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Hopelessly Outnumbered



I might not be as sharp as I was thirty years ago, but my 6th sense (the one that senses impending danger) has apparently not deserted me altogether.

Early one morning, I barely heard what sounded like someone’s ancient lawn mower that was badly in need of a new muffler, coming from somewhere down the street. I immediately sprang into action, running through our house and closing every window as quickly as I could. I barely managed to get the last one shut, when I saw the thick white cloud rolling in like the mother of all fog banks. Tourists from around the world come to San Francisco every year to enjoy the spectacle of the fog swirling around the Golden Gate Bridge…or so I am told. If there were tourists wandering around my moo bahn at that moment, I would have shouted for them to take cover, because the “fog” rolling in at the moment was a toxic one. Out of this billowing cloud, I could just make out the ghost-like form of Somchai, as he sprayed an enormous amount of insecticide throughout the neighborhood.

Now, if this scene had been taking place back in Farangland, Somchai would probably be wearing a day-glow orange hazardous materials suit, goggles and a respirator. This being Thailand, this happy go lucky fellow had on for protection nothing but an old red bandana wrapped around this nose and mouth. It’s a pity they don’t pay Somchai more than a few lousy baht for this kind of work. His widow could probably use some help with his upcoming funeral. Whatever Somchai was spraying, it’s not likely to improve his chances of a long and healthy life. It sure does a swell job of its intended purpose though…killing mosquitoes! I only wish it killed every last stinking one of them!

Yes it’s that time of year again. Mosquito season is here in The Land of Smiles. “But Sawadee” I hear someone say out there, “Isn’t it mosquito season 365 days a year in Thailand?” Well, I can’t argue that there plenty of mosquitoes all year long, but at the height of the rainy season, their numbers explode exponentially. These days when I open the door to my office, there are at least (and I am not exaggerating) 20-30 of these blood suckers waiting to greet me in their own special way.

Luckily one of my Thai colleagues has had her hand-held bug zapper charging all night. As soon as she walks in, she gets down to killing every last one of them with the single-minded determination worthy of Vlad the Impaller.

If you’ve not spent much time here in Thailand, you’ve possibly wondered why people seem to be practicing their tennis game everywhere you go, although doing so without the bother of a net, or even a ball. Ah, but what they swinging with gusto are not tennis rackets. These clever devices are bug zappers. Every time a mosquito hits the grid of one of these…you hear the distinctive (and most satisfying) snapping sound as one more pest heads for its next incarnation.

On some matters, I lean in the direction of responsible environmentalism…though I am not a certified “tree hugger”. I’m 100% in favor of clean air and water. I’m 100% against despoiling the world’s rainforests in order to make a quick profit. Don’t even get me started on our inability to develop alternative energy sources, or the “flat-earthers” who irrationally believe that global warming is something invented by the “liberal media”.

When it comes to mosquitoes though, I am a cold hearted, unrepentant, unreconstructed killer. I am. I really and truly am. I don’t give a rat’s ass about their place in the ecosystem. I would, if I had the power, wipe every one of these insects off the face of the earth.

If mosquitoes are aware of my undying enmity towards them, they haven’t shown any appreciable sign of it. Do they sensibly stay away from Sawadee, and avoid the possibility of getting squished like a bug? (No pun intended…really!) No, they swarm all around me, whining annoyingly, and biting me, even more annoyingly.

Even as a young child, if there was even a single mosquito within say a square mile, it would unfailingly seek me out for my sweet blood, while ignoring everyone else in the vicinity. This is one of the reasons I always preferred to go camping in the dead of winter, rather than in summertime.

Back in the 1950’s, when young Sawadee was a mere sprout of a lad, municipal trucks came by regularly throughout the summer spraying clouds of insecticide throughout my neighborhood. Kids being kids (myself included) would naturally run out on the front porch to watch this eerie sight. On the plus side, the spraying worked like a charm, killing mosquitoes by the drove. On the minus side, the reason the spraying worked so well was that what they were spraying was DDT (ClC6H4)2CH(CCl3) (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was eventually found to have a nasty ability of once having entered the food chain at the lowest level, sticks around poisoning anything that consumes it. Anyone of my generation might remember Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which acted as a catalyst for DDT’s eventual ban in the U.S. in 1972. It is a pity that something that worked so well to kill pests, worked equally well to kill everything else in the eco-system. DDT is still in use around the world. I have no idea if it is in Thailand.

Before agreeing to move to Thailand, I made my wife agree to a few non-negotiable requirements. In addition to demanding a flush toilet and air conditioning, I absolutely insisted on having screens in all windows and doors. One of the things I detested about visiting my in-laws in Buriram, was the swarms of insects of every shape and size that flew, crawled or slithered their way into their house. It was bad enough during the day, but at night it was horrid. No one else seemed to mind. Only “The Farang” seemed perturbed. Even with a net to sleep under, I would always wake up with half a dozen bites. Needless to say I was never a happy camper down on the farm! There was no way in hell that I was going to actually build a house that did not have screens!

Despite the screens, some mosquitoes occasionally sneak their way in. This is mainly due to Sam leaving a door open, especially at night, when mosquitoes are out in force. Luckily I have a second “level of defense” to combat these infiltrators…my trusty bug zapper! I keep one plugged in on a kitchen counter and turn it at sunset. Any bugs touching the grids of this sucker are doomed!

The afternoon I went out to buy this device, turned into a game of charades at my local hardware store. The Thai word for mosquito is ยุง (yoong). The Thai word for light is ไฟ (fai). I don’t think you will be surprised that when I went in and asked for a “fai yoong”, I was met by uncomprehending looks. When faced with an inability to communicate through spoken language, I turned to that old standby… pantomime. Can you just picture Sawadee gesturing with his hands, while making the whine of a mosquito? Said mosquito flies along until suddenly I make a loud a cracking noise, and show a now dead mosquito falling to the ground. Problem solved! The clerk knew exactly what I needed. My memory being quite bad these days, I can’t for the life of me remember what he called it. The important thing is that it works!

One reason for the huge number of mosquitoes around my home is small agricultural canal running a few meters behind my back gate. Depending on how much water is being released “upstream”, this small waterway is either full to the brim and flowing along nicely, or a sluggish mud-hole full of stagnant, brackish ooze. This is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In my yard we have a small pond that we built originally for Koi. I rigged up a heavy duty filtration system. I periodically added anti algae chemicals. Despite my best efforts, keeping the water clean turned out to be more work than it was worth to watch a few fish swimming around. My clever wife, farm girl that she is still at heart, decided to do another form of aquaculture. She began raising catfish. Seeing these fish thrashing around at mealtimes was reminiscent of something out of National Geographic, where swarms of voracious piranhas devoir a buffalo that falls into the Amazon. At Bahn Sawadee however it was the not so little fish that ended up as a pile of bones. Not on my plate. I don’t care for fish myself, but the rest of my family does. If nothing else, the ever hungry fish make short work of any mosquito larvae.

The tone of this piece may be light-hearted, (at least to me) but mosquitoes in Thailand are not really a laughing matter. They are carriers of some pretty nasty diseases. Here in Thailand Malaria and Dengue Fever are genuine health problems. Just this last week, a Filipino teacher was diagnosed with Dengue, and her apartment is right in the center of Lampang, not in some remote forested area.

Mosquitoes are not the only insects I have a long running battle with. Mosquitoes for the most part are an outside pest. There are two more than have the audacity to move the “frontlines” from my backyard to inside my home. The first is the common housefly. The second are ants.

Like many Farangs married to Thais, my home has two kitchens, an indoor one and an outdoor one. The indoor western style kitchen is fully equipped with modern appliances and gadgets, including a convection oven, and an electric range with a powerful hood above it. I think I’ve mentioned a time or two that I enjoy cooking. I think I’ve also mentioned a time or two that cleanliness, while not approaching the level of a fetish, is pretty damned important to me.

My wife’s outdoor Thai kitchen is pretty basic. It has a gas stove, a sink, a work area and a cabinet. It is not likely to win an award for cleanliness and good hygiene. A dubious award it might be candidate for, would be for “Best Attractor of Flies and Ants”. Who knew that they loved Thai cooking so much? They both travel from far and wide to savor it.

Once there, it is pretty easy for them to make their way into my kitchen. They have two methods of egress. The first is a screen door left open, which flies take for an open invitation to pay a call. Like the proverbial “Man Who Came to Dinner”, once they’ve settled in, they are almost impossible to get rid of. I have to wait until they finally starve to death, because I am woefully inadequate in swatting them. I really do hate flies! Thais on the other hand seem to welcome them. At your typical Thai market you find swarms of flies of biblical proportions crawling away contentedly over everything, especially the meat. Occasionally you will see a Thai half-heartedly waving a plastic bag on the end of a stick in an absurd and useless attempt to shoo them away. I just like the revolving stick hooked to a fan motor whirling way above the meat. It doesn’t work much better than the manual stick shaking, but it is interesting to see in action. What you will almost never see is a mesh covering the meat. That would be simple, low-cost, low-tech, and effective, but apparently not as much fun as stick shaking. You will not be surprised that I buy all of my meat and poultry from Big C.

Last on my insect “enemies” list are ants. Luckily they are not red ants. I’m talking about tiny black ants. These guys walk march in as bold as brass under every door in my house. The guys who built my house were way above average in their craftsmanship…except when it came to sealing the space under the doors. They had not idea what a threshold was, or why I wanted one. You folks on the other hand know that a door needs to have a snug seal where it meets the floor. In cold weather this helps keep the heat from escaping. For me, this is an obvious way to keep ants out.

Once these guys find their way in, they are on a constant search for nourishment. Unfortunately in my home nourishment is just about everywhere.

During the five years my tee-rak spent living in the U.S. she did a creditable job keeping things clean and especially putting food away in containers. Once back in Thailand however, she quickly reverted to the Thai habits learned as a child. Food is simply left out, uncovered and un-refrigerated.

I have patiently explained the three problems of doing this. Firstly, it stinks up the house. Sorry to be “culturally insensitive”, but the smell of fish sauce, wafting through the house for hour after hour is unpleasant. During dinner time I can take it, but why does it have to be a permanent atmospheric presence? Secondly, food sitting out un-refrigerated will spoil, that is to say become toxic. Eating six hour old curry and rice is asking for a prolonged trip to the commode. Stick it in a container and put the container in the fridge! Thirdly, leaving any uncovered food out is tantamount to ringing a dinner bell for ants…and the dinner bell is always ringing here. I might as well install a tiny neon sign outside the kitchen door that says, “Home Cooking, 24 hours, No reservations Needed!”

Anyone who has small children knows that they enjoy eating while on the move around the house. Where ever they go they leave crumbs and small bits of food. It’s not their fault. It’s just part of being a kid. Someone must have read Sam the story of Hansel and Gretel, because this little guy leaves a trail of crumbs that a blind man could follow through a dark forest at midnight. There are no sight challenged men stumbling through Sawadee’s domicile, but there are ants. Invariably they will catch the scent of Ritz crackers and peanut butter, or potato chips or whatever he has been eating. It’s bad enough to have ants in the kitchen or living room, I‘ve drawn the line at our bedroom! No Food Allowed In The Bedroom!!!! No Exceptions!!!

Once you’ve been infested with ants, there is only one way to get rid of them…poison. I have to wait when everyone’s stepped out for the day before I pull down the can of insecticide and get to work. I’m pretty careful where I spray. I hate the smell of this stuff, and I’m afraid of it as well, so after spraying I wash my hands thoroughly, and get the hell out of the house quickly. That seems to do the trick, at least for the short run. When you are hopelessly outnumbered, all you can hope for is a temporary ceasefire.

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Stickman's thoughts:

One of the nice things about Bangkok is that mosquitoes are not a problem. It's funny though that on trips to pretty much anywhere else in Thailand, large cities such as Korat included, mosquitoes are a real problem!