Friday, February 23, 2007

My best job ever

An important three years of my life came to end this month. Well actually, it ended last year but it was due to end this month. My students in my previous school – the class I taught every day – finished school.

They were a group of forty six girls that I taught from their first day. They started as little angels and became some of the most challenging, smart and often infuriating kids you could ever imagine. But I became very close to them. I tried to be honest with them, I told them how I felt about their behavior, how I felt about the school, what my own strengths and weaknesses were and what I thought was important for them to learn.

That might sound pretty elementary but in a Thai government school, it was a novelty for the kids. Over three years we shared many ups and downs. On one occasion, another group of teachers pressed very hard for the school to refuse me a new contract when my current one expired. In a moment of anxiety I told my students I might be leaving. The message was misconstrued and as I went to leave my hotel room (we were on a summer camp at the time) I was blocked off by an entire class of weeping kids asking what they had done to make me leave. It was a very humbling moment.

I managed to get my contract for the next year (the teachers who pressed for me to be released couldn’t actually produce a good reason other than their dislike of me) and taught the class for another term. Shortly afterwards I had to resign for personal reasons. With about two weeks to go, I decided to give my class a ‘special’ lesson with some tips for the future. I told them:

1) Be very careful with credit cards

2) Don’t trust boys

3) Don’t trust politicians

4) Don’t learn English because your teacher shouts at you, learn it because it’s the international language

Again, there was hardly any rocket science involved, but the girls really responded. Thai government schools are very much based on the concepts of authority and submission. The students are treated as children who cannot think for themselves. Whenever I had a chat with the students, whenever I asked their opinion or told them mine, their interest was stimulated. I often encouraged them to criticize someone or something. They were reluctant at first but after some nudging a lot of them really srated to have fun.

On my last day at school, the girls presented me with some great gifts. From candy to shirts. My best gift was a small photo of each student. Every single one of them gave me a picture of themselves with a message written on the back. I keep them in my work bag at all times.

After I finished at that school, I came to a bi-lingual school. Foreign teachers now are a dime a dozen and though the school is far more modern in its curriculum and attitude to foreigners, one thing I do miss is the special rapport with the students. Sure I have good students that I get on with, but it’s just not the same.

Anyway, my students at my old school have finished now. Some of them will come back for high school, most will go elsewhere. Many of them still e-mail me, apparently they have a gift they want to give me. Whatever it is, it will mean a lot to me. Teaching is certainly not the best paying or most prestigious job I’ve ever done, but it’s certainly the only job that I’ve ever really missed.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The trouble in southern Thailand.

There's been a problem, a huge problem loitering in Thailand for a long time. It's a problem far bigger than corruption , far more important than any airport and far more deserving of attention than Thaksin Shinawat.

That problem is the continuing violence and brutality in the deep south.

Part of the reason for not discussing this is that I don't know the background. I have a fair amount of knowledge on the topic but I've been unable to find an academic text to accompany my study. (Actually , I did find one but it was grossly overpriced).

So what follows is an embarrassingly brief summary of the tragic situation.

It's a situation so deep and tortuous I don't know where to begin. The deep south of Thailand was "taken" from Malaysia in the sixteenth century. Pattini was annexed at the start of the twentieth century. Resistance by and amongst the predominantly Muslim population has always existed. Surprise, surprise after 9/11 a small number of militants in the south suddenly decided that it was time for jihad. Violence slowly but surely escalated. Attacks on 'government' targets - including teachers - grew.

The problem has confounded many. During his tenure Thaksin actually said "There is no ideology, there are fighting politicians, gangsters and smugglers but no ideology". Thaksin was not to blame for the problem, but he may well have exacerbated it. Various schemes were set up including a scheme "to save the poor young boys coerced into committing these acts" and nothing changed.

Undoubtedly police and military in the south aggravated the locals, but the militants displayed an utterly cold blooded willingness to kill any targets including teachers and innocent shoppers.

In April 2004 , a group of insurgents being pursued by police retreated to a Mosque where they were all killed. Tragic as the deaths were, the fact was that this group had attacked ten police outposts and spent seven hours calling for martyrdom before the police opened fire.

Also in 2004 , a large group of locals gathered to protest against the arrest of young men who had stolen weapons from local authorities. They refused police requests to disperse and - allegedly on the orders of the PM himself - the military made a brutal crack down. Many people died. The envent was to go down in history as the "Tak Bai Incident".

Thaksin immediately attempted to alleviate the problem by doing what he did best - buying people off. He offered money to the families to visit Bangkok mosques because: "after all, they were born Thai" . The problem continued unabated and Thaksin barely controlled his anger and frustration.

One particularly nasty incident that ticks in my mind was the raid of a Buddhist temple where two young boys and a monk were slaughered and the temple desecrated. This was a typical example of the violence.

In another incident , a female teacher in her twenties was kidnapped and beaten by a group of one hundred villagers. She lapsed into a coma and died about two months ago. Her crime? None. She was taken as a random target in a retaliation for the death of a local villager.

After the coup, optimism that the Muslim general Sonthi could help was short lived. General Surayud tried a much requested tactic of peace , apologies and compromise. He made a heartfelt apology to the Muslim communities and released all suspects of the Tak Bai incident.

Still nothing changed. This week - Chinese New Year - saw the largest ever wave of co-ordinated bombings in the south. Karoke bars , shops and power stations suffered bomb blasts. The government , like its predecessor , had no plan B. No response has been made, and general Sonthi continues to spout nonsense about the patriotic duty of reclaiming satellites sold to Singapore.

This is a situation where nobody has the answers, and humanity is the ultimate loser. I'm sure many people share my sentiments that is a mix of disbelief at the violence dealt by mankind, grief at the loss of innocent life, and anger at the inability to respond.

It could be said that in some senses - though certainly not all - the situation in the south of Thailand reflects the terror war at large. The authorities are fighting cowards they cannot see. They are trying to negotiate with a group that have no interest in negotiation , and every interest in shedding blood.

Herein lies the root of my anger. The southern resistance is ostensibly based on a return to autonomy or Malaysian rule. I'm willing to bet few of the militants have true knowledge or interest in that. The type of people who beat an innocent woman into a coma and behead a pensioner on his far are not the sort who support diplomacy or a peaceful autonomous existence. While we all sit about talking about "understanding" and "oppression" hundreds more continue to lose their lives.

Last month, a man and his wife were killed at their rubber plantation. The man was beheaded , and a had a note left on his body saying "We will kill all Buddhists". Where is the "understanding and tolerence" in that message?

The other PC line of course is to tell us it's just " a brainwashed minority". That is at least partly true. There are many vilagers in the south who just want peace. However, the fact remains that in many cases, entire villages have been implicated in protests, often protecting militants or demanding their release. The kidnappers of the teacher beaten to a coma numbered over one hundred. One hundred people entered a school, took teachers hostage and beat a female teacher into a coma by using wooden sticks.

Yet another line of forgiveness - an important human quality - is that these actions are a cry for help from an impoverished, mistreated region of Thailand. Again, this contains some truth. The region is one of the country's poorest and suffers from gross mismanagement by police and authorities. However, the poorest region of Thailand is Isaan, which also houses the nation's friendliest and happiest people. All areas of Thailand suffer from police corruption. We should protest vigorously and peacefully. It is not an excuse to shoot a teacher dead in front of his students.

The sad truth is that a significant amount of people interpret the message of the ultra violent Qu'ran literally and use it as an excuse for endless violence. If you disagree with my previous statement that the Qu'ran is violent, or if you want to make the PC comment that all religious texts contain violence , then you have not studied Islam or the Qu'ran.

The simple fact, the bottom line truth , is that the beautiful south of Thailand harbours a group of people who live to kill, maim, and torture. My heart bleeds for their victims, and I see no way out.

I'm going to put my neck out here and suggest a website with interesting information and a very interesting list of books that shed some of the PC veil we see through.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Confused? I nearly cried

A quick lesson in Thai politics

Never been to Thailand? Quickly heard some of the coup news but really don’t know any more than that? Fear not, I can give you a lively, informative education on the topic in just a few lines…..

OK, So there was this guy Thaksin. Clever, very good businessman but utterly cold, manipulative, devious and highly superstitious. Naturally, he formed a political party of people just like him. He got so bad that there was a coup (possibly with an order from someone even higher than the PM) and in came the coup leader General Sondhi who installed Surayud (ex trooper) as interim PM.

Sondhi quickly explained they staged the coup due to a) Rampant corruption b) National disunity and c) Economic dangers from capitalism. Sondhi and Surayud both explained they would switch to a "sufficiency economy".

You following so far? Good, this is what happened next…..

Surayud installed a cabinet. It was a decent line up but it was true “old ginger” the average age being about two hundred and five. The junta also installed a corruption investigation team, and a very able one at that. Sadly, they forgot to stop every single one of Thaksin’s henchmen from hiding evidence and intimidating witnesses. Also the old boys in government realized that a) Things had changed since they were last in command and b) Nobody could actually explain their new "sufficiency" theory. It was all a bit of a pickle, and something needed to be done….

Still OK so far? OK brace yourself for the last paragraph…….

So, the junta had a great plan, they employed Thaksin’s right hand man and finance minister Somkid Jatusripita to explain sufficiency economy and counter Thaksin’s propaganda. That's right, they got one of the really bad men that they removed in a coup to explain why they removed the bad men in the coup. They took one of the greedy capitalists to explain why they were rejecting greedy capitalism. They employed one of the men under investigation for patronage in a rubber saplings scandal by the AEC to explain the corruption in the previous government. What’s more they were happy about it.

You got all that? Good. How's your head?

The spat with Singapore. A follow up

Readers of my previous article on Singapore would be relieved to know that the second leg of the Thailand vs. Singapore football went calmly. Thai fans gave a fantastic account of themselves, docked in yellow and making a tremendous atmosphere to support their team. They deserved to win but didn’t take all their chances and drew 1-1 , losing 3-2 on aggregate.

Once again, it all seemed to be dying down until suddenly General Sondhi made a stupid and bizarre remark to the public.

Clearly Mr. Sondhi is on some kind of propaganda for his own means here. With comments about “patriotism” “nation building” and “sacrifice for the good of the country” it can only mean they are after something that involves manipulation of the national psyche. Watch this space.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The amazing tale of Suvarnabhumi

You know that "milking" sculpture at the main entrance to the new airport? It wasn't actually meant to be that, it was meant to be a Thai barge. Oh by the way, it's in the wrong place as well. It wasn't actually meant to be blocking the entrance way. "How did that happen?" I hear you ask, well the (now former) manager of the airport seemed to be good friends with the construction group responsible, so you'd have to ask him.

That little story is the perfect symbolic representation of a weirder than fiction tale of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

At first it looked great. Visitors looked in awe at the grand architecture. The numerous complaints and charges of insatiable corruption were unknown to foreigners and forgotten by Thais and us farangs as almost everybody sad a sad goodbye to DonMuang and a grand hello to Asia's largest airport. The bad omens - such as the fact that monks were called in to exorcise evil 'spirits' who posessed a man in the airport were forgotton.

It didn't take long to - almost literally - start falling apart. It almost seemed like some symbolic Buddha redemption of the coup makers as not long after their overthrow, serious problems started to arise at the site. First it was relatively minor, confusion over the English version of the name (actually pronounced 'Suwanapoom' , nothing like its spelling!) a lack of signs (poor planning) , lack of security in certain areas (same again) , gross overuse of space by King power (kickbacks? , cronyism?).

Soon things began to get more serious. The most notorious being the cracks in the runway. These had actually been reported by a Bangkok Post journalist months before. Under heavy pressure from the regime at the time, he was sacked despite a retraction and sued his former employer. Now, they couldn't be covered up. The Airports Authority, perhaps fearing international actions , refused to issue a compulsory safety certificate to the airport. A sense of panic ensued.

Still it didn't stop. The press sensed a hot story and perhaps a tad of revenge, the coup makers sensed redemption and the public sensed a big fat load of corruption. Like a snowball rolling down an avalanche, complaints picked up. Water pipes were leaking , cracks were now not just on the runways but the taxi ranks as well , footbridges were errected incorrectly.
Even in a country not keen on placing blame, heads had to really for this one. Already two major figures at Airports of Thailand have "resigned" after quiet chats with the junta. The Assets Scrutiny committee have pressed ahead with several corruption investigations including the long running CTX bomb scanners scandal I discussed once before.

In all, it's been a disaster. Some international flights have been relocated to the old airport, engineers are investigating the runway but they are local engineers who have possibly been involved previously, many are calling for an independent international investigation. As the results of investigation is pending, the consensus of educated opinion is that sub standard sand was used in construction, as contractors sought to recoup their kickback costs)

Parts of the airport are closed and numerous investigations into multitudinous anomalies are underway.

And Mr Thaksin? Well his tack has changed just a little. The man who presided over the opening ceremony, landed the first plane and presented with people with "the aviation hub of Asia" made a simple statement through his verbose lawyer: "Mr Thaksin can't be expected to know every detail of the airport".

And yet amazing as it may sound, in my opinion this could be a heavy short term loss for a great long term gain in Thailand. The farce at Survarnbarmhi is unlikely to have escaped a single Thai. Its effect has the potential to be manifold. The coup makers - accused of dithering and procrastination against allegedly corrupt politicians - have been spurned into taking action. The scale of the debacle means they have been unable to surpress the media criticism as they would like and have been pressured to actually taking action. Likewise, the majority of Thais who take a passing interest in political events have become concerned and looking for action. Events have reached such a level that the un-Thai trait of making someone take responsibility has crept in. The gravity of events has paused many to snap out of nationalistic thinking and actually start thinking critically, at least momentarily.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this has happened at a time when a new constitution is being drafted. Perhaps I'm being optimistic, but I've been encouraged by the criticism from the head of he CDA (Constitution Drafting Assembly) towards the junta. It gives me some hope that the CDA will actually look to draft a constitution that prevents such disgraces from happening again.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The spat with Singapore

Thai students protest outside the Singapore embassy in Bangkok (right) and Thai player Nirut Surasiang leads Thai palyers off the pitch in protest during the match against Singapore (left).

Even 'quick getaway' holiday makers are bound to notice whom Thailand have chosen as their latest rival. The nation state of Singapore has become public enemy number one for Siam in the last few weeks.

Ostensibly, the upset began when Singapore's deputy PM welcomed ousted Thai PM Thaksin Shinwatra into a private meeting. The war of words began with news articles on this side stating that the CNS (Council for National Security aka the military junta responsible for the coup) were "Very unhappy with the actions of Singapore". Thailand cancelled a business conference with Singapore scheduled for the coming days. Singapore quickly responded by releasing a press statement on the national web site. The release said that Singapore was "very disappointed with the response from Thailand" and the visit was "personal" and Singapore "received no prior objections or communication from Thailand about the visit of Mr Thaksin".

It could have stopped there but it didn't. Events took an intriguing twist. The Thai foreign minister publicly announced he had told his Singaporian counterpart "eye to eye" that "Singapore would be held responsible" if they welcomed Thaksin and described the action as "a slap in Thailand's face". Singapore declined to respond.

So far it had all been reasonably congenial and dangerously close to sensible discussion of international affairs. Something told me it wouldn't stay that way and I was redeemed in that belief. Soon after, as mentioned before, the Thai government started releasing bizarre warnings that "phone conversations are being tapped" and "the sale of telecommunications services to Singapore compromises security". The latter statement referring to Thaksin's (who else?) sale of AIS services to a Singaporian government company.

Singapore issued stringent denials to no avail. Paranoia began to spread. Warnings about evesdropping on phone conversations crept in. Suddenly Mr. Somchai began to panic that his weekly order of noodles was being fed back to Singaporian soldiers. A group - a very small group, mind - of Thai students began to protest outside the Singaporian embassy. An effigy of the island state's PM was banned and the students provided the embassy "a deadline of three days to explain Singapore's actions". Yep, it had all gone ridiculous.

In amongst the nonsensical protests and warnings of spies listening to telecommunications transmissions, the junta crept in that they wanted to build a satellite to "protect national security". That satellite would cost a whooping six billion bhat, a budget that would surely raise ire amongst a group of citizens still under martial rule and wary of those in power.

Unless, of course. they have reason to be afraid

Even then, it seemed things would stop there. The military would get their satellite budget approved by the people thanks to fear created by warnings of security lapses (now where did those warnings come from again?).

That was, until the Thailand versus Singapore Asean Cup Final first leg this week. It was one - all and the Thais looked to be setting up a tasty second leg contest. That was , until the Malaysian referee saw a Singapore player fall backwards by himself in the Thai penalty box. A Thai player fell down at the same time - they were both going for a high ball into the box - and the referee awarded a penalty. Immediately Thai players began screaming protests and one player actually pushed he ref twice , which is a red card offence in itself. The ref ignored the protests.

Now, any footie fan has seen this a thousand times. The conceding team will moan, harangue the officials and let the manager make a fuss to the ref after the game. Not so for the Thai players, they walked to the touchline and refused to continue. That's right, the ball was theirs, the other side weren't playing fair so they were taking their ball and they weren't playing anymore. What's more, they were going to tell their moms all about the nasty bullies on the other team.

A video link of Thai players walking off as Singaporean fans chant "goodbye" and "go home".

After twelve minutes - in which the referee would have been perfectly entitled to yellow and the red card the entire squad and forfeit the game - the team came back. The penalty was scored and the damage was done.

The next day my students came to school cursing the ref. Sunday's replay should be interesting.

The whole dispute has become like a soap opera. The closest example in the west of recent years that I can think of was the feud between England and France when France began to refuse the sale of English beef in their shops. The English press jumped on the chance to wave the flag and support British beef. The difference in this newer case is that the CNS jumped on the chance to create fear. Since Machiavelli brought it to light so many decades ago, governments have always learned that fear makes people easier to control. Heck, a president that many Americans are calling the worst ever got himself re-elected on a TV clip of Osama Bin Laden. The Thai junta used the initially cordial disagreement wit Singapore to sign themselves a budget of fifty million bhat.

A group of Thai students decided that as students they must find something to protests about, and nobody in Thailand gets any attention with giving their group a name - in this case it was something like "Students for democracy" and an agenda , in this case it was giving Singapore a 'deadline of three days'. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge supporter of people's groups and the right to protest but burning an effigy outside an embassy and setting a deadline is either for something serious or a sign of a childish protest after attention, in this case it was the latter.

Finally, the actions of the Thai football team. It was a poor penalty decision and as a supporter of a small team myself (when the Saints go marching in!) I know how much it hurts. However, the actions of the players was a joke. I recall that one Thai player actually pulled out from a match in the SEA Games a couple of years back stating he was "too tired". Interestingly, the announcement was made a couple of weeks after Ronaldhino had made a similar decision. The difference was that Ronaldhinio had played a full season, the Thai player had played about four games.

I can't help but wonder if the Thai players, undoubtedly aware of international affairs , had themselves pinned as hereos when they spat the dummy and refused to play on. Actually, they did themselves no favors at all and served to make matters worse. The penalty still stood and the ref had every right to red card an player who refused to continue. It was an unprecedentedly juvenile move and they will be lucky to escape further punishment. I still hope they win in the second leg though.

Thailand has reason to feel aggrieved, it was a very unprofessional move by Singapore to welcome an ousted PM in a diplomatic capacity. What was even more unprofessional was for the Thai junta to release unverified, bizarre and obscure paranoia messages of "threats to security" to escalate a diplomatic spat and encourage a domino effect of juvenile behaviour.

I don't think things will get worse, I do think they will die down. Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later. Nobody is looking an better for this little feud right now.

Photos taken from The Nation , Bangkok Post and channelnewsasia.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Business the Thai way

For many people, the big decision to move to Thailand is not made with a realistic expectation of what the future will bring. For my part, I thought that every day would be filled with sunny haze, polite students and ever smiling Thai colleagues with whom I would work in perfect harmony. Of course, this was not to be. I jumped a few hoops and sailed a few learning curves on my way to peaceful co-operation with my colleagues. Let me share a few of those experiences accompanied by a few other pointers.

One thing that's important to bear in mind from the offset is that , as a developing country, there is more than one mainstream psyche to the Thai business. To generalise greatly, I will split the Thai system of thought into two sections. The first is the 'old school' system. These include government institutions such as state schools, state banks, the police force and so on. These institutions are ubiquitous. The second is the commercial sector. This could be said to include the commercial banks (of course) , television and computer companies, private schools and more. Most of the following comments will apply to Thai culture which is prevalent in both sectors but commercial institutions can be more aware and understanding of foreign culture which can be helpful in resolving misunderstandings and tribulations.

Respect is crucial. That might sound glaringly obvious but it's also important to appreciate that methods of showing respect can be different in Thailand. The "Wai" is a famous cultural embelem, but many farangs don't understand that there are different kinds of wai. The greater the rank of the person you wai, the lower the head should bow. Thais are generally forgiving about westerners' wais and will appreciate the effort and the sentiment even if the wai itself is technically incorrect.

Wais should be offered to anyone older than you and anybody ranked above you at work. It's crucial to do this on a first meeting and probably thereafter until it becomes obvious that it's not necessary (I still wai my parents in law every time I see them). As a rule, children who wai you should not be waid back. A foreigner once said to me: "I always wai them back, why should I belittle them?". What she didn't understand was that returning a wai to a young child is so unusual that it runs the risk of embarrassing that child or making them uncomfortable. As a rule of the thumb, it's best to "go with the flow" when waing others rather than designing your own rules.

Other forms of respect involve use of language. It's important to use "khrap" for males and "ka" for women at the end of sentences, especially at the beginning of a conversation. There are other polite markers and terms to use. Thais are big on bestowing titles on people; "doctor" "teacher" "captain" and so on are often used in place of names.

Saving face:

Again it's a well known rule that Asians place value on the concept of keeping face. Whilst being a widely appreciated concept, it can sometimes manifest itself in ways that we foreigners can find hard to recognise and as such, can become angered over. As one example of this, a fellow teacher once arrived at work to be told she was late for her lesson. She replied that she wasn't late, her first lesson started in one hour. It turned out that she had been allocated an extra period by a senior teacher ("ajarn yai") but the senior teacher had forgotten to inform the girl. The girl immediately shouted across the room "I wasn't told about the lesson" The senior teacher replied "OK You have time, you can go now" The girl again complained that she wasn't told about it, and the teacher repeated her statement before walking out of the room.

In the eyes of the foreign teacher, she was not receiving an apology for a mistake that had placed her in hot water. What she didn't realise was that by discussing the senior teacher's error in the presence of others, she was causing her to lose face. Such a problem would have been far better to discuss in private.

This is perhaps the area with the most confusion, dealing with mistakes. Thais will occasionally allow a document, a public announcement or almost anything else to go out with errors or mistakes if they believe that such corrections would cause a loss of face to someone. Westerners often snigger or criticise such actions, often for the purpose of boosting their own fragile ego that they can see mistakes that other's can't. This may occasionally be the case but often it's simply a matter of the locals saving face for somebody.

Confrontation, dealing with problems and complaints

If I'm being honest, this is the area where I've had the most trouble adapting, and still suffer the occasional flare up.

Thais dislike confrontation of any nature. This partly because it leads to the danger of losing face (see above) but also as it generally goes against their nature and makes them feel uncomfortable. I could offer numerous examples of this, but one springs to mind:

My house is the end of a beautiful, newly built village. As our house is the final house, a large area of farmland lies to the south of it. Across that farmland is a village for the farm workers. Last week, I noticed music blaring out from across the farm so loud that I could hear it like it was playing in my own living room. I ignored it for a long time. By the time the sun had set, I was feeling a little aggrieved at the non stop barrage of dance music and bass that was now so loud it was causing my house to shake (If it had been quality rock music like Korn, Nirvana or Guns N Roses it would have been OK!). At bedtime it was still going. My wife reacted in the customary Thai way, she simply pulled a pillow over her head and tried to ignore it. I did the same but the music was getting louder and had now been played for over seven hours. At midnight I looked out of my window and I could see other homeowners with their lights on looking out of windows trying to see where the music was coming from. At one-thirty am , with my baby son unable to sleep, my wife finally succumbed to my granddad like moaning and called the police. The music stopped within twenty minutes.

What was significant about this was that one person who decided that it would be great to hold his own disco marathon in the middle of two villages was causing discomfort for well over five hundred people. We were the only ones to complain. The others had all resorted to the Thai characteristic of simply trying to ignore it and showing the Buddhist traits of calmness and tolerance. The idea of confrontation was very hard for them to fathom.

Incidentally, I checked with my wife that it was not some village party or another cultural event as this would have made it easier for me to understand. Her reply was "No it's probably someone who has bought a new stereo and wants to show it to people".

So given this gentle nature of avoiding conundrums, how do the locals deal with problems or disagreements in the workplace? Well, often they don't. Part of the reason that some farangs get away with offensive or vulgar behavior in Thailand is due to the Thai tolerance (and also the fact that many Thais don't understand what is being said or done). However, that's not to say Thais don't have their own methods of dealing with trouble.

One system is to use an intermediary. Remember I mentioned before that age is a big factor of rank in Thailand. When faced with a problem between a young person and a senior, the custom is to use someone nearer to the young person's age to act as a 'go between' or a messenger of the problem. The "go between" will either state directly the message they are carrying or they will simply discuss and deal with the problem themselves.

There are many examples of this happening in any school. For example, a teacher who arrives late and is noticed by a senior teacher is likely to be spoken to by a younger teacher who is close to the ajarn yai.

Sackings and firings are rare events here. Anyone who is close to being "fired" for any reason is simply transferred. In prominent positions the term is "transferred to an inactive post" such as the army generals who were deemed to be close to Thaksin Shiniwat, for example. In lesser jobs the individual could simply be nudged to a position that is untenable. I recall last year one teacher was transferred to my school by another school in our chain. His previous workplace was close to his home while our school was very, very far for him. It quickly transpired that he had had clashes with the manager. Despite his length of stay in Thailand, he didn't seem to understand what was happening. He would complain that he had been told 'There's no work for you here' despite the fact that he had been doing the same job for five years and the school was short of teachers. I was tempted to point out to him what was happening but I figured it was better to keep out. Eventually, he seemed to get the message and found a different job.


The Thais can be very subtle with their abuse i.e. talking to or about someone they don’t like. Foreigners, even those who speak Thai, can be caught out by these little ploys. I don’t know all the words or the tricks, partly because my Thai is poor anyway but partly because, once I stopped to think, I figured that I didn’t need to know. If someone wants to put one over on me by using subtle little changes of tone or ’sound alike’ words then good for them. I have better things to worry about. Speaking of subtle tricks….


Ahhh, the famous Thai smile. It’s real. Young people in particular can dazzle with their beautiful and innocent smiles. Like anywhere else, well meaning people who cannot communicate with you in other ways will offer a smile and love to receive one back.

That’s the tourist promoted smile and it is everywhere (just like on the left here!). However, there are many other forms of smiling. Smiling to cover embarrassment, smiling to deliver bad news, smiling to convey a strong dislike.

“Strong dislike”? No that’s no an oxymoron, and it’s a fact that Thais have their own phrase for this. Its called “Kee maa” (dog crap) smile. This smile is formed by pulling the lips tightly together and almost dragging them across the face, the kind of face you’d make if you stepped in dog poo.

The last time I saw this smile was in my last day at my old school. A teacher that had a particular dislike for me (the same teacher that enjoyed hitting kids) saw me coming out of the school immediately after I had signed in. Unable to take any other action – we had already made eye contact – she gave me a nice, tight full faced “kee maa” smile. Maybe she thought she was being smart. I lost no sleep.

For my part, I don’t worry about the kee maa smiles or even let on that I know what they are. I just ignore them and return the genuine smiles. They make such a difference to my day.

Marriage and dowry

This is probably the area that causes the most problems. I was very lucky here, my wife came from a wealthy and very easy going family and I was never asked for a dowry (that's a little more personal than I usually get on here and I won't discuss my private life any further, I will talk generically). In Thailand, the concept of living is that the male will provide for his wife. It is a symbol of his love and commitment that he will provide and provide very well. What some westerners would perceive as greed or materialism, the Thai would recognise as a sign of showing love and care.

From my experience of other's problems, there seems to be two areas of confusion. The first is with the dowry and support for the wife's family. It's a sad fact that many marriages end or become stormy because the farang believes the spouse's family are being covetous or just asking too much. However, the fact is that when living in Thailand it's important to at least understand Thai customs, and Thai customs state that in marriage, the richer family should provide support for a poorer family. It just so happens that many foreign men marry a woman from a poorer family.

The second area of confusion is that there are greedy woman and families here. There are many, many good Thai men and woman but also like any country there are some greedy ones who will try and screw every last penny out of the foreigner.

I guess it's down to each individual to decide if their spouse is honest and wants their partner to simply follow culture, or if they are being plain greedy. Considering the environment where you met is one consideration that is often overlooked. It's not something I have extensive knowledge on. Stickmaninbangkok has a very interesting selection of letters on this kind of topic.

So that's a few pointers. I'm certainly not pretending I'm a cultural guru. On the contrary, I still have problems and rare losses of temper even when I know the problem at hand is cultural. Once the novelty of living here has worn off, it can be difficult to contain natural western characteristics with attitudes like "If you've got a problem, tell me face to face" or "Why the hell is nobody complaining about that idiot?" and so on. However, after making a few mistakes and mellowing a little, I can roll with it a lot better than I used to. It helps.

I'd still love to smash that dance disco guy's stereo over his head, though.


Two more explosions happened in Bangkok yesterday. Nobody was hurt.

Fellow (but more experienced) blogger and occasional debate opponent Bangkok Pundit has posted a very interesting analysis of the New Year bombings and for my money, paints an interesting argument for the suggestion that squabbling factions of the army did it. I often disagree vehemently with BP's politics but his blog is very well maintained and if you read his post, the arguments against TRT or Muslim insurgent involvement are compelling.