Monday, 25 February 2008

Yes, I Am A Buffalo!

Why do we farang so love swimming?

The Debate Rages On!

A few weeks back, Jerry the Farang read the draft of my new book, ‘MY THAI GIRL AND I’ and he told me I moaned too much. So I posted a chapter of it on this blog (scroll down a couple of posts) and asked for your comments. Most of you have responded that the chapter’s okay and so should be included in the book, but I’m still worried it may come across as an unmitigated rant. So I’ve decided to delete it.

Jerry has now posted a new Comment that appears as follows and my thoughts appear below it.

Jerry the Farang has left a new comment on your post "Is It I Who Am The Buffalo?":


I fear you missed my point. It wasn't just the chapter about the jeep. (In fact, buying a 30-year-old vehicle would've been a mistake in the UK.) It wasn't a matter of balance missing in the one chapter, there was no balance in the book; it's one long complaint. Even when you find something you like---people making financial contributions upon arriving at a party you are hosting, for example---you don't look good, in this instance coming off as a Cheap Charlie.

In his introduction to WANDERLUST, an anthology of stories from, Pico Iyer writes, "Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the 'tourist' and the 'traveler', perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't. Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains. 'Nothing here is the way it is at home,'while a traveler is one who grumbles 'Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo'---or Cuzco or Kathmandu. It's all very much the same."

Your book is well written, you just sound like a tourist. My advice is to leave the manuscript as it is, once you get rid of or fix those repetitious and/or unrealized chapters in the last half.

Nothing seems to please you about Thailand and that's what bothers me. The point of view is valid, it just rubs me the wrong way. This is, after all, what you are: a complainer, along with all the other farangs who write letters to the editor.

Good to see you in Surin. Best, Jerry

Posted by Jerry the Farang to Thai Girl at 24 February 2008 23:08. My reply follows...

Thanks for that Jerry!

I like Pico Iyer as a writer very much but ironically he seeks to amuse with his outsider’s quips and bon mots and he too often comes over as tourist as much as traveler. In ‘Video Night In Kathmandu’, one of my favourite travel books (partly because I visited all the same places as him at much the same time), in the chapters on Thailand and the Philippines for example he hardly gets beyond the girlie bars.

I have taken your points fully on board and have changed the ending radically and will remove ‘Things Fall Apart’ as it’s not being balanced by a positive element, as is suggested by Lloyd in his Comment posted below. I do not imagine this will resolve the issue in your eyes though.

In writing the book I tried not to repeat the Gaugainesque cliché of a middle aged man escaping to a paradise of swaying palm trees and dusky maidens. I have described things in a subjective way just as they happened for me.

While it’s pretty easy to get used to an air conditioned condo in Bangkok, living full time in a Thai village and sharing the lives of a local family while working out new relationships isn’t and sometimes it can get to you. I now have nearly twenty years experience living in Asia and have spent several years in similar conditions in West Africa so am not exactly suffering culture shock.

While I thus describe those difficulties and frustrations, I have constantly tried to balance this by saying that I’m here and trying to deal with the difficulties precisely because I like it and because I want to be here. In your view I’ve not tried hard enough though!

Essentially I am exposing my own cultural assumptions and suggesting how they are at odds with and an impediment to appreciating amd enjoying the local style of life and learning something from it. In a number of chapters I say how differently my Thai family does this or that and that being in such close company with them without any break can be hard, but I then conclude that perhaps they’ve have found a better balance in their lives than mine.

I hope the book then goes on to describe my journey in challenging all my assumptions and as I put it, trying to let go and ‘learn to go with the flow’.

At one point I say as follows… ‘There are so many lessons here for me on finding a better balance in life and it’s still not too late for me to stop struggling and to go with the flow.’ Indeed the final words of the last chapter read, ‘It could be at last that I’m learning to go with the flow.’

In the chapter, ‘An Expat Expatiates’, I say that grumbling can be a useful safety valve when you’re living in a foreign culture but that moaning expats are a complete pain. I’ve tried to extract the humour from my predicament and at one point I say that if in the book I express my irritation at things, I’m not saying the Thais are irritating. It’s probably me being irritable. The joke is thus on me.

On your one specific comment about me looking a cheap Charlie over hosting the party to inaugurate our new house, this is the passage in the book you refer to…

“Why’s everyone walking off with plastic bags when they go home? As the folk arrive, a boy at a table checks them in and they make a small payment which he carefully enters in a book. The tradition is that when next time we go to their party, we consult our book and give them their stake back plus a modest mark-up. It’s a sort of rustic value added tax on parties and it seems a great idea. Everyone who pays gets unlimited food and alcohol for the duration and is given a takeaway present of food and cola in plastic bags.”

And I conclude, “The ceremony, the reason for the event and a good excuse for a beano of a party, is now over and I really enjoyed it, not that I understood very much of it…. The Buddhist faith looks fun and is so much an integral part of a small community such as this.”

How negative is that?

Incidentally I only otherwise mention money once in this chapter when I say that for anyone building a house there's no lawyer’s fees or stuff like that but never to forget the mega-party they’ll have to throw before they can live there. And that was supposed to be a joke!

You say, ‘Nothing seems to please you about Thailand.’ Jing jing??!!

In a way your comment is a relief to me as I thought I’d stuffed the book full of gushy, rose-tinted compliments about Thailand and I’m glad at least if I haven’t erred in that direction. There are even two chapter headings that refer to this as a ‘paradise’ and I could quote you many other gushy bits.

In one early chapter I describe precisely why I like and chose to live in Thailand (which I have known well for over thirty years) in preference to all the other countries I have visited in SE Asia. I debate these countries and then at some length spell out what I like so much about Thailand and why I’m living here. This is part of what I say…

“It’s a bit of a cliché but the principal reason has to be the special qualities of the Thai people themselves.” …

“It’s hard to pin down but the Thais have a dignity and a serenity that I love and foreign visitors, if not loud or aggressive, are accorded great consideration. Unlike in many countries, this unique welcome has survived several generations of mass tourism and has not been corrupted by familiarity.

Thailand is not just a superficial ‘Land of Smiles’ though and is more than an oriental parody of McDonalds’ politeness. It goes much deeper and as a very different culture to my own, I want to be here and to understand more of it. Yes, I like Thailand primarily for the Thai people themselves and because they never fail to make me feel at home.”

In an attemp to justify myself, the last chapter of the book now begins as follows…

“There has recently been a number of reality shows on TV where they’ve dumped some privileged urban Thais in Isaan to live with a farming family for a few weeks and they’ve been hilarious. The joke is that the Bangkokians found the whole experience unbelievably difficult and grumbled incessantly about everything.

I too have grumbled a bit between these pages and while I’ve tried hard to bring out the humourous side to my own predicament, I hope my quips and comments have not been unduly cynical or negative towards those around me. If I am to portray how it’s felt to live here though, as well as the good times it’s essential that I describe my frustrations too.

Nowhere is life perfect and it would be a cop-out for me merely to depict a rose tinted paradise of swaying palm trees and smiley Thais. What I have written therefore is not a detached and objective critique of life in Isaan but my personal account of how it happened to me, sometimes told in the heat of the moment with as much emotion as reason.

I’m therefore keeping my fingers firmly crossed that you now think I’ve found a balance that doesn’t gloss over my difficulties but also is fair to the place and the people who have received me so generously.”

I hope that the book now has a better balance since I’ve revised it and I’m grateful to you Jerry especially and to everyone else for this debate about it. Time will tell!


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Is It I Who Am The Buffalo?

In my previous post that appears below I told you about my forthcoming book, 'MY THAI GIRL AND I' and pasted in a chapter called 'Things Fall Apart' describing how nothing much ever seems to work properly out here living in the the backwoods of Thailand. I was worried that it came over as being a bit too negative and asked you for your opinion on it.

Many thanks to the ten readers who responded by comment and email direct to me at Your views were very useful and interesting.

Now for the vote! One commentator, Lloyd said I should not include the chapter in the book. A couple of you were non-committal saying it depends on the context, and the rest pretty much said that it should go in as it reflected their own experience here and I should tell it like it is.

In writing the chapter, I was hoping the irony/humour one of you refers to might justify it and save it from being an unmitigated rant. I'm still not sure.

One of you asked whether what I was saying was intended as a reflection on local people or as providing insight into the western male and his lack of understanding of the predicament he is in. This for me hits the nail on the head as yes, it is mainly intended as the latter. Seen in the context of the rest of the book, it's all about the sometimes difficult though rewarding experience for a farang swimming in a very unfamiliar sea.

You also make the point that one should get recommendations first before buying goods or services. Well, in the case of the five mechanics who cocked up the brakes of the jeep, all were recommended by locals and by a farang friend. The latest mechanic proved to be reasonably okay but basically the standard is very low in a small market town, ranging from rip-off merchants to mere incompetence. (You can't go further afield if the jeep won't get there!)

The marital farce of the story is that I was clearly asking for trouble buying second hand in the face of my wife Cat's view that all car dealers here are crooks selling utter rubbish. My pig headedness with the jeep thus proved me horribly wrong and Cat is now vindicated! The only answer she says is to buy a brand new Toyota, which we have now done. Then you get impeccable service. I'd happily have my appendix taken out in the Toyota workshop in town!

So that's it. I now have to decide whether to leave the chapter in or to take it out.

Despite all the kind comments, I'm still inclined to take Lloyd's advice and not to risk publishing this chapter. The book is intended as a feel-good story and while it has to depict the inevitable farang frustrations learning to live in a new and different place, I'm worried that 'Things Fall Apart' is too much of a rant.

Interestingly one of you said that with time you adjust you expectations living here and learn to adopt a more laid back attitude and this softening process is a major theme of the book. You'll never make a go of it and be happy living here unless you too say 'mai pen rai' and learn to go with the flow!

Thanks again and keep the comments coming.

I must now stop writing this and finish the book. I'm almost there!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Is This Chapter Unduly Negative?

Since long before I started doing this blog, I've been writing the story of 'my 'Thai girl' and I. It's a blow by blow account of how Cat and I first met and how we came to set up home together in her village in North East Thailand.

I hope it will be published in Thailand in the next few months and I am now working on finalising the text.

Because I feel positive about this country and about living here, I hope the book reflects that, though on the other hand it would be boring and misleading if I were to suggest that all was rosy with palm trees and eternal sunsets and sweet smiling Thais. Sometimes it can be difficult living here and there are thing that make life a struggle at times, so that has to go in the book. The difficulty then is getting the balance right.

A very good friend of mine whose opinion I respect highly has just read the draft manuscript for me and he tells me that I have failed to get the balance right. The tone of the book he says is negative and jaundiced towards Thailand and this worries me very much.

I've therefore been scanning the book to try to find instnces of me moaning and carping about things and I've just found a chapter that could be a culprit. In my defence I do say in the book that it is a feature of being an 'expat' that one tends to let off steam by expatiating at length about the frustrations of living here and this is a running 'joke' through the book. This does not excuse me though if my grumbling goes beyond a joke so I must be careful to cut out anything that is potentially offensive.

The first chapter I'm worried about appears below and I'd like your considered opinion on it. I'm almost decided upon deleting it on grounds that it is not that relevant to the theme of the book, but what do you think? Is it unduly negative and should I delete it?

I'd really appreciate you leaving a comment or if you prefer, email me at Could this be the first example of a book being written by blogger consensus?

If you hve any thoughts on the cover design, that'd be much appreciated too.

Extract from my forthcoming book, 'My Thai Girl and I'

28. Things Fall Apart
I sometimes wonder if it’s a consequence of ‘Thainess’, of the readiness to say mai pen rai, meaning ‘never mind’ or ‘what the hell’, that the folks round here seem to be irredeemable botchers. Everything’s a mess in the countryside, though to be fair, it’s the same with small farmers everywhere. Tiny farms in rural France are a tangle of broken machinery, nettles and brambles because you haven’t time for anything fancy when you work a ten hour day and can hardly make ends meet. Likewise a Thai farmer isn’t too concerned about having the ideal home, but still it bothers me that nothing here ever seems to work properly and nobody is the slightest bit concerned about it.

My old jeep’s in dock yet again and when our second hand motorbike, bought from a dishonest motorbike mechanic, fails to start yet again, I do begin to wonder. With both out of action, we’ve just had to borrow a motorbike to get into Sangkha. On the way Cat begins to slow, shouting to me that something’s wrong. We grind to a halt and as I look down, there’s a ping and a greasy sprocket falls into the dust. I try to pick it up but it’s blazing hot and I burn my fingers.

Having paid for the repair of the motorbike, I tried the bicycle instead. It was securely locked with chain and padlock but then the key broke off in the lock. When I found the hacksaw to cut the chain, that was broken too and as for the bike, it’ll be exactly the same story.

All these experiences leave me feeling a little cynical. I’ll soon be telling you more about the jeep I’ve bought, but the succession of five mechanics I paid to stop its brakes seizing up were either incompetent or hadn’t even touched them before writing out a bill. When we came back from a trip to England the brakes were seizing up yet again, so I got Cat’s cousin to take them apart at the house, while I watched. They were utterly filthy and full of black dust, the slave cylinders were seized and the pads were coming off the shoes.

Sadly a few days later we never made it home from town, the front brakes binding tight and screaming so loudly that people in the street turned to stare. Thankfully, mechanic number five whose garage was nearby seemed competent and he had it fixed the next day. The jeep has modern servo-assisted brakes and the servo that was supposed to be new, was a dud.

For some months the jeep then stopped perfectly, or as well as drum brakes can stop a ton or two of metal, but then the ultimate nightmare occurred. One day, on the way into town I put my foot on the brake pedal and it went straight to the floor. With a rush of adrenaline, I grabbed for the hand brake, forgetting there isn’t one and then resorted to prayer. It was only because I was on a straight road with nothing in front of me that I didn’t have to die. If I’d made it into Sangkha and lost my brakes in the middle of town, the story could have been very different.

At little more than walking pace, I then drove the jeep back to my mechanic and paid him to have another go at getting the brakes right. A rubber seal in the ‘new’ servo had apparently failed. Not long after, exactly the same thing happened again, so the only thing I can now think of is buying an emergency anchor.

My conclusion is that maintenance doesn’t come naturally in this part of the world. To make it worse, most cheap things like door locks and taps are rubbish anyway and people are thoroughly careless fitting and using them, casually trashing everything they touch.

I won’t make any friends by saying this, but in my experience the bush mechanics I’ve encountered in Africa were far, far better than the Thais. In India and Burma they have amazing skills breathing life into old jalopies and I’m told the Vietnamese are fine mechanics. So why can the Thais not keep my jeep on the road as it’s not so very difficult. The engine, gearbox and brakes are modern Japanese transplants, while the rest is as simple as a tractor.

Small motorbikes regularly break down too, so maybe the problem’s a failure to do simple maintenance. Neglect can be expensive but Thais just don’t do maintenance, or so it seems to me. I often wonder why this is as the Thais are highly materialistic and sometimes strive hard to get the shiny baubles they’ve seen on the telly. I think of Prasert who, with his wife, spends his life stirring noodles to keep up the payments on his now ageing pick-up. I think of the girl in the bar who told me she’ll be hard at it until she’s bought the new car she can’t live without. So why is it that once they’ve got the object of their desire, they often seem to neglect it?

Is it a Buddhist thing? Could it be that material things are illusory and impermanent and if you can’t expect them to stay gorgeous and new, why bother to look after them at all. But no, I’m sure that’s not the explanation and I don’t know what it is.

Asians generally like everything to be brand spanking new and often can’t be bothered with the old. The Chinese for example like new houses because old ones are full of spirits from the past and as Bangkok is largely an immigrant Chinese city, many of the buildings there are un-maintained and falling into ruin. Apart from a few old areas that deserve restoration, half the city needs to be knocked down and rebuilt.

Attitudes are so very different in the West. We farang actually like old things for their hand-made feel and for the patina they’ve acquired from decades of human contact and use. For all these reasons we lavish enormous care on old buildings and I adore my thirty year old MGB which runs beautifully despite its age.

In Thailand it seems acceptable that nothing much ever works. The ATM at the bank often has no ink so withdrawal receipts come out blank, it’s run out of paper and even of money. Copy shops give you appalling photocopies and in the internet shop the letters on the keys have worn away to nothing and are illegible. My TOT IP Star satellite internet, a recent acquisition, rarely works, the maintenance men are quite shocked at being called out and I’m expected to pay for a sub-standard service.

It’s boring to trot out more examples and I’d better stop moaning because maybe they’re right… it doesn’t matter anyway! It’s my farang attitude that’s out of line, though sometimes it really does drive me mad.

Recently when taking Cat’s sister to the Bangkok bus, I spent two baht to have a pee at the Sangkha bus station. Twenty four hours a day somebody sits outside the toilet collecting the money, but do they ever clean the filthy urinals I’ve just paid to use? Not apparently. They’re yellow and stinking and broken and it’s hard to believe Thailand has just hosted the World Toilet Expo in Bangkok which promotes high standards of sanitation. The Thais are very particular about personal hygiene, so why do they tolerate these appalling public latrines?

Since then, the bus station toilet’s been closed and it says ‘sia’ on the door (‘spoiled’), so perhaps something positive’s about to happen. Trouble is, now there’s nowhere to go for a leak before you face an eight hour bus ride to the capital.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Live Your Dream!

A month or two back there was a piece in the Bangkok Post reporting on the world’s longest journey by pedal power. Over thirteen years and 74,000 kilometres, Briton, Jason Lewis had just completed an extraordinary journey around the world from London and back by bicycle and in a tiny pedal powered boat. He had crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific and endured many hardships and dangers to return to Greenwich at exactly the same point, now aged forty and an older and wiser man.

I knew him and his boat before he left all those years ago and frankly I didn’t rate his chances of surviving a circumnavigation very highly. At the time I was chairman of the late lamented Exeter Maritime Museum, the finest collection of ethnic boats in the world and we’d given him warehouse space to build his boat.

My insight into his chances was based on the remarkable collection in the museum of early Atlantic and Pacific rowing boats. We had Ridgeway and Blyth’s… you name it, we had them all, including several whose wreckage had been found washed up, their crew long dead. These were a poignant memorial to the men who, uneasy with a conventional life, were driven to live their dream.

As I watched Jason’s wooden cockleshell slowly taking shape, I feared he might pay the same penalty for attempting this extraordinary feat. The boat looked far too fragile, less sturdy than the fibreglass boats in our collection and I was fearful for him. Designed by a marine architect, Alan Boswell, a member of the museum’s board of directors, nonetheless it survived a mid-Atlantic capsize and all that nature could throw at it.

I wasn’t too sure about Jason either. He wasn’t at all in the same heroic mould as say Robin Know-Johnson who was a great supporter of the museum or Atlantic rower, Chay Blyth. A powerful ex-marine who I’d met over the canapés at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, Blyth struck me as a man of huge resource who would survive the toughest of challenges. Jason on the other hand was of slight build, modest and quietly spoken and his steely determination was never apparent. How wrong I was and how glad I am that he lived his dream and survived to step ashore in London, his achievement a world story even in Bangkok.

If you tell a Thai that in life anything’s possible and that you’ve ‘gotta live your dream’, they’ll look at you as if you’re mad. What Jason has done would be comprehensible to few not brought up to understand the individualism and striving of western culture.

In part this reflects different aspirations; what sane person would spend so much money painfully pedaling in a circle for thirteen years? But it’s also because in less wealthy societies there’s a stark lack of opportunity. In the West everything comes to the resourceful planner and outrageous dreams can sometimes be realized. In a poorer place, it’s much more difficult, both practically and psychologically.

If making something of your life is more of a struggle here in Thailand, it’s less acceptable to expect people to support or sponsor your foolish quest. How can you justify it to yourself and others when there are more practical projects desperately needing time and money. Personal horizons therefore remain more narrow and people want to be safe and comfortable and not to take outrageous risks.

I’m not really sure where poverty begins and ends but there is in particular a poverty of opportunity here in Thailand. Many thousands of people leave the land and have to survive as best they can. With little formal employment, huge numbers have to get by, often cooking and selling food in the street. In absolute terms this is not poverty as their basic needs are met but that’s about all they can expect of life.

You see them everywhere such as the tired middle-aged woman I see squatting under the pedestrian bridge in Bangkok amidst the noise and fumes of the traffic. She’s working from two large baskets which she carries on a bamboo pole across her shoulder. In it are a ceramic mortar and a pestle, green mangoes and all the ingredients for making an Isaan dish that sells for a few baht. She walks bent over with a shambling gait as the baskets are extremely heavy.

This is her life as a street hawker and she can never ever step beyond it. She feels lucky enough to earn a hundred baht or two a day and her horizons have never been wider than this. The only dream she can live is to make enough to cover her rent and to send a little back to her children or grandchildren who are still at home in the village. Life for her will never improve; she has no opportunities.

We in the West can climb every mountain and ford every stream, but elsewhere realities are more stark. Jason Lewis ultimately found his dream in the most remarkable way and his story must fascinate Thais reading about it in the newspapers as ultimately it seems so senseless, so bizarre.

I hope that in his long quest, Jason found his own personal nirvana. Now it’s all over and he must do something equally difficult and that is to build a new life, to find a more modest dream that can sustain him over the years to come.