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  • Living in Thailand Blog October 2017

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Sunday 29th October 2017

Floods and drought are a perpetual problem in Thailand because of the monsoons and tropical climate. It can be extremely hot and dry for several months at a time, but at other times the rain never seems to stop and tropical rain tends to be torrential.

When we flew into Bangkok on the 14th of this month to catch an onward flight to Vietnam our taxi driver at the airport told us that many parts of Bangkok were flooded. There had been torrential rain overnight - something like 230mm in just a few hours - and the storm drains couldn't cope.

If we had been staying at our usual hotel near Victory Monument it would have been a real headache because that area was badly flooded. However, because of our onward flight I had booked a hotel near Suwarnabhumi airport and that area was fine. Whenever I watch Thai TV news at the moment there are reports of flooding all over the country.

Hat Yai had a big flood in 2010. It was the first time I had ever been involved in a flood and it wasn't a great experience. The flood was the main reason for deciding to buy the house we live in now. I simply didn't want to go through the same experience again and decided to buy a house in an area that wasn't prone to flooding.

However, since 2010 a great deal of work has been done to bolster and extend the town's flood defences. People now seem to be quite confident that the risk of another major flood has been mitigated dramatically.

Before the big flood, one branch of TOPS supermarket was located in the basement of Central department store. Of course, it was completely destroyed by the flood and subsequently it reopened on the fifth floor. It then returned to the basement, and I doubt this would have happened unless the owners believed there was a small risk of another major flood occurring.

After taking my son for a scheduled hospital visit recently I was caught up in a huge traffic jam on the way home. The reason was because roads had been closed to allow work to be done on local flood defenses.

 

Improved flood defenses in the Hat Yai Plaza area

Improved flood defenses in the Hat Yai Plaza area

 

The road had been dug up and huge pipes laid underground to take away rain water in order to prevent flooding. Almost all areas of town have storm drains and these allow rain water to run off into canals that get progressively bigger as they go further out of town.

I imagine that the storm drains in this particular area weren't adequate and the system is being replaced with one that will cope with a lot more water.

Hat Yai's rain water goes through a network of storm drains and canals and eventually gets dumped into Songkhla Lake. In recent years I have seen work taking place on virtually every part of the system all the way out to the lake.

 

Workers removing vegetation from a canal

Workers removing vegetation from a canal

 

Canals have been extended, dredged and had vegetation removed to allow water to flow more efficiently. Provided that water can escape faster than it arrives, there shouldn't be any problems with flooding.

I've been quite impressed with what I have seen, but it is in the interest of Thais to reduce flooding as much as possible. In addition to the dangers and massive inconvenience caused by flooding, there is a big financial cost as well.

 

Improvements have been made to the main canal that carries rain water out of Hat Yai

Improvements have been made to the main canal that carries rain water out of Hat Yai

 

The other change that has taken place regards the building of reservoirs. In the past, Thailand has built some massive reservoirs in strategic locations but what seems to be happening now is that smaller, more localised reservoirs are being built. This makes a lot of sense and I have seen quite a lot of evidence of this taking place.

Lots of countries are affected by flooding these days, and that includes even the most developed countries. The problem will never go away completely, but by doing some of the things I have seen in Thailand recently the problems can be made a lot less severe.

Well done Thailand. It's very encouraging to see that the right things are being done to solve a serious problem.

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Monday 23rd October 2017

One strange observation I made during my trip to Hoi An in Vietnam last week was that during the entire five days I was there I didn't see a single cat. I am a cat lover and keep two cats at home in Thailand. Some of my neighbours have cats and as I wander around the streets of Thailand I encounter cats all the time.

Urban Thailand tends to be quite a frenetic place and I often visit temples just to get some peace and quiet for a while. Thai temples are always full of cats and dogs. To sum up, there is absolutely no shortage of cats in Thailand, and there are even more dogs than cats. Why then is it so different in Vietnam?

I mentioned this to my wife while we were in Vietnam and she made a comment about the locals eating them, but it sounded like the kind of politically incorrect comment that Brits used to make about Chinese restaurants many years ago.

I asked the hotel staff in Hoi An and one of them told me that a couple of cats do come into the hotel, however, I never saw them. This matter has continued to intrigue me and today I did some searching on-line. It seems that my wife was probably correct.

Vietnam: Superstitions About Cats And Eating Cat Meat

Apparently, the Vietnamese (exactly the same as Thais) are very superstitious and they believe that it is extremely unlucky if a stray cat visits your house. Thus, there is a fear of cats and the best way to keep evil cats away from your house is to eat them.

Some Vietnamese people do keep cats, but to prevent their pets from being caught and eaten the animals are kept indoors. This also applies to dogs.

Vietnam Cat Owners Must Live With Fear of Pets Getting Stolen and Eaten

I did see some pet dogs in Vietnam and also a few running around in the street, but there were very few whereas stray cats and dogs can be found absolutely everywhere in Thailand in great numbers.

Apart from eating cats for superstitious purposes, it also seems that the Vietnamese have developed quite a taste for cat and dog meat. To satisfy this demand, there is a trade smuggling cats and dogs into Vietnam from neighbouring countries.

Earlier this year I read an account of Lewis and Clark's expedition through the United States in the early part of the 19th century.

Obviously, they couldn't carry all the food they needed and so hunters were included in the expedition party whose job it was to kill animals to supply meat. At times there was ample food, but at other times there was none.

During desperate times the expedition group bought dogs from native Indians to eat. After a while the people in the group developed a liking for dog meat and preferred it to the meat of other animals.

I have never (knowingly) eaten cat or dog meat, but it is strange how so many of us are judgmental regarding what kind of meat is acceptable to eat and what kind isn't.

As a child my mother served up stewed rabbit quite often. In post-war Britain there were severe food shortages for many years and people ate what they could. My mother and father thought that eating rabbit was perfectly normal and continued to give their children the same kind of food. There were lots of bones, but I remember the meat being very tasty.

When encountering rabbits in Thailand I have mentioned this fact to my wife, but she gets quite upset. Mind you, I would probably get upset if someone ate one of my cats.

 

My wife and kids with tonight's dinner

My wife and kids with tonight's dinner

 

Post war Brits also ate a lot of offal for the same reason. My mother also used to prepare braised lamb hearts occasionally, and these were also good but other kinds of offal make my stomach turn.

The French, who were Vietnam's colonial masters for six decades, are fond of horse and frog meat, whereas the British aren't.

North Americans won't eat offal and imports of haggis are banned because haggis is made mostly of offal and encased inside a sheep's stomach. This ban has only just been lifted in Canada after existing for 46 years.

Many years ago I was working in London with a colleague from the States and we went to the canteen for lunch. On the menu was steak and kidney pie - a popular dish in Britain. He looked at it and asked me tentatively if the kidney referred to was kidney beans. I had to explain that it wasn't and he started to look quite ill.

Thais from Sakhon Nakhon have something of a reputation for eating dog meat and some Thais eat rodents, but not the kind you find running around in storm drains in Thai towns. Buddhist Thais love pork, but the pork I see on sale in Thai fresh markets looks disgusting. Rabbits look far more appetising.

As I said above, it is strange how we all have different views about the meat we will eat and the meat we won't eat.

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Sunday 22nd October 2017

I've just completed the first draft of my Hoi An trip report. There are probably spelling and grammatical errors, which I will fix later, and I will also add some more photos but this will give you an idea.

Trip to Hoi An, Vietnam in October 2017

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Thursday 19th October 2017

I've just returned from a six day trip, five days of which were spent in Vietnam. It was a great trip. The Vietnamese people we met were amazing (with smiles that were genuine), and overall I came away very impressed. It was my first trip there and now, having been, I don't know why I didn't visit a long time ago.

I am also at a loss as to why I discounted Vietnam so quickly during the period when I was very disillusioned with Thailand and was considering somewhere else to live. It was probably because of my preconceived (but inaccurate) notions of what living in a communist country would be like.

It's an impressive country. When Burma started to change a few years ago I predicted that Burma had the potential to take away a huge chunk of Thailand's tourism industry. However, that hasn't happened and with the Rohingya crisis the world has now seen a very different side to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Having seen what I have just seen, I now believe that Vietnam is the biggest threat to Thailand's tourism revenue. On the coastal road from Da Nang to Hoi An there is a massive amount of construction taking place as huge hotels are being built, and the tourist infrastructure is growing incredibly quickly.

In addition, there is now a culture of service and hospitality, which - according to a Westerner I was speaking to who has long term experience of Vietnam - was completely lacking 25 years ago. Many of the Vietnamese I met also spoke very good English.

I have quite a lot to say and hundreds of photos to sift through and process. However, tomorrow is going to be another busy day with a broken car to sort out (yet again) and yet another trip to the local immigration office. I don't think I have ever spent as much time with Thai immigration as I have this year. I should probably post something about this as well.

The kids then have another week off school and it is never easy to sit down and work when they are around. However, I will try to get some updates done in the next week while my thoughts and views are still fresh.

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Thursday 12th October 2017

There was a Swiss guy living here who was in a similar situation to me with a Thai wife and a mixed race daughter. However, unlike me, he was still working and spent six months in Thailand and six months in Switzerland.

This wasn't an ideal situation and I knew from my conversations with him that he wouldn't be able to live in Thailand full time. Foreigners differ quite a lot in this respect. I'm quite at home in Thailand and since I left the UK in 2003 I've never had any desire to return. When I was forced to return in July after my mother passed away I didn't enjoy it at all.

Other farangs aren't happy being in Thailand all the time and have to make frequent trips back to their mother country. There's another farang father at my kids' school who is like this. He's always moaning about the way things are in Thailand and goes back to the States fairly often for three months at a time. He said he would go crazy if he didn't.

Anyway, in May this year my Swiss friend packed his wife and daughter off to Switzerland to sample life in the land of watches, chocolate, fondue and super-efficiency. The plan was to give it a shot for a year and then to decide what to do long term.

I knew that his five year-old daughter wouldn't have any problems adapting, but I wasn't sure about his wife. My wife is always going on about wanting to travel abroad, but I know that she would miss a lot of things about Thailand and the Thai way of life.

But it seems that everything worked out because now his wife has returned temporarily with a view to selling their Thai house and moving to Switzerland permanently. They're nice people and I'm pleased about this because it is no fun being separated from your family for half the year.

His wife, like all Thais, is an avid Facebook user and while she was in Switzerland my wife kept an eye on her updates. Food is an obsession with Thais and many posts were about food. She could buy Thai food in Switzerland, but it was very expensive and she was experimenting with growing some of the herbs and plants that are used in Thai cooking.

She also posted some photos of the inside of a Swiss supermarket and I was surprised that I actually found these quite interesting. Yes, all your suspicions about me are probably true. I am a complete nerd. I've never been to Switzerland and when people travel to Switzerland they take photos of lakes, mountains and cuckoo clocks. Only a goofy person would take photos inside supermarkets and only other goofy people would look at them.

So, here are some photos of the inside of a Thai supermarket that I took recently for my goofy readers! They were taken in TOPS, which is probably the most upmarket food retail chain in Thailand. As you can see, the shelves are well stocked and there is lots of choice for certain items.

Naturally, the foodstuffs on sale are aimed primarily at locals and therefore you can buy a million different brands of rice or chili sauce, but if you want a simple jar of pickle you will probably find that they don't stock any.

There have been times when TOPS has featured English food or Indian food and for a short while there is lots of great choice, but these things are never permanent and eventually the good stuff disappears from the shelves. Also, imported food is very expensive. I've researched specific items in the past and exactly the same thing for sale in Thailand can be three times the price compared to the UK. Obviously, shipping and import duty is expensive.

 

TOPS supermarket, Thailand

TOPS supermarket, Thailand

 

TOPS supermarket, Thailand - what brand of chili sauce did you want?

TOPS supermarket, Thailand - what brand of chili sauce did you want?

 

TOPS supermarket, Thailand

TOPS supermarket, Thailand

 

The quality is exceptional in TOPS and it is just like a high quality supermarket in a Western country. Tesco Lotus and Big C are also big retailers in Thailand, but shopping at these places doesn't quite provide the same experience as shopping at TOPS. Carrefour, the French retailer, did have a presence in Thailand, but Big C took over and now the old Carrefour superstores are called Big C Extra.

There are also Makro cash-and-carry stores all over Thailand and these are very popular with small businesses and restaurants that buy food in bulk. We shop at Makro for certain items, but it is not a regular shopping venue. The fruit and vegetables are very good, and reasonably priced.

In addition, there are some smaller retail chains that come in useful at times. Near my home are branches of Vogue and K & K that are very convenient for certain items without having to travel too far.

Right at the other end of the retail shopping experience in Thailand are the fresh markets. These are the type of traditional markets that existed long before Western-style supermarkets arrived in Thailand and they still attract a lot of people.

In Hat Yai there is a large fresh market downtown and, in addition, there are smaller fresh markets in outlying areas. I don't mind the fruit and vegetables from these places, but visiting too many fresh markets when the temperature was 100°F was the reason why I stopped eating pork after I moved to Thailand. There is no refrigeration and what is difficult to describe in photos is the overwhelming smell and the swarms of flies.

 

Butcher shop at the fresh market

Butcher shop at the fresh market

 

Pork for sale at the fresh market

Pork for sale at the fresh market

 

Even if you aren't keen on what you see at the fresh market, bear in mind that this is where most restaurants buy their meat, fish and vegetables from.

One of the best overall aspects of living in Thailand is the huge range of choice that is available to you. If you want to rent somewhere to live you can find a room for Bt2,000 per month or you can rent a penthouse apartment in Bangkok for Bt250,000 per month.

Just need a room to stay for the night? There are lots of guesthouses for Bt300 per night or you can stay at one of the best hotels in the world.

If you need to see a doctor you can get medical service very cheaply through the public healthcare system or you can visit one of Thailand's many plush private hospitals.

It's the same with everything, including food shopping. If you need to keep costs down there are lots of places selling cheap food. However, if you want something better, there are branches of TOPS in many provincial towns and there are also places such as the Siam Paragon food hall in Bangkok.

In many developed countries the cheap choices aren't available and in many lesser developed countries the more upmarket choices aren't available. This doesn't apply to Thailand, where there is always lots of choice for all different tastes and all different budgets.

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Saturday 7th October 2017

I spent all last week, from 7am until quite late at night, scanning old film negatives. There were almost 3,000, but sadly I realised that a lot are still in the UK. The negatives from trips to South Africa, Cuba, Egypt and several other places weren't there and must still be in the UK. I don't know whether I will ever see them again.

I will create mini-travelogues with the photos that I did recover and I have just completed the first one. It is of a trip I took to Bali with my brother in January 2003. More to follow when I have time.

Bear in mind these are old film photos that have been scanned in and the image quality doesn't compare to modern digital cameras.

Bali Travelogue, January 2003

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Sunday 1st October 2017

The film negative scanner that I ordered at the beginning of August arrived last week and I have been spending all day, every day, scanning my old photos that date back to 1982.

I haven't finished yet and even when I finish the raw scanning I will need to do the photo editing to make the photos suitable for web browsing. After that I plan to make several photographic travelogues for the various places I have visited.

This experience has evoked multiple emotions.

Several people who were part of my life are no longer part of my life, either because of death or choice. Next month marks the 30th anniversary of my first trip to Thailand and the friend I travelled with (photo below) lost the battle to cancer a few years ago.

The photos have brought back some good memories, but my overall emotion is of sadness. The sadness of a lost world that we will never see again.

I was born, raised, and worked for several years in London. I also used to use my train pass to go into London on weekends purely for fun. I loved London, but many of the aspects I loved about London have now gone.

Around the Charing Cross Road there used to be many small, independent bookshops that specialised in one subject. There also used to be small, independent restaurants that were quite run down, but they were full of character and you could fill your stomach cheaply. However, sharp rent increases and the way that society has changed in general due to technology means that many have now gone.

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to describe what it was like to visit Thailand in 1987. And it isn't just the fact that so many destinations in Thailand that are now overrun with tourists were completely deserted 30 years ago.

It's the fact that nowadays people generally know far, far more about North Korea than they did about Thailand in 1987, and North Korea is the most secretive, concealed country in the world. And it's not just Thailand. It's everywhere.

These days, everyone and their dog has been to Thailand and tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of foreigners live in Thailand permanently. There are a million blogs, YouTube videos, photos and websites about Thailand. This is why I now struggle to find the motivation to do anything here.

Back then, no one I knew had been to Thailand and High Street travel agents weren't able to help me with my travel arrangements. I had to use a specialist travel service because Thailand was regarded as being a 'frontier' destination. I had one guide book and those were days when Lonely Planet guides were actually useful.

I'm not a technophobe or a Luddite. The Internet has given as a great deal and I wouldn't be able to live in Thailand so easily without the Internet, but it has also taken away a lot in life.

I will be visiting Hoi An in Vietnam this month and after watching some YouTube videos I'm sure that when I get there it will feel as if I have been there already. There used to be immense pleasure in going somewhere that was completely new, unknown and mysterious, but that simply doesn't exist today.

There also used to be pleasure in going to a place where very few foreigners had been, but that no longer exists either.

Of course, these are just the rantings and reminiscences of an old man and we can't turn the clock back, of course, but it still makes me quite sad. This is another reason why, in the last 15 years, I have lost the sense of wanderlust that used to be such a big part of my life.

I will post more photos later, but here is just one of Samui Island in 1987. At that time, as I remember, some Brits knew about Bangkok and Phuket (which they thought was pronounced Fuckit because of the unnecessary 'h' in the transliteration), but no one had heard of Samui apart from a few backpackers.

There was no airport, no hotels, and no electricity. However, there were coconut palms everywhere. The only accommodation options were like the one in the photo - small huts on the beach that cost about Bt100 per night.

Each bungalow operation had a generator and each hut had one or two electric lights. The power went off frequently and during one power cut I asked my friend, John, if I could borrow his flashlight.

What I didn't realise was that after it went dark all the cockroaches that had been hiding in various nooks and crevices in my bungalow came out to play. As soon as I turned on the flashlight I realised that I had been sharing my accommodation with a large family of gigantic cockroaches.

 

A beach bungalow on Koh Samui in 1987

A beach bungalow on Koh Samui in 1987

 

Samui was actually far too quiet for me in 1987 and I became quite bored. We then moved on to Pattaya, which was an entirely different proposition. I'd never had so much fun in my life. I enjoyed Pattaya immensely in 1987, but when I went back the next time in 1992 I found it quite miserable. "Everyone has gone to Phuket," I kept being told.

I too went to Phuket and remember saying to myself in 1992, "This is paradise." I returned again in 1996 and it too had changed enormously. Unfortunately, I didn't find that the changes had been for the better and after 1996 I had no desire to go back to Phuket. This became a theme with the various places I went to afterwards in Thailand.

But I'm ranting and reminiscing again. More old photos later.

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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.

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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.

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