed over my passport he had a flick through and saw my non-B visa. He then checked to see that I had filled in the box on the form for a visa number. I had. He asked me (in Thaiglish), "Where you stay?" I told him.

The next few questions were in Thai. Do I have a wife? What do I do? Where do I work? These are all questions I can handle easily in Thai despite my pitiful language skills. The university I work at is very well respected and gets me a lot of kudos whenever I tell Thais where I work.

The politeness and efficiency was very welcome but came as a bit of a surprise. What has made the immigration people so happy all of a sudden? Could it be that they now have an official reason to refuse entry to the dossers and ponytailed alcoholics they have been seeing regularly every 30 days for the last 10 years? Time will tell.

There is still lots of confusion surrounding the new immigration rules with some people optimistically suggesting it will be easy to fool the Thais by doing a couple of 30 day border runs and then getting a tourist visa or something.

Maybe this will turn out to be the case but maybe not. I have heard other rumours that Thai Consulates in neighbouring countries have stopped issuing double-entry tourist visas. I know from experience that the authorities aren't keen on anyone having too many tourist visas in their passports.

A few years ago I had already been issued with two and was applying for a third and was told in no uncertain terms that was my limit. As far as I am aware, nothing much has changed in far-flung Thai Embassies and Consulates but the ones close to Thailand have different sets of rules.

Unfortunately, once I'd got a new passport stamp, my work hadn't finished. The Department of Labour will only extend my work permit to match the date in my passport. Therefore, every time I go to the border I also have to get my work permit extended to keep the dates in synch.

This takes a couple of hours and requires two trips; one to apply for the extension and one to collect my updated work permit. The return fare each time is Bt50. The application costs Bt100 and the completed extension costs Bt750.

The total time it takes me is around eight hours and the total cost is just over Bt1,000. It's no big deal but - getting back to the original question - why is it necessary? As far as I am aware, it is not necessary to leave the country every 90 days with other kinds of non-immigration visas; just non-B visas.

Those with non-O retirement visas just have to report to the local immigration office every 90 days (which I have to do as well) but they don't have to leave the country.

There is one advantage. If they gave me a year in the country up front I would just get a year. With a non-B visa and the requirement to leave the country every 90 days; it is possible to do a border run on the day before the visa expires. This gives me another 90 days so effectively the visa is good for 15 months.

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Wednesday 25th October 2006

Problem-solving techniques in Thailand are quite different to the ones I am used to. I am careful about criticising these days though because what I have come to realise over time is that Thais understand Thailand and other Thais far better than I do. They sometimes appear to skirt around issues without attacking problems directly but quite often they are correct. Nonetheless, things that I hear and read still surprise me fairly often.

There is a non-profit organisation in Thailand called Empower which was set up to support the country's many sex workers. In the past, Empower has provided counselling and education in such areas as language, computing, health and law. That's all good stuff; trying to give the girls an opportunity to break into more conventional careers.

However, the organisation founder decided recently that what sex workers in Patpong really need is dance lessons. They looked at the options and decided that ballroom wasn't suitable; the girls not having much need to dance the tango or foxtrot.

After a good deal of head-scratching the penny finally dropped. After all, it's obvious isn't it? What Patpong go-go dancers need in order to achieve a better life is ... go-go dancing lessons. The course syllabus hasn't been worked out yet but, "the course would aim at techniques for dancing safely and styles that are socially acceptable."

Now, call me cynical but ... do customers who go to watch go-go dancing in Patpong really want their entertainment to be 'socially acceptable'? Will they be taking their grannies along, or something? And how exactly will it be made safer? Will the girls have to stop greasing their poles or will a minimum heel height be imposed on their boots?

I was shocked by the revelation on The Nation web site that some girls have gone through their careers "without knowing any proper dance steps." Can you honestly believe that? Amazing.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if, at the end of the course, they all don hired gowns and mortarboards for a full-on, graduate-style award ceremony with framed certificates.

I thought the idea of the support organisation was to give the girls skills to get work outside of the sex industry; not to improve their skills in it. What next? Perhaps the girls working in Patpong's blow-job bars will be given lessons on how to improve their fellatio technique?

Only in Thailand.

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Tuesday 24th October 2006

The heavy rains that have caused severe flooding in the central region of Thailand recently appear to have reached the south. As I write, there is a big storm going on outside with torrential rain. I spoke to a friend in Phuket earlier this evening and she reported the same thing there.

This morning I was subjected to some unrequested Thai beautification. My Thai driving licence is about to expire and the process to get it renewed requires photos. I have some photos already for this kind of thing but was warned that photos will be rejected if they are the same ones that were used on a previous licence as they are obviously not up to date.

I found a small, one-girl operation doing photos and business cards at the local Tesco Lotus and got her on the case. She took a few snaps with a digital camera and downloaded the images to her computer. On the computer screen looking back at me I saw the harsh reality of what advancing age has turned me into.

In the Land of Smiles it is absolutely forbidden to smile for any kind of official photograph, which is why the Thais always look so stern in their official mug shots. As I did my best not to smile, my face contorted into a frown with all my frown lines showing prominently.

My salt and pepper colour hair contains a lot more salt than pepper these days but there is some consolation in the fact that at least I am managing to hang on to most of it despite being closer to 50 than 40. It wasn't the most pleasing photo aesthetically but it was only for a driving licence, not a dating agency.

What happened next quite surprised me. The girl opened up the images in Photoshop and began to do some very impressive tweaking. I have dabbled with Photoshop for years trying to improve my skills but I'm still a complete novice. It's a powerful application and in the right hands it is amazing to see what can be done.

Thai students can be some of the most frustrating to teach. If they aren't motivated to do something, such as learning English, they are almost impossible to teach. However, if they are motivated to do something, there is no limit to their ability.

To run her small business this girl needs to be very proficient using Photoshop and, therefore, in the past she was obviously very motivated to learn it.

She told me that she taught herself from a book and I have to admit that her skills were most impressive. That's the first point I am trying to make from this little story - how clever Thais can be when they want to be but first there has to be a very good reason why they should bother. The other point is how important physical beauty is in Thailand.

I would imagine that in most countries they would have just printed the image as it came out of the camera and that would have been good enough. Not in Thailand though. She spent a good 10-15 minutes improving my general appearance. Naturally - and if you have spent any time around Thais, you will know this - the first thing she did was to lighten my skin colour by several shades.

In Thailand there is no more popular mantra than, "Light skin good, dark skin bad." It's not at all racist; it's just their perception of beauty. I love taking them to task about this because some of the dark-skinned girls are gorgeous. Whenever I can, I try to make a mockery of the fact that girls here spend fortunes on whitening lotions whereas anaemic farang girls spend fortunes on artificial tan lotions. It's a crazy, mixed-up world at times.

Getting a suntan is about the least important thing in my entire world but I am a bit darker than usual from my trip to the beach last week. Once she had sorted out my skin colour she dealt with skin flaws. My face is pretty much spot-free at the moment so there were no zits to zap but she took exception to my freckles and removed them.

By playing around with the contrast she managed to soften my wrinkles and frown lines and even rotated my head a little on my neck. She wasn't able to perform miracles but she managed at least to turn Frankenstein's little brother into his cousin - twice removed. The camera may not lie but Photoshop certainly does.

In the past I have taken photos of a few Thai girls I know and given them prints but without doing much tweaking in post-processing apart from a little contrast and some sharpening. Their reaction has been a little disappointed because I didn't enhance their beauty. Beauty is everything in Thailand and some electronic jiggery-pokery to enhance it is not only acceptable but highly desirable.

I work in a hospital with lots of very smart, well-educated Thais. Nonetheless, the conversation regularly turns to beauty. When discussing a particular group of students it isn't unusual to be asked not who is the most able but who is the most beautiful. People being spoken about will also be referred to by their skin colour.

I'm quite used to these comments now but anywhere outside of Thailand they would be regarded as quite weird. People will often talk about themselves or others being very black (dum dum). My usual response is to point out something that really is black and then to point out that their skin colour is very different.

Later in the day I had an interesting discussion with one of the secretaries that follows on from yesterday's ladyboy topic. She mentioned the Horticultural Exposition that will be taking place in Chiang Mai later in the year and asked if I was going. She's not exactly the ugliest girl in Thailand and I suggested that we should go together.

She told me her boyfriend might not be very happy with that arrangement to which I replied she could tell him I was gay. When I said this she looked a bit shocked as if I might actually be gay and asked if I was telling the truth.

She then told me that there is still a lot of stigma attached to homosexuality in Thailand. This raised the obvious question about all the ladyboys. She told me that there was no such stigma attached to ladyboys; just regular looking people who are attracted to people of the same sex. This struck me as rather odd.

Aren't ladyboys gay, then, or did I miss something? The way many of them pout at me, I presumed they were. Also, I don't know many men who are attracted to girls who are saving up for operations to have breasts fitted and their penises removed. That would kind of defeat the object, wouldn't it?

So, as I see it, if you are a normal looking gay person in Thailand it is bad but if you are gay and dress up as a woman, pout a lot, walk in a ridiculous, high-camp fashion and act like a major drama queen the whole time, that is perfectly acceptable.

Or perhaps I misunderstood something?

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Monday 23rd October 2006

How can the same person who was teased relentlessly as a child for being skinny now be teased as an adult for being fat? Is life unfair, or what? Mai pen rai. The weight gain must be as a result of leading a happy and contented life.

No matter how many times I see them (which is practically daily), I still have a problem accepting ladyboys as being a completely normal part of life. More than anything else, perhaps this has more to do with my upbringing in a country with fairly repressed attitudes to sex?

It was while doing some grocery shopping this evening that I saw today's ladyboy. Sometimes they are fairly attractive to the point of being able to fool farang men who aren't used to seeing them. However, this one definitely didn't fit into that category.

He was what the Thais refer to as a gatoey kwai (buffalo ladyboy). There was nothing feminine about him at all. He was just a big, hairy bloke who had grown his hair long and had got dressed up in women's clothes and shoes. His huge feet had somehow been squeezed into a pair of high-heeled sandals as he teetered along the aisles at Carrefour.

He had the usual affected, exaggerated mannerisms they all have which only added to the strange sight (which isn't actually that unusual in Thailand). It's a weird thing.

Even so, it's nice to live in a society where there is complete tolerance for people to live life how they want to. It's one of the great things about Thai culture. The Thais are not only tolerant towards ladyboys but show respect to them just as they do towards everyone.

I got told off a couple of days ago and the telling off made me feel quite small. It's something I will need to pay attention to later. Let me explain.

The bus back from Khaolak was jam-packed on Saturday. Even before I boarded I was told that every bus coming up from Phuket was already full and that I would have to stand. The normal journey time is around six hours but this trip ended up taking seven-and-a-half hours and for most of that time I didn't have a seat to myself.

The public transport system in Thailand is normally very good but occasionally there isn't enough capacity. My journey coincided with a long weekend because of Chulalongkorn Memorial Day, the end of Ramadan and the annual Chinese vegetarian festival. On this occasion I got my timing horribly wrong.

After an hour or so of standing I managed to perch myself on the edge of an occupied seat that was occupied by a pretty young thing and so the journey became a little more bearable. With everyone crammed in so tight, conversations flowed and I got chatting to a couple of nurses. There were actually a lot of nurses on the bus who worked in Phuket and were going home for the weekend.

They told me that the hospital where they work treats lots of farangs and I was interested to find out if they were just tourists who needed medical attention while in Thailand or whether they had gone to Thailand specifically for medical treatment, that is, health tourists.

As the conversation progressed they told me that they get a lot of men from Europe, America and Japan who come to Thailand for sex change operations. I'd read about this before but not heard it from Thai nurses. I am aware that this is a field in which Thai doctors have a lot of knowledge and also that medical care in Thailand is a lot cheaper than in many developed countries.

They told me that many of the foreign men who have this operation are quite old (fifty-plus). We all agreed that we couldn't really understand people who felt this way but live and let live.

When the conversation turned to ladyboys I was aware that there was one on the bus. In any group of more than about 50 people in Thailand, there will normally be at least one ladyboy. He got off before we did and came mincing up the aisle to get to the door.

As he walked past, I caught the eye of one of the nurses and just raised my eyebrows. I didn't say a word and the ladyboy was completely unaware of what I did. The girl wasn't impressed though and after he got off the bus, she told me I had no manners. She said it in Thai and maybe she thought I didn't understand but I did. If someone tells you mai mii maaruyaat, it's not a good thing.

I was a bit upset and - as I said - felt quite small and embarrassed. I tend to treat others the same way they treat me and in neutral situations with strangers I try to mind my manners and not to be rude. I think I did what I did only because of our previous conversation and I wouldn't have done anything had we not already spoken about ladyboys.

In future I won't do or say anything. The girl was right and I should have been more respectful.

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Sunday 22nd October 2006

I don't know whether this blog has attracted any regular visitors or not but, if it has, they will have noticed a lack of entries in the last few days.

As stated above, regular updates aren't promised even though that hasn't been the case recently.

I have just returned from a quick visit to Khaolak in Phang Nga province where I met up with some friends from England who were there on holiday. While there it was also an opportunity to catch up with some Thai friends and to see how Khaolak is looking now almost two years after the tsunami.

I spent a fair amount of time in Khaolak before I came to live in Thailand and before the tsunami. It was interesting watching a quiet coastal area growing into a large, upmarket tourist resort. Khaolak was the worst affected area in Thailand as a result of the tsunami.

The tsunami stopped everything for a while and the rebuilding work is still in progress. Unfortunately there seems to have been quite a few 'land grabs'. Many small, independent businesses have sold up and the big boys with all the money have stepped in.

What Khaolak will end up being in two or three year's time is the kind of tourist resort that was always favoured by Thaksin. That is, large very expensive, self-contained resorts with wealthy, foreign guests.

They will get bussed in direct from Phuket airport where they will check into their luxury accommodation, get served dinner by gracious hi-so Thai hostesses in the hotel restaurants, get pampered in the hotel spa, and read books and sunbathe around the hotel swimming pool.

After two weeks they will get bussed back to Phuket airport and go home with no more knowledge of Thailand than when they arrived. And this won't matter in the least; provided they have a sun tan.

There's nothing wrong with that at all but it's just not the Thailand that I want to be a part of, regardless of how much it costs. I managed to get a few photos and will be updating my Khaolak page soon.

I came to the conclusion quite a long time ago that I don't like beaches. The tourist activities (more like lack of activity) that go on in beach areas bore me and I find the climate and general environment (blazing sun, sand, salt water) quite hostile. Prices are for the tourists - that is, expensive - and beach areas are prime hunting grounds for greedy Thais.

As usual, I noticed several farangs sneering at me. The five-star tourists at the very expensive Mukdara hotel didn't seem to like a scruffy oik like me wandering around taking photos of the hotel.

The German business owners and farangs involved with scuba-diving who live and work in Thailand seem to be under the impression they are superior in Thailand to other farangs who, they assume, must obviously be lowly, uninformed and ignorant tourists.

I had intended staying until today but I came back yesterday and it was a big relief to get back. Not only was I fed up but I got too much sun on Friday and was suffering as a result of that.

Even when this blog goes quiet I will try to update it at least once a week if I can but when I travel I normally do so without my PC and I don't usually bother with the Internet when I'm on the road.

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Wednesday 18th October 2006

Yesterday evening I called in to see a friend of mine who went to Singapore for the first time last week. She had called me the day before and wanted to show me her photographs from the trip. As I had anticipated, she got quite a lot of attention from Singaporean men but she isn't the least bit interested. Quite a few Thai girls I know much prefer Caucasian men to Asian ones. That's just too bad.

She isn't an unattractive girl but one of her colleagues is an absolute stunner. I was introduced to this other girl by my friend a while ago and she told me that she had a German boyfriend who she seemed quite serious about. I haven't got a jealous or envious bone in my body but I actually felt a twinge of envy upon hearing this.

I have never seen a farang with a Thai girl in Thailand who I have been the least bit envious of. On the contrary, I feel sorry for most of them after seeing the kind of girls they are with.

This girl though is very different: highly respectable with a good job and drop-dead gorgeous. Despite being obviously of Asian origin, she hasn't got a classical Thai look but she is just lovely. There are lots of very pretty girls here but few stop me in my tracks the way she does.

Whenever I call in to see my friend I always enjoy seeing the other girl so I was a bit disappointed yesterday to find she wasn't around. I asked after her and was told she was in Krabi with her boyfriend.

I made a comment assuming she was with the German I had heard all about before only to be told that this boyfriend was Thai and that she has several boyfriends. I was a little surprised because of the way she had spoken about the German before. She seemed really hung up on him but apparently not.

What is quite interesting is that the one thing Thai females will not tolerate is men being unfaithful. This is something they go on about all the time using various expressions - jao choo, lai jai, seua pooying, etc.

However, certain Thai girls - if they are attractive and in demand - can also be said to mii nissai jao choo. I think it's different to men in that they just want to keep their options open while they are young and pretty enough to have choices before they make a final decision. Men have different motives for playing around.

Hermann the German is apparently studying Thai back in Germany and probably thinks he has hit the jackpot finding this girl but on his next trip to Thailand he may be in for a few surprises. Perhaps I need to really test how unfaithful she is? Just for the purposes of research, naturally.

One of the more interesting Thailand-related books I've been reading recently is 'Pridi by Pridi'. It's a collection of Pridi Banomyong's writings translated by the much respected duo of Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. This formidable writing partnership has also written the introduction to the book.

Pridi set up the People's Party whose first task it was to topple the system of absolute monarchy in Thailand. The plan was hatched in Paris. Any act of revolt against the monarchy in Thailand seems impossible now but the respect that exists now hasn't always existed.

King Bhumibol (Rama IX) has thoroughly earned the respect he has now and is regarded as one of Thailand's Great Kings, along with his predecessors Rama IV and Rama V. The sixth reign was troubled though and problems continued into the seventh reign.

History tells us that the resultant coup was successful and since 1932 Thailand has been governed under a system of constitutional monarchy (but not quite like constitutional monarchies elsewhere).

The next step for Pridi after the revolution was working out what system of government to introduce and I've been taking a look through his 'Outline Economic Plan' which was written in 1933. I have no formal education in economics but to me it looks like the setting up of a socialist government and a welfare state.

The intent is good but somehow, now, it looks a little naïve and reminds me of some of my own naïve thoughts from the past. In Pridi's world everything is owned and run by the state for the good of everyone with very little private enterprise or private ownership, apart from housing.

He worked out how to improve the efficiency of agricultural practices by the use of machinery and made a note that rice farmers only work six months of the year - such is the nature of rice farming. He wanted to make better use of the farmers' time throughout the entire year to improve their productivity.

With the extra labour that would then be available, people could do other things to improve the well being of everyone in Thailand and the state would look after everyone (to borrow a phrase), 'from cradle to grave'. All very nice.

In 1983 (or thereabouts) I - along with the rest of my division - was asked to write a paper by my then employer, IBM, about the impact of Information Technology on Society. I think that was the year the first IBM PC was announced. Personal computing didn't really exist in 1983 and even humble word processors were rare. Most companies still had huge typing pools and acres of filing cabinets.

It was obvious that IT would change the way we worked but in my analysis I completely forgot to factor in human nature. In my view, over 20 years ago, everything would become more efficient and people would work far less hours. As a result, they would have far more leisure time and this is the area that would see huge growth. How naïve.

Human beings are mostly very greedy, very competitive and quite ruthless. As we have seen in the Internet age, the changes in technology haven't benefited everyone. Some people have done very well and have become very rich while others, who haven't been able to adapt, have been cast aside.

If a piece of technology comes along to make something more efficient, we don't think about how it can make life better for us and everyone else; we think how we can exploit the technology to make things very good for ourselves personally and sod everyone else.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The desire to give ourselves a better life is what drives many people and their ingenuity gives society a lot of good things. So, in a way everyone benefits but not in the same way that socialists might want it to happen.

Like it or not, nothing will ever change human nature. Whatever kind of political ideology anyone comes up with, it must be compatible with human nature and, as I see it, Pridi's views were too idealistic and he didn't take this into account.

Even the Labour Party in Britain, traditionally a bastion of socialism, has for a long time gone against socialist thinking because it just doesn't fit in with the modern world or human nature. The problem for politicians is devising a system that is compatible with human nature while, at the same time, being compassionate for those in society who are not as capable as others. In addition, we have to guard against (as Pridi puts it) 'social parasites'.

Not an easy task.

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Tuesday 17th October 2006

I mentioned recently the fact that in many ways I am too sensitive to live in Thailand. Everything is different in Thailand compared to where I grew up and although I have been able to adapt some of my thinking, there are still lots of things that get to me.

Here is a story from my recent trip to Sukhothai. It's perfectly true but will need a little interpretation to understand the real meaning.

After visiting the old temples and rubbing shoulders with backpackers and large groups of middle and old aged German package tourists, I decided to wander off the tourist trail to get away from the Thais jaded by tourists and to meet some untainted locals.

The path I took was almost completely deserted apart from one man I met who was minding a herd of cows. As I walked along, I heard the distressed calls of a kitten from the bushes. His calls were loud and constant. It was obvious that he was alone and frightened.

The area was a prime location for snakes and later in the day when I was walking back along the same path I saw one slither across the road.

The kitten's distress calls now gave me a bit of a dilemma. Do I just ignore it and continue walking or try to help? And, if I try to help, what can I do? I was a long way from home and even if that hadn't have been the case, I can't rescue every stray animal in Thailand and I definitely don't want a permanent pet.

I love cats and used to have one in England but they are a bind whenever you want to travel, as I do fairly often. In any case, pets are banned in my apartment building.

Man herding cows in Sukhothai, Thailand - Click for larger image My decision was to try to help by doing what the Thais do. When in Rome .... etc. Temples are dumping grounds for unwanted animals in Thailand which is why every temple is full of cats and dogs. They get some protection and the monks feed them.

In the past when I found a badly injured stray dog that had been involved in a road accident I asked some Thai friends what I could do to help it and their suggestion was take it to the temple. So, that is what I decided to do with the kitten.

My first problem was catching the young cat who was a little timid but eventually I managed to coax him out. He seemed quite happy. The distressed crying stopped and he started to purr. My next task was to find a temple.

Not knowing Sukhothai, I needed some help so had to ask people. The problem though is that Sukhothai is full of temples and the locals kept directing me to ancient, uninhabited temples with no monks in residence. I walked around for a couple of hours in the heat of the day with the cat but was unable to find a place to leave him.

One building I found looked promising but he soon drew the attention of stray dogs. In fact, on our little walk the cat got a lot of attention from stray dogs, some of which followed us along the road.

With the sweat from my brow now stinging my eyes and the cat starting to cry again, I started to think I had made a bad decision. I thought a few times of just putting him back in the bushes but knew he wouldn't last much more than 24 hours with all the dogs and snakes around.

I retraced my steps and took him back to where I had come from, hoping to find a sympathetic person who would take care of him. The response wasn't very sympathetic though. Orphaned kittens and pups are everywhere in Thailand. The Thais see them all the time and have become desensitised, unlike silly farangs. No one I asked wanted him.

I was now completely stuck. I couldn't do anything with the cat except put it back in the bushes where it would have become a snake snack.

Orphaned kitten, Sukhothai - Click for larger image I eventually found a lovely lady who was doing the rounds collecting rubbish with her husband. Some Thais make a living by collecting items that can be recycled. They earn a living and it's good for the environment. In a rich society no one would bother so it's a nice thing.

I think the cat could also sense that she had a good heart (jai dee) and he took to her. She took the cat off my hands and although I felt bad because I had now given my problem to her, I was relieved. Obviously, I don't know what happened afterwards but it eased my conscience.

If you manage to get away from the tourist areas in Thailand you will meet orphans, waifs and strays all the time. The experience will tug at your heart strings like nothing you can imagine. You will be fully aware that you cannot solve every problem in Thailand but when you become directly involved, and if you are sensitive to the plight of others, it can be very difficult just to walk away.

If you decide to take in an abandoned cat that you feel sorry for just to get it back on its feet again until it is strong enough to take care of itself, the problem is that it then won't want to leave. And if you were sensitive enough in the first place to take it in, it is unlikely you will have the heart to force it to leave.

The situation may not be entirely unsatisfactory. You have a cute pet that is good company and loves you unconditionally but, at the same time, the cat isn't really what you wanted to start out with and later it becomes quite territorial and possessive, not wanting you to give attention to other cats and not wanting other cats around the house. But now it is too late and you can't do very much about your earlier decision.

The story about the cat was an example.

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