Friday, January 26, 2007

A battle for Thai hearts

Now I'm breaking my own vow not to discuss politics on here but I am going to try and make this as relevant and light as possible.

Thaksin Shiniwatra went on CNN last week and cunningly portrayed himself as the innocent, democratically elected leader removed by a greedy military coup.

It was the latest episode in a mental warfare so subliminal it almost feels like a real life rendition of the old "Tron" movie. This time however , the enemies consist of an adroit but utterly corrupt and cold politician with his cronies on one side and an aging, outmoded but powerful military junta on the other.

Thaksin followed up this propaganda effort by travelling to Japan and telling the awaiting press "I am disgusted with the media interference" , referring to the fact that the military junta censored his previous CNN display in Thailand.

Anybody with rudimentary knowledge of Thai politics watching the CNN interview could be forgiven with sympathising with Thaksin's cause. These people would be misguided. Thaksin is a master of mental warfare and subtle intimidation, and the fact that he is a weak public speaker who stumbles at English only enhances his feigned innocent demeanour.

Rather than launch a tirade of rebuttals , I will try to list some precise facts here:

1) Thaksin took corruption in Thailand to unprecedented levels. When he took office - after lobbying judges to forgive him for blatant asset concealment - he told the people "I do not need to be corrupt, I am already rich" (He neglected to mention he was already rich from using contacts to win government concessions and alleged insider trading to avoid the Asian crash of 1997). The day after taking office , Thaksin launched decrees to put mobile phone competitors out of business and never looked back. His family became the richest in Thailand by (ab)using their power to eliminate all forms of competition. It would take a book to list his alleged misdeeds.

The junta have installed a hand picked team known as the Assets Scrutiny Committee (also known as the Assets Examination Committee) to investigate corruption. They have been criticised for being slow but they are trying to do things lawfully, and incriminating a team of powerful and devious crooks is not easy.

2) Thaksin had no respect for law whatsoever. The law major and former police captain packed and lobbied every independent body to allow himself free passage of action. The Election Commission, the National Counter Corruption Commission and of course the police force was headed by hand picked men sycophantic to Thaksin. Various charges were bought against TRT MPs but could reach no conclusion as the reponsible bodies would simply throw all cases out. The opposition parties had so few MPs in the house that 'no confidence' debates were a forgone conclusion. TRT MPs who wanted to keep their little piece of the greedy pie knew what they had to do in such situations. During the debate on the airport CTX scanner scandal (scanners were sold at a 20% greater than invoice price and the US trader admitted paying kickbacks) one female TRT MP Pattra Waramit actually dared to abstain rather than vote for her party colleague, stating she could not support him with a clear conscience. The masters degree holder Waramit was escorted to a meeting room from where she emerged crying and said: "I'm sorry, I was tired and pressed the wrong button". These actions came from the same people who were being paid massive salaries to run the country.

(For yet more quotes from Waramit and her father who is also a TRT MP , click here. The quotes give an excellent insight into politics, especially the quote "he hoped she had learned something about politics")

3) Thaksin was sickeningly arrogant and unrepentant. He had a clever populist line of rhetoric that turned any criticism or complaint against him to a complaint against Thailand , a ploy that worked well on the rural masses that formed his main support base.

A few select quotes are:

On taking office:

"I will serve twenty full terms and then retire out of sympathy to the opposition. There will be no crime, no Mafia and no social ills"

In response to academic criticism:
"I have full knowledge of democratic values, those who know less should refrain from talking"
" Some teachers cannot teach and just criticize to look cool. They will have to go".

On concerns about compramisation of independent checking bodies:

"The woman who cautions me is my wife. People needn't worry, my wife keeps me in check"

(Two points of note here: Firstly, Thaksin didn't mention that since he took office, his wife had become the richest woman in Thailand and was heavily implicated in tax evasion allegations. Secondly, this quote was made not longer after HM The King had made a speech in which he mentioned how his mother used to keep his feet on the ground. I wonder if Thaksin simply liked the sound of HM The King's speech).

Talking to the rural masses about the protests in Bangkok:
"These people think they are smarter than you, you must tell them loudly how you feel"

After losing two by - elections:
[to the voters in those two provinces] "Let me be very clear, we will take care of our own first, we will give priority to those provinces who voted for us"

(NB Thaksin seemed unconcerned that he was publicly declaring a breech of constitutional rule by showing favour to provinces that voted for him)

Now watch for a trend from here on............

After protests against the government decision to privatise public businesses without referendum and sell them to politician shareholders:

"Some people don't understand what we are doing because they don't have enough knowledge"

During protests against Thaksin using public funds to buy Liverpool Football Club:
"Some people simply don't understand. They aren't ready for my vision yet"
"Some people might be upset because they don't have access to all the information"

After the Constitutional Court rejected Thaksin's bid to privatise the Electric Authority:
"Some people are confused and don't understand, that's OK"
"Some people might not be aware of all the facts"

After massive Bangkok protests in response to Thaksin selling his main business and avoiding paying tax:
"There are technical issues that most people don't understand so they are confused"

A second standard response was to state that any critic of any form "doesn't love the country"

4) Last but not least , Thaksin was involved in huge scale media intimidation. I could write another ten pages about all of this, but I've waffled enough already. Suffice to say that this letter from today's edition of The Nation provides a nice summary:

Ex-PM getting a taste of how his regime dealt with media

Re: "No plans to return yet, says Thaksin", News, January 24.

I must confess I fully sympathised with ousted prime minister Thaksin when he said "I am outraged at the interference to the mass media", this week.

Of course, he was referring to the censorship of his recent CNN interview. However, I was also shocked when, during the time of his regime, a total of 32 reporters quit ITV after alleged government interference with programming. Likewise, I was disgusted when radio stations that happened to be critical of the prime minister disappeared from the airwaves. I reeled with horror when the English-language newspapers became victims of various threats, clandestine investigations and buyout attempts as they dared to cast a critical eye at the Thai Rak Thai Party. And I was stunned when one single journalist was struck with an extortionate damages claim for venturing to suggest Thaksin's family businesses had profited from his tenure as premier. Indeed, one must fully sympathise with Thaksin because media intrusion is indeed a major sin, and one that should not go unpunished.

A Father in Thailand

I could go on but I think you get the picture. Thaksin isn't a wolf in sheep's clothing , a more accurate description came from academic Thirayuth Boonmi who described Thaksin as a "monstrous baby".

Nobody likes a coup, it is an unforgivable sin. But in the case of Thailand - as I have written before - the country was in grave danger of a class war or at least a unbridgeable gulf between the Bangkokians with a new generation of university students and an educated workforce who opposed Thaksin, and the rural masses, subject to populism and manipulation, prone to sporadic bursts of violence and given taxpayers money to parade their support of Thaksin.

General Sondhi is set to appear on CNN next week to give the other side of the view.

The future look cautious. A new constitution is in progress, the government has promised police reform and elections within a year , bomb investigations are underway and already the army and police are contradicting and opposing each other. But while the ASC seeks to uncover solid evidence to convict the Thaksin family, the man himself is circling Thailand like a hawk. His screeches cause the aging junta to act rashly, bureaucracy to procrastinate ASC investigations through fear of reprisals and the Thaksin supporters to continue their resentment of the new regime.

One can only hope that all the rifts are healed, justice is served and the country moves forward. Ultimately it will be down to the Thais themselves, and those in power must have the courage and the love to do what is best for the country and its populace, rather than serving themselves and their own selfish narrow minded greed and ideas.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The good news about Thai schools

I'm feeling incredibly guilty. I've just read through my previous post and noticed two terrible mistakes which gave a very negative stance on the subject. Firstly, I said that international schools: "...............seem to be high on facilities, high on teacher discipline and meticulous on testing. However, they still contain Thai educational traits which I will touch on later."

Later, I discussed a particularly nasty teacher who had struck a student simply because she didn't like her. Then I said: "Once again, if that surprises you , you have never worked in Thailand."

Let me now give the correct structure of both phrases. Firstly: "International schools seem to be high on facilities, high on teacher discipline and meticulous on testing. However, they still contain some of the negative Thai educational traits which I will touch on later."

Secondly: "Once again, if that surprises you , you have never worked in a government school in Thailand."

I feel bad because my hit ratio has been high this week, and some people reading my slips may have received a negative impression of Thai schools as a whole.

There are some great schools here. My current school (which is bi-lingual) is far from perfect, but it's full of good and happy kids. A student of a school in our chain recently won national singing competitions on TV several weeks in a row. Another positive trait of my current school and many others is improvement in sports. Football (soccer) is huge in Thailand and other sports such as badminton, volleyball and tennis are popular and students frequently participate. Taekwondo is ever growing and some excellent young prospects for the art are emerging.

Another characteristic I admire is the passion for music, both old and new. Thailand has achieved something that Britain failed to do, it has assimilated modern culture such as music, clothes and movies while keeping a strong semblance of its own identity and culture. It's not just the elder generation either, most youngsters will put just as much enthusiasm into Muay Thai, Thai music and Thai food as they will for the western counterparts. If only England had taken care of its own people and culture as well as the Thais do.

It's not just the students improving either. The younger generation of teachers - who lie mostly outside the government schools - are adapting to modern methods and use of language. There are still areas of concern and needed improvement, but that applies in any country.

So please don't get me wrong. Thailand is aware of its need for educational reform, especially in the government sector, but it's certainly not all bad news. The new wave of schools are a big step forward for the country's youth, and I'm proud to be a tiny part of that.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Thai government schools

So you've decided that a holiday in Thailand was not enough. You like it so much you want to stay long term. You know people who work out here as English teachers, and they've told you it's easy. You've got your paperwork, you've got a lover waiting for you and you're all set to start work. What should you expect?

The first thing to remember is that many who say English teaching is easy are wrong. What they mean is, it's easy to get way with a lot. There are many "teachers" out here that I would not let near my son. Bear in mind that there's a difference between getting by and doing a job properly.

But of course a big part of your happiness and success will lie with your choice of employer and how they treat you. That in turn will depend on the type of institution that employs you. I've written before about the types of schools so I'll just re-cap here. Private schools are the educational equivalent of fast food chains. They have a high staff turn over, provide immediate - but often un-nutritious and unhelpful - gratification to the student and are easy to find.

International schools are different. I've never worked in one but I've given private tuition to many international students. The schools seem to be high on facilities, high on teacher discipline and meticulous on testing. However, they still contain some of the negative Thai educational traits which I will touch on later.

Government schools are a challenge. I worked in one for three years, three of the best years of my life yet the same three years that allowed me to witness shocking events. When I first entered the school, I had delusions. I believed that teachers would conduct themselves with the decorum their position afforded. I believed that teachers had students' needs at heart. I believed most teachers liked their job.

What I discovered was different.

Now, I about to say some very harsh comments about Thai government schools. I want to stress this is my own humble opinion based on experience. My harshness is based on dissapointment that students are not given the education that the wonderful young people of Thailand deserve. Of course
, not all teachers are like those I am about to describe. I've meet some teachers in government schools whom I greatly admire and aspire to copy , what's more there are many who enjoy foreign teachers with new methods and ideas and welcome us. Sadly, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Most government English teachers cannot speak English. That is a fact. They are victims of a vicious cycle. They have been bought up to learn grammar over communication, and with an average age of about fifty they cannot change. So, fourteen year old students who cannot say "Hello, how are you?" will be passed a broadsheet newspaper and told to underline noun phrases (a group of words acting as a noun, e.g. The Bank of England) and transitive verbs (verbs that must take an object). Thus, students become proficient at grammar points and useless a holding a basic conversation.

Discipline is also rigorously enforced. In my old blog I told the story of teachers on "gate duty". 'Gate duty' is when teachers stand at the front of the school gates, ostensibly to welcome students. In reality, teachers will check each student to make sure his or her hair is not one centimetre over limit or their socks too dirty. I once saw a student get caned for having dirty socks. The girl was from a poor family - remember Thailand is still a developing country - and conducted herself politely as she apologised to the teacher. The teacher ignored the apology and hit her three times. After the student left the room, the teacher told her colleagues in Thai "I don't like her". She had used the dirty socks as an excuse to use violence on the student.

If that sounds shocking or at least very unprofessional to you, it was an everyday occurrence to me. The same teacher who hit this girl hated work, she would regularly arrive in class at least half way through her lessons and could not speak English. She would teach the entire lesson in Thai.

Once again, if that surprises you , you have never worked in a government school in Thailand.

The Thai smile is conspicuous by its absence in government schools. That's not to say you won't get smiles. Students will often flash a genuine smile at a teacher and that can be a great little lift. However, teachers often use a smile as camouflage. I've seen a teacher smile as she fails a student she doesn't like, or hits a pupil that arrived two minutes late. Many older teachers dislike their foreign counterparts. Old fashioned values rule in these institutions, including the idea that age begets rank. As most farang teachers are younger than their Thai colleagues, they are considered lower. A cynic like me would dare to suggest that older teachers sometimes feel threatened by our presence.

Administration in most of these places is non existent. I would often find out about meetings, holidays and cancellations from students.

Students don't like the system any more than we do, but they are powerless. Government schools are hellbent on enforcing rank and authority. Critical thinking or even questioning is unwelcome. Students have been punished heavily for asking the teacher a question the teacher couldn't answer.

So are these places a hell for foreign teachers? No.

One thing that makes these places worthwhile are the students. Government schools tend to offer very large classes with a great mix of personalities and types. Often the foreign teacher is a novelty for these students and they can make you feel like a celebrity, at least at first! Such large classes can be very challenging to bring under control, especially for inexperienced teachers. The belief that the foreign teacher is an hour of fun is - how can I put this? - not discouraged by some local teachers and this can make life difficult. Often a stern line of control is necessary at first. This can lead to some decent leaning and subsequently good rapport.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew very close to my main class during my three years at government school. I'm still in touch with many of them now. Although it was difficult working with an antiquated and unwelcoming institution, the magic of seeing fifty smiling young faces each day, and the satisfaction of watching them grow in knowledge and confidence made it all worthwhile. Such experiences can be rarer at the other types of school, and I'm blessed to have received it.

It's no mistake that I missed bilingual schools out in this report. Watch this space.

Thanks to Sriwittayapaknam School for letting me use some of the pictures in this blog. They seem to be a big cut above many other government schools.

Monday, January 22, 2007

You heard it here first

Whilst the military junta have been reasonably diligent in their goals of working to restore peace in the south of Thailand and chasing the ousted PM on corruption allegations, there can be little doubt that the army have continued a long standing tradition of taking care of their own.

My point? Well the recent tit for tat diplomatic squabble between Thailand and Singapore - initially caused by Thailand's objections to Singapore welcoming ex - PM Thaksin to a conference on their land - reached a pinnacle this week when the minister for IT began disseminating bizarre warnings that "Telephone conversations are being tapped" and "Private telephone conversations are being relayed to telecommunications companies in Singapore".

This ambiguous and innocuous set of claims seemed to heap paranoia on the already strained relations between the countries and served to increase annoyance and distrust amongst the working class, easily influenced and partisan working class group of Thais.

Less than a week later, the junta have declared their intention to fund a billion bhat satellite project to "increase national security".

What a coincidence , eh?


This weekend I welcomed two friends over to Bangkok. Neither of them were first timers, in fact they had both been over three times each before. You see, there's something about Thailand that people struggle to let go from. No doubt the female inhabitants have a great temptation, but there is more, The beaches, the food, the shopping . Thailand fever is contagious, beware!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Thai ideas about farangs

In my old blog, I once made a post about a time I negotiated with a motorbike taxi driver. Motorbike taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok and Thailand in general. The bright shirted drivers are the salt of society, and have no problem risking their neck and yours by driving at breakneck speeds around the cities. Due to their visibility and social standing, motorbike drivers provide a good insight into Thai city culture and ideas.

So, my translated conversation went like this:

"I want to go to the bpaak soi" (literally "soi mouth" it means the end of the street)

"Oh you want the airport?"

" No I want bpaak soi"

"No no! You want to go to the airport" [Looks at the other drivers and grins like a five year old]

So after clarification I got on the bike, as the bike was speeding away the driver yelled back to his friends "He's going to see his Isaan wife"

So at the end of the road I got off the bike and onto a bus. The fare collecter basically Judo threw me into my seat - foreigner beating is a favourite pastime of many bus conducters - a group of teenagers at the back sighted me and began telling "farang" jokes while another girl turned to her friend and said aloud "Why is there a farang on the bus?"

In the short journey between my work and my home, these people had all exposed the Thai ideas and attitudes towards foreigners.

Thais can be very hard to shake from their ideas. They sometimes resist any attempts or evidence to challenge their own beliefs. To start, they don't understand why any farang would get on the bus. After all, they're all rich so they can take a taxi every day, right? Likewise, the vast majority of motorbike and car taxi drivers believe that all farangs want to go to the airport or downtown. They find it hard to understand why they would want to go anywhere else. Ditto, they believe that most foreigners are married to Thai woman from the north east region, known as Isaan. This is the poorest region of Thailand.

And right there at the pillar of the belief system is the golden rule: foreigners can't speak Thai. That's why you can speak freely about a foreigner, even in their presence. Let me illustrate a perfect example in point: Two days ago I walked into a pharmacist to buy milk for my son. The girl that served me was talking to the other staff while she served.

Remember, I was standing right next to them throughout this conversation

"Is this the same farang who came in last time?"

"Yes I think so. He buys milk for his son. Boonyai said he's married already."

[At this point I was tempted to interject to say that Boonyai was was telling a pork pie lie, she had no clue if I was married or not since I didn't know her. I kept silent though, to follow the conversation]

"So he's married already? That's bad luck"

"Yes "
"How old do you think he is? He looks very young"

"I don't know. What do you think?"

"I don't know"

I stood amused but bemused, wondering if this was how it felt to be like that kid in the Sixth Sense movie. I collected my change, said "Thank you" in English and left.

Of course, this can all be fun. Foreigners should expect to become acquainted with the Thai ideology of foreigners which for the most part is innocent and peaceful. The only time I've been remotely offended by a conversation I've overheard concerning me was when a woman on the bus complained that my feet stank. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the streotypical ideas are often right. Most foreigners can't speak Thai , most white folk do want to be taken downtown or to the airport in a cab and the number of westerners married to northern women is high.

The only dark side to this can be the predominately Asian - as opposed to Siamese - idea that Asian woman with western men are prostitutes. I'm not conscious of ever experiencing discrimination against my wife and I for this fallacy but I have known others - usually men with notably younger wives - experience public abuse directed at him and his wife. If this happens to you, you'll do well to swallow your rage and laugh at the morons directing the abuse. Many a would be hero has squared off to a local to find out that same local has ten friends with pool cues ready to show how tough they are. Believe me, it can happen and you'll be no good to your wife or girlfriend if defending her honour lands you in the nearest medical facility.

Still, those cases are scarce and take second place to the good natured or sometimes just plain daft ideas about foreigners.

The old saying that stereotypes are half true is redeemed in this case. So if you plan to stick around in Thailand, be prepared to roll with the punches. The locals enjoy their farang jokes.


Muay Thai fan?

I mentioned Tony Jaa a while back. The good news for his fans - and Thai movies in general - is that he is making two new movies this year and both are expected to do well in the states. I hope the movies do well. Tony Jaa is a great martial artist and a decent actor who stays close to his Thai roots. The kid deserves his success.

I note some sites billing "Tom Yam Goong" as the sequal to "Ong Bak". It isn't. The sequal is due out this year.

My hit ratio is rising again. Welcome to any newcomers and please feel free to comment and tell me if I'm right or wrong. Don't take the grumbling too seriously, I love Thailand and I love teaching.

I've been looking at other blogs and many are superior but others fall into the "Indiana Jones syndrome" meaning they become so exhilarated by their travels they rave about themselves like heros and forget it's not so exciting for those reading it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The life of the half Thai (Luk keung)

My son Dylan is fourteen months old in a couple of days. He's at that stage where a new skill is being found everyday. Climbing, building blocks, you name it. One thing that I have noticed is his baby speech. Most Thai babies at this age already showing signs of babbling in the up and down pitch of the Thai language, Dylan however mixes the pitches with the rambling sounds of the English accent.

I know what you're thinking: "Over enthusiastic dad" , I thought so too but several other people have noticed his speech patterns. I'm hoping Dylan has taken the first tentative step towards becoming a bi-lingual luk keung.

Dylan is actually half English, quarter Chinese and quarter Thai, but for all cultural intents and purposes he is a luk keung.

"Luk Keung" literally translated means "child half" , since Thais put the noun before the adjective. That may sound less than equalitarian but it's simply a Thai trait. Thais will say what they see. I'm "farang lek " ("small foreigner") and others will be "ouan" ("fat") and so on. The idea behind such blunt phrases is to put people at ease, not leaving them to wonder what they think of you.

Despite the tag, luk keungs have an enviable position amongst Thai society. With a combination of white skin (considered attractive) , bi - lingual abilities and, usually a reasonably well off family, the half Thais are often a privileged bunch. Such qualities have put many of them into show business, often in TV shows or in the music industry like the half American, half Thai Tata Young.

Not all are so privileged of course. A second school of popular thought says that many other luk keungs are less fortunate. The idea being that many foreign men impregnate woman and then run out. Whilst many people propagate this idea, in my four years here I've only known two sure cases of this happening. Still the fact remains that multitudinous luk keungs are indeed just "typical" kids rather than the social elite.

As world travel and international marriages increase, the number of luk keungs has risen. Alongside the increasing numbers, a taxing problem seems to be arising. Ex-pat forums and discussion sites have a slew of concerned parents expressing alarm at their luk keung child's behaviour. The popular line of distress seems to be that the constant adoration and attention inside and outside school is negatively affecting the young luk keung psyche. Boys in particular seem to be developing signs of arrogance and unruly behaviour from a very tender age. My favourite report was from one parent who stated "People swarm him [my son] all the time. Just last week one guy told him he was the most handsome kid he had ever seen and literally gave him the sunglasses off his face".

Different parents are lining up different solutions to the problem. One colleague of mine plans to take his son to school in Australia for four years since "Aussies don't let the trees grow too tall". Other parents simply enforce stronger discipline at home, others still seem content to let it ride and hope the child will grow out of it.

I must confess I don't have my game plan ready yet. I do believe though that a father's influence can greatly affect a child's attitude to others. And while others may be looking for their white skinned child to be a model or TV star, I have my own rosy eyed dream for Dylan. I'd like him to follow in the footsteps of Mechai Viravaidya.

Mechai was born in 1941, the son of a Scottish mother and Thai father in an era before interracial marriages were so popular. He recalls that at the age of seven he was on a shopping trip with his mum when she went to help an elderly lady cross the street. His mum told him: "If people with education and wealth don't help the poor, who will?". Meechai went to study in Australia where he learned " be humble. If you think you're important in Thailand, you're nobody there."

Meechai returned to found the Cabbages and Condoms chain as part of his highly successful project to reduce AIDS and increase education on sexual diseases. He also became a senator and told the press ".......corruption is now airborne like dust. The senate should be impartial but only about twenty five percent are. We're wasting the people's time".

Undoubtedly Meechai has faced discrimination in his work. The Thais are a fiercely partisan bunch and some of the lesser educated parts of society are suggestible to any "He's not even a real Thai!" propaganda from a rival politician.

Yeh I know, it's easy to be romantic about your child when they're still in nappies. But hey, that's my right as a dad and I do believe that with the right moral values, Dylan can eventually become a philanthropist and however difficult and thankless it may seem, take a stand against the greed, patronage, embezzlement and selfish behaviour of some of the people running such a wonderful country.

Either that or play up front for Southampton FC anyway.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The big bad tests

The last two days have been the closest to work I've been since I moved here about four years ago. I've just completed the first set of tests since I started at my new school.

Thailand is big on testing. Really big. Three year olds get tested on English, nine year olds get tested on Geography and "Social".and teenagers get tested in some form almost every week. I'll never forget the day my favourite class turned up forty minutes late for a fifty minute lesson announcing "We had a ping pong test!".

There are many theories on why the system seems so keen to test eight year olds for up to five times a year but no definite answer can be given.

It doesn't seem to aid progress. On the contrary, it's a hindrance since it drains the teachers' time to prepare and teach. It's no marker for a student's development either. If little Praew could speak fluent English a month ago, and little Somchai couldn't say a word, its unlikely their roles have reversed in the last four weeks and if they had, you'd be damn sure their parents or teachers had noticed.

It seems likely the testing is just an outmoded umbrage of the (literally) old school education system. A system that required constant imposition of authority and lack of genuine teaching.

Anyway, back to my story. Testing at my old school was largely left to me, I'd test and log the scores and hand them in. In my new school - a private bilingual affair - things are done differently, as I just fond out. Although my new school is a huge improvement over most government schools, it still conducts business in the Thai way. This means that very little information is given to the teachers in advance. Myself and the other new teachers had no advance warning of tests or test procedures. We simply turned up to work to be told to vigilate the exams. That we did.

As I was leaving the exam room - thinking to myself what a doddle the day had been - I was greeted with a pile of paperwork. Inquiries revealed that this was the first part of the marking process. after several hours I had finished, and presented the work to one my bosses.

" Oh no, you aren't meant to make the student profiles yet, some scores are missing".

OK , back to my desk to fill out forty student profiles for the second time. Back to the boss.

"Oh no, you've done them in the wrong order"

"I wasn't aware there was an order"

"Yes I'll show you what it is"

It did have a positive side effect though. It reminded me how much more pleasant it is to work out here in Thailand. Usually, teaching is a fun job, I'm proud to teach and I love what I do (except for the last two days).

Some of the other new teachers were becoming stressed over the lack of communication. Readers of my old blog will know that I used to be just the same. But things are nowhere near as bad in my new school, indeed itl is very good at working with foreign teachers and I've wised up a little too. The Thais have their own way of doing things, it can seem strange to us but it doesn't hep to get angry and shout about it. For now at least, I'm happy to keep my head down and enjoy being welcome at work.

They better not ask me to wear any fluffy bunny shirts, though.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The ex-pat community

Keeping grip on reality - the expat community

Have you seen the movie: "The Quiet American" featuring Michael Caine? If not, I recommend it. If you have, you'll have some idea of the reality withdrawal expats can face: many a truth is told in fiction.

Thailand's ex-pats are a mixed bunch. I've met some unbelievable characters over here, many behave in a way that would get them killed or arrested back home. I've touched many times on the fact that Thailand invites delusion. With so many pretty girls looking for the right foreign guy to take care of them, the sun, the cheap booze and the beautiful ladies are always going to bring certain types of guys over. It's no coincidence that the vast majority of ex-pats are males. Most of them walking with a female far prettier and more pleasant than they could find in their own country. Nothing is wrong with that of course, but the problem is that many of these males - often the fattest and most obnoxious ones - believe their own illusions and convince themselves they have become super studs by crossing a time zone.

Many a time I've shamefully buried my face in my hands as a fat, middle aged teacher announces his sexual exploits in front of all male and female teachers in the classroom. I often wonder what locals make of such decorum. On occasion, I have known foreign teachers actually get assaulted by local guys for their behaviour.

Like I said, delusion runs rampant. Some characters seem to dislike labelling themselves as a teacher, they always want to be something so much more. In the last two years I've met a bandana wearing American "lawyer" who got sacked from three schools in two months, I've met a Nazi who greets everyone with a "zeig hail" (sacked from a certain school) and ....wait.........a member of the Black Panthers! I kid you not.

For me, I'm happy to be a humble teacher. I have no insecurities.

Still, look around more and you'll find a good bunch around. I'm grateful to Dan, Karl, Brian and my other buddies out in Asia. Even on adventures, you need your friends to keep you sane. Larger schools especially have a large group of happy workers. Thailand is attracting more and more young teachers with a positive outlook and sensible older guys. With increasing demand for English , the teacher community is building a semi respectable base.

A Mekong jewel

It might not be the biggest or most obvious benefit to living out here but make no mistake: Thai markets - and Asian markets in general are fantastic. All towns and villages have something to offer. Most markets will feature the standards fare such as Thai food, cheap clothes and fresh produce. Most markets will also have something extra, that could be anything from weapons to kid's toys.

Thai markets are a fantastic place to get a true, untouristed clip of local culture. Sit at one of the many makeshift road restaurants and watch. Watch the locals - usually a family unit - working hard to keep their stall. Listen to the buyer and seller haggling over price. watch the delivery guys come and deliver the livestock. These are priceless insights into daily life that you won't get from a guided tour (the floating market is now so touristed it really isn't a true market). Finally, get up and try a little Thai yourself as you haggle for what you want. You'll still pay more than a Thai, but getting a discount will make you feel good :-)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Things you'll miss

I've decided to enter a world wide essay contest. The topic is “bribes” and the first prize is 10,000 dollars. I won't win, of course. The winner will be some academic or journalist somewhere. But in true sporting spirit I'm not so concerned about winning as simply rising to the challenge and writing a respectable essay.

Anyway, in my quest for background research I traveled downtown and checkout the Chulalongkorn University Bookstore, the top (only?) bookstore in Thailand for academic books in English. The choice is far from ideal. Indeed, Thailand itself is short on English language books. Asia Books is a well known bookstore that offers good but limited choice. will not send to Thailand.

Yes, one of the sacrifices of moving here is your choice of reading material will be narrowed.

What else will you miss? Family and friends is a given of course but a few surprises might also be thrown up. Food. Thai food is great, and western choices of high fat meals are ubiquitous. KFC , Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen are abundant. Still, I miss my chili sauce covered kebab on a Friday night and my cornflakes covered in fresh milk (real milk) that are unavailable here. It might not be high on your priority list, but the longer you stay here, the more food will play on your mind.

TV. There is a good range of satellite TV here to give your dose of sport and movies. Still, there’s most likely something you can’t see, and you’ll wonder what you missed.

Your way of doing things. Yep, Thais have different ways of dealing with problems, arguments, confrontations and solving situations. After the forth time your neighbour smiles and promises to stop blasting music through his open window at five am, only to treat you to a dawn awakening of “Hotel California” (or worse) the next day, you’ll be begging for someone to argue with you in the good old fashioned western way.

These topics , I’ll examine in more detail in future. For now though, take heart. Moving here involves sacrifices, but plenty of benefits too. Watch this space.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Starting over

OK , I've finally found the answer. This page is lacking the personal touch. Let me start again:

I'm Greg. About five years ago, I was sitting at work in my hometown of Southampton, England when a female colleague (whom I was secretly in love with) told the boss she was leaving to travel Asia. Although I never got round to telling the girl in question how I felt, though I think she sensed it (and even if she didn't , she'll read it on here so now she knows :-) ) she did inspire me to do the same.

So I sold my home, packed up and travelled Asia. I was warned off a girl by a triad group in Hong Kong , I absailled down cliff sides in Vietnam, I kissed a girl as the sun set on a waterfall in a national park , I had my taxi blocked by an elephant in Thailand and I bribed an immigration officer in Laos.

At the end of it all, Thailand was my first love, so I came back to live.

That was about four years ago. Now, I work as a teacher in Nonthaburi. I am married and I have one son. Like most people I gave one hundred reasons for moving to Thailand, but the real underlying reason was a female. Like most people, I really believed that I was something special by moving here.

Now I've got some experience under my belt, and I want to use it.

I wrote a blog that was getting a fair few hits each day and comments and questions from visitors. In rash moment, I deleted the whole blog.

Now I'm aiming to make this blog as decent as the old one.
Politics does creep in to my writings sometimes. Forgive me for that. From now on I'll try to keep politics on my separate blog.

So this blog is on what Thailand is really like. It's not all raucous nightlife, shocking drug scams or subservient woman. But it does have a whole lot of beauty, a whole lot of quirks and a lot to blog about.

So welcome. If you are interested in Thailand and you wonder what it's really like to live here for longer than the six month novelty period, feel; free to read and ask any questions.


The bomb aftermath

Fingers continue to point, but the reality is that the authorities are no closer to finding the culprits for the new year bombings. Thai TV stations are showing farangs (foreigners) describing their concerns at the continued number of bomb threats (about twenty a day) and visible police and army units.

The reality is this: what happened to the bomb victims was tragic, and my heart goes out to them. However, the total number of casualties was three. During the Christmas and new year period, more than one thousand people died on the roads. The roads of Thailand are dangerous. The fact that the bombs naturally garnered more media attention makes the threat seem greater. Don't be put off coming to Thailand because of this.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The world sings, Bangkok weeps.

The news spread so quickly in the era of the global village. Within minutes of the events people were texting me asking questions. I wasn't able to tell them much they didn't already know though, given the nature of the events and the authorities dealing with them. Bangkok was in a state of confusion.

Now things are a little clearer. In the build up to midnight on December 31st a series of bombs exploded within minutes of each other. The bombs were strategically placed to maximise both their profile and number of potential victims. The first explosion was at Victory Monument - not only an important symbol for Bangkok but also a central transport hub - this was followed by an explosion at the large urban area known as Klong Toey. This explosion was planted in a spirit house, which would be a major superstitious deterrent for almost any Thai. Undoubtedly the most important blow for the attackers was the explosion outside Central World Trade, the department store that acts as the focus for the annual new year's party.

News reporters struggled to keep up with the whirlwind of events though, unbelievably, some channels continued with their normal programme schedule. As reports of the first death came in and causalities increased, Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin stepped up at Central World Trade to cancel the party. Some revellers continued, apparently unknowing or uncaring that several foreigners and two Thais had been seriously hurt by an explosion from within a phone booth. A bomb at a seafood restaurant nearby also cause major injuries.

Although heavy on military protocol and southern insurgency, the majority of Thais - unlike the British - do not have the misfortune to be familiar with terrorist assaults. Panic ensued. Stores closed, police swarmed the city ( a highly dubious form of 'protection' ) , embassies issued knee jerk "warnings" to prospective visitors. It was all high on fear. The next day many Thais stayed at home, fearing to step into their high street.

But as relative calm ensued, facts came in and the police - aware of the international attention - did their best to look like they had competent investigations underway, the Thai newspapers printed their usual grizzly selection of bloody photos - a morbid yet intriguing insight into the Thai psyche - the TV channels began idle chat shows discussing everything and concluding nothing about the events, government worker Porntip Rojanasunant - a forensics expert treated almost as a celebrity due to her unusual appearance and forward thinking attitude - appeared at the bomb sites. The inevitable aftermath began.

Who was responsible for the attacks?

By all intelligence reports, expert and amateur anlaysis and reasoned ( as is possible for such a tragedy) argument , there are two suspects. However, there are factors pointing two and against both groups:

The southern Muslim insurgents.

This was my first conclusion. The issue of southern insurgency in Thailand is something I've been meaning to write about for some time, but it's a complicated issue. In short, Thailand took some land from Malaysia in the eighteenth century. Since then, ideological militancy has been omnipresent in the region, including a string of bomb attacks on Bangkok in 1980. After 9/11, militancy and terrorist attacks in the region soared, spurred on by gross mismanagement and insensitivity from the Thaksin government., most notably in the notorious Tak Bai incident. Like most Muslim militant groups, the southern separatists seem to have no problem mixing their religious goals with inhuman violence. Monks and teachers have been prime targets of random attacks, and on one occasion a group of one hundred villagers kidnapped two female teachers and beat them into a coma in response to a police arrest of one villager. The teachers were simply chosen at random. PM Surayud has gone to great lengths to heal hurt within the region, however attacks have continued.

There are several points that could suggest southern insurgency involvement in the attacks:

  • 1) Simply put, these are people who like to hurt and kill innocents and enjoy violence.
  • 2) Intelligence reports had warned of planned attacks by this group.
  • 3) Similar attacks in 1980.
  • 4) No denial has been issued by any insurgent leaders.

However, there are also points against them:

  • 1) It's uncharacteristic. Since the escalation of violence in the south post 9/11, all attacks have been within the southern provinces. Despite vague threats in the past, there have been no attacks in Bangkok or else since 1980.
  • 2) Simply put, the southerners are fish out of water in Bangkok. The sprawling metropolis is very different to the sleepy Muslim villages that have raised most of the twisted insurgents. Although Thais have little faith in their security forces, it's unlikely so many ,militant movements by the insurgents could have occurred without some prior warning or capture.
  • 3) After forty eight hours of police posing, forensic expert (non police employed) Porntip Rojanasunant has confirmed that the explosives used were different to those normally used by the militants.
  • 4) Evidence to an inside job. See below.


The other finger of suspicion points to what the government and army call "undercurrents". By this, they mean Thaksin Shinwatra, the ousted PM, his cronies, his family, and the many, many well connected figures that are in his service due to their greed and corruption. Since the September coup, many schools in the north east of Thailand - Thaksin's stronghold - have been hit by arson attacks. A campaign to discredit new PM Surayad was undertaken, and various other clandestine movements have been in action. These have been relatively well quashed by the Junta.

Evidence for the "undercurrents" is as follows:
  • 2) As mentioned, the weaponry used was dissimilar to that used by insurgents and included army issue explosives.
  • 3) Organisation. Most insurgent attacks have been messy, brutal and spontaneous. The attacks in Bangkok were well sequenced.

There are also points against the case for "undercurrents"

  • 1) What would they gain? Though many people wrongly consider that Thaksin and his men are too good or caring to be even knowledgeable of the attacks (Thaksin cares about nothing but money and power) , there seems to be nothing gained from such attacks except possibly undermining and unsettling the new regime.
  • 2) Uncharacteristic. Thaksin's tactics in the past have been more Machiavellian. The style of his government was to financially or characteristically discredit people. Other than the war on drugs and use of thugs to attack protesters, Thaksin's rule was brutal but relatively non - violent.

One more major point to consider here is how quickly the authorities pointed to the "undercurrents" for the blame. It seems very convenient. Thai authorities are known for their inefficiency, lack of training and corruption, yet 48 hours after such attacks all public fingers were pointing at Thaksin and his cohorts. This conclusion helps the new regime to demonise (as if it were needed!) and villanise the old PM as he continues to threaten by his presence alone. It's a most useful propaganda tool for the junta and surely achieves more than "undercurrents" would have done by instigating such attacks.

The mystery is likely to play itself out for some time yet. Thai politics are always dramatic. MP Chuwit has offered one million baht of his own money for any information leading to arrests, Thaksin's lawyer and the TRT party have both issued strong denials of involvement.

Hardly the ideal opening for 2007. After a tumultuous year of coups, protests, sickening southern violence and massive allegations of corruption, Thais are hoping for a better year. Sadly, with this tragedy sitting on top of a dubious national legislative assembly drawing a new constitution and ongoing investigations into corrupt politicians and continuing violence in the south , it may well be another trying year for the good people of Thailand.

For a written timeline of events and discussion about the forwarning of attacks see Bangkok Pundit I often disagree with many of his views but his coverage is excellent.