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  • Living in Thailand Blog October 2009


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Living In Thailand Blog


Thursday 29th October 2009

It's that time of year when clocks start to be turned back in European countries. When I used to live in England, it was this event that signalled the onset of winter for me.

I could handle the cold (although I probably couldn't now after six years in southern Thailand) but I could never handle the lack of daylight. For several months I would go to work in the dark and return home in the dark.

It was depressing, to say the least.

My current location is about seven degrees north of the equator and therefore there is no requirement for daylight saving time. Sunrise and sunset varies so little throughout the year that you don't really notice much difference month-to-month.

Roughly speaking, sunrise occurs some time between 6am and 6:30am, and sunset between 6pm and 6:30pm. I miss those long midsummer days of northern Europe, but not the short winter ones.

The year-round temperature also varies less here than in England. The average minimum temperature is about 24°C, the average maximum is about 33°C, and the year-round average is about 31°C.

Most of the time it is a little too warm for complete comfort but the body acclimatises slowly over time.

One thing that does vary a lot is rainfall. As I am writing this, rain is falling outside in sheets. November is the wettest month of the year and that is only a few days away. During the rainy season it rains consistently almost every day.

The dry season is technically February to April but those hot, dry months can last until September. However, there can also be big thunderstorms in the middle of the hot season.

The only real danger from the weather here is flooding but even that has got a lot better in recent years because of improvements to the flood defence systems.

As far as I'm aware, hurricanes and tornadoes aren't really a problem here. Tropical storms and cyclones, such as those that devastated areas of the Philippines recently, tend to die out before they reach southern Thailand.

With the temperatures I mentioned, ice and snow are unheard of. This probably isn't a bad thing because if Thai drivers ever encountered ice and snow on the roads there would be carnage.

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Wednesday 28th October 2009

If you are thinking of becoming an English teacher in Thailand, there are a few things about Thailand that are a little different to most other places.

Here's a quick test. Is the following sentence correct, or not?

"I have already spent my whole life as a woman - since I was a little boy."

From: New sex change regulations set to take effect

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Monday 26th October 2009

The interview I attended on 15th October appears not to have been successful. I have received no official notification in writing but the excited phone calls stopped, as did replies to my text messages.

I'm quite pleased because this shows that my new zero-tolerance approach to Thai girls who want to use me and waste my time is working.

As a farang male in Thailand, you will probably receive lots of attention from Thai girls. Many of the girls will be young and good-looking. However, what you need to remember is that if anything in life seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Even in Thailand.

Being used by Thai girls and having my time wasted used to happen to me as a tourist in Thailand, and it has been happening ever since I moved to Thailand. Meeting them makes you feel good at first, but once you've parted with some cash the relationships never go anywhere.

As George W Bush once tried (unsuccessfully) to say, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

When this type of thing happens at first you can blame the girl but when you continually get caught by the same thing you need to start questioning yourself.

It starts off with a big smile from a young, pretty girl and most farang men will immediately fall into their trap. You will then be given a long list of things that she can't possibly do because of the restrictions of Thai culture.

You can't be seen together too often because people will gossip (nin-taa), and you can't be seen to be too close otherwise she will be accused of being jai ngaay (easy heart - an easy make). What she really means is, "Don't even think about touching me."

However, there are certain things that you are very welcome to do. You can buy her as many things as you wish, and meals are especially welcome.

Thais are used to paying about Bt30 for a meal but there are many things they like to eat that cost significantly more. Pizza is popular with Thais but it is a relatively expensive meal in Thailand.

The Sizzler restaurant chain, with its all-you-can-eat salad, is another popular place with Thais, as are the so-called Suki restaurants where you are provided with raw food that you boil at the table. Japanese food is also very popular in Thailand, especially the Fuji restaurant chain where the food is great but it isn't cheap by Thai standards.

Thais love all this stuff but paying Bt300 or more per person for a meal is outrageous for them. There's an easy solution though if you are a young, attractive Thai girl ... find a stupid farang male to pay for you... and your friends.

I've been caught like this so many times. The sweet, smiling girl you just met calls and suggests going to lunch. Great, you think, and it won't be expensive because we'll just have a plate of Bt30 fried rice each.

What you find when you get there is that a bunch of her friends are also present, and that they have already planned where we are all going to eat ... and it isn't at a Bt30 fried rice shop. At the end of the meal when the bill arrives, the Thais will all stare into their laps ... and guess where the bill ends up?

This is exactly what happened to me shortly after I got to Thailand when I met a girl who then decided I could treat her and about half-a-dozen friends to a pizza lunch.

I got caught on the street the last time I was in Bangkok. The sweet, smiling girl I met was on her own but the restaurant she took me to was noisy so I couldn't hear what she was saying to the waiter.

She told me she just wanted rice but slipped in an order for the biggest prawns I have ever seen in my life. The rice was Bt30 but the prawns were about Bt600. She tried her best but she couldn't eat them all.

When I met yet another sweet, smiling, young, attractive Thai girl recently I suspected the same thing but thought I would at least give her the benefit of the doubt.

And then déjà vu.

She called and suggested meeting for lunch. As I arrived she told me she had invited a friend, and that they wanted to eat Suki. Mmm, where have I heard this before?

I immediately felt that sinking feeling in my stomach telling me I had been caught again.

Feeling a little foolish that I had fallen for the same trick, I started making comments about how expensive the food was. I knew this wouldn't go down well but I wasn't happy.

Throughout the meal I was asked questions and when asked why I didn't have a Thai woman in my life I told quite a few home truths - that so many I have met have been greedy, they lie, can't be trusted, waste time, and use me.

I figured that if this girl was intending doing the same then my words would be a warning that I'm not a fresh-off-the-boat newbie farang expat and that I wouldn't tolerate such behaviour.

The fact she has stopped contacting me proves that I was right.

In many respects, Thailand's notorious commercial sex workers are the most honest Thai girls of all. When you deal with them you know up front what's on offer and how much you will pay.

There are lots of Thai girls who would be appalled at the thought of selling their bodies (kaay dtua) but what they do in moral terms with their lies and deceit is just as bad, if not worse.

Thai girls are just weird and I think I have been deluding myself for quite a long time. For several years I haven't been interested in a serious relationship for various reasons, but I believed that when the time came for a serious relationship it wouldn't be a problem.

I can communicate quite well, and I can differentiate between different kinds of Thai girl. There are girls I thought would never be any trouble if you could prove that you were honest and sincere.

But now I'm not so sure.

For several months I have had occasional dates with two girls who I believed were relatively trouble-free Thai girls. I thought that if I made it clear to either that I wanted to get serious then everything would progress fairly easily. But how wrong I was.

The first one (a teacher) broke a date last week for the second time. On the first occasion she claimed she couldn't find the meeting place so she just went home. It then took weeks to arrange another meeting.

We arranged to meet again last week but she called just before we were due to meet and cancelled because it was raining (who would have believed in the rainy season?). She didn't just postpone until the rain had stopped but cancelled completely. That was a week ago and we have had no further contact.

The other is a nurse. She works all three shift patterns on consecutive days and always seems to be at work. It's always a problem finding time when she is free.

However, she will call occasionally and we will go out. We normally have a good time and afterwards I try to stay in touch but she always ignores me. When this happens I think she has lost interest but then she will suddenly call again and suggest getting together. Weird.

Last week she called and invited herself over to my place to watch a movie. It is unusual for good Thai girls to go to a man's room but she always makes it clear that there will be no hanky-panky.

Again, I sent her messages afterwards trying to keep in touch but she has ignored them. Instead, she sent an e-mail several days later full of love poems and an invite to chat on MSN messenger. I replied telling her we can meet or talk on the phone but I don't want to communicate with her via computer.

A big part of the problem is the way Thai girls are brainwashed continually by Thai society from a very young age to keep themselves pure before marriage. Some girls don't, obviously, but many do.

I've met so many Thai girls in their late 20's who have no sexual experience and don't know how to have what would be considered a normal boyfriend/girlfriend relationship in Western countries. The resulting behaviour is just plain weird.

Honestly, Thai females are a major headache.

This isn't just my thinking. As I was looking around at cars last week I met a couple of Thai men who knew me but who I couldn't remember. The three of us, plus the car salesman, got chatting man-to-man. I don't really have any male friends in Thailand so this was unusual for me but quite enjoyable.

One said that I had a Thai wife. Thais assume that if a foreigner can speak any Thai then it follows that he must have a Thai wife. I told them I didn't.

They joked that if I bought a car, then a wife would follow. I said I didn't want one and explained why. They agreed and said that Thai woman in general are very greedy these days and are only interested in money. They meant what they said.

The salesman joked that he would offer one free Thai woman with every car sold. I declined. They laughed.

I still maintain that out there somewhere there are still some wonderful Thai girls but finding ones who haven't already been snagged by Thai men is very difficult.

Thai men claim the best girls at a very young age and once claimed they won't give them up, and neither will they allow the girls to leave them ... even if the men find new girls later. The men believe it is acceptable to be unfaithful themselves but they won't tolerate this with their women. They do this through fear and intimidation. There is nothing a Thai girl is afraid of more than a Thai man.

I've had some very interesting conversations with Thai girls about Thai men over the years and I've also seen the bruises. At some stage I need to write some of this stuff up. A lot of it isn't pleasant but the weird behaviour of many Thai girls is often because of Thai men in the background.

If you are a farang man looking to meet a Thai woman in Thailand, think very carefully because it can be an absolute minefield.

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Sunday 25th October 2009

My little flirtation with the idea of buying a car in Thailand has come to an end for the time being.

I spent some more time looking around last week and met several used car dealers who looked as if they should have been wearing sheepskin coats, except the weather here is far too hot for sheepskin coats.

Used cars that were previously owned by boy racers are easy to spot (and easy to avoid) because they are the ones with huge exhaust tail pipes, silly spoilers, Brembo brake upgrades, etc.

Some used cars look as if they've been looked after quite well but they aren't the most exciting of cars, and they are expensive. Whenever I see a previous generation used Honda Civic for Bt550,000, I think to myself that I could find a decent 3.2 Boxster S in the UK for about the same money.

Cars that are two-a-penny in Europe look good in Thailand because they are rare and stand out against all the Toyota and Honda saloons and Toyota and Isuzu pickup trucks. Peugeots, VW Beetles, and Mini Coopers look quite exotic.

However, the price of these cars is sky high because of the luxury tax Thailand imposes on cars from Europe.

I also looked at new cars at the other end of the price scale. Protons from Malaysia are cheap, as are vehicles made in China. One small Chinese car I looked at was a Chery QQ.

The QQ is a kind of Noddy and Big Ears car which apparently is a Chinese attempt to replicate the success of the original VW Beetle. Apart from looks, and questions about performance and reliability, I don't think the resale value would be very high.

I've put the whole idea on hold for the time being.

If I wasn't being quite honest I would say that I don't want to buy a new car in a country where driving standards are so bad; and I don't want to buy a used car because they are ridiculously overpriced.

If I was being honest I would say that buying a car represents a fairly significant financial investment, and I still have major reservations about making significant financial investments in Thailand.

I've been off work for a month and it's been one of the worst months I've had in ages. The highlight was a couple of days in Mae Sot, a place I found to be fascinating because it provided an unexpected window into life in Burma.

Apart from that, October 2009 has been mostly forgettable and many things I have experienced have made me feel negative about Thailand. So negative, in fact, that if I didn't have work commitments next week I would probably leave the country temporarily for quite a long time.

This doesn't really surprise me. Mulder states that there are two realms of existence in Thai society. There is an inner sanctum of goodness based around the home and family (especially the mother), teachers, and other close and trusted people.

Qualities to strive for within this realm are trust, virtue, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, stability, reliability, moral goodness. It's a safe, secure and pleasant place.

The other realm concerns power and it exists in the dangerous world outside the safe, secure environment of home. This world is unstable, dangerous, untrustworthy, immoral and threatening.

Two incidents have highlighted this contrast in the different realms. I went back to see my old students last week and was welcomed like the prodigal son. They couldn't do enough to look after me. I was back inside the inner realm and it was a very pleasant experience.

Last night I bumped into three of my current students in close succession. Each student was very respectful and each conversation was really pleasant. Teachers are special people in Thailand and when students see that you are doing your best for them, you find yourself in that inner circle.

This month, without working, I've been basically a tourist - an outsider existing in the outer realm. As such, I've simply been someone to rip off and overcharge; someone to talk about; and someone for teenage boys to shout and laugh at in the street to make their friends laugh.

I don't believe that respect should be given before it is earned; but neither do I believe that disrespect should be shown before it is earned.

For the past couple of weeks or so I have actually been looking forward to returning to work. I never felt like this in the UK. However, this gives me something of a dilemma.

Next year I was planning to retire for good. My finances will allow it and I will be old enough to apply for a retirement visa. But if life in Thailand without work means that every month of the year will be like October 2009, I'm not sure that is what I want.

I will need to reassess the situation again next year.

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Saturday 24th October 2009

I mentioned recently how Thais often make comments about foreigners in the belief that their comments won't be understood by the people they are referring to (which 99.9% of the time they aren't).

They don't normally say bad things but generally it isn't polite to make comments about people in their presence - or even behind their backs. Like all foreigners in Thailand, this happens to me too.

In order to understand what Thais are saying I need to tune in and concentrate because my ears are not good at picking up conversations in the background.

Under normal circumstances I would be oblivious that anything was being said, apart from one very simple thing.

When Thais speak about white Caucasian foreigners they can't stop themselves from using the word (farang).

I can hear this word being spoken from half a mile away and when I am the only foreigner around I know straight away that I am being spoken about.

It happened twice yesterday and instead of ignoring the comment, I confronted the person in a reasonably friendly way and asked them what they just said.

The normal reaction to this type of thing is horror. Thais don't believe that any foreigner can understand or speak any Thai so the last thing they expect is for the foreigner to respond in any way.

Also, what I did was quite confrontational. Thai society is very non-confrontational and Thais will go out of their way to avoid confrontation.

The first incident involved a young guy working at the restaurant where I had lunch. When asked what he said, he made up some story about wanting to ensure I was being served. There was a big smirk on his face when he made the original comment so I knew he was lying.

The second incident involved a young girl selling stuff at a supermarket. At first she clammed up completely, refusing to speak. Thais will often do this if they get into a situation they can't handle. They will avoid eye contact and refuse to speak, treating the situation as if you are invisible.

I continued to question her and when she continued refusing to speak I asked her in Thai if she could speak Thai. She said she could and when I asked her again what she just said, she simply denied having said anything. That was another lie.

Similar incidents have happened many times before. Whenever I ask Thais what they just said, I never expect them to tell me.

All I hope for is that they might realise there are foreigners in the country who do understand some Thai, and they might think twice about their rude behaviour in future.

I said the other day that it is difficult to get out of teaching mode in Thailand. Whenever I hear Thais referring to me as farang, which they do all the time, I correct them by telling them chaaw dtaang chaat.

This is the polite term. I've heard Thais use it when referring to me, but extremely rarely.

I use the a lot here when referring to myself and others like me but I don't like Thais continually referring to me in the third-person as farang.

Certain words are offensive to certain people. It's OK if those people use the word about themselves, but when other people use the word in the third-person about them it is an entirely different matter.

All languages have words for other races, and Thai is no exception - jek for Chinese and kairk for Indians - but certain words can be derogatory and offensive.

With so many ethnic-Chinese Thais, jek will cause offence if said to a Thai-Chinese. The word for Indians means 'guest' despite the fact that an Indian living in Thailand might have been born there and lived there all his or her life.

Thais know these terms are offensive but for some reason they regard farang as being perfectly acceptable. Last week I spotted a Thai newspaper where it was the first word of the main headline on the front page.

Teenage Thai boys are like teenage boys everywhere. Most aren't that bad but in Thailand their lives revolve around racing motorbikes around the streets, chasing girls, drinking, smoking, playing computer games, etc.

Something else that is very important to them is making their friends laugh. That's fine, my teenage years weren't very different, but in Thailand I don't like being the butt of their jokes.

It would appear that nothing is funnier to a group of Thai teenagers than shouting out "Hello" to a passing farang and making the farang turn round. Absolutely hilarious. Tears flow from their eyes and you can just feel how much their ribs are hurting.

As Pete and Dud might once have said, "We had not laughed so much since grandma died or Auntie Mabel caught her left tit in the mangle."

After joining in with the hilarious joke, I normally approach them for a chat. My first question is normally if they can say anything else, or if they only know one word in English.

Next I ask where they study, and how long they have studied English. Some quick mental arithmetic will tell me how many English words they have learnt per year of studying English, with a sarcastic เก่ง tucked on to the end.

Being shown up in front of their friends is normally enough to wipe the stupid grins off their faces.

They only do this out of a complete lack of respect. If you took a Thai man who was equivalent to me in terms of age, social standing, profession, wealth, or anything else, there is no way Thai kids would make disrespectful comments to that man. No way.

But because I am a farang they feel they can be as disrespectful to me as they wish.

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Friday 23rd October 2009

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image Today was the day on which the religious devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival skewer their cheeks. I went down there again to take a few snaps.

I'm not quite sure what the point of all this is. The religious fervour that abounded involving people hopping around in trance-like states with wild eyes was a little too similar to United States-style evangelism for my liking.

Most of the men (and there were a few women) who participated today already had scars on their cheeks so it would appear that the same people go through this ritual every year.

Click on the thumbnail images if you wish and a larger image will magically pop up.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image Methods used by different countries to regulate and govern society vary enormously. Apart from dictatorships and Banana Republics, most countries have a rule of law, together with a criminal justice system. How these are applied, however, also vary enormously from country to country.

In this region of the world, located very close together, you have the opportunity to observe two methods that couldn't be more different. Over a period of some years, I have observed both.

At the bottom of the peninsula, Singapore is well-known for having some of the strictest, most heavily-enforced laws in the world. History tells us that Singapore is not somewhere drug smugglers would be advised to pass through.

You can buy T-shirts and mugs in Singapore telling you that 'Singapore is a fine place', the pun being that you can be fined for doing (or not doing) almost anything.

There are CCTV cameras everywhere and although you may not see many uniformed police, I am informed that there are plain-clothes law enforcement officers everywhere. In Singapore there is a very clear line as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image If you cross that line you will be caught, and you will be punished ... severely. I can even think of a literal example of this.

If you go to one of the outlying MRT stations that doesn't have a wall of glass between the platform and the train you will see a yellow line painted on the platform.

If you cross - or even approach - this line, you will hear a station announcement straight away warning people not to cross the line. Yes, someone is watching you on CCTV and if it looks as if you might do something that you were told not to do, action will be taken.

Crime isn't unknown in Singapore. Local newspapers regularly feature murders but generally it is a very regulated and safe environment.

Now, let's move up the peninsula to Thailand. Thailand has a rule of law and a criminal justice system just like Singapore but, unlike Singapore, enforcement is extremely weak.

Where I am there are no speed cameras or red light cameras, no public CCTV cameras, and hardly ever any police. People are pretty much allowed to do whatever they want, and some take full advantage of this.

Thailand has opted for a more Confucianist system. From Wikipedia:

"The basic teachings of Confucianism stress the importance of education for moral development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than by the use of coercive laws."
Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image A lot of moralising goes on in Thailand. It is a separate subject for high school students and when monks talk it is often about morals. Most Thais are Buddhist and a key tenet of Buddhism is that what comes around goes around - the law of karma.

People should know that if they do evil, they will receive evil. Therefore, everyone does good so that they receive good in return. Wonderful.

Another proverb states that it is better to prevent than to cure. So, Thailand has got it right, then? Not quite.

In any society there will always be a minority (and sometimes a large minority) who have no moral values and no consideration for other people. In other countries these people would probably be dealt with by the law but in Thailand nothing happens to them.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image If they go too far over the line (like the guy who beat and attempted to rape my neighbour a couple of years ago), they will be dealt with - either by the justice system or personally. (I read somewhere once that after Colombia, Thailand has the second largest number of unlicensed firearms in the world.) Otherwise, nothing happens.

What are the consequences of living in countries that have such opposing views on the way society is governed and regulated?

Singapore feels extremely safe but there is almost a 'Big Brother' feeling about the place. Singaporeans are regular visitors to Thailand and I think they like the freedom that exists in Thailand. However, Singaporeans also tend to be quite paranoid when they travel abroad because nowhere feels quite as safe as home.

And Thailand?

I've lived permanently in Thailand for six years and the utter disregard that exists for any rules, laws or regulations is probably the thing that gets me down most.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image The level of lawlessness varies but basically there are a lot of Thais - mostly men - who will simply do as they please. If they want to smoke in a restaurant plastered with 'No Smoking signs' they will smoke.

If they want to drive drunk, they will. If they want to speed, race on the streets, park where they shouldn't, or go through red traffic lights, they will.

Last night, for the second time in a week while walking around in the evening, I went to cross the road at red traffic lights only to be almost flattened by kids on motorbikes who think that traffic laws don't apply to them. On both occasions I have said something; and on both occasions I have received a volley of abuse back.

The people who act like this are not only arrogant and stubborn, but also defiant. They especially don't like to hear anything about their obnoxious behaviour from lowly, contemptuous farangs who they have no respect for.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image The method that Thailand uses to regulate society leads either to conformity or deviance depending on each individual's thinking. Unfortunately, not much is done to curtail the activities of the deviants.

Thais tend to be vengeful and because of this people won't complain due to fear of reprisal. Thais will generally ignore anti-social behaviour in order not to invite trouble. The deviants are aware of this and know that no one will act against them so they carry on being obnoxious.

After dark in this part of provincial Thailand the good people simply lock themselves away in their houses to avoid the mayhem and lawlessness that ensues outside.

What can you do as a foreign individual in Thailand?

Not much. If you intervene directly, as I did, you will just receive abuse .. and maybe more if you are unlucky. If you complain to the police they will probably laugh at you. What about complaining to other people?

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image I was once eating lunch in a hotel restaurant with 'No Smoking' signs everywhere, and Thais on the next table started to smoke. I asked to see the manager and I complained. He just made excuses for them and then the waitress gave them ashtrays.

I have had cause to complain about noise in my apartment building a few times but it is just the same. The management will just make excuses and tell me it will be OK soon because they don't want to get involved.

Thais have enormous tolerance most of the time and don't seem to let this kind of thing upset them but they do have a breaking point. When they reach that breaking point the red mist descends and things start to turn ugly. You really don't want to be around when that happens.

A couple of years ago, near to where I live, a Thai man was continually kept awake at night by loud parties in the house next door. He worked on a rubber plantation and because of his unusual working hours he couldn't get any sleep.

The parties went on for a while until he walked into his neighbour's house one night with a gun and shot eight people dead. That's how Thais fix problems.

Devotees at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image Both examples I have used are probably too extreme. I'm not sure that I would want to live in Singapore's 'Big Brother' environment but I'm certainly not happy with the way things are where I live in Thailand. Something somewhere in the middle would probably be just about right.

I must point out that the level of lawlessness varies in different parts of Thailand. Whenever I travel in Thailand, the general situation always seems a lot more civilised. Some of my travels have taken me to border areas near Burma that have a reputation for being lawless but they are a picnic compared to Hat Yai.

Based not only on my own observations, but from what Thais who come from all over the country tell me, Hat Yai seems to be about the most lawless city in Thailand.

I mentioned a statistic from John Laird's book recently that said 15% of Thais have mental health problems. While flicking through Niels Mulder's 'Inside Thai Society' - as I do often - I noticed that he gives different statistics.

"From a survey of 130,000 young Thais, the psychiatrist Udomsilp Srisaengnam (1977) reached the conclusion that twenty-five percent of the population between twenty-five and thirty years succumb to some form of neurosis because of the impact of modernity and tension of conflicting values.

Research by Chira Sitasuwan et al. (1976) in Bangkok Noi District sampled a section of those married, and found that fifty percent were not in good mental health."

These figures are quite old. I would suggest that due to the impact of globalisation in recent years, the situation has probably got even worse.

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Wednesday 21st October 2009

Visual dictionary Step 3; Language Options - Click for larger image I've been pleased with the interactive CD Thai course that I bought in Chiang Mai.

It's made by Perfect Vision Multimedia Co Ltd. I mentioned it before but here's a slightly more detailed review.

There are three different levels referred to as Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3. I didn't get a chance to see Step 1 but I think it is just vocabulary in the form of a picture dictionary, and it might suit absolute beginners.

Step 2 includes simple short questions and phrases for when the learner has acquired some basic vocabulary. I evaluated this briefly but there was nothing I didn't already know. For tourists and new expats to Thailand with limited Thai language ability, this might be quite useful.

Visual dictionary Step 3; Situations - Click for larger image Step 3 was pretty much just what I was looking for. The course consists of eight CDs, which can be bought separately or as a set.

I bought the set and there was a small discount included. Each CD is priced at Bt350 (Bt2,800 for eight) and I paid Bt2,520.

Despite being bought in Panthip Plaza (the Chiang Mai branch), this is original software and not a typical Thai copy.

Each CD runs automatically and the first screen provides Thai-English and English-Thai language options. This choice depends on the learner's native language, thus the course is suitable for Thais learning English as well as English speakers learning Thai.

Visual dictionary Step 3; Specific Situation - Click for larger image The next screen gives four different situations, for example, in the post office, at the beach, in hospital, etc.

Upon selecting one of these situations you are taken to the dialogues. At first, all you see (without hearing anything) is the first part of the dialogue written in Thai. I use this to practice my reading before clicking on the dialogue.

Clicking on any dialogue allows you to listen to it. At the bottom of the screen you get the full written dialogue in Thai, in transliterated paasaa karaoke*, and in English. You also get to hear the English translation as spoken by Americans.

The dialogues are spoken using natural language at full speed. Some are really fast. The beauty is that you can click away and listen as many times as you like. In real world situations you don't get this opportunity because you hear things only once.

There is also an Auto-play option so you can run through the dialogues without clicking anything.

Visual dictionary Step 3; Dialogue - Click for larger image As I mentioned before, the transliterations are useless and a waste of time. If you don't read Thai, try to ignore them because they are misleading. Just use your ears to take in information.

The translations are not strictly accurate but they are an attempt to convey the same meaning naturally in both languages. Sentence structure is so different between English and Thai that word-by-word translations wouldn't make sense most of the time.

There are different paths through the dialogues. For example, if a question is asked then four different answers might be given. You can select one answer, go back, and then select a different answer.

There are tests and practice areas. These might ask you to translate something, provide an answer, or state which answer cannot be used for a question. Apart from the instructions, all the test questions and answers are written in Thai. The practice areas also require that you can read Thai.

Visual dictionary Step 3; Practice - Click for larger image This is important for me because I am a strong believer that written and spoken Thai cannot be separated. Reading - in addition to being an incredibly useful skill in Thailand in its own right - helps your pronunciation and general speaking a great deal.

There are various options within the application to add funky music (which was the first thing I turned off), and to display or hide the various Thai and English dialogues, as well as the paasaa karaoke*.

There is also a voice comparison option. You can record your own voice saying a set phrase and then compare this to the same phrase as spoken by a native speaker using a display which shows sound levels.

The software has worked fine so far with no apparent glitches. The system requirements should be fine for any computer manufactured since Windows 98, so no worries there for most people.

I'm not sure about Mac users because system requirements are only stated for Windows machines. Not being a Mac user, I don't know, but I believe Macs can run Windows these days.

Visual dictionary Step 3; Test - Click for larger image As I mentioned before, the minimum display resolution of 1024x768 means that this software will not run on the current generation of netbooks that all seem to use 1024x600 displays.

Netbook sales are booming but this is a big problem. This application is now the second one that I am unable to run on my netbook because of insufficient pixels.

In summary, I am very happy to recommend this software.

Because of the importance of tones and vowel lengths in Thai, it is essential to listen while you are learning. It isn't convenient using most other media to repeat phrases endlessly, and a real person wouldn't want to do that either.

This course allows you to learn at your own speed, and to go over anything as many times as you wish. The situations and language used are relevant, natural and contemporary.

One word of caution. It is easy to go out and buy dictionaries and language courses. The difficult part is finding the motivation and time to study!

* Thais love Thai pop songs and Thai pop music videos. Another one of their loves in life is singing karaoke style. Many VCD and DVD players sold in Thailand have a microphone input to facilitate this.

If you rent an apartment in Thailand, pray that your Thai neighbours don't have karaoke machines.

The music videos include the song lyrics at the bottom of the screen to assist Thailand's budding pop stars of tomorrow. These are written in Thai script and also a transliterated version of Thai words written in English.

When Thais see Thai words written using the English alphabet they refer to it as paasaa karaoke (karaoke language). This is useless for Thais, obviously, and because it's usually done so inaccurately it's useless for non-Thais.

I don't know why they bother but throughout Thailand you will see Thai words and names badly transliterated using English letters.

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Tuesday 20th October 2009

Dog and kitten - Click for larger image The gang of street cats that I used to feed has disappeared but the stray dog that also lives in that area is still there. As I walked past a couple of weeks ago I saw her feeding a motherless kitten that has appeared from somewhere.

I can't imagine that she has any milk but I think the kitten just takes comfort from the action of feeding even if the tap isn't turned on. One of my old cats in England used to 'feed' from my shirt buttons.

The dog has adopted the kitten as her own. She used to sit outside a rice shop but now she has moved down the road a bit to take care of her new baby. I get on well with her, pet her, and she wags her tail when she sees me.

However, with people she doesn't know she is very protective towards the kitten and barks at them if they get too close.

Friends in need - Click for larger image Some farangs tend to be very sensitive in Thailand, applying their own beliefs and values to a society that has completely different belief and value systems.

I noticed in Chiang Mai that well-meaning farangs have attempted to rescue and find homes for kittens. I've attempted to do the same thing in the past with abandoned animals I have found that will die soon if no one helps them.

The problem in Thailand is that no matter how much you do, it will never be enough. Thais think differently and don't believe in neutering animals, which they believe is a sin.

Human towers at the Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image They don't like to interfere with the universal cycle of birth, death and rebirth which is a key part of their belief system.

For every animal you try to rescue there will be thousands more born on the streets and in the temples.

The only way to make a difference is to change how Thais think; the only way to make that happen is to change their belief system; and that is impossible.

With kittens I have 'rescued' I have tried to find homes but Thais aren't interested because there are just too many stray and abandoned animals as it is. I'm not in a position to take care of animals at the moment.

I've taken animals to temples but the temples don't want them and the last kitten I took to the temple was killed by a dog a few days later.

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image When I eventually settle down I thought it would be good to take in stray animals but that would present a problem. If Thais hear about a farang who likes animals, his home would just become a dumping ground for stray animals instead of the Buddhist temples.

I've had to toughen up since I started living in Thailand. Occasionally as I am walking around I still hear the cries of a new-born abandoned kitten. There was a time when I'd take it home, feed it, and try to find somewhere to put it out of harm's way.

This would take up hours of my time. Now, I just walk past. It still hurts me but if you start trying to rescue animals in Thailand you will be doing so for the rest of your life and your efforts still won't make any difference.

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Monday 19th October 2009

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image The Chinese vegetarian festival is held in Thailand based on a date according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Therefore the actual date is different each year. I went along last night to eat some veggie food and to see what was going on.

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image The best known festival is held in Phuket but festivals are held elsewhere in Thailand wherever there are large numbers of ethnic Chinese, such as Hat Yai.

There are various reasons why the festival takes place. It's a time to cleanse the body and mind, and so there is no meat eaten, no alcohol drunk, and no sex. White clothes - the colour of cleanliness and purity - are worn by many in attendance.

Merit-making is an important part of Asian cultures and a diet of vegetarian food saves animals from being killed for food, thus merit is made.

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image In addition, Thais like fairs and this is just like any other fair where people get together to eat, drink and be entertained.

What everybody is really here for though, is to see the guys pushing skewers through their cheeks and performing other acts of self-mortification.

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image A few years ago I saw devotees with bicycles, grass strimmers, and all manner of things inserted through their cheeks. More photos on this page of this kind of thing (scroll down a bit).

Last night there was none of this, but plenty of blood.

Some of the devotees were just young lads, barely in their teens. There was a kind of Chinese priest who assists the devotees in working themselves up into a frenzy.

Chinese vegetarian festival - Click for larger image They stand there in a trance-like state, first shaking their heads and then cutting their tongues with large knives and axes, or walking/jumping on broken glass.

The noise is deafening. Drums are constantly beaten and cymbals clashed. Authentic Chinese firecrackers go off continually giving the impression of being in a war zone.

The first time I saw anything like this was on my first trip to Singapore in 1990 when I accidentally stumbled upon the Indian Thaipusam festival in the Little India district. This is a similar kind of thing but with unique differences.

It's quite a spectacle if you haven't seen it before. Less gory displays last night included lion-dancing and human towers with tiny tots on the top of the towers.

Alongside the street entertainment were lots of stalls selling drinks and vegetarian food.

I will add some more photos when I have time. As usual, clicking on any thumbnail image will cause a larger image to pop up.

I learnt some German during my school days but unfortunately I was possessed with a typical teenage male brain during that time. Consequently I underachieved, as many teenage boys do.

However, the little I learnt stayed with me for quite a long time. On my last visit to Germany in 2002 I could still remember quite a lot.

As a result of trying to learn Thai, any German speaking skills I may once have had have disappeared. I only seem to have room in my head for English, my mother tongue, and an ability to get by (just about) in one other language.

I noticed an obituary in The Nation for one of its staff who had just died, an Englishman named Simon Johnstone. His language skills were humbling, to say the least.

I don't doubt that he put enormous effort into his language accomplishments but he must also have been born with an exceptional talent.

Maybe one day in the future another exceptional talent will help rid the world of the terrible disease that took Simon Johnstone's life so quickly and early.

There are certain subjects that Thais are extremely sensitive about but they don't seem to realise that foreigners might also be sensitive about certain subjects as well.

I never seem to have my camera at the right time but I have seen Thai motorcyclists on more than one occasion wearing WW2 style German army helmets with a swastika on one side and SS flashes on the other.

Unbelievable. This would be a criminal offence in some countries; it would cause riots in others; but in Thailand no one raises an eyebrow. Here's another one:

Thailand covers Hitler billboard

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Sunday 18th October 2009

Which countries do the majority of Thailand's tourists come from?

Your view will probably depend on which parts of Thailand you are familiar with. In Phuket, Pattaya, and the like, you might think they come from the UK, Germany, and other European and Scandinavian countries. If you did, you would be wrong.

In the deep south you will be aware of just how many Malaysians continually cross the border for short visits. In fact, the biggest percentage of tourists to Thailand each year come from Malaysia.

Malaysian tourists tend to be different to Western tourists in that they visit regularly for short stays - weekends and Malaysian public holidays - instead of once a year for two or three weeks.

Some are of Malay or Indian ethnicity, but the vast majority are Chinese, an ethnic group that makes up 26% of the Malaysian population.

There is a real Malaysian invasion going on right now in southern Thailand, sparked possibly by the opening of the Chinese vegetarian festival yesterday. I went downtown for a massage last night quite late but there were no girls left.

It has been quiet in the south for a long time because of the general economy; ongoing political instability in Thailand; and a Muslim insurgency in the south. Judging by the crowds of people and the amount of business being done last night, however, it was like a return to the old days.

After Malaysia, the second, third and fourth on the list are also Asian countries: Japan, Korea, and China respectively. And then comes the UK in fifth place.

Figures for 2007 from the Office of Tourism Development.

My first visit to Thailand in 1987 coincided with a major Thai tourism promotional campaign 'Visit Thailand Year' and tourist figures for that year were 3.48 million.

Looking back, that figure seems high because there were very few farang tourists then but I suspect a large percentage were from Malaysia and other countries.

While Googling for facts and figures, I came across this from The Guardian: "(In 2002) The sex industry was (now) worth $27 million per year, approximately 14 per cent of the gross national income."

And another quote from Thailand's Tourism Industry: "There's no other place in the world that the tourist industry has been more directly linked to sex than in Thailand."

I don't believe the average Thai is very proud of this but, as I think I said recently, money always comes first in Thailand and everything else comes a distant second.

I'm not an economist. In fact, I can't think of any subject more difficult to understand than economics. I'm quite a logical person and what happens in the real economy seems to defy logic and common sense most of the time.

However, here are just a few casual observations about Thailand with no figures or statistics to back them up.

Thailand has a big dependency on tourism, and tourism has suffered because of the global economic crisis. The tourists are still arriving but - as I was told in Chiang Mai last week - spending a lot less.

When the crisis got really bad last year and the whole financial system was on the brink of collapse, I was panicking but Thais didn't seem at all concerned. I guess that most Thais don't have the same exposure to world stock markets that I do.

Throughout the crisis I read lots of stories about how it had affected the lives of people in Western countries but from my observations Thais carried on life the same way as they had always done.

The shops and supermarkets are always packed here with lots being bought. Last week the skin clinic I attended was packed and I had to wait four days to get a dentist appointment. Thais who aren't from the poorest sector of society don't seem to be skimping on health.

Wages are very low for most people. One girl I know earns almost Bt20,000 but that is exceptionally high for this part of Thailand. The junior teachers at my school earn around Bt8,000 a month and at the last place I worked - government work - most employees didn't earn much more.

Every Thai I know has a vehicle, and lots more nowadays have cars instead of motorbikes.

Vehicle show rooms don't seem to expect people to buy cars and motorbikes as outright purchases. With every new (and used) vehicle comes lots of credit details.

Indeed, all the Thais I know with vehicles are making monthly repayments. Cars are displayed at the local supermarket along with finance plans and recently I saw details of an 84 month finance plan for a new pickup truck.

It's not just cars. I bought a TV and DVD player recently and all consumer electronics come with lots of details about credit. More Thais are getting bank credit cards and independent non-banking credit companies such as Aeon and Easy Buy have large offices and seem to be doing a huge amount of business.

These companies advertise aggressively and cleverly target Thai weaknesses. The message from their advertising is that consumerism - especially vehicle ownership - brings great happiness, and that the path to finding that happiness is through taking out expensive loans.

The poorer sector of society live day-to-day and have no money behind them at all. One massage girl I've known for a long time called me last week almost in tears to ask for Bt1,000 to pay her rent. In the past she has come to me for money whenever she is ill or has problems with her teeth because she has no money for doctors or dentists.

I called another massage girl last week to see if she was available. She told me she was ill but couldn't afford to see the doctor so could she have Bt1,000. Other girls I have known in the past haven't been shy about asking for money when they are presented with an unexpected expense because they don't have any money to fall back on.

Thai friends have confirmed that most people here buy things on credit. I don't know what the average household consumer debt figure is in Thailand now but it must be pretty high, especially when compared to income.

I believe that one financial policy advocates encouraging domestic consumer spending as a fiscal stimulus (Keynesian?). This might work if people spend their money instead of saving it, but if they need to borrow in order to spend, does this still work?

The financial problems in Western countries were caused, among other things, by a massive debt bubble that eventually burst because debts had to be repaid. This is what appears to be happening in Thailand now but no one seems too concerned.

The Baht remains strong against other countries but I believe this is as a result of action taken by the central bank and not necessarily as an indicator of the state of the economy.

Thailand produces a lot of food, which is good for the economy because no matter how bad things get we all still need to eat. Lots of trade is done with China and we know China is emerging as the next superpower.

There's another industry that Thailand earns a lot of money from that isn't affected much by the economy.

I really don't know, but while living in Thailand and keeping a very close eye on Western economies at the same time, what I have witnessed in Thailand bears no relation to the financial disasters I have observed elsewhere.

Fifty years ago, twenty years ago even, that situation may have been perfectly normal but in this age of globalisation, very few countries can isolate themselves from the rest of the world (Burma, North Korea, maybe).

Economics confuses me, and Thailand's economy confuses me even more. Is this normal, or is Thailand storing up problems by allowing (actually encouraging) such big levels of consumer debt?

It was around this time of year 22 years ago that I first visited Thailand. I didn't know anything about the country back then but I remember that I had some firm ideas in my head about what I wanted to do and buy in Thailand.

The fake Rolex watch I came back with continued to work for about four months before it bit the dust. The hand-made shirts I had made didn't fit properly, they didn't look good, and they ended up being used to clean the windows in my flat.

These things are cliches, and much of my itinerary on that first trip was also a cliche.

In the last few months I was at work before I quit my job, packed my bags (and my life) to head off for Thailand I was talking to a young programmer. His eyes lit up when I mentioned Thailand and he then spewed out cliche after cliche straight from the Lonely Planet Thailand guide.

All the places he knew were on the standard backpacker trail, starting off on Bangkok's Khaosan Road, heading to various islands in the south and including trips north to Chiang Mai and Pai.

What I found even more distressing was that in addition to knowing exactly where he would go in Thailand, he also knew exactly what he would wear.

The uniform for his backpacking adventures revolved around baggy Chinese fisherman pants, of course, along with indigo-dyed cotton farmers shirts, rubber flip-flops and a bandana, etc. It was all a bit sad.

On my first visit to Chiang Mai in 2001 I went on a standard one day tour that involved riding on rafts and elephants, watching an elephant show, and visiting hill tribe villages, etc.

Even then it was obvious that the hill tribe villages were simply a tourist trap. As we went around, the villagers came out with tourist souvenirs to sell us.

On my recent trip to Chiang Mai I picked up a flyer from a travel service offering various tours and it was all the same old stuff. The river rafting and elephant shows were still there where you could watch elephants play football and do other degrading tasks.

The hill tribe people are referred to by physical characteristics so on one trip visitors are taken to a long-neck village before heading off to see long-ear people. The villagers must get a kick out of seeing all the ฝรั่งสมองเล็ก passing through.

I also saw a lot of backpackers in Chiang Mai and they are still wearing the same tired old clothing cliches they were wearing 20 years ago. In addition, the number of Indian tailor shops in Chiang Mai tells me the old cliche of having to get clothes made-to-measure if visiting Southeast Asia is still going strong.

I also noticed places offering one, two or three day Thai cooking classes in Chiang Mai. Doing Thai cookery classes, massage courses, or Muay Thai are yet more cliches.

Thais know exactly how farang minds work and they are happy to provide what is required because it brings in money. If farang backpackers want to buy baggy Chinese fisherman pants then that is what they will sell. What colour do you want and how baggy do you want them?

They know where farangs want to go, and they provide transport to and accommodation in those places. To me it just seems a shame that foreign tourists are so obvious and that very few actually attempt to do anything in Thailand that is different to what millions have done before them.

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Blog entries 1st to 8th October 2009

Blog entries 9th to 17th October 2009


Visit Thailand

Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.

One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia. used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.

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.

Images of Thailand

Images of Thailand