Living In Thailand Blog
Wednesday 30th September 2015
I read two articles this morning that compared the current economic situation in Southeast Asia with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
The economic growth of both countries in recent years has been based on the huge economic growth in China, but now that the Chinese economy has caught a big cold both Thailand and Malaysia are sneezing.
Both countries have also experienced massive political turmoil - the military coup in Thailand and the suspension of democratic government, and the 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia. Oil production is a major industry in Malaysia and Petronas contributes a lot of money to the Malaysian government, but with oil prices so low this hasn't helped the Malaysian economy.
The Malaysian Ringgit is the weakest it has been for years. For a long time one Ringgit bought around Bt10, but now the figure is just over Bt8. I went to see a Thai friend who runs a small spa in Hat Yai a few days ago. She was complaining about how quiet business is this year and cited the exchange rate as a major contributing factor.
One Singapore dollar now buys more than three Malaysian Ringgits, the lowest the Malaysian Ringgit has ever been against Singapore's currency.
At the beginning of April this year a 6% Goods and Services Tax was implemented in Malaysia. There is no doubt that Malaysians are feeling the pinch and only a few people still have the money to go on overseas luxury shopping sprees.
The economy in Malaysia has been strong for several years and many young Malaysians have grown up not knowing what economic hardship is. Consequently, they do not worry about taking out loans but quite a few came unstuck last year as the bankruptcy rate suddenly soared.
Hat Yai put a lot of its eggs in the Malaysian tourism basket and the town is suffering this year. My guide to Hat Yai is also suffering and receiving fewer visitors at the moment than it has ever done.
The fall in visitors to my website is hurting me, but I don't have a great deal of sympathy for Malaysia. If governments are corrupt then countries deserve to suffer and the thing that I really dislike about Malaysia is having a policy of official discrimination written into the constitution that gives one ethnic group special privileges over Malaysian citizens of other ethnic groups.
The Malaysian government is being very gung ho, saying that the country's fundamentals are sound and that everything will recover, but I'm not so sure.
Monday 28th September 2015
A few follow up comments to the Phuket property scam story that I mentioned on Friday. It frightens the life out of me that someone can transfer your property to someone else simply be forging your signature and that the Thai justice system offers absolutely no recourse to foreigners.
Naturally, I sent the link to my brother, who bought a large villa in Phuket some years ago (in his Thai wife's name and not via the setting up a Thai company route). The purchase was legitimate and the only risk he faces (like me) is if his wife decides to do a dirty on him.
He works in the foreign exchange market in Singapore, an industry I don't particularly like because it generates a huge amount of money (an average of $5.3 trillion traded per day in April 2013) without producing anything productive and I am not keen on some of the people who work in the industry. They earn big salaries, but quite a few tend to be loud, brash, ostentatious and very arrogant.
One of his old colleagues, who I took an instant dislike to, left the industry and moved to Phuket to speculate on property as a high-pressure salesman. I just received an update on him from my brother.
"He was selling condos here which 'guaranteed' 10pct annual return. Anyone who questioned it was shot down in flames - "The lawyers have checked it out". He ploughed a lot of his own money into it and now, not only has the projected return failed to materialise, but the units were built without the proper (or with forged) building permits. Consequently, they are being demolished and he will lose his entire investment. It's going through the courts, but I don't fancy his chances. He won't get back into the financial markets so a man who spent his 20s spraying champagne around bars is now contemplating a job in a supermarket."
Think very carefully before investing money in property in Thailand and never believe salespeople. People selling houses in Thailand, regardless of whether they are Thai or foreigners, have only one objective - to sell properties and receive their commission. They will promise the Earth and lie through their teeth to get you to sign on the dotted line.
I have seen plenty of estate agents in Phuket trying to sell expensive properties to foreigners. They don't mention that foreigners can't buy these properties legally. When the subject comes up they casually mention that it is an easy law to get around. Indeed, there are ways to get around the law, but they are fraught with risk and you can't trust many Thai lawyers.
From signing the contract on my house to moving in took about 20 months. In that time there were three or four sets of salespeople. They don't tend to stay around for very long, otherwise their lies will catch up with them. Whatever you ask for can be done and any potential problems can be resolved. They will promise anything.
On one occasion when I visited the house there was a really bad smell in the air. I asked the salesgirl what it was and she acted very surprised. She told me that she had never noticed the smell before and didn't know what it was.
After we moved in we started to notice the smell more frequently. There is a garbage processing plant nearby and when the wind blows in the wrong direction the smell is terrible. The salesgirl was working here permanently at the time and must have known what it was, but didn't want to say anything that might jeopardise her commission. Concealing the truth is no better than lying.
In the BBC story the reason given for why one of the Thai women changed ownership of the house from her husband's name to her name by forging his signature was because her family were pressuring her for money. With the house in her name she then had the collateral to borrow money from a loan shark.
This highlights two of the potential problems with Thai women. With certain Thai women, if you marry them, not only do you take on the responsibility of supporting the woman but also her immediate and extended families. This is a particular problem with girls from Isaan and in the big tourists resorts the Thai girls who offer themselves to foreign men are much more likely to be from Isaan than local girls.
Even if you are very generous to your wife and treat her very well she will want more money because money is being demanded from her relatives. Jimmy, the Singaporean man married to an Isaan girl who I mentioned in a previous post, warned me of this many years ago.
Secondly, many Thais don't think of the consequences of borrowing money and will even borrow from loan sharks. These guys charge huge amounts of interest and if they don't receive their payments life can get very nasty.
I had a small problem with my wife shortly after we got married. She was from a poor background and seemed to think that marrying a farang was her winning lottery ticket. With a farang husband the financial floodgates would open and she could spend, spend, spend.
That didn't happen. I wasn't mean with her, but I have to manage my spending. This frustrated her and behind my back she went out and borrowed Bt10,000. I don't know where she borrowed it from, but she had to pay Bt3,000 in interest. I was furious.
If it had been for an urgent matter I would have just given her money. It wasn't urgent. This was just her way of getting back at me. Sometimes with a Thai wife it feels like having a loose cannon on board which is impossible to control and potentially quite dangerous.
I probably make her out to appear worse than she actually is. After all the stories I have heard about Thai women, she is pretty good comparatively. However, even the ones who appear quiet, shy and demure when you meet them at first can be a real headache at times.
On my twice-yearly trips to Bangkok I like to take the opportunity to eat some decent food for a change and in good Bangkok restaurants I have noticed a lot of farang men requesting a table for one. There are times when I envy them.
I never had a problem being on my own until the age of 50. Up until that time I actually preferred to be on my own and always found it awkward when someone hinted that they wanted to travel with me. I didn't like travelling with other people. I didn't need company and I liked the complete freedom I had being on my own.
But then a strange thing happened around 50. I started to feel lonely and felt an emptiness inside that was impossible to resolve by doing things on my own. This change in how I felt caused me to revise my plans for retirement completely.
My original plan had been to retire at 50, keep a small apartment somewhere in Thailand, and travel around Thailand and the Southeast Asia region continually, staying in places for maybe a month at a time. Financially, I would have been very comfortable doing this with just one mouth to feed.
Instead, I ended up taking a wife and - like most farangs - I opted for a young one. All young Thai women want children, the security of a house and vehicles. The loneliness no longer exists, in fact, it feels like heaven these days if I get a few hours to myself without any interruptions. However, dealing with property, vehicles, kids, schools and a Thai wife adds a hell of a lot more into the bargain.
Many Thai women seem to think that it is so easy being a foreign male, but I disagree. For many years I wanted to do things, but had neither the time nor the money. I had to work to get money and my career was very demanding.
Just at the time of my life when I was about to have both the time and money to do pretty much whatever I wanted, I no longer wanted to be by myself and to satisfy the feelings of loneliness voluntarily took on responsibilities that would then use up all of my available time and money. Life's not fair.
Possibly I could have waited a few years, but I had already left it late for fatherhood and waiting longer would only have made it more difficult to cope with. And maybe I wouldn't have been able to find another Thai girl willing to marry me? The strange thing about all this is that you might think I resent getting married and having kids. I don't. With kids there comes an unconditional love for them that overrides everything else. It puts life in perspective and makes anything else that I would otherwise have been doing seem insignificant and irrelevant.
I also think that if we live our lives by always avoiding risk that we miss out on a lot. Life may not be problematic, but it may not be very fulfilling either. Succesful businessman never achieve their success without taking a lot of risk. Risk is part of life and we all have varying degrees of risk that we are comfortable living with. I'm not a big risk taker, but I understand that risk cannot be avoided entirely.
Life is strange. It takes many twists and turns and we never seem to quite know where it will lead us.
Friday 25th September 2015
This is a messy post. I've been busy with immigration, hospital visits and work on the house this week. I've also been on a bit of a mission that is far from complete yet. Let me explain.
Last year my wife was complaining that we had run out of refrigeration space so I bought another fridge. The problem wasn't so much a lack of space, but how the space is used. This morning I tackled the fridge problem again.
My wife - like most Thais - considers it a sin to waste food, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Food is expensive and many people in the world don't have enough so we shouldn't think lightly of throwing good food away.
Whenever we eat at home or in restaurants and there is food left over she puts the uneaten food in the fridge. She doesn't put it in the fridge to be eaten at a later date, she just puts it in the fridge where it stays.
Every once in a while, normally when there is no available space in the fridge, I grit my teeth and seek to find out what is taking up all the space. This isn't a pleasant task for there is always food in boxes that is months old and completely unsuitable for human consumption. It also normally smells quite bad.
The task isn't pleasant, but after I have finished the fridge suddenly has spare capacity again and this exercise also frees up a lot of food storage boxes.
The problem in my house is that every room, cupboard and drawer is similar to the fridge. We are always running out of storage space and I am always putting up shelves or converting balconies into storage rooms to increase storage capacity, but it doesn't fix the underlying problem.
The underlying problem is that our storage areas are just full of junk. This week I started tackling every room, cupboard and drawer to locate and dispose of things that we don't need and won't ever use. It has proven to be a very useful exercise, but it is very time consuming.
Whenever I start to write something here I get called away and don't finish anything, therefore I can't upload anything. If you find anything below that looks to be half-written or is full of typos, this is the reason.
Singapore is ranked first and described as a utopia.
Of course, these surveys are always very subjective. Singapore is a tiny First World nation in a huge Third World region. It's ultra-clean, ultra-safe, ultra-modern, ultra-convenient ... and ultra-expensive. My entire income wouldn't even be enough to rent a shoebox-sized apartment in Singapore, let alone cover all my other living expenses.
Many expats, my brother included, earn big salaries in Singapore and they have a good standard of living. Singapore seems like the most amazing place on first impressions, but I have the feeling that living there permanently starts to get boring for a lot of people after a few years.
Even if your salary is big enough to cover eating at high class restaurants and shopping in Orchard Road's many designer shops, it's a superficial and not very satisfying lifestyle. Singapore is also so small that after a while residents start to suffer from Island Fever.
These days my brother just works in Singapore from Monday to Friday. His home and his family are in Thailand, which is where he spends his weekends and vacation days.
I am forever seeing lists of places that other people consider 'the best' but I find them arrogant and annoying. They are often just one person's subjective opinion or, in the case of travel websites, a list of 10 restaurants visited by 10 different people who haven't got a clue about the overall restaurant scene in that location.
Expats in Thailand also have a slightly annoying habit of always believing that where they live is the 'best' location in Thailand. The truth is best summed up by the old saying about one man's meat being another man's poison.
There's no harm in listening to other people's opinion, but the decision about where to live if you wish to live in another country is a very personal decision.
Buyer beware! The following is a nightmare story, but nothing contained in the story surprises me. It's all perfectly normal in Thailand.
The fact that a property belonging to a foreigner can be stolen so easily just by a Thai forging the foreigner's signature doesn't surprise me. The fact that it was the guy's wife who stole his property doesn't surprise me. The fact that so-called professional people can't be trusted doesn't surprise me. The fact that the foreigners received death threats and threats that their children would be abducted doesn't surprise me. The fact that it is impossible to get any justice doesn't surprise me.
There are genuinely good, kind people in Thailand, but there is also a lot of evil. For many Thais money is at the very top of their personal value system and some Thais will stop at nothing if they have the chance of getting their hands on a lot of money.
There are so many ways Thais have of scamming foreigners that the evergreen piece of advice about not investing more money in Thailand than you can afford to lose is still the best.
I do feel some sympathy because one of the men in the video invested in good faith based on Thaksin's 'Thailand Elite' scheme, which was subsequently revoked.
However, my sympathy soon runs out when I read, "I was looking for a place that was warm, a place that had some rule of law, where I could live in safety and peace."
Rule of law? In Thailand? This statement makes it very clear that he had done absolutely no research about Thailand and knew absolutely nothing about Thailand when he arrived. Before investing I only assume his only experience of Thailand was sitting on a Phuket beach for a couple of weeks and being seduced by the 'image' of Thailand that he was allowed to see.
His statement later on shows that his knowledge of Thailand has increased considerably since he first arrived but, alas, not before he lost all his money. "Bt500 buys you a lawyer. There is no professionalism or ethics in the legal profession in Thailand. They (Thais) don't know right from wrong."
Both men were successful in their home countries before moving to Thailand and both are intelligent people. They aren't your average tattooed Pattaya sexpats. I don't know what it is about Thailand, but even intelligent, successful foreigners end up getting cheated and scammed.
Over the years I've had quite a lot of correspondence from such men who have got involved with Thai girls and although they always tell me they are very aware of the scams, they always tell me - without exception - that the particular girl they got involved with is different from the rest and can be trusted. The men have this unique ability to find the only female in Thailand who can be trusted ... apart from the fact she can't, and she is no different to the rest.
Buying property is a huge risk in Thailand, whichever way you do it. I have invested a lot in Thailand, but I am fully aware that nothing I have paid for belongs to me legally and that I could lose everything. In my personal situation losing everything is an extremely small risk, but it is a risk nonetheless.
For this reason I have followed my own advice. Even if I were to lose everything in Thailand I still have my UK property, which continues to appreciate in value at a crazy rate, and the proceeds from that would keep me in comfort for the rest of my days.
If you are considering investing in property in Thailand don't be overly concerned, but never underestimate the risks. Lots of foreigners living in Thailand have good lives, but if things go wrong in Thailand they can go horribly wrong. The concluding paragraph of this story is quite true.
"Thousands of foreigners have settled in Phuket without serious difficulties. But if things do go wrong, they may find it hard to get help from the police or the judicial system."
I would be more concerned about buying property in certain parts of Thailand than others. Phuket is a particularly risky place because land is so expensive and because it attracts so many foreigners. Samui is somewhere I would be extremely wary of because being so far away from the mainland it has its own set of laws. I would also be wary of Pattaya and other places that attract lots of foreigners.
Foreigners are restricted from owning land by Thai law. A house requires land to stand on and therefore foreigners can't own houses. Condos are different because a living space can be bought without actually buying any land. Foreigners can therefore own condos, but there are still risks attached.
Many condos are sold with renewable 30 year leases and of course the developer will swear blind that it will be easy to renew the lease after 30 years. However, he won't be around when the lease expires and you have problems getting a renewal.
When buying houses, foreigners can either buy the house in the name of a Thai person - normally their spouse of partner or set up a company and buy the property through the company.
If you buy in the name of a Thai person you effectively hand over the value of the house to that person and can you trust them enough?
If you set up a company the Thais will expect certain things from the company, such as lists of Thai employees, tax returns, accounts, etc. There have been cases of foreigners taking over existing companies in order to buy property and then finding out that the company they took over has a lot of debt.
There is a big problem in Thailand, especially in locations where land is very expensive, of developers building houses on land that doesn't belong to them. Customers think everything is above board and then find out after buying the property that it is built on stolen land.
The problem highlighted of forged signatures in this BBC story is another way in which foreigners can be cheated out of a lot of money.
When I mentioned the Indonesian haze problem in southern Thailand recently, I mentioned that it is a lot worse further down the peninsula in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Singaporeans get extremely pissed off because it ruins Singapore's ultra-clean environment and they can't do anything to stop it. Schools in Singapore have been closed and, worst of all, junk food restaurants have suspended their delivery services.
One of my hobby horse subjects in Thailand (I have many and you probably know them all by now) is blocked sidewalks that have been illegally overtaken by street vendors. No government in the past has done anything about the problem, but that could all be changing now under Prayut. Prayut seems intent on fixing problems that have existed in Thailand for as long as anyone can remember.
The fact that problems have existed for so long is a big problem in itself. Thais are so used to living how they do that they think it is perfectly normal and they think they have the right just to set up sidewalk stalls wherever they want, regardless of the inconvenience it causes to pedestrians.
Exactly the same type of markets exist where I live. My only reservation about what is happening in Bangkok is that rarely does the same kind of law enforcement make its way out into the provinces.
There is nothing I like more than saying good things about Thailand and the Thais, but they make it so hard for me. Nonetheless, I've had a couple of good experiences this week.
I've been putting up yet more shelves, but this time I needed shelves of a certain size rather than the fixed-size shelves from Home Pro that I usually use. I went to a wood shop, but normally they only sell large sheets of wood to the guys who install built-in furniture. The built-in furniture business in Thailand is big.
I have no woodworking equipment and even if I bought a saw I would make a hash of it because my woodworking skills are atrocious. I asked if they could cut it for me. They don't usually, but they said they would and did a nice job.
I had to buy the whole sheet of wood, which was far more than I needed, and they gave me the remainder. At first I wasn't sure what I was going to use it for, but I have some shelves outside that have rotted in the rain and decided to use it to replace the old shelves.
Once again I had the problem of cutting it. I went to where some new houses have been built recently to see if I could find anyone installing built-in furniture. I found a guy very quickly and he had his benchsaw set up. I asked if he could help and he agreed. I said I would pay him, but there was no talk of any money.
He too did a very precise job and cut the wood exactly how I wanted. He was very obliging even though I had interrupted him while doing his work. I gave him Bt300 and he tried to give me Bt100 back. I refused because I was very grateful to him.
I've experienced this kind of helpfulness before and it's really nice. If Thais can help with something they will often stop what they are doing to help. Quite often they won't want any money and even if money passes hands it isn't much. They can be very considerate
I refer to Thailand as the Land of Contrasts and Contradictions and this week I've experienced several instances of really inconsiderate parking. If there is one thing worse in Thailand than the way Thais drive their vehicles, it is how they park their vehicles.
If there are no available spaces they will just park in an active lane with the hazard warning lights flashing and block the traffic. It's very frustrating and extremely inconsiderate. However, the people who do this are just as likely to be the same people who are very considerate at other times in other situations. They probably wouldn't regard themselves as being inconsiderate towards other people.
It seems to be a case of Thais believing they have a right to do certain things. If they want to buy some food or go to the ATM their thinking is that they have a right to park as close to the shop or bank as possible. It doesn't even occur to them to find a parking space fifty yards away and walk. I hate to say it, but my wife is the same.
There are three big roads that go through central Hat Yai. They are all five lanes wide and on each road traffic is in one direction only. Cars are constantly parked in lanes one and five. In lanes two and four there are always cars parked temporarily with the hazard warning lights blinking.
This leaves just one lane free out of five and the illegal parking goes on even during the busiest rush hour times. It creates big queues of traffic. The police do clamp illegally parked cars, but they don't do it enough and it doesn't act as a deterrent.
If, as another driver, you say anything you receive the usual violent response so it isn't worth saying anything. Last week I saw the driver of a clamped truck arguing with a traffic cop. As I said above, they seem to think they have a right to park where they want and if anyone challenges them - even a policeman - they become furious.
Police taking action against double parking
I'm not sure why Thais think this way. The same attitude exists with blocking sidewalks, as I have written about previously. It is very inconsiderate towards other people, but they don't think of themselves as being inconsiderate. They believe they have the right to do what they do.
Why was I putting up more shelves? Shortly after moving to this house, which didn't have much storage space, it became full of objects that we don't use every day. I put up a lot of shelves in the available storage spaces to maximise the storage capacity and had one balcony converted to a stoarge room.
These improvements made a big difference, but after my wife's latest business idea a load more things entered the house and were being stored in almost every room. I hate living in clutter so set about increasing the storage space yet again.
I'm not entirely happy about her business venture. I think it was ill-conceived and whereas it was supposed to be about buying and selling, the only thing she has shown any interest in is the buying part. She spent Bt27,000 on two shopping trips buying all sorts of things and now those things are just cluttering up the house.
I like to try to figure out why Thais acts the way they do, including my wife. She comes from a very poor family and when she tells me about her upbringing it even surprises me. There were eight children and her parents grew and sold fruit, which didn't bring in a huge amount of money.
None of her older siblings drank milk when they were infants or had much of an education. They had to start work as soon as possible to earn money. She is the youngest and the only one to have any tertiary education.
We have a picture of her when she was young and she is wearing shoes. She said that her mother must have found some shoes to go to the photography studio because normally she didn't wear any.
I think that coming from such a poor background and never being able to buy anything - even essential items - has left her with some kind of a shopping obsession or addiction. I give her money every month, some of which is intended for food and household items, but now that she has money in her pocket she can't resist buying things.
The problem is that as soon as the purchase is made she loses interest and many of the things she buys are a waste of money. The other problem is that play the role of safety net. When she overspends and there isn't enough money left to buy food, she knows that I will buy food or give her more money. I had to give her another Bt10,000 this month. If I wasn't around she might be a little more careful.
This is a problem I am trying to control, but it isn't easy.
My visa extension has been a bit of an ordeal this week and although I now have an extension the ordeal isn't quite over yet.
When I first moved to Thailand twelve years ago, dealing with immigration was never a pleasant experience. Whenever I went into the office there was a guy reading a newspaper with his feet on the desk. He didn't adjust himself or put the newspaper down when I entered. I was just considered an annoying disturbance and his mission was to get rid of me as quickly as possible without doing any work.
No matter what I wanted he would always give me a form and tell me to come back or tell me to fetch something else and come back. Every time I dealt with immigration it would take at least three visits.
That all changed some years ago. The guy with the medical condition that required he keep his feet at the same level as his head disappeared and everything suddenly became very efficient. The layout of the office changed, fresh faces were brought in -including university students doing their work experience - and a service level agreement was made public telling people how long each particular service would take. It was all very impressive.
For several years I haven't had any problems with immigration at all ... until now. The reason is the recent bombing in Thailand. The fact that it was foreigners who carried out the bombing has resulted in a big immigration crackdown.
The requirements for a retirement visa are very straightforward. You must be over 50 and meet the financial requirements. That's it. There is no medical check, no police check, nothing else.
Age cannot be disputed and the financial requirements should be quite straightforward. You either need Bt800,000 in a Thai bank account and a letter from the bank confirming that the money came from abroad or a pension or income abroad exceeding Bt65,000 per month. Income abroad has to be vereified by an official affidavit from your country's Embassy in Thailand.
I included such an affidavit in my application and also an official translation of the affidavit. I have never read anywhere that a translation is required, but I know from past experience that my local immigration want one so I got one done.
I put together my application with all the required documents and took it along to immigration. The pleasant guy on the front desk who I see every 90 days when I report checked it out and said it looked fine. He told me to go to another window.
At the window was a very officious looking man with lots of medals sewn on his brown uniform. He was very abrupt and when I handed my package over he refused to accept it. He wanted me to remove all the documents from the package first. He spoke using only the imperative and demonstrated no use of the male polite particle. I knew straight away that he was going to find a reason to reject my application.
On this occasion I took my wife along. There's now a new requirement to show the house registration document where I live and, because of Thai law, my wife is the owner of the house that I paid for. I thought that taking her along might ease the process.
Twenty minutes after being ordered to sit down my wife was summoned to the window. I thought they wanted to ask her some personal questions, but instead they wanted to explain to her a problem with my finances. This kind of thing happens all the time in Thailand.
If I ask a question in Thai the reply is directed to my wife. When I pay for something the change is given to my wife. If Thais want to ask me a question and I am with my wife, they ask my wife. It's annoying, but this is the way it is in Thailand.
What he wanted was evidence that my income abroad gets transferred to Thailand and thus he wanted to see my bank book, which I didn't have on me. I don't believe this is necessary, but I will cover this point when I sum up in a minute.
Therefore, my initial visa application attempt was unsuccessful. Before we went to immigration my wife told me that our son had another hospital appointment. I then spent four hours at the hospital even though the actual time seeing the doctor was about three minutes.
We went straight to the school to pick my daughter up and then took the kids swimming. That was Monday. I was busy the whole day and at the end felt that I had achieved nothing.
On Tuesday I took all my forms along to immigration again along with my bank book. Even though I had provided the evidence they wanted to see they were still very reluctant to issue my extension. We were sent to see another official and this official then took us to see the chief of immigration.
They were pleasant enough and could obviously see that I had a family because our son was there too, but there was still reluctance to give me my visa extension. I have no idea why. The conversation then turned to immigration carrying out a house visit. I know they do this to see whether foreigners applying for marriage visas are genuinely married, but I was applying for a retirement visa.
I assumed that there would be another delay with my extension waiting until the house visit had been completed. My assumption was wrong. They gave me my extension, but an some time immigration will be paying me a visit at home. I have never experienced anything like this before.
I spoke to another farang who was experiencing the same thing and I also saw some Filipino teachers who were getting quite a grilling.
Thailand is undergoing massive change at the moment. I can't say much but now that I understand more about the people who read this blog I know that you all have good knowledge of Thailand and that you will understand some of the changes taking place and why.
Things do need to change in Thailand otherwise the country's international reputation will be forever tarnished and Thailand will never move forward. While I was looking around on-line at some visa information I came across the following from a law firm offering to assist foreigners getting a retirement visa.
I don't need to insult your intelligence by explaining how this works, but this is typical of Thailand. No matter how much change there is in the country and no matter what is done to stamp out corruption and law breaking, there will always be people looking to make money by working around rules and laws.
"THE SIXTH OPTION, this option is provided for an applicant who COULD NOT show Pension/Monthly Income 65,000 THB OR Saving funds 800,000 THB in his/her bank account in Thailand. We will fulfill the requirement to help you in successful receiving a Retirement Visa. You just have to meet us at the immigration head office at the time of applying for the visa, then proceed as our advices and wait for the procedures comfortably at a coffee shop until the completion."
I have an English friend who gets quite upset if anyone complains about corruption in Thailand. His view is that all countries are corrupt, but in developed Western countries only rich individuals and powerful companies have access to corruption.
In Thailand the corruption is more widespread and starting prices are a lot lower. Corruption in Thailand, he maintains, is accessible to far more people and therefore fairer and more democratic.
I saw the piece above about a law firm offering to help foreigners to get a retirement visa who don't have financial means to get a retirement visa just before I read about the Volkswagen scandal. Comparing the two stories vindicates my friend's view and really puts the problem of corruption and law breaking into perspective.
The VW scandal is almost impossible to believe. Germany is probably one of the most law-abiding countries in the world. The fact that so many Germans are attracted to Thailand is something that has always intrigued me because Thai attitudes towards law are the exact opposite to German attitudes.
Yet Volkswagen employed some very clever engineers to program its cars Engine Control Units to be able to detect when emission tests were being carried out (the engine was being revved, but the car was stationary and the steering wheel wasn't being turned) and then to modify the engine characteristics to reduce emissions.
Sure, the engine would lose some power but who cared while it was being tested. As soon as the car was being driven normally the engine would revert to its normal state and would chuck out so many harmful emissions that driving it in the country where it was being driven would be illegal.
When I read stories like this and see the scale of corruption that takes place in developed countries, even though the individual cases of corruption are a lot less, it makes me feel guilty about highlighting the comparatively minor corruption that happens in Thailand.
Only in Thailand:
The really worrying aspect with stories such as this is how many Thais actually believe it.
Wednesday 16th September 2015
Several years ago my brother bought a book which was a collection of expat experiences from around the globe. One of the stories was about a guy who married a Thai woman and she wanted to start making and selling Thai desserts (kanom). He agreed and bought all the equipment she needed. She then turned the house upside down with her new business.
When she finished he asked how much she could sell them for. The amount she gave him was very small and he asked sheepishly if that amount was for one. No, it was for the whole lot. He then realised that this business venture would never be profitable.
When I first arrived to live in Thailand very few places had an Internet connection. Most people who wanted to go on-line had to go to an Internet shop. There was an Internet shop below the apartment building where I used to stay and it was run by Jimmy, a Singaporean guy in his 60's.
He was married to an Isaan girl in her 30's and, of course, he had taken on the responsibility of not only supporting her but he family as well. He opened a second Internet shop in Isaan so that her family had could run a business and get an income. However, they just let all their friends play for nothing and instead of the shop making a profit it just cost him money.
The girls who worked on reception at the apartment building had some friends who visited often and one was quite stunning. Her name was Em. When Em was put on to this Earth she was amply blessed with beauty, but was sadly lacking in the brains department. She hadn't been to university and had set her sights on running a beauty salon.
Her boyfriend rented the shop next door to the apartment building and fitted it out for her, however, instead of trying to attract customers and run a business she would just hang out with her sister and friends and they would mess around with each other's make-up and hair.
I also heard a story - maybe from Jimmy - about another Singaporean guy who had set up a Thai girl with a beauty salon business. He was wealthy and it cost him a lot of money. After he had returned home she sold the business for a fraction of what it was worth and ran off with her Thai boyfriend. I've heard quite a few stories like this.
At around the same time I met one of my first friends in Thailand. Aor had just opened a shop selling drinks with a friend. It was an old wooden building, but they repainted everything and made it look quite good. They put a lot of effort into the drinks, but sold them at giveaway prices.
The shop was well out of the way and had very little passing trade. Most customers were friends and with so few customers and such cheap prices the business soon folded.
A little later I met a Canadian guy with a Thai wife. He had been a successful businessman, but a messy divorce had cost him a lot of money. In Thailand he asked his wife's family for business ideas and if he considered one of these ideas to be viable he would finance it.
One member of the family suggested starting an ice delivery business. He agreed that this could be a good idea, but his wife's relative also wanted a brand new pickup truck to start the business. He said no and that was the end of that particular business idea.
And now my own expat experience. My wife loves nothing more than going off for the day with her sisters to buy things. Her only input so far into this latest business venture is two big shopping trips with her sister to buy things. To be more specific, Bt27,000 worth of things.
Once she has arrived home with her purchases she loses interest. I have been working like crazy trying to get decent photographs of her purchases (not as easy as it sounds), opening on-line shops, uploading all the information, and trying to market her stock.
I am not overly optimistic. She has no business plan and didn't do any market research to try to find out what items in Thailand foreigners are interested in buying. She seems to have no interest in learning about product photography or improving her English so that she can sell on-line. She has a husband who can do all that stuff.
Some of the things she is trying to sell may have potential purchasers, but the market is small. Some things I think she will never sell. She also seems to have no inkling that we are at the start of a huge world recession after the big slow down in China this year. Most people will be looking to buy essential goods at cheap prices, not expensive things that they don't need.
I suspect that some of these items will end up decorating our own house and that some will be given away as Christmas presents.
Thailand is a terrible country in which to be an employee. My first girlfriend worked in a salon and didn't receive a salary, just commission. If there were no customers she didn't earn anything. At busy times she was expected to stay until the last customer had arrived - sometimes after midnight.
Her boss had the best of all worlds. When it was quiet she didn't have to pay any wages, but when it was busy she always had plenty of staff.
My wife was an art teacher when I met her and earned around Bt8,000 a month. She had to do tutoring to try to earn enough money to live on and when the school wanted posters for a festival or something she had to do them in her own time for no money.
I can understand why so many Thais want to run their own businesses and not work for someone else. The problem is that they are either lazy and not prepared to put in the huge amount of effort it takes to run a business, or they simply don't have the business acumen.
This is a generalisation, of course, and doesn't apply to all Thais. One girl who I used to teach tapped into the extreme vanity that Thai women exhibit and opened a business selling beauty lotions and potions and vitamin pills. She now has several shops. I heard that her turnover was over Bt1 million a month and she makes about Bt300,000 profit each month. However, she is an exception.
I have always known that Thai females are difficult and even dangerous, but even now I still discover new ways in which they can be difficult.
I am playing along at the moment, giving her a lot of help and encouragement. If the business suddenly takes off, great. But I don't think that will happen. Eventually I think it will just fizzle out, but at least she won't be able to say that I didn't try.
Sunday 13th September 2015
My wife's aspirations to set up an on-line business have eclipsed everything else that is happening in my life at the moment. It is both good and bad.
Previously, I was complaining about not having time to go out to do photography. Well, I was given a special pass to go out all yesterday morning to take photographs. The only catch was that the photographs had to be of things that she wants to sell. I have been cast as the official product photographer in this latest venture. Good product photography is essential when selling on-line. It's not easy, but this will give me an opportunity to practice and improve my skills.
Today, she has gone to Nakhon Sri Thammarat with two of her sisters to buy more items to sell. At the moment I don't have a clue what she will return home with. A lot of Nielloware is sold in Nakhon Sri Thammarat. It's quite expensive and I was asked for a 'loan' yesterday. Not only do I have the responsibility of product photography and website work, but I also have to fund the venture. In addition, while she is flying around the southern provinces in the role of chief purchaser someone needs to stay at home to look after the children. You can probably guess who fulfils that role.
Nevertheless, I don't have any real issues with what is happening. I have no chance of doing anything that I want to do myself at this stage of my life, not that I want to do a lot, and the biggest issue I face right now is having a wife who doesn't know what to do with herself. If this keeps her active and interested it will make my life a lot more bearable.
In my younger days I did a lot of the things I wanted to do and got a lot of things out of my system. My desire to travel has diminished considerably in the last few years and, not being a particularly materialistic person, I have no great desire to acquire material things. I'm certainly a lot more content with my life than she is with hers, but that is understandable. I had the means and career opportunities to do a lot in my younger days. She never had the same opportunities.
Most of the things she is buying to sell are handmade and therefore we have opened a 'shop' on Etsy, a website that specialises in handmade items. However, I think she will try to sell through other channels as well.
One of my problems at the moment is trying to encourage her while, at the same time, realistically managing her expectations. Selling on-line is extremely difficult. Fifteen years ago it was very easy, and even five years ago it was relatively easy. As my own experience has shown, a lot has changed in the last year and making any kind of an income from the Internet is very tough these days.
If her hopes are too high and she has no success the situation could turn out even worse than before she started. A few days ago I tried to make her aware of how difficult it is to sell on-line successfully and how many other people are trying to make an income by selling on-line.
Her mouth dropped and she started to look quite dejected even before the shop has opened. I then had to start encouraging her to at least try first to see how it goes. She is quite enthusiastic at the moment, but this enthusiasm could soon wane if there are no sales. We shall see how it goes and I will add some progress updates here in due course.
Tuesday 8th September 2015
I took my car in this morning to get the electric window fixed. It was about 10pm and I had my daughter with me. They took the car and told me to sit and wait; I was expecting the repair to take about an hour. I asked casually when it would be finished and the guy told me 3pm. Was he really expecting me to sit and wait for five hours? Apparently, yes.
This has happened before. I took the car in for a service a few years ago at just after 8am. Thais love telling people to sit down and wait and I was shown a waiting room where they have a TV and magazines. I asked when the car would be finished and was told 5pm. Yes, they were expecting me to wait there all day. Unbelievable.
In the Thai value system, very little importance is placed on time. They do have things that they value, but time (their own time or anyone else's time) isn't one of them. I became quite irate this morning and one of their staff gave me a lift home. When the car is ready I will board a sawng-thaew to go and pick it up.
The newly opened Ford service centre is located near to where I live and thus a lot more convenient, but I've had problems there that I never had at the old service centre.
At the old place I always spoke first to the two guys in the service department who dealt with customers. They knew their stuff, they were very efficient, and they answered my questions. Every time I deal with office staff at the new place I have problems.
The first problem is that they all refuse to understand me. I've talked about this before and it is SO frustrating. Some Thais refuse to listen to farangs speaking Thai. Before the conversation begins they have already made up their minds that they won't be able to understand and this then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The last time I spoke to an actual technician there he complimented my Thai, as did the young salesman who gave me a ride home today. If they open their ears and make an effort to comprehend, they can. If they refuse to listen and turn off their ears (and brains), of course they won't understand.
The faulty window is on the passenger side and neither the switch on the driver's side nor the passenger side will operate the window. It's unlikely to be a wiring problem and I am 99% sure that the motor needs replacing.
When I made the appointment yesterday I wanted to know if they had a motor in stock and how much it cost. Despite understanding me, they refused to answer both questions. All they said is that they wanted to check the problem first. If they call me back today informing me that the motor needs replacing and that it will need to be ordered, which will take another day, I won't be very happy.
On several occasions I have mentioned how excellent the level of car servicing is in Thailand. The technicians behind the scenes generally do an excellent job, they find faults before they become a problem, and most of the time the fixes stay fixed.
I have never had an issue with any of the actual workers, but I have had a few issues with some of the front office staff, especially some of the women. I used to work in customer service as an engineer myself and their behaviour definitely isn't acceptable. Some seem to have an attitude that I shouldn't be asking questions because I don't understand what I am talking about. My background is mechanical engineering rather than automotive engineering, but I'm not completely ignorant about the workings of cars.
This is about the third time it has happened and now I am resigned to the fact that whenever I visit I will first have to endure a lot of crap from the front office people before I can actually deal with reasonable people. It's not ideal, but I am prepared for it now at least.
Life at the moment definitely seems better than it was a few weeks ago, but there are always problems. When I picked up my daughter from school yesterday, her teacher told me that she was walking strangely and refused to put one foot on the floor.
She then limped very badly towards me and the poor kid could hardly walk. I took her home and then set off on yet another trip to the local private hospital. In my old life I hardly spent any time in hospitals, but since my kids arrived I never seem to be out of hospitals. An X-Ray showed that there were no bones broken. It is a sprained ankle that should get better with rest.
If her teacher knew about it I can't figure out why she didn't do anything. They have a sick room and a nurse and also the school has an insurance policy to cover accidents that happen during school time. The fact that she did nothing doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
Back to the issues with my wife, and one of the problems since she stopped teaching and started raising children is that she doesn't feel as if she has anything worthwhile, productive or interesting to do. Of course, you could argue that no job in the world is more important than raising children, but it gets rather monotonous after a while.
She's an art teacher, but she doesn't particularly want to teach and she doesn't particularly want to try to sell her art. I can't blame her and it's the same with me. The last job I want to do is teach English in Thailand.
Like many Thai women, she loves buying and selling things. I've met several girls in the past who buy cheap clothes, shoes, jewellery, etc, and then set up shops or market stalls. She has had some limited success in the past selling children's shoes on-line, but she is always looking for the right product to sell.
A little while ago she spotted an opportunity to sell children's books in English, but the books needed to be sold very cheaply to poor families and I couldn't see this being profitable or successful.
When selling things to Thais the items have to be very cheap. This isn't the case if selling the items to foreigners, but you have to be in a location where there are lots of foreigners or do it on-line. It's very difficult to find the right products, to be successful with marketing, and to find the right customers.
Her latest idea is to try to sell certain Thai handicrafts that are in quite a small niche. She is very fired up about this at the moment. Yesterday, she was designing logos for her new business and today she has gone off to a place nearby where there is a small cottage industry that still makes material on hand-operated looms.
She seems to have got her older sister involved, who is quite a good seamstress. I think the idea is for her sister to turn the material into useful items.
She also wants to return to a place we have visited several times to buy bags and mats, etc, that are handmade from locally harvested reeds.
The items she wants to sell are quite unique and attractive and I'm sure that people somewhere would be interested, but whether she has the marketing skills to connect with the people who want to buy these things remains to be seen. Whether her latest venture succeeds or fails, it's good at least to see her enthusiastic about something and also it gets her out of my way for a while.
Many women seem to suffer from a lack of self esteem and this seems to be particularly the case with Thai women. She has a very comfortable life, but everything she has comes from me. If she can do something herself and earn a little money I'm sure it will be a big boost to her self esteem.
Monday 7th September 2015
The thing that drives me crazy living in Thailand are certain differences in thinking and behaviour of the natives but, paradoxically, Thailand has only ever appealed to me because it is so different to the West.
A lot of the political correct garbage still doesn't exist in Thailand and the fact that everything is different means that boredom is seldom a problem. I am so familiar with the part of the UK that I lived in that if I were to return, even after an absence of 12 years, I know that I would feel bored as soon as I arrived.
On British TV many years ago Michael Palin, one of the Monty Python team, hosted a programme called 'Around the world in 80 days'. It went to air a couple of years after I had visited Thailand for the first time. Prior to this, Alan Whicker had taken British TV viewers to parts of the world that they never even knew existed.
This kind of thing fascinated me and stoked a passion for travel that had already been burning fiercely for several years. The Thailand I observed in the 80's, 90's and even early 2000's offered similar visual feasts, but slowly, these things are disappearing as globalisation creeps forever onwards and Asians continue to 'upgrade' their living standards by becoming more Western. It's really sad.
One of you mentioned to me in the past that Bangkok has become a city of condos and malls, which is very true. In 1987 this most certainly wasn't the case. There were no elevated roads or railways, and still very few high rise buildings.
Since the huge Central Festival shopping mall opened in Hat Yai a few years ago it has dominated the local shopping scene and lots of little businesses have either relocated there or gone out of business.
I've been to quite a few countries and to quite a few malls. The atmosphere inside is always the same and when I enter I am overcome by a stupefying sense of boredom and fatigue that causes me to yawn repeatedly.
But you cannot defeat progress or the wishes of the people. It seems like most Thais want to live like Westerners and there is nothing they love more than wandering around air-conditioned malls looking at consumer goods. This is a big recreational activity in Thailand and the malls are packed on weekends and holidays.
Not only is Western culture becoming more pervasive in Thailand, but many of the unique aspects of Thai culture are just disappearing.
I have a book titled '101 Thai Forms' by a Thai author, Wijit Apichartkriengrai, where he laments about the demise of many things that he remembers from his youth - the list is wide and varied ranging from simple homemade toys to types of kanom (Thai confectionery). It's a bit sentimental, but it's also sad at how quickly the world is changing.
When I first arrived in Hat Yai there was still a shop that sold snakes to be eaten. The shop housed several cages, each full of live snakes. Some were cobras and some were yellow and black banded snakes, the species of which I don't know.
Upon selection the snake was slit open and its blood drained into a cup (along with its gall bladder, I believe) for consumption. The blood could be mixed with alcohol and honey. The meat was turned into a curry and the skin was used for bags, etc.
This was something straight out of one of the TV shows I watched years ago and I loved this kind of thing. Sadly, the shop closed some years ago.
Hat Yai used to have an old-fashioned cinema, but this had already closed before I moved to the town. One day I was walking past and a door had been left open. I went inside to take a few photographs of the old, dusty chairs that hadn't been used for years. It was like stepping back in time.
Hat Yai's old cinema
Unfortunately, many countries are just destroying their old cinemas and building boring new multiplex cinemas to replace them - even the UK.
Even after the demise of the old cinema, one thing I really liked was the fact that the posters for new movies were all hand-painted. Instead of boring old machine printed posters that were all identical, someone, somewhere was sitting down with a paint brush painting movie posters.
Hand-painted poster for the Miami Vice movie
Hand-painted poster for one of the popular Thai ghost movies
These posters were displayed prominently in two places. A few months ago I noticed that one of these places no longer had the posters and when I drove past the other place recently there were no posters. This was terribly sad. I now regret not having taken more photos because this is one more aspect of Thai culture that has gone forever now.
Variety is the spice of life, but with each passing year there is less variety everywhere. From the late 80's to mid 90's I had quite a love affair with the United States, visiting often for business and pleasure.
It's a wonderful country with some of the most beautiful, diverse landscapes on the planet, but wherever I went the local malls would all look exactly the same. My memories are fading now, but there always seemed to be the same JC Penney, Sears, Barnes & Noble, etc etc.
The same applies to US fast food culture and not only is that the same across the US, but also now most of the rest of the world. Again, it's sad. A few countries have put up a little resistance, but it is all pervasive.
One of the most interesting places I have visited is Cuba, where I went in 2000. Years and years of US sanctions had isolated the island and as a result there were no McDonalds or KFCs. The lack of new cars meant that lots of old America cars were still cruising the streets of Havana and it was a feast for the senses.
The recent thaw in hostility between the two nations was also something that I felt quite sad about. Pretty soon, if you want to visit somewhere that is 'different' your only option will be North Korea.
The Internet, unfortunately, is going the same way. Google, through its Adsense programme, made it possible for a lot of small, independent publishers to monetise their websites so that advertising revenue would cover expenses or even make a small profit.
That has all changed now and many owners of small websites are thinking about calling it a day. The advertising money is no longer there and they are having to pay out of their own pockets.
Already, just 20 years or so into the Internet revolution, the huge companies have taken over and have squeezed out the small sites. In a few years' time not only will it not be possible to visit anywhere that doesn't look like everywhere else, but the Internet will also start to look the same wherever you go.
I am probably in the final third of my life now and personally I don't really care. In my younger days I managed to see many places around the world that will never be seen in the same way ever again.
I feel disappointed for my kids because they will never have the opportunities that I had. Then again, they won't know any different and so I doubt that it will affect them.
If you want to see anywhere desperately I guess the thing to do is not to wait. I have never been to Burma but, from what I have read, it is now a completely different country to how it was when I first moved to Thailand. Change happens very quickly and once somewhere changes it never goes back to how it was before.
Sunday 6th September 2015
After my own attempts at acquiring a second language in Thailand, it has been interesting to observe the language development of my four year-old daughter. Her Thai is already better than mine, she translates both ways for the benefit of her lesser-skilled parents, and her English language skills are probably not far behind kids of the same age who live in English speaking countries.
When she babbles away to herself while playing, unaware that anyone else is listening, it is all in English. Growing up with two languages, I wasn't sure which one she would consider her primary language but at the moment it seems to be English. However, I think this may change in the future as she is exposed to more and more Thai.
The other thing that has been very interesting for me is how Thais are taught tone rules. As most people are aware, Thai is a tonal language and the same basic sound can be pronounced with either a low, rising, mid, falling or high tone. The effect of the different tones is to change the meaning of the word completely and getting to grips with the tonal aspects of Thai is difficult for foreigners.
When reading Thai, the tone rules - although fairly consistent - are cumbersome and a pain to remember. I have also found that when I try to discuss the tones rule with a Thai they look quite confounded. "What's the farang going on about?"
Based on how I have observed my wife teaching my daughter to read Thai, this is because they don't learn the tones in the same way that foreigners are taught to learn Thai tones. It is taught as if certain words 'naturally' have a certain tone. If I pronounce a word with the wrong tone, which happens all the time, my wife scowls as if I am an imbecile. My response is, "How do I know what the tone should be?" but as far as Thais are concerned everyone should know naturally.
Here's an example of what I mean. Reading at Kindergarten 2 level appears to be monosyllabic words consisting of an initial consonant and a vowel, or an initial consonant, vowel and final consonant. The sound of the letters is recited individually and then the word is pronounced with the correct tone, but there is no mention at all of tone rules.
ดา - dor, aa, daa (with a mid tone)
สา - sor, aa, daa (with a rising tone)
The way I would work out the tones is that each word has a live syllable. The first word starts with a mid-class consonant, therefore it is mid tone according to the tone rules. The second word starts with a high-class consonant, therefore it is rising tone according to the tone rules.
These rules are omitted completely when teaching young Thai children to read. This is why Thais get confused when farangs have questions about tone rules. It is also why they can use the correct tones naturally without having to resort to rules. Once you have to start thinking about language rules is when the natural learning process stops.
On the occasions I have asked Thais questions about their own language I have very rarely obtained a satisfactory answer. They learn naturally, but part of this process is simply accepting everything they are taught as being completely natural and never questioning anything. When a foreigner asked them a question, they can't explain. As far as they are concerned, things are just the way they are. There is no explanation.
Thai students are very good at identifying the component parts that make up English sentences of different tenses, but they cannot use the correct tenses naturally. In most cases, they just use the simple present.
The only way to try to teach them is to introduce rules, but the same problem occurs. When rules are introduced they don't learn naturally.
When I did my TEFL teacher training I had to study a lot to learn about the various English grammar tenses that I could already use perfectly naturally. I learnt these tenses naturally without ever needing to be taught rules.
My parents or teachers never sat me down to explain that if the result of an action in the past was still evident in the present I should use the present perfect or present perfect continuous, rather than the simple past. No wonder Thai students get so confused. The list of rules about when to use the English perfect tenses is horrendous.
So, it would be better for us all to learn naturally, then? Except there is one small problem. I subscribe to Chomsky's Language Acquisition Device theory and believe that language acquisition works very differently in humans based on age.
When children are very young all that is needed is to put them in an environment where they will be exposed to a language and they will automatically acquire the vocabulary and grammar rules necessary to speak fluently.
When we are older that doesn't happen because the language acquisition device is no longer in existence. Probably the most effective way to learn a second language is to immerse ourselves fully in an environment where only that language is spoken, but it isn't the same as being a small child. Language isn't acquired naturally and it takes a great deal of concentration and effort.
Lots of myths and lies about language learning are propagated in Thailand. Thai isn't a widely spoken language and Thais who hope to enter the worlds of business or academia need a second language - traditionally English, but now increasingly Chinese.
Language teaching is a very competitive marketplace and every school claims to have teaching methods that are 'easy', 'fun' or 'natural'.
Once past a very young age, language learning isn't natural and the complexities of English grammar compared to Thai mean that learning English for Thai students certainly isn't easy or fun.
I personally believe that these false claims are counter-productive because they set expectations with Thai students that learning English will be easy, fun and natural and when the students realise the truth they become quite dejected.
It's also one (of many) of the hazards of teaching English in Thailand. Not only will students expect to acquire a second language naturally in a fun and easy (sanook, sabai) environment, but employers of teachers will expect the same. It's a job in which you are expected to please everyone (students, teachers, parents, employers), but you can never please all the people all the time.
In every field of human endeavour there are always exceptions and this applies to language acquisition. Some people do retain language acquisition capabilities through their lives and others (so-called polyglots) have the ability to acquire far more than one additional language.
However, for most of us - myself very much included - the acquisition of just one second language later in life is something that will always remain something of a struggle.
Friday 4th September 2015
My wife has been doing the morning school run for a while, but I did it this morning because she was complaining of feeling lightheaded this morning. Our youngest child cried for a long time last night and neither of us got much sleep.
On some sections of the journey into town it resembled a classic London fog from my youth, the like of which hasn't been seen in London for many years. At some points visibility was down to about 50m. Here's why:
Although I had originally intended to settle in northern Thailand (before I got married and my wife had other ideas), the annual haze problem that occurs in northern Thailand because of slash-and-burn farming would not be good for my asthma problems.
Down in the south of Thailand it isn't a regular annual problem, but the slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia that often causes lots of problems in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur sometimes creeps into southern Thailand.
I didn't take any photos this morning, but here is a photo from 2005 taken in Hat Yai. You can just about make out the outline of a condo building, which can normally be seen very clearly.
Haze from Indonesia
Even when the visibility is atrocious, many Thai drivers don't bother turning on their vehicle lights. The same thing happens in torrential rain and even at night time. My wife once joked that they are trying to save money, but I believe that quite a few actually do think this way. Incredible, but true.
Lots of motorbikes have burned out bulbs that never get replaced and most of the illegal home-made sidecars are not fitted with lights, brake lights or indicators, not that Thai motorcyclists ever bother indicating anyway.
Many Thais are obsessed with new vehicles and when new models appear they always include this year's latest 'must-have' features. One of the must-have features this year is 'daytime running lights'. These are LED lights that remain on all the time, regardless of the time of day or conditions. Volvo cars have had this feature forever, but other manufacturers are just getting around to adding it.
It's quite ironic then that some new vehicles have lights on all the time, even arguably when it isn't necessary, yet many drivers drive with no lights when it is absolutely necessary. Only in Thailand.
My car, which was used when I bought it five years ago, arrived with a multitude of mechanical problems. Supposedly, it was checked out by a friend of my wife's brother who was supposed to know about cars.
Over the years I have spent a small fortune getting parts replaced and - touch wood - it hasn't cost me much so far this year. However, a window motor gave up the ghost recently and when things go wrong they normally go wrong in threes. I can already sense the impending damage that is about to be wrought upon my bank account.
I saw a sign stuck on a motorbike this morning and, considering some of the problems I have been going through recently, it struck a chord with me. If you arrive in Thailand as a single man, stay single and don't bother with cars. Renting is a lot more hassle-free.
The truth on a motorbike fuel tank
On the subject of damage to my bank account, I have just renewed health insurance policies for the whole family. I paid cash because if I use my UK credit card in Thailand I get robbed. The credit card company uses an exchange rate of about Bt4 less than the current bank-to-bank rate and charge a 3% commission.
While counting out the Bt1,000 notes it seemed like quite a lot of money, but actually it's not bad. The total was a shade under Bt37,000. My lad's last hospital visit alone resulted in a bill for Bt38,000 and that was his second admission last year. I also spent some time in hospital after being attacked by a feral cat.
My policy was Bt14,000, my wife's Bt7,000, my daughter Bt7,000 and my son Bt9,000 (approximate figures). This is in-patient care only. I cancelled my OPD policy after working out that for it to be worthwhile I would have to make a visit to OPD every month. It's cheaper just to pay for OPD visits when they occur rather than to have insurance.
The premium for my policy will go up next year when I enter the 55-59 age group band. Insurance companies normally have a maximum age limit of 65, but if you are an existing policy holder I believe that they will continue to insure you after reaching 65.
My view is that there are a lot of risks to health in Thailand. Car accidents are a big problem and the general lack of any responsibility anywhere means that there are risks everywhere.
The year-round hot, humid, tropical climate is perfect for all kinds of bacteria, viruses and fungi, food hygiene standards leave a lot to be desired, and there is some nasty wildlife lurking.
The wife and kids can go to public hospitals for nothing, or next to nothing, but being admitted to a Thai public hospital isn't that pleasant. The staff do their best, but many of the hospitals are overcrowded and they have a real Third World feel to them.
For Westerners living in Thailand who aren't living on the breadline, I believe that private medical insurance is a very good investment.
My air-conditioning went back on today after not using it for almost two months. Today has been horribly hot and just recently there have been several such days. I had resisted switching the A/C on, thinking that the cool weather would return soon, but the hot stuff just keeps on coming.
There has been a little rain, although not that much. The moisture in the air just raises the humidity and in some ways when it is like this - hot and humid - it is even more unbearable than the full-on hot season.
When you talk to Thais about the weather they talk about April being the hottest part of the year as if the temperature peaks in April. Based upon what they say, you would imagine that with each month that passes after April it gets a little cooler. That isn't so.
The hot season is more like a plateau from about March to September. Granted, the rains start to arrive around Songkran (the middle of April) and rain certainly has a cooling effect. However, when there is no rain (and so far this year there hasn't been much rain) the temperatures are as high as hot season temperatures.
The hot weather shouldn't go beyond this month. The weather here changes very suddenly and very regularly. After being very wet towards the end of last year the rain turned off like a tap on 1st January. Then it was very dry for 4.5 months and the rains returned on cue at Songkran.
The next change - back to the rainy season - happens around the beginning of October. The term 'rainy season' sounds a bit miserable and a time to be avoided if you plan to visit somewhere, but actually this can be the best time of year.
The UK has miserable weather for many months of the year, but there are also quite a few perfect days throughout the year. In southern Thailand, perfect days (not too hot, not too humid, no rain) are very rare because it's normally always too hot, too humid or too wet.
The only time of the year there are perfect days is during the rainy season when it isn't actually raining.
Wednesday 2nd September 2015
I talk all the time about how Thais think and behave differently, and how they have different value and belief systems, compared to Westerners. Here are a couple of recent examples.
The girl whose wedding we attended last week studied with my wife, but they aren't very good friends. My wife just wanted to make a short appearance, hand over the wedding money (from my pocket), and then go home.
She suggested sending our daughter to school in the morning, going to the wedding, and picking her up when we returned. I didn't like this idea at all.
What if something happened and we didn't get back on time? Who would pick her up from school? My car is getting on in years and could break down. Thai roads are notoriously dangerously and the probability of being involved in an accident is much higher compared to a civilised country. What if we were to get hopelessly lost because my wife didn't know where to go? Etc.
Thais don't think this way. As far as they are concerned nothing is ever going to go wrong. Maybe they are right 99% of the time and maybe it is me who is wrong for worrying about things that probably won't happen, but being how I am I either prevent things from happening or I have an action plan when things go wrong. They don't.
I encounter this type of behaviour all the time. Last week I was driving home from the school and got stuck behind a slow-moving large truck. We were going uphill approaching the brow of the hill and there was also a bend in the road. I didn't even consider overtaking because it was impossible to see what was coming the other way.
Suddenly, a pickup truck behind me overtook both me and the truck. It was a crazy manoeuvre. He got past without incident because there were no vehicles coming the other way, but he didn't know this.
This kind of overtaking is common on Thai roads. Drivers can't see enough to be able to overtake safely, but they will overtake anyway and try to deal with whatever they meet. Inevitably, this sometimes results in serious collisions and fatalities.
Obviously, not every single Thai in the country is like this, but many are. It goes with the mai bpen rai attitude that is a defining characteristic of the Thai character.
After the recent burglary in our housing development some of the residents got together to decide how they could improve security. New cameras have been installed, residents have been issued passes to stick on their windshields, and more screening is being done on non-residents who visit. These things are all fine.
However, when I spoke to one of the neighbours who had attended the meeting the agenda item she was most excited about was the group having agreed to stage a special merit-making ceremony for the housing development.
A little later, money was collected from each household and arrangement were made. A couple of Sundays ago we met with all our neighbours under a hired marquee to eat and listen to monks chanting. Now that this ceremony has taken place burglars won't dare come back again.
Ignoring my cynicism, it was actually quite a pleasant event. The food was good and it was the first time since we have lived here (almost three years) that we have had a chance to meet all the neighbours. The neighbours here, in stark contrast to the neighbourhood where I used to rent a house, are all polite, considerate people and there are none of the issues that we had at the old place.
The marquee for the housing development blessing
With the crazy drivers you often find that their dashboards are completely covered with 'magic' amulets and it isn't unusual to find strange signs that have been daubed in paint on the vehicle head lining. Thais get their cars 'blessed' by monks and part of the ritual is to daub these signs.
Once they have these things in place they seem to think they are invincible and can drive how they like because the powerful 'saksit' magic will protect them.
Just before our son was born I remember having a conversation with my wife's mother. The two things that were really bothering her were that we hadn't had a house blessing ceremony performed yet and that we hadn't yet chosen an auspicious name for our unborn son.
I've written before about how some Thais who are having bad luck go to see a monk or fortune teller to find out what is causing their misfortune. Sometimes the fortune teller or monk will tell them it is because the colour of their car is wrong. They will then put a sticker on the back of their white car saying, "This car is red."
It's all very strange to Westerners, but to Thais this kind of behaviour is perfectly normal.
My local immigration office has added a few more requirements for visa extensions this year. I don't know whether the requirements in other immigration offices are the same, or not.
You can look on-line for information, but my experience has always been that the requirements in different places are never quite the same. The best thing to do is to go to your local office and ask specifically what they want. I did this a couple of weeks ago and was given a 10-point list ... in Thai.
To extend my retirement visa in the past, all I have needed to show was evidence of meeting the financial requirements. The requirements are Bt800,000 deposited in a Thai bank account or proof of an income from abroad of at least Bt65,000 per month.
A letter confirming proof of income must come from your country's Embassy in Thailand. First, I send documentary evidence of ny UK income to the British Embassy (along with various photocopies and a money order) and they send me a letter to give to immigration. Another task I have to perform is getting the letter officially translated.
The additions this year are a hand-drawn map showing where I live (the form also asks for latitude and longitude coordinates) and a copy of the house registration document where I live (tabian baan).
My wife owns our house because Thai law doesn't allow me to own land in Thailand. She has the blue tabian baan book. I will take both her and the tabian baan along to immigration when I apply for my extension.
If you rent a room in a large condo building, the owner of the building who has the tabian baan may not be willing to get involved with immigration to help one of his tenants. This could be a problem.
The tabian baan contains the names of all the people living at the property, but doesn't include foreigners unless they have Permanent Resident status.
I found out recently that there is also a yellow tabian baan that foreigners can own. The process to acquire one is very bureaucratic, but having a yellow tabian baan if you live permanently in Thailand sounds like a pretty useful thing to have. It doesn't need to be renewed every year and it can be used as evidence when applying for various other things. I may apply for one next year, but I don't need one for my visa extension as I can just use my wife's blue book.
There is also one more immigration requirement. They always ask for small passport photos when you apply for a visa extension, but this year they actually want to take a photo of foreigners applying for visas with a mobile phone. This is no big deal.
Tuesday 1st September 2015
Hat Yai in southern Thailand near the Malaysian border is a very Chinese town. It was founded by Chinese immigrants, most of the local residents are Thai-Chinese, and the vast majority of tourists from Malaysia and Singapore are ethnic Chinese. You see lots of signs written in Chinese and hear a lot of Chinese being spoken. Not surprisingly, Chinese dim-sum restaurants are very popular.
There are lots of dim-sum restaurants in town and I have eaten at quite a few. Most make their own dim-sum and the quality and taste vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some I dislike, some are satisfactory, and there is one that I particularly like. I have lived in the town for almost 12 years, I have eaten at several dim-sum restaurants, and therefore I believe I am qualified to make comparisons.
However, when I hear or read comments from tourists about dim-sum restaurants in Hat Yai, it would appear that one restaurant stands head and shoulders above all of the competition. Everyone wants to recommend this place and when I happened to walk past on Saturday morning there was a heaving throng of Malaysian tourists both inside the restaurant and outside.
Most tourists only stay for a day or two and the likelihood is that they have only eaten at one or two dim-sum restaurants. With such little knowledge about dim-sum restaurants in Hat Yai, what makes them qualified to judge one restaurant so highly?
And here's the best bit. The restaurant they bang on about all the time isn't that good. The food is just OK - not great, the service isn't great (mainly because the restaurant is always swamped with tourists), the prices aren't any cheaper than elsewhere, and the location is quite grotty.
What's going on?
If you plan to visit somewhere and meet someone who has been there already, they will want to try to prove that they have insider knowledge about that place and will say something like, "Oh, you must go to ....... restaurant, it's fantastic."
The same thing happens in travel guide books that have been poorly researched and nowadays it happens a lot in travel website forums. Everyone wants to be an expert by recommending somewhere, but actually they just don't have the knowledge because they have probably only spent a very short amount of time in that location.
If you have no knowledge of a certain location you just accept what you are told. However, after I had lived in Hat Yai for several years and started to hear or read bad information from tourists and travel guide books (even from publishers with very high reputations) it started to infuriate me.
Sometimes it's acceptable. I only visited Chiang Rai for four or five days, but I would feel happy in recommending that tourists make a visit to Rong Khun temple. It's quite spectacular and it is unique in Thailand.
However, if someone has only been to one or two restaurants in a town or city how can they recommend these places over everywhere else if they haven't tried everywhere else?
What tends to happen is that they hear about a 'great place' and then start recommending it as well just because they want to have somewhere to recommend to give the illusion that they have knowledge about a certain location. It may not be a great place at all, but after a while it gets a reputation of being a great place.
With travel guide books they have to make recommendations, but if you know a location well it soon becomes clear that the person who made the recommendations had very little knowledge of the town at the time he made them.
They restaurant I referred to above, which I won't name, must count itself very lucky. Without doing anything, it always has a large number of customers every day and the profits must be excellent.
The next time that someone tells you about a great place, ask how many similar places they have been to and how they know this place is better than everywhere else. If you get an answer, it will probably be that someone told them or they read it on an Internet forum.
We attended the wedding of one of my wife's old college friends last week.
Weddings in the UK tend to follow a very fixed format and after a while they become quite boring. Everyone gets very drunk and the UK drinking culture was something else that I had become very bored with. In the end it all got too much for me and I left.
Thai weddings also follow a fixed format, but the format is very different to the UK. Hotel venues are popular and many hotels have large function rooms for this very purpose. I attended a wedding earlier in the year at a large hotel on the beach in Songkhla and several wedding parties were taking place at the same time. Most of the guests at the hotel were wedding party guests.
My wedding party also took place in a hotel. The morning session involved my wife's family members (I didn't invite anyone) and some of her friends. Various traditional Thai wedding ceremonies were performed and the whole thing was a bit farcical.
No one person knew all of the ceremonies and suddenly someone would stand up and say that the bride and groom had to do this or do that. I then had to perform what had been suggested like a seal at Sea World. I also remember having several envelopes containing cash about my person and giving these away to various people. This was in addition to the sin sot (bride price) that I was obliged to give to my in-laws. From the moment you get married in Thailand and for as long as you stay married there is a constant outflow of cash.
After the morning Thai ceremonies session we took a break for several hours in the hotel. I asked the hotel to order two massage girls to help us relax. They called the grottiest massage shop in Hat Yai. Shortly afterwards, Cinderella's two ugly sisters turned up at the door and it was anything but a relaxing time. The two old hags talked constantly and, while speaking to my wife, referred constantly to me as the farang.
The evening event was a meal on the large round tables that Thais refer to as 'Chinese tables'. They seat about 10 people. No one really makes an attempt to speak to people they don't know and the main objective seems to be to eat as much food as possible. It started at around 6pm and everyone had gone home by 9pm. I was really pleased about this. It had been a long day and I didn't want to stay up late.
We received a few gifts (a broken rice cooker, for example), but generally Thais give money as gifts - in envelopes, of course. I didn't realise how important this is regarded until my own wedding. Thais expect the amount of money they receive to cover the cost of the reception and behind the scenes one of my wife's sisters was counting the money and providing constant updates as to how much had come in. In return, the guests try to eat as much as they can to make up for the money they have given as a gift.
I found the whole affair quite depressing. If I'd had my way I wouldn't have done anything, but it was for my wife's sake, and for the sake of appearances. The sin-sot money (all in brand new, pristine bank notes) and my wife's new jewellery were displayed prominently on the wedding stage so that everyone could see.
It also cost me a lot of money. In the UK it is traditional for the bride's family to pay, but in Thailand I paid for everything. My wife's parents have never given us a single Baht or helped to look after their grandchildren.
Having endured all this, the saddest thing of all that our marital status remained the same. We were still unmarried. This was taken care of a little later at the local district office. We sat on one side of a desk and handed over our details. A few minutes later the girl on the other side of the desk handed over a marriage certificate and we were married. No fireworks, no cheering, no Champagne. It was very anticlimactic.
In addition to wedding receptions in hotels, the other type of wedding that is quite popular in Thailand is the home wedding. Thais simply rent a marquee tent and have it erected outside their home. This could be in the street (I often find that public roads have been closed completely because of a private wedding) or in the countryside.
Last week's wedding was right in the middle of a large rubber plantation. There were chickens running around, cows grazing, lots of mosquitoes, and I kept an eye out constantly for snakes.
Shortly after I arrived in Thailand in 2003 I was invited to a wedding in Trang province, which was a very similar type of wedding. I remember at that wedding being horrified at the wedding 'feast', which consisted of large vats of boiled pig offal. Thais are horrified if someone doesn't 'gin kaaw' (eat rice) and to get out of eating it I had to tell them I was Jewish.
By the time I left I was starving and had to stop at a shopping mall to get some Western style junk food to appease my rumbling stomach. The food on offer last week wasn't much better but, knowing I would be home soon, I just didn't eat anything.
Getting married in a rubber plantation
Some of the wedding guests
The men drink beer
The women prepare food and wash dishes
Thai rural wedding
Getting to the wedding wasn't easy. Being Thai, my wife didn't think ahead about the journey. She told me it was in Phattalung and that she would use the GPS navigator to find it.
I drove a long way into Phattalung before she conceded that she couldn't work the GPS. I stopped, looked at a map, and saw that the location was actually in Songkhla. After doing a U-turn and driving back 30 kilometres we found it eventually.
August was a really tough month for me. The work generated by our two kids, in addition to all the jobs that need doing around the house and the administrative things I need to do for tax returns and visa extensions, etc., mean that the wife and me are both working virtually full-time.
Lots of time-consuming activities also keep coming up. The wedding last week took up most of the day and we seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals recently with our son.
I would like to be doing a lot more things that I enjoy doing, such as working on my website and photography, and my wife also has things that she enjoys doing.
We love the kids dearly so there are no feelings of resentment in that they prevent us from doing things, but there is immense frustration. There are so many times when all I want in the world is to be left alone for a few hours while I do something, but I suffer from constant interruptions. It's really frustrating.
This forced change in lifestyle caused a number of problems between me and the wife and these all came to a head a few weeks ago when our son was in hospital. However, it was good that the issue did blow up because it initiated a dialogue between us that hadn't taken place beforehand.
Since then, things have been great between us and there now genuinely seems to be a better understanding. However, I don't want her getting angry again so have been doing a lot more with regard to taking care of the house and the children.
This has meant a lot less time on my computer and a lot less work on my website. On several occasions I have mentioned that in life you can have anything, but you can't have everything. This is a good example. Having children must be the greatest sacrifice known to man. Once kids arrive, everything else has to be sacrificed.
I have accepted this now and it won't get much better until our lad starts Kindergarten in a couple of years' time. His elder sister went to nursery, but we have decided that he won't go.
His sister was constantly catching colds at nursery from the other kids. She gets over colds quite quickly, but because of his asthma and breathing problems whenever he has a cold it turns into a major issue.
I will try to do some updates here but, with the limited computer time I have available to me, I also try to update my local Hat Yai guide and I have just done some more work on my Learning to Read Thai tutorials.
The carnage continues ... following my comments about pickup trucks and Thai driving standards last month.
As a regular driver in Thailand who sees every day how some Thais drive, this doesn't surprise me in the least. In this latest 'accident', the driver of the truck - as usual - denies it was his fault. Macho Thai drivers always blame someone or something else. Mechanical failures with the vehicle are a favourite excuse.
The truth of the matter is that many are young men (some not so young) who drive around with 'Racing' stickers plastered all over their cars and trucks, and an assortment of 'Go Fast' modifications made to their vehicles. They then drive under the illusion that they are racing drivers with highly inflated opinions of their own driving skills. None of them would pass a UK driving test.
This involves driving at very high speed, driving far too close to vehicles ahead of them, continually weaving in and out of traffic lanes, using emergency lanes and the opposite side of the road to overtake, ignoring traffic lights and traffic signs, etc etc.
As a result of driving in this manner when something unexpected does happen, such as another vehicle pulling out, there is no time to react or take evasive action and, inevitably, a collision occurs. The fact that they drive excessively fast means that when a collision does occur it often results in fatalities, especially if there are lots of passengers in the back of an open pickup truck.
The UK and Thailand have very similar sized populations, however, the road accident rate in Thailand is about seven times higher. The situation on Thailand's roads is insane.
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