Friday, 26 September 2008

So Near... Samui Virtual!

Cat’s term at the college supposedly finished last week but she went in over the week end and yesterday she had an exam in accounting. I’m not sure when it’s all over and I don’t think she knows exactly either.

Anyway, I’m chafing at the bit and need to get away. I’m forever at home slaving over my computer and dreaming of distant places, a trip down south to Koh Samui even.

I like Samui better than Phuket. It’s a real island set far out in an azure sea and much less urbanised. When I was last there six or seven years ago I took a motorbike into the hills and cruised the many back tracks through palm trees and forests. The views were spectacular, it was relatively fresh and cool and there were lots of unspoiled open spaces. Samui’s developing too but it’s big enough to absorb a lot of holiday makers without being overrun.

When back-packing I always just turned up somewhere and found the place I wanted to stay but now with so much info on-line, it’s fun doing a bit of advance research.

And I’ve just found an amazing website.

On there’s a map of the island overlaid with a series of icons each representing a resort, hotel, pub, temple or whatever. You click on the icon and a logo and brief description pops up. Click on this and you go straight into the website. It’s a brilliant way of finding and making contact with the accommodation and services exactly where you want them.

I’m a map sort of person anyway. I loved the ‘map histories’ my kids used at school… it’s impossible for example to understand ancient China without maps. And I once thought of doing a guidebook of Thailand based entirely on maps. It was a great idea, but of course a web based equivalent is even better as it’s never out of date. Now have now done exactly that for Samui.

Now I’m day dreaming of beaches and palm trees. Samui! Samui! So near and yet…! I fear my trip may have to remain virtual.

I still hope we’ll get away but maybe not that far. Cat’s pretty tired so I’ll have to be less ambitious.

Last night she’d planned a party at home for all her friends after the exam, the theme being farang food. She’d decide to do barbecued chicken and pasta in a very nice Italian sauce made by Nana Foods, a company based in Chainat run by a delightful American called Kirk who I met recently at the Thaivisa party at the Farang Connection in Surin.

The food was amazing but disaster soon struck. It seemed to be getting dark rather early and then distant thunder began in the direction of Sangkha. It was the first rain in several days but of course it meant the students were not going to brave the journey on their motorbikes. Even so, Cat’s English teacher and one of the computer teachers arrived in a nice new car. They were delightful company and we certainly had plenty to eat!

Then yesterday was the day I dread, visa day.

I have a yearly retirement visa for which you need to look old and produce a bank certificate that you’ve held 800,000 baht for at least three months in a Thai account. I’ve always previously done my renewal in Bangkok but the immigration offices there are dreadfully crowded and last year after a five hour wait my application was summarily turned down.

‘That’s a new requirement then?’ I said to them. ‘How can I ever know what the rules are going to be?’

‘You can’t,’ she said. ‘The rules change every day. The rules change again on Monday so come in again and I’ll give you the visa.’

I queued again on Monday and a different woman refused me my extension on different grounds.

This time my plan was therefore to try a local up-country immigration office and see if they were a bit less hassled. Yesterday, the strategy worked out. As it turned out the office was full of greying farang and things were very busy, but I got my visa. The two officers worked steadily through the papers and didn’t spring any rule changes on us this time.

The visa process is a fascinating system with two aims apparent… one is to generate work and employment and the other is to raise cash for the Thai government.

Yesterday my visa extension cost me 1,900 baht but there’s a catch. If I leave the country they’ll cancel it and I’ll have to apply again from outside. I thus have to buy a ‘multiple re-entry permit’ which costs an extra 3.800 baht. So that was quite an expensive day.

It’s not the end of the world for me, but I sometimes wonder that if the Thai government’s main objective is to attract foreigners retiring here, they’d maximize the benefit if they reduced the fees and made the process more transparent and easy.

It’s remarkable efficient in many ways though, given that it’s based on a bureaucratic style that clunks noisily in a labour intensive style that’s distinctly nineteenth century. In this remote village office, they were able to check into a computer and find my immigration details. They’ve got records of all my exits and entrances and my whole history of visa applications on line, plus mug shots of me taken at the airport and I find this most impressive. Yesterday they were asking us the names of our parents and keying them in and got us to sign a long document written in Thai. What it said I’ve no idea but I signed it anyway.

On the other hand, in a way that’s almost luddite, this modern system is backed up by hard copy that must generate vast mountains of paper. When I apply in Bangkok they disappear out the back and produce my file, inches thick and then add even more to it. Yesterday they painstakingly wanted copies of the relevant pages of my passport to support the visa application and another identical set for the re-entry visa.

Trouble was, they don’t have a photocopier and so twice poor Cat, who was there as my interpreter, had to trek off into town to get the copies. I thought I’d brought the right copies with me, but no, they’re never enough.

Their date processing is genuinely impressive, but then there’s the rubber stamps! For recording the visa on the passport and application forms, I counted about twenty five rubber stamps lying in an in-tray.

The re-entry permit for example needs about seven bits of info stamped into the passport and it takes time and care to find the right stamp (they have to pick each on up and look at the bottom of it) and to apply it to the precise spot without a mistake... all done with nervous and irrritable farang buzzing round them. Yesterday the aircon was on the blink but the two officers kept their cool. For us it’s torment. For them I suppose it’s just a job.

For me and Cat the bonus was that we then took off to the lake not so far away and sat in a grass roofed pavilion over the water and ate royally as the cool breeze fanned away the tensions.

Driving back home I could then actually enjoy the fresh green vistas of rice fields and rural Thailand at its most beautiful. It’s mid-rice season now and the rains have been heavy recently so all was lush and verdant as we cruised comfortably along enjoying the scenery.

Out there in the fields it’s tough though, especially the planting which is all but done. Now’s the time for managing water levels, for rooting out invading weeds and for hand casting fertilizer and sometimes insecticides, both very expensive indeed.

A business that produces cash flow once a year isn’t the easiest to manage at the best of times. Last year the price of rice went up after most small farmers had sold their crops. This year all inputs such as fuel, seed and fertilizer have rocketed and the prospect in the market is still uncertain. Who knows what price they’ll get.

I wish them the best but somehow it seems the small farmers always lose out.

So who am I to grumble about not making Samui a reality?

Copyright Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl blog.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Animism Rules Okay!

One of the chapters in my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I tells the story of how we set up a spirit house for the spirits of the place and of the ancestors to live in. So that they do not come into our new home and disturb us, we have to make a house for them and provide occasional offerings of water and food.

It fascinates me how older animist beliefs coexist happily with Buddhism, the philosophy on which Thai society is said to be based. One of the themes of another of my chapters is how very strong the belief in the spirits still is and how intermingled with the rites and practices of village Buddhism. Which leads me to ask a provocative question.

Are the beliefs of rural Thais primarily animist with a garnish of Buddhist ritual sprinkled on top?

Concrete spirit houses that look like tiny Thai temples can be bought at builders’ merchants everywhere and are consecrated with a short ceremony conducted by the family at home. Ours we brought back in the jeep from a few miles down the road and it was a major job setting it up as it weighed a ton.

I’ve often wondered what happens to so many of these substantial spirit houses when they are broken or no longer needed and I’ve recently found out.

Along the side of the road you sometimes see a chaotic jumble of spirit houses where they’ve been abandoned by their owners. They seem to retain a residual sanctity though and demand respect but to what extent I’m not sure.

Sometimes at dangerous points beside a road there are similar concrete shrines but these may mark a point where someone has died. I’m not sure how to tell the difference though and there’s one striking example on a road in Koh Chang along the side of the mountain. Many must have been killed on this crazy stretch of road, but equally this could be an auspicious place where spirit houses have been laid to rest.

Many of the spirit houses there are still in good condition and I’m very taken by the tiny granny and granddad figures that embody the spirits of the dead. Nobody will steal them though because if they did something terrible would befall them.

The spirits seem to be powerful and ever present. They really command respect.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The 'Thai Girl' Blog.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Bad Pussy Broke My Pot!

There’s been more animal trouble here at home in the far rice fields of Surin.

Last night it was tipping it down with rain and I was a bit bothered as Cat was still not back from the college and I couldn’t help thinking about her out there on her motorbike on the dark, wet roads. Every time I heard a motorbike I went to the window and at last I heard the aluminium front door grate loudly.

I went downstairs but there was no Cat. She had fled outside again to get her things and there on the floor were two tiny white puppies.

‘No, Cat! No!’ I say stridently to the empty room. ‘Don’t even think about it!’

She’s particularly warm and friendly to me as she flings the door open again and bursts inside, but no the dogs she’s just brought back are not for us, she insists. Of course they’re not! They’re for Yut and Mali whose dogs have all been eaten and mowed down by trucks.

I admit that the puppies are irresistibly sweet and cuddly. Missing their mummy, Cat finds the nearest substitute for them… a trio of soft toy dogs, including the unfortunate dog that got hanged on the road sign for the sake of literature. (‘You can score on route 24’. See MY THAI GIRL AND I at page 243.)

This morning Cat’s now gone off to college and I can hear the puppies down stairs whining piteously. This could just be the first chapter of another family saga!

There’s been serious cat trouble too but that now requires me to digress a bit with a mega-flashback.

Perhaps eight hundred years ago, not so far away over the Dongrak hills in what is now Cambodia, two hands like mine skillfully kneaded some clay and made a tiny round pot with a small hole in the top. It was fired the colour of brown earth and awaited its fate. Somebody must have died and it was buried alongside him in the grave, probably filled with grain to help him in his afterlife.

Fast forward to a year or so ago and a poverty stricken Cambodian farmer (or possibly a worker clearing mines) unearths the pot when digging in the soil. He sells it for a few baht and it finds its way onto a stall in the border market at Chong Jom. I then buy it for the price of a few dozen eggs and it ends up on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom alongside my collection of Buddhas.

Respect for the Buddha means that his image must always be placed higher than the mortals around him and so this seemed a good, safe place to keep my ancient pots as well.

At least I thought it was a good place until yesterday. That was when Bee, our pretty little cat who likes exploring every nook and cranny took it into her head to be a cat in a china shop. Risking one of her nine lives, she jumped up onto the wardrobe and tried threading her way through gaps between the artefacts that simply were too narrow for her.

I was out on the verandah and heard the crash with a sense of dread. For the pot to have survived so long with not a mark and then be smashed to bits by a stupid cat. And I suppose I was to blame.

At least Cat understands my dismay but it goes uncomprehended by Mama and the older generation.

‘Was it expensive? Mai pen rai. Buy new one.’

‘Very old… no problem! Thank goodness it wasn’t new.’

Bee, the cat is warm and purry, equally unaware. She hasn’t the first idea what she’s done. I tell her she’s a bad, bad pussy but she’s not in the least bit impressed.

Perhaps she has the right attitude then… to release all awareness of self, to renounce all striving and worldliness. I guess she must be a Buddhist cat.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Eat, Drink, Rat, Dog

Life goes on as always for me and Cat in our village on the rice plains of Surin province, for ‘my Thai girl and I’.

Cat is now studying computer graphics full time at a college in Sangkha so my days are quiet and focus largely on my computer and finding something to eat. She has to work ridiculously long days and is very tired so we’re looking forward to the term break next week.

It’s been raining cats and dogs and there’s nothing I enjoy more than standing upstairs on the verandah, like a captain on the bridge of his ship peering out into the storm.

It’s been hard to cut the grass as the ground is sodden but I’ve installed sixteen meters of plastic piping and this now carries the water from the roof to discharge into the fish pond which still has not filled up despite the rains. The three big water vats around the house where we collect rain water for drinking over the dry season are full but, despite flooding in Korat not so far away, the rains here have not been so good this year.

For some reason the ducks refuse to stay on the pond but hang around the house for the scraps they get and leave their visiting cards everywhere. As it’s raining so hard, they come and shelter at night under the downstairs verandah and in the morning it’s amazing the mess they’ve made.

Yesterday I came downstairs to find a clutch of ducks and geese on the verandah, shit everywhere, a dead rat sprawled akimbo and the new puppy curled up in the pushchair like a baby.

‘Bee’, the cat had brought in the rat but being a well-fed farang cat had left it uneaten for Cat’s Papa who drops by from time to time to see if she’s brought him anything overnight. ‘Noo yahng arroy maak!’

And as for the new dog… we often see the motorbikes coming down the soi collecting dogs in the ugly cage on wheels they draw behind them. It’s always sad to see the dogs like this but I suppose it deals with the uncontrolled breeding of mangy dogs that otherwise goes unchecked.

The best way of disposing of unwanted puppies is to take them to the temple and the monks then try to find them homes. Cat’s been wanting another dog and I’ve persistently been saying no so, coming back from seeing Peter the other day we stopped off at the temple in Sangkha to get a puppy for Cat’s sister, Yut. I could hardly object though I thought I smelled a rat.

The dog of course quickly abandoned Yut’s house and found its way back to us where the pickings are better and here it has stayed ever since. So I’ve been out-manoeuvered again!

What can I do though but continue to go with the flow!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Why No Poke?

A few blog articles back and in my new book, "MY THAI GIRL AND I", I printed a picture of a nicely painted sign reading 'Danger! No Poke' under its Thai translation . I was writing about the joys and pleasures of collecting examples of signs and things with comic mistakes in English but saying that it's not fair for me to poke fun at them as my Thai isn't that good either.

A number of people have since asked me the context of this sign and the photos that appear above make it clearer. At the top of a vertical cliff looking across the Maekong River to Laos, it is to be found in the Pha Taem National Park in Ubon province.

Another time I've seen this stretch of the river almost dry, with everyone complaining that it was as low as it had ever been. Now with massive rainfall in the upper reaches of the river, it has never been higher and flooding has been serious.

Getting back to the 'no poke' sign, I guess it means no pushing or something like that. The general thrust is obvious.

But can anyone give me a more accurate translation of the Thai version?

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Thaksin - A Sense of Tragedy

The rise and fall of former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra has all the dramatic elements of an ancient Greek tragedy.

A rich and charismatic leader is swept to power by the acclaim of the people. At first he leads them wisely and well but then through his human failings, through hubris and the dictates of fate he is stripped of power and humiliated and his people are plunged into chaos and confusion.

Only a few years ago Thaksin was a successful business man and politician basking in power and glory. Now he has fled Thailand to London, his wife convicted of corruption, he facing numerous corruption charges, his assets frozen and likely to be confiscated. He is seeking asylum as a refugee in England and facing possible extradition and has even had to sell his controlling interest in his beloved Manchester City football club. Though his story may not be finally over, how much further can you fall than this.

So spectacular a display of human weakness intrigues me, that power can corrupt so absolutely, detaching its holder from all sense of reality. The ‘yes men’ around him persuaded him that he could do anything, that he could not be touched. Rich and powerful beyond reason he wants more riches and he wants total power, to be unaccountable.

In 2001 Thailand’s streets were bedecked with campaign photos of a square faced candidate smiling benignly. With his considerable spending and media savvy Thaksin stormed to power, the first prime minister to hold majority power and not be beholden to a shaky coalition.

His first term saw many good policies aimed at transferring resources to the countryside and thus consolidating his own personal constituency of voters. Health care became universally available for a nominal charge, the million baht village loan fund provided a honeypot for small people to share a little of Thailand’s prosperity and a million cow scheme offered cows to help lift the poorest out of poverty. In consequence he became the first prime minister to complete a term in office and then to be elected a second time.

An absolute monarchy, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since then there have been about thirty military coups, deposing short-lived and weak civilian governments. With so shaky and volatile a democracy, power thus accumulated in the permanent institutions such as the military and the bureaucracy and in a small gene pool of elite families that have supplied the politicians, as well as filling lucrative positions in the ministries and the judiciary.

Nothing much it seems has changed over the years and as the British ambassador, Quinton Quayle commented in an interview with the Bangkok Post (31 August 2008), when he was first posted to Bangkok in 1979, three of the big names in Thai politics were Samak, Banharn and Prem. On his return twenty eight years later all three are still prominent.

Over the years the huge majority of the population, the rural poor have thus received little attention, their interests generally overlooked. These are the rice farmers who till the soil and provide an endless supply of cheap labour for a modern economy that benefits the comfortable middle classes. Thaksin saw his opportunity and made them his people and they swept him back into power for his second term with massive acclaim.

Thus Thaksin Shinawatra had the best ever chance to change the creaking post-feudal polity of Thailand. With his huge mandate he might have permanently shifted control and resources away from the vested interests of the urban power elites in favour of the mass of the people outside the capital. He could have promoted the precious new 1997 constitution with its system of checks and balances but instead he sought to subvert it. He used his growing power to favour his own business interests and while he held office as prime minister his family wealth doubled.

His sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek Holdings of Singapore free of any capital tax was the last straw and the opposition closed in. Thaksin the upstart billionaire was treading on too many toes and the urban elite didn’t like it.

A self-style grouping, the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) then started a huge campaign of street protests. Finally in September 2006 the military staged a bloodless coup and appointed a new interim government. Apart from some unfortunate economic policies, this was far from being Thailand’s worst administration. It achieved the rare distinction of drafting a new constitution and calling civilian elections within the promised year, which was no small achievement.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was now banned for electoral fraud but soon was effectively reincarnated as the PPP (People Power Party), its leader Samak Sundaravej, a 73 year old veteran openly proclaiming himself as Thaksin’s nominee. This mantle assured him the votes of the rural people of the north and north east and he came to power, this time leading a shaky coalition of five parties.

Hatred of Thaksin now focused instead on Samak and the PAD demonstrators are again in the streets and have forcibly occupied Government House. Remembering the bloody ending to street protests in the seventies and nineties, the government and police have acted with restraint and have not sought to evict them. Things only got nasty when PPP supporters clashed with the PAD and one man died, though the situation remains a tinder box.

So it remains to ask who exactly are the PAD and what are their policies, key questions to which there are no easy answers.

The press has described them as a mix of business people, the middle class and urban elite, though it’s hard to know exactly what motivates them as they stay out there on the streets in the blazing sun and heavy rain for days and weeks on end.

These though are only the foot soldiers, the cannon fodder. They are fed and possibly paid by the PAD’s shadowy backers and a call went out for supplies of underwear, preferably in large sizes for middle aged females. The style of protest is not genteel though, with defences of razor wire and helmeted thugs with staves, but their use of golf clubs as weapons and shampoo to make the ground slippery for the opposition introduces an element of farce.

As for PAD policies, they hardly go much beyond hating Thaksin. It seems more an ‘alliance against democracy’ as they seem to be proposing an appointed government with only a proportion of the MPs being directly elected. In an interview in the Bangkok Post (4 September 2008), their leader Sondhi Limthongkul says that the current system depends substantially on vote buying. The MPs elected are thus only there to further the interests of those who backed them and corruptly to recover the massive investment in votes. They are not truly representative of the farmers and labourers who make up the mass of the population and so apparently appointed representatives are better.

Sondhi makes it clear that this is only ‘his own position and would need to be presented for consultation with fellow PAD leaders’. They thus seem to have no settled policy except to limit electoral democracy, rather than to reform it, and presumably to return power to the old interests who always held it before the advent of Thaksin.

As I write today, events in Bangkok continue on a knife edge. The prime minister has declared a state of emergency which passes responsibility to the army commander-in-chief to maintain order. General Anupong has stepped back however and has refused to send in his troops to remove the demonstrators, either a wise decision to avoid risking violence or implicitly distancing himself from and undermining the PM.

The Bangkok Post also reports that ‘the country’s top bureaucrats and military officers now refuse point blank to follow [prime minister Samak’s] instructions, putting him in an impossible position.’ The old power structures are again seeking control, though if Samak were to call an immediate election he or his party would again surely win.

It’s easy now to generalize that Thailand is riven down the middle and that this is a struggle between the old urban elites and rural electors wanting a real political say for the first time. Yet even that may be an oversimplification. As Ambassador Quayle put it about Thai politics, ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know… the more complicated it becomes. There’s always a layer below.’

In his interview Quayle says quite bluntly that since his first posting here all that time ago, Thailand’s political system has not developed significantly and unlike other developing countries has not progressed out of a cycle of unstable government followed by coups and autocratic regimes. In some ways time has stood still politically in Thailand, he concludes. Politics here will only mature with the end of vote buying and the development of political parties based not around a single personality but on ‘consistent strategies that clearly stand for something’.

The political jungle is thus still filled with reptiles and dinosaurs and it seems that progress in Thailand towards a modern state governed by the rule of law is very hard to achieve. Thai culture and society is hierarchical and deferential and that makes existing power structures extremely difficult to shift. When the people are kicked by their masters they just kowtow.

Uniquely, Thaksin had a real chance to achieve positive change but he chose not to try. Instead he now faces exile in London and ‘that which should accompany old age as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends he shall not look to have but in its stead curses’.

Greek tragedy, Shakespeare’s Macbeth… nothing seems to change in the affairs of man. Sufficiency is never enough and they always want more.

The name of Thaksin might have gone down in history as the man of strength and wisdom who at last helped Thailand’s politics to move forward.

It was in his grasp. He had it all but inexplicably he threw it away.

What will history say of him now?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

In Touch With My Feminine Side

The Bangkok Post of 25 August has a short photo feature with the headline, ‘In a class of their own’.

The picture shows teenage boys in school uniform checking their make-up in mirrors in the special transgender toilet that has been built for them in their school. One of them in bright lipstick shows off a limp wrist and gaudy rings on his fingers,on the wall behind him the familiar gender symbol, this time half skirted and half male.

The school is not far to the east of us in Si Saket province and is in a typical rural area. One might associate such openness with the cities but it seems it’s not uncommon anywhere in Thailand.

The Thais seem quite readily to accept that a man can be born into the wrong body and so readily tolerate male transvestites. Ladyboys or katoeys as they’re called can thus be seen everywhere. They work as waitresses and entertainers and in a narrow range of service occupations and nobody gives them another glance. An obvious role is as air hostesses but so far I don’t think they’ve made it that high.

Sadly while tolerated they’re also seen as figures of fun. As camp as can be, they often play the jester. Their role is to be ridiculous, to make everybody laugh and this way they gain acceptance.

In stark contrast, there’s a further strand of opinion here that homosexuality is an illness, a disorder and that sufferers need treatment. A formal survey of public opinion quoted in my book, MY THAI GIRL AND I, concludes that ‘mental disorder is the cause of homosexuality’.

This view is strongly opposed to tolerance of transsexuals and I wonder if it could be derived from the Chinese element in urban society. Bangkok for instance is substantially a city of Chinese immigrants and their stricter views are likely to remain strong among the urban middle classes.

If there’s money to be made though, anything goes and gender reassignment is a major industry in Bangkok and is freely advertised. For example on the front page of the Bangkok Post of 23 August is a price list for a polyclinic in Bangkok offering ‘sex change’ for US$1,625, as well as breast enlargement and liposuction. “Foreigners are charged the same as Thais.”

There has been some controversy though recently about clinics that have been accused of castrating minors which apparently is contrary to the law. Elective surgery of this sort certainly needs strong regulation.

So how convincing is the handiwork of the gender reassignment clinics?

By world standards it’s remarkably good, though many a Thai male in a short skirt sticks out like a sore something or other. A chunky man can never be the ideal of feminine beauty and even waif-like Thai boys who cross the divide often give themselves away. The ratio of hip to shoulders is usually wrong, the feet and hands are too big and of course there’s the voice. When they open their mouths, immediately the game is up, whatever game that might have been.

When paying for breast enlargement, as big ones cost the same, they often go for value for money, so these too are often wildly overstated.

Following a slim and pretty girl along the Bangkok soi you can also tell by her exaggerated sexy wiggle or by her simpering affectation that not all is what it seems.

Many katoeys pay for their operations in the obvious way and despite these clues many a western male is deceived by the darkly flashing eyes and the slim figure on the Sukhumvit sidewalk. Such farce is the stuff of urban legend, though some punters don’t find it a problem. There is nothing in the world, nothing you can name that is anything like a shemale.

All of which brings me swiftly back to the transgender toilet in the local school.

In our village it’s very much the same and boys are quite open about being in touch with their feminine side. An attractive young woman who was at school with Cat came round to see us recently. When at school she was a boy. She played with the girls and was more interested in feminine things and, says Cat, had a pretty tough time of it. Now she’s convincingly feminine, poised and dignified and I wish her every happiness.

There are no transgender toilets in our school but there are some very feminine boys around. Sometimes little boys dress up as girls for the school performance, which probably means very little. At a school down the road though, mid-teenage boys of that bent were allowed to dress up as women in lavish and garish costumes and to join the school parade. One of them showed me his pictures. ‘I’m beautiful, aren’t I,’ he said to me proudly.

Thailand is non-judgmental and tolerates ugly farang and gender benders equally. This is a melting pot where nothing is what it seems, where everything is changeable and unsatisfactory. I’ve even seen a monk in a remote forest wat carefully applying his eye liner.

Life for ordinary people can be tough at the best of times and I can think of no greater confusion for a young person than this one. While Thailand may seem a paradise for those who wish to discard their allotted sex, it must be a difficult road indeed. Sex change is costly and agonizing in every respect.

Anguished and tormented, these boys are on the outside and as everywhere are discriminated against. They are ridiculous, tainted and only a few I think will enjoy anything like a normal life.

Thailand can be amazing but it’s the sheer numbers of ladyboys that still surprises me.