Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Music in Thailand - the entertainment black hole

One of the strange quarks about living out here is the flow of fashion from the entertainment world. I've lost count of the numbers of times friends in the UK have asked me "So what do you think of movie/singer/celebrity/band then?" only to be met by my blank stare. I miss my days of being on the cutting edge of the metal and heavy rock scene. These days I have to collect my information from kerrang.com and my friends in the UK. That's not to say that Thailand doesn't have its own thriving entertainment scene, indeed it does, but not as we know it...............

Entertainment in Thailand is a mixture of home grown, Japanese and western talent (I use that final word loosely).


Some western movies can arrive in Thailand more than a year after their release, others can be shown here before they screen in the US. "Madagascar" and "Garfield" are examples of the former , "Collateral" the later.

Japanese and Korean movies and TV soaps can be a big hit over here. Thais seem to find such movies attractive since they have only a minor cultural bridge to cross, appeal to many of the same ideals and are more professionally done. Western (both geographically and thematically!) movies are also a big hit.

And how about the home grown "big screen" affairs? Well, from a foreigner's point of view they can be very hit or miss, but - forgive my harshness - far more "misses". To be fair , the Thai movie making industry is far less mature and financed than even their Asian counterparts. However, the plain truth is that a huge proportion of Thai movies are appalling. So many local movies display signs of professional naivety. Often, the films will try to be all things to all people - featuring terrifying zombie who suddenly starts doing a hilarious dance, followed by the entrance of a kung fu teenager who will perform all kinds of stunts and then be courted by a pretty young girl, followed by the entrance of another hilarious fat ladyboy. Such a heterogeneous mix would challenge even the greatest directors,let alone the local producers.

Whilst awareness seem to be improving, the number of howlers is not dropping. Thai comedies continue to turn out endless tripe, usually full of the same repeated gags : ladyboy jokes, Laos and Isaan tribes behaving stupidly, and fat men falling over. Action films strain to emulate their American contemporaries but lack the funding. I recall one movie last year that featured a gang of Thais saving the world from a Burmese(Thailand's traditional enemy, as opposed to the Laos who provide comical gaffs) terrorist squad armed with a nuclear missile. The "missile" in question was clearly a piece of painted over car meal.

There is one hope on the action scene: a young start known in English as Tony Jaa. This young kid has tremendous martial arts talent and carries off the Jet Li style "innocent but dangerous" character very well. Sadly, Tony (pictured right) seems unable to speak English and all too often has to carry the inept performances of his peers on his shoulders. The hit "Tom Yanng Goong" is a perfect example. Switching between Thailand and Australia, the movie was designed for Tony Jaa to produce action that would open western eyes to his potential. Sadly the producers clearly didn't realise that their usual cast (nearly all Thai films use the same very limited draft pool of actors) couldn't actually speak the language of the script. thus an unintelligible scrip coupled with inept performances produced another disappointment that didn't achieve the US success it wanted.

There are some noted exceptions. "Fan Chan" ("My love") is a good movie. It features the childhood memories of a Thai man and draws some wonderful nostalgic feelings amongst Thais. Too bad they don't make more movies based around their own culture. Historical movies are something the Thai industry can do well, and some of the romantic movies can tug on the heart strings nicely. "Warrior of Ayuddhaya" , "The Letter" and "Dear Dakanda" are my recommendations.

The music world runs along similar lines. Whilst certain western bands have become rooted in local psyche - you'll be hard pressed to escape The Eagles, The Scorpions or Santana over here - more modern bands tend to come and go, but some can miss out altogether.

Japanese pop, known as 'J pop' is popular - again the cute Asian look appeals to the Thais for obvious reasons - and the Thais provide plentiful talent in their own right.

Like many countries, Thailand's cultural development and idiosyncrasies can be seen in its music (and TV). Thai folk will readily acknowledge that traditional Thai music can be hard for foreigners to appreciate, it consists of highlighted singing with subtle changes of tone that can sound to untrained ears like mine as endless wailing. Since bus drivers , restaurant staff and village headmen will happily share this music at full volume with all and sundry, it can be a little trying, even for fellow countrymen.

Modern pop music is comparable to the west. The biggest Thai star is Tata Young. Tata is marketed on her half Thai roots and thus her white skin and ability to sing in English. Whilst paying lip service to Thailand's culture and values, Tata sings about subjects such as sex and boyfriends ala Britney Spears and Chsritina Aguilera. Whilst such topics would be almost expected in the west, they are still controversial enough to make more publicity for the local star. On the rock scene, Thailand has many local bands , of which a fair number can produce some quality tracks. My personal favourites are Ebola (picture left), Silly Fools and Endorpine.

There are plenty of local concert venues, and international stars do play in Bangkok on occasion. Usually this is done when more fashionable venues have already been played. The exception to this was the big festival last year featuring Placebo, Oasis and Franz Ferdinand. Whilst all the above turned out a good gig, frequent reports cited great upset amongst fans and musicians alike at the unprofessionalism of the concert organisers. Lack of stage management, lack of scheduling and lighting exposed organisers' inexperience at handling a true music concert. No further festivals have been announced.

As for the TV, well don't expect too much variety. On the plus side, there is quantifiable news coverage and good sports shows. However, with all but one of the channels owned by the government and the army, it's very much big brother (the 1984 version) on the box. All channels turn out endless soap operas featuring innocent women, wicked parents, a bad boyfriend, a kind boyfriend, an utterly incorruptible police man and a hilarious ladyboy. Most shows consist of the characters screaming at each other inside their large houses complete with swimming pools at the back. In the end the bad person dies and the girl ends up with the kind guy, thanks to assistance from the lovely policeman. Then next week, the same actors take up different characters and do it all again. Don't believe me? You don't live in Thailand.

The light of hope is in ITV, having been hit with a huge fine for illegally cutting its own concessions (courtesy of the Thaksin government who wanted to control the independent station), ITV faces an uncertain future but one hopes to see some media reform set in place.

So all the above sounded negative right? Well I'm just being realistic..There are bright points: some good movies , talented bands, good sports coverage. It's also a massive plus that all these things are cheaper ere. A trip to the newest cinema to see the newest movie won't set you back than 150 baht (about five dollars or two pounds) , music CDs and movie DVDs are half the price they are in the west , even cheaper if you choose to be bad and buy on the ubiquitous and immensely popular black market.

Entertainment in Thailand is a developing industry and it's difficult for a westerner not to compare it against standards they have already known, I've no doubt that Thai music and movies will continue to improve and will turn out some excellent examples of local culture mixed in to excellent art in its own right. I just hope I'll still be lucky enough to live in the land of smiles when that happens.


I hope everyone had a great Christmas. Personally, I had a great time letting Dylan play with his new toys. Blog wise, I'm planning to write a piece on controlling and reconciling with difficult students in the classroom. I'm also planning to write a piece on the western sponsorship of the Khmer Rouge on my political blog. That's all to come i the next couple of weeks I hope.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in Thailand

Christmas in Thailand

I'll shamelessly admit it. I'm one of those people that loves a cheesy Christmas. When I was a kid, I wouldn't sleep at all on Christmas Eve. My parents would leave a stocking and "The Beano Annual" outside my door, as soon as they turned in, I'd grab it, read it, and then bug my parents every ten minutes from 5am onwards until they agreed to start opening presents.

It won't be long before I play the dad's role in that commotion I guess, but the last few years have not felt like Christmas at all. Thailand is of course, a Buddhist country but like most of the world they have jumped on the idea of shop sales and an excuse to dress up. It's just not the same though. Christmas day is another working day, the temperatures are high and there is no spirit.

This year things have been different. My new school attempts to teach students the cultures of Buddhist and Christian religions. As such, last Friday was Christmas party - complete with a Santa and hundreds of excited kids - as the pupils were dismissed for ten days holiday. Even more amazingly, the temperatures have dropped. Yes it's true, Bangkok has been almost as cold as London in the mornings at least. It's all added up to a bit of a Christmas feel.

My new years resolution - I'm one of the few that sometimes keeps them, I even gave up smoking one year - is to get my finances in order. Tough but doable.

So whoever you are, wherever you are, happy Christmas. May 2007 be a year of less deaths in the name of religion.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Black Tuesday

Fears of the 1997 crises surely lingered in the minds of a few on Tuesday as Thailand was rocked by the biggest one day stock market drop in its history. Once again, foreign money played a major role, but this time was not to blame. In an attempt to do a sinicised pegging of currency value, the Bank of Thailand (BOT) under the supervision of M.R. Pridiyathorn Devakula, the finance minister and deputy prime minister, had the brainwave of introducing a thirty percent foreign capital rule. In simplified terms, it meant any foreign owned capital going out of Thailand was subject to 30% of that sum being withheld by the bank for three months, interest free.

No sooner did the ruling take effect the market plummeted. Needless to say, officials desperately tried to save face and absolve blame. Notably, the word "speculation" was used frequently, no doubt to subconsciously remind locals of the 1997 crises, where (justified) speculation of the BOT's reserves caused a huge crash and made Thai people far poorer overnight.

The interim government has made its first mistake, let's hope it's not the first of many.

The Tesco battle

One ongoing sideshow that offers an intriguing insight into Thai culture and psyche is the protests against Tesco.

Villagers in some northern cities have staged numerous demonstrations against Tesco Lotus' plans to open branches in the area. The villagers claim the stores will destroy local small shops. One group actually protested outside the British embassy, "demanding" Tony Blair order the trade to stop.

There's one little problem. Local shops already have their stiffest competition: the "Seven Eleven" stores. You'll be had pressed to find an area of Thailand without them. Likewise, the "Big C" stores (38% Thai owned) and other supermarkets have taken over Thai land a long time ago but no protests occurred.

One wonders of the real underlying cause of the protests, and why they never happened before. Call me cynical, but perhaps there is a touch of xenophobia as the small business look for an outlet to blame for their problems, perhaps the Thai owned businesses - all of which are owned by rich businessmen and politicians - had ways of "dealing" with any prospective complaints.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for preservation of traditional values, I have no geat love of the big brands and I greatly admire the way Thais have kept their cultural integrity as their country develops, but I can't help thinking that that this not the root of the feigned indignation we see in this case. Besides, why stop at Tesco? Why not protest against Pepsi, McDonalds, Manchester United and Mr Bean too?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

You'll like this, not a lot..........

What makes students like their teacher? Should a teacher try to make students like him or her? If so, how hard should a teacher try? Does it matter? Should it matter?

These are questions I have pondered over my three years of teaching. I've discussed the issue at length with my contemporaries and now that some peers see me as an experienced teacher, I occasionally get asked the questions myself.

Let’s face it, it's a natural human trait to want people to like us. Whilst most people are confident enough to stick to some principles and avoid trying to please everybody, most of us - given the choice - would rather have the next person in the ATM queue like us rather than not. Even those who profess differently can have something to hide. I often find those who try hardest to project an "I don't care what anyone says about me" image are the most sensitive.

So with that in mind, let's tackle some of these questions, in no particular order:

"Should a teacher try to make students like him or her?"

The best straight answer I can muster is "Yes- but for the right reasons and only to a certain degree". Let me clarify: it's a popular and easy trap for many teachers - particularly newcomers - to think along the logic trail of "I taught this class, we played games and they liked me. That makes me a good teacher". Of course, that's wrong.

If any non teachers are reading this thinking "That's stupid. How can anyone think they are good at teaching just because students liked them?" , it's important to understand about the nature of this profession..

Teaching is based on human interaction, not a task that is always easy to measure. There's no scoreboard, no knowledge thermometer to let you know exactly how much your students learned today. Some things like vocabulary are easy to check, but other things such as verb tenses , language application and context are harder to measure (so your students learned "Excuse me, would you mind if I borrowed your pen?” , but do they know if this style is use for their best friend or their boss? It's not so easy to remember when it's not language).

Education is reliant on effective communication. Teachers instinctively look for natural responses to gauge just how well they've done. Most students will be too shy or polite to give a blatant assessment of their tutor, so most teachers will look for more subtle reactions such as pupil’s body language and expression as an indicator.

Now here's the problem: many students don't want to learn. This is particularly true of teenagers and children, with some exceptions. Adults usually have some interest (the obvious exception being office workers who are so happy their boss decided to send them to learn English on Fridays after work) but even adult students aren't always aware of what is genuine teaching, and what is wasting time.

Children and teenagers don't usually want to learn the present perfect simple tense, no sir, they want to play!!! Didn't you when you were that age? And they can be pretty persuasive about it. It's very easy for a self conscious teacher to give in to a group of youngsters more and more frequently after they give the oh so polite "Thank you, you are a good teacher!" after each round of hangman with superhero film titles.

Adults can also be a risk. Many adults have set beliefs about language learning . That may involve the teacher simply talking non stop, or teaching only grammar. This is fine if the teacher explains to the student how this may not be the best method for communication, but adults also have ways of persuasion. Again, a teacher can easily take a subconscious drift into the world of making the student happy rather than educated.

So in summary, it's easy for a teacher to try and be liked by not doing their job very well. Yes a tutor should try to be liked, but not because he or she plays hangman and crosswords every five minutes, or because he has an ever so novel way of teaching indirect and direct objects twenty times over. In my humble view, a teacher should try to be liked for professional reasons.......

What makes students like a teacher?

Putting aside the follies mentioned above, it's time to focus on some skills that do count. They can be harder to develop and maintain than the aforementioned methods, but they are far more rewarding.

1) Trust. A student needs to know that a teacher really does understand what he or she is doing. Without that confidence, a student constantly questions and seeks reassurance over what the teacher explained, and that affects learning. Another mistake of teachers is to believe that they must answer every question instantly. In my experience, it's far better to be honest and say "That's a good question, I don't honestly know the answer but I will check and let you know", this way student knows that when you answer them, it's a good answer.

Of course, a good and knowledgeable teacher shouldn’t be caught out very often. This may sound elementary and indeed it is, but it never ceases to stun me how many incompetent and insecure teachers in South East Asia will verbally batter a student for asking a question the teacher didn’t know. Inexperienced foreign teachers tend to fall into the mental trap of making up an answer or simply waffling.

2) Rapport. It's good to have fun and joke with the students. It builds trust and makes lessons interesting and unpredictable. With adults, this humor is normally pulled in or study at the right time, with youngsters, they sometimes need to be reminded that it's time to study.

Another potential pitfall lies here. Many a time I’ve seen a teacher become so overjoyed at making students laugh, the lesson becomes a comedy show rather than education for the future. Of course, a really good teacher can teach and have fun with students in balance.

3) Understanding. In my experience, students respond well to a teacher who shows that he or she really identifies with what they need. Some students want to pass an exam, some just want to develop a good skill, and others are looking for an English speaking romance. It's important that a teacher not only understands but shows that he or she understands and is looking to help.

As I type this, I think back to my early teaching days and how many times I stuck rigidly to a workbook with frustrated students who wanted to learn conversation for an international school. IF I had listened to their needs, I would have been better.

4) That little extra. Most students can see through their teacher quickly. If the teacher couldn’t care less and comes unprepared, students will sense that and respond in kind. A little preparation, a few notes and bit of structure will please students. Adults in particular will notice these beneficial traits.

That's by no means my exhaustive list, just a few ideas. Of course it needs to be borne in mind that different personalities will attract to different styles of teacher behaviour. Some students repect a diciplinarian, others prefer a 'warm' teacher and so on.

I truly believe that most students will pick up on the qualities above and respect the teacher for them. That respect runs deeper than just being liked.

Does it matter? Should it matter?

Yes and yes. Sometimes for the wrong reasons with the former question.

The most important rule here is that students will learn better with a teacher they like (again, withstanding the aforementioned misguided, oh so fun teacher). Most students will like teachers who are fun, but prepared and knowledgeable and understanding. It makes a big difference. It also matters sometimes for the wrong reasons. Many Thai schools - mostly government ones - will use students like of a teacher as a gauge of that teacher's ability. Sadly of course, this can lead to misunderstandings of what is a good teacher.

So there we have it. My shy opinion of a "liked" teacher and all the misunderstandings that come with it. I can think of several teachers who try so hard to be "liked" and of one teacher who wore the self appointed "most popular" title like a crown. It's a dangerous slope borne from lack of confidence. I recall another teacher - a thirty two year old - who was so keen to be "the cool" teacher he would actually become desperately violent and combative during friendly teachers’ basketball matches, he thought the twelve year old female students would be impressed.

Being liked is not equal to being a worthwhile teacher and it can be dangerous to think so. However, being liked for having the qualities of what most people consider as a truly able teacher can be endearing and beneficial to the tutor and her students. I'd be lying if I said I didn’t' feel good every time someone told me I was "the best" teacher, so I'm as guilty as everyone else. (Of course, all compliments have to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, too)

My main thoughts here lie with the teenage class I taught for three years. I made numerous mistakes in my classroom management with this bunch. In the early days I wanted so hard for them to like me that I was woefully soft on their pubescent behavior. By the time I woke up, I had a far more difficult job to reign them in and it involved a lot of verbal reprimands and various punishments. Throughout that tumultuous time I had to explain repeatedly that I loved them and what I was doing was because I wanted them to learn, and learn well. On my last day of teaching the class, one girl made a speech where she told me "You are not the best teacher in the world, but you are the best for us and we love you". I can't deny, it was a moving moment.

So what if the ball is on the other foot? How does a teacher deal with a hostile class or a particularly virile student? I'll write about that next time.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Love thy (Laos) neighbour

Perhaps the best summary of the Thai attitude to Laos can be given from a social science textbook I read in a respected school just last week:
"Thiland buys its hydroelectric power from Laos, this is a big help to the Laos people........." was the very first line in the chapter. It struck me as a little bias, so I read on ....."The people of Laos descend from many different Asian races, including the little people of Thailand...." was the next line.

Let me stress this was an English language textbook, not a bad or choice translation from yours truly. And let me repeat, this is an official social science textbook of a respected school.

This is not an isolated attitude. Indeed, to call someone "Laos" in Thailand is equivalent to calling someone "backward" or possibly even "stupid" in English. A Thai comedy movie due to be released three months ago had to be delayed and revamped after complaints. The movie was about a Thai soccer coach taking over the Laos national team and taking them to the Asian cup final. Of course, the comedy was in the poor performance and stupidity of the players. The Laos government - under pressure from its people - reluctantly made a public complaint and the movie was given a new title, and the team's nationality was changed to a fictional country.

I know, every country has its rivals. The English make jokes about the Irish - but they are aware the Irish reciprocate in kind, Canadians tend to be fiercely partisan and dislike being mistaken for American, but it could be argued that there are some forms of envy mixed in to that feeling. It seems to me though, that these other rivalries don't have the pedantic, almost malicious line of humour that the Thais have to their northern neighbours. Why?

The cynic in me feels that perhaps the Thais - coming from a country that still has its own problems with poverty and development, and lacks the world importance that it would like - wish to take out those insecurities on their sleepy neighbour. Another possible reason is that the target of the Thai humour is also a great part of what makes Laos so charming.............

Even if you were to visit Laos without a hint of the nation's history, it would be a matter of minutes before you realised this was a former French colony and a minor player on any region of the map. Any international airport that has cows grazing less than half a kilometre from the runway is hardly going to be a superpower. As travellers move towards the centre of Vientiane (the capital city, pronounced "wieng - chan") bakeries, crepe restaurants and sandwich bars begin to spring up. Small guesthouses - a growing business - adorn most side streets.

Yes, Laos has charm. Even its busiest city almost feels like a French village. A travel writer once wrote: "not only is the fast life unpopular in Laos......it is neigh on impossible" and it's true. In Laos, there is simply nothing to rush for (unless you are late for your trip to your national embassy). Laos has no main roads, no train rails, no shopping malls, not even an international ATM. There are a few bars with attractive young ladies, but nothing atall on the scale of Thailand.

What Laos does offer is some beautiful scenery. Vientiane itself has many beautiful temples scattered on its outskirts. These can be seen over a couple of days with many a stop on the way to take in some beer Laos. Beer Laos is a beer drinker's dream: strong, well made and unbelievably cheap. It works out at a dollar for a large bottle.

That Luang temple, Vientiane

Further afield lies Luang Prabang, with Laos' own version of Stonehenge , and even closer to Vientiane lies VanVieng, where I had huge fun drifting down the river on a large tube whilst stopping at will to check out the small islands and the temples and caves within. These places are difficult to get to but paradoxically this is their charm, they lack the masses of tourists that flock to sites in Thailand. While tubing in Van Vieng, my partner and I were often the only people on the island. It's like making your own Indiana Jones movie.

The people of Laos reflect their environment. They are often laid back and gentle minded. Tuk tuk drivers will bargain and barter like their Thai counterparts, but unless you give them good reason to anger, it's all good fun. Laos people have a very similar language to Thai, and their exposure to Thai TV and reading is such that a Bangkokian and Laotian can talk their own language to the other and be mutually intelligible. Thais from Isaan or Chang Mai come even closer to being identical. My Thai friends often find parts of the Laos language amusing and giggle at certain words. The Laos don't seem to bothered by this.

Officially , only Laos kip is legal tender. In reality the country has a tri-currency system. Even government banks happily dish out Laos kip, Thai Baht and of course the US dollar. In Vientiane especially, you'll be hard pressed to find a place that doesn't accept all three currencies, although change is usually given in local tender.

A few more tips: Laos has a lot of jungle and there are still communist insurgents hiding within. Strikes have been made in the last few years and two tourists were tragically killed about three years ago. The attackers opened fire on a bus and the tourists were cycling on the other side of the bus. Whilst tragic, attacks on tourists have never been deliberate and any kind of attack is extremely rare now. The Laos government has issues with some of its tribal minorities and often deports them or puts them up for imaginary criminal charges at will. It should also be noticed that technically, sexual relations between unmarried Laotians and foreigners is illegal. I'll leave it up to you to decide how often and how keenly this rule is enforced.

In summary, Laos is a beautiful, friendly place that is undeserving but uncaring of it's jibes from its southern neighbours. Whilst I think it would get dull to live there, it makes a charming break from the fast life of Bangkok.


Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge.

I've just done a little research on the ongoing efforts to try the Kymer Rouge and some details of previous support offered to them by western nations. I'll put it on my political website soon.

Friday, December 08, 2006

There's no reason for the lack of bloggage, other than a lack of time and a lack of interesting diatribes to write. I must admit I've been a little discouraged by the drop in hits since I switched blog sites. I've regretted such a drastic change many times.

My switch from government to private bilingual schools has been intriguing. The very items which other teachers grumble about and find shocking are a tenfold improvement over administration at my previous employer. After such a drawn out and vitriolic departure from my previous post, I'm just enjoying being one of the team again. When the time is right I'll do my best to move up the ladder but for now, I'm just being the smiling, company guy.

Perhaps a little too much.

Last week my boss approached me and told me "Mr Greg, you are a symbol of quality, we want you to attend a school parade next Monday". Now you must remember that it was just weeks ago I was in a job when people would literally curse at me under their breath when I walked through the door each morning, being given such a compliment by my new employer was a little intoxicating, I gladly agreed to attend the parade.

I later found out a few extra facts about the parade:

1) It took place on holiday i.e. a day off.

2) It required being on the premises at 6am.

3) It required wearing a hat. Not just any hat I might add, a hat that actually doubles as an umbrella. I kid you not. We will be marching on parade wearing umbrella hats in full view of hundreds of people.

That's how much I've changed. A few months ago I blogged about my stubborn refusal to wear a shirt with flowers and rabbits on it for my school. Now, I'll be humiliating myself in public without a word of protest. I might even post a picture of it on here.


Panic and rumour continues to spread through the teacher community. Most of it is based on rumours that develop into Chinese Whisper style untruths. The new regime - still giving most of its time to trying to reduce the tragic violence in the south and fighting a war of wits with the evil regime of Thaksin Shiniwat and his cohorts - have decided to register all foreign teachers. Personally, I think it's great. Teachers get a certificate confirming they have registered, which goes a long way to convincing a serious school that the applicant is a serious teacher, in my view. Naturally, it's provoked a bit of paranoia at being asked to supply all kinds of documents and information. It must be stated that some of this concern is understandable. Administration and immigration in Thailand is woefully unprofessional and corrupt.

The other rules - to my knowledge - remain in place. Repeated tourist visas are being scrutinised and the non immigrant B visa is required to work. On that note, I'm off to Laos next week to apply for my new visa for my new employer, and of course to enjoy a quick break. I might even drink a beer, something I haven't done for months. Laos Beer is the stuff of legend.