Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Bangkok, Bangkok! Is There Anywhere Else?

Spot the photographer reflecting!

For a week or two Cat and I are in Bangkok renewing my annual visa and doing other boring stuff. We’re staying in our studio apartment (concrete cell more like) off Sukhumvit Soi 71 and I’m busily renewing my love hate relationship with this bizarre, concrete city.

Bangkok, the City of Angles is a teeming ant heap of urban ugliness, a tough place where migrant workers on dirt poor wages just manage to get by while the Mercedes swish past in the street. The lucky few move from the cool of the Skytrain into the marble shopping malls without ever coming down to earth, the beggars crawl on their faces on the pavement and on the over-loaded green minibus bus down soi 71, while I stand bent double the nice lady who’s got a seat politely offers to hold my shopping bags for me.

Despite the insane struggle to survive that Bangkokians face every day, there’s still a softness to the people, a gentleness that’s perhaps unique in the big cities of the world. There’s no pushing to get on the bus and as you ride the escalator up to the Skytrain, nobody bothers to quicken their pace even though a train’s just drawn into the platform. In the roughest places there’s a graciousness perhaps because so many of the populace were born in the countryside and bring with them their fine rural manners.

These are the poor migrant labourers on whose backs this city’s prosperity depends, who as construction workers live in appalling conditions, who drive the taxis, collect the rubbish, do the cleaning and work in the garment, shoe and chicken factories, who hold the place together for minimal pay. Without them Bangkok and Thailand too just wouldn’t function, yet they seem to count for very little in the political priorities.

Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic city with some fine architecture, glittering towers standing alongside the shanties, the eight lane expressways soaring by above, high above the pushcarts and peasants in straw hats who carry their loads in baskets swung across bent shoulders. And once again they seem to be building upwards like there’s no tomorrow.

I sometimes wonder how Bangkok actually functions. I first came here in the mid-seventies and it was exactly the same then, only smaller. The traffic was locked solid, at the airport the planes taxied through the floods, the streets were a tangled spaghetti of electric cables and drifting plastic and the same seething mass of humanity was churning, ever churning without pause or rest.

Thirty years later, now perhaps twice the size with ten million souls, it’s a miracle that Bangkok’s still functioning and hasn’t subsided into terminal chaos. How do they manage to keep up the supply of power, bring food to the markets, deal with waste disposal, drainage? The last few days have seen some spectacular storms here and it’s been seriously flooded again. Built on a swamp, it only needs a little more global warming and it’ll sink under the waves.

And why’s half of Bangkok falling down? A hugh proportion of the stock of buildings even in central areas are under-used, un-maintained or derelict. There are vacant sites everywhere and massive multi-storey buildings whose construction abruptly stopped when the economy imploded during the Asian crisis of 1997 now stand as gaunt skeletons, as unfinished dreams. Yet prestige buildings are still being thrown up everywhere; condominiums, shopping malls, banks, corporate headquarters. They’re all magnificent, but it seems there’s little in Bangkok that falls between a palace and a slum.

Our modest apartment block, a six storey square slab of reinforced concrete is ordinary enough. It’s a strange place in an area that’s quite central and houses the better off among the migrant workers. It’s a place for transients and our neighbours have been bar girls and lady boys, Burmese labourers and one room with no less than thirteen Filipinas, young women looking for opportunity on thirty day tourist visas. Could Manila be even more hopeless than this?

Yet the streets around here, though drab and featureless are vibrant with life and colour, with markets set up every evening on dusty vacant sites and cooked food and small eating places everywhere. Sometimes you’d think you were at a market in Surin… this really is Isaan in the city and I like it for that.

Our block was probably built thirty years ago and it hasn’t had a lick of paint or any maintenance since. We’ve had our room for four years and nothing much has changed around here where I am now writing. When we first moved in the security system at the front door actually worked, as did the room telephone. How nice that was… and the lift used to be open in the mornings. The rent hasn’t gone down, but now, to economise on power, the lift only works for an hour or two in the evening. When I’ve walked back home from the dirty, heaving minibus on Soi 71 and climbed six floors up to our room which is often a truly torrid 35 degrees, I sometimes hate this place with a passion.

And I hate its owner too. She’s a pale, fat, middle aged woman plastered in makeup whose spectacular meanness everyone blames on her being Chinese. Apart from forcing us to climb the stairs to save her a few satang, she makes a killing on top of the rent by charging us double the going price for power and water.

When we asked to move rooms to escape the heat of the top floor, she took the opportunity to put up our rent for the identical room below. She charged the poor Filipina woman who was moving out 500 baht to clean the room, more than two days labour at local rates, yet when we moved in it was stinking and filthy. She’d withheld the Filipina’s deposit because the toilet pan was cracked and leaking, the door damaged and the ceiling fan creaking, but when we asked her to have them mended she ignored us. When eventually we move out, she’ll rub her pudgy hands and withhold our deposit too. If this woman’s making merit for the next life, at least she’ll come back as one of the ants that infest her crumby building.

You know the expression, ‘ants in your pants’? Yes, I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with the local Thai ants. Last time we were staying here, I got bitten something horrible and somewhere unmentionable. All I could do was rush into the shower and strip off, but not quickly enough to avoid some unpleasant bites that swelled up red and raw like the worst mosquito or sand fly bites.

They’re cunning too these particular ants. This time I’ve had little trouble so don’t always remember to check my undies before putting them on. Two days ago I was half way down the soi in smart shoes and trousers on the way to the Foreign Correspondants’ Club, just reaching the mini-mart and street market when without warning they struck in the same sensitive department. It was excruciating. It was agony. And they’d cunningly waited to make their move where I couldn’t rush into the shower and hunt them down. I was dead meat!

So what to do? Scream? Strip off? Grope frantically? In the middle of a busy street, none of this was in accordance with Thai culture! It was truly a difficult moment.

Even so, it wasn’t the worst experience I’ve had with tropical ants. You could well ask why some years ago I found myself half way up a tree in Singapore when red fire ants began biting me inside my clothes and in my hair, but that’s another story.

Suffice to say, I was maddened, frantic and it took long minutes to reach the ground and sprint for the shower. But by far the worst thing which almost caused me to end it all and jump out of the tree was this… the fire ants were walking over my face and even across my open eyeballs!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Plundering Farang Pockets

One of the good things about living as a foreigner in Thailand is that you’re very rarely overcharged. Tourists may be more vulnerable than me, but I find that in the markets or even in a touristy place, the locals usually give me the proper price. They don’t seem to mark up the price for the farang. Fruit and vegetables for example often have the price marked on them which is useful if you can read it and for bigger items they’ll usually settle on a realistic price very quickly.

There isn’t a big culture of haggling here as it’s too confrontational, though maybe in a Sukhumvit street market, they’ll try their luck with too high an asking price. Thailand is the perfect market and there’s always cut-throat competition for your custom.

All of which makes it such a pity that official treatment of Thailand’s foreign guests is far less welcoming. Double pricing at government run places is rampant. When recently we went to the Bangkok zoo, a big notice at the entrance reads, ‘Foreigners 100 baht’. What foreigners don’t know is that the Thais go in for only 50 baht.

In this case it didn’t bother me as this was not too big a mark up and it was good value at the price. In addition, native English speakers get the special extra of some good laughs from the warning signs put up for their benefit.

On the tiger’s enclosure it says, ‘Animals could be harmful. Please keep out of the fence.’ It had me thinking about the niceties of meaning and it’s right up there with, ‘Do not use the lift in case of fire’. My mother tongue and its conditionals are just so very difficult and if you can sit on the fence, why couldn’t they ask you to keep out of it?

Much more serious though is the policy of charging non-Thais no less than ten times the usual fee for entry to National Parks. Thus when you land on the beach on Koh Samet you pay 400 baht against the 40 baht charged to the Thais. I’m perfectly happy to pay six pounds sterling if they spent the money maintaining the island for everyone’s enjoyment but there’s very little evidence of that.

Apart from the fact that I landed several times before I realized they should have given me a receipt, the place is a complete mess. The ferry point at Na Dan is one of the dirtiest places in the world and it’s an utter disgrace.

Recently they doubled the fee for entry to all National Parks from 200 baht to 400 baht. An overnight increase of a hundred percent is strange but what seems positively bizarre is that the fee for all National Parks is the same whether you’re paying for entry to an ancient monument, a vast wilderness that needs considerable upkeep, or to see some hills with a few ordinary looking trees on them. There’s very little for your money in terms of sights and facilities at some of the National Parks but the price is always the same.

On Koh Chang there are two modest waterfalls within the National Park that are nice enough but since they doubled the fee, I’m sure their takings must have fallen and local tourism significantly damaged. The most glaring case though is at Khao Phra Viharn temple in Si Saket province in the North East.

When visiting I always try to stay overnight nearby at Suan Loong Daeng, a delightful small resort so as to make a start to the temple in the cool of the morning. The temple itself is actually in Cambodia and the Cambodians charge a modest 400 baht for entry to foreigners which is worth every satang.

However, as you reach the hills before the border, there’s a barrier across the road and you have to pay 400 baht to go through and continue along the road. The Thais have scheduled the approach as a National Park so as to get their cut from the tourist traffic, though there’s nothing much to see on the their side. To my knowledge they’ve not provided any facilities either, except sufficient toilets at the car park for an incontinent army, which unfortunately rarely have any water.

What causes particular resentment among foreign residents is that the double pricing is based solely on race and not on residence. If you have a long nose and a pasty face you pay ten times the Thai rate notwithstanding that you’ve been resident in Thailand for many years spending the hard currency they insist you bring in, paying your local taxes and never murdering anyone. If you tell the stooges at the gate that you live here, they’ll still charge you ten times what your Thai wife has to pay. It’s as if to remind you that you’re only here on sufferance!

It’s thus left to the real people of Thailand to extend their celebrated welcome to visitors and to justify the special reputation of The Land of Smiles. In contrast insensitive official policy and off putting para-military faces refusing visas and extracting foreign money seem to do all they can to scare away both tourists and foreign residents. I’m sure they’d say they’re trying everything to attract us though.

A year or two back the previous government was completing a prestigious zoo project called the Chiang Mai Night Safari Park. Apart from the fact they were a bit short of animals and the then prime minister no less flew to Kenya to get some more, they were also worried that just looking at animals can be a bit boring. What could they do to really pull in the crowds?

The Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment in charge of the park, one Plodprasop, then held a press conference and announced an ‘exotic buffet’. ‘Lovers of wild cuisine are in for a treat,’ he is quoted as saying. (The Nation, 17 November 2005.) ‘The zoo will be outstanding with several restaurants offering visitors the chance to experience exotic foods such as imported horse, kangaroo, giraffe, snake, elephant, tiger and lion meat. We will also provide domestic crocodile and dog meat from Sakhon Nakhon province’. Yum!

Yes, sometimes I do find ‘Amazing Thailand’ amazing indeed.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

A Handsome Race

It's strange how different communities have different standards when it comes to good looks and personal attraction. I can't get worked up about the Padaung's giraffe necks or African lip plugs and distended ear lobes but I know what I like.

While the Thais spend billions on skin whitening creams, we farang lie out in the sun to get a tan. While they crowd the clinics having a nose job to make theirs bigger and more European, we (me included) obsess about making ours smaller. It's a bit late for me to bother about taking an inch or two taken off mine, but anyway, why should I bother? They all love my beak as it is.

Cat's auntie, is called God (yes, she's named after Jesus's dad) and she's been staying with us in Bangkok. It's a big thing for her as she's a country mouse and has never been to Bangkok before. We took her in her ever first lift and on her first escalator and we also took her to the zoo. It was a hot day and the clouds were building. Then the heavens opened and we were lucky to be able to shelter in an amusement hall as the waters literally rose around us.

I had nothing to do as we waited for the rain but take some arbitrary pictures of the people around me. Most of the pics deserved to be binned, though the one at the top of a child in a play car with some women behind struck me as worth keeping. What fine profiles, what handsome people they are, the Thais.

'Farang!' Friend or Foe?

There goes the farang, they all say and look round at me and laugh. They say it without a hint of embarrassment, though they’re talking about me quite openly, me the foreigner, the towering alien, the outsider.

In the village I insist that I’m not to be called ‘the foreigner’. My name’s Andrew and it’s beginning to sink in that I’m a person, an individual and not just an exhibit, though sometimes it feels that’s all I am.

So how about this term, ‘farang’ that they always call us? You hear it everywhere. It’s the universal label pinned on foreigners of the Caucasian ilk, though it’s inclusive enough if you’re not too black and crinkly haired.

It’s said to be derived from ‘ferringhi’ , the Parsi for foreigner, the Persians having been among the early traders to settle at the ancient capital of Ayuttaya. Alternatively ‘farang’ comes from the Thai word for France which is ‘farangset’. Either way, as we’re all crudely lumped together as ‘farang’, the question is this… to what extent is ‘farang’ a term of abuse? Is the farang a friend or foe, a welcome and respected guest or like the Cantonese ‘gweilo’, a foreign devil intruding from an inferior and barbarous culture?

A quick answer is that it varies, depending on who’s using the term and its exact context, though that of course begs the question. Suffice it to say, it probably doesn’t sound as negative to the Thais as ‘foreigner’ or ‘alien’ does in English, but it can still be said with a sneer. On the other hand it sometimes suggests an exotic and prestigious personage with an admirably pallid face, a distinguished beak-like nose and a wondrously distended stomach and wallet. Yes, we do have a special status and regard in Thailand but I often wonder whether we entirely deserve it.

Bangkok’s world renowned ‘nightlife’ has tended to attract single male visitors who are not the most salubrious of our species. Should you chance to be there, in Pattaya, Patpong or Patong you’ll see these nocturnal beasts, shambling in flip flops and scruffy shorts, their tongues and entrails dragging along the broken pavements and they’re not a pretty sight. The Thais must despise them for everything except their dollars, though if the authorities encourage this style of tourism, then that’s the mangy dogs they’re sure to get.

Sometimes it’s worse than that and Thailand harbours mafiosi and criminals of all sorts… Pattaya especially is said to be a haven for them. So if these are among our ambassadors, it’s not surprising if the farang are not always admired by the peace loving Thais. As a people proud of their own cultural superiority, they may sometimes be negative towards outsiders, racist even, but in this instance it could be justified.

Nonetheless, the Thais’ ambivalent relationship with the outside world has a long history. From the Ayuttaya era and into the nineteenth century, the power, technology and toys of the western world had a fascination for kings and commoners alike. The elite promptly adopted western clothing, sent their sons to schools in England and bought trinkets such as clocks and cars, adopting a showy vulgarity that foreshadowed the materialism of today. At the same time they remain suspicious of the bigger fish in the global seas, concerned that the sharks would be irresistibly drawn to Siam’s unique tastiness.

Today they need massive inward investment but they’re troubled by the hold the foreigners then have over them. So they do it the Thai way! Let the foreigners in, take their money, smile and say yes to everything but keep moving the goal posts and changing the rules. Then you can have them in a permanent state of anxious anticipation and beholden to their hosts. That’s the Thai way to do it and it seems to work.

Yes, Thailand’s great quality has been to take what it wants without selling out too much of its own identity and independence; to run with the hares and to hunt with the hounds. In recent centuries, its leaders have watched for the winds of change and trimmed their sails skillfully to avoid foreign domination, playing off the rival colonial powers one against the other. Thailand thus avoided the indignity of being overrun by conceding rights of trade and extra-territorial jurisdiction to Great Britain in the Bowring treaty and handed over vast swathes of what are now Laos and Cambodia to the French. This was a society that was already ‘siwilai’, as the Thai term called it, and the intrusive civilizing mission of the western colonisers was thus avoided.

When during the Second World War the Japanese looked like becoming the dominant power in Asia, Thailand cozied up to the Rising Sun and declared war on the western allies. Then when the Japanese were defeated, she turned and fell ecstatically into the arms of Uncle Sam and has since done very nicely out of it. Massive foreign investment and globalization have changed Thailand irrevocably, but much still stays the same and Thais and foreigners remain very distinct one from the other.

I sense now that for these reasons and because Thailand has a cohesive and distinctive culture of its own, the Thais feel themselves to be set apart from the wider world, with a cultural superiority complex that is very different for example to attitudes in Malaysia or the Philippines. If the latter are more outward looking, more cosmopolitan and more sophisticated to a western eye, they may on the other hand retain less of their own cultural identity.

Put more negatively Thailand sometimes seems to be in a world of its own, introverted, out of touch, isolated even. Standards of education are poor on most objective assessments and for example English teachers sometimes can hardly speak a word of the language. Thais are reported to read a tiny fraction of what the Vietnamese read, preferring to enjoy their hammock and watch their own soap operas on TV.

If this apartness means they can better preserve their own Buddhist culture, so much the better, though having said that, it sometimes seems that nothing could be more destructive of Buddhist principles than the rush for militant materialism of the grossest kind. People seem to want rampant consumerism at any cost to the environment, their culture and themselves.

So where does that leave me, a farang living in Thailand? Is it a term of abuse, of superior distain or is it the opposite? Well, I can only conclude that I’ve always received an unqualified personal welcome wherever I’ve been in Thailand and sometimes to my embarrassment they treat me as a minor celebrity. I’m certainly not allowed to forget I’m a foreigner, though clearly it’s a good thing to be one.

Our village out in the rice growing province of Surin has about two thousand people and I’m the only resident farang. Few of my neighbours have ever seen a farang before, let alone got up so close and personal. When I first arrived some of the kids screamed and they all stared shamelessly. Does he smell, they wonder. Does he eat sticky rice? Why does he use a different sort of toilet? What’s it like being married to him? They certainly ask Cat some pretty direct questions.

Now after several years in the village I’ve made many good friends. It’s relaxed and easy and they call me Andrew, but nowhere is the welcome more warm than at the school. Cat and I are superstars there. Whenever we drop in, we’re taken into the staff room and sit and chat while the kiddies peep in through the windows. If there’s an event of some sort, we’re sat up at the front with the teachers and dignitaries and lunched and entertained most hospitably.

Most of all I’ve enjoyed their two day sports festival run in competition with the school in the next village. There were running races, sack races and a tug-of-war but by far the funniest was the football. It was viciously fought but with novel elements, indeed a totally new sport, a cross with water polo and mud wrestling. In each goal area was a deep swamp of muddy water, where the ball would fall dead giving both teams time to home in and wallow in glorious mud. With twenty one players crammed into the goal area wildly hacking at the ball in clouds of brown spray, it was truly hilarious.

All the while I was seated in a pitch side pavilion on a comfy sofa, a beer in hand as the teachers, kept up a running commentary into the microphone which became more uproarious as they emptied more bottles.

Soon it was time for the awards ceremony. The head presented some prizes, followed by a few local swells and then, half asleep, I heard my name being called.

‘Mister Andrew!’

Me? Present the prizes? Why me?

But then of course I should. I’m famous! Everyone knows my name. I’m a farang! Mister Andrew, their own tame, resident farang! Okay so I’ve swung in from another world, another planet and have a scary long nose, but being a ‘foreigner’ round here gives off no negative vibes whatsoever. Not that I’ve sensed anyway.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

'Sleep. Gentle Sleep'

When it’s not having its keyboard tickled, my computer quickly goes into sleep mode and shuts its eyes, just like the Thais.

Across the cultures there are some small but telling differences in the way people behave. In a long distance bus crossing China, Indonesia or Thailand, if they’re not puking up, half the travelers will immediately fall asleep. On the bus from Exeter to London they’ll be looking at the view or reading a book.

Is it a characteristic of rural people that whenever a Thai is not on their treadmill, eating or watching the television, they’ll just nod off and fall asleep? It wouldn’t be fair to call this lazy though, especially in a hot climate such as this, as perhaps, like my computer, they’re just economizing on power.

From an early age kids here are taught to sleep swinging in a cradle or hammock. To help a baby get to sleep it has to be rocked, so during its daytime naps, there’s always someone there dozing alongside with one hand doing the rocking. Time has little value and granny or an aunt are always around to do this.

As a typical farang,I find all this a bit surprising. I like to make the most of my leisure, to be active or at least read a book. Unless exhausted, I simply don’t have the capacity to cat nap during the daytime. Most of all I detest what the Thais seem to most love and that’s having absolutely nothing to do. Enforced idleness, to lie in a hammock all day may be somebody’s idea of heaven but it’s categorically my hell. I hate wasting time or being trapped into inactivity and for this my Thai family think me very odd indeed.

The hyperactive Chinese with their Confucian work ethic sleep on the bus to conserve energy for the next gargantuan effort, the Thais seem do it because that’s what they enjoy, while I make my eyes squiffy trying to read. Which of the cultures has got its philosophy of life right, I now ask myself.

I recently read a survey of the attitude of Thai children to reading and when asked what they most liked doing, the answer was ‘norn len’. Horizontally lazing around! That’s just kids though and at that age I might have said the same. Though perhaps I might have said, ‘lazing around and reading’.

As Thailand becomes more urban, things will slowly change but it’ll be some time before the baby’s left alone in its room and not rocked slowly to sleep by grandmama.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Inside A Cloud With My Cat

A blog or so back I mentioned crabs and a holiday in Wales. Cat's shared so much of her country with me that I've also enjoyed showing her mine. Going into Wales she was a bit confused as to whether we'd need our passports though!

We've now had two camping holidays in Wales and they were both hugely successful as we probably chose the best week of the summer both times. The first was in North Wales, the highlight of which was the fish shop in Aberystwyth where Cat bought the biggest crab she's ever seen... it's claws are on display in the cabinet downstairs even as I write this. And we climbed Snowdon, Wales's highest peak and it was spectacular. I was disappointed as the mist descended, but when I photographed Cat by the cairn at the top, she was entranced by it all.

'Andrew, this much better than a view. I've never been inside a cloud before!'

That night there was a torrential downpour and the next day when we crossed the Menai Straits to Anglesea, stopping at Conway Castle, we had a crystal clear vista of the mountains of Snowdonia across the sparkling water of the straits.

Some kids were fishing for crabs from the end of the pier and Cat's happiness was complete. We bought a line and a bucket and fished happily, but when the bucket was full, I told her the awful truth.

'Cat, you're going to have to throw them all back again like everyone else.'

'Why?' she protested. "Farang crazy! Why they not make som tam?'

Last summer in UK it was unavoidable that we go back to the fish shop in Aberystwyth, but then we headed south and camped at St Davids. Again we picked the best week of the summer.

'Why does anyone go for holidays in Thailand when you've got places like this?' she asked me. 'Wales is much more beautiful. It’s never too hot and plenty of crabs.'

'You just try camping in the rain, my flower. The water trickling through your sleeping bag... packing the wet tent into the back of the car.’ We've been so lucky but for me a bamboo hut's a dead cert every time.

I have to admit though that the European summer at its best is incomparable... it's just a pity about the winter! And England's paeng jing jing! Just so desperately expensive. To cross with the car from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight costs about fifty pounds but to take the car on a similar crossing to Koh Chang costs less than three pounds.

That's one reason why as a poverty stricken pensioner I'm an exile in Thailand, though really I'm here by choice and anyway, I'm sure you're not going to sympathise with my predicament!

Going to England for the summer does make me wonder constantly about my decision to expatriate myself and live in Thailand though. The English air is so fresh, the countryside so clean and unspoiled. The newspapers, the television, the food, the electricity bill… I can understand all of them!

Monday, 8 October 2007

Flip Flops On The Threshold

Thailand has many customs that the foreigner must comply with and one of these is that you take off your shoes when you go into a house. The feet are symbolically the lowest part of the body and the shoes are associated with them. It’s not just about bringing dirt into the house as the Thais may wander barefoot in the mud, then casually saunter into the house. It’s that you dishonour the house if you walk into it with your shoes on.

In a warm climate it’s a very practical custom too and it enables families to keep their houses immaculately clean. Even so not every floor is that spotless and there are times you can feel the grit underfoot and within a few moments the soles of your feet are black. You can’t ask to keep your shoes on though as this would be doubly insulting.

Toilets can be another horror as floors are always awash and that means paddling through the soup barefoot if you want a pee. Back home, toilets and bathrooms are often carpeted! How very strange that is.

The foreigner of course just has to adapt to the local customs and it’s not difficult to learn to live with them. Most sensible of course is wearing flip flops or thongs that you can slip in and out of easily. We farang tend to use those pricey walking sandals with velcro straps though and they’re a pain to get on and off, but then that’s our own fault.

One consequence of the shoes-off rule is that at the threshold of every house there’s usually an untidy scattering of shoes left lying around. There’s often more shoes than people in the house but it can be useful as an indicator of who’s at home. So you should always leave some out for the burglars when you go away!

In our block in Bangkok where we have our studio apartment (do I mean concrete cell), there are perhaps fifty rooms and as Cat’s a social animal, when I get back from town she could be in any of them. So that I don’t lose my wife, I have an intimate knowledge of her shoes and that way I can find her without knocking on too many doors.

It might make a good plot line in a novel. Hero comes back home late one night and examines the shoes outside. There amongst them he sees the shoes of his arch rival who’s there to have his wicked way. He reaches for his gun…

I’ll bet it’s happened many times over!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

It's A Jungle Out There

Two summers ago we were in Wales on holiday and we went back to Aberystwyth because there's a shop there that sells the biggest crabs in the western hemisphere and Cat insisted we go. It was an extra hundred miles but what the hell.

It was a beautiful day and we were on the sea front and this guy comes up to Cat and asks if he can have his photo taken with her. I'm a bit pissed off... you know that feeling when someone sidles up to your girl. I try to look hard and not to say anything as he's a bit bigger than me. I was going to say something about his nose but looking back, I'm glad I didn't.

So being Thai Cat of course says yes to him and she's being awfully sweet and smiley and I want to kill her. And later on I tell her not to behave like that again with another guy and she just laughs and tells me I'm being jealous. She says he was sweet and she's got his email address... in case one of her friends might like him of course.

Sweet! That idiot! He looks a complete clown to me.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Don't We All Love Bureaucrats!

There's much to admire about the Thai bureaucracies. In the remotest village every house is registered with a number and this is often displayed on a sign outside like the one in the picture. In Bangkok, street numbering is chaotic, often reflecting the order in which buildings were put up, but in the countryside the postman on his motorbike has a much easier time.

Our house in the village far out in the rice fields is number 123 in village number 7. Our address then has a sub-district and a district in Surin province and with this efficient system, letters from England can sometimes reach us within three days.

The house registration system is essential also for personal identification as every Thai has to be registered as residing at a particular address and the house registration book is produced when anything formal has to be done.

If you want to go and get married, you take it and your ID card to the local district office which is an elegant modern building with a cool interior where they open the computer and find your details on-line.

It's a competent and pervasive bureaucratic system owing something to the old Chinese imperial civil service, with shades of the Napoleonic mairie, and it seems to function well. The staff are invariably civil but with high status and power, they're rarely servile. Nonetheless, the aim is good administration and generally I'm impressed by what I've seen.

Certainly there are great legions of Thai civil servants in post and I'm reminded of British India where bureaucratic procedures were made as elaborate as possible to guard against corruption and theft. Inefficiency was not an issue however, as the wages of a clerk were low; indeed expanding employment was seen as an end in itself.

As Thailand modernises, I can see bureaucratic over-manning and inefficiency becoming more of an issue. The style of the bureaucracy, depite good data processing looks to be half a century out of date. As an example, The Immigration Department can pull up a print-out of all my entrances and exits over the past few years, which is impressive. Yet when I go to their lair in Suan Plu to apply for an extension of my visa, everything is kept in vast paper files and they seem to keep as many photocopies as possible. The place must be groaning, but it's all stashed away and added to the paper mountain.

The best thing for Thailand would be if some tough politician decided to cut the civil service by half... and it'd still be overmanned. He'd probably get gunned down for his audacity too as Thailand is substantially run by the big bureaucracies which are very powerful and no doubt look after their own. When there are constant changes of government through crisis and military coup, what remains in place but the bureaucrats who always retain a firm grip at the epicentre of power.

Yes, you can certainly admire a bureaucrat who runs a tight ship but when he gives you the run around because he says your papers aren't in order, you can't always bring yourself to love him that much!

When Your Number's Up

This is a rice barn in Si Saket province in Thailand. There's usually at least one rice barn standing beside each house in rice growing areas and the size and number of them indicate your standing and wealth.

Poor farmers sell off their rice crop as soon as possible so they can pay back the money they borrowed to pay for ploughing and fertiliser and harvesting and for all the other costs that have to be paid up front. A richer man stores as much rice as possible both for family use and because during the year the price of rice will slowly rise and make him even richer.

The rice is generally stored in big hessian sacks in its unmilled state as the brown rice with its husks is less open to attack from pests. Even so, it amazes me that the rice barns are not overrun with rats.

The door of the barn is closed with horizontal slats, just like the cabin hatch on an old style wooden sailing yacht. I well remember that with those, you had to get them in the right order or they just wouldn't run and it's the same with a rice barn.

The door slats for the rice barn are invariably numbered, though it's not a numbering system that a westerner would recognise. Just as the Thais have their own script for writing, so also they have their own numbers. Thus the kiddies at school have the double hurdle of having to learn two systems of writing and number.

It's a huge burden and hardly efficient, though it's very Thai and for the wide-eyed foreigner it's another exotic thing for us to wonder at. In my novel, "Thai Girl", the chapters have Thai numbers and, as on the rice barn, don't they look pretty!