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Introduction

Bang Niang beach, Khaolak, Phang Nga province
Photo: Bang Niang beach, Khaolak, Phang Nga province

What's On This Page?

  • My Different Stages Of Visiting Thailand [more]
  • Verisimilitude by Harry Nicolaides [more]
  • Welcome to Planet Thailand [more]
  • The Lure Of Thailand [more]
  • Paradise? [more]
  • History [more]
  • Borders [more]
  • Obsession, Addiction and Reality [more]

 

Thailand - Introduction Part 2

My Different Stages Of Visiting Thailand

  1. Stage One - The First Time Tourist

    Mind blowing. Not only my first time to Thailand but my first visit to Southeast Asia. You mean to say there are places in the world like this and it has taken me 27 years to make that discovery? There is a definite sensation of culture shock but it is a wonderful feeling. My trip takes me to mainly tourist areas but mass tourism hasn't arrived yet and the places are still fun, even Pattaya. In three and a half weeks I manage to learn not one single Thai word.

    I am completely ignorant about absolutely everything in Thailand but sometimes ignorance really is bliss. In later years I am to increase my knowledge of the country immeasurably but all that does is make me more cynical.

  2. Stage Two - The Second (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, etc) Time Tourist

    With every visit making me a little more familiar, that feeling I had on my first trip isn't quite the same but it is still a very, very special feeling being in Thailand. Mass tourism has arrived and for me certain parts of Thailand have become no-go areas. My interest is in Thais and Thai culture, not what is on offer at Patong beach, Pattaya or Nana Plaza. I have learnt a few words of Thai and would like to learn more.

  3. Stage Three - The Unenlightened Semi-Permanent Resident

    For me this was the most difficult and the least enjoyable stage. After about three months all the things that used to be so special about being in Thailand - the sights, sounds, smells - seem so familiar I am taking them for granted and the novelty of just being in the country has started to wear off. There is a definite realisation that things aren't as they appear on the surface. Many of the things that used to seem great now seem fake and the reality of life takes on quite an ugly appearance. It's a definite case of a little knowledge not being a good thing. I've taken some Thai lessons and learnt a few phrases but still struggle enormously with the language. Unfortunately this page started life when I was in stage three and feeling quite negative about Thailand.

  4. Stage Four - The Semi-Permanent Resident Who Is Starting To See The Light

    This is a nice stage again. As a result of stages one and two all my hopes were hung on Thailand and in stage three I suddenly felt like the rug had been pulled from under my feet. I felt cheated, let down, grossly disappointed but then something happened. With some more understanding the behaviour that seemed ugly in stage three suddenly starts to have meaning. Thai culture is very complex and takes a while to get to grips with. When the light starts to shine it starts to bring meaning not only to life in Thailand but to life everywhere. Suddenly life in Thailand is looking rosy again. My Thai is improving at a snail's pace. Unfortunately for me it means having to rewrite much of what I wrote on this site during stage three.

  5. Stage Five - Reality Check and Decision Time

    There comes a time after you've been living in Thailand for a while when you just start seeing the country for what it is. For me, this started to happen between a year and 18 months. It's no longer the perfect, magical land it seemed during vacations. It's still a comfortable place to live but the way everything appears starts to change.

    The total disregard for laws and almost being run down by crazy motorcyclists every time I try to cross the road gets tiresome. For me personally, the constant heat of the hot season is a bit of a problem. The food starts to get a bit boring. Certain aspects of the culture, and Thai politics in particular, are very unjust and get to me at times.

    For such friendly people the Thais are actually quite inconsiderate towards others in many respects. Common courtesy, both on and off the roads, is fairly lacking. The noise is awful. Motorbikes are the number one culprit but many people keep dogs outside their houses and let them bark all night. People play music as loud as they wish with little respect shown for their neighbours. The freedom of Thailand is great but a little civility would be very welcome.

    Even the girls start to look different. I don't think I will ever get bored of looking at pretty Thai girls (the day I get bored of that will be the day someone can switch off my life-support machine) but you start to see them in a different light. Finding out how many of the girls operate, what their real motivation is for having an interest in you and where their loyalties are makes them somewhat less appealing. And then realising that the Thai girls who are appealing aren't very accessible to farang men.

    It's not all doom and gloom though, this is just life and it's the same everywhere. Nowhere is perfect but the problem with Thailand is that for many people it does seem almost perfect when they first start visiting. This is what I try to explain to people who come for a holiday and then write to me telling me they are about to sell their house and move to Thailand permanently. Before anyone makes such a drastic decision they need to spend at least a year in Thailand to really start to understand the country.

    So, after you have realised Thailand isn't perfect is it time to catch the next flight home? Most definitely not. The only reason I came to Thailand in the first place was because there were a lot of things I didn't like about my own country. It's then a case of weighing up the good and bad aspects of both countries and working out what is best for you personally. And it is a very personal decision.

    For many foreigners, the reality of working in Thailand is teaching English. If you want a career in life or want to save money for the future, being an English teacher isn't for you. It will do little for your career and the money you earn will just about be enough to survive on and have a little fun. If you want to save money as an English teacher go to Japan or Korea.

    If you want to raise children then it is probably not the best place unless you can afford to have your kids educated in a very good international school. For many people, living in Thailand is ideal, but not for everyone. I am a single man with no desire for children and no particular desire for marriage. I've done my career bit, own a house and have investments abroad. I enjoy Thailand but have maintained an easy path back to the West.

    During the 'reality check and decision time' stage it is fairly important to act quickly. Thailand is an incredibly easy and cheap place to live. However, people get trapped. They come out and before they realise it, they have spent several long years in Thailand. They can earn just enough to get by and have a comfortable life but after a while it becomes almost impossible for them to be able to afford to return to the West.

    The only way they could return home is by getting a high paying job but, having dossed around in Thailand for 20 years, it doesn't look very good on their CV. Others get trapped but are too lazy or just incapable of supporting themselves in Thailand and have no income from abroad. They can't go home and can't afford to live. Seeing farangs busking or begging on the streets for loose change is actually quite a pathetic sight.

    In extreme cases some foreigners end up committing suicide. It's normally men who first come out for a vacation and get totally intoxicated with the lifestyle; the endless supply of girls, sunshine, cheap booze, easy way of life. They sell up at home, move to Thailand and try to start a bar business or something. They get involved straight away with the wrong kind of girls, get taken for money, drink away their profits, etc. Eventually the money runs out, the dream dies and they have nothing to go back to. For some there is only one way out of the situation.

    I'm sure there are lots more stages. Being totally fluent in Thai and being able to read and write must bring a whole new meaning to life in Thailand (I cannot remember the time in my early life when I was illiterate but I am illiterate in Thailand) but that stage is just a glimmer on the far horizon for me at the moment. How many more stages I will go through I'm not sure but in the meantime I am still enjoying life in Thailand.

  6. Stage Six - The Two-Year Point

    Buddhist temple, Songkhla - Click for larger image Two years in Thailand seems to be quite significant. I have heard from, and read about, quite a few people who have decided to leave Thailand after being there for two years. After two years I feel the same way at times.

    Many aspects of Thai society are based on deceit and hidden truths. These are very well disguised by the presentation of an acceptable image but, as the old saying goes, you can't fool all the people all the time. Everything starts to look very different after a couple of years in the country and it isn't always pretty.

    What is maybe difficult to understand is that a lot of what I don't like doesn't affect me directly. I don't like the way that the majority of Thais are kept downtrodden and are exploited by a small minority of their fellow countrymen higher up in Thai society. My trouble is that I have a strong sense of right and wrong and I don't like to see injustice.

    It upsets me that the people who can change things have the least motivation to change things. The last thing Thai politicians need is a well educated electorate. It suits them to have a large population of poor, uneducated people who are good for providing cheap labour and whose votes can be easily bought at election time.

    There is a 'Thai way' of doing things which I don't like because often times it is deceitful. Why set up a proper system of education when you can give the impression of a good education system? Why tackle poverty and hardship properly when it is easier (and more profitable for people who are already rich) to build fancy designer shopping malls and new airports? Why bother building a self-sufficient economy when it is easier to keep enticing foreigners with the lure of a 'Tropical Paradise' and get money from a much easier source?

    I have very little trust in Thailand and firmly believe in the adage that you shouldn't invest any more in Thailand than you are prepared to lose. I am therefore living in a state of limbo, not wanting to set myself up comfortably in the country for fear that I will lose my investment. My life is effectively on hold.

    Ever since I started living in Thailand there have been highs and lows and I find it an incredibly frustrating country. Sometimes Thailand drives me crazy and at other times I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

    I have begun to get more isolated and withdrawn over time. Early on I tried to form a social circle of educated and influential Thais. When I mentioned this to a long-term expat he told me to be careful; that these people were only using me. I didn't believe him at first but over time I realised he was right.

    The Thais lower down the social scale are wonderful people but I actually have very little in common with them and communication is difficult. As far as other farangs are concerned, I have a met a few fantastic people but the majority I encounter are just in Thailand for the cheap beer and prostitutes so I avoid them.

    Like other people, I suffer a little from the 'Trapped in Thailand' syndrome but I have been very careful not to become trapped financially. A move back to the developed world would be relatively easy and sometimes I am tempted.

    However, I sometimes forget why I came to Thailand in the first place. The developed world is expensive to live in, which means full-time work is a necessity, and the workplace is very competitive. Many Westerners have no work/life balance any more; work is their life.

    That was the position I found myself in a few short years ago and as a result I became very unhappy in life. In Thailand I work part-time but if I wanted to I could stop working altogether and still survive quite well. My lifestyle in Thailand affords me the time to pursue things I am interested in because I am not working all the time and I don't feel drained of energy from working all the time.

    Thailand isn't perfect but nowhere is. We can have anything but we can't have everything - life is about choices and compromise. There are things I don't like about Thailand but there are things I don't like about many other countries.

    There are far worse places to be than Thailand and for the time being I am happy to be here.

  7. Stage Seven - Contentment Again

    Waiting for a train in Bangkok - Click for larger image I had realised that the political situation in Thailand was upsetting me but I didn't quite realise how much. Probably my lowest point came when Thaksin was elected back in for a second term at the beginning of 2005 with a huge majority. In context, this came shortly after Bush was elected back into office and shortly before Blair was voted back in.

    I was getting disillusioned with the state of the world. Not only was it upsetting me what was happening in the world (including what was happening in my own back yard in the southern Thai provinces) but the fact that when citizens had opportunities to make changes for the better they failed to do so. Why?

    I am fully aware that it serves no purpose to be concerned or worried about factors beyond my control but despite this I was. Thaksin's antics probably wouldn't affect me directly but having met so many wonderful Thai people it hurt me that one person was taking so much from the country and it wasn't being distributed fairly.

    It frustrated me that I had always been able to see exactly what he was up to yet many people couldn't apparently. I had to stop buying newspapers because every time I picked up a newspaper there would be another corruption or conflict of interest story and I would get upset again. I was trying to live like an ostrich with my head in the sand, trying to ignore what was going on in Thai politics but this is not natural for me and not acting in a natural way made me even more upset. What a mess I was getting myself into.

    My general disposition improved when Sondhi came on the scene and started to voice publicly what had been upsetting me about Thaksin. After a while though it was unclear whether he would make any difference or whether he would just disappear from the scene.

    It was actually Thaksin who saved me by selling Shin Corp to Singapore. Had he not done so then the pro-democracy movement would just have fizzled out, Sondhi would have disappeared and Thaksin would have been as powerful as ever. However, he thought he was invincible and could get away with anything.

    He underestimated the Thais though whose fury erupted when he sold national assets to Singapore, some of which were seen as being important to national security. It was the final straw for the Thais, the anti-Thaksin protests escalated and the situation reached a point where Thaksin's continued leadership became untenable.

    After the 2005 election it looked as if Thaksin would be in power for many years to come. Whatever else I liked about Thailand, this fact just ruined everything that was good about the country. Just over a year later though, everything changed. People power really does work. The trouble in Thailand is that it needed a Sondhi to start the process when really the Thai people already had enough information to have known what was going on.

  8. Stage Eight - Totally Hooked

    Trishaw outside a Thai Chinese Buddhist temple in Songkhla - Click for larger image After almost three years of continuous living in Thailand and almost 20 years since my first visit, I am totally hooked. My emotions have never been very level since I started living here. It's a crazy country full of contradictions and, to be frank, a lot of nonsense.

    There have been numerous occasions - such as almost being killed by an unlicensed Bangkok taxi driver - when I have been ready to quit. But where would I go? There are plenty more law-abiding countries in the world but boy, are they dull and lonely places.

    My most recent trip to Malaysia confirmed that and the thought of going back to the UK (where half of the population has considered emigrating) is a nightmare. Within 24 hours I would be desperate to return to Thailand.

    The people in this country are truly amazing. Apart from some politicians, some Chinese businessmen, the crazy young males who want to kill themselves and everyone else on the roads, Indian tailors and con-artists that prey on foreigners, the rest of the population is great.

    All of the above categories - you may have noticed - are male and it is males that cause all of the problems in this world. Thai women are to be worshipped and even the ones reduced to selling their bodies due to economic hardship aren't necessarily bad.

    Thailand has completely changed my life. I used to be a very self-centred person who craved a lot of material things. Earning and spending money were the main activities in my life. After meeting so many wonderful Thais with little money it has made me a lot more content with what I have and, compared to the majority of Thais, I have a lot.

    The old adage about giving being a lot more rewarding than receiving is very true. The nice thing about Thailand is that because many people have so little, giving even a little is appreciated. Simple things like getting prints done of people whose photo I have taken or giving some free English lessons go down well and make me feel good.

    On the negative side, my empathy with the people here that has come about as my focus has moved away from myself has made me over-sensitive to many problems in the world. World events that I should just acknowledge but not get upset about do upset me - and they upset me a lot. This is something that I am trying to come to terms and deal with.

    I feel immense pride living in Thailand. When everyone stands at the cinema for a rousing rendition of the King's anthem it almost brings me to tears. I am also almost brought to tears when I see greedy politicians robbing their fellow countrymen with corrupt practices and conflicts of interest but the tears flow for different reasons.

    With such strong feelings now, this country will be difficult to leave. At some stage I will need to return to England. Owning a property there and, with my parents in their 70's, going back will be inevitable but I only plan to do whatever is necessary before returning to Thailand as soon as possible.

    I mentioned above somewhere that reading Thai would make a difference living in Thailand and my reading ability is getting better. I can slowly find my way through menus and on recent trips to Bangkok I found I could read most signs.

    My reading ability has now overtaken my limited vocabulary so although I can pronounce written words, I don't know what they mean! Books, newspapers and magazines are still beyond me. It's not just the vocabulary but the very formal Thai writing style which differs quite a lot from spoken Thai.

    The good thing is that the better I get, the more motivated I become and that can only be a good thing. It still baffles me a little how people can live in a country for many years yet not speak, read or write the language. Than again, when you understand the reasons those people are in Thailand, it isn't quite so baffling.

  9. Stage Nine - Removing the rose-tinted spectacles

    Monks gathered in the temple for the 5pm chanting session - Click for larger image If it has not become clear already from reading this site, I admit that I arrived in Thailand with an agenda and continued with that agenda for almost four years. I didn't like the way the country was perceived by many foreigners. Not only did I think these generalised perceptions were insulting to Thailand but if Thailand was perceived as no more than a destination for cheap sex, they were insulting to me as well.

    I looked for - and found - many positive aspects in Thailand. I found an excellent healthcare system with many well-trained and dedicated health professionals. I met and spoke with highly intelligent Thai academics, some of whom had studied abroad. I met and spoke with Chuan Leekpai, a twice former Thai Prime Minister, who came across as a clever and compassionate man. I read a great deal about the good work done by Thailand's royal family over many years.

    I succeeded in finding what I had been looking for but because of my blinkered approach trying to highlight only the positive aspects of Thailand, I closed my eyes to the negatives. But then, all of a sudden, I realised that I was just deluding myself; that, in fact, I was wandering around wearing rose-tinted spectacles. I knew that it was time to face reality and remove them.

    It was around that stage that work stopped on this web site. Part of my delusion was trying to believe that foreigners come to Thailand to understand something about the country; that they have a desire to understand the culture and language.

    Perhaps a few do (a very small minority) but attempts to share my Thai language experience by providing reading tutorials failed completely. It became clear very quickly that no one was interested. It's nice to think that not all foreigners who arrive in Thailand are here as sex tourists or sexpats but unfortunately a great many are.

    I wanted to believe that Thais aren't stupid, as is so often quoted by foreigners, but time after time my life has been put in danger on the roads by the crass stupidity of Thai drivers who think nothing of endangering the lives of the passengers they are paid to transport and other road users.

    I wanted to believe that Thais aren't lazy, as is so often quoted by foreigners, but the sad fact is that many of them are.

    I wanted to believe there was an earnest desire for Thais to learn English in order to compete in the globalised world but the general attitude to learning is pathetic. In addition, they don't have a clue what to look for in foreign teachers, and they don't want to pay a reasonable salary.

    In Thailand, the general consensus is that labour is cheap - no matter whether the person you employ sweeps your floor or teaches you an important life skill; it's inconsequential.

    I wanted to believe in a just society but Thai society is anything but just. Poor Thais are exploited by rich Thais more than by any other group of people. The people in Thailand with the power to make Thai society more just have most to lose so it is not in their interest to change anything.

    I wanted to believe in good and transparent governance in Thai politics. Meeting Chuan, and some material I have read, gave me hope but the reality in Thailand is that people in positions of power will always serve themselves first before the people they are paid to be serving.

    In many ways it's a hopeless country but with huge natural resources, a seemingly endless supply of young northeastern girls willing to prostitute themselves, and the fact it is still the world's favourite tourist destination, the country survives (and even prospers) because lots of money continues to come in from abroad year-after-year.

    After saying all this, you may think I am declaring my intention to leave but that isn't the case. For as long as I am able to, I intend staying because living in Thailand suits me. However, I no longer have a soapbox to stand on.

    There are lots of positives about Thailand but there are still far too many negatives. They are not my problem though and there is nothing I can do about them. In a very small way, I tried to lend my voice to promote Thailand but only the Thais can sort out the problems in their own country.

    Greed and selfishness are behind most of the problems in this world and I dislike both traits. However, having tried to promote Thailand in a positive way and failed, my attitude now is to be more selfish in my outlook. The Thais can take care of themselves and I will concentrate taking care of the person I am best suited to take care of. Me.

    And if people judge me using their false perceptions of Thailand as a basis, then that is their problem not mine.

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Verisimilitude by Harry Nicolaides

The title of the book is a fairly unusual word. Verisimilitude means "the quality or state of appearing to be true." If you have read any of my observations on this site you will see that this is a fairly accurate description of how I see Thailand. Nothing is quite what it seems at first. This doesn't make Thailand a bad place; not at all. However, for people interested in living in the country long term - not just visiting for a brief vacation - it's an important point to remember.

Harry Nicolaides is an Australian native who went to live in Thailand to observe and write. Initially he spent time in Phuket, teaching English, before heading north.

The book, according to the cover notes, appears to be a no holds barred biting analysis of Thailand and was written after he was in Thailand for about two years. This underlines my comments above about reaching the two year stage in Thailand when all the hidden truths about the country start to reveal themselves.

Update: A visitor to this site sent me an e-mail saying he had tried to get a copy but was unable to because this book has been banned in Thailand. This news didn't really surprise me. There are certain well-known taboo subjects in Thailand and even though I have never seen this book, I believe the author didn't exercise any self-censorship. That is something foreigners cannot afford to do if they wish to remain living in Thailand.

Further update: Harry Nicolaides has been arrested by Thai police on a lèse majesté charge apparently while he was waiting for a flight trying to flee the country. This offence carries a penalty of 3-15 years in prison

Verisimilitude
by
Harry Nicolaides

ISBN: 974-9373-64-2

E-mail: Nicolaidesh@yahoo.com.au

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Welcome to Planet Thailand

Riding on these disco-buses with music pumping out and videos of sexy girls go-go dancing is a surreal experience - Click for larger image It's impossible to hear yourself think above the driving beat of disco music being pumped out at full volume over the on-board PA system. On the TV screen are the images that accompany the music. The video was probably taken at one of Pattaya's Go-Go dancing bars when the American 6th Fleet were in town on an R&R break.

Young Thai girls with bleached-blonde hair and perfect bodies teeter around on six inch high platform boots wearing very few clothes as they gyrate their hips, toss their golden manes in the air and thrust their breasts forward. A Thai DJ interrupts the music to give an excited commentary about what's happening on stage. So, what is this, a rugby tour or something?

No. This is just an ordinary non-A/C public bus in the southern Thai provinces. I am on my way back home from a day trip and the rest of the passengers are locals. Some are people returning home with bags full of groceries after shopping trips and there are quite a few students. It's Saturday but many Thai students work at the weekend. They are easily distinguishable by the smart uniforms they wear.

It's totally surreal but it's a scene I am familiar with, having seen it several times. Some form of entertainment isn't unusual on public transport nowadays but, like many things in Thailand, there is always a twist. In Singapore and London they show adverts or try to promote the country's tourism industry. In Thailand the driver of the bus doesn't think twice about putting on a Go-Go dancing VCD.

This trivial little story actually says quite a lot about Thailand, I think. Firstly, no one ever says a word about the 1000W of music power being directed at them or the content of the video. There are no middle-aged frumps or women's rights activists who object to young girls flaunting their bodies - not publicly anyway. No one is bothered. When you look around there is not even the remotest change in anyone's facial expressions.

No one ever says anything in Thailand. It doesn't matter how objectionably someone else might be behaving, no one ever says a thing. The Thais are a free-spirited people who like to do their own thing and have huge amounts of tolerance towards other people in allowing them to do their own thing.

Mobile vendor selling peanuts and boiled eggs - Click for larger image As a foreigner in Thailand this kind of strange behaviour can be quite intoxicating. Watching Go-Go dancing videos while travelling on buses doesn't do a lot for me but the weirdness of Thailand can be very refreshing after coming from a stuffy country where everything is regulated and controlled.

It's almost like some kind of virtual reality type realm where anything goes and life is just about having fun. It's a temporary escape from the harsh realities, boredom and stress of the real world. For this reason, many foreigners get addicted to Thailand. However, what you see in Thailand on the surface is rarely how things actually are.

It is a land full of contrasts and contradictions. It might look as if anything goes but that isn't the case. Thai society has a very powerful culture regulating it and although certain behaviour looks to be acceptable, it most certainly isn't.

Unlike the dancers in the video, the majority of Thai girls are extremely shy and just the slightest, most innocent physical contact is enough to make them feel very embarrassed. This is a little different to the thousands of bar girls in Thailand's tourist areas who bare their breasts at customers as a joke and are not shy about grabbing a man's meat and two veg if he enters their bar.

At times on Thai roads it looks like everyone is completely mad and involved in some kind of a motorcycle suicide competition but talk to educated Thais and you will find some very clever and wise people.

Planet Thailand - Click for larger image This photo was sent to me by a visitor to the site. He taught English in Thailand for a while and the photo is of a drawing that one of his students did. He thought it was interesting and so do I. It seems to sum up the general Thai attitude to life quite well. A country full of space cadets. As individuals, we aren't here for very long so let's enjoy life while we can.

It's a wonderful country but it can be very difficult to understand and even when you think you are beginning to understand, something happens to show that you don't. I love it and I love the Thais but at times it frustrates and infuriates the hell out of me.

Welcome to Planet Thailand, there's nowhere else on earth quite like it.

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The Lure Of Thailand

Beach at Koh Phi Phi - Click for larger image What is it about Thailand that makes people keep coming back year after year, including myself. And, when I decided to live elsewhere for a while (I'm not sure how long yet), why did I choose Thailand?

As a holiday destination I can't think of anywhere better. On all of my visits prior to this current long stay I have spent my whole time in Thailand in almost a euphoric state. The people are, for the most part, gentle and extremely friendly. Everything is cheap. The food is good. The climate is at its best when the European weather is at its worst and it doesn't change much year-round. There are fabulous beaches, crystal clear seas and world class scuba diving. The living is very easy.

And of course, the girls. I have a Thai girlfriend now and haven't messed around with girls for a long time but I would be lying if I said the beautiful girls of Thailand had not been a factor in my decision to keep returning here. Not the sole reason but a factor.

Colourful party dresses on sale in a Bangkok market - Click for larger image There is something else about Thailand though if you come from the Western world. It's a temporary escape from reality. Some of the things that go on here are just crazy but coming from a strictly regulated, rational society, that little bit of madness can be very welcome. Many people in the West take life far too seriously. Thais don't. From the Thai perspective, sanuk (fun) is what life should be about and this is an important part of the culture. It gets frustrating at those times when you want them to be a bit more serious but that's a small price to pay.

But that's not the only thing. I have travelled to quite a few countries and Thailand is one of the few places where I don't feel completely anonymous. I can spend whole days in London, to name but one city, and barely speak to another person apart from when I buy something. That just doesn't happen in Thailand. As a foreign visitor in Thailand I am anything but anonymous. Outside of the tourist ghettos I feel downright conspicuous but I quite enjoy my celebrity status,

At the least people will smile and many want to speak to me. Some might ask, "Bpai nai?" (where are you going?). Some interact more than others but at least they do interact. The Thais are very communal and observant of other people. They aren't just wrapped up in their own little world like so many Westerners. I have always liked travelling alone but I don't like being alone all the time. Thailand is perfect for me. I can be as independent as I wish but when I need company there are always friendly people around.

Even in this small region of Southeast Asia there is a stark difference between people in Thailand and nearby countries. I have not enjoyed my trips to Malaysia. Singaporeans may have a lot more materially but Singapore can be a very unfriendly and cynical place to visit. It's a greedy little island and many people have a totally unhealthy obsession with money. I know where I'd much rather be.

I heard something once about one of the things in life that is important to all of us and that is the fact we make a difference. Using Singapore again as an example, whenever I am there I feel quite insignificant and I am treated with indifference. Nothing would be any different if I was there or if I wasn't. But in Thailand there are many occasions on which I do feel I have made a difference. Teaching someone a few words of English, buying kids I know some books and pens to help them with their school work or buying some food for three young girls begging on the street for money are small things but they are things that have made me feel better as a person.

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Paradise?

A crowded beach on Koh Samui - Click for larger image How I hate this word. It may have been a revolutionary advertising technique in the 1960's to sell Bounty bars which offered, "The taste of paradise," but now it's just a sad old cliché. Nonetheless, I challenge you to find a Phuket hotel brochure that doesn't use the word.

Not only does 'paradise' not exist but the concept of 'paradise' is very different for all of us. In travel brochure terms anywhere that has white sand, blue sea and palm trees is 'paradise' and sure, Thailand has lots of white sandy beaches with blue sea and palm trees. I have visited lots of them.

They are not 'paradise' for me, however. I don't like intensely hot sun and when I get sunburnt the two things I don't want to come into contact with are sand and salt-water. And what is there to do on a beach? I find them very boring places to be after about an hour.

Another thing to think about is if Thailand is such a 'paradise' why are there so many Thais who are so keen to move abroad? Thailand is not a 'paradise'; nowhere is. Like everywhere else on earth there are good things and bad things about the country.

The wonderful thing about Thailand is that it offers an alternative to Western lifestyles (for the time being, anyway). Can you imagine how awful the world would be if everywhere was the same? Fortunately, countries aren't the same and different places suit different people depending on personal values and preferences.

Thailand is by no means perfect but I have travelled a fair amount and after weighing up the pros and cons I find it to be much more to my personal liking than anywhere else I have been to, including my native England.

It's a very personal thing. Thailand will suit some people very well but others not at all.

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History

Buddha image in Bangkok - Click for larger image Although I have some knowledge of Thai history it seems pointless to add anything here. All I would be doing is repeating information I have obtained from other sources. A web search will bring up lots of facts. There is some excellent information, including historical facts, at the Country Studies web site. Information on this site is sourced from the U.S. Library of Congress. The one problem is that it only goes up to the late 80's and then stops so there is nothing about recent history but everything else is good.

Reading about Thai history brings home the fact that Thai society as we know it today is still a fairly recent phenomenon. The basic constitution and social structure of most Western societies has been in place for hundreds of years even though technological advancements have completely changed the way people communicate and do business. This is not so for Thailand.

Up until quite recently (1932) Thailand was ruled by an absolute monarchy with the military and an elite band of noblemen holding the sway of power. Peasant farmers made up most of the population, living in villages and given direction by village headmen.

The concept of a strict social order within society, which is still ingrained in the minds of many rural Thais, can help to explain certain behavioural traits. In this age of globalisation and incredible technological advancement (the last 15 years of the 20th century especially) it has been difficult for people everywhere to keep up with a changing world but I think it presents an even greater challenge to developing countries such as Thailand.

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Borders

The Thai/Burma border at Mae Sai in Chiang Rai province - Click for larger image Due to its location - surrounded by several other Southeast Asian countries - and also a history of European colonialism in the region, Thailand's borders have been rather fluid over the years. Thailand has given away territory to appease colonial powers and has also had territory taken forcefully. Various attempts have been made to recapture territory.

At one time, what is part of modern-day Laos and Cambodia belonged to Thailand but the French seized a lot of territory in Indo-China while they were colonial masters in the region using a great deal of aggression. The crisis of 1893 resulted in the French sending gunboats up the Chao Phrya river to blockade Bangkok. They forced an ultimatum on King Chulalongkorn - who was very ill at the time - to hand over all territory east of the Mekong to France.

When, in 2003, a Thai actress declared that Angkor Wat actually belonged to Thailand, the remark started riots in Cambodia and led to strong anti-Thai feelings.

Territory was also ceded in the south when, in 1909, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) transferred part of southern Thailand to Malaysia, then under British rule, to form four Malay states (Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis). While Southeast Asia was under Japanese occupation during WW2, the Japanese returned these to Thailand in 1943 for Thailand's assistance in the war but after the Allies won the war the land was once again returned to Malaya.

Five Shan states in Burma (Muang Tuen, Muang Hang, Muang Chuat, Muang Tha and Muang Sat) were once part of the Lanna Thai kingdom and this is another source of contention for Thailand. In the 1850's two unsuccessful attempts were made to recapture this territory. In November 1885 the British annexed Upper Burma and claimed this land.

Again, with Southeast Asia under Japanese occupation during WW2, and Thailand allied with Japan, it seemed an ideal time for Thailand to once again attempt to recapture territory it believed rightly belonged to Thailand and an operation to do so was led by Field Marshall Phibun.

The mission was successful but the Shan States were abandoned and reoccupied by the Chinese at the end of the war.

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Obsession, Addiction and Reality

Floating kratongs at the Loi Kratong festival - Click for larger image Some people get addicted to substances like drugs, nicotine or alcohol, some to certain types of behaviour (such as spending ridiculous amounts of time on the Internet or playing computer games), and others get addicted to people. The object of the addiction or obsession normally doesn't do them any good but they cannot stop themselves. I do not have an addictive personality. Even at times in the past when I have become infatuated with girls that are bad for me, common sense has prevailed eventually.

However, Thailand became a bit of an obsession for me. I had visited 7 or 8 times for vacations, spending no more than a month at a time but it was never enough. I always left wanting to stay longer and it was always hugely depressing returning to my routine life again after I'd spent time in Thailand. My real wish was to be able to spend an indefinite amount of time in the country.

Due to a change in my circumstances and, more importantly, to a conscious decision I made to simplify my lifestyle (known as 'downshifting' by some) the opportunity to do what I had wanted to do for a long time became a reality. I left my job, sold my car and gave away many of the things I owned. The rest of my possessions I put into storage. I rented my house out to provide me with an income and left for Thailand.

My objectives were very different compared to previous visits where I had just visited as a tourist. On this trip I wanted to discover the real Thailand. I wanted to try to learn some of the language, meet as many Thais as I could and try to understand what motivates them, what they consider important in life and what they don't. This definitely was not going to be a holiday and I had no intention of staying in tourist resorts.

Initially it was like a holiday and I experienced the euphoria of just being in Thailand but it went after a while. I don't think that on my previous vacation trips to Thailand I ever had a bad day but on this trip I have had bad days just like I used to have back home. What has surprised me about Thailand most, after staying here for a while, is how different the reality is to the image that most people get when they come here for a short time. I have worked and vacationed in the United States and although it is obviously different working somewhere to vacationing, there were no major revelations about American society or people.

Bowls of spicy curry paste - Click for larger image In Thailand so much is just an image. The Thai image of peacefulness and religious tolerance has been shattered by events in the southern provinces recently. I've tried to understand a little about Buddhism and although some Thais will wai to a Buddha image they will then go away and contradict everything that Buddhism teaches. For a land of Buddhists who are supposed to eschew material goods there is an awful lot of 'grasping' for mobile phones, cars and other material goods.

The girls who prey on tourists are fabulous actors and although they might be able to deceive some men who are only here for a few weeks they cannot keep up this pretence over a period of time. My opinion of Thai girls has changed considerably. I don't think badly of them necessarily but now I just see them for what they are. Thai food is good but after a while foreign stomachs tire of Thai food meal after meal. The hot weather, which is very pleasant for a few weeks during a European winter, starts to become draining day after day.

The freedom for people to do almost what they want without the strict regulation of the West feels good at first but after a while it takes on an almost anarchic quality. Being kept awake at 3am in the morning by gangs of young Thai males racing motorbikes around public roads is annoying. Reading about how Thais are killing themselves and others on the roads at the rate of about 40 an hour because they drive like idiots and have no regard for road laws is upsetting. Risking life and limb every time I go out on to the streets because Thais drive on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way up one-way streets, as fast as they like, and while intoxicated, is frightening.

My objectives were simple when I came to Thailand. I either wanted to find a niche for myself in the country or to get it out of my system so that I could lead a normal life without obsessing about being in Thailand all the time. Whatever happens I am sure that at the end of this I will have achieved one of those two objectives.

I am not saying that Thailand is a bad place, on the contrary, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. All I am trying to say is that it is not the perfect place I thought it was after I came here for short holidays. Like everywhere there are good and bad points and it is a case of weighing these up and deciding if the good points outweigh the bad ones or vice-versa.

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