Living In Thailand Blog
Thursday 30th October 2014
There are many things I dislike about Thailand, but the thing I hate most about the country is the way that Thais drive. In the first couple of months of living in Thailand I saw more road accidents than I had seen in England during my entire lifetime. Thailand has one of the highest road accident fatality rates in the world.
Most accidents involve motorbikes and although injuries are light most of the time, I have seen some very serious injuries and also a few fatalities. When you pass an accident scene in Thailand and there is a white sheet covering someone on the road, you know that it isn't good.
I drive as little as I possibly can and I try to find back roads to avoid the maniacs that drive at breakneck speed. Even so, I see accidents most days. This may seem surprising, but what surprises me most is that there aren't actually more accidents considering the appalling driving standards.
The first photo above shows a typical rear-end shunt. This is a very common type of road accident in Thailand due to the fact that Thais drive too fast and don't leave a sufficient braking distance betweem themselves and the car in front. It also doesn't help that many Thais use mobile phones while driving and don't concentrate. This was outlawed some years ago, but whether there is a law or not makes little difference.
There are many reasons for the bad driving, some of them cultural, such as fear of losing face. Many Thais seem to approach driving as if it is a race against everyone else on the road and they have to be first, otherwise they will lose face. Whenever and wherever I drive there are always Thais trying to overtake me - often in the most stupid and dangerous places for overtaking.
There is no concept of giving way or having right of way. Everyone drives as if they always have right of way and no one ever gives way to anyone else - not even an inch. In fact, it's quite the opposite, with everyone doing their best to block other vehicles.
Right of way is determined by whoever has the largest vehicle and whoever drives more aggressively. This is why you meet so many aggressive drivers in huge, oversized pickup trucks. Traffic laws are broken routinely, the police provide no protection from reckless drivers, and at times it is quite frightening. If you say anything to dangerous drivers, threats of violence - or even death threats - are the normal response.
When people drive like this it is inevitable that there will be lots of accidents - and there are. If the way Thais drive is an indication of how they carry on in other aspects of their lives it doesn't bode at all well for the country.
Another annoying aspect of road accidents in Thailand is that vehicles involved in accidents can't be moved until the police arrive and spray paint marks on the road to show the position of the vehicles. This is for insurance purposes. The accident in the second photo caused a huge traffic jam this morning as it reduced a very busy road to one lane and increased my journey time by about 30 minutes.
There was some horrendous footage on Thai TV yesterday of a pickup truck crossing a level crossing when it was hit by a fast-moving train. Apparently, the guy stopped on the tracks because he was lost and wanted to check his GPS. He will therefore be nominated for this year's Darwin Awards. This kind of thing happens a lot in Thailand.
Wednesday 29th October 2014
I was verbally attacked by a mad woman yesterday. The school my daughter attends is the school where I used to work and there is a temple next door. I have visited many times and I popped in yesterday. There is a lot of building work going on and I was interested to see how it was progressing.
Thai temples are like menageries and some are even like miniature zoos. Thais consider the sterilisation of animals to be a sin, but don't want to take care of animals themselves. Cats and dogs are left to breed unchecked and then dumped at the nearest temple where, if they are unlucky, the monks will feed them. If they are unlucky, kittens get killed by aggressive temple dogs.
It's such a shame because some of the cats and dogs are great looking, have great personalities, and would make great pets. All they want is someone to take care of them properly.
Abandoned pups at a Thai temple
I noticed a woman sitting at a table and there were some cats under the table, which I attempted to make friends with because I am fond of cats. The woman just stared at me with insane eyes. At that point, had I just walked away it would probably have been OK, but I was foolish enough to smile and say hello.
As I did so the demons in her head arose with a mighty furore and she went crazy. At one point I thought she might attack me physically - and she probably had the strength of several men - but she didn't. I then decided it was probably best to leave.
A guy working on the temple heard the commotion and touched his right temple with an index figure. This seems to be the universally acclaimed sign that someone is insane. He also mouthed the word, "Baa" (crazy). He told me that she goes to the temple every day and just sits there staring. Some days she is OK, but other days not. Unfortunately, I met her on a bad day.
Various reports I have read in the past indicate that quite a high percentage of Thais have mental health problems. Most aren't in instutions, but walking around, and if you are unfortunate enough you will meet them occasionally. However, it's not just Thais.
Shortly after I arrived in Thailand in 2003 I experienced a similar incident involving a farang. All I did was walk past him in the street without even exchanging any eye contact. Suddenly, I heard the most offensive tirade of foul language that you would ever wish to hear - all in English.
At first I didn't know who it was directed at, but then I realised it was directed at me. This guy had similar wild eyes and obviously he was several sandwiches short of a picnic. I walked on hurriedly, making sure that I didn't look back at him.
Thai temples are strange places. They can be very peaceful and relaxing, but they also tend to attract those with problems and also some monks can be quite surly, abrupt and arrogant. When I go to temples I don't generally talk to people, but seek out animals instead. They are a bit more predictable.
The worker was a nice guy and invited me into the new building, which is still under construction, to see what had been done. I told him I would go later.
He was also telling me about theft problems at the temple. Some monks' robes had been laundered and were hanging out to dry and he told me that these often get stolen. He also told me how donation boxes could only be left in certain places and had to be screwed to the floor.
In any religion theft is a major sin, but for Thais (95% of whom are Buddhist) to steal from temples is a major sin. However, this doesn't stop them.
He told me that the main problem is with drug addicts. People addicted to yaa-baa (the crazy drug) will stop at nothing to get money for their next fix - even if it is money that was donated to a temple.
Tuesday 28th October 2014
Whenever I attend a school meeting, as I did on Saturday, 5% of the time concerns practical information and 95% of the time is spent moralising on how to bring up children who will eventually become good Thai citizens. A lot of school time is spent this way. I've not heard it stated explicitly, but the teaching of ethics in Thailand seems to be based on Confucianism.
Just recently, there has been a lot of talk about the 12 core Thai values (Greed: Calls for return to Thai values) and quite soon all Thai school children will be required to cite these values. What are they?
- Upholding of the three main pillars: the Nation, the Religion, and the Monarchy
- Honesty, sacrifice, and patience with positive attitude for the interest of the public
- Filial piety towards parents, guardians and teachers
- Seeking of direct and indirect knowledge and education
- Preservation of Thai traditions and cultures
- Morality, integrity, considerateness, generosity, and sharing
- Understanding and learning of true democratic ideals with His Majesty the King as Head of State
- Maintaining of discipline, respectfulness of laws and the elderly
- Being conscious and mindful of action in line with His Majesty's the King's royal statements
- Applying His Majesty the King's Sufficiency Economy, saving money for time of need, being moderate with surplus for sharing or expansion of business while having good immunity
- Keeping physical and mental strength, unyielding to the evil power or desires, having sense of shame over guilt and sins in accordance with the religious principles
- Putting the public and national interest before one's own
I would question a few of these, number 8 for example, but anyway.
Law enforcement is very weak in Thailand and Thais seem extremely reluctant to change anything about the country. In order for change to take place, it must first be accepted that there is a problem and this seems to be a sticking point.
The view seems to be that the traditional way of the Thais is perfect, as described in the Ramkhamhaeng inscription (the authenticity of which is disputed by some people), and that Thais already have a perfect moral code and set of ethics.
Unfortunately, foreign influences have corrupted the Thai way of life, but all that Thailand needs to do is to inculcate these Thai values into the young generation and Thai society will once again be perfect.
There is nothing wrong instilling children with good moral conduct, but in any society there will be lots of people who have no moral compass. This is where the law needs to come down hard on people, but in Thailand it rarely happens.
My view is that it is all a little idealistic, that Thais aren't being completely honest with themselves, and that this type of education won't change anything or fix any problems in society.
Prayuth has also said a couple of other things recently that I can't see happening. He wants Thais to start using bicycles to get around and he has promised a network of bicycle lanes in the country. The benefits of this are manyfold.
With less vehicle usage the air will improve and at the same time Thais will get more exercise. This will improve health and there will be less demand on the healthcare system.
Prayuth also claims that that with people cycling around saying hello to each other, as opposed to racing around in pickup trucks with black tinted windows, it will engender a community spirit in the country once again.
He is also encouraging small business owners to set up stalls and shops near the bicycle lanes and in this way Thais will buy locally produced food and goods, thus helping the economy.
Again, it all sounds very good but I think it is too idealistic and I also know how most Thais lust after motorbikes, cars and pickup trucks. In a very status conscious society, a car or truck represents the ultimate status symbol.
He has also encouraged Thais to educate themselves about their own country, of which many Thais know very little, and told them to visit museums to learn more. This is something else that I can't see happening, but it brings me on to my next anecdote.
Just before going to Penang I had another strange museum experience in Thailand. The first was in Nakhon Sri Thammarat some years ago.
The national museum in Nakhon is quite large and when I visited it was open, but all the lights inside were switched off. This was because there was no one inside.
As I went in a member of staff followed me around. As I went into different rooms this person switched on the lights for me, and as I left each room the lights were once again extinguished. It was weird.
The museum contained a lot of interesting artefacts and information, such as quite a detailed description of traditional Thai wedding ceremonies and the role of matchmakers, but it was completely empty.
I had long wanted to visit a museum about Hat Yai, but as far as I knew there wasn't one. A few months ago, quite by chance, I found out that there is such a museum in one of the private universities. My busy schedule had prevented me from going, but an opportunity arose just before the Penang trip so I went.
Again, this museum was open but empty. A cleaning lady saw me and told me to wait. After a few minutes another woman appeared, who I assume was the curator. I was expecting her to give me a few basic directions before I looked around by myself. Instead, she started giving me a personal guided tour.
It took well over an hour of her time and as I looked at some exhibits she took photos of me. Her reaction was as if I was the first farang visitor to ever have visited the museum. Maybe I was?
Why did I go? With all aspects of Thailand, whatever I see on the surface is never enough. When I experience strange Thai behaviour I want to understand the cultural reasoning behind the behaviour.
Where big towns have grown up out of nothing I like to know the reasons behind the growth; who was responsible, where did people migrate from, what did they trade in, who did they trade with, etc.
When I have visited other countries in the past and met locals they often explain these things to me and give me some historical context. That has never happened in Thailand. Most Thais don't know and seem to have no interest in knowing.
The Institute for Southern Thai Studies on Yo Island in Songkhla is another interesting place where I have seen very few Thai visitors. Groups of school children get taken there by their schools, but the kids aren't really interested.
In the past I tried to find out why Thais don't go to museums. I was told that museums contains old artefacts and at one time those artefacts had owners. The owners are now dead, but their spirits would still be around and Thais are terrified of ghosts.
It could also be because of Buddhism, which emphasises living in the here and now, which is the only time when we actually experience life. There is no point worrying about what might happen in the future and no point dwelling on the past because it can't be changed.
I can understand this philosophy, but we all need to think about the future (at least a little) and I believe that who we are is a direct result of where we came from. I think that historical perspectives tell us a lot about the present.
Another reason might just be the abysmal education system, in which students are simply taught to memorise and have little genuine interest in what they are taught. If the education system was more interesting they might develop a desire to visit museums so that they could find out more.
Anyway, it just seemed strange that Prayuth was trying to encourage Thais to visit museums when, in my experience, Thais generally seem to have so little interest in visiting museums.
Saturday 25th October 2014
I try to keep this record of my life in Thailand balanced and although it is very easy to highlight the many problems that exist in Thailand, it is only fair that I point out the good aspects as well.
I have written before about the excellent standard of car maintenance I have received in Thailand and today I had yet another first-class experience.
This morning I had to attend a parents' meeting at my daughter's school and then I had a doctor's appointment for my asthma problem. As usual, I was running around all over the place.
I got home and the car had been fine, but when I attempted to start the engine again it wouldn't run. It tried to run, but gave up after a second or two. I wasn't sure what to do and I use the car so much these days that not having it would have been a big problem. Anyway, I called the Ford service centre where I get the car serviced regularly.
Within a couple of hours two technicians, who I recognised, turned up at my house even though we live quite a long way outside town. They diagnosed the problem (a faulty fuel pump) in about two seconds flat and happened to have one in their truck.
The unit they had wasn't new, but it didn't have a problem. Another owner had changed his fuel pump just in case it failed and the technicians had kept the old one. They put in in my car and sure enough it fixed the problem. Their diagnosis had been spot on.
The call out charge, diagnosis and repair was Bt500 (about 15 bucks US). I felt almost embarrassed and gave each technician a Bt200 tip. As well as being very competent in their work, they are nice guys too.
I will go to the service centre on Monday to order a new pump and make arrangements to get it fitted, but this used one without any problems will get me back on the road again.
I intend writing a letter to the Ford dealership thanking them for their continued excellent service. Every time I report a problem, I find the diagnosis to be accurate and the quality of workmanship to be excellent.
I have also become quite fond of my old Escape. My father had something against Fords and his prejudice influenced me when I was younger. This is my first Ford and it has been great. It's also fun to drive.
It has never let me down and even when it has played up it has kept going until I could get to a service centre. The fuel pump could have failed anywhere at any time (and given me a big problem), but it was almost if the car allowed me to get home before the fuel pump finally died. Spooky. Could my car be Herbie's cousin?
I like these kind of days in Thailand. It also makes me feel good to have good things to say about Thailand. I don't want to be negative all the time, but unfortunately I seem to go through long periods in Thailand when there isn't much good to say about the country.
Thailand is my adopted home and my wife and kids are Thai. I don't really care about myself, but I want the country to improve and to fulfil its potential for them.
And talking of good days: West Ham 2 Man City 1. What's going on? This isn't what Hammers fans are used to. Where are my vertigo tablets?
Friday 24th October 2014
So-called medical tourism is a rapidly growing sector of the economy in Thailand and there are many private hospitals and clinics eager to treat foreign patients.
The experience can be very good and foreigners can save a significant amount of money. My own personal experiences with Thai doctors and dentists have been very positive over the years and I do not hesitate in recommending Thai health professionals.
I have said before that in the case of certain scheduled medical procedures or dental work you can get the work done in Thailand very professionally and the money you save will pay for a free vacation. Being taken care of by Thai nurses is also a pleasant experience, generally.
However, there are some risks. Big risks.
Physical beauty is an obsession in Thailand, as it is in certain other Asian countries. I didn't realise until a few years ago how many Malaysians and Singaporeans come to Hat Yai to have cosmetic surgery procedures. Cosmetic surgery is cheaper in Thailand and it is a big draw for many people from other countries.
Thais themselves are also keen on nips and tucks, especially young females who rely on their good looks to earn a living. These girls are known as 'pretties' and are employed to sell and promote all kinds of things, such as the motorbikes in the photo above. A couple of years ago a young 'pretty' died during a visit to the plastic surgery clinic.
The same thing has just happened to a young British woman after a trip to a cosmetic surgery clinic in Thailand.
A friend of mine in Singapore had his eyebags removed by surgery in Hat Yai a few months ago. The procedure cost Bt12,000 (a lot cheaper compared to Singapore) and he was very pleased. He said that every morning before the surgery he got quite depressed when he looked in the mirror and saw big bags under his eyes. Now, he is happy.
The surgeon he saw is a very busy man with a six-month waiting list, but he gets lots of very positive reports (Dr Nara Clinic).
With life threatening problems surgery isn't an option. With elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery, I would only do it personally if the problem was causing me to have severe emotional or psychological issues. From what I have heard about South Korea, people there have cosmetic surgery like other people have haircuts. This seems wrong to me.
Secondly, if you really want to go through with cosmetic surgery it is vital to do some research first and this is so easy to do these days with the Internet. Never do it on the spur of the moment. A spur of the moment decision to have a tattoo means that you will have the tattoo for the rest of your life. With cosmetic surgery the consequences could be a lot worse.
There are aspects of my own appearance that I have never liked, but even though I live in a place now where cosmetic surgery is cheap and convenient I have no desire to go under the surgeon's knife.
It's a very personal decision and in certain cases I can fully understand why people want to change something about their appearance, but elective surgery should never be undertaken lightly.
The low cost of cosmetic surgery procedures in Thailand may be extremely tempting, but give it lots of thought first and do your research. There are good doctors in Thailand, and there are bad ones. Thailand has laws and regulations, just like everywhere else, but an unfortunate aspect of the country is that the enforcement of laws and regulations is very weak.
Some more road carnage. At least the idiot responsibe this time will serve some time where he belongs:
When my house was being built I used to visit often to check up on progress. On one occasion I noticed a foul smell in the air. I mentioned it to the sales staff who, of course, had never noticed it before. They would never notice anything that might jeopardise a sale.
Since living here the smell has become more frequent. At first I thought it was muckspreading on a local farm but after discussing the issue with neighbours the smell appears to be coming from a garbage dump somewhere.
There is another new housing development closer to the source of the smell and one neighbour told me that many people had put down deposits on houses but had then withdrawn from the sale because of the stench.
The disposal of garbage in Thailand seems to be quite a problem and earlier this year there some big fires at a garbage dump in Samut Prakan.
I have just read that my province has the second biggest amount of garbage in the country after Samut Prakan. That isn't something to be very proud of, but it would explain the problem. Khon Kaen holds the title in Isaan.
It isn't there all the time, but under certain climatic conditions with the wind blowing in the wrong way the stench is quite unpleasant.
Thursday 23rd October 2014
Today is Chulalongkorn Day in Thailand, a public holiday. It commemorates King Rama V, who passed away on this day in 1910. Many reforms were made in Thailand during the fifth reign, including the abolition of slavery and corvee labour.
There are many memorials to King Rama V all over Thailand and every year ceremonies are held on 23rd October to pay respect to him. His image can be seen everywhere in Thailand and many Thais have a photo of the King inside their houses.
The King travelled to the States, Russia, Western Europe, and to other parts of Asia, including Singapore. He remains a much loved and highly revered figure in Thailand.
Wednesday 22nd October 2014
I abhor the widespread practice of dual pricing in Thailand (one price for Thais and another for non-Thais), but it also occurs in Malaysia. I have known this for a long time so it wasn't a surprise in Penang, however, I find it very disappointing that this kind of thing still goes on.
It's especially disappointing in a country that is striving to be a fully developed country by 2020, as laid out in the Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) programme.
As you can see from the sign, the prices differences are not small. They are significant. Seven Malaysian pensioners can take a ride up the hill for less than the price of one ticket for a foreign pensioner.
MyKad, as shown on the sign, is the Malaysian National Identity Card. Interestingly, Malaysia also allows foreign retirees who have a 'Malaysia My 2nd Home' (MM2H) visa to pay the local price. This doesn't happen in Thailand. I hold a Thai retirement visa but, nonetheless, I am still expected to pay the farang price.
It's basically racial discrimination and this is not something that developed countries participate in. If such a policy was to be implemented in a developed country there would be a huge uproar. In this region, with the notable exception of Singapore, it is seen as being perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable.
In some ways it is better in Malaysia, and in some ways it is worse. The fact that Malaysia uses an English writing system means that it is fairly transparent. Thais hide what is happening from the 99.999% of foreigners who can't read Thai by writing in Thai and using Thai numerals.
On the other hand, there is even discrimination among Malaysian nationals based on their ethnicity as a result of pro-bumiputra policies. Under these policies ethnic Malays in Malaysia are afforded certain advantages over other Malaysians whose ethnicity is not Malay.
On our visit to Penang Hill our Thai friends saw what was going on and didn't like it. I found this somewhat hypocritical, not they they personally have anything to do with dual pricing. This is something that only affects Thais when they go to Malaysia. They probably don't realise that as a farang living in Thailand, this is something that affects me all the time.
Quite often I am able to get the Thai price by speaking in Thai, explaining my situation, and showing my Thai driving licence. If I can't get the Thai price my policy is to walk away.
However, there are times when I can't walk away. One of the highlights of our trip to Penang was going up Penang Hill; my wife was really looking forward to it. How could I tell her we wouldn't be going because I refuse to pay the foreigner price?
Foreign visitors to Thailand probably think along the same lines and also - as I pointed out - the practice is hidden from most tourists by use of the Thai langauge and numbering system. On the other hand, it seems that some foreigners (like myself) are taking a stand.
Tuesday 21st October 2014
What is better - a 10% discount or a 50% discount?
My wife wanted to buy a watch in Penang. Thais are obsessed with all things South Korean, including Korean boy and girl bands. Casio have done a deal with Girls' Generation to promote Baby G watches and now all Thai females want a Baby G watch. We looked around and she got the watch she wanted for 400 Ringgits (Bt4,000). This included a 10% discount.
The Baht to Ringgit exchange rate stays about the same with little fluctuation and it is almost exactly 10. Obviously, this makes conversions quite difficult and my wife (who holds a Thai Bachelor's degree and teaching degree) was forever asking me how much things cost in Baht.
A Thai guy showed us a really neat little trick using a calculator. If you key in the Malaysian price and then press zero the calculator does the conversion automatically without you having to tell it what you want. Amazing.
Yesterday, we went food shopping and passed a watch shop. My wife, naturally, was interested to see if they had her watch and how much it cost. The price was Bt14,000 with a 50% discount, thus Bt7,000. What a joke.
This is something I have been saying for years. Most of the so-called discounts in Thailand are an utter fabrication. If you know what you are looking for and know what the price should be it is possible to find deals in Thailand, but the claimed discounts in most places aren't a discount at all.
Even with this claimed 50% discount the price was still significantly more expensive in Thailand. I've come across foreigners who seem to think that everything is cheap in Thailand and that is absolutely not the case. Be very careful when shopping in Thailand and research prices first.
When my wife prefixes something with, "Don't get angry if I tell you," it normally isn't good. She told me something today because she was too afraid to tell me yesterday.
When we went swimming yesterday my daughter got changed in the room and I went off to get changed in the changing room. While I was gone our friend took her into the pool, up the slide, and let her go down the slide alone. The poor kid, who is only three and can't yet swim, went under the water and almost drowned. I couldn't believe it.
When talking about Thailand I use the words 'stupid' and 'stupidity' a lot. This is because I can't think of any other suitable words to describe Thai behaviour. What was she thinking?
Last week a young Thai child was disfigured for life by a large pan of boiling oil. The child's parents make a living frying food and the child pulled over the pan.
When I am frying chips at home I am well aware of the danger and never let the children come near. If you are doing a job that involves boiling oil, why is there a young child running around? It doesn't make any sense to me.
Last year or earlier this year a young child was killed by a faulty gate at the school she attended. The school knew about the gate, but didn't do anything until a child was killed. This kind of thing happens so often in Thailand.
So many incidents that cause death and injury in Thailand are caused by utter stupidity. When you see how Thais drive and observe other aspects of their behaviour you can see that the risk of injury or death is high. Why, then don't they change their ways.
Regardless of how many years I live in Thailand, there are many aspects of Thai behaviour that I will never be able to understand. The good news is that my daughter is still here, but this incident has taught me yet another lessons about how Thais behave.
Monday 20th October 2014
I arrived back from Penang in Malaysia last night and my daughter started the new term at school today. Life is busy again, but I wanted to record my impressions of Malaysia while they are still fresh in my mind.
I have visited Malaysia several times in the past and have never been that impressed. However, everything in life is relative and impressions of other places depend very much on what you are used to and where you come from. Before this trip I hadn't been outside of Thailand for four and a half years.
I would never advise anyone to stay in Thailand for this length of time, but my personal circumstances - with the arrival of two children - have made travel quite difficult in recent years.
It was a very different kind of trip to that I am used to, for reasons I will explain, but my overall impressions of Malaysia were very positive. The country just seemed so much more civilised than Thailand.
The first potential problem was with Thai immigration. The guy was desperately searching for my entry stamp, which I acquired in 2010, but it is in my old passport. Eventually I got an exit stamp and was allowed to leave Thailand.
The next pleasant surprise was that Malaysian immigration no longer requires visitors to fill out a form. This makes life a lot easier getting into Malaysia. We were soon on the road to Penang.
Upon entering Malaysia it just looks so much better than Thailand. The Thai road down to the border is ugly and there is the usual problem with maniac drivers and motorbikes everywhere. The buildings desperately need a coat of paint and rubbish needs to be collected.
The roads in Malaysia are well constructed with properly maintained verges and central reservations, and clearly painted road markings. I saw a crew of workers doing some maintenance on the barrier in the central reservation. It's remarkable how good roads can look when all the money allotted to building and maintaining roads actually goes into building and maintaining roads instead of 20% being siphoned off into back pockets.
Malaysian drivers also drive far better than Thais. This probably sounds like a backhanded compliment because if you taught a monkey to operate pedals and turn a steering wheel the monkey would drive far better than most Thais, but all the same it was good to see drivers obeying laws and using their brains.
I saw no undertaking, no weaving in and out of lanes, no usage of wrong lanes and aggressively pushing in because drivers didn't want to wait in the correct lanes, and most of all, there was no stupidity. Stupidity is the biggest cause of road accidents in Thailand.
There was also another factor why Malaysia looked so much better, but at first I couldn't work out why. After a while, it struck me.
There are no overhead electricity cables in Malaysia. This is why everywhere looked so clean and open. The crazy thing in Thailand is that there have been some big projects in some places to bury cables, but in other places they are still erecting new poles.
The houses in my development look really nice, but the view from my study is of nasty electricity cables. Developed countries stopped doing this many years ago, but Thais have no intention of stopping the practice.
The idea of hiring a minivan worked out really well. In Thailand the driver drove like a typical Thai, but his driving standards improved once we were in Malaysia. He was a very laid back guy and nothing was too much trouble. He picked as up and dropped us off wherever we wanted to go at whatever time. This made travelling with two young kids so much easier.
He drives down to Malaysia all the time and knows the country well. This was an added bonus because he knew where everything was and could make suggestions. My wife packed an enormous amount of clothes and gear for the children, but it was no problem at all with a large van carrying four adults and three young children.
Had we gone along with the original plan and flown to Singapore it would have been a lot more hassle. Flying these days is no fun with the luggage restrictions and security checks, especially if you are travelling with kids.
The people we went with are neighbours who have a baby two months older than our baby. We are friendly with them, but had never travelled with them before. I soon found out on this trip that they are seriously addicted shopaholics, who are very much into clothes and fashion.
Instead of going to the hotel first, our first stop was a shopping mall and I was dragged around the kind of shops that normally I would never consider going into, even in my wildest dreams. This took about three hours. We then checked in at the hotel and I was delighted to hear that this would be followed by another trip to the mall.
When my wife asked me whether I wanted to go shopping again I suspected that there was a catch. And, of course, there was. The not going shopping option meant looking after the baby in the hotel while she went shopping.
This didn't seem too bad. He was sleeping at the time, I had an iPad and Internet connection, and it would give me a chance to catch up with the news. Unfortunately, he woke up after five minutes and started wailing. The only way I could keep him quiet was by pushing him around in his buggy, and I did this for the next three hours.
To me, a trip to Penang has always meant exploring the island and especially all the old shophouses and colonial architecture that still remains fairly intact. Shopping and babysitting are not exactly my favourite leisure pursuits, but life has changed.
One thing that did become very obvious in Penang was that I could actually push around a baby buggy. This is impossible in Thailand. The Penang sidewalks were well maintained and uncluttered by all the street vendors that you see in Thailand.
At one point I wanted to cross the road, which was busy, and spotted a pelican crossing. I pushed the button, the lights changed to red, and the cars actually stopped so that I could cross safely. They actually bloody stopped. This would never happen in Thailand. Since moving to Thailand 11 years ago I can count the number of times cars have stopped to let me cross the road on the fingers of one hand and Thai drivers complete ignore pedestrian crossings.
There was also zero double parking, in fact, wherever parking was banned there were no parked cars. Again, this was in stark contrast to Thailand. Two cars had parked illegally and I saw them being towed away. The laws in Malaysia are actually enforced, which is something I had almost forgotten about.
Something else really pleasant also happened earlier today. After the first shopping trip we ate lunch and on arrival at the hotel our friend discovered that he had left his wallet at the food court where we ate.
If this happened in Thailand you know that you wouldn't see the wallet again. Returning lost possessions is so rare in Thailand that whenever a Bangkok taxi driver returns something that was left in his cab by a passenger it makes the national news.
They were resigned to losing the money, but I suggested going back to the food court to see if anyone had handed it in. Someone had. The wallet and all the money inside was intact thank you to the honesty of the Malaysian person who found it. This reinforced my view of how much more civilised and developed Malaysia seemed compared to Thailand.
Day two didn't start off very well. On the way to breakfast I was carrying my daughter and she decided to throw up over herself and me. I don't know why. I changed to my only clean shirt and subsequently had to wear a dirty shirt for the journey home.
After breakfast we went to the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples (the Burmese temple is very attractive) and then took a trip up Penang Hill. The funicular railway going up the hill is quite an impressive piece of engineering, but it was packed. At the top the skies opened and there was a huge tropical downpour. This kept us in the restaurant area instead of being able to walk around.
When the rain stopped we returned. It was quite disappointing and I didn't see the monkeys and snakes that I had seen on previous visits. There used to be a restaurant and above the tables were vines. If you looked very closely there were lots of green snakes the same colour as the vines. I don't know if they are still there, but I didn't seem them on this trip.
You can probably guess what happened next. More shopping. One of my objectives on this trip was to buy a camera lens that isn't sold in Thailand, and I thought that I would be able to pick one up quite easily at one of the shopping malls we visited. This wasn't the case. However, on the way home I saw what looked like a professional Canon EOS shop and asked the driver to stop. I managed to get the lens, which meant that this wasn't an entirely wasted trip.
On Sunday morning there were certain things that I didn't want to do. I had absolutely no desire to go shopping and absolutely no desire to go swimming. However, my instructions were to take the kids swimming. This is what happens as a result of marriage.
The skies were still grey and my daughter was shivering because she was so cold. In all the times I have taken her swimming in Thailand she has never shivered.
In addition to the camera lens, my other objective was to enjoy an Indian meal or two. My wife knew this and after swimming we went to the Penang Road area to eat. We couldn't find a suitable Indian restaurant, but ended up in a place called The Ship where there were steaks and Western food on the menu. It was disappointing not to eat Indian food, but this place was quite good.
This was my wife's first trip outside of Thailand and I was interested to see what her perceptions of Malaysia were. She made a strange comment while we were having lunch. She remarked that looks aren't important in Malaysia. The wait staff were efficient and friendly, but some were quite old and they weren't that attractive.
I didn't think anything of this, but in her eyes it was strange. The restaurant had a pleasant ambience and such a place in Thailand would be staffed with young, attractive females. I have mentioned several times previously about the important of image over substance in Thailand.
Private hospitals and other businesses in Thailand employ attractive young females whose function it is to greet customers and look attractive. It doesn't matter how bright they are or whether they know the business, as long as they are attractive.
My previous impression of Penang was that it was quite dirty. This was because previously I had stayed around the Penang Road area where it is quite grubby. On this occasion we stayed at a hotel on Gurney Drive and it was a lot cleaner and more upmarket.
I like the Penang Road area because it is interesting and has a lot of old buildings, but when you see signs telling people not to piss here you know that it isn't the most salubrious of areas.
Meanwhile, our travel companions had gone shopping yet again for another fix of retail therapy and we had to find things to do until they were finished. We ended up in quite a nice chocolate shop neat the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, where I was able to buy a gift for another neighbour who was feeding the cats.
The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion was another place that I was unable to visit on this trip. I've been to Penang before and it is a fascinating place. I was hoping to visit places like this again, but I wasn't aware how addicted to shopping our travel companions were.
Crossing back into Thailand from Malaysia was also quite noticeable. In Malaysia there weren't many pickup trucks or motorbikes. When I did see motorbikes they carried a maximum of two people, drove on the correct side of the road, and all riders and passengers wore safety helmets.
Thailand is full of pickup trucks and motorbikes. Bikes often travel on the wrong side of the road, they carry as many as six people, and so few people wear helmets it appears that wearing a helmet is optional in Thailand. It isn't, but lots of people ignore the law and law enforcement is very weak.
Also noticeable were the dirty buildings, bad roads, rubbish strewn everywhere and those famous Thai overhead electricity cables.
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.
Booking.com 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 Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com 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