Saturday, 31 January 2009

A Pin Striped Tit-Babbler?

What sort of bird is this?

So what’s a pin striped tit-babbler?

I have a grizzled expat friend called George and when occasionally I see him in Surin town he babbles on about the crazy, idiosyncratic things that have happened to him since I last saw him. He then shrugs and throws up his hands and says, ‘TIT… This is Thailand!’

Even though he never wears pin stripes, he surely must be a tit babbler.

Yesterday a tiny bird flew against one of our windows and fell stunned onto the terrace. It was stunningly beautiful with a curved beak and seemed too weak to move. A bird in the hand was worth a photograph and I then gently put it in a bush where I hope it recovered.

Can anyone tell me what species it is?

Associated Press has just been reporting that a new species of babbler has been found in caves in S.W.China which is distinctive and ‘resembles a wren babbler because it prefers running to flying’.

My little bird too didn’t seem keen on flying either and when I trawled the internet and found I became hopeful that this was a pin striped tit-babbler (macronous gularis). On this I now need your expert help.

I wish too that I was better at identifying some of the beautiful birds that are seen round here. There are king fishers and wood peckers and Peter swears that a hoopoe regularly visits him even when he’s not been drinking. Sadly though the habitat is vanishing and with every little boy equipped with a catapault, bird life is under threat.

If you are hungry, conservation of birdlife is inconceivable and the tiniest bird offers some life-giving protein. In rural markets in Laos I’ve seen birds with the most spectacular plumage laid out in rows on the ground for sale. Each one would provide less that a mouthful but it would not even cross peoples’ minds how pitiable it is to kill and eat them.

The pin striped babblers who brought down New York and London’s financial systems are now escaping with massive bonuses as a reward for failure and I reflect on the people here who in contrast have very little to eat.

Feed the villagers adequately and they’ll leave the birds alone, but with the world economy in free fall, life round here is becoming even more difficult.

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog February 2009

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Maipenrai and the Mystery of the Missing Foreskin

'You'd better watch yerself matey!'

Professional bodies can sometimes be notoriously protective of their members but a recent item on the front page of The Bangkok Post (Council defends circumcision error, 24 January 2009) reminds me that I am in the Land of Smiles.

“The Medical Council of Thailand has come to the defense of a male nurse at a clinic who mistakenly circumcised a boy who wanted to have an abscess in his mouth removed,” says the article.

The mother complained to the Council whose acting president commended the doctor that he correctly diagnosed the abscess and did nothing wrong. The doctor wrote ‘excision’ on the order assigning the nurse to perform the operation but the nurse confused it for ‘circumcision’ and “proceeded to cut off the boy’s foreskin”.

The unfortunate boy of twelve either thought this was a special new treatment for oral abscesses or, in this culture of deference, felt that a male nurse lopping bits off his willy was not something he should openly comment about.

According to The Post the matter had yet to go before the panel on medical ethics but the acting president promptly sprang to the doctor’s defense saying that the mistake was unintentional and he was not to blame. Mai pen rai he seemed to say. “Looking on the bright side” the accidental circumcision would help the boy keep clean and avoid the risk of cancer.

What a lucky young lad he was! Grown ups know best and thank goodness, there are lots of these in our fresh faced Democrat led government.

The new government is currently pursuing a wide range of novel populist policies to help the poor and to woo the hearts of the electorate. For example, a generous scheme costing the government 1.4 billion baht in lost tax revenues will in future make principle repayments on mortgages up to 300,000 baht as well as interest fully tax deductible. This should help the poor to buy properties of up to about 2.5 million baht and will stimulate a depressed property sector.

Meanwhile convicted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who built his popularity on Thai Rak Thai’s so-called ‘populist’ policies is seeing red, complaining from exile abroad that the new Democrat government is stealing his ideas. They are cynically handing out money to buy the voters hearts and to undermine his still considerable following.

Now is that funny or what!

So I ask myself how can the Democrats succeed in trumping Thaksin’s populism now that the economy is down and there’s so little spare money to throw around?

One of Thaksin’s flagship schemes was the universal healthcare scheme which enabled the populace to receive medical consultations for thirty baht. I've now heard somewhere that the new government is planning to add to this a new and attractive ‘Buy one get one free’ medical plan. Thus selected surgical patients when awaking from the anesthetic will be greeted by hospitality staff with degrees in both health care and public relations.

They will be told that following a lucky draw they are the happy recipient of a free vasectomy or that their appendix has been removed, both of which procedures confer significant benefits. Colonoscopy and in the case of women prophylactic removal of breasts is a further possibility.

This policy will not be expensive to operate, will clearly help poor people and will also cover the medical profession against any unfair allegation that it was sufficient for example to amputate the left leg only and not to remove both of them. As hospitals are not run for the benefit of the medical profession, the poor should now gratefully applaud these new and generous benefits.

Where was it I heard about this? I can’t quite remember.

Anyway I’m going to have to stop writing now as my imagination’s in overdrive and I think I’m getting a little feverish. Cat always rushes off to the doctor on the slightest pretext but I’ve always preferred self-medication.

I’m even more convinced of that now.

Andrew Hicks

The Thai Girl Blog January 2009

Monday, 19 January 2009

Thai School Girls Are So Appealing!

Giving your donations for school lunches to the head master.

A big moment... there was even a film crew on hand!

No school lunch so it's plain rice today.

A great smile but he must be hungry.

Rice alone just isn't enough.

At least she's got a tiny scrap of meat.

And this one's just so appealing!

I recently told you that we’re running out of money to pay for the lunches at our local school and I asked you for your help.

You generously responded and we’ve just been round to hand over your donations to the headmaster. It was a great atmosphere and we even had a film crew in tow!

For the next few weeks the children will not go hungry but after that we will run out of money again. The little girls and boys in the picture are now therefore appealing to you to help once more so that they can have proper lunches.

[For our lunch project see .

Donations can be paid to my account with Pay Pal. (Open and credit Andrew Hicks in any currency , quoting my email,

Other than a small Pay Pal charge, there are no other expenses and every cent you give is used to buy nutritious food and fruit when we can afford it.]

Our visit was a little sad this time as the headmaster’s fund of lunch money ran out about two weeks ago and the children therefore only had what their families could afford to put in their lunch boxes. Many had only plain rice to eat while some had a scrap or two of omelette or fried meat.

Families here are very hard pressed and particularly so in the current harsh economic climate with jobs being cut back and prices soaring. The parents are often away from home earning minimal wages from which a small amount is sent back home every month for grandparents and children. An ageing grandmother often has the tough job of raising the kids on almost nothing and finding something to give them to take to school for lunchtime must be very difficult.

The generosity of the donors who have helped fill this gap has thus been a boon for the children. The headmaster told us that there has been a clear improvement in their energy levels in afternoon school and also in their general health since the lunch programme started. It’s very sad if it cannot now continue.

We are thus at risk that we may have to give it up altogether unless we can find more money.

At first we aimed to spend 900 baht a day for the 90 or so children but the school has been cutting this down to make the money last longer. I wish we could get back to 900 baht day as this also pays for a little fruit.

Thai children are fixated on crisps and snacks and though there are none for sale here they buy that awful iced coloured water for a baht a time. Eating fruit will establish a healthy habit and I do hope we can stretch to providing it again soon.

Even more I hope we do not have to stop providing lunches altogether.

Andrew Hicks January 2009.

Friday, 16 January 2009

A Farang Laments

Threshing the rice just has to be 'sanuk'.

But my hundred keys are a complete mightmare!

The broom and basket man turns up just at the wrong moment.

Mama spends half an age haggling over two brooms.

Sadao hunters intent on making the soup impossibly bitter.

The big Cat wields the big stick...

... while Nan does the difficult work.

I’m not sure retirement’s supposed to be like this. The last month has been positively hectic.

My book launch at the start of December meant going to Bangkok by bus… it’s a long journey and crossing the Atlantic’s a fair bit quicker. Then we’ve had not one but two trips to our favourite island, Koh Chang.

So that Cat could get back to college we drove home on the last day of the New Year holiday and the roads were really crazy. Hundreds died over the holiday as always and the last miles down Route 24 were complete madness and the next day Cat decided to stay at home after all.

The sight of so many small pickups over-loaded with young men returning to their low paid jobs, packed in tight between bags and bedding, the truck’s tail almost dragging along the road was deeply sad. With no work to be had in Isaan, these lads come home for a few days a year to see the family, to party and to drink, before taking the long journey back south.

Desperate to get there, these end of holiday drivers go mad and take appalling risks on the crowded roads. And this year it was really bad and all of the major routes were blocked solid. Our final run home from Prakonchai along Route 24 which usually takes about forty minutes this time took several hours. The road is good but with only one lane in each direction the traffic was nose to tail, even on our side heading east away from Bangkok.

Sometimes when the traffic ground to a halt the drivers behind us grew horns, jumping the queue and overtaking inside on the hard shoulder. Everybody then started doing it and soon there were four lanes of traffic in each direction, cars, trucks and buses, all locked in tight together.

There was no hope of any traffic flow and we sat gridlocked for hours, vehicles sometimes plunging down the embankment and driving through the rice fields to get a few hundred yards’ advantage. Meanwhile the migrant workers sat in the back of their pickups getting colder as the sun set and facing an indefinite journey into worsening traffic jams. If it was chaos here hundreds of miles outside Bangkok what would it be like as they got closer to town.

I had little to complain of as I was home before dark, though I lament the selfish driving which made things so much worse for all concerned.

A Political Jam
Looking back over the final month of a traumatic 2008 I’m reminded that a week is a long time in Thai politics. During December the governing PPP party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court for electoral irregularities and the People’s Alliance for Democracy lifted its catastrophic occupation of Bangkok’s airports. Smiling politicians wielded knives, noted the way the wind was blowing and the side their bread was buttered and then by sleight of hand rather than the ballot box, pulled a plausible young Prime Minister out of the hat.

I wish Abhisit Vejjajiva well but only wish he’d come to power in a more conventional way as the problems he now faces, seem well nigh insuperable.

Satellite Dishes Again
It was an exciting month for us too. While I was away in Bangkok Cat called to ask me if she could buy a satellite dish to receive more television channels. At a cost of only about four thousand baht, a dish could be fitted that would receive hundreds of news and other programs, many in English she said, and with no monthly subscription.

Of course I jumped at the idea. Because of cost and as CNN and Fox News are pretty poor, I’ve never subscribed for English language television here, relying on my newspaper and the internet for serious contact with the outside world. I’m now quite good at lip reading the farang movies dubbed into Thai but yes, English language TV would be a nice luxury.

On getting home I scanned through the channels with the remote becoming increasingly disenchanted. I soon discovered that Cat and her family now had fifteen more channels in Thai, while I’d got telly from Yemen, Bangladesh and Nepal in the vernacular and in English an overdose of loud American evangelism.

‘Come to Gahd! Be saved! Give us your money!’

Sorry, I seem to have spent most of it already.

While I was in Bangkok I pushed the boat out and bought a movie on VCD. It was ‘Mamma Mia’, a star studded musical based on the songs of the Swedish pop group, ABBA. I was looking forward to a rare English language treat but despite my disappointment over the satellite television, it’s since taken me almost a month to view it. With the new cannels the television is even more heavily used than usual and I got some black looks when I asked to put on my movie.

I’ve played literally a handful of movies in the five years I’ve lived here, but yes, it was a bit selfish of me jamming their Thai television for a couple of hours. Nobody seemed the least bit interested in Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, but maybe they now appreciate how boring it is for me watching Thai television when I can’t understand a word of it. Or maybe they don’t!

‘Mamma Mia’ had subtitles except that they too were in English. Because of the racket around me I found this quite useful but more funny were the subtitles for the incidental sounds. ‘He moans gently.’ ‘Engine hums.’ ‘Clink of cutlery on glasses.’

Keys, Cars, Brooms and Sadao
Meanwhile in the village things were humming too. The end of the rice harvest means work and a little money flowing in and there were smiles all round as they collected the rice stooks for threshing.

I had plenty to do before my book launch but suddenly on my last morning before getting the bus to Bangkok Cat announced that we must go to Surin for Mama to have her arthritic knee checked again.

‘When exactly, Cat?’ I ask her.

‘We go today… right now of course!’

I do not complain but merely lament that plans around here never seem to be laid in advance, not even the day before. As plans are always scrappable, pre-planning is a waste of time. You decide what to do that day when you wake up in the morning.

It’s now a rush as the clinic closes at mid-day so we do what has to be done to get ready… money, car keys, wallet and so on. But there’s a panic as the gate is locked and nobody can find the keys. The pickup’s locked inside the garden and there’s a tense hunt to find the keys. They have to be somewhere!

Cat and I seem to have endless problems with keys. Neither of us is particularly clever with keys but all my efforts to establish a place in the drawer where the gate key lives proves to be a waste of time. Invariably it’s not there.

‘Where my motorbike key?’ asks Cat to the world most days of the week and it’s always when she’s late for the 7.30 roll call at college. Once we had the Honda Dream stripped down to replace the key mechanism when, just in time, the keys were found in the long grass.

The other problem is that as well as the gate keys there are twelve doors in the house, each having three duplicate keys, a number of cheapie desks and cabinets having a total of fifteen lockeable drawers and doors again with duplicate keys, plus two cars and two motorbikes all with more keys. This means that, with various padlocks for the wooden house and so on, we have a total of at least a hundred keys, and most of these are unmarked and scattered in drawers and plastic bags throughout our domain.

I did try to find some key rings with writeable tags on them but failed dismally, so I bought some cup hooks and made a board on which some of the main house keys can be kept. I lament however that nobody who uses a key will ever return it to its rightful hook so either I lock the keys in my bedroom cupboard or I resign myself to total chaos.

We did eventually make it to the doctor’s in Surin that day after Mama had spent ten minutes buying a couple of brooms from a passing room seller. And a week later I got safely back from my book launch in Bangkok. Then two days before driving to Koh Chang I suddenly remembered that the tax and insurance on the pickup are out of date and there’s a blind panic to get this sorted before we go. I’d hate to be prey to the many police road blocks en route or smash the car the very first time it’s uninsured.

This all falls on Cat as I can’t do any of the phoning nor read the paperwork, though she’s not optimistic we’ll get it done in time.

Next time we’re at the traffic lights she buys one of those beautiful scented flower garlands that you hang from the rear view mirror in the car and which confer total immunity from road accidents. She loudly complains that the cost of the flowers has gone from ten to twenty baht, though they’re still cheaper than the farang-style insurance that’ll cost me more than twenty thousand.

Miracles now performed and with the insurance all set up, I’m determined to get on the road early as we must get to Laem Ngop by seven in the evening to catch the last ferry.

‘Must go rice fields tomorrow before we go and get sadao to give to Sai and Sao on the island… early morning so it’s fresh,’ says Cat brightly.

‘I’ll see you in hell first before we make ourselves late just for some foul tasting leaves to ruin their food,’ I reply, though a little more diplomatically than that.

‘Then we get it now!’ says Cat.

The day’s nearly over so I stop my packing and Cat, Nan and I immediately head off to the rice fields with a bucket and a long bamboo pole. Scattered through the rice fields are the last of the sadao trees whose new shoots are used to make palatable curries as bitter as bile.

Nan climbs the trees like a monkey, while Cat wields the bamboo. This has a split end which she places over the shoot before twisting the pole to break it off. My lowly job is to pick up the leaves and put them in the bucket.

Cat also tries digging out some crabs from their holes but doesn’t have much luck thank goodness. Taking crabs to the seaside does seem a little silly. Anyway we now have a nice present for her friends on the island, even if it’ll be a bit jaded by our arrival at the end of tomorrow.

Our twenty baht offering of flowers took us safely for two trips to Koh Chang and back, a little short of forty hours traveling in all. It was fun, though on getting back the second time the house was in such mess it’s taken days to clean it up. I’ve stopped lamenting the different ways of keeping a home clean and tidy though… it’s something I just have to live with.

The Scourge of Alcohol
The other small ripple in the pond was that brother Saniam had just been caught by the police on a borrowed motorbike without a helmet, driving licence or ID card and, what’s worse, blind drunk. He’d been cast into jail in Surin for thirty days where he’d been beaten to a pulp and had his shoulder dislocated. It didn’t sound fun but for a fine of 3,000 baht in lieu they could let him out immediately.

He has no money to pay the fine and nor does anyone else… except me of course. He’d never survive the thirty days inside so I promptly paid for his ‘Get Out of Jail’ card. It’s ironic though that not more than a year or two ago I paid a much larger sum for his induction as a Buddhist monk. That’s just the way it goes but I cannot lament my Thai family as things like this come with the territory.

Anyway he turned up handcuffed and guarded in a tumbril-like police pickup and was duly released into the wild in return for the cash. It was all properly documented and he now has to do twenty hours community service and report regularly and I hope though doubt that this short sharp shock might prove to be positive. Alcoholism can be very hard to beat.

I much lament the level of alcohol abuse in Thailand where Surin men have the reputation of being among the worst offenders. As our neighbours go off to earn 130 baht for a day’s work in the rice fields they stop at the shop to buy eighty baht of hard liquor. Food seems to be far less important to them than booze.

I’d better stop lamenting my expat predicament though. England isn’t much better on the alcohol stakes and there are many things in the West that are far more lamentable than my farang tensions over living in rural Thailand.

Take modern celebrity culture for example. The internet has a huge educational potential but I’ve just read that in seven of the last eight years the most active topic on Yahoo searches has been guess what?

Britney Spears.

Enough said!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Wires On My Pillow

When I used go to the seaside I'd take a bucket and spade and my brilliant Pentax SLR camera that did exactly what you told it to do and which had a tiny battery that lasted at least a year. And we used to send things called 'postcards'.

Now there's digital cameras that burn power like crazy, mobile phones so you can't escape whatever you've run away from and intrusive email via mobile and laptop.

And is my new digital world a happier place?

In my hut on Koh Chang I look at our bed and my pillow partner is a tangle of technology. There's four different battery chargers, loads of phones and gizmos and a thousand things to go wrong.

Okay so I'm a bit of a technophobe. Like blogging it's all wonderful when it works
but misery when it doesn't.

It's hard though to opt out of the world as it now is. They might all call me a dinosaur!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

"Dear Oodie and Alex"

The Koh Chang New Year Party... music on the waters.

Alex sets the tempo with his first singha song.

Oodie looking cool as ever.

Alex does a duet with the Filipina singer from Oodie's Place.

Alex wooes her hard.

On the back foot...

... and falling over backwards to please her.

The climax to a great set, smoke and all.

"Dear Oodie and Alex,

I took these shots of you on the stage over the sea at White Sands Beach, Koh Chang at the beginning of the New Year party and I'd really like you to see them. I tried leaving you a message, Alex but anyway, here's a small selection.

I particularly love White Sands for the year round live music at Sabay Bar and at Oodie's Place as they complement each other so well, the Filipina band playing great covers of just about everything, while you at Oodie' Place are more intimate and personal.

Anyway, the big party on the beach was amazing and your set was simply the best. The number in which you wooed the Filipina singer was pretty convincing, Alex and you really played to the audience.

After your show you rushed off in a hurry. Where were you off to?

Hope the visitors keep on coming though it's going to be a bit of an anti-climax after the big show. Anyway I'm back in Isaan and I'm really missing Oodie's pizzas!

Do drop us an email.

All the best.



Thursday, 1 January 2009

Resilient Thailand Keeps Smiling

Poster boy - New Year on Koh Chang.

Food and drunk at Sabay Bar.

Definitely a proud Thai monkey.

Breakfast on the roof of our hut.

Our place at Tiger bungalows on White Sands Beach.

A reluctant elephant about to start the tug of war.

A pachyderm as plaything and photo oppportunity.

This one was bored with the whole event but got extra sugar cane.

After our short trip to Koh Chang and doing a few things at home, a long New Year break beckoned so we got back in the car and headed back to the island. A party on the beach easily justified the sixteen hour round trip!

And Koh Chang was as lovely as always, despite my misgivings about the hectic pace of development on the island. With the holiday approaching White Sands Beach began to fill up and by New Year’s Eve, it was positively heaving.

A consortium of hotels was promoting a three day ‘count down and seafood festival’ and it certainly brought a buzz to the beach. Rows of Singha Beer gazebos appeared at the top of the beach selling a huge variety of food and drink and a massive stage was erected as a platform for sound systems and live music. As the tide narrows the beach at high tide but then leaves a wide strand of sand when it falls, this had to be constructed in the shallows. Fortunately the tide was low at night when the big party was on.

And big it was. With music pounding out from this platform and from the very talented Filipino band at Sabay Bar only fifty yards away, the beach was packed with revelers, Thais and not foreign visitors now being the huge majority.

As I walked out to the waters’ edge, in front of me were perhaps fifteen yachts, Royal Thai Navy patrol vessels and squid fishing boats with their powerful white lights glittering across the waves. Then looking back all along the several kilometers of beach the bars were all brightly lit with lanterns in the trees, a truly fabulous sight, all moderated by a gentle sea breeze and a perfect temperature.

Then came the countdown and the fireworks, a dazzling display that seemed to go on forever as the Filipinos belted out the music, excited and inexhaustible with the biggest and best audience of their careers. The place was alive with happy dancers and drinkers… nowhere could there be a better party than this. At this moment Thai tourism looked very resilient indeed, still with a huge smile on its face despite all the threats that it faces.

As always a party like this comes at a price though and as time went on the wide expanse of beach was littered with bottles and debris. It struck me that before morning the tide would come in fast, burying some of the glass and carrying the plastics out into the deep so I spent half an hour doing a one man clean up. The task was beyond me but I’d piled perhaps a hundred bottles at the top of the beach before I gave up and went back to our hut.

This time we’re staying at Tiger bungalows run by a family of tailors of Indian origin. It’s only a moment from the beach but it’s quiet and secluded and backs onto the jungle. Every day there’s a monkey show when fifteen or twenty monkeys come down from the trees and are fed bananas. On the roof of our hut, they seemed so human in their behaviour, pushing and competing noisily for food.

And that wasn’t the only animal show. As this is Koh Chang, ‘elephant island’, a tug of war had been arranged. An elephant was decorated for the event and brought down onto the beach for a tug of war. A hundred volunteers had been signed up but it turned out that they weren’t all needed. The elephant didn’t want to play and was beaten by the first team of twenty men, only beating the kids team which ended up sprawled in the sand.

It was all good clean fun, though I couldn’t help feeling that the animal was treated as a performing toy… it was made to stand on two legs and to lie down photos were taken. It was potentially dangerous too. Somebody could easily have been trodden on in the scrum and if the animal had become enraged it could wreak great havoc. As usual there was no apparent consideration for safety but then that could spoil the fun, make Thailand a little less amazing and narrow the smile.

If visitors still have money, Thailand’s tourism should bounce back reasonably quickly as all of this is so attractive… that having fun is paramount, abandoning ‘health and safety’ and sharing a hedonistic fatalism with the Thais themselves who can be the best hosts in the world.

Nobody does a party better than the Thais.

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog January 2009.