Thoughts On Thailand
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Well it's the wet season here now, some days it doesn't rain but the rain brings a little cooler breeze for a while. The lightning over Bangkok is spectacular to watch. Like most of the year we just about live under the carport, eat, drink,
talk & laugh at the old wooden table, punctuated by old mum wandering in and out of the house to sometimes sit and talk and grind some more herbs. She carries a little basket full of all her wares all to this end. At times she masticates some
of the herbs and then spits them into a jar for use later. I enjoy talking to her via my "interpreter" about her recollections of the French for whom she would run errands as a young newly wed & sometime after to earn some money
up on the Thai Lao border and talked of the French Christian brothers bringing gifts to her every time she had another child. She had ten children in all with one dying at age five.
When I walk to the seven eleven convenience store, I see a couple of the street sweeping ladies tying more straw to their broom handles squatting down on the footpath as everything from mopeds & tuk tuks to Mercedes Benzes and BMWs fly by. They found a spot between the numerous small food stalls you find all over Thailand.
The guys in the neighbouring apartments are drinking and generally making a lot of noise leading up to a world cup soccer match. Quite amusing to see them three quarters drunk comparing their commemorative pictures of the King & Queen. We are in the midst of the King of Thailand's 60th anniversary of his reign celebrations. The Monarchy is still highly respected here and throughout the celebrations and every Monday until the end of the year, the Thais wear a yellow shirt to show respect. I wear a yellow shirt at the appropriate times and I get nothing but smiles & respect from the Thais. The King is 78 years old and even the story of how he came to power is full of intrigue. From my reading, his Uncle, the king, died quite young from kidney disease and the next in line was his older brother who became king. His reign was short lived as he took a bullet to the forehead when he and his brother stood together on a balcony of a palace. The assassin remains unknown to this day.
Thailand is still, I believe, classified a third world country. My initial impression was that it was relatively cheap to live here but where the Thai people suffer is when they want to buy a car or many electronic goods. Most cars are a similar price to the west as are mobile phones and computers. The computers appear cheap but that is because the majority don't come pre installed with windows. When you ask about windows the sales people invariably reply that you can download it free! This is where the banks come in! Many people finance their lifestyle via bank loans & credit cards. Not unsurprisingly, the major international financier's names appear on the skyscrapers of Bangkok. Interest rates seem similar to those in Australia if you borrow money but interest rates are miserly by Western standards, therefore there doesn't seem to be much incentive for the Thai people to save.
Bangkok traffic seems as horrific as most large cities of the world. So much so, that if you are unfazed by riding a motorcycle in heavy chaotic city traffic it's the better way to travel in Bangkok, however, be aware that motorcycles cannot travel on the expressways. Taxis are cheap, around A$ 2.50 per 10 kilometres but don't have seatbelts in the back seats and they don't even consider speed limits. I've done a couple of trips to the airport on the expressway at around 120 kilometres per hour! Many of the drivers seem to have the annoying habit of constantly stabbing the accelerator even on straight smooth runs. Maybe a nervous twitch in right foot from the often bumper to bumper traffic here. I recall taking one hour to get through one set of lights one Saturday afternoon. If around the centre of town, try the BTS which is an overhead rail system, very clean and efficient.
The Thai people seem to genuinely like Westerners as a rule, but good manners are a must. If you are too "type A" personality or arrogant, you won't get anywhere. They genuinely are very happy if you try to greet them in the Thai way (the wai) and say a few Thai words. Also, before anybody makes too many assumptions, try to remember these people entered the Bronze age around 800 years before Europe. According to a story I read a while back when the French turned up and they had no option they traded off the parts of Siam that are now Cambodia and Laos to retain their independence. WW 2 brings another story. Apparently the Thai Ambassador to the USA was instructed to declare war on the Allies (remembering the Japanese held supremacy over much of Asia at this time) he didn't get around to it so the story goes. Whether Bangkok knew is another question! Also, the coolies referred to on the Burma railway were predominantly Thais. Estimated Thai deaths run at approx. 75,000.
We often also hear of the success of Australian wine overseas and how the other exporting countries are suffering surpluses. This seems to be evident here. I can buy a Bordeaux red for cheaper than a bottle of Jacobs Creek. Also Californian, Chilean & Italian wine is cheaper. I often find the aforementioned wines on special, but never the Jacob's Creek. The most interesting supermarket chain here is called Foodland. They have frozen Australian rib eye fillet, grissini (bread sticks) genuine grana padano parmesan, Parma proscuitto (can't buy in Oz), SPC canned peaches and Uncle Toby's cereals! I spent up big there. As part of a project of the Thai king for impoverished farmers, yellow capsicums are easily available here, $2.00 a kilo. Now all the Thai dishes cooked around the family here have yellow capsicum & olive oil!
Although my digestion is much better here, the Thais eat a lot of white rice which has little fibre or nutritional value. I started mum on Uncle Toby's cereal and soy milk and she reports her digestion is much better and now eats it every morning. I started Nil on some colloidal minerals a while back and, unknown to me, she always had reports of "sickly blood". Her last tests showed she has very good blood and her eldest sister thanked me .
Electricity is very expensive by Thai standards. I couldn't believe how hot the upstairs rooms were in mum's place. They run refrigerated air conditioning here. I asked Nil's brother if they had insulation in the roof. He said they didn't. Well, Nil and I were off to the hardware store next day. I shouted them insulation for the whole roof for $250. I'm waiting for the next electricity bill! They tell me the electric bill is around $A 100 per month. Expensive when the average Thai earns maybe $300 to $400 a month.
This week we did up the front yard by putting down some cement and moving the water tank and put in a new water pressure pump. The old pressure pump had rusted through so we had a “fountain” in the front yard for quite a while. They all use water tanks and pressure pumps here because the mains pressure isn't so good.
To see all this was an experience to say the least. I guess all cultures have their pecking orders. Chagat recalled there was a building site nearby so he wandered around there and asked some guys if they wanted to earn some extra money. They called in that evening and the deal was done. They then worked three nights after work to put in the cement and do some brickwork. Turns out the main man was Thai and the other four were illegals from Myanmar & Cambodia.
No machinery here! They put the sand & blue metal in a circle like mum starts to make the dough to make tagliatelle. After this, they put in the cement powder and water and started to manually mix the cement with shovels, all in bare feet! All the sand and blue metal was brought into the yard by hand in small baskets. On the second night they went back to camp for a couple of hours and came back at 11 o'clock and worked until 2:30 in the morning! They actually live on the building site. Poor as church mice. Chagat tells me the illegals probably earn 250 baht a day (approx. AUD $8.00) I haven't seen people work that hard for as long as I can remember. Anyway they did the whole job for 6,000 baht, around AUD $200!
On the first night I wandered outside and their women were all squatted down in the driveway watching their men. They stayed an hour or so then disappeared. I asked why the women did this. Two theories were put forward, one was that they came to check that the men were working and not down the pub and / or checking out the westerner! Although there are many Westerners here the average Thai never interacts up close, so we are a bit of a curiosity here still. It's quite funny noticing that many people take a second look at me.
The term I hear most of the time is “farang” (pronounced mostly faLang) as the Thais like some other Asians reverse the R and the L. It literally means foreigner. I often walk into a shop and the word “falang” invariably comes into the conversation. At first I took it as derogatory but Nil's family often call me farang also. I think it's quite a benign word. I'm sure they have a lot worse words for us but they ain't telling me!
The Thais say that we westerners like a quiet life at home. Often true but I couldn't understand why they said this. Well, after spending some time here I see that they don't seem to have the same concept of personal boundaries in the home. Mum often sleeps on the sofa while Chagat watches a late soccer match on the TV right beside her. Yesterday a few of them had a very loud karaoke session going and mum was snoozing away right in the middle of it. At first I was very annoyed at my perceived impression of their rudeness, but Nil explained mum can sleep through anything! Mum doesn't go upstairs much because she's had a couple of falls on the stairs. But she has a downstairs bathroom and the kitchen's here so no probs. She does go up every day to the Buddhist shrine on top of the stairwell to burn incense and light candles. She has a photo and the ashes of Nil's dad up there.
Also, if you want any privacy, you have to lock the door, if you don't anyone will walk in. The refrigerator is another classic. If you put anything in there it becomes fair game and possession is definitely 9/10th of the law! I didn't get to eat the last three chocolates I put in the fridge and you can't hide them because it's too hot to put them anywhere else. Food is the same, if anyone cooks or buys food anybody in the vicinity sits down and joins in. Leftovers are usually left on the table under cover and the next passing garbage guts will take care of it! Mum just eats fish and rice most of the time I guess from being born beside the Mekong river and being poor when she was a child. She does break the regime with Tim Tams & various sweets at times. Every time Nil & I go shopping we pick up something special for mum, be it sweets or a nice piece of fish.
Mum gets up early every morning and goes out to the street to make an offering to the monks as they pass by. Often there's only me and her for the first hour or so as the rest of the mob are allergic to mornings. All the children sleep upstairs in air conditioned rooms but mum doesn't care for it and will sleep under a fan. I got them hooked on brewed coffee now, and I knock up a pot every morning. Usually someone will wander down when they smell the coffee brewing.
Bit of gossip from this part of the world. The King has approved a poll for October 15th. The last poll was ruled void and 3 electoral officials were just sentenced to 4 years gaol each. The "Caretaker PM" has just reshuffled about 78 military officials reportedly to bolster support. Just read that the cops just raided a few places and uncovered some weapons they say were intended for political contract killings. Most of the people who were marching in the streets are university / professional people who oppose the PM. One previous election his party gave all the attendees of a political rally 500 baht to "reimburse" their bus fares etc. Although a city bus trip is about 8 baht. Here they still have a lot of poor simple rural people so he does well.
The biggest upset a while back was when two of his companies under the "care" of his daughter sold off one of Thailand's biggest mobile phone companies, AIS to the Singaporeans. His family is reputed to own something like 250 companies. Two major companies they control are registered in the British Virgin Islands, surprise surprise! and so the other anger was directed at the tax avoidance aspect.
Basically, the people have been advised, in the event of any problems during the election, to tune into the radio and follow any directives from the King. In fact, it appears in the previous strife his authority kept things under control. He has intervened recently in a few matters. Republicans take note! He really is above politics and is considered one of the most loved monarchs in the world. Here they don't refer to him as the king but “my king”. He has also done so many things to help the poor rural people and has run many projects over the years to teach farmers to be more profitable and as mentioned one time before, he has villagers who used to grow poppies now growing Arabica coffee in plantations in what was the Golden Triangle. Also, one of his daughters has a few science degrees and she oversees many agricultural research projects funded by the king also. He has done so much for the Thai people in his 60 year reign.
Just wandered downstairs to the 7 Eleven convenience store, this apartment building has, at a guess, 100 single room apartments and has a concierge and security guy. The internal phone system looks fresh out of Pioneer Park and usually at the window of the office sits the dog. If he's in a good mood you can pass in peace but if he's not so happy he'll wait until his bark has the maximum fright value like when you're right beside the window. He sometimes barks at Nil and other times not, I'm beginning to form a theory that he's a good mood barometer for me!
The rest of the time the other regular is the three legged dog. It always seems to be around. The women who look after the office always seem to be cooking in the hall behind the office as do a lot of people here. I read a post (Stickman's Bangkok) from a westerner who has learnt to speak Thai, he reckons 70% of their everyday conversation revolves around food. I think he might be right.
The seven eleven is interesting, either they employ a lot of ladyboys or there are a lot in Thailand. The new guy downstairs dresses in his uniform but his picture on his ID tag has him in a nice floral top and a ponytail! The gays are an accepted part of society here, some dress as men, some as women and the majority in between. As most Bangkok-ians come from the provinces I'm beginning to wonder if all these gays are due to chemical companies dumping products they couldn't sell in the west over the last 30 years.
Nearly all the live television comedies here seem to predominantly feature ugly men dressed as women together with women who should have been born men! Every soapie has a lady boy or two thrown in for good measure. Fortunately or unfortunately, they have very strong local content laws here so it's rare to see any western television unless you have pay TV. They're big into ghosts and zombies etc. and violence is no problem but not violence with weapons. They blur out a gun to the head shooting, cigarettes and wine bottles would you believe! You can see the wine in the glass but not the bottle! The other night a guy and a girl kissed on the lips in a soapie & Nil explained they were pushing the boundaries to the max. A dead body on the front page of the paper is normal fare though.
Then there's more on the roads. A new safety incentive here is that if you have people in the back of the pickup you cannot travel on the expressway unless you have a canopy fitted! Guess there's a method in their madness, traffic is so log jammed on the normal roads that if you fell out you'd have time to lick your wounds and get back into the pickup before the car behind you moved. Funniest sight was the other day driving down the expressway and a Police ute flew past at 100 kilometres per hour with six cops sitting on office chairs in the back.
The expressways were built by an Italian / Thai consortium and are all concrete overhead roads. Each large section, where it joins the pylon has rubber in between. It's a bit disconcerting when stationary and an 18 wheeler on the section starts to shudder forward in 1st gear, the whole section of road shudders. First time it happened I thought we were having an earthquake!
60% of new vehicles sold here are pickups, not utes, bloody great big pickups. Should see them in the shopping centre car parks trying to park arrrrrrrgh! They are the most arrogant drivers too. The most popular here are the Isuzus. I've never seen so many Mercedes in my life though. Chagat tells me the European cars sell very cheaply second hand because they are considered to be unreliable. I guessed and reckoned I might be right, that the servicing costs are quite high and so people who can afford them, drive them till they drop then sell them!
The alcohol laws are a bit funny too. You can only buy alcohol between 11AM and 2 PM and then from 5PM to Midnight. On a recent election day in Bangkok province they stopped selling alcohol 6PM the day before and all the day of the election, so we bought a dozen big bottles the day before and got pissed anyway. But god I'm sick of spending an hour driving to a supermarket, seeing a good bottle of wine & can't buy it because it's too long to hang around. Occasionally, some supermarkets frequented by westerners don't worry so much but keep their eyes peeled for the cops. One plus is you can buy beer and mixed drinks everywhere, the corner store, 7 Eleven, restaurant and even service stations (couldn't buy a light globe for my stop light though!) Quite often I'll order a beer at a late lunch and they will apologise and point out a nearby cop!
An interesting collection of anecdotes.