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  • Living in Thailand Blog September 2011

 

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Living In Thailand Blog

Friday 30th September 2011

The floods in northern Thailand have occurred in mainly rural areas well away from tourist locations. That situation has changed now after the Ping river burst its banks and flooded the central tourist area of Chiang Mai.

The well-known Night Bazaar has been submerged under a metre of water and on the news reports it looked more like a floating market.

Floods to cost Chiang Mai Bt3 bn: banker

The south, so far, has escaped any serious flooding although there has been torrential rain at times and the Thai Meteorological Department has issued various warnings regarding flash floods and mudslides.

"Tropical Storm Nesat", which caused havoc in the Philippines and is now over Vietnam is affecting weather patterns in the region.

My brother, who has a house in Phuket, told me that the JungCeylon shopping centre in Patong was flooded recently and that there has been heavy rain at his place.

Weather situations can change very quickly. The big flood I experienced last year was caused after a big storm came in and brought non-stop torrential rain for four days. Prior to that it had been fine.

If you are due to travel to Thailand soon, keep an eye on the weather news.

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Thursday 29th September 2011

Having the time to do this is a luxury I haven't been able to enjoy for a long time. What is making a difference at the moment is not having to work.

On top of everything else that's been going on recently, my teaching schedule is terrible this year. A couple of years ago it was good. Now it's about as inconvenient as it could possibly be with lots of split lessons and lots of hanging around. I'm pleased that I won't be teaching for much longer.

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles but it is really the Land of Contrasts. We all generalise about Thailand but making general statements means that we will always be wrong about certain things and certain people.

Foreign men want to find out about Thai girls, as if all Thai girls are identical. When I think about some of my ultra-conservative female friends and compare them to some of the hardened hookers working in the tourist resorts, you couldn't find people are more different.

The wealth gap is enormous. There are immensely wealthy people who are rich by international standards, not just Thai standards, and then there are lots of Thais living just above the poverty line.

I know very clever Thais, but I meet a lot of people who are ... well, not so clever.

Customer service is the same. I've encountered some of the worst customer service I've ever encountered, but at other places the service has been very good.

When we moved to this rented place last year there were some plumbing problems that needed fixing. The owner insisted on her plumber doing the work (probably because he was cheap), but he was a nightmare.

He replaced one of the toilet squirters - a quick job - but then drilled through the wall and straight into a water pipe. He then had to smash all the tiles to get at the pipe to repair it. The small job he had to do ended up taking about three hours to complete and he made a real mess of the wall.

The kitchen drain was blocked and the first thing he started to do was to smash all the floor tiles around the drain with a hammer. When this didn't work (surprisingly), he proceeded to make a long pipe and poke it into the drain from the outside of the house.

This didn't work and I later found out he had been sticking his pipe up our neighbour's drain. When nothing that he did worked he told me it was normal when emptying the sink for the contents to appear on the kitchen floor and to stay there for several hours. He then left.

I got a proper plumber in even though I had to pay for the work myself.

My little brother's place in Phuket - Click for larger image We were due to drive over to Phuket tomorrow. One of my brothers bought a house there last year and the other brother is visiting from the UK so we had planned a reunion. Once you get away from Phuket's tacky beach resorts, it's actually quite a pleasant place.

However, my car decided to start playing up yesterday and it looked as if the trip would have to be cancelled.

I went to the service centre this morning, expecting to have to make an appointment next week, but they agreed to try to fix it today.

I've used one place for all of my servicing and repairs and they've been very good. The car looked fine when I bought it but I then started to find lots of things that needed fixing. I think the previous owner was aware of all these things and decided to sell the car rather than to get the problems fixed.

There are lots of backstreet car repair shops in Thailand but I feel more comfortable using the main dealerships. Their facilities are excellent, the technicians are very good, and because they just deal with one make of car their diagnosis of problems is usually very good. When fixing anything, nothing beats experience.

If they can effect the repairs today we will make the trip; if not, we will go at Christmas when a family reunion is taking place.

If you're new to Thailand and trying to find out about any aspect of the country, anything you are told or read will be a generalisation. It has to be. It will apply in some cases, but not all.

I'm married now but even before I was married I hadn't had any problems with Thai girls for many years. I did as a tourist and as a newbie expat but I quickly developed the ability to differentiate between the girls who were trouble and those who weren't.

With most things now I know where to go when I need to buy something or need a service. This comes with experience. At first you may have a lot of bad experiences but it's all part of the learning curve.

Word of mouth is also very powerful in Thailand and this is how Thais work. I only bought a car last year so didn't have much experience of car servicing here. My wife's brothers all work in the trade and they have lots of experience and knowledge.

When I wanted new tyres, a new battery and parking sensors fitted, they recommended where to go in each case.

If you're not sure about something, seek local knowledge. Thais are fully aware of the differences that exist here and will happily recommend places with good service.

This can also apply to people. Before I married my wife she was a teacher at the same school and lots of her colleagues gave me very positive - and unsolicited - character references.

Thais don't like to say bad things about a person so if they are reluctant to say anything it isn't generally a good sign. It probably means they don't have anything good to say and they don't want to say anything bad.


 

น้ำท่วม

If you're currently in Thailand and don't know the Thai for 'flood', you must be living in a cave.

The TV news is still showing lots of flood stories in northern Thailand. Some places have been flooded for over a month and the water shows no signs of receding. I feel enormous sympathy for the people affected.

I never realised how serious an issue this was in Thailand until last year but I would go as far as saying that it is the biggest problem the country faces. Serious flooding affects everything. Normal life stops, just existing from day to day becomes very difficult, crops are wiped out, and enormous damage occurs.

The two metre flood in my house last year - Click for larger image It can also cause a lot of mental stress. Some Thais seem to take flooding in their stride, but others have a difficult time and can even get suicidal. The flood last year affected me badly and it is around this time of year that I start to get extremely anxious about a recurrence.

It's dry at the moment but last year it was also dry a week before the flood. A big storm came in and there was constant rain for about four days which then caused the problems. It doesn't take very long and weather is highly unpredictable.

Everyone is very focused at the moment but my concern is that as soon as the water recedes the problem will just be forgotten about until the next flood.

We only ever experience life in the present. Fretting about things that happened in the past or worrying what might happen in the future is a waste of mental energy. Buddhism reminds us of this and Thais are very good at living for the present.

My criticism is that with many Thais this way of thinking goes a little too far. It is not good to continually worry about the future but it is good to think about the future a little so that you can do things to prevent problems. You see examples of not thinking about the future all the time in Thailand.

When the flood problems do eventually ease I would like to see huge infrastructure projects put in place straight away to improve the situation in future, but my gut feeling tells me nothing will happen. I really hope I'm wrong.

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Wednesday 28th September 2011

The TV news this morning showed a group of Thai kids dressed as Nazis carrying a large swastika flag while participating in a sports parade in Chiang Mai.

Schoolkids dressed as Hitler, SS guards

The Simon Wiesenthal Center got a little upset. This kind of thing has happened before and it is quite common to see Thai motorcyclists riding around wearing replica WW2 German army helmets with a swastika on one side and an SS flash on the other.

Thailand covers Hitler billboard

I tried to explain to my Thai wife how offensive this is to certain foreigners and I attempted to give her an example that would cause similar offense to Thais.

She got quite defensive. How were Thais supposed to know what Hitler and the Nazis did? She thought Hitler was just an ordinary soldier. (She has a Bachelor's degree, by the way.)

As the Bangkok Post report says about the incident in Chiang Mai, "The students did not realise that using the Nazi theme had any sensitive or negative implications."

You'd think that Thais would have a little more knowledge about important events in history but the answer, sadly, is they don't.

List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll

WW2 was responsible for the greatest loss of life of any conflict in history, yet Thais, apparently, have no knowledge of what happened. Having worked with Thai students for a while this doesn't really surprise me. There are several problems.

First is the overriding culture of sanook and sabai. Thais want learning experiences to be on the same fun level as watching a movie, and they don't want to leave their comfort zone. That's fine, except we all know that learning anything worthwhile is seldom fun or comfortable. It's tough and we have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones.

Secondly, the school curriculum has been designed by Thais for Thais living in Thailand. There is a lot of focus on a subject that students refer to as 'Social' in English, but this is really just about what is required of Thais later in life to be good, obedient, trouble-free citizens.

Aspects of Thai culture are extremely important and time is given over to Thai language, Thai music, Thai dancing, vegetable carving, etc.

History just covers Thailand and it is selective. Nothing is taught that might paint Thailand in a bad light. Hence the lack of knowledge of what happened elsewhere in the world in the middle of the last century.

A formal education system has only existed in Thailand for a hundred years or so and originally it was set up to teach students how to read and write. Learning to read and write Thai requires a lot of memorisation and learning by rote works very well for this purpose.

The only problem is that as the curriculum expanded, the teaching methods didn't. Most subjects are still taught by rote. Thais want to learn English by being able to memorise grammar rules but they can't because they don't have the ability to think about how to use the grammar rules.

My students recently had an IT exam. I asked what they studied in IT and the answer was impressive. They gave me a list of computing acronyms and it sounded as if they had the ability to help me with any computer or network problem I had.

The reality is that they get given some basic information about various technologies that has probably been copied from Wikipedia and then they have to memorise the facts and figures. They don't actually understand anything about the subject.

The whole education system is about being able to memorise facts which are then regurgitated in order to pass exams.

Last year I set up a small project for some of my students to build a very basic web site which only needed the most elementary knowledge of HTML. Despite all their IT education they couldn't do it without lots of help.

After their secondary education, students whose parents can afford to pay go to university because nowadays a Bachelor's degree is the minimum qualification for anything. They go through four more years of the same thing.

Thailand churns out about 700,000 graduates a year and most are unable to do anything. But they have a degree and that's all that matters in Thailand.

I didn't do a degree because it wasn't necessary when I left school in the mid-70's. My tertiary level of education - an HNC in Mechanical and Production engineering - is far more valuable in real terms than the average Thai degree but because it isn't called a degree it is worthless in Thailand.

It is a good thing that my teaching days are coming to an end soon because it would be difficult for me to continue much longer.

My experience of working for 19 years for one of the most successful companies ever to exist in the history of corporate America is also worthless. The fact that I can speak Thai better after 20 hours of formal teaching than most Thais can speak English after 12 years of formal education is worthless.

You can't fight it because this is how the system works. The IQ level of Thai children has been found to be below average compared to children from other countries but it's the fault of the system, not the kids.

Thai students found below global average

These are some of the reasons why I don't want my daughter to go through the Thai education system. The early schooling in Thailand is fine because learning to read and write Thai by rote will equip her with essential language knowledge, but later on she will need to learn how to think and she won't learn this skill at a Thai school.

But what does my opinion matter? European countries are currently falling apart with the biggest financial crisis the world has seen for a long time, while Thailand's economy continues to grow. Perhaps Thailand has got it right after all?

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Tuesday 27th September 2011

I have a short break from work and, for the first time I can remember in a very long time, I have some time to call my own.

There were two overarching reasons for me having to stop writing here. In March of this year our daughter arrived and I completely underestimated the amount of effort involved with taking care of a child.

A little later in the year, the economies of the world started to go into meltdown and the timing couldn't have been worse for me personally. Financially, 2008 was about the worst year I had previously experienced and I didn't think it could get any worse. I was wrong again.

This is supposedly a blog about living in Thailand but the things happening in my life at the moment don't really have much to do with Thailand.

Thailand is full of irritating little things that I can tolerate if things are going well, but when life is difficult it is those same small irritations that can push me over the edge. I therefore find that there are certain times when I shouldn't write about Thailand because other matters taint my outlook.

The baby first, and she gets better every day. The first three months were tough for me and my wife because neither of us had any previous experience of babies. The baby was also born with a small problem which entailed lots of hospital visits and extra care.

Just looking after her is a full time job for one person. It takes two to look after the baby, take care of the house, and do everything else. I therefore have to give the wife a lot of support, I'm still working, and therefore I have been very busy.

I read quite an interesting article recently about fatherhood. Looking after a child is such a huge task that nature lowers the testosterone level of men who have become fathers so they stop being distracted and can concentrate on helping to look after the child.

Fatherhood 'lowers testosterone to keep men loyal'

The economy is frightening at the moment and there could be a lot worse to come. I've held stocks and shares since the early 90's and never had a plan to cash them in. I have never needed the money and they just sat there going up and down.

During the crisis a few years ago I didn't do anything. I saw a big (paper) drop at the height of the crisis but then everything returned to normal.

I actually did quite well. My cash savings used to get a reasonable amount of interest but when interest rates dropped to almost nothing so did my interest payments. I transferred this money to the stock market when it was at its lowest point and then watched as it almost doubled in value within a year.

I honestly thought that we wouldn't go through the same thing again. A few months ago there was a big drop in the markets, followed by several more big drops. In a matter of weeks I had lost the cash equivalent of about three new cars.

I spent a whole weekend looking at as much information as I could online to see if I could work out what was going to happen. It didn't look good.

The phrase that kept coming up was that every government action was simply 'kicking the can along the road'. With every bailout they were just delaying the inevitable and in reality they didn't know how to fix the problems that previous governments had created.

Many people were predicting the collapse of the Euro and even the collapse of the dollar.

Two of the rules about investing in the stockmarket are not to invest if you need the money soon, or if it keeps you awake at night. Both cases applied to me. Our new house will be finished next year and it is the money from my investments that will pay for it.

At one time the situation was also keeping me awake at night because of the wild swings every day. Instead of being able to pay for the house and still have a lot left over, at one point I could envisage a scenario where I wouldn't have enough for the house.

In my old bachelor life I might not have done anything but, with a wife and daughter now, I felt obliged to cut out the risk so I cashed everything in.

Most of the money was in unit trusts (mutual funds) and it was necessary to wait another day until these could be sold. That wait cost me another 3% as the markets continued to plummet.

After selling, the markets then started to go up. I felt pretty sick. But then they started to go down again. I'm now past the stage of caring. As long as I have enough to pay for the house, to buy a car for the wife, and some left over I don't care.

I could write about this at length and I have been through lots of emotions. For years I've seen that many things about Western economies obviously aren't right but they just seemed to continue without any problems.

Lots of things have come out that I wasn't aware of. I had no idea that Goldman Sachs had colluded with Greece so that Greece could legally make the economy look better than it was and thus gain entry into the Eurozone (Greece-Goldman Sachs Deals Were 'Completely Scandalous' - And Perfectly Legal).

I had no idea that paying taxes in Greece was optional or that so many countries had run up such an enormous level of debt.

I feel a lot of anger at the way a minority has made life intensely difficult for the majority just so they could get rich. I feel anger at the way the UK government has squandered so much money. The revenue from taxes and North Sea oil is huge but they still borrowed massive amounts.

Even though I have bailed out of the markets, this is not the end. I am still subject to exchange rates and inflation changing for the worse. Inflation will eventually be a big problem.

I watched a scary video on the BBC news site today. The trader being interviewed predicts that the Euro will crash with a bang and that people's savings could be wiped out within a year.

The other comment that made me sit up was when he said that governments don't rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world.

'Anyone can make money from a crash', says market trader

I liked his honesty but as he says, he isn't bothered about how to fix the crisis. It doesn't matter to him. All he is concerned about is making money. In a situation where the people who 'rule the world' are the same people who are only interested in making money for themselves, the world is in a lot of trouble. And at the moment the Western world is in a lot of trouble.


Getting back to Thailand, today was a 'big merit-making' day (tum-buun yai). The wife was keen to go because she is Thai and she wanted to meet her family at the temple.

Merit-making is extremely important to Thais. It's a great thing in theory, but I have a number of reservations about how it is carried out by most Thais.

If someone captures a bird and locks it in a cage, the act of someone else paying to release it does not constitute merit-making in my eyes. The bird shouldn't have been caged in the first place.

Merit-making is always done through the monkhood because Thais believe they can make most merit this way. But the monks are very well cared for already and there are other people in society who are more needy.

Old man in Soi - Click for larger image A little way along our Soi there lives an old man with no family. I don't know what happened to his family. He doesn't say much and he doesn't seem to understand when Thai people speak with him. Many old people in Thailand are looked after by their families but he doesn't have anyone to look after him.

He lives in a shack that would make the average UK garden shed look luxurious. It must be full of insects and he must have had a terrible time during last year's flood.

He pedals a tricycle around the streets and I think he collects rubbish to sell to the recycling people. He can probably just about make enough money this way to feed himself on cheap rice meals.

I passed him the other day and felt a lot of pity. After I got home I spoke to my wife and we agreed to buy him some food. We bought a 5kg bag of rice and some other stuff and told him where we live in case he has a problem and needs some help.

I believe in trying to help people but I'm not interested in the highly conspicuous merit-making ceremonies that go on at the temples here. I don't want to walk around showing off how much money I have collected and I don't want a monk to read my name out for all to hear because I have donated to the temple.

Milk for the pups - Click for larger image I feel better for helping people who really need help. Last year at the same ceremony I got bored and took a walk around the temple grounds. I found about a dozen newborn hungry pups. My wife and I then went to a petshop to buy them milk and food. That's my definition of making merit.

I've been trying to explain my thoughts to her but trying to explain anything to a Thai can be hard work. They get brought up a certain way and continue to do things because that's how they've always been done without really thinking for themselves.

This inability to think has a lot to do with the education system, although interestingly my students were given an assignment by a Thai teacher recently to look at the custom of paying to release caged birds and to think about whether it was making merit or not.

Things could be changing. I hope so.


One of my hot topics - the antics of Thai drivers - doesn't get any better. We went out on Saturday and ran into a mini traffic jam. Lots of cars had stopped so that the occupants could gawp at something on the other side of the road.

We saw that an accident had occurred and then we saw the victim lying on the road covered with a white sheet. It was yet another fatality and probably a motorcyclist. Only about half of motorcyclists here wear a crash helmet. Passengers aren't required to wear one (which doesn't make any sense at all) but drivers are supposed to.

Not wearing a crash helmet is illegal, but so is running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road, and using a mobile phone while driving, etc etc. Making something illegal doesn't make much difference to Thais.

Last week my sister-in-law's stepdaughter was sitting in front of her house reading a book. A friend of her father's turned up at the house in his new car and drove straight into her. His excuse was that his shoe got stuck on the accelerator but we think he is just an incompetent driver - as many Thais are.

The initial prognosis wasn't good. At one point we thought she might be paralysed for life - she's only 16 and a pretty girl.

However, it wasn't quite as bad as we first thought. She has broken ribs, shoulders and legs but she will recover eventually.

The way some people drive here is beyond belief but no matter how many lives are lost each year on Thailand's roads (about 40 a day) nothing ever improves.

This is what I can't understand about Thailand. Other countries recognise a problem and make changes so that there is an improvement. In Thailand nothing ever changes, no matter how serious the problem.


Flooding continues to dominate the domestic news this year. It was bad last year and it's been bad again this year in the northern part of the country. There was a report the other day about flood water having reached five metres in one place. They showed a two-storey house and all that was above water was the roof.

Many developed countries have been hit by flooding in recent years. Flood defences exist but once every 50 or 100 years the weather conditions are such that the flood defences aren't sufficient.

It's not the same in Thailand. Floods occur every year and in many areas there are no defences at all. Thais have become so accustomed to flooding that they just accept it will happen.

Last year was the first time I have been involved in a flood and it was a nightmare. Now that we have a baby, car and cats, it will be even worse if it happens again. The new house is on high ground but it won't be ready until next year so we need to stay in this rented place for one more rainy season. I am just praying (even though I'm not religious) that we will be OK.

From what I can make out, La Niña conditions aren't as strong now as they were last year and the Thai Meteorological Department says that there will be less rain than usual this year in the south.

I can't get flood insurance and last year we got Bt5,000 compensation from the local municipality. I guess our damage was somewhere between Bt30,000 and Bt40,000. But it's not simply about money.

It takes a huge amount of effort to clean up afterwards and it is no fun living without electricity or fresh running water for several days - maybe weeks. Many businesses took months to recover and reopen last year and some closed for good.

What has been done since last year's big flood to improve the situation? As far as I know, nothing. We now have expensive fancy lampposts in town, and big posters have been displayed about a new market opening up on the banks of the canal but flooding doesn't seem to matter.

As a foreigner living here it's the only thing that matters to me. I can live without the fancy lampposts and yet another market but my value system is different to the Thai value system. It is the value system of a society that determines what is important and therefore what it is that available funds are spent on.

I'm not underestimating the scale of the problem. There was concern recently that flood water from the north would inundate Bangkok even though there was enough capacity to hold several hundred million cubic metres of water before the water hit the capital.

The amount of water is colossal and there isn't an easy or cheap solution. It's a big problem and it will require a big solution. The problem can be fixed, or at least dramatically improved, if the will to fix it exists. At the moment I'm not convinced that it does.

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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.

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.

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