Friday, 28 November 2008

You Are Invited!

It's a funny thing writing a book.

You spend years at the keyboard, most of the time spent on the hard slog of rewriting and editing. Then at last it's finished and there's an amazing moment when you hold the first copy in your hands. It's exciting too when you go into a bookshop and it's there on the shelf along with ten thousand other titles. But then nothing more happens. There's an anticlimax, an excruciating silence. It's like dropping a gold coin down a well and you don't even hear a splash.

Yes, MY THAI GIRL AND I has had some nice reviews in the media and I've received lots of emails from people who've enjoyed it which is very gratifying. However,a slim file of clippings and these messages recorded on my Readers Forum (see all I've now got to show for it.

Except one more thing... the launch party. Yes, there's going to be a party in Bangkok. It's next week and you're invited to it. This is my brief moment in the limelight and I genuinely would like you to come along.

It's in the Foreign Correspondents' Club which is an interesting private venue so it's a rare chance to get in for no charge and have a look around. Access is from the Skytrain.

Do come! I'd hate it if nobody comes to my party!

Here are the details.

Book Launch



Andrew Hicks

“How I found a new life in Thailand.”

Venue: The FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand)

No cover charge.

Thursday, December 4th at 8.00 pm

About the book...

Thailand offers an enticing haven for European men wanting to retire to a warm and welcoming climate and huge numbers seem to be flocking this way. The food is good, the cost of living reasonable and the ladies really know how to smile. Some of these men succeed in finding happiness but it isn’t always an easy path.

In “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, author Andrew Hicks describes some of the pitfalls of living with a rice farming family in Isaan. Ants eggs for breakfast and toads in the toilet are the least of his troubles and with his energetic young wife, Cat, life is a roller coaster as they deal with the stresses of marriage and the cultural gulf that separates them.

After life as a lawyer and university professor in London, Hong Kong and Singapore, Andrew finds a small village in Surin takes some getting used to. He soon discovers that he’s not only married his wife but her family too and that their collective way of life is in stark contrast to the individuality of the West.

He describes the problems of building a home, of running a thirty year old jeep and most difficult of all, his isolation from his own world; from international news, family, food, language and culture. How can two people of such differing age and experience possibly make a life together?

The story also provides a vehicle for the reader’s observations on the decline of agriculture and the crisis in rural society, on how Buddhism coexists with a belief in the spirits, on alcoholism, accidents, motorcycle maintenance and many things Thai.

“His observations are on sociology text level,” said Bernard Trink reviewing the book in The Bangkok Post, which may or may not be a good recommendation.

Join us at the FCCT and judge for yourself as Andrew presents and reads short extracts from “MY THAI GIRL AND I”.

He will also mention his other new book, Hicks and Goo, CASES AND MATERIALS ON COMPANY LAW which was published this year by Oxford University Press, a tombstone of a book that’s in no need of launching.

Free entry for members and non-members. A bar and full menu are available.

Venue: The FCCT is on the Penthouse floor, MANEEYA CENTRE which is accessible from BTS Skytrain, Chidlom. Follow the FCCT signs down to the lifts at the back of the Maneeya buildings.

Enquiries to FCCT on 02-652-0508

“MY THAI GIRL AND I” is available at Asia Books and Bookazine and all bookshops throughout Thailand. An Asia Books stand will be at the book launch.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Where Tuskers Stomp

Surin town is invaded by horsemen from the past

Nice sign but does the translator actually work?

Mahouts and their charges waiting to go 'on stage'

Yet more of the three hundred elephants

It costs twenty baht to buy her some sugar cane

Is there a future for him in elephants?

We’ve just been to the elephant fair in Surin, the big annual event for which the town is best known. It’s always hot and crowded so we went along just to see the elephants on the sidelines rather than to sit through the whole two hour show, which we’ve done several times before.

The nice thing about the elephant fair is that it’s not set up for foreign tourists but is very much a Thai event. For the farang it’s pretty difficult to get any information and the loudspeaker commentary for the show itself, essential if you want to know what’s going on, is only in Thai. The signs do offer a ‘translator service’ and next time we watch the show itself I must give this a go and see if it works.

Despite the friendly and chaotic atmosphere of a small town agricultural show, make no mistake this is a very big event which is well choreographed and truly spectacular. Featuring historical cameos including a war, an elephant football match and a tug of war where the biggest tusker just beats an army of men, it offers something for everyone. Hundreds of elephants come into town and mingling in the crowds you’ll see horsemen and tribal people in sarongs who hardly raise a glance amongst the stalls and noodle stands.

On the Friday there’s an elephant ‘breakfast’ in the town when you can get up close and personal with any number of these huge beasts as they’re fed in the street. This year 60 tonnes of food was prepared for the three hundred elephants there.

These huge animals can be dangerous though and from time to time at various tourist venues around the country an elephant goes berserk and an onlooker is ‘stomped to death’, as local usage has it. The Bangkok Post briefly reported (22 November 2008) that this Friday at the opening ceremony an elephant ‘became agitated and hurt four Thai tourists, three of them seriously’. I hope it wasn’t worse than that as in Thailand tourism comes first and negative publicity isn’t very welcome. On the same note, the warning some years ago by a safety specialist about the possibility of a tsunami was carefully suppressed with tragic consequences.

On Sunday we enjoyed the bustling atmosphere at the show ground and were able to mix freely with the elephants, though as we went in a guard warned us to be very wary of the elephants.

And there were elephants big and small everywhere. For twenty baht you can feed sugar to them but despite the huge cost of maintaining an elephant that and giving rides seems to be all they can earn. Like a bar girl slurping over-priced ‘lady drinks’, the main commercial role of an elephant seems to be selling sugar cane.

Yet there are still substantial numbers of elephants here and we sometimes see one at night near the market in our home town of Sangkha. If in the traffic backed up ahead you see a red tail light swinging from side to side, then that’s exactly what it is… a tail light on an elephant.

Cat’s Mama is Suai and it’s the Suai people who migrated northwards from Cambodia that have special skills in managing elephants. The mahouts are still Suai speakers but one wonders what the future will bring for the younger generation. The only future must be tourism but an annual fair is hardly enough. There’s an elephant village north of the town but it’s not well promoted and we know nothing about it and have never been there.

Tourism throughout Isaan is sadly under-developed, only about three percent of foreign visitors ever coming here. In this and every other way the region has always being ignored by politicians until former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra seized his chance and built a political base among the rural poor through populist policies such as health care and credit.

Whoever is in charge though, Surin desperately needs substantial central government spending on a major all-year elephant centre near to the town and its hotels. This could be on a circuit of attractions to bring visitors to the ‘real Thailand’… to see elephants, rice cultivation, the Khmer temples, the ancient site at Ban Chiang and the Mekong and its riverside towns.

Isaan urgently needs a strong policy of regional development which could thus begin with tourism and with elephants. There’s a major agricultural revolution going on here in the countryside, a widening social and political gulf between the rural poor and the pampered city folk and a big problem both in town and country caused by urban migration. And this is a crisis that’s going to get worse before it gets better.

An effective policy of regional development needs political stability and long term vision though and sadly this seems to be a forlorn hope in Thailand at the present time.

Andrew Hicks, November 2008. The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Tyranny of Rice

From upstairs I can see the rice is suddenly ripening

Hire of the thresher and labour is yet another cost

An old truck has brought a new future to the rice fields

Thumbs up from Mungorn as the combine does all the work

Combine harvesting Mama's fields for the first time ever

A big machine, no wonder it's so expensive to hire

Mali's Papa eyes the future with some scepticism

For his generation it's all going to change though.

After almost a week of rain the temperature has suddenly dipped several degrees and as I look out from my upstairs verandah I can see that the brilliant green of the rice fields is suddenly turning to brown. It’s a good time but a tough one as the harvest rules everyone’s lives when they begin the tough task of bringing in the rice.

The village is not quite as sleepy as usual. Familiar faces that I haven’t seen for some time have come back from work in Bangkok for the harvest. I hear the thump, thump of the thresher and go round to watch a family team tossing the bundles of rice high into the machine. The straw is spewed out high into the air and a trickle of brown grains is collected in sacks which are then put together and counted. Will it be a good harvest this year?

Cat’s brother Mungorn tells us that Mama’s field is ready for cutting but try as he might he cannot find enough people to do the work. In recent years he’s used a big team to bring in the whole crop within a day or two but times are changing. He thinks the only alternative now is to rent a combine harvester but while this cuts out the cost of the threshing, it’s going to be expensive. He’ll have to find 6,000 baht which he hasn’t got, but never mind, he does have a farang brother-in-law!

An incidental advantage is that with his own fields cut in a few hours, he and Mali are then free to sell their labour and recoup some of the extra cost.

Rice farming is difficult as your cash flow comes only at the end of the season when you sell the rice, so farmers borrow to finance the production costs and sell on for a low price as soon as possible after the harvest to minimize interest payments, though this time Mungorn’s in luck as he's got free credit from me.

I go out to the rice fields and the harvester has already been offloaded from its battered truck and is grinding up and down the fields at some speed. Mangorn gives me the thumbs up as he starts his rot tai, the iron buffalo and trailer with which he’ll collect the full sacks of rice from the fields.

First time ever on Mama’s land, the harvester is quite a spectacle for the old men who’ve come to watch. After a hard life of farming by hand, Mali’s father is open mouthed, but he’s ready with his sickle, gleaning the standing rice in the corners that the harvester has missed. His eye sight is fading so I’ve just given him some spectacles which I can see sticking out of his shirt pocket. (I buy these ten at a time and hand them round to any old folk who need them.)

For him though, this is the end of an era. His world has been changing fast and with rice farming unable to sustain the village population and with the inevitable drift to the cities, ironically there’s now a shortage of labour at harvest time. Here in Isaan with its long dry season and no water for irrigation, only one crop a year is possible which thus offers intensive work for only a few months. Seasonal workers who come and go are needed but as they get scarcer and scarcer, increasing mechanization is necessary.

For a child in the field playing with the old man’s sickle, life may be very different. He'll not want the same backbreaking life in the rice fields and there’ll be no livelihood there for him anyway. It’s a way of life whose time is almost gone.

With all the costs of producing rice I often wonder too if rice production on this small family scale is still financially viable. I’m sure that few of the farmers keep accounts and have only a vague idea what if any profit they’ve made. But it’s what you know and if you have land, then you just have to farm it. As most people are under-employed, working the fields turns your labour to account and you can produce some rice to eat during the year. To me it seems a very haphazard way of running a major industry and I wonder how things will change in the next twenty years.

There’s a slow revolution coming to Isaan and who knows how socially disruptive it will be. It seems an obvious proposition, but the problem of urban drift and migration should be tackled by an aggressive policy of regional development. Bringing small industry and jobs to Isaan would reduce the pressure on the metropolitan area and maintain social cohesion in the villages.

It seems strange though that I’ve never heard mention of such an idea. For the aspirant politician it could prove to be the most attractive populist policy ever, far better than handing out money and cheap credit as has been done until now.

Sadly politicians need instant results and long term policies such as this seem to have little chance of success. The life expectancy of a Thai government is generally far too short.

Andrew Hicks

Copyright: The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 10 November 2008

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Ladies of Loy Kratong

Making 'kratongs' or floats the traditional way.

As always it's a laugh a minute.

The end product, bio-degradeable and plastic free.

The ladies of Loy Kratong... a small village beauty pageant.

This has to be the land of smiles.

Children launching their kratongs onto the lake.

He's pinching coins from the kratongs and it's really cold!

One of the most delightful of Thai festivals is Loy Kratong when families launch floats or “kratongs” made of banana leaves and flowers and lit with candles onto the waters of the local river of lake. This is the moment to pray for better things to come and when the dark moments from the last year are carried away by the gentle winds and current. The children love it and of course it’s a great excuse for another party.

In Bangkok the festival has become a big problem as hundreds of tons of waste block the waterways, especially where people have no access to natural materials for their kratongs and buy the modern plastic ones instead. The custom of putting a handful of coins in them which then go to the bottom must also cause a terrible annual waste of national coinage.

This year we didn’t miss out and Cat organised Nan and a friend in making two beautiful kratongs out of banana leaves in the traditional way. As always the whole exercise was ‘sanuk’, a laugh a minute.

We then headed off in the pickup that night to the lake at Sinarong a few kilometers away where our local festival is held. Though the administrative centre for our local district or ‘ampur’, Sinarong is nothing more than a village, a huge party had been staged. As well as the ceremony of launching the kratongs onto the lake, there was an elaborate beauty contest, each village in the district represented by a ‘Thai girl’ aged at least thirty five.

A stage had been set up with a massive backdrop of art work and lettering, together with towers of loudspeakers for the music and commentary. The proceedings were long and well-choreographed in which each contestant, elegant in her shiny costume, was paraded in turn. At last there came a pause for the judging and a musical intermission when I could get up and stretch my legs.

Several singers took to the stage, the last of whom came as quite a surprise. It was Gop, the local electrician who put up our television aerial a year or so ago. A sparky little man who worked for some years in Taiwan, he certainly is a jack of all trades.

This must have been an expensive evening to stage but as always it was done with flair and an eye for the outrageous and kitch. They always do beauty contests on TV like this, so why not here in the village. These handsome women were out in the heat and dust of the rice fields today cutting rice but why can’t they now be princesses for the night and have their moment of glory.

At least the coins that floated away in the kratongs on the lake weren’t wasted. At the edge the water is shallow and two little boys had plunged in and were helping themselves to the money in the floats. Just as dogs sometimes eat the food that’s left for the spirits, nobody sees anything wrong with this as the offering has been made and cannot now be taken away by the little boys.

It was pleasantly cool that evening so I only hope they did well out of it and didn’t freeze.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog November 2008

Friday, 14 November 2008

Last Train From Sikoraphum

The station's antique wooden sign

Waiting, waiting.

There's a peacock pride in the station's appearance.

Points switches installed by the original German contractors.

Station buildings a hundred years old.

Going home from market with a new sickle for the rice harvest.

The train arrives at last.

Green flags and military precision.

After a horrible day cancelling our TOT satellite internet contract and emptying my wallet in the process, I felt like having a day out. There were a few takers for a train ride to nowhere, especially as it happened to be free, so we all piled into the pickup and headed off to Sikoraphum.

The railway workers have been on strike in support of the demonstrations against the government but now they’re back at work again and the bosses are punishing them by making train rides free. I guess the idea is to attract people back to the railway and incidentally to make the strikers work harder coping with crowded trains.

The idea was for us to take a train from nearby Sikoraphum to Si Saket and back but on the way there Cat suggested we go the other way to Surin instead as it’s not so far.

Just as we arrived at the station a train to Si Saket was just rolling in. Only a few seats were filled but we stuck to our plan and didn’t get on board. Cat went and bought some grilled chicken while I wielded my camera.

Sikoraphum and its railway line.
Sikoraphum is notable for its 900 year old Khmer temple and more recently came back to prominence when the railway line was cut through a little over a century ago. What’s charming about the town is that it has hardly changed over the years. The centre is a series of narrow streets and Chinese shop houses, all well kept and bustling but without the demolition and disruption that usually comes with relative prosperity.

It’s hard to believe how remote Sikoraphum must have been before construction of the railway. A millennium ago it was not so remote though, looking to Angkhor, the great centre of the Khmer empire. Only a few hundred kilometres away, the journey would have been relatively easy passing through a gap in the Dongrak hills at Chong Jom and across level ground to the capital.

With the decline of Angkhor, the political balance swung East across the plateau towards the Mekong, which allowed river access to the great capitals upstream. Then as Laan Chang declined, the region became beholden to the kingdoms of Thailand, but how very far it was from their capitals in the Chao Phraya basin.

Bangkok was impossibly distant and for government officials visiting the fractious North East the ascent onto the plateau was extremely difficult. In 1891 King Rama V therefore ordered construction of the railway, a huge and herculean task to integrate Isaan into his modern kingdom.

Laying the tracks northward across the plains progressed well but after Saraburi came harsh mountains where the German contractors faced many hazards and risks. It was only in 1900 that the railway reached Korat not so very much further on, during which time forty Germans and over 500 Chinese workers are said to have perished.

Pushing on through Buriram, Surin and Sikoraphum and at last to Ubon was then relatively quick and a remarkable vision was finally achieved.

Saraburi today is now only an hour or two out of Bangkok by road, so it’s hard today to grasp the significance of this feat of modern civil engineering. Sikoraphum, once far away on another planet, had become accessible in safety and comfort on an overnight train. This was a huge leap into the future, though since that time the railway has been allowed to slip gently back into the past.

Today the line to Isaan is a delightful time warp and a lack of investment in the railways has preserved it in a pleasant state of sleepy decay. The old station signs are as they always were, the wooden buildings, the track and systems substantially unchanged. It’s all much as I remember the small station in sleepy Warwickshire village from which I used to take a train pulled by a puffing tank engine a few miles to school… and that’s a good few years ago.

The heavy levers for changing the points that the German contractors installed are still in use, a polished brass bell hangs above a decorative fountain and the long platform is clean and well kept. In fact it has an almost military feel and the staff look sharp in brown uniforms, their toe caps gleaming as they wave their green flags to send the Bangkok train on to Si Saket and Ubon.

All is now anticipation on the crowded platform as the Surin train is in sight down the line. We’re on our feet as it rolls into the station, an elderly diesel engine drawing tatty carriages that must be at least fifty years old.

Then I realize to my dismay that it’s packed out with people. It’s going to be standing room only, damn it.

We move down the platform to avoid the worst of the crush and try to make it up the steps at the end of carriage, but the corridors are jam packed with people. It’s almost like the Indian sub-continent with bodies hanging off and not a spare inch inside. Offering free rides has certainly brought out the travelers

We don’t have to go anywhere today though, as we’re here to enjoy ourselves. A battle like this isn’t going to be fun so we admit defeat and scramble down onto the platform again and watch the green flags waving as the train moves slowly out of the station.

Shall we have a good look round the market instead, I suggest. There’s some nice pictures to be taken among the fruit and veg, but then it starts to rain.

Clearly this wasn’t our day, though savouring the retro mood of the station in Sikoraphum was like stepping back fifty years.

It’s a rare and special experience that can make me feel like I’m twelve years old again.

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog 2008

Monday, 10 November 2008

Am I Pregnant, Deformed or Senile?

Is that what "Man U" means?

It's up to you, as they say in Thailand.

Waiting, waiting! Migrant workers at the North East bus terminal.

There's hundreds of routes and bus companies to choose from.

Feeling dazed and confused, Bangkok's tough for a village boy.

We’ve just been to Bangkok by long distance bus to meet family coming back from England.

The inter-city buses are excellent value and move millions of country folk to and from their jobs in Bangkok, cheap labour that props up a national economy run for the benefit of the urban elite. The buses aren’t bad though and it’s not very often that a driver falls asleep through over-work and slaughters half his passengers. (It happened the day we travelled and on the same route… seven were killed.)

Anyway, for a change we took a daytime bus with a different company and it was about nine hours door to door. This time the bus took a toilet stop near Korat at a flashy new filling station and it made my day. They were building toilet blocks fit for all comers.

As usual there were three choices at the pump if you needed fuel and three choices if you needed a dump. I often use the disabled toilet as there’s room to swing a cat but this time there were some unfamiliar choices.

There was no ‘disabled toilet’ but instead on a blue sign, boldly written, were the words, “Pregnant”, “Deformed” and “Senility”.

Oh Joy! Dictionaries are such a minefield!

Reaching for my camera, my hand shaking, I made my decision. I’m definitely not pregnant and only slightly deformed, so it’ll have to be ‘Senility’.

Then as I turned the corner I confronted another blue sign, a manekin pis of a male leaning backwards and spouting an arc of wee, below him the words, “Man Urine”!

In Thailand you sometimes hear in hushed tones what sounds like, “Man Shitty”. This is the English football club that former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a little short of cash, has just sold for a cool profit of fifty million pounds.

And now I think I know what “Man U” must mean.

Bangkok, Bangkok!
Anyway, we got to Bangkok and it was as extraordinary as always. The roads were flooded as usual and as we left the bus station, the taxi should have been a boat. We met who we’d come to meet and did the things we had to do and moved smoothly from traffic jam to traffic jam.

We saw no hint of the demonstrations and anarchy that continue as the ‘Peoples' Alliance for Democracy’ continues illegally to occupy government house. This ‘democratic’ movement has been holding the country to ransom, arguing that the rural poor are too stupid to vote and so should be disenfranchised.

Yes, as always it was all slightly mad. The maddest moments for me though were just after Lewis Hamilton (somebody said he's Barak Obama’s younger brother) had won the Formula One motor racing championship by a whisker. An old friend, Trevor and I watched the race in a bar just beyond Soi Cowboy with a sign outside saying, “No Bar Girls”, and Hamilton kept us in suspense until the very last corner. It was so nerve wracking Trevor had to rush off to a pharmacy afterwards and get some beta blockers to slow his heart rate.

Now three in the morning and with the Skytrain closed I was thus faced with a walk down the notorious Soi Cowboy and all the way back to my hotel in Soi 2… the one I always stay in that says, “Sex Tourists Not Welcome” outside. Normality of this sort is the exception in this city.

My walk on the wild side was quite a revelation for an innocent like me. At this time all bars should be closed and their denizens, both male and female had spilled out onto the streets. It's now the last chance saloon and nobody looked in a hurry to go home. There's still every chance of an assignation or more likely a bowl of noodles at one of the many fold-up tables blocking the sidewalks at which sit huddles of Thai girls, dark eyes flashing shamelessly, who gaze up at you as you pass.

Down the long canyon of Sukhumvit road I walked, night tripping on the broken pavements, breathing the humid air, the smell of drains, of frying and taxi fumes, all neon glitter, an urban jungle of girls in black jeans and skimpy tank tops waiting for buses they never get on.

“It’s my life… it’s now or never and I ain’t going to live forever,” belts out loudly at a stall still selling bootleg CDs. Live now for Gomorrah you die.

Thai, Girl, Thai Girl.
I’ll say nothing of the punters, the men on the street, prowling and predatory, but what of the women? Where are they from and why are they here in such numbers? Well…

“It’s the same the whole world over... it’s the poor what gets the blame.
It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure. Ain’t that just a bloody shame.”

Many of the women on the street don’t look like hookers though, more like students or village girls and perhaps that’s why they do so good a trade.

“Thai girl, Thai girl, feisty fit. On the sois of Sukhumvit.
What immoral hand or eye can frame thy fearless symmetry.”

I tell myself not to be judgmental. Sukhumvit road so graphically displays the extremes of rich and poor that exist in Thailand and it’s hard to be blame the poor. Better to try to understand and respect these entrepreneurial women who sell themselves both soul and body to support the child they’ve left behind in the village with Mama, that they never see as she grows up.

The thing that struck me this time though was how many of the prettiest Thai girls I saw were in fact men; katoeys as they’re called. Sometimes they have you fooled but you can often tell by their height, the slim figure and spinnaker cleavage, the exaggerated swing of the hips. They’re woman writ a little too large.

It’s when they bat their eyes and say, “Where you gor?’ And “I gor with yooo!” that you know for sure.

They hunt in packs swinging fast along the pavement, appearing from the shadows and sometimes they scare me a bit. They’ll bounce and jostle you while one of them gets a hand in your pocket, so that night I kept my hand firmly on my wallet. Anyway I got back to my hotel after neither adventures nor noodles but it reminded me just how vibrant and bizarre Bangkok always is.

And yet again I ask myself what pressures push both females and males to risk their health, selling themselves to these grotesque foreign tourists, to have their tackle chopped off and chance their arm on the streets?

I remember once a katoey in Phuket who late one night hissed at me, “Blow job can? We go beach together?” And another who said, “I gor with you. Have pussy!”

He didn’t get my reference to the Cats' Protection League but instead politely asked me for a little money.

“Please I need a little alcohol… please, to help me with my work.”

The Sad Life of a Migrant Worker.
Another very human story struck me when we were at Morchit bus station waiting to make the long overnight trip back home to our village. It’s a vast warren of a place through which hundreds of thousands of souls pass between home and city looking for work. It’s really quite smart with granite floors and the toilets are clean but to me it’s sad, a purgatory for transients. At Songkhran, the Thai New Year festival, the bus station is overwhelmed with people as factories close and everyone converges to fight for a seat and go home for their annual few days break.

Just now my taxi driver told me the bus station has been packed with kids coming to work during their mid-year break, just as Cat used to do, and with adults going back to their farms to begin the rice harvest. Half the population of Thailand seem to be on the move.

As we were sitting waiting for our bus on stand 128 I noticed two little girls in pretty pink dresses and I realized it was Yuie and her little sister from our village. It didn’t register with me at first as although I know the children well, the parents who were with them weren’t familiar to me.

Cat told me their story. The reason I didn’t know the parents is that they’re never in the village but work for a wealthy Chinese family in Bangkok. The mother had taken the long bus trip back to the village to collect the little girls for a few days in Bangkok and she was now taking them home to the village overnight. Having got them home and not allowed time off work, she then had to leave them with grandparents and the same day get the next bus back to Bangkok. It meant perhaps forty hours travelling to be together for a few days.

The Chinese can be tough on their domestics. Cat says Yuiee’s Mama has worked for this family for fifteen years and has never lived with her children. He employers must live a life of luxury and ease but this is the order of things, that there are rich and there are poor. And for the loss of her freedom and family life how much does Yuiee’s Mama earn? Perhaps four thousand baht a month… about 120 US Dollars, which even here is hardly a living wage.

All of which takes me back to the Sukhumvit road.

A good looking working girl or one of those painted amputees might make as much money in a single night, given some luck and a drunken punter or two.

That's just the way it goes!

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog. November 2008

With apologies to William Blake.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Lewis Obama - At Rainbow's End

I like a black Cat that's not trying to be white.

A college canteen... but will the face fit at work?

There have been two cliff hangers in my life recently, two things I desperately wanted to happen… two people I wanted to win. Strangely they have one obvious thing in common, namely their race or skin colour.

In recent years Formula One motor racing, long dominated by Schumacher, has been a bit boring but it’s now had two seasons of close racing, the championship only being decided in the final race. What’s been special for me though has been having someone I really wanted to win, not just because he’s British but because he represents the ‘British Dream’. Lewis Hamilton, an ordinary lad of mixed parentage making it big in motor racing is a superb role model for people everywhere.

And now of a few days later there’s Barack Obama.

After eight dreadful years when the leadership of the one superpower has aggressively done what it could against the best interests of America and the wider world, suddenly the storm clouds seem to be clearing. Obama, our rainbow man, might at last restore our faith in the great country that has given us so much more than McDonalds and Mickey Mouse.

America is a middle kingdom which, if it remains inward looking will, like China two thousand years ago, inevitably decline. Obama is a man of exceptional quality who could guide his country with a real understanding of the rest of the world. Though his colour is skin deep, it is his cultural depth that should enable the US to restore faith in its fine founding principles.

Thai people too will, I hope, take Barack Obama to their hearts despite the colour of his skin.

This is the country where my floor mops are produced by “Black Man”, the leading brand. "Think cleaning, Think Black Man" is their slogan. Just across the road I can buy “Negro” brand hair dye and ‘Darkie’ toothpaste with its top hatted minstrels has only recently been rebranded as ‘Darlie’.

Thailand also has its own brand of internal racism or caste that is quite insidious and wasteful. Beauty is white, but so is your chance of being accepted in a higher position than a labourer and of getting a job beyond the rice fields. I’m told that job application forms sometimes require you to state the shade of your skin.

A family therefore educates the child that pops out whiter than its siblings because she has a chance of a job in a hospital, the civil service or even a bank. The others are not acceptable above the lowest rank of society. Selection of a candidate for a job with a customer interface, especially a female, is thus decided largely on looks. This inevitably discriminates against the people from Isaan, the handsome, broad faced people who just happen to be dark and is even perhaps a part of the current political struggle that seeks to disenfranchise them for being incapable of voting responsibly.

I thus find it so sad that beautiful, honey-coloured Thai girls become pallid ghosts as they powder their faces and apply lightening creams that can cause considerable skin damage. Michel Jackson, what have you done?

The peoples of the world are all colours of the rainbow so why can we not be colour blind?

Which is why I take heart from Hamilton and Obama as their achievements are crucially grounded on their broad cultural backgrounds… because they both won for me and because they so utterly transcend the colour of their skins.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Repeat After Me... "Prfivsn"!

Bought at the border market... three for ten baht

At the border market at Chong Jom I bought some plastic word charts for teaching English to the children in the village. They were colourful and cheap and they're useful for drilling new words.

'Repeat after me children,' I say. '"Prifvsn". "Moyotnikr".'

Well, anyway you get the picture.

Even if not the word!

TOT Totters On

My old friend from TOT

Demolishing the satellite dish

Seeing the back of TOT

Monks at the station survey a worldly Sikoraphum

For the last two years or so a huge satellite dish has stood outside my house gazing above the coconut trees to the heavens. This was my TOT IP Star internet link and it hardly ever worked properly.

I’ve told the awful story of IP Star Wars in “MY THAI GIRL AND I” and it’s been the biggest source of stress in my marriage to Cat… except the jeep of course! (And if you’ve read the book you’ll know all about that one too!)

For me living in a small village on the rice plain of Isaan hasn’t always been easy and getting an internet connection promised to be life changing… no more driving into Sangkha to a sweaty internet cafe full of shrieking kids but instant contact with the world at the touch of a mouse.

Sadly that hasn’t been how it’s worked out though. Well, it’s been okay at times but while I’ve often been connected for hours on end, that was mainly because it was so damned slow.

Many times we went into TOT’s office in Surin to complain, which means a least two hours of driving. Nobody there admitted speaking English except a sweet accounts clerk who couldn’t answer any of my questions, so when they got tired of us, they’d then send us another fifty or so kilometres to their sub-office in Sikoraphum.

Their technicians came out to see us sometimes when we called, tweaking things to little effect and twice changing a defective box which helped quite a lot, but over time it was getting worse and worse.

In making my complaints I had to use Cat as my interpreter and battering ram which as always she just hates. This is Thailand, you see. These are important people and you can’t question the awful service they give you. You just have to shut up and pay on demand.

Anyway the internet connection got to the point that even if it was working it could hardly handle Hotmail. It was even failing to upload small images to this blog. As a result I had to take a memory stick into an internet café to post my blogs and despite having an anti-virus subscription with AVG, my computer was hacked into and I lost all my files.

So why was I paying for an expensive internet connection so bad that I had to use an internet café every few days? It was because the phone lines down the main road have all been stolen and there was no other way to get a connection.

Then a few weeks back I discovered that you can get an inexpensive monthly internet connection via mobile phone. Because of the language gap it was impossible to discover how to achieve this but eventually it got done and I’m using it now. When it works that is! Today I’ve got 24 unread messages in my Hotmail inbox and I’m writing this blog on Word instead because it crashes when I try to open them.

I have to be grateful though as having a connection that’s abysmal and cheap is better than one that’s abysmal and extortionate.

The crunch came when with almost no service for the last few months, I’d not been paying TOT’s bills. Abruptly and without written warning they cut the connection.

I tell Cat the dramatic news that the frail thread by which I’m linked to the outside world has been severed. This is not a disaster though like a chicken escaping or over-frying the insects and she remains calm and unruffled.

‘That internet’s rubbish,’ she says. ‘Better you throw it.’

‘But I’m not paying their bill,’ I say insistently.

‘You put the contract in my name so you have to pay. You not pay, I go to jail.’

There then began a long, painful exchange between us with me on my high horse and Cat just wanting to get on with her life.

‘Me pay?! For what?’ I rage. ‘For a service that’s so bad I have to drive miles to an internet café.’

‘Yes, you pay,’ Cat says calmly.

‘But when the speed was so pathetic they told me to upgrade to the expensive package. I’ve been paying for the fast speed of 512/256 but it’s still slower than the cheaper package.’

‘It’s my bill so you’ll have to pay,’ she says adamantly.

Cat takes a day off college and yet again we drive all the way to the TOT office in Surin town.

I’m damned if I’m going to pay their bill but if they’re reasonable I could compromise and pay at the lower rate. It was they who induced me to upgrade to a speed they knew they couldn’t deliver, so I’ll see them in hell before…!’

Etcetera, etcetera!

I’m determined to take a stand on this though, I tell Cat. It’s because of Thais refusing to confront such problems that the country’s in such a mess, that nothing works and nobody’s ever held accountable. Isn’t it?

She looks at me as if I’m slightly deranged.

My mouth’s dry as we open the door to TOT’s office, Cat following me reluctantly and looking tense. Unfortunately the nice English speaking clerk isn’t there so we sit down at the steel desk of my old adversary, Hatchet Face. As usual our presence hardly registers on his face.

It’d be better to put Dracula or Saddam Hussein on the customer services desk than old Hatchet Face. This man’s a nightmare. He’s huge and imposing, quite striking in a fearful sort of way and he’s dripping with gold. His one peculiarity is that he fails to make eye contact with me or with anyone else for that matter so instead I stare at the inch wide gold bracelets on his wrist.

Cat pitches in and politely puts it to him that we’d like to pay the bill at the lower rate, if we may please. At least I think she does. Then she says we want to cancel the contract too and fills in the cancellation form he gives her. Without a word, Hatchet Face phones the Sikoraphum office which he says manages our account, speaks sharply to them, waits a moment and then puts the phone down.

This is the moment of truth. My sinews are stiffened. I’ll instruct a top litigation lawyer rather than pay the higher rate for their damned TOT turtle internet.

Hatchet Face now grabs m outstanding bill I’ve brought in with me, scribbles a number on it and stabs at it with his finger.

‘You cancel, you have to pay 14,397.92 baht. Today. Now.’

I’m sure the shock registers on my face. So much?

And how can they pluck a figure out of the air just like that? I’m damned if I’ll pay the full amount and certainly not today.

‘You not pay now?’ says Hatchet Face. ‘Then you not cancel today.’ And he shoves the cancellation forms back at us across the desk, still refusing to make eye contact and staring at the computer screen over his glasses.

I’m quickly getting get the picture and it’s not very pretty. If we can’t give notice of cancellation, the two week notice period will not begin and the usual daily charge of nearly 100 baht will run on indefinitely.

This is an outrage! You’re not allowed to cancel until you’ve paid what they say you owe them?! This surely can’t be fair even in Transylvania.

I try my limited Thai on Hatchet Face none too politely, but he says there’s nothing he can do and nobody we can complain to. Accounts are dealt with in Sikoraphum and we’ll have to go to see them there.

Seething visibly, I storm out of the office, Cat staying as far behind as possible. It strikes me we’re only a whisker away from the local divorce registry which is in easy walking distance just round the next corner.

We have a disconsolate lunch in a bar run by an old German guy. It’s full of bottles of European wine and sausages that nobody ever buys and it hardly lifts our somber mood.

Cat’s very quiet and as I eat a Thai/German version of an English breakfast I contemplate the good years we’ve had together.

Even so I’m determined to stand by my principles and not be walked over by TOT despite their brick wall… and that’s my immoveable position. I just will not pay at the premium rate. They’ve been selling too many subscriptions, sharing the bandwidth until it’s as thin as rice paper and that’s unacceptable.

Then I think about my long-suffering Cat and how I made her sign my account in her own name. I savour my sausage, the first farang food I’ve had in ages and decide to stay married after all.

We’ll go to TOT in Sikoraphum right now. I’ll fall over backwards like a limp lettuce leaf and pay the bloody bill in full.

We drive silently to Sikoraphum. A pleasant old market own that prospered when the railway came through a century ago, I stop at an ATM machine and stuff my wallet. We then go into the tiny TOT office whose main job is collecting the money for peoples’ telephones.

It turns out to be a lengthy visit indeed and so very different to the unpleasant one we’ve just had. Thailand, The Land of Smiley Cock-Ups reasserts itself at its most benign.

There’s about six of them in there ranging from a little old lady down to somebody’s ten year old daughter who’s utterly intrigued by the length of my nose. Cat’s somehow managed to switch into chatty mode, though I’m sure she’s terrified I’ll explode violently, as farang often do. In the subtlest possible way she’s warned me off though, so I twiddle my thumbs silently and finger my wad of money.

From the extended dialogue they learn that I’m a Brit, much older than Cat and that I’m a retired lawyer. When they’ve asked how much my pension is and why we have no children in the intrusive way the Thais often have and when Cat has heard most of their life histories, somebody starts to think about internet bills.

By this time I’m bored to tears and I just want to get the whole thing finished and to go home. What’s money anyway? It’s just my congealed labour… the sweat of my brow, my tiredness, my grey hairs. So what he hell!

As we pass by the train station Cat suggests we should have a train ride to Si Saket some day, so she goes in and asks for the train times. As I wait for her, a train comes in almost empty of passengers. It’s ancient technology that really works and it looks good fun. I need a simple treat like a slow train ride after all this hassle.

TOT have since been quick off the mark and only took two days to come to our house and pick up their dish. The nice man who’s been to see us before asked when my next trip to England was coming up. He was civil and pleasant as always and smiled nicely for my photo. I later discovered all the bits of scrap cable and ducting he’d chucked in a heap under a bush but I wasn’t too cross as this is exactly how he’d dispose of similar rubbish in his own home.

‘No, there’s no papers to be signed,’ he said as he made his exit, so I was quite glad to have a photo record of who exactly had walked off with all this expensive kit. It’s just possible he could be an ex-employee, like the man who spent his days collecting all the telephone cables he’d put up for TOT before he went into the copper trade.

It seems I’m not the only complainant and that everyone loves to hate Telecoms of Thailand (TOT). If perhaps the company is tottering and performs poorly, that may simply be because, as they say, This Is Thailand! (TIT).

The Thai public sector for telecoms definitely needs a bomb put under it though. As I understand it, there are three state telecom organizations, TOT, CAT and TT & T, though exactly how don’t fit together I have no idea. Thaksin Shinawatra, a powerful prime minister for so many years was himself a telecoms mogul, so he had little incentive to rationalize his public competitors. He’s also accused of giving himself all the nice concessions and the IP Star satellite itself belongs to his then family company, Shin Corporation. So the problems are to be expected.

For more than a decade a merger between TOT and CAT has been proposed in order to reduce costs and business overlaps. ‘They have failed to keep pace with technological change’, says a telecoms expert, Anuparp Thilalarp. (Bangkok Post, 24 September 2008.)

So I wonder what the future will bring.

As the article in The Post says, when 3G licencing takes place everything will be wireless and TOT and CAT’s asset values will be quickly decimated… before you can say Anuparp Thilalarp.

Roll on the day... maybe then I’ll be able to get a decent internet connection!