Living In Thailand Blog
Saturday 31st October 2015
Since coming to power, Prime Minister Prayut has addressed the nation on TV every Friday evening in a programme titled 'Returning Happiness to the Thai People'. I imagined he would stop after a while, but he continues to give updates. At first I made a point of watching it every week, but now I only watch it occasionally.
People sometimes complain about a lack of transparency with government, but I don't think there is another country in the world in which the leader of the country explains what he is doing each week. Thailand has many social, political and economic problems. He takes a subject and explains what has been done, what is being done, or what is going to be done.
As readers of this blog know, my biggest gripe in Thailand is with dangerous driving standards and an almost complete lack of law enforcement on the roads. It's a lethal combination.
Ever since Prayut started his national addresses I have been waiting to hear him say that he will start looking at this important issue, however, there has been nothing so far. When I spoke to a senior soldier recently about the changes taking place in Thailand I asked him if anything was being done about Thailand's dangerous roads. He told me that there was currently no focus.
Both children have colds at the moment and I was helping my wife administer medicine last night. She had the TV turned on and I started watching Prayut's address, which also has English subtitles.
Finally, he addressed the problem of the high fatality rate on Thailand's roads. This may have been in response to the United Nations' recent global status report on road safety for 2015 in which Thailand was named as the second most dangerous country in the world for road safety after Libya.
I have often found that Thailand will only do something about an internal problem if the problem is widely reported by other countries. The fact that the country has a serious problem which results in the death of thousands of people each year doesn't seem to be the motivating factor to fix the problem. Thais are far more concerned about anything that may damage the country's image to the outside world.
Regardless of why Thailand has now suddenly decided to try to fix this problem, which has been around for a very long time, at least the issue now has some focus.
I will be interested to see what steps are taken. Whatever changes are made, the changes will first be implemented in Bangkok and the central region. My main concern is that it will take a long time for the changes to filter out into the provinces, or maybe not at all.
I live near a main road that often resembles the Mulsanne Straight. There are frequent accidents and because of the insane speeds at which many Thais drive the accidents are often serious. An obvious step would be to install some speed cameras and to get some traffic police to monitor the driving standards.
There are currently no speed cameras and I have never seen traffic police monitoring how people drive. People can drive as fast as they wish. The fast drivers continually weave in and out of traffic using both lanes, the emergency lane, and the oncoming lanes. There is also very little regard for red traffic lights.
There are many potential dangers in Thailand, but there is only one thing that genuinely frightens me and that is driving on Thailand's roads.
Yet another wrecked minivan
Friday 30th October 2015
Last Saturday evening it rained heavily for about 40 minutes, and then on Sunday evening for about 30 minutes. There was more rain on Monday and it has rained every day since. The rain hasn't been really heavy and persistent as it was in October 2010 before the big flood, but at least it has started raining. This is good news.
Immediately after the rain came, the haze cleared. It felt so good. As I write now at noon on Friday it is clear and there are no signs of the haze returning.
The term 'Rainy Season' may be offputting for a lot of tourists, who like to visit Thailand in the Western winter to get some sunshine. However, weather-wise it's the best time of year in Thailand.
The rain normally falls heavily for a while and then stops. When it's not actually rain it's sunny, clear, and not too hot. During most of the year I find the weather in Thailand far too hot and humid. My body has acclimatised over the years to the extent that I would now find England very cold, but I still suffer once the mercury hits 35°C.
A first for me today - I had to deal with a snake in the garden. I've seen plenty of snakes in Thailand, but have never interacted with any. I was upstairs when I heard our cleaning girl screaming downstairs, "Ngoo, ngoo, ngoo." She didn't say what type of 'ngoo' it was, but being the only man in the house I knew that I would have to be the one to deal with it.
I felt the adrenaline start to pump and I went downstairs with a fair degree of trepidation. I have seen large cobras in the neighbourhood and heard reports of king cobras. Had it been a cobra I would have called for help as I have absolutely zero experience of dealing with snakes, especially large venomous snakes.
It wasn't a cobra. It was about three feet long, but only about half an inch or so in diameter with a very small head. I don't believe it was venomous and even if it was, its mouth was so tiny it would have had difficulty delivering a bite.
Snakes present me with something of a dilemma. I love animals and it is very important to me that my children grow up loving animals. We have cats in the house and I try to introduce them to as many animals as possible. Over the half-term holiday we visited the zoo and a local petting farm. I also take the kids to feed some stray dogs living nearby.
My daughter feeding a hungry goat
Snakes are animals too, but I don't have the same feelings for them. Yes, they were here first and yes, some have very attractive markings, but they present a potential risk to my family. As I went downstairs today my first thought was to find something heavy with which to beat the crap out of it. However, my wife told me very firmly that there was no need to kill it. Good advice.
A snake catcher stick would have been really useful, but I don't have one. I will see if I can buy one for any future encounters. I used a piece of PVC pipe to lift the snake up and remove it. It climbed the garden wall, went into a tree, and then disappeared.
I normally photograph everything, but photography wasn't the first thing on my mind when I heard the screams from downstairs today, therefore no photos. Sorry. It was quite exciting, but I'd rather not have too much of this particular kind of excitement.
Nowadays I drive myself, but when I was using public transport in Thailand I would do anything to avoid minivans. Many trips in Thai minivans terrified me and minivan passengers die quite regularly. If it was possible I would get on a big bus, however, big buses aren't exactly safe either.
You often find that the type of Thai man that gets a job driving a van or a bus is the type of Thai man who wants to drive as fast as possible all the time. They are also quite stubborn and arrogant regarding their perceived driving ability.
A few years ago some Western tourists were travelling on a big bus. One of the foreigners was very concerned at how fast the bus was travelling and asked the driver to slow down. The Thai driver took umbrage at this request and to 'teach' the stupid farang a lesson he drove even faster.
The bus crashed killing several people.
At Christmas I will be driving to my brother's villa in Phuket to meet up with my family. It's a journey I've done three of four times before and it is never any fun.
There are lots of single lane, windy roads and lots of lunatic Thai drivers who want to overtake all the time. In the past I have looked in my rear view mirror to find a big bus bearing down on me. I have accelerated to keep a safe distance from the bus, but they only go faster.
They can't accelerate or go round corners, but on long stretches of road they can reach speeds in excess of 120kmh, which they do with no regard for the safety of the many passengers on board.
And regardless of how many passengers get killed in such accidents - both Thais and foreigners - nothing ever gets done to reduce the carnage.
The same thing just happened again.
Some years ago I worked with a guy who was a habitual visa overstayer. His attitude was that life was to be enjoyed and that no one - even governments - had the right to impose upon other people by issuing laws about visas and things.
In all my years living in Thailand I have never been stopped at random and asked to show evidence that I have a visa. It is very easy to overstay in Thailand.
When he started working with me his overstay was well over two years. Our employer was very good about it and loaned him the money to pay off his overstay. The fine used to be Bt200 per day up to a maximum of Bt20,000, but then it was increased to Bt500 per day. The maximum fine stayed the same.
He went to the border with his Bt20,000 loan, paid his overstay fine, and came straight back into Thailand. My employer then arranged a proper visa for him, but I subsequently heard that when it expired he went back to overstaying.
It has always been the case that if you get caught in Thailand on an overstay the consequences can be quite serious. However, if you get to the border you only need to pay a relatively small fine and your slate is wiped clean.
Thai immigration are now trying to change the way it works. The newly proposed rules require government approval, but if they come into effect there will be some big changes.
In my ex-colleagues case, he would not be allowed back into Thailand for 10 years for overstaying more than a year. Most foreigners living in Thailand are decent people who keep their noses clean and don't cause any trouble. However, there are also bad people and fugitives on the run from the police in their own countries.
Thailand doesn't want these people and is trying to clean up the country's image. As is always the case, if you follow the rules there is nothing to worry about when new laws come into effect.
Friday 23rd October 2015
The smog in southern Thailand is still really bad. My throat felt awful this morning and I have been sneezing, but it's probably my fault for being stubborn and not wearing a mask.
I left my camera at home yesterday, which is quite unusual. As a result, I was unable to photograph a rather unusual sight right in the middle of the tourist district in downtown Hat Yai.
The local fire brigade were spraying water into the air in an attempt to dissipate the smog. On the ground was a powerful fan sprayer shooting droplets of water into the air and perched on a long set of ladders was a fireman with a hose. I don't know whose idea it was or what they expected to achieve.
With 1.7 million hectares of peatland burning in Indonesia this is a massive problem that is affecting entire countries and entire provinces. You can't fix the problem with a hosepipe, even if it is a big hosepipe.
I took a walk around town this morning while my daughter was having a tutoring class and I don't think I have ever seen the locals looking so miserable.
Many rely on the Malaysian tourist trade and this year hasn't been good. Malaysia is currently the sick man of Asia and the Ringgit is struggling badly. Malaysians accustomed to getting around Bt10 for each of their Ringgits are only getting around Bt8, and since a goods and services tax was introduced earlier in the year they have less disposable income. I saw very few Malaysian tourists today.
Thais are also experiencing lots of change. They have got used to doing what they want to do, but now the government is attempting to enforce laws to bring Thailand in line with other countries. Prices keep rising, but salaries don't and the tourist dollars aren't flowing like before. Life isn't all that rosy.
And now, on top of everything else, comes a thick blanket of choking haze. Not only is it unhealthy, but it makes everything look grey and depressing. No matter how bad things are, blue skies and sunshine always warm the soul, but there are no blue skies or sunshine to be seen at the moment.
Songkhla province, where I live, has been the worst affected part of southern Thailand. Apparently, the haze problem was also bad in 1998, but that was five years before I arrived. This current problem is by far the worst I have ever seen.
Thursday 22nd October 2015
As I said yesterday, the haze in Hat Yai is really bad at the moment. Last week it got better, but when it returned yesterday it was far worse than when it first appeared.
Since moving to Songkhla province in 2003 I can only remember one day when there was haze from Indonesia. It wasn't that bad and it dispersed quickly. I have never experienced anything like this, but nor can I remember the month of October being so dry. A few good thunderstorms would clear the air, but so far this rainy reason there has been no rain.
The following quote is from the Bangkok Post.
"Songkhla was the hardest hit with the particulate matter reading at 267 microgrammes per cubic metre, far above the safety level of 120 and up from 185 at 7am, followed by Satun at 165, Yala at 153 and Pattani at 139."
Anything above 120 microgrammes per cubic metre is considered unsafe. According to a Thai news report that my wife heard yesterday, the reading was 349 in Hat Yai, however, I can't verify that figure.
The fires in Indonesia are burning in peatland, not regular forests, and the area affected is approximately 1.7 million hectares. The problem has now gone beyond Southeast Asia, with haze blanketing Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Wednesday 21st October 2015
Today, the haze in southern Thailand from Indonesia was the worst I have seen in 12 years. I spent the morning at home and didn't notice how bad it was. From my office window the sky looked grey and bleak, but that was about it.
However, when I left home to collect my daughter from school it was like being in Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, apart from the fact the locals in Thailand are easier to understand. I went up to the 33rd floor of Lee Gardens Plaza to take some photos.
From this viewpoint you should be able to see for miles. Today, visibility was down to about half a kilometre and after that everything disappeared. As I mentioned before, the problem has been exacerbated this year because it is so dry. We are now two-thirds of the way through October and there still hasn't been any rain. By now, there should have been a fair amount of rain.
Haze in Southern Thailand from Indonesia, 21 October 2015
I haven't experiened any breathing difficulties, but my throat feels a little sore and my voice doesn't have much strength. A lot of local Thais were wearing masks over their mouths today.
Haze protection mask, 21 October 2015
This news item appeared on Thai TV a couple of days ago. Apparently, some big bikes had just passed through Khao Yai national park making a lot of noise. The park is home to herds of wild elephant and the elephants got a little upset about the noise, as I would.
A few minutes later a regular small bike passed through. It wasn't making much noise, but the elephants needed someone or something on which to vent their anger and crowded around the guy on the bike trumpeting loudly.
These creatures are incredibly strong and to be surrounded by a herd of wild, angry elephants must have been terrifying. If I had been him, as soon as I rounded the bend and saw the elephants I would have done a very quick U-turn. There's no way I would have tried to get past riding a little motorbike. Even in a car I would be very wary of wild elephants.
I am only too aware that Thailand's roads are extremely dangerous and you will be too if your read this blog. The things I see Thai drivers do and the speed at which they drive is truly frightening.
Driving in Thailand is by far the worst aspect of living in Thailand. Walking around in Thailand is fine, but as soon as you start driving regularly you see Thais in a completely different light.
What I have never been sure about is how dangerous Thai roads are compared to other countries. Every set of statistics varies and I have seen Thailand listed from first place to sixth place for having the most dangerous roads in the world.
An article in the Bangkok Post says that Thailand has the second most dangerous roads in the world.
The only country that has a higher death rate on the roads is Libya, a country that is now completely anarchic. Driving on Thai roads is also completely anarchic.
Sunday 18th October 2015
Since the time that Thailand started attracting foreign tourists the country has become synonomous with scams. I've often covered the subject here. Some scams are small and a taxi driver may only overcharge you a few Baht, however, other people have been scammed out of huge amounts of money after investing in property.
It is also unfortunate that many foreign criminals go to Thailand with the intention of engaging in scams and other criminal activities.
A little while ago there was a spate of incidents involving card skimmers that had been installed in ATMs. Many of these incidents involved foreign gangs. The problem has just resurfaced in Khon Kaen, but as yet it is not known whether foreigners or Thais are responsible.
Sometimes foreign criminals target fellow foreigners in Thailand; at other times they target Thais. Language difficulties may prevent them from targeting Thais, but the average Thai tends to be less cynical that the average foreigner and sometimes they are easier targets.
I have written before about the time I was consulted by the top man at a technical college regarding some correspondence he was engaging in. When I looked at an e-mail he showed me it was the standard Nigerian scam. All Westerners have known about these scams for years and just delete the e-mails, but he had taken the hook. I had to explain to him and warn him what would happen if he continued.
I hadn't received any of these e-mails for a long time, but one arrived in my in-box yesterday.
Hello....how are you doing..i just came across you here on my google+ account now....
I am a banker working with Barclay's Bank here in Florida ,United States. I am writing to contact you over a very important business transaction which will be of interest and benefit to our both families.
In 2007, one of our customer who had same Name as yours and has your country in his file as his place of origin, made a fixed deposit for 36 months, valued at $26,700,000.00 with my bank. I was his account officer before I rose to the position of Managing Director. The maturity date for this deposit contract was 27th of September 2010. Sadly he was among the death victims in the September 2009 earthquake in Indonesia that left over 1,200 people dead while on vacation trip with family.
Since the last quarter of 2010 until today, the management of my bank has been finding means to make contact so as ascertain if any roll over should be done on behalf of the Deposit or have the contract sum will be withdrawn. When I discovered that this will happen, I have tried to think up a procedure to preserve this fund and use the proceeds for business.
Some directors here have been trying to find out from me the information about this account and the owner, but I have kept it closed because, I know that if they become aware that the account owner is late, they will corner the funds for themselves. Therefore, I am seeking your co-operation to present you as the one to benefit from his fund at the death of the account owner since you have the same name client, so that my bank headquarters will pay the funds to you. I have done enough inside bank arrangement and you only have to put in your details into the information network in the bank computers and reflect you as his next of kin.
If you concur with this proposal, I intend for you to retain 50% of the funds while 50% shall be for me. Kindly respond strictly through my personal email address (email@example.com).
Mr. William Hilbert Barclay's Bank Florida, United States.
My wife told me about another incident yesterday. Her brother is friendly with a girl and this girl has been corresponding with a foreigner on Facebook. Lots of Thai females get in touch with foreigners this way.
The foreigner has told her that he is immensely rich and that he really loves her. He loves her so much that he couldn't wait any longer to see her and set off for Thailand with a suitcase full of money.
However, there is now just one little problem. He is having some trouble with immigration and is stuck at the Thai/Malaysian border. All he needs is Bt50,000, which he has asked her to wire to him, the problem will be resolved and he will then be able to enter Thailand with all the money.
For some reason that I can't fathom out, she believed this was all genuine and was about to send the money. My wife's brother has a bit more nouse and smelt a rat. He told her not to do it.
If she had sent the money, one of two things would have happened. 1. He would just have disappeared without trace. 2. Another problem would have come up that needed more money and then he would have disappeared without trace.
The stories of Thais getting scammed by foreigners will soon work their way around social media networks and news channels and Thais will be able to work out what is going on, but at the moment there are still quite a few gullible people.
Friday 16th October 2015
The native wildlife isn't very friendly in Thailand. Recently, a young German girl was killed while swimming in the sea around Samui island after she was stung by a box jellyfish.
One neighbour found a large ratsnake in her house last week and this could have been the same snake that was seen entering our garden a few weeks ago. They are venomous, but not all that dangerous. I saw one some years ago and photographed it, but it wasn't until earlier this year that Vern from ThailandSnakes.com identified it for me. There are lots of snakes here.
Another neighbour, who - like many of my neighbours - spent a fortune having built-in furniture installed everywhere opened a cupboard recently to find a mass of termites. They can do a lot of damage and are difficult to get rid off once they have got into the house.
I signed a three year contract with a pest control firm who spray around the house every few months and check for termite damage. They also come once a year to treat the ground around the house to deter termites.
A German guy I met at immigration was telling me that there used to be a crocodile farm in Hat Yai. When it closed a lot of the crocs ended up in the storm drains. Crocodiles have value and eventually they were rounded up, but for a while there were crocodiles on the loose in public areas.
Thursday 15th October 2015
There's an old joke. A guy says to his wife, "I've won the lottery! Pack your bags." The wife asks, "Should I pack for the beach or the mountains?" "I don't care. Just be out by the end of the week."
This very same thing happened in Thailand this week and the story has been widely reported by the Thai language news, but it wasn't a joke. A Thai man won Bt30 million and gave his wife Bt1.2 million, along with her marching orders.
I can certainly understand this, however, what I cannot comprehend is that he also said goodbye to his kids as well as his wife. How someone can have absolutely no emotional attachment to their offspring, I don't know. We are all very different.
Where's all the rain? All of the major floods in Hat Yai that I am aware of have occured in the month of November, and October is generally a very wet month. In 2010 just before the big flood at the start of November heavy rain fell constantly all through October.
This year, half way through October, it is still bone dry. On a few occasions recently the sky has darkened and the wind strengthened, indicating an approaching storm, but the rain only lasts for 10 minutes, or so.
I admit that the weather is very pleasant right now - sunshine, blue skies and a balmy 29.9°C - but if this lasts for much longer there could be water shortages next year.
I've covered this before, but Thai nicknames are always a good source of entertainment and recently I've heard a few more good ones. To recap, animal names used to be all the rage. My wife has seven siblings and quite a few have animal names - Bpoo (crab), Bplaa (fish), Gai (chicken). Apparently, another older brother also had an animal name originally, but then changed it.
These animal names have gone out of vogue in recent years and when I was teaching high school students animal names were very rare.
English words and names have become popular and the Thai love affair with money and consumerism has also had an influence. In the past I have met twins called 'Bee-Em' and 'Benz' after expensive German cars, and siblings called 'Jackpot' and 'Bonus'.
Mobile phones are a big status symbol in Thailand and a few years ago everyone's favourite brand was Nokia. I met a young girl called 'Nokia', but I suspect that her name has now been changed to 'iPhone 6'.
When I had a gang of builders in recently they were all from the same family and brought along a young girl about the same age as my daughter. Her name was 'Facebook'.
Yesterday, we spoke to a neighbour who has just become a grandmother. I asked what her granddaughter's name was and was told, 'Faa Maa'. Mmm, unusual, I thought. I had never heard this name before. Sometimes Thai nicknames have meanings and sometimes they don't.
Both 'Faa' and 'Maa' have several meanings in Thai depending on the tone. I was wondering if it might mean 'Sky Horse' or 'Sky Dog' or something. However, an explanation was then given.
The child's mother is a pharmacist - a very common profession in Thailand - and the name is the first two syllables of pharmacist with the Thai tendency to elongate English vowels.
She's now 'Little Pharma', but no doubt she will grow up and become 'Big Pharma'.
Immigration have been on to my wife again and now want to do a home visit. She asked what time and they said they can't give a time. Therefore, we have to stay at home all day and can't go anywhere.
My visa extension application was problematic and then they called me (and my wife and kids) back for an interview. Towards the end of the interview they decided that it wasn't necessary and naturally I assumed the issue was then settled. Now they want to do a home visit.
The reason they gave my wife for not being able to give a time for the visit was that they had to do a lot of home visits, therefore, I guess it isn't just me.
The focus this year and the additional immigration requirements (presenting the house registration document where you live, drawing a map of where you live and providing the GPS coordinates) seems to be on ensuring that the address foreigners give to immigration is genuinely where they live.
No doubt this is all related to the Bangkok bombing in which the bombers had been living in Thailand for a while.
Wednesday 14th October 2015
Reassuring to see that the Thai authorities are continuing to deal with this problem.
Monday 12th October 2015
The main difficulty I have with living in Thailand is dealing with people whose fundamental thinking is very different to my own. This is the real 'culture gap' and not the superficial cultural differences that are listed in guide books. As a tourist to Thailand you probably won't even notice these things, but if you go to live in Thailand you can't help but notice them. Some simple examples will help to explain what I mean and the main reason for this post will be given at the end.
Let's take the subject of keys. If I go out with my wife she will enquire as to whether I have my house keys. If I do, then she doesn't regard it necessary to take hers because I have mine.
My view is quite different. If I lose my keys (which I did a year or two ago) and we arrive home tired with two sleepy children and can't get into the house it is going to be a big problem. However, if she has her keys we won't have a problem.
The fundamental difference here is that I am always thinking about possible things that might go wrong and thinking how to mitigate problems if they occur, even if the risk of something going wrong is very low.
With my wife, and with most Thais I have met, the attitude is that nothing will ever go wrong. If, rather when, something goes wrong (as it invariably does) they have a problem. When the problem occurs it is invariably met with a, "Mai bpen rai," (never mind) response and no action is taken to prevent it happening again.
This is why every year hundreds of Thais lose their lives in road accidents during the New Year and Songkran holidays, yet no matter how high the death toll is, exactly the same thing will happen the following year.
The quote that is often attributed to Einstein, although he probably never said or wrote it, comes to mind at such times:
"The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result."
Still on the subject of keys, my 21 month-old son has a fascination for keys. My wife allows him to play with her keys because it keeps him quiet, but I know that one day there will be a problem. On a few occasions he has hidden the keys and it has taken a long time to find them. One day he will hide them where they can't be found.
Also, she keeps the remote control for the electric gate at the front of the house with her house key. The gate is heavy and driven by a powerful motor. If a car is half way on to the drive and he closes the gate there will be a big, expensive problem. This type of thing concerns me, but it doesn't concern her at all. I think about things that might happen, whereas she never does.
The wedding we attended recently was on a school day and my wife wanted our daughter to attend school. She had worked out that we could go to the wedding and return in time to pick her up. I didn't like this idea, either.
My wife's plan, as usual, assumed that nothing would go wrong. This is how the Thai mind seems to work. My thoughts were along the lines of if my car broke down or if we were involved in an accident my daughter would then be stranded at school with no one to pick her up.
Western thinking places a lot of emphasis on thinking ahead as to what might happen and mitigating for it. Driver training in developed countries, especially advanced driver training, teaches drivers to be aware of what might happen even if it probably won't happen. Thais aren't taught the same way, if 'taught' is an appropriate verb.
When something unusual happens on a Thai road - a child runs into the road between two parked cars or someone stops or turns suddenly an accident often results because no one is anticipating anything unusual happening. That's why there are so many road accidents in Thailand and why the chances of being killed in a road accident in Thailand are about seven times higher than the UK.
Western manufacturers of critical devices build in fault-tolerance so that there is no single point of failure. Multi-engined aircraft can fly and land with one functioning engine if other engines fail. Car braking systems are split into two so that if one fails the vehicle can still be stopped.
I see and hear about so many problems in Thailand that could easily have been prevented, but in a country where people always assume that nothing will ever go wrong there is no need to think about prevention.
When you couple this lack of foresight to a society where there is a marked lack of responsibility and accountability for an individual's actions, lots of problems occur. Most of these problems occur in public, but on a few occasions I have invited people into my house who do things that cause problems.
A plumber at our rented house was replacing a toilet squirter and drilled into the wall straight through a water pipe. He was drilling directly below a tap in the wall and might have guessed that there would be a pipe there, especially as he was supposed to be a plumber. If I am putting up shelves above a power point I know that there will be a cable in the wall running vertically upwards from the socket.
He had to smash off the tiles to repair the pipe. A ten minute job took about four hours and the end result was a mess. I would have been really angry it it was my own house, but it was rented.
Another guy came in to do a job and had a loose hammer head. He then proceeded to whack the hammer on a freshly painted wall to tighten it. Again, I wasn't impressed.
At the same house I used to turn the corner occasionally when going home only to find one year-old children sitting playing in the street. What were their parents thinking? It's this king of think that I have a problem comprehending in Thailand.
When we moved to this house one of the guys installing the air-conditioning units dragged the heavy outdoors compressors across a newly tiled floor leaving sets of tram lines scratched into the tiles. Fortunately, some special cleaning powder was able to remove the scratches, but surely he should have realised that dragging heavy, metallic objects across floor tiles would cause problems?
On Sunday one of my wife's friends came over and they started cooking. Whenever this happens I get left with a huge number of plates, pots and pans to wash up. Generally, I don't mind but on Sunday I discovered a large saucepan shaped scorch mark on the kitchen counter.
Obviously, her friend had just removed a red hot frying pan from the gas hob and put it directly on the kitchen counter. We have lots of cloths and wooden chopping boards that she could have used to protect the counter, but she chose not to.
The kitchen cost close to half a million Baht and the counter cannot be replaced easily or cheaply. We will have to live with it now. I've tried everything to get the scorch mark out, but it's akin to branding a cow and then trying to remove the branding mark.
I just don't know what goes through their minds when they do such things. Actually, it probably has a lot more to do with not thinking at all. She is very proud of a new Honda Civic she bought last year on a long-term, zero-interest credit deal. Would she ever consider resting a red hot frying pan on her car? I doubt it. Why then did she decide it was acceptable to do this on my kitchen counter? Thais tend to be a lot prouder of their vehicles than their houses.
I'm still really mad about this and every time I go into the kitchen and see it I get angry. However, in Thailand it is always me who is wrong or stupid if I criticise Thai behaviour. Most Thais think exactly the same way, which leaves me in a very small minority and thus I am always wrong.
It is me who has been in the doghouse for two days for getting angry about this. If it had been a genuine accident or if the children had done it, I could accept it. But for an adult who should have known a lot better to have done it, I can't accept it.
Why do Thais think the way they do? There is no one answer. Cultural behaviour is self-perpetuating and much of my thinking comes from how I was raised and taught. Thais aren't raised and taught the same way and they have a different set of values.
Perhaps it has something to do with Buddhism, which focuses on the present? Why waste time dwelling on the past or worrying about things that haven't happened yet? Except that we do need to think a little about the future and also Buddhism talks a lot about actions and consequences. The problem with the examples I have given is that people don't think about consequences when they perform actions.
With the kitchen it might just be that most Thais aren't used to caring for Western style houses with quality interiors. I have seen a lot of standard Thai kitchens and to say they are basic would be an understatement. The kitchens are designed to withstand flooding and other abuse and there is no need to treat anything respectfully.
And the point of this post? Firstly, I just want to get something off my chest. Secondly, if you are really serious about living in Thailand be aware that the cultural differences are not at all superficial.
Monday 12th October 2015
I don't know what happened during the incident that sparked riots in Phuket over the weekend, therefore, I can't comment.
All I comment on is what I do know based on twelve years of living in Thailand and about seven years driving in Thailand. These comments have nothing to do with the Phuket incident, which I know nothing about.
There is a big problem with young males riding motorbikes who are completely out of control. I have commented before about the organised street racing problems and provided links. They also race in an unorganised manner on public roads and my car has been hit about three times by kids on bikes weaving through traffic at high speed. They then just disappear through the gaps in the traffic to avoid being caught.
Drugs are also a problem with some young male motorcyclists having the crazed look in their eye that comes from taking the 'Crazy Drug' (methamphetamine).
In the area where I rented a house it was a big problem and they raced through busy areas where there were lot of children and old people. I heard reports of old people being knocked down by racing motorbikes.
It was also in Phuket where two kids on a motorbike started pelting rocks at a car driven by a foreigner because he had the ordacity to get upset with their reckless driving and honked his horn. There was a baby in the car as the rocks were raining down.
There is very little respect for traffic laws, especially among motorbike riders. Almost every time I am waiting at traffic lights, motorbikes just take off before the light changes to green. If it is quicker to go the wrong way down a street, rather than to go the correct way and do a U-turn, many Thais will just take the quickest (illegal) option - especially motorbikes, but sometimes cars.
Recently, there was a video posted of a guy in a Porsche Cayenne in Bangkok performing such a manoeuvre. It was a big story because it involved an expensive car. As the video was rolling and everyone was waiting for him to break the law, lots of motorbikes were doing exactly the same thing that he was about to do. However, this went almost unnoticed. There seems to be a view in Thailand that traffic laws don't apply to motorbikes.
The hotel where we stay in Bangkok is on a one-way Soi, but there is a constant stream of motorbikes driving the wrong way along the Soi. On one-way streets in Thailand it is always necessary to look both ways when crossing.
There is very little law enforcement on Thai roads. The things that I describe only go on because the perpetrators know there is virtually no chance of getting caught.
I was getting a puncture repaired on my wife's bike recently and next door to the repair shop were a bunch of Thai men drinking beer. As is always the case when they are drinking beer and see a farang they invite the farang to join them. I stopped drinking alcohol a long time ago, but didn't tell them this.
I just said that I couldn't drink because I had to take the bike home. They told me not to worry because the police never check. I laughed, but sadly it is true. There tend to be crackdowns on drunk driving at Songkran and New Year, but not much enforcement at other times.
There is very little respect for the police. On one occasion I saw a cop at the side of the road holding a clipboard and flagging down motorcyclists who weren't wearing helmets. He attempted to flag down one helmetless rider, but the guy on the motorbike just whacked his clipboard and carried on. In Western countries this act would be considered a bigger offense than the original one, but it is different in Thailand. The cop just let him go.
The problem for Thailand now with trying to enforce laws is that the laws have been broken for too many years. Thais don't understand why certain activities should be a problem now when they have never been a problem before. The illegal markets that are now being forcibly closed in Bangkok have been operating for 30 years or so.
Attitudes about law also need to change if Thailand wants to be a developed country operating under the rule of law. The law needs to be seen as the highest authority and can't be applied discriminately. The same laws apply to all people and traffic laws apply to motorbikes just as much as they do to cars. People need to respect the police and if they have done no wrong they won't have anything to worry about.
I was speaking to a high-ranking soldier recently about the changes taking place in Thailand. He told me that the changes can only be implemented very slowly. He's right, of course, but what I'm not quite sure of is how long it will take. It won't happen overnight. I have always thought that it would take at least two generations.
Saturday 10th October 2015
I feel wracked with guilt at the moment for being an irresponsible and abusive parent. My wife too. It begins right away at the start of the day when we put dresses or skirts on our daughter and trousers and shirts on our son.
Yesterday I finally got around to painting the external shelves that I had made recently for the outside of the house and my wife made sauteed potatoes. A few weeks ago we went to a local German restaurant where she had the Bratkartoffeln and really liked it. She enjoys cooking and she is quite good. Whenever she has something she likes she attempts to make it herself.
However, I can't help but think how damaging it must be for our kids continually watching their parents reinforcing gender stereotypes. Surely, we must be putting out damaging messages all the time that only certain activities can be performed by certain genders.
In an attempt to undo the damage I have been washing dishes and ironing clothes while wearing an apron. My wife has been forcing herself to drink beer and M-150 while talking about pickup trucks and watching Muay Thai on TV.
I hope that these things will help my children to grow up with a more balanced outlook.
Of all the lifestyle choices, the strangest must be having children. If visiting kids came to the house and did the type of things that my two kids do routinely I would make sure that they never came back. But despite the havoc they cause I actually love my two more than any other people in the world simply because there is a biological connection. It's the same for the vast majority of parents.
As part of my programme to reinforce gender stereotypes (I'm not going to let this one go for a while) I bought my daughter a toy kitchen set. Yesterday, I discovered that she had taken a large bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup from the fridge and filled up every plastic pot, pan, cup and bowl with chocolate syrup. Not only did it make a horrendous mess, but it also attracted a lot of ants into the house.
My son is also very adept at opening the fridge. He takes out a glass water jug that I'm sure he will drop one day and has a habit of removing eggs to play with. There are certain items that are very easy to buy abroad, but almost impossible to get hold of in provincial Thailand. One such example is a child-proof fridge lock.
We have Play Doh smeared everywhere and poked into every nook, cranny and orifice in the house. If things can be put away it means that those same things can be taken out - and they are regularly. Cupboards and drawers are emptied routinely just for the sake of it. Other things, such as keys, get put into drawers where I can't find them. The haze in Indonesia is nothing compared to what happens if my son gets hold of a large bottle of talcum powder.
I never have any money left to spend on myself and most of the time it feels like being in an open prison. There are no bars in my house and the outward appearance looks normal, but I can't do anything. My wife took my daughter for tutoring this morning leaving me in charge of the little one. I am typing this while keeping an ear out for him, but I can't do the painting that I want to do.
Of course, I'm not really serious about any of this and wouldn't be without them. I once read that you have never experienced true peace until a child has fallen asleep in your arms. That is indeed true and there is nothing better than looking at them asleep. Unfortunately, it all changes when they wake up which, in my son's case, is normally before 6am.
I'm not sure what I would be doing if they weren't around. I can think of some positive activities, but I would have far too much time on my hands and would probably spend far too much time looking at whacky conspiracy theories on the Internet.
I'm sure that things will improve as they get older.
It's a pleasant day in southern Thailand today with blue, sunny skies and my room thermometer is registering 29.5°C at just before noon. It's still a little warmer than I would like, but at least it isn't still in the 30's.
On a few days last week it was reminiscent of growing up in London in the 1960's. As a child my family home was a terraced Victorian house, the same type of house as 99.99% of everyone else living in that area, and the houses had no central heating. I guess that these days central heating has been installed. Originally, the houses had only an outside toilet but most houses were modified to have a toilet indoors. Nonetheless, after this addition most houses still had the outdoor toilet.
There were two coal fires downstairs and no heating sources upstairs. Consequently, upstairs was freezing in the winter with ice often appearing on the inside, as well as the outside, of the windows. The old-fashioned sash-cord window frames that the house had rattled around and did very little to keep the cold air out. Electric blankets and hot water bottles were essential. With so many houses burning coal to keep warm there was often a haze similar to the haze we have been experiencing in southern Thailand recently.
The coals fires required working chimneys and every once a year or so the chimney sweep came to clean them. I shouldn't imagine that there are many sweeps actively working these days, but even during a part of my lifetime it was a real profession and not just a character from Mary Poppins.
I was a far naughtier child than my own children and one day, while persecuting the family cat, she sought refuge up one of the chimneys. When she was brave enough to come down she was, of course, covered in soot.
Assisted by my younger brother we then attempted to wash the sooty cat with undiluted dish washing liquid before my parents found out what had happened. This probably wasn't the best choice of cleaning solution and the cat wasn't impressed. Neither were my parents, who then had the task of restoring the animal to a normal condition.
Kids. One day I shall fondly reminisce about the 'hilarious' antics of my own children just as my parents like to reminisce about the things that me and my brothers got up to when we were young.
There is a phenomenon where you come across a word that you have never heard of before, but after that you keep hearing the word. It could be a very strange coincidence, but more likely is that when you weren't familiar with the word it simply didn't register when you heard it. Once you are familiar with it you notice its use every time you hear it. That has certainly been my experience learning Thai.
After several recent trips to crowded shopping malls I thought I would mention it here. Since then, whenever I look at the English language Thai news sites there is something about shopping malls.
My original post suggested that the malls I visit continue to be very busy because they are viewed by Thais more as recreation and entertainment centres than simply places to shop.
But obviously, a certain degree of money needs to be spent in order to keep the malls ticking over. That doesn't seem to be a problem where I live. However, where money is in short supply, for example Isaan, some of the big malls are struggling.
Siam Paragon is right at the other end of the scale and it is probably the most exclusive shopping centre in Thailand. I visited for the first time shortly after it opened and was amazed at the prices of the luxury cars on offer - Porsches, Ferraris, etc.
These cars are expensive enough in Europe, but by the time you have added on Thailand's 320% luxury tax the prices are mind-boggling. This applies to many items for sale in Siam Paragon. You can buy the best of the best, as long as your pockets are deep enough.
With China experiencing a big economic slowdown this year and the knock on effect it is having on countries elsewhere, especially in Asia, it's not really a surprise that the top end retailers are seeing a downturn just as the retailers at the bottom end are having difficulties.
Thursday 8th October 2015
As of yesterday I had still not heard from immigration regarding the home visit they wanted to make and was beginning to think that maybe it was an idle threat. I was confused as to why there was so much interest in my home and family for a retirement visa and why it was suddenly an issue this year when it hadn't been an issue in previous years. The requirements for a retirement visa are quite simple and I have submitted proof of meeting these requirements.
This morning my wife received a call from immigration summoning the whole family to meet with the top immigration officer in 40 minutes' time. With two kids to get ready this was quite a challenge. Again, I couldn't understand why they were doing this.
I have heard of people who do not meet the age and/or financial requirements for a retirement visa, and who do not have employment visas, engaging in sham marriages to Thai citizens just so that they can get a marriage visa. There is no age requirement and the financial requirement is half that of a retirement visa.
If I had applied for a marriage visa and they had suspected that it may not be a genuine marriage I could understand why they were doing these kind of checks. But I hadn't.
The meeting was very cordial and they were very polite. It was also all in Thai. They asked my wife about her English to which she replied it wasn't very good and that we communicate in Thai at home.
They asked a lot of questions to which I had previously given answers and, once again, photocopied my passport and my wife's national ID card. Most of the questions were directed at her, but I also received some questions.
The interview had nearly finished and I was asked if my wife came with me every time that I renewed my visa. I replied that she didn't and that I didn't think it was necessary for a retirement visa.
The immigration officer looked a little confused and asked what type of visa I was given a couple of weeks ago. She looked in my passport and saw that it was a retirement visa. She then remarked that what we were doing wasn't necessary. Just what I thought. Interview over.
I wasn't sure if my experience this year was because of new regulations or whether it was because I had been singled out for some special treatment. What seems to have happened is that because my wife and son were present when I applied for an extension to my retirement visa some people at immigration assumed I was requesting a marriage visa.
They granted me a retirement visa, as I had requested, but then subjected me to all the tests that marriage visa applicants go through to ensure it is a genuine marriage. At least the problem is fixed now and I understand why I was being asked a lot more questions.
They have recommended that next year I apply for a marriage visa. There is a lower financial requirement (Bt400,000 instead of Bt800,000) and I will be allowed to work a little if I so desire. Foreigners with retirement visas are not allowed to work.
After I stopped working and lost my employment visa I wanted a marriage visa. However, immigration at the time told my former employer that it was a complicated process and recommended a retirement visa. Now, they tell me that it isn't difficult.
Something I need to check up on is whether there is a need to leave the country every 90 days with a marriage visa. I seem to remember being told something to this effect many years ago. That wouldn't be convenient and it's not something that I have to do with a retirement visa.
There were also some other questions today that I found interesting and which give a few clues as to what is happening in Thailand on a much broader basis.
They asked how much I had paid to extend my visa a fortnight ago. I told them Bt1,900. They then asked if anyone had told me about any extra service charges or had requested more money. No one had.
Earlier this year at immigration when I was doing my 90 day reporting they gave me a questionnaire to complete. It was anonymous in as much that it didn't ask for my name, but I was the only person there doing the questionnaire and I handed it back to the official rather than putting it in a box. Therefore, it wasn't really anonymous because they knew exactly who had completed it. One of the questions asked if at any time I had encountered corrupt practices at immigration. I never have.
They also asked whether anyone had offered to 'assist' with my bank book if I had insufficient funds for my visa application. I had genuine proof that my funds are sufficient so didn't need any 'assistance' and no assistance had been offered. This was all very interesting.
Recently, I mentioned seeing the website of a Thai law firm which 'assists' foreigners with their retirement visa application if they don't have the necessary funds. They tell the foreigner just to go for a cup of coffee while they deal with immigration. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to work out what goes on, but I suspect that there is now a lot of focus on this type of activity. Immigration are currently feeling some heat from above and there is a lot of change taking place. They are following the rules to the letter and appear to be clamping down on the various ways that are used to get around laws.
Thailand has just as many laws as Western countries. The only difference is that in Thailand there is usually a convenient way to get around the law by crossing someone's palm with silver. If you can easily find a way around laws, there are effectively no laws and society is then lawless. This is what the country is trying to fix and it can only be a good thing.
A bit more about malls to follow up my observations from yesterday. I generalise far too much, but it is difficult not to. My observations are from where I live in southern Thailand and just as Bangkok is different to the provinces, each region is quite different.
The southern region is quite prosperous whereas the northeast region (Isaan) is the poorest and people there struggle. There has been a massive economic migration in Thailand as many northeasterners have gone to find work elsewhere in the country. I read today about a mall in Udon Thani that is struggling badly.
Malls and shopping centres in the south seem to be surviving, but some are having to change and adapt to survive. The top-end Central Festival has no problems at all attracting people, and business appears to be thriving. Today, I popped in briefly to our second branch of Tesco Lotus. It's in a poorer part of town and there has been a lot of change since it first opened.
Tesco Lotus shopping centres in Thailand are like malls. They have a main food hall, but in the same building are lots of other shops and restaurants. It is these shops outside that have changed.
Many of the beauty clinics, and the more upmarket shops and restaurants that were there when it opened have now gone. Some have relocated to Central Festival where their relatively expensive goods and services sell more easily. These businesses have been replaced with businesses that concentrate on selling cheap goods.
Business still seems to be fairly good, but this branch of Tesco Lotus has had to change and differentiate itself from the higher end shopping centres.
The haze continues but, to be honest, it isn't bothering me at all. When I see pictures of the haze where I live it looks terrible, but actually living here isn't that bad. Visibility is quite low in the morning, but gets better throughout the day. Even though the pollution level here has been recorded at times as high as 160 microgrammes per cubic metre, I haven't experienced any breathing diificulties.
Phuket has quite a bad haze problem.
The forest fires in Indonesia are out of control and Indonesia has asked for help from abroad in controlling them.
It is still dry in the south as we enter the second week of October. On a couple of occasions in the past week it has started to rain heavily, but the rain fizzles out after a short time.
Bangkok has experienced flooding recently and other provinces are being warned about possible flooding, but Khon Kaen is expecting severe water shortages next year. The weather patterns seem a little unusual this year.
I took the family ten-pin bowling last night. I hadn't been for about 20 years and my wife has never been. I knew my son was too young, but was wondering whether my daughter could handle a bowling ball. Unfortunately, she is very slightly built and couldn't manage the lightest six pound balls. Still, it was fun and my wife enjoyed her first ten-pin bowling experience. She was actually quite good.
Ten-pin bowling in Thailand is virtually identical to ten-pin bowling anywhere else. The lanes and equipment are all part of a standard Brunswick installation and will look the same as any other Brunswick bowling alley in the world.
Prices, I think, are relatively cheap. I paid Bt80 per person per game last night. What I did notice was that the service was a lot better in Thailand.
After we paid, our feet were measured and bowling shoes were brought to our lane. When I have been bowling in other countries there is normally a shoe station where everyone sits on the floor exchanging shoes. The computer work was all done by staff last night and I didn't have to mess around entering names, etc. Any food that is ordered is also brought to the table. There are staff to do everything.
In Thailand I have never filled my own car at a petrol station, whereas in the UK I always did it myself because there were no petrol stations offering full service. Prior to Thailand, the only country where I had received full service at a petrol station was South Africa. In the States full service was an option at some gas stations, but it was more expensive than self service and I never bothered.
If you play golf in Thailand there are always lots of caddies and to hire them is cheap. They will give advice on the course, carry your bag and wash your balls. I have played golf in the UK, States and Canada and never had a caddie.
In Thailand there is no unemployment benefit. Everyone has to work and wages are low, therefore, there is generally a lot more service compared to Western countries.
Wednesday 7th October 2015
My wife has just sold some toys and children's shoes on-line via the Kaidee website. Kids' things tend to be quite expensive. They outgrow clothes and shoes quickly and get bored with toys. It therefore makes sense to buy and sell these things second-hand because they are still in fairly good condition and a lot cheaper than new. Selling this type of thing seems to be relatively easy.
For a nation of people who love to buy and sell, Thais were slow to adopt the Internet. However, in the last few years on-line selling has really taken off with sites such as Kaidee. Thailand also has a large Facebook user base and many Thais have set up 'shops' on Facebook.
Something else that helps is an efficient and cheap postal service. I would imagine that the Thai postal service has become a lot busier in recent years because of the huge growth in on-line selling. My wife sent a large box weighing over 7kg to Chachoengsao province today and the postage was only Bt145.
I was pleased to see some stuff actually leave the house today. We desperately need to declutter, rather than add to the existing clutter.
Much has been written about the death of the American shopping mall and I assumed that on-line selling was a major contributing cause, but apparently not. On-line selling only accounts for 10% of retail sales and items sold on-line don't do a lot of damage to the kind of shops found in shopping malls.
There is an opposite trend with shopping malls in Thailand, at least there is in the deep south of Thailand where I live. Bangkok and the Thai provinces are like two separate countries and what applies to the provinces may not necessarily apply to the capital.
Every time I visit the new Central Festival in Hat Yai (advertised as the biggest and best shopping mall in southern Thailand) it is packed. There is a huge amount of parking, but on one recent visit the carparks were full. I had to park outside and the parking spaces outside soon became very full. Central Festival has certainly taken business away from other older malls, but they still seem to do OK. Why is this?
Firstly, everything in life is cyclical, especially fashion. Malls started appearing in the States in the 1950's and now, 60 or more years later, people are getting bored. I've spent about 18 months in the US, the longest continuous stay for about four months, and even on those short stays I got bored with malls very quickly. Mall culture is a lot more recent in Thailand and Thais, being at a different stage in the cycle, haven't become bored yet.
And not every mall in the States is suffering. The Category A malls, apparently, are still doing well. When people who are doing well want to treat themselves to high class shopping or dining they still visit these places. It is the Category B and C malls that are suffering.
In Thailand the average person's standard of living is much lower than that of the average Westerner, therefore even the Category B and C malls provide a sufficiently upmarket shopping or dining experience for most Thais.
Many Thais coming to shop in Hat Yai come from outlying areas of Songkhla province or from provinces that are much less developed, such as Phattalung, Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, etc. Thailand is officially described as a Newly Industrialised Country (NIC), but in reality it is predominantly Third World with pockets of First World. The shopping malls are First World standard and provide an air-cooled, clean environment that isn't something many Thais are used to.
But it's also more than that. One of the contradictions in the Land of Contradictions and Contrasts is that many Thais have the ability to endure the most brain-numbingly boring jobs and lives but, at the same time, their boredom threshold is very low. The way that many of them deal with boredom, including my wife and many other Thais I have met, is quite different to most foreigners I know.
I never really find boredom to be a problem. Occasionally, my mind is in a funny place and I struggle to find the motivation to do things but there are always things to do. I can always find things to do and never resort to turning on the TV or watching a movie. I generally only watch TV if I am doing something else, such as eating or ironing clothes.
I like to mess around on my website, take photos, process photos, read, discover facts, find out how to do things, etc. When I've had enough of mental distractions I like to work in the garden, do jobs around the house, do maintenance on the fishpond, wash cars, etc. Travelling used to play a big part in my life, but now I never seem to have the desire to go anywhere and would rather stay at home.
I find most Thais to be quite different. The education system focuses on remembering lots of boring facts and information and regurgitating said facts and information in exams. It is tedious and boring. I have met very few Thais who strive to understand things they don't understand. Generally, they don't have very inquisitive minds and I blame this on the education system. Foreigners in Thailand use up lots of mental energy trying to understand Thais, but this isn't reciprocated. Rather than finding things to do to keep them interested, they always seem to need an external stimulus. They want to be entertained.
I will not forget one incident when I was trying to teach English to a rowdy class of Matayom 5 girls who had no interest in learning anything at all. One girl stood up and told me, "Entertain us." That was the reason they believed I was there and that was their expectation of me.
Television plays a big part in alleviating boredom for many Thais and they sit mesmerised watching soap operas that the average seven year-old Western child would find boring and childish.
As Internet usage has grown in Thailand I don't see many looking at Wikipedia and other informational sites, but I see a lot 'playing' Facebook and reading the latest gossip about soap opera actors on Sanook.com.
When I used to work at the local university I took advantage of the library because it had many English language books about Thailand that I hadn't seen anywhere else. There were lots of students using the library computers and if you looked at them from the front it appeared quite impressive with lots of studious faces. It wasn't until you wandered round the back and saw the sites they were looking at that the truth was revealed.
The Thai cultural notion of "bpai tiaew" is another example. There's no direct translation. It's not like going on a trip as a Westerner would define going on a trip. "Bpai tiaew" basically entails going anywhere, even for a short time, just to break up the monotony of boring lives that many Thais are subject to.
I go to the shopping mall if I need to buy something, but for many Thais buying things doesn't seem to be the highest priority. A trip to the mall combines "bpai tiaew" and offers a different kind of environment that many seem to find quite exciting.
The shopping mall may well be dying in the States and in other Western countries, but in Thailand for the time being shopping malls can still look forward to long and healthy lives. My wife told me that a new Central Festival is being built in Nakhon Sri Thammarat. These places are huge and require a huge investment of money, but the owners wouldn't be building them if they expected them to fail.
If you are getting bored with me praising the Thai dental profession, you may wish to skip the next few paragraphs.
One of the worst things about growing up in 1960's England was having to visit the dentist. It was a terrifying experience.
There was no such thing as a children's dentist and dentists didn't seem to have any training in the art of treating children. Injections were painful, drills were slow and painful, and the standard practice at the time was to excavate all teeth - even good ones - and to fill them with amalgam. I expect that there are a lot of Brits roughly the same age of me who still walking around with mouthfuls of tin.
On one occasion I was given a general anaesthetic using gas for something the dentist needed to do. I can still taste the gas to this day and still remember the huge rubber bung that was stuffed into my mouth to stop me swallowing my tongue. I had nightmares while I was unconscious.
When I came around I was still sedated to some degree. I was too heavy for my mother to carry, we had no car, and she had to try to support me as we walked home. I would never allow a child of my own to endure what I had to endure visiting the dentist as a child. Taking them to see a street dentist in India would be preferable to what I went through.
My daughter is four-and-a-half. My wife has been really good about dental hygiene with her and I see lots of young kids here with rotten and missing teeth. Her teeth are white and in outwardly good shape, but for a long time we have known that she should go to the dentist for a check up. We are always busy and it didn't happen, but yesterday we made it happen.
I used to work at the Prince of Songkla University hospital dental faculty and know that they have a special clinic just for children. I decided to take her there and it was a good decision.
The first piece of good news was that after calling to make an appointment they just told us to bring her along. There was no need to make an appointment or join a six-month waiting list.
The clinic is bright and airy. It has the latest equipment and there are lots of toys and children's paintings. These things, and the fact that every patient is a young child, help to keep children relaxed.
The staff were fantastic. There were lots of them and they were all great with the kids. It soon became obvious that in addition to their standard dental training (a six year undergraduate course), they had also gone through special training to treat children. What kind of things do I mean?
They know that most children are scared of dentists and scared of dental equipment. They take time with children before doing any examining to show them the equipment and let them play with it. My daughter was scared of the suction device at first, but after playing with it and using it on her hand there wasn't a problem.
The dentist training even extends to being taught how to make balloon animals and every dentist there could blow up a long ballon and turn it into a dog or something. This may seem stupid to some, but if you have young kids and understand the effect it can have giving them a balloon animal, this type of thing makes a big difference.
We had a few tears, but the overall experience was very positive. Her external examination indicated no problems, but X-Rays showed a couple of very small cavities. We brush her teeth, but no not use floss. The dentist gave us some instruction how to floss her teeth because a brush does not get into some areas.
The cost was Bt410 which, again, I thought was very reasonable. But apart from being cheap, I was thoroughly impressed once again with the way in which the Thais have managed to get this speciality healthcare facility so right.
Dental healthcare is so important for our quality of life and it needs to start early. If I hadn't been forced to visit the dentist by my parents I would never have gone because it was so terrifying. In fact, after I left home and no longer had to do what my parents told me I didn't visit the dentist for many years.
At around the age of 30 my teeth started to suffer due to negligence and I then had to see the dentist again. Dentistry had improved by then, but it still wasn't that great. I spent a lot of money seeing a dentist who I believed to be the best, but my teeth still had lots of problems, especially regarding sensitivity.
On my first visit to a dentist in Thailand my teeth were so sensitive that it felt like an electric shock whenever the dentist touched a tooth and I almost jumped out of the chair.
Subsequently, I have had quite a lot of dental work done in Thailand and 12 years later my teeth have never been in better shape.
Because of the excellent facility we attended yesterday I now know that my daughter won't be afraid to visit the dentist again and therefore she shouldn't have to go through the same problems that I have been through with my teeth.
I should add that another reason she felt confident about visiting the dentist was because she had watched a Topsy and Tim episode about Topsy and Tim visiting the dentist. This is the UK kids' programme at which some 'politically correct' parents have levelled accusations of 'reinforcing gender stereotypes'.
Monday 5th October 2015
I have just had another very positive experience with dentists in Thailand. I broke a tooth a couple of Sundays ago and called my regular dentist on Monday morning. There were no available appointments and the clinic was closed from Tuesday for a week while my dentist went on a trip to Australia.
Despite this she tried to fit me in and called me twice on Monday to say that if I could get to the clinic within ten minutes she could see me. Unfortunately, I couldn't because I was tied up with immigration and hospitals.
I could have gone elsewhere while the clinic was closed but it wasn't causing me any pain and my preference was to see my regular dentist. After she returned I went back and she fixed my tooth for Bt400.
The dental treatment I have received in Thailand has been far better and far cheaper than any treatment I received in England. One of the best aspects of living in Thailand is the excellent healthcare system, but it hasn't always been this way and what we see today is fairly recent. The development of Thailand's healthcare system in recent years is quite a remarkable success story.
Not so long ago in Thailand there was a fashion for chewing betel, as there still is in Burma today, and once upon a time Thais blackened their teeth. Nicolas Gervaise, a Frenchman, went to Siam as a missionary in 1683 and recorded the following:
"One thing that the Siamese ladies cannot endure about us is the whiteness of our teeth, because they believe that the devil has white teeth, and that it is shameful for a human being to have teeth like a beast's. Therefore, as soon as the boys and girls reach the age of fourteen or fifteen, they start trying to make their teeth black and shiny. They do this in the following manner: the person whom they have chosen to render them this service makes them lie down on their back and keeps them in this position for the three days that the operation lasts. First, he cleans the teeth with lemon juice and then, having rubbed them with a certain fluid which makes them red, he adds a layer of burnt coconut, which blackens them."
Betel chewing may have died out, but tooth decay and oral health problems persisted. A big problem in Thailand for a long time - and even now to some extent - was that Bangkok and the rest of the country were like separate countries and the provinces were very undeveloped.
To address this the government started a programme of decentralisation and university dental faculties were set up in the provinces to increase the number of local dentists and to treat people in the same region. The dental faculty at the Prince of Songkla University was founded in 1983. The dental faculty at Khon Kaen University was, I believe, founded in 1979. Now, in just a few short years, there are dental clinics and hospitals everywhere and the service is excellent.
I also like the philosophy held by the Thai dental profession.
The Thai dental profession
The medical profession in Thailand has experienced a similar rapid development. I found some facts in the biography about KIng Bhumibol very interesting.
In 1950 the average life expectancy in Thailand was just 50 and by 1960 this had climbed to 55. It is now around 71 and rising. After WW2 the Thai healthcare service was in a mess. There were very few doctors, a high infant mortality rate, and diseases that are quite curable these days killed tens of thousands of people each year. People died from diarrhoea, diptheria and appendicitis.
Yaws (an infection that affects the skin, bone and cartilage of people in tropical countries), cholera, dengue fever and polio were all common, but the most feared disease of all was tuberculosis. Leprosy was also quite common.
Vaccination programmes, education abroad, the founding of hospitals and university medical faculties, improving sanitation and nutrition, and the setting up of a Public Health Department have all gone a long way in eradicating or controlling many diseases that used to affect Thais. The system is now so developed that there is extra capacity for medical tourism.
Mainstream medicine in Thailand is of the Western variety, but traditional Thai medicine (herbal medicine, massage, and the spiritual wellbeing brought about by meditation) is still practised, along with Chinese medicine.
As I have mentioned before, the system of healthcare is two tiered. The private hospitals are excellent but, of course, their main mission is to turn a profit. The public hospitals offer an excellent public service and some resemble private hospitals. Other public hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed, but they have to deal with a large poor population that puts a big strain on the system and is unable to contribute very much money.
A few days ago, NHK World had a report about rural healthcare in Laos. It looked really primitive. Villagers travelled a long way to medical centres and there were no specialist doctors. If they needed to see a specialist doctor they had to travel a long way again.
In Northeast Thailand in the early 1980's there was just one doctor for every 28,424 people. In 1990 there was one doctor for every 11,314 people. Not good, but a lot better. During the same period the disparity between Bangkok and the provinces in terms of doctor/population ratio also fell. I'm not sure what the figures are now, but I would guess that there has continued to be a big improvement.
If you are planning to live in another country healthcare is important, especially the older you get. In Thailand, in my opinion, the healthcare system is excellent.
According to my wife, a Thai news report said the haze from Indonesia that is currently engulfing southern Thailand would last for a month. It doesn't look too bad from where I am sitting in my office at the moment, although the sky is murky and not very blue.
My daughter (or my wife) found a UK kids' programme on YouTube called Topsy and Tim. Both kids enjoy it and anything that keeps them quiet and occupied for a while is very welcome. I had never hear of it, even though the original books were written around the same time that I was born.
The series is supposed to depict normal life as seen from the perspective of a couple of seven year-old twins. My only criticism is that it is 'too' perfect. The kids are never naughty like my kids and their parents never shout at them the same way that I shout at my kids. Well, I guess that if they never do anything naughty there will never be a need to shout at them.
I did a quick search to find out more about the programme and discovered that there has been lots of criticism in the UK. I wondered why.
In the show, Topsy (the girl) has been shown helping her mother in the kitchen and Tim, her brother, has been shown doing things with his Dad. How terrible. Obviously, this type of thing reinforces gender stereotypes and such subversive television is a danger to children. I read that some parents in the UK have now banned their children from watching such dangerous propaganda.
I told my wife about this and her reaction was, "Bah!" For those who are not familiar with Thai, this means 'crazy'. Crazy indeed.
As Westerners, you will of course recognise this as so-called 'Political Correctness'. This concept, indeed this insanity, never reached the shores of Thailand and it is something that Thais find very foreign, in all senses of the word.
I could say a lot more, but this was just one of the reasons why I decide to bail out of the Western world. Thailand, despite its people's strange ways and its many social problems, still offers some shelter from the lunacy of the West.
Sunday 4th October 2015
We took the kids to Songkhla zoo today and the haze from Indonesia (in both Hat Yai and Songkhla) was the worst I have ever seen in southern Thailand. Nearby hill ranges could not be seen and everything resembled a painting that had had the colour removed. Instead of trees and foliage looking green, everything looked grey and washed out through the haze.
On the positive side I experienced no breathing difficulties at all, but even so it wasn't very pleasant. I understand that in Singapore schools have been closed and outdoor events cancelled. It's an annual problem, but this year seems to be particularly bad.
I think there are two reasons for this. The enormity of the problem in Singapore would indicate that the fires are a lot bigger this year. In addition, it has been very dry in southern Thailand. The beginning of October normally marks the beginning of the rainy season, but it is still dry here. I'm sure a big storm would clear the air very effectively.
The haze is affecting large parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand.
Songkhla zoo has changed quite a lot since I first made a visit in 2004. It seems that every time we visit these days there are fewer animals than the previous visit and today there were lots of people because it was a Sunday and because the schools are closed for half term.
People were lining up to buy food for the giraffes, but there was only one giraffe. At least the solitary giraffe looked well-fed and contented, even if lots of kids had to wait in line to give it their Bt20 basket of vegetables. Likewise, there was just one meerkat and a distinct lack of animals in general. I'm not sure why.
In contrast, Safari World in Bangkok had a lot of animals including a huge herd of giraffe well in excess of 100 animals. I've never seen so many giraffe in one place. Safari World is more expensive, of course, and one of the great things about Songkhla zoo is that is it is still very cheap.
The entrance fee was Bt100 each for me and my wife, Bt50 for the car, and nothing for the kids. The prospect of taking the family to England for a vacation terrifies me because of the prices. For adults the entrance fee at London zoo is £24.30 for adults and £17.10 for children over three. In Baht the charge for a family like mine would be around Bt4,600 - a big difference to the Bt250 I paid to get into Songkhla zoo. By the time you have added on some food, drinks and train fares a day out to the zoo in England is a very expensive trip.
As is often the case in Thailand, I find myself having nothing in common with the locals when I visit the zoo. A zoo, of course, is an artificial environment but when I first started going to Songkhla zoo there were so few people that the animals seemed to exist almost naturally.
Whereas in most zoos the animals are totally oblivious to humans, with so few humans around the animals in Songkhla zoo used to react when they heard or saw a human. I had never been to another zoo like it.
These days - especially since a water park was opened in the zoo - there are a lot more people and that little bit of magic has disappeared. However, there are still some aspects of the zoo that I really like.
The zoo has two hyenas and most Thais just drive straight past without stopping. However, if you do stop you can sit on the other side of their cage with your face about a foot away from wild African animals. I'm pretty sure that there isn't another zoo where you can get so close and if you saw hyenas on safari in Africa you wouldn't want to be that close.
There is also another area behind the monkey house where gibbons sit making their whooping noises and swinging in the trees. There are no nets of cages and the setting looks quite natural. It's really good to observe contented animals in this kind of an environment.
From what I have observed of the locals, they would much rather have a circus experience than a zoo one. There were no Thais looking at the hyenas or gibbons, but the animal shows are always packed out. The shows consist of parrots riding toy bicycles up and down, seals balancing beach balls on their snouts, and tigers having to jump in the air to get their food. These shows depress me, but I tend to be a little different to the locals.
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand