Friday, 27 February 2009

The Bird That Said 'Fuck'!

How does the power supply in Bangkok ever work?!

... let alone the internet!

Wires and rubbish seen from a spotless Skytrain escalator..

Sphagetti for the rampant rodents in our roof space.

Big C drill bits... melting moments!

An elephant comes to visit our soi.

I spy a passing pachyderm from upstairs.

What's Cat been hanging in the tree? Read on and see.

I was woken early the other morning by someone saying fuck, not once but several times in a strange, guttural voice. The sound seemed to be high above us and was moving fast. It was either the disembodied spirit of a departed farang or could even have been a bird.

It might have been a tit babbler but more likely it was one of those big crow-like things you see swooping between the palm trees looking for baby chickens. It really is very loud and well spoken.

And if it isn’t the crow keeping us awake, it’s a rat in the roof that keeps gnawing on something metallic, a steel beam perhaps. It’s very loud and persistent and the damned thing takes little notice when I open the window and bang the gutters with a broom.

Coincidentally just as we were trying to sleep that night, one of the square gypsum ceiling tiles in the next room chose that moment to make its death leap and came down with a godalmighty crash. The ceiling, fitted by a flirty team of fairies five years ago, is an accident waiting to happen, especially when rats walk across it.

Cat was aquiver but I decided to get the ladder and poke my head through the hole to look for the rat which was still up there eating steel. On peering into the roof space I saw no rats, only a tangled spaghetti of wires that serves as rodent food. Recently the television has failed and numerous wires in the kitchen have been dangerously chewed but, never say die, these super rats only come back for more.

Exposed electric wiring in Thailand is a great national treasure and five star tours should be put on to view sites of special interest in the streets. Cities are held together by wires on poles and these entanglements have become a veritable art form. As a result the internet never works and it’s a miracle that there aren’t power cuts every day. Certainly, when there’s flooding more die from electrocution than drowning.

But this is Thailand so while you benefit from its pleasant relaxed atmosphere, you can’t expect all of the things to work all of the time… or even some of them.

As predicted our local electrician who took away the water heater at the beginning of the cold season has just brought it back and fitted it again. Now is the time for cold showers as it’s getting hot again, 38 degrees already, but, mai pen rai, we can use it again next year. And he’s taken away the ceiling fan which isn’t working, and I guess it’ll be back just in time for the next cold season.

It’s not just local services that are a little relaxed. Even if you buy glossy products from a big superstore they’re probably sub-standard too. Recently I bought an electric drill at Big C in Surin which I chose because it included a good range of drill bits which can be quite expensive.

The drill worked okay when you pressed the trigger but the masonry bits hardly made any impression on the hard concrete of our wall. My pictures remained unhung until I bough some real masonry bits from a proper builders’ merchant.

Then I tried some of the bits for drilling wood and they were even worse.

I wasn’t surprised when Saniam, who’d promised to rehang the door to the rice barn after I’d paid to get him out of jail, failed to come back and do the work. So I bought the drill and did it myself.

The door was hanging off its hinges which were secured by a mix of rusty screws and nails that had buckled and been hammered flat. All I had to do was pull them out, drill a few holes and drive in some new screws. The Thais don’t go in for screwing as they only ever have a hammer, but my new drill meant I could now do the job properly.

Strangely though, the first drill bit began letting off clouds of smoke but was hardly cutting into the wood. Then abruptly it seemed to melt and self-destructed in a twisted tangle. This was bizarre and had to be a one-off, so I tried another drill bit and then another. I only stopped trying when the third one melted and I cut my hand.

You cannot buy serious tools from a place like that, a friend told me. They’re only there to look nice on the shelves.

Then Cat had a motorbike accident. I’m terrified of her travelling on two wheels but of course she has to be mobile. A year ago in Bangkok she’d bought a licence to drive the car but as she can’t really drive at all, the motorbike it has to be. Anyway, going into Sangkha on our motorbike with Noi on the back she’d stopped at a bottleneck to let an approaching vehicle come through when a pickup ran slap into them from behind.

The bike was okay but they were both shaken and jarred which put Cat in fighting mood to get immediate compensation. Okay it wasn’t millions but after some argument she took the driver of the pickup for half his worldly wealth.

Of course he put up a spirited defense, saying that it wasn’t his fault. He was wearing dark glasses so he couldn’t see anything in the failing light!

Eventually he opened his wallet (he said he had no bank account), showed them that he only had 200 baht and gave them a hundred. Cat and Noi took fifty each and felt vindicated.

Small victories like this can sometimes be as good as the big ones and equally it hurts when they’re taken way. In different chapters of “MY THAI GIRL AND I” I talk smugly of how my ‘Thai girl’, Cat was rational enough not to go to the village sooth-sayer to have her fortune expensively told, like her two friends. I also describe the ‘battle of the wall’ and how I successfully resisted her pleas to build a huge concrete wall around our house, another satisfying victory for economy and common sense.

Then yesterday Cat casually told me that the reason she gave up wanting me to build the wall was that a fortune teller had told her the old lady next door would soon sell us a strip of land down the side of our house, so we could build the wall later when we’d extended the boundary. Mortified, I asked her how much she’d paid the fortune teller. At least it was only a packet of cigarettes which wasn’t too bad!

Thankfully Cat doesn’t gamble our money away like many Thais do because looking for lottery numbers can become a real obsession. A farang friend told me that one day his lady was gently caressing his shaven scalp with talcum powder. He asked her why she was so affectionate that night… but no, she was searching for lottery numbers in the powdery patterns on his skin.

There are never any lottery wins round here but a week or two ago we went with Peter to Ubon airport to pick up some friends of his arriving from England. As we had a few hours to kill before the flight arrived, we decided to look for a farang hostelry in town called the “Wrong Way Bar’. I had only a vague idea where it was so we looked around for a samlor, one of those tricycle cabs ridden by old men with skinny knees. We soon found one and to my surprise the driver spoke a little Engrish.

“Wrong Way Bar?” I asked him. ‘We go Wrong Way.”

“Okay, okay, go Wrong Way.”

After a few minutes I began to get worried that he didn’t know where we were going or that he was taking us round the houses to ramp up the fare.

“We’re going an awfully long way, aren’t we?” I ask him as he pedals slowly down a slope.

“Long way?” he asks quizzically.

“Are you sure you’re going the right way.”

“No,” he says, “Not go the right way. We go the Wrong Way.”

When eventually we got there we had fish and chips, Thai style. It was well worth the trouble.

Nothing else exciting has happened recently, except the other evening when an elephant came wandering up our soi… which is pretty normal I suppose. And Cat’s been hanging bits of meat and bone in the trees and bamboo.

A tree spirit fetish perhaps?

I’ve ceased asking questions about things like this any more. The farang already talks too much! But I eventually discovered why. There’s no greater delicacy for the locals than red ants eggs and the carrion in the tree was to attract the ants in the hope they’d build their nests there. They were certainly crawling with ants.

Well, I suppose we farang like caviare so why not eat ants eggs too.

Which gives me an idea about the rats in the roof. They must be a bit thin if they only eat steel but couldn’t we lay traps and eat them? Then we’d only have the bird that swears disturbing our sleep.

Now there’s a thought!

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog February 2009

PS D H Lawrence got prosecuted and Kenneth Tynan caused a storm when he was the first to use the 'f' word on the BBC. I contemplated writing 'f..k' but that really would have been a bit silly. Have I offended anyone?

Thanks to Jen Hite for sending me the great pics of wires in Bangkok.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

America - Right or Wrong?

This is his hut… bombing co-ordinates not supplied. He’s gone by now anyway!

When staying by the beach on Koh Chang a while ago I got chatting to a middle aged farang in the next hut to ours. His nationality is irrelevant but he’d worked his way up from being a builders labourer to a technical college lecturer and I respected him for that.

We touched on a wide range of topics and so couldn’t avoid talking about the credit crunch and the crisis in the world economy.

“Sub-prime mortgages… toxic debt,” he said. “Nothing good ever comes out of America!”

I was quite taken aback so I asked him to elaborate. He seemed balanced and reasonable but he gave me a huge catalogue of disasters that he blamed on America.

As well as toxic debt, they create far more than their fair share of global pollution, he said. Their toxic fast food’s poisoning the world and they champion a vulgar materialism that seduces and overwhelms the distinctive cultures of smaller nations. And then there’s George W whose election was highly irregular anyway.

As for America’s self-serving abuse of its super power might, he laid out a long and depressing list… for example their paranoia about communism that provoked nuclear confrontation with a much weaker Russia, their manipulation of surrogate struggles causing long term instability in Africa, Central America and South East Asia. Indeed Thailand’s current tensions with Cambodia have to be seen within that context, he argued.

Not to mention Israel!

Long term American support for Zionism has destabilized the Middle East and more recently Bush’s aggressive ‘for us or agin’ cowboy style of diplomacy, his ridiculously misnamed ‘War on Terrorism’ and his ‘crusade’ against Islam has set world peace back by decades.

The threat of “weapons of mass destruction” was lies and a poor excuse to finish the family feud with Saddam Hussain. Not forgetting “regime change”, “shock and awe” and the destruction of Baghdad… misplaced revenge that cost at least a hundred thousand Iraqi and American lives.

My natural reaction was to launch a vigorous defense of this, my own Anglo-American culture but I was so taken aback that I didn’t do it too well.

My every instinct recoiled at his barrage of criticism as I was raised by a father who fought in the Western Desert alongside American soldiers. ‘They were grand fellows,’ I remember him proudly telling me.

Having lived abroad in so many countries I’ve also had more American friends than perhaps of any other nationality and I regret not visiting more often as I love being there. As a post-war Brit, my bias towards the US is thus very positive.

Our discussion was cordial but I struggled to refute his onslaught, though I managed a few positive points.

For example, remembering my father’s experiences, twice in the last century our two nations stood together and defeated fascism. Then after World War II through the Marshall Plan and at Bretton Woods, America promoted a new world order of international institutions and laid the best possible foundations for reconciliation. Not to mention the technical creativity of the moon landings and of Microsoft.

Furthermore, America’s founding principles are a fine example to all nations, its creativity and dynamism is admirable and its music, movies and popular culture deserve the place they’ve won in the world. It’s willingness to shed American blood to promote principles it believes in and the electorate’s choice of a fine new president in Barack Obama indicate a strong and adaptable society.

Well, at least that’s what I tried to say, though I admit I was struggling a bit and I’m not sure I won the argument.

We remained friends but my opponent unsettled me and got me thinking. So I now ask you to help me out and to take the debate a little further.

To what extent are the criticisms of the US that were thrown at me valid and fair? What other points should I have made in her favour?

“Nothing good ever comes out of America?” Really?

I’d love to have your Comments.

(To post a Comment you may have to register an account with Google… a fine American company!)

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

'Thai Girls' Versus Western Ones? - To Be a Bitter Man!

Bangkok dangerous? From left to right, a primary school teacher, a retired art teacher and an insurance salesperson. Are ‘Thai girls’ sweet and respectful or might an old guy like him get gobbled up? This blog asks for your views on a subject of eternal fascination.

For myself I just hate stereoptyping.

Although it’s interesting to ponder our differences, I hate it when somebody expects people to be a particular way just because they are elderly, Thai, disabled, Muslim, female or whatever. We are all individuals and do not fit any template. We should be free to find happiness as we wish and not have to satisfy the expectations of others.

In my books and blogs I’ve generally avoided pontificating about ‘Thai girls’ and what they’re like, except when making fun of the many strange cross-cultural relationships you see in Thailand. In my view Thai women are like any other group… they’re all different and have their own individual strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all I’ve avoided discussing the supposed differences between western and Thai women because I fear this can be a cesspit of stereotyping and superficiality.

I was thus amazed when a casual remark made by ‘Pauline’ in a Comment on this blog about environmental degradation on the resort island of Koh Chang brought a fire storm of angry abuse from a platoon of western men. On little evidence they called her a feminist bitch.

My blog article was called, “Thai Tourism? Shot in the Foot”, (24 December 2008) and it attracted no less than 36 Comments, far more than the modest response I usually get to my bland offerings. None of the Comments though was about the environment.

These Comments are well worth a read as they reveal a range of strong opinions that I’ve never before encountered. They seem written by some very bitter men, outraged by the advantages that feminist western women have put over them. Their answer is to avoid their own kind and to take a sweet, respectful Thai girl, the epitome of true femininity.

Pauline’s commented that it’s inevitable commercial interests will walk rough shod over the natural beauty of Koh Chang. Developers, like all human beings, simply do what they have the opportunity to do, just as western men, “go to Thailand to get sex partners, girlfriends and wives that they wouldn’t be able to dream of in their country of origin”.

I agree with her main point that the commercial imperative sweeps away all environmental considerations on the island but I hardly even noticed her throwaway aside about western men. The men didn’t like it though and they said exactly what they thought of her.

Pauline then posted a further Comment saying that western men can command much younger Asian wives as they are a privileged group in a much poorer country. Gender equality is an impossibility and men have opportunities in Thailand that are denied to her as an older woman.

The male commentators replied that American women are only out to extort money out of their men, that the feminist lobby has managed to skew the law in favor of women on divorce and if Pauline has found herself alone and without companionship then that’s her own fault for being what she is.

Your “whiney comments”, Pauline, are “truly hateful and racist motivated, coming fresh out of the mouth of a bitter, lonely, frustrated American feminist,” said the first commentator.

“American women only want one night stands and are the most sexist pigs to ever walk the earth.” They are “the most loathed women on the planet, mentally deranged,” “supported by a government funded ‘female supremacist’ movement”.

When Pauline again responded she was told, “Tough shit bitch – deal with it and enjoy your toys and your cats, you stupid bitch”, you “man hating, ball busting, intolerant, inflexible, rude Western bitch.” What man wouldn’t prefer, “a kind, pleasant, smart, sane, reasonable, not to mention cute Asian girl.” “An Asian woman respects her man” and is “supportive, respectable and sane.”

The extreme bitterness of these men against their own women surprised me and I’m doubtful too about the stereotyping of ‘Thai girls’. A sweet, doe eyed door mat, her one role is to please her man from kitchen to bedroom.

Is that so!

The Venus fly trap? The sirens on the rocks combing their long black tresses. Have western men never been gobbled up by ‘Thai girls’? Have they never been run onto the rocks?

Many are the shipwrecks and there are too many stories of the na├»ve male who comes to Thailand and falls for the first girl he meets in a bar. Soon she has her teeth into his wallet and that’s no surprise. What’s she working in a bar for anyway?

Utterly smitten, he goes back west and pines for his girl from afar. He loyally sends her regular money so she can stop work, but she goes back to the bar and collects more patrons. She’ll marry the one whose money makes the biggest bulge in his trousers and he’ll buy her a car and build a nice house on her family’s land. Then when most of his wealth has been handed over, she tells him to pack his bags.

I’ve even heard the story of a wife’s brothers who bundled the sorry guy into a taxi and told the driver to go as far south as possible. Yes, there are as many farang males who talk bitterly of their experiences with Thai women.

On the other hand dead men tell no tales.

An Australian woman who’d read the happy account of “My Thai Girl and I” wrote to me to say that she’d just been staying in Thailand with her son who has a Thai wife. Not one but two of his farang friends had just been murdered, she told me, apparently by family members in league with the wife. These are isolated tragedies one hopes, though the English language press in Pattaya is full of stories of farang men who mysteriously fall to their deaths from the balconies of their condominiums. He was drunk… it was an accident or suicide!

If therefore, bitter western men want to escape women who are after their money, Thailand may not necessarily be the most obvious choice. Why does a young and attractive woman accept an older man anyway? She wants someone to provide for herself and her family and what’s so wrong in that. It’s how the world always was until urbanization and contraception enabled women to play a more varied role in family life and become ‘emancipated’.

Those who seek a wife in a poorer country will thus surely find that money will play an even bigger part than it does back home. That just goes with the territory.

As for characterizing Thai women as a decorative fashion accessory, they are often powerful personalities in their own right with many strong qualities. And that is exactly why I like them and why my ‘Thai girl’ and I have made something of our unusual life together. Let’s face it, door mats are boring.

The male perception of western and Asian women, with its prejudices, distortions, insights and truths is thus a fascinating subject and discussion on this topic could run and run. A Pandora’s box perhaps.

Do you accept the usual stereotypes? As a male, do you look for love in a particular community? Can you explain the bitterness of the men who have so graphically expressed their views? And what do the women think?

I’d love to hear your views.

Do post a Comment below, be you Asian or western, male or female.

But please… keep it clean!

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog February 2009

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Freezing The Balls Off A Brass Monkey!

Early morning, auntie's warming the tips of her fingers.

It's often the grannies who raise all the children.

First light and they're trying to get warm outside.

And trying to get warm inside too!

A busy rice farmer's dry season activity.

Caring for the buffaloes though takes up all his time.

There's no farming to be done but you can dig up crabs.

And insects and rats and frogs.

But will his generation accept a life like this?

All around the world the end of last year and the beginning of the new one brought both freeze and squeeze to temperatures and to credit.

My son-in-law, Will tells me that back in Petersfield in the sunny south of England they’ve had temperatures of minus ten centigrade for days which is unprecedented. Now though he tells me they’re having a heat wave… it’s even hit ten degrees in the day time.

Here in our rice growing village in the North East of Thailand we too have had the biggest freeze for ten years and it’s been almost cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey*. Just like Will’s ‘heat wave’, it’s fallen as low as ten degrees at night.

Showering in the morning hasn’t been fun as our water heater decided to go on the blink just when we needed it most. The electrician took it away and has been telling Cat that he’s working on it but four weeks later it still hasn’t come back, so it’s been icy showers all the way. Just when the weather’s getting hot again he’ll tell us he can’t fix it and we’ll have to buy a new one.

This morning there wasn’t any water anyway as the water pump was running all night but was pumping air. Someone must have trodden on and cracked one of the pathetic plastic water pipes, so no water, no shower and I can’t say I was too sorry.

It’s been so cold that in many provinces of Thailand an emergency was declared and the authorities are handing out blankets just as they did this time last year… which always puzzles me a little as I ask myself what ever happened to last year’s blankets. Perhaps the village people used them to light the little fires they always huddle round to keep warm.

For some unknown reason, almost before first light the folks round here leave their beds, throw open doors and windows to let the cold in and go outside and blow at a few sticks to start a fire. There they squat in the dust telling each other how desperately cold it is and warming the tips of their fingers by the embers.

It’s very sociable though and if external warming isn’t possible there’s always kindling of the internal kind. Lao khao, the rice whisky they pass around, at 40 degrees of alcohol warms the cockles of the heart very quickly.

Likewise Cat’s Mama could stay wrapped up warm in our comfortable modern house but no. She’s the first up in the morning and is out there with the best of them, brewing up a strange potion of boiled sticks which she drinks from a green mug to save her from the cold.

Now late January and well into the dry season, it should already be getting hot but with cold air coming down from China the days’ highs have barely been reaching 32 degrees. The rice harvest is long finished and the fields parched, dusty and brown so there’s precious little for rice farmers to do around here. Other than long term crops such as cassava, sugar cane and rubber, there’s no cultivation to be done. Even if there water were available, vegetables are difficult to grow as they shrivel in the sun and get stolen as soon as they are ready.

The older men pass the time with alcohol and sleep and taking the buffaloes out to the rice fields, while the grannies do the hard work of bringing up the babies and preparing what food they have.

Most of the middle generation has already gone to the towns to do the pitiable jobs that fuel Thailand’s low wage economy and which assure Bangkok’s middle classes their comfortable urban lifestyle. At this time some of the younger men also travel south to Chantaburi to cut sugar cane for a couple of months. Paid by the weight of cane they cut, this is the toughest of work. Just now the roads are crowded with huge trucks overloaded with sugar cane and twice I’ve seen them lying on their sides, their load thrown everywhere. It’s as if they’re resting.

Meanwhile a little money saved by the migrant workers trickles back home to the village for Mama and the kids. When sometimes it doesn’t come, there’s little food and that’s why the project I told you about earlier (“Thai School Girls Are So Appealing!”) which gives our village school children a good lunch every day is so very important. (See

Money isn’t the only way to get food though and out in the rice fields there’s crabs and rats and insects and frogs and the children and old ladies go out there, find the holes and dig them up out of the ground. They make it look fun, but it takes hard work to produce a tiny amount of protein. The crabs have almost nothing on them and are boiled and pounded together with leaves and herbs to make a soup that adds flavour to the blandness of plain rice.

At certain seasons a few roots can be dug and leaves such as kee lek and sadao are collected to make sauces that are unpalatably bitter, but otherwise the countyside has largely been stripped bare and is no longer bountiful.

So is this poverty I now ask myself?

As the land cannot provide even the most meager living for the majority of people, it certainly seems that way. Families are thus split apart and wage earners live a non-life far from home while the elderly look after the grandchildren. If it were not for the rich community of mutual support that tenuously survives in the villages, I wouldn’t rate life here too highly.

Meanwhile, in Bangkok’s ‘Siam Paragon’, perhaps the most opulent shopping mall known to man, a dark faced woman from lower Isaan eternally polishes the glittering acres of marble floor. For this she is paid little more than 4,000 baht a month which is hardly a living wage, let alone enough to keep the child she’s left back home in the village with Mama. Meanwhile on Sukhumvit road at night the prettier young girls try their luck at winning a week’s wage by spending a few hours with a passing tourist.

In glamorous showrooms in the shopping malls there are Porsches for sale, Lamborghinis, BMWs, designer clothes and all the opulent symbols of a wealthy consumer society. The wide marble corridors are almost empty of shoppers but downstairs the food hall is packed as the Thai middle classes indulge in that most necessary of luxuries, fine Thai food and world cuisine.

Two distinct worlds thus exist in Thailand, one of near poverty, the other a thriving consumer society, the country being divided between the rural poor and those with salaries or successful businesses who can enjoy a comfortable urban lifestyle. And the tensions between these two have been causing ferment in Thai politics.

The recent political disorder in Bangkok seemed fixated on the personality cult surrounding the disgraced former premier Thaksin Shinawatra… there was little political debate on the substantive issues. The battle played out as a brutal power struggle, though who the contenders were and what principles they stood for was hard to understand. Was it the vested interests of urban society clinging desperately to their historical position, opposed by the mainly rural majority with its recently realised electoral muscle?

During the confrontation on the streets prior to the emergence of the new Democrat led government, the anti-democratic ‘Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy’ promoting the demonstrations could articulate no clear political manifesto for the future. Most vehemently it objected to the fact that Thaksin’s government had diverted substantial resources to the rural poor by giving them free health care and village lending funds. To buy the voters’ favour, they said, he was spending their hard earned middle class tax revenue on the great rural unwashed.

Such a policy in principle is right and proper however, as that wealth is substantially created by the have-nots, the low paid labourers working on the land, in sweated factories, cleaning the streets and driving Bangkok taxis. No modern economy should be run for the sole benefit of those that already have a good income to be taxed.

The new Democrat government is well aware of these crucial tensions but it has a mountain to climb if it wishes to redistribute wealth. Ironically Thaksin himself is now complaining that new Democrat prime minister Abhisit Vejajiva, a privileged product of Eton and Oxford, is now stealing his populist policies.

Let’s hope though that Abhisit has sufficient resources and does a better job of it than Thaksin, many of whose schemes were inefficient and wasteful. For example, a ‘privilege card’ project to attract wealthy tourists and business people, just axed by the new government, failed to sell and lost 1.14 billion baht between inception in 2003 and 2006 alone. (Bangkok Post, 29 January 2009.)

The stresses that have been tearing at Thailand will thus only moderate when the present inequalities of wealth and opportunity are substantially narrowed. But with agriculture unable to support a large population, the provinces should not have to remain dependant on politically motivated handouts and on making handicrafts for OTOP, one of Thaksins’s more successful projects (“One Tambon One Product”).

The rural areas should be brought firmly into the twenty first century with a modern economy of their own and that means a policy of regional development to bring jobs and industry to the people, instead of forcing them migrate southwards to Bangkok to find work. Proper jobs should come to the countryside with factories and industry in small urban centres..

How long should village people in Thailand have to remain dependent on digging crabs, rats and insects in the dry rice fields?

*So what is a BRASS MONKEY?
In Napoleonic times cannon balls were stacked high on a stand called a ‘brass monkey’. In winter water in the stand would turn to ice and expand, thus freezing the balls off the brass monkey.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog. January 2009.