Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let's Talk Thailand's New PM, Facing a 'Winter' Without Electricity, HH's New Nightclub, and Next Week's Blog Might be Early/Late!

(The main blog can be found at http://huahinjapan.com/blog.htm/)

First off, let me get the Bangkok section out of the way before moving onto the Hua Hin bits. Therefore, here I go. As the whole world has seen, Thailand has a new prime minister -- I suppose I should be feeling proud or at least gratified at being proved right. Last week, as my regular readers (singular or plural?) will recall, I mentioned an English-born and educated Thai politician named Abhisit Vejjajiva as a potential prime minister of this kingdom. Yesterday, the 44-year-old Etonian was indeed named as Thailand's 27th and youngest ever prime minister. However, I can't help feeling its too premature for anyone who cares about this beautiful but blighted country to feel gratified. The young Mr Abhisit is taking on a classically poisoned chalice. He will be taking over a country with a wrecked economy and a deeply polarised population. It is a hopeful sign that the yellow-shirted 'patriots' of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have not yet protested or re-occupied government buildings or airports, but the red shirted supporters of the ex-PM, Mr. Thaksin, did try to interfere with the vote, so the political fighting isn't yet over. Maybe I am biased, with the new man being a British public school boy, but it is ironic that a man who leads a party called the Democrats is becoming PM via a much less than democratic process. However, if there were an election, Thaksin's mob (and I use the word advisedly) would almost certainly win and that would disgruntle the despotic idiots of the PAD, leading to more damage being inflicted upon the Thai economy and reputation. So for me, as a resident of Thailand, this is most certainly the least awful scenario. I sincerely wish Khun Abhisit the very best of luck as he leads his disjointed coalition (united, so it seems, by nothing more than a strong dislike of Khun Thaksin) into government – he is most certainly going to need it!

There was a very readable commentary in Sunday's 'Bangkok Post', in the 'Post Script' column, about what is laughingly referred to as the cool season here. The writer, who clearly has a Thai wife, was saying how surprising it must be for a European to see and hear how the Thais feel this season to be so cold whereas, as he put it, "it's the sort of weather that would have people in Britain sprinting for the nearest beach." Down here in Hua Hin, where sea and mountain breezes can sometimes make it cooler than in Bangkok, it is common to see locals going around wrapped up in sweaters, jackets and even scarves. When I lectured at the local rajabhat university, many of my students wore such wintry garb even in the classroom – while I strutted around wearing a polo shirt! This isn't a purely local phenomenon, as the Thais do genuinely consider this weather to be cool. Sunday's weather forecast for the Central region in 'The Bangkok Post' (I very rarely read its rival 'The Nation' since its owner became so prominent in the PAD) read "Cold 18C-30C." Can you imagine any newspaper in Europe or North America printing such a bizarre oxymoronic description? However, it does reflect local feelings, and so every clothes shop in the kingdom is now selling sweaters, fleecy jackets and boots, which the buyers will wear for less than one of the following 52 weeks! However, when one ventures away from the urban areas (if a town of 60,000 like Hua Hin can be termed urban), the cool season can get closer to earning that name. I recently read that some villages in the Hua Hin Amphoe (administrative district), which covers over 839 km², had been declared a disaster zone after temperatures fell to 10c. Now before you scoff about weak Thais, please bear in mind that the residents of those villages, which lie about 70km southwest of central Hua Hin, in the mountains that eventually reach to the Burmese frontier, have no electricity. What, I hear you cry. A community located less than 2 hours drive from a royal palace, from a tourist haven, and yet they have no electricity? What is the 'Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand' thinking of – isn't this the 21st century? Well, don't blame the electricity authority too quickly, for it wasn't their decision to deny those citizens electricity. This decision was made by the military dictator who has a museum in nearby Pranburi (see this Blog's Sept 30th issue), Field Marshal Sari Thanarat, the half-Laotian prime minister of Thailand from 1958 to 1963 and head of a coup-appointed military regime referred to by one source as "the most repressive and authoritarian in Thai history". You see, he decided to make that district a "military safety area," where electricity is not allowed. You might well ask why being a "military safety area" means you can't have electricity. I wish I knew! Yes, the area is close to the Burmese border but what's the link with electricity? Maybe he was hoping the lack of modern power might convince people to move away, leaving the army and border police to work unhindered. Who knows! However, as local district staff and charity workers distributed coats, blankets, and relief supplies to the neglected villagers (who also lack any good transport links with the rest of the area), I doubt if there were plans for them to visit the Field Marshal's museum, or pay homage at his monument (shown right). Then again, this being Thailand, anything's possible!

Any newspaper article that begins by referring to my hometown as "continually evolving" and "never short of lively events" is sure to get my attention, and that's what I read in the 'Bangkok Post' back on Friday (Dec 12th). The article was about a new entertainment event called 'Black Vanilla', which is taking place at the misnamed Sheraton Hua Hin Resort & Spa's @ Black Vanilla nightclub – misnamed as it is actually located north of the airport, making it part of Cha Am rather than Hua Hin! According to the PR stuff put out by those behind this event, the show-cum-dining event will showcase a 3-hour series of world-class circus, pantomime, dance and musical acts by international performers, complimented by a 4-course meal. Amongst those performing will be a contortion and unicycle show from the Ukraine. All very different to the sort of entertainment presently available in Hua Hin, that's for sure. This extravaganza will cost you "a little over 2,000 baht (inclusive of dinner and free flow non-alcoholic drinks)," according to a hotel spokesman, which isn't too bad when you consider that the hotel claims this new venture cost them over 5 million baht. What's more, if you attend the afternoon performances, where dinner isn't included (but soft drinks are), of course, the cost will be only 1,150 baht. Now I don't expect I shall be going myself, not just because anything that includes dinner being a waste of money for me due to my shrunken stomach but also because the wife and I are not really the nightclub types, least of all since our boy popped into the world. However, I wish the venture every success, as anything that helps this area is good news. The idiots in Bangkok have done their best to wipe out Thailand's tourism business and as Hua Hin is a tourist town, their allegedly patriotic rioting has hurt this place. If this new idea at the Sheraton helps make up for that, great. So if you're interested in visiting Black Vanilla, please do – you might even give me your opinion of the thing. For more information or to make a booking, visit http://www.at-black.com.

Remember TV for schools? I don't know about where you grew up but I still recall watching educational programmes on a large black-and-white TV in my classroom, usually introduced with Handel's 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba', guaranteeing that music a special place in my affections. Well, Thailand has its own version of school TV called DLTV, or Distance Learning TV. This admirable service, established in 1996 with 15 educational channels going out to more than 17,000 schools across the country, operates from right here in Hua Hin. To be exact, the programmes are broadcast from the Klaikangwon Palace School, located (as the name would suggest) opposite the King's palace on Petchakasem Road, about 2 or 3 kilometres from where I live. If you live in Thailand and use one of those big, FTA satellite dishes, you may have seen DLTV listed amongst the channels – well now you know where those programmes come from. The school itself was originally created by King Prajadhipok in 1938 for the children of noblemen but I was told by a Thai fellow-teacher that it was later changed in order to provide a good education for poor children, part of HM the King's many charitable activities. However, there are rumours within the Hua Hin educational fraternity (which I belonged to when I taught at the awful Hua Hin School on the Khao Hin Lek Fai Road) that admission to the school is now more slanted towards who you know rather your family's income. All I know is that traffic on Petchakasem Road almost comes to a standstill when that school finishes, as the pupils pour out and board the trucks, coaches, minibuses and whatnot that take them home. I do remember one of my worst pupils at Hua Hin School, an intelligent but totally insubordinate and mischievous boy with the nickname of 'Jack' (all Thais have a nickname, which is handy for foreign teachers who might have trouble pronouncing their multisyllabic Thai names), transferred to that school, and unless he has graduated onto a reformatory, may well still be there. I don't envy whoever has the task of trying to make him use that brain of his!

Not long ago (on November 25th, to be exact), I referred to the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course hosting the Thailand Junior World Championships, the first ever world-class amateur golf tournament held in this country. Well, that tournament is now over and as it is rather unlikely that your local newspaper carried details of the result, I might as well bring you up to date. The overall title was won by a 13-year-old Thai girl, Ariya Jutanugarn, a former Junior World champion who embarrassed her male counterpart by blasting a blistering final round of six under par 66 for an aggregate of 282. Indeed, Thais dominated the event, without a single foreigner featuring in the final honours list. I had rather hoped that the solitary Zimbabwean participant might get something – even an honourable mention – but it was not to be. The golf club that hosted this event, the Royal, is probably one of the most conveniently located in Asia, being just across the tracks from Hua Hin's famously quaint railway station. Apart from being Thailand's oldest golf course, it was also used by HM the King, in the days when his health allowed him to chase a ball around 18 holes. I used to practice my swing at the Royal's range, which I chose for two good reasons. Firstly, it is one of the very few golf driving ranges in Hua Hin to provide shade, most being fully exposed to the sun, which seems pretty stupid in a tropical locale like this. And the 2nd reason? Simple – it's one of the cheapest golf venues in the Hua Hin district, charging (when I last played there) a mere 20 baht for a tray of balls. They also have a rather nice restaurant located upstairs with a splendid view over the greens. OK, the menu is very limited and you never need to make a reservation, but sipping a cold beer (Singha only, alas, as the brewery owns the course!) as you watch someone sweating over the last hole is a pretty nice way to pass the time!

Well, having given you proof that life (and golf) continues as normal here in Thailand, despite what the sensationalist press coverage of the recent political problems might have led you to believe, I think I shall conclude. Next Tuesday, I shall be returning to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok for my regular gastroscopy examination, which means I shall be away from my computer the whole day. This trip requires me to be at the minibus terminal downtown at around 7~7.30 and judging by last time, I won't get back to Hua Hin till well after dark -- and I won't be feeling like creating another masterpiece like this! I haven't yet decided whether to do next week's blog on the Monday or the Wednesday, but I'll have to see. Rest assured it will be done, so please feel free to pop round next Tuesday. If the link hasn't been updated, then try again on the Wednesday, OK? Sorry to mix up your schedule but it isn't for the sake of pleasure, believe me! Anyway, as I write (at around noon), it is currently 29c (84f) and sunny, with a very tolerable 58% humidity reading and a 10% chance of rain – which, if comes at all, will doubtless be civilised enough to wait till after dark! Today's a holiday in South Africa but wherever you are and whatever you're doing, I hope you are all fit, well, happy and healthy. Take care, see you next week, and May the wind be always at your back.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Let's Talk PAD-Induced Unemployment, Thailand's Saviour a Geordie, HH's Vintage Car Jamboree, Economist Breaks the Rules, & Deputy Mayor Speaks Out

(This is a text-only version of the main blog which can be found at http://huahinjapan.com/blog.htm/)
It might seem difficult to catch a Cold here in the tropics but I've managed it somehow। Possibly, the insidious little germ was aided by my much-weakened resistance – the chemotherapy and radiation aren't that long finished. Nonetheless, I suppose there are worse places to be sick in than Thailand, even with the political problems the kingdom is now facing. Having a Cold under the grey skies of a London or Tokyo winter is so depressing but at least here, the blue skies and warm (not hot) sunshine of a Thai 'winter' do make things that much more bearable. So be gone self-pity, let's get on with this week's offering.
The airport occupation might well be slipping into memory but its after-effects are likely to remain painful for quite a while. A recent forecast by Thailand's National Economic and Social Advisory Council (Nesac) estimated that the mob takeover of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports, exquisitely timed to coincide with the global economic crisis, would lead to an extra 900,000 unemployed next year – not including those in the tourism industry. Back in the third quarter of 2008, growth in Thailand's agricultural sector reduced the unemployment rate to 1.2% but the 'patriots' of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) soon changed that. An unemployment rate of 6.5% was mentioned in the forecast, affecting all areas of Thailand due to the cut in exports caused by the 8-day airports closure. Of course the tourism authority is running a series of campaigns to try and revive foreign interest in this place as a holiday destination and the forecast did believe that such campaigns could help ease the situation next year. However, the average Thai citizen, be they rich or poor, urban or rural, executive or peasant, will pay for what those idiots did at the airport. It might be through losing their job, increased taxes, higher prices or less customers, but if they have any sense (which might be supposing too much in some cases), they should learn to hate the mob that caused all this. Will there be a backlash? Will the anti-democratic bourgeoisies suffer for their actions? We can but hope. Throughout Asia, the ruling class often seems to favour America in many ways, but the old Thai elite, the old money, still have a soft spot for Britain। There is a society for Thais who attended British public schools here, the Royal Bangkok Sports Club (ç located on a patch of downtown land that must make property developers weep) was founded in 1901 to rival the various 'jockey clubs' the Brits had established all over Asia, Bangkok has had a cricket club since 1890, and Thailand continues to drive on the left (as did the whole world until the late 1700s). Therefore, it shouldn't be too surprising that when the kingdom is seeking a way out of the present chaos, they look again to a British example. I refer to Abhisit Vejjajiva (è), the young man (he's only 44) many are now openly considering as a potential prime minister. Born in Newcastle (does that make him as Geordie?), and educated at Eton and Oxford, Mr Abhisit is leader of the Democrat Party, often considered the choice of the more reasonable middle class. A self-styled liberal and democrat, Mr Abhisit did criticise (but never condemned) the military coup that removed the polemical Mr Thaksin from power in 2006, and members of his party have been supportive of the anarchic PAD. However, many here believe he is the only major politician who has any hope of ending the 3 years of conflict that climaxed in the hijacking of Bangkok's airports. His opponents claim that he is too callow, too closely linked to vested interests, a man whose patrician foreign upbringing means he cannot understand the problems of Thailand's rural poor, Mr Thaksin's power base. They fail to mention how any Thai political leader, none of whom are in the 'log cabin to white house' mould, can identify with the poverty-stricken masses. It is true that his party is far from being the most popular – they won barely a third of seats in 2007, less than that in 2001 and 2005, and boycotted the military arranged election of 2006 altogether. It is also true that he is being eased into office by unseen powers above the heads of the poor rural majority. However, a genuine general election would undoubtedly lead to another victory for Thaksin's proxies, which would in turn lead to more mob rule by the PAD's minions, and surely almost anything is better than that. The vast majority of the Thai people are poor – largely because of decades of selfish rule by an urban elite with strong connections to the Thai military but little concern for the needs of the poor. Do I think Mr Abhisit will today's election and become PM? Only a fool tries to predict Thai politics. Do I think he will be able to reunite this beautiful country? I can but hope. Will I be happy to see him making the journey down to Hua Hin to receive HM the King's appointment? I'll get back to you on that . . . To move on to happier, more local news, this coming weekend sees the annual Hua Hin Vintage Car Parade। For those of you who don't know about this event, it involves some of the oldest and most classic cars in Thailand driving down from Bangkok and then parading through the streets of Hua Hin. They are then exhibited within the peaceful splendour of the Sofitel hotel. If you are a fan of classic cars, be it a vintage Fiat or an E-Type Jag, then you'll love this. You can either find a good vantage point to watch them as they drive around the town or you can take the easy way and just pop over to the Sofitel to see them parked beneath the trees. I might pop over to take a look, as my boy is madly keen on any kind of transport – especially trains. However, he doesn't limit his enthusiasm and when one asks him what he wants to be, he usually says "a pilot". He rather worryingly adds that he wants to be a pilot tomorrow, but having seen the skills of some third world pilots, maybe that isn't as ridiculous as it sounds! Anyway, if the weather's good, as it seems very likely to be, then my family and I shall pop down and take a look round. I haven't driven for a very long time and I have never driven a true classic (though some might rate my first car, a VW Beetle, as a classic) but I still enjoy seeing cars built when carmakers built them to last. Whether or not Washington does give them the cash handout they are demanding, I very much doubt if any of the vehicles produced by the "Big Three" Detroit automakers will be able to drive from Bangkok to Hua Hin 50 years or more from now. Visitors and residents in this fair town seeking to catch up with the news via Britain's 'The Economist' may be disappointed this week। According to 'The Straits Times' of Singapore (a nation that isn't averse to censorship), this week's edition of the Economist magazine has been banned in Thailand for articles critical of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. What's more, the Economist's Southeast Asia correspondent recently left Thailand – possibly trying to avoid a less dignified departure. However, there has been no official criticism of the magazine or the article, and no-one knows who actually ordered the ban. Usually, press censorship here is handled by the Culture Ministry (is censorship part of Thai culture, one wonders?) but this body, together with the police, have denied any knowledge of a ban. One bookshop assistant explained the magazine's absence by saying 'It's been banned but we don't know who by'. It is possible that the ban was a case of self-censorship by the magazine's local distributor, who could see that an article that questioned the political impartiality of the palace would sure as hell upset many powerful people here. One allegedly informed source blamed it on disruptions at Bangkok airport, a strange excuse when the protests there have ended and which did not affect the magazine last week. However, don't despair for it seems that the censors enthusiasm is somewhat diluted by their inefficiency or lack of imagination. The article in question is still freely available on the Internet and seems likely to remain so – not that I would read such a piece, of course. I know full well the folly of toying with the local lèse majesté laws, and so I shall avoid that story as one would shun a rabid leper. Cross my heart! Not long ago, a local periodical passed on some questions from local residents to Khun Suvit, a deputy mayor of Hua Hin। I thought it might be interesting for you good people to take a look at some of his answers. The first question regarded the environmental situation here, especially litter on the beaches and local sanitation. Khun Suvit responded that with the help of beachfront hotels, local beaches were becoming cleaner (I haven't been on the beach for a long time so I can't say) and that the council was checking on how the euphemistically termed 'random restaurants' affected the cleanliness of the beach. As for sanitation, his response seemed to suggest that this was a case in progress – not a rare answer from any politician! Another question concerned traffic congestion in Hua Hin, a problem made worse by illegal parking and illegal car park squatting by tuk-tuk providers, etc. Khun Suvit didn't offer any hopes of solving this problem but he did seem interested in the suggestion that Naresdamri Road (the one outside the Hilton) be made a traffic-free zone for a certain time each day. I for one like this idea, as walking along this road can be difficult and dangerous at times. However, dare I say that I'll believe it when I see it? Or that putting up 'no traffic' signs won't mean a damn thing unless the local gendarmes become noticeably more active? In a similar vein, he was asked why the police didn't enforce the traffic rules better. His answer was truly pitiful. He blamed it all on the fact that "the profession of policeman is not a highly paid job". Excuse me, but whose fault is that? Anyway, one wouldn't expect any local politician to give concrete answers to questions like the ones asked of Khun Suvit and he didn't break with the traditions of his profession. Sadly, it seems more than likely that the local council will continue to spend more money on ornamental arches and plaques honouring HM the King than on much needed public works. Then again, Thailand isn't the only place where local politicians go 'gong hunting', is it? I decided to get out of the house last Sunday and took my 4-year-old down to Suan Luang Rashinee (Queen Sirikit Park), located at the end of Soi 19। This small but nicely laid out park is not only the location of weekly al fresco beer and music parties (every Friday) but also has a children's playground that is in a less dangerous state of repair than others around the town, and so not only did he have a great time exhausting himself on the various slides, I was able to enjoy some sea air and catch a glimpse of the Gulf of Thailand. As is so often true at this time of year, the sea was pretty rough with plenty of white tips – not very inviting for a paddle! By the way, if you can't see the sea from where you live/stay in Hua Hin, you can check on the tide (in or out, high or low), I recommend checking a site run by the British government. Just aim your mouse at http://easytide.ukho.gov.uk/, where you can get information about Hua Hin tides. I used to use this page regularly when I used to go for an early morning walk on the beach each Saturday – as the tide comes in all the way near where I live and so I preferred not to walk over to the coast only to find nowhere to stroll! Anyway, that's it for another week. It's partly cloudy and 28c here at present, with little chance of rain, so they say. I shall now place this offering online and then it'll be time for lunch. Wherever you are, I hope that life is dealing you some half-decent cards and that you are not keeping your doctor busy. If you should find yourself with spare time and an internet connection this time next week, please feel free to pop over and see if the standard of writing has improved at all. Until then, take care and may the wind be always at your back.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Let's Talk "Dying to Spite the Graveyard", HH's Airport Springs Back to Life, Enjoying Boerewors, & Preparing for an Unwhite Xmas!

(This is a text-only version of the main blog you can find at Huahinblog.tk,)

Well there's another fine mess they've gotten us into! Talk about getting into the news for all the wrong reasons! As if it wasn't bad enough the world seeing images of riots and tear gas on the streets of Bangkok, those unpatriotic idiots of the PAD (the so-called "People’s Alliance for Democracy") have now thrown the 'Land of Smiles' cliché into the rubbish bin and made Thailand look as attractive as Iraq on a bad day! I really can't believe those scumbags. I understand the leadership, who follow the philosophy of "sod my country, just give me more power", but I don't understand the teeming throngs of supporters who follow their demagogical orders and ruin the country. The leadership are OK, with their several passports and Swiss bank accounts, but it’s the idiots now wrecking the airports who will lose their jobs and face increased taxes and inflation when their actions finally ruin the economy. It's a bit like the prison riots where the convicts wreck their own cells and facilities. There's an old Thai proverb that refers to someone "Dying to spite the graveyard", which is equivalent to the western one about cutting off your nose to spite your face. That could be the motto of those PAD fatheads! Of course, if you can somehow manage to get into Thailand (and driving up from Malaysia seems to be the least troublesome route at present, so long as you get through the unpeaceful border provinces before sunset), a fine array of bargains await you. Multiple cancellations mean that hotels and resorts are desperate for business – Five-star hotels in Bangkok are reportedly seeing occupancy rates of 60% (down from 75% a year ago), with the figure for Phuket being 57% and 30-35% for Hua Hin/Cha-am. This means it is very much a buyers market and so you should expect some huge discounts – up to 75%, I've heard. You could stay at a truly luxurious hotel for the price of a guesthouse in some cases – I kid you not! 'Fortune favours the brave' and so if you are willing to ignore the sensationalist news coverage, you could enjoy a peak season holiday at off-season rates. Worth thinking about, n'est pas?

But how is this crisis affecting us here in Hua Hin? Well, there are no visible effects, with daily life continuing pretty much the same as usual here. However, you might say it's affecting this town in two ways. Firstly, this is a tourist town and so tourist cancellations mean hard times for the local hotels and businesses. I have heard that some Hua Hin hotels are already 'laying off' some of their staff, and most are offering hefty discounts – something unheard of at this time of year. The second effect only began yesterday. As you may know, we do have a small airport here, located about 6km north of town. This is normally a pretty sleepy place, with just 4 scheduled departures each day, all to Bangkok. However, Bangkok Airways (which used to fly to Hua Hin from Bangkok and Koh Samui) announced on Monday that to help clear the impatient mob of stranded travellers (whom the PAD numbskulls have sought to appease by explaining their political demands!), they would operate 2 flights daily from Hua Hin to Samui airport for passengers to connect to Hong Kong. This is largely because the other airports they've been using since that motley of fools (now there's an interesting collective noun) took over Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports, mainly the Vietnam war-era naval airbase at U-tapao, have descended into hellish chaos. Another airline, PBair, has temporarily moved its fleet, maintenance crew as well pilots and cabin crew to Hua Hin. However, don't get too excited, as PBair's fleet consists of just 2 Embraer regional jets with an all economy seat capacity of 50 passengers. However, this aircraft does have a range of 1,550 nautical miles (2,870km), making flights to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore possible. Hua Hin as an international airport? Hmm. Ironic, isn't it? After Hua Hin's air links with the south were cut by Bangkok Airways (who said that it was too close to Bangkok, something anyone doing the drive down Highway 4 or route 35 might disagree with) and after efforts to get international flights were defeated (mainly due to concerns that large jets would disturb the king), it takes a state of ochlocracy to get Bangkok Airways back in. Will this link with the south continue after the crisis is over (meaning when the authorities (military or otherwise) finally get their heads out of the sand and do something)? Who knows? One thing the present situation here clearly illustrates is that in Thailand, the future is a closed book! Footnote to the above. There are two categories of stranded tourists here in Thailand at present – those whose government cares and those whose government doesn't. The first category includes citizens of such countries as Spain, The Philippines and Russia, who are working hard to get their people home. The latter category most notably includes the UK, whose foreign office said it would not charter flights to evacuate those unable to get home. Basically, once a Brit leaves UK territory, 'Her Majesty's Government' ceases to give a damn what happens to them. As I mentioned in an earlier episode of this blog, London makes it ridiculously difficult for Brits to vote from overseas and now seems in no hurry to let them come home. If the chairman of a FTSE 100 company or Labour Party contributor, I'm sure there would be an RAF plane already on the tarmac but for a 'mere' taxpayer – you're on your own!

Let's get away from the kamikaze antics of the PAD in distant Bangkok for a while. Change subject: it has long been said that there are only 2 major drawbacks to living in this lovely town -- decent medical facilities and schools. However, even these areas are subject to change. The school my son now goes to, Yamsaard, seems very nice. OK, it isn't a truly international school like Harrow in Bangkok, but it does have foreign teachers and the morning lessons are in English, and my son seems to be progressing nicely. As for medical facilities, the present situation seems likely to remain less than ideal for some time – until 2010, to be precise. That's when Bangkok Hospital, one of the 3 best hospitals in Thailand (together with Bumrungrad and Samitivej), is due to open a branch here in Hua Hin. I don't know how this will affect the repellent San Paulo Hospital, which is strangely the foreigners' current favourite here, but I'm hoping it puts them out of business – or is my bias showing? As I would probably now be grilling toast on the fires of Hades had San Paulo been the only medical facility here (they diagnosed my cancer as wind (gas)), I freely admit I be extremely pleased to see their lobby less crowded. However, the fact remains that while the myopic mob in Bangkok makes life there increasingly irksome, life for foreigners here in Hua Hin is getting better. I know one Brit who's been in Hua Hin for close to 20 years and remembers when Naresdamri Road (the one outside the Hilton) was a muddy track, and the changes he's seen would fill a book. Riots and airport invasions and whatever, I have no plans to move, as Malaysia is getting too pro-Islamic (all Malays are legally considered Muslim plus other faiths face difficulties in obtaining building permission for places of worship, restrictions on non-Islamic missionary work and unequal access to media outlets, plus strict punishments for any Muslim who converts) and Cambodia is still too close to being bandit country. Africa (my former home)? Mostly on a downward slope towards bankruptcy. Japan (ditto)? Too cold and expensive. Europe? Ditto! So whatever the less enlightened Thais may do to wreck their country, I think I might as well stay in the sun and make the most of being where winter means slipping on a cardigan some mornings!

We recently held another of those social get-togethers for which this stately mansion (?) is becoming so renowned. As usual, there was a truly cosmopolitan gathering, with 2 Japanese ladies, a retired German businessman, an Italian oilrig worker, a British merchant navy officer and 2 Thais. To make it even more oecumenical (look it up here!), we dined on boerewors, commonly referred to as the best sausage in the world. Now this is like manna from heaven for any homesick Southern African like me. I haven't tasted boerewors since the last time I attended a party at the SA embassy in Tokyo, many years ago. In case you've never tried it, boerewors is Afrikaans for farmer's sausage, being made from a variety of ingredients including beef, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, and vinegar. Forget ambrosia – this stuff is truly the food of the gods, especially when served on a sunny braai (bbq) with some 'Mrs Balls' chutney! As the South Africans just happened to win the Dubai Sevens that weekend as well (NZ didn't even make the semi-finals!), and so all in all, it was a good weekend. (By the way, if you live in or near Hua Hin and would like to get some of this boerewors, I can put you in touch with the maker, a friend of mine. Just drop me a line using the guestbook or FAQ (to be found at huahin.tk) and I'll pass it on.)

Anyway, there's quite a strong wind blowing outside, making the wind chimes ring out very prettily. Currently, it's sunny and around 26c, which is just below today's expected high of 28c. Up in Bangkok, the military continue to sit on the fence and watch as two opposing groups, both equally determined to wreck their homeland, fight for aims which they presumably understand, but no-one else does. They say there are now over 200,000 stranded tourists trying to get out of Thailand, but Hua Hin seems a lot emptier. I won't be venturing downtown again till Thursday, when I'll be going for one of my semi-weekly visits to the gym, and so that's when I'll see if the town has its usual December invasion of pale, sun-hungry tourists. I must also think about erecting the family Christmas tree (fake, of course, in this climate) and decorating the mansion, as Advent Sunday has just passed. If you're not stuck at Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang or U-tapao, I hope you have a good week – and if you are part of the farang exodus from Thailand, I hope your government gets you out soon. If you're British, then maybe you should consider a change of government – or citizenship! Catch you next week . . .

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let's Talk Problems Reading This Blog, Planned Improvements for HH, The Local Property Market, News From The HH Golf Scene and Hua Hin Gets Festive.

(This is a text-only version of the main blog which can be found at http://huahinjapan.com/blog.htm/.)

First off, I'd like to apologise for those of you who may have had trouble reading last week's blog – although you might be having trouble reading this week's as well! At the root of these problems is the total lack of speed in updating pages by either the host of this page, a less than helpful bunch who go under the misleading title of 'Host Excellence', or the habitually un-user friendly Dot.tk people. Even though I have erased the file in question, they continue to display a page that doesn't actually exist! So instead of showing last week's page, they displayed a 2-week old page – and they still haven't responded to my complaints/requests. I am now in the process of changing things but in the meantime, I apologise for their lack of efficiency and total disregard for customer service. You can, of course, still read last week's issue using the link on the left – but that's always supposing that you are able to read this. If you have remained faithful despite all these problems, you have my undying gratitude, truly. The best way to avoid the unreliability of Dot.tk is to avoid using their shortened URL. Please bookmark http://huahinjapan.com/blog.htm/ instead. I hope this helps. Anyway, let's get on with this week's blog, in the naïve hope that someone will be able to read it!

The ongoing worldwide crisis is affecting tourism and related businesses worldwide, and Hua Hin is far from being immune to all this. However, it seems that the new town hall regime is planning to do things to improve life for residents and visitors – or at least, they're planning to talk about doing so. The deputy mayor, khun Suvit Reanroongruang, recently reported that the municipality is planning to improve flood protection, waste water treatment, waste transformation and water supply delivery systems, which may not sound very glamorous but are rather important for those of us who live here – though improving flood protection when the rainy season is all but over may seem a bit redundant. He also said that the town plans to bury all electricity and telephone lines underground, in order to improve the view and making walking more enjoyable. This project is expected to cost around 100 million baht so don't expect to see those cables disappear within the next few days. On the cultural side, he announced that they are planning to build an arts and cultural centre and pedestrian area on Damnoen Kasem Road (that's the one running from the station to the beach). Part of this scheme will be to convert the former fire station (a rundown place on the left as you head towards the sea) into a museum. What's more, the authorities have recognised that some unpleasant individuals who masquerade as property brokers and developers are cheating many foreign investors. Of course there are good, honest property folk here but just there are good, honest Wall Street bankers, they can seem equally hard to find! To help foreigners who want to buy property here to avoid being conned, the municipality is adding more English-language content to its official website (http://www.huahin.go.th, which includes a very good map), which will offer advice on what to know when buying property here. The deputy mayor observed that whereas most Thai buyers have enough information, foreigners don't. He then added, rather disappointedly I thought, that many foreigners were cheated by middlemen and even foreigners from the same nations who were property developers. However, don't think the town council is entirely altruistic. They know that cowboy brokers and developers have hurt many people's image of Hua Hin, and this hasn't helped the slowdown in the Hua Hin property market caused by the global economic situation. Revenue from property transaction fees are an important part of the council's income and those fees are expected to decrease by as much as 30% this year. Hua Hin isn't the only place to react like this to the present situation. The governor of our northern neighbour, Phetchaburi province, has said that the province is planning to improve walking areas near Cha-am Beach and will also establish bicycle lanes -- though as I recently noted, precious few Thai ever use a bicycle! The council in Cha Am, a town often seen as the Cinderella of the area, has already started work on putting electricity and telephone lines underground. There has even been talk of resurrecting the long discussed idea of linking this area with Bangkok by ferry – an idea I will believe when I see it in action! They are now talking about establishing a ferry port at Saphan Hin, at the north end of Cha-am Beach. The plan is to link Samut Prakan (29km south of Bangkok and near the new airport) with Cha Am by sea, a journey they claim will take less than an hour. Now we all know that impressive sounding plans announced by politicians often remain "on the drawing board" and rarely result in anything concrete, so don't start checking Google for the Hua Hin museum or the Cha Am ferry service. However, if even some of these plans reach fruition, it could make a lot of difference to life here for both visitors and residents. I shall keep a close, if somewhat sceptical eye on the progress of these schemes so watch this space.

On the property scene, Hua Hin has always been a bit different to other Thai resorts. The main difference is that this is a royal town, which means that it has a special attraction for Thai investors but also has much stricter building regulations. As a result, the property market here has become increasingly limited and expensive – though only by Thai standards! This has led to many developers exploring areas previously left untouched. A fine example of this is the development on the hills near the road south from Hua Hin to Pranburi, whose launch party was where the recently published photographed of yours truly was taken (see the November 18th blog). Nonetheless, despite high costs and limited land, property developers still like Hua Hin, which remains much cheaper and more relaxed than places like Pattaya. From 2003 through the first quarter of 2008, my hometown area saw 4,326 condominium units added to the local supply. Of these, 57% were in Hua Hin, 23% in Cha-am, 9% in Khao Takiab, 8% in Khao Tao (about 14km south of Hua Hin) and 3% in Pranburi (about 25km south), according to the research by property agency Knight Frank Thailand. Surprisingly, the recent farcical political instability, the September '06 military coup and recent Bangkok bomb blasts have not yet hurt new condominium projects in Hua Hin and surrounding areas, with investors seemingly confident that Hua Hin's tourist potential will remain strong. What's more, their faith in this town's potential has led to a steady rise in prices. Hua Hin condominium prices jumped 14.6% from an average 62,991 baht per square metre in 2006 to 72,063 baht last year. At the top end of the market, top-priced beach condominiums here recently sold at 125,000 to 150,000 baht per square metre. Luckily, I bought my place a few years ago, when prices were much lower. (I am also a 15-minute walk from the beach but that's another story!) This all explains why developers are visiting places they may not have heard of a few years ago, places like Pak Nam Pran and Khao Sam Roi Yod. Another problem for developers here is the incredibly short-sighted increased restrictions on foreigners buying houses, with the old system of buying a place using a company whose required 51% Thai owners were chosen from the phonebook or friends coming to an end. Local land offices now check on the Thais listed, making sure they really are shareholders. This has left leasehold about the only viable way to own land here, and so condominiums have become MUCH more popular, as foreigners can legally buy a condo unit freehold in their own name – though the law still requires that 51% of your neighbours must be Thais. You might wonder why a country that clearly needs foreign investment makes it so hard for foreigners to invest, especially as neighbouring countries are making life easier for foreign buyers. Then again, you might wonder why a group that claims to be nationalistic and patriotic, meaning the PAD demonstrators in Bangkok, are hurting their nation's reputation and economy so publicly. The answer is simple. As anyone who's been here a whole knows, it's best to leave logic behind when you come here!

You regular readers (don't worry, I won't reveal your guilty secret) may recall that I recently reported (in the November 4th blog) on the upmarket Black Mountain golf course. Well, the developers behind this impressive project, a Thai-Swedish firm called Thai Nordic Property Co, were planning to finance the golf course by also developing a residential project which, when combined with the golf course, was worth 10 billion baht. Sadly, however, the world's financial markets have even reached Hua Hin and so the planned new phases of the project, including another 18-hole golf course and more housing units, have been put on hold while the owners try to gauge the full impact of the global economic crisis. They have already sold 9 of the 15 villas adjacent to the golf course for 48 million baht each, but now might not be the right time to add to one's financial commitments. This is not due to affect the 4 five-storey condominium buildings in the first phase of its residential project near the golf course, which are due to be completed by February 2009, of which 30 have already been sold. So who is buying these properties? Well, unsurprisingly (to anyone who lives here), 70% of the buyers have been Swedish, 20% from other European countries and 10% were Thai. Funnily enough, the Swedish gentleman behind Black Mountain, Stig Notlov (a former major shareholder of the large Swedish construction materials firm Byggmax) had initially considered placing his dream golf course in Phuket, but then came the tsunami. Being on what is widely considered to be a tsunami-free coastline, he then turned to Hua Hin. Oh, and speaking of golf, the Royal Hua Hin golf course (Thailand's oldest, conveniently located next to the railway station) will next month be hosting the Singha Thailand Junior World Golf Championship. This event, which will take place from December 11-14, will be open to boys and girls aged 9-17, and amongst the would-be Tiger Woods will be young players from not only Thailand but Bangladesh, China, England, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Ukraine and Zimbabwe (probably very glad to get away from that betrayed nation). So we can expect to see some more foreign faces around the town next month – which is just as well if the rather grim predictions about the peak tourist season turn out to be correct!

As I'm sure you know (especially if you have kids), it is now exactly a month until Christmas day. The preparations for Christmas seem to move closer to Easter every year, and so why should Hua Hin be any different. My son's school recently organised a tour of the town for his class, visiting places like the quaint and historic railway station, the park named after a locally born Thai boxing champion and the Market Village shopping centre. After this trip, what was the only thing my 4-year-old son remembered about the day's events? What he referred to as the "happy Christmas tree" at Market Village! Yes indeed, there are Christmas trees, pictures of Santa and fake holly all over Hua Hin – though some lethargic shops simply didn't bother taking down last years decorations! I'm more of a traditionalist and so I wouldn't dream of erecting our tree and decorating the family seat until after Advent Sunday, which is this coming Sunday, in case you've forgotten. Back in Tokyo, we only decorated our tiny home very minimally, unable to inspire ourselves to go to all that trouble. However, seeing my boy's face when he first sees the Christmas tree with all its lights flashing makes any effort worthwhile and so starting next week, we shall be decorating our peaceful little mansion. However, before that, I have the 'pleasure' of going on a day-trip to Bangkok, but I won't be pleasure bent. You see, I'm going to have to leave Hua Hin at around 7 on Thursday morning, forgoing any breakfast, all so that I can have my oesophagus stretched -- and you'd have to be pretty damn kinky to consider that a pleasure! If I'm lucky, I'll be able to get back home around sunset or maybe just after. Life in the tropics is just one round of fun! Anyway, I hope you've got more to look forward to this week, and on that cheery note, I'll close here. Take care and may the wind be always at your back.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Let's Talk Thai New Year, Misjudged Drunk Drivers, Getting Away From It All on Koh Talu, and Rediscovering the Joys of Cold Beer.

(This is likely to be the last issue of this Blog on this site, as the limitations of this host are getting more than tiresome. If you like to continue reading my entries, then check out the Blog's new home at http://huahinblog.tk. I like Google but this site keeps messing things up, and enough is enough!)

Today is the last of the three-day holiday called Songkran, the traditional Thai (and Cambodian) New Year. The true peak of the festival was Sunday — that's the day when there's all the water throwing and face pasting that Songkran is famous for. (Anyway, here are some pictures of Songkran celebrations in Hua Hin — but only if you're viewing this at Huahinblog.tk!) Monday (yesterday) is otherwise known as 'Family Day', when Thai families get together, including the younger folk who spend most of the year working away from home. But what is Songkran, and why is it celebrated with water fights and dousings? Let me explain:

The word "Songkran" comes from the ancient Sanskrit language, meaning to pass or to move, and this was the Thai New Year until they adopted the Western New Year in 1941. The peak day of the festival is "Maha Songkran Day" , New Year's Day, when daytime equals nighttime and the sun is at its highest — which is also when Thailand experiences some of the hottest days of the year! According to the legend, the seven daughters of Tao Maha Songkran, King Kabillabrama, are the Songkran goddesses. They were given responsibility for looking after their beheaded father's head. Before his death, the king asked his daughters to put his head on a pedestal, which is the origin of the heat. If his head were allowed to be placed on the earth, there would be no rain and no water in the oceans or rivers, and so the seven daughters took turns holding their father's head up. As this task involved being close to the source of all heat, young people would help the sisters by pouring cool water over their hands, asking for blessings in return. This has somehow evolved into wild water splashing. Despite regular criticism by many older and more pious Buddhists, most activities now seem focused on parties, drinking and splashing water. I'll bet you're glad you learned that!

Sadly, Songkran is not only the main fun festival of the year but also the time when Thailand's usually dangerous roads become virtual death-traps, with a yearly peak in traffic accidents and casualties. According to this morning's newspaper, this year's holiday death toll on the highways and city streets rose to 180 killed during the first three of the "seven dangerous days" of Songkran. According to the authorities, there were 1,018 road accidents on Sunday alone, with 76 deaths, and 1,103 injuries. As well as the 180 killed, the three big days saw 2,514 people injured in a total of 2,238 accidents. The government, as usual, blamed it all on drunk drivers, as if the lack of driving licences, a farcically easy driving test and infamously dormant traffic police had nothing to do with it. Better to blame public vice than government inefficiency and venality, I suppose!

As a result of this misplaced blame, Thailand's Interior Minister has announced plans to ban all alcohol during the Songkran holidays. A fine and noble idea, maybe, but how it will prevent road carnage is unclear. For example, while Tesco's and other foreign supermarkets will have to comply, most local shops will continue to sell booze, and what's to stop folk stocking up on booze the week before? What's more, another supremely naïve individual, the secretary-general of the No Drinking and Driving Foundation, wants to extend this ban to all other festive occasions. The ban on booze sales during election weekends has proved to be as effective as a tissue paper raincoat and any other such ban would be equally unproductive. But what the hell! You could paper the walls of the Pentagon with the useless laws passed and unenforced in Thailand, what harm would one more do.

Enough about Songkran. The bungalow next to my house is owned by a Swedish couple, presently working for Ericsson in Jo'burg, South Africa. They only visit here for a couple of weeks a year but they are currently renting their bungalow to some friends of theirs, two families from Sweden. One of the families was here last year but for the other, it's their first time in Hua Hin. The more experienced family are today en route to Koh Talu, a tiny island off the coast of southern Prachuap Kirikhan, about 200km south of Hua Hin. It takes just over 2½ hours by car to reach the ferry port, which is actually a beach near Bang Sapan, and then you have to wade out to a small boat – so don't come wearing designer clothes! There are 2 resorts on the island, the smaller and cheaper Mook Bay (very popular with day trippers) and the larger, more expensive but much more attractive Big Bay resort. My wife and I stayed at the latter back in June 2006 and we had a great time. However, when we went out snorkelling near the truly spectacular cliffs (the island's name means hollowed-out cliffs), I slipped under the boat and the barnacles rather changed the appearance of my legs! I didn't notice a thing until we returned to the resort, when the lady at the beachside bar almost screamed and pointed to my rather bloody legs. However, she and the 'guest relations' guy (nice chap named Lek, look him up if you go there) treated my leg and cleaned it up, so a sort of happy ending. However, if ever you do visit that lovely spot, be sure to take a mosquito coil with you, as the rooms don't have mosquito nets and the electricity isn't 24-hour on such a remote island. However, it's worth a trip, though a day trip might not be so worthwhile -- you only get to spend about 4 hours on the island! The other Swedish family are staying here in Hua Hin, exploring the town now that the water shooters have retreated for another year. (If you'd like to visit there, I recommend the agent we used. If you'd like to know more, let me know.)

Yesterday was the 4th birthday of my son and so we had a small party to celebrate. Being Hua Hin, the guests were pretty varied — British, Japanese, German, Swedish, Laotian and, of course, Thai. The weather began rather cloudy, which led me to fear we might get the 2nd rainstorm of the year. However, no such rain came and the day was typically hot and sunny. It must be said that this climate does make celebrating outside a lot easier and more enjoyable. My boy was able to make maximum use of the slide I gave him as a present, and the adults were able to consume a whole lot of food and booze — they haven't banned it yet! A lot of the food was provided by two of the Thai ladies present, namely our maid and my wife's office assistant. Fried chicken, sandwiches, pâté, Thai noodles (too spicy for me!), and two large birthday cakes. As I finished my chemotherapy last Monday, I was able to enjoy my first beer since last August. OK, I tempered the alcohol by adding lots of ice (beer 'on the rocks' is common here, as it keeps it cool and allows one to drink for longer) but it was still nice. The beer was 'Leo', a milder brew very suitable for hot afternoons — and for those who haven't had alcohol for a long, long time! Sorry to all the prohibitionists and temperance folk, but when it's hovering around 40c (that's 104f for those still living in the past) on the lawn, a cold beer certainly seems to be fitting.

Anyway, it's another hot and sunny day here in Hua Hin, currently around 43c (109f) with today's low having been a very tolerable 24c (75f). The wife's at her office, the boy is with a babysitter and I am just about ready for my pre-prandial siesta. So have a good week, dear reader, and I'll catch you next Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Let's talk Yorkshire Pudding, Thai Marriages & Why Brits Choose to Live Abroad.

(If you have trouble reading this, which I sometimes do due to the site's limitations, then try visiting http://huahinblog.tk, where you can read a more user-friendly, illustrated version!)

Now I don't want to provide free advertising and so I won't actually name the shop, but one store I occasionally use in this fair town is well known for selling British products, like Cumberland sausages and Bisto gravy. However, I lately discovered that they have started to sell individual Yorkshire Puddings for just Bt20 (roughly 32p) each. As someone who loves soaking up gravy with a nice bit of Yorkshire, I have been giving this shop a fair bit of custom. Now back in Japan, where I lived for the 14 years before coming to Thailand, such a thing would have been unthinkable. Despite 2 atom bombs and numerous rapes and misdeeds by the US military, Japan remains firmly within the American 'sphere of influence', and so it's much easier to get cranberry sauce or peanut butter 'with jelly' than Yorkshire Pudding or mint sauce. Thailand, however, is different. It may have cooperated with the US in the Indochina War (wrongly known as the Vietnam War, as it also involved/wrecked Laos and Cambodia) but remains far more European than American. Yes, Hua Hin does now have a McDonald's as well as a KFC and Burgerking, but these are more signs of internationalism than Americanism. We regularly get postings from homesick Yanks on the various Hua Hin forums asking where they can get a Thanksgiving dinner or watch the Superbowl, but these pleas are often unanswered. Doubtless hellholes like Pattaya, which were infected by US Army R&R visits during the aforementioned war, are more obliging to our North American cousins. However, here in strictly royalist Hua Hin, and even though King Mongkut offered US President Lincoln elephants to use during the US Civil War, this town has immensely more European residents than American. There are at least a handful of Americans living in Hua Hin, and if any more wish to join them, great. However, be prepared for a town where the locals do NOT assume you're American whenever you speak English!

Thailand didn't enter the modern era overnight and so many aspects of the old Siamese way of doing things still remain. One example is the contempt most men have for women and marriage, meaning that many Thai husbands cling to the old custom of polygamy. Now to give it the appearance of a modern nation, one of the last acts of Thailand's last absolute monarch, King Rama VII, was to outlaw polygamy in 1934, but the custom lingers on in the form of mistresses, which too many Thai husbands maintain. However, Thai women have become more assertive over their rights and so legislation entitling wives to compensation from husbands' mistresses was introduced last year. This allows wives to claim from Bt10,000 to Bt1 million in compensation from their hubby's mistress. Sounds fair, right? But don't forget, this is Thailand. On examination, this legislation proves to be very complicated and if the lovers are civil servants, it becomes so embrangled and drawn out that it often fails completely. It isn't easy being a Thai wife, which doubtless explains why so many choose to marry foreigners. Oh, and don't go thinking that extramarital affairs is the only reason Thai wives are disgruntled. According to the head of the Women Lawyers' Association of Thailand, another common reason for seeking a divorce is the discovery that their husbands are homosexual. I don't which must be the most humiliating, finding out that your hubby has a girlfriend – or a boyfriend!

I've been reading about how Britain is now second only to Mexico when it comes to how many citizens leave home and move abroad permanently. That's a very proud boast and I'm sure the government will mention it in its manifesto come the next election. Now I have lived outside the UK for over 16 years now, all of them spent here in Asia. In that time, I have returned to London just three times, and I have no plans to make it four within the foreseeable future. Why not? Well don't get me wrong. For culture, art and history, London is great, just as England has some truly glorious scenery, but all of this is best viewed on a holiday. After all, who emigrates to India just to see the Taj Mahal? I regularly watch 'Sky News' on satellite TV here, which is very much a British domestic news service, and every time I do, I am reminded of why I don't go back. Yes, Thailand has crime and it also has a ridiculous, Byzantine bureaucracy, corrupt police and politicians, awful infrastructure, and medics who got their MDs from a copier. However, a Thai jail is a bad place to be, making criminals less nonchalant than then their British counterparts about returning there. It also has houses that suit the climate, restaurants that don't need a mortgage to dine in and no laws telling us how to discipline our kids. Thailand may not be paradise and the slogan 'Land of Smiles' might be just a mantra, but it does give places like the UK a run for their money in the 'quality of life' stakes!

Well as the Thai senatorial elections stretched into a second weekend, the booze shops and departments were closed yet again last weekend. I sincerely doubt that crime rates went down or the election was any fairer, but what the hell. The calendar on my wall (from Singha beer) shows a nice picture of Hua Hin Beach, reminding me of why I moved here and why I stay here. Europe suffers a nasty cyclone, Australia has floods, the US is digging itself out from heavy snow and Japan is still shivering around the 10c level, but here, it hasn't dropped below 20c for many days now. Hey, Shangri-la was up in the snow-covered Kunlun Mountains, so I'll stick closer to the beach if you don't mind!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A funny thing happened on my way to the blog . . .

I am sorry that this blog has seemed neglected for the last few weeks but I did have a very good excuse for being absent — alas!

You see, just over a month ago, I was diagnosed as having a cancerous growth at the bottom of my oesophagus, where it meets the stomach. As a result, I spent almost a month in hospital, first in Petchaburi (about 75km north of Hua Hin) & then in the justifiably famous Bumrungrad Hospital in central Bangkok.

This cancer didn’t come out of the blue, of course. For a few months now, I have had trouble swallowing, feeling as if I had a blockage in my gullet. However, when I mentioned this to a ‘doctor’ (who seems to have bought his degree) at Hua Hin’s San Paulo Hospital (not recommended for anything more than a cut finger), & he said it was wind (‘gas’ as the Americans say), recommending I get more exercise. This potentially life-threatening misdiagnosis led me to get more exercise but as cancer doesn’t respond to that, my problem didn’t get any better. However, a few weeks later, I sought out a second opinion from the ‘Hua Hin Polyclinic’, where the doctor actually took the trouble to examine me (something San Paulo seems reluctant to do) & then said he wanted to admit me to hospital for observation. I was duly driven by ambulance to Petchaburi & admitted. A day or so & a biopsy later, the doctor told me I had cancer in my oesophagus & that it would require surgery plus possibly radiation & chemo to get rid of it. Believing that a small, provincial hospital isn’t the best place for a complicated & risky operation, I arranged to get moved to Bangkok, to the Bumrungrad Hospital, which has the oldest cancer centre in Thailand. I was admitted on the 27th (the day after my less than joyful birthday) & I had a CT scan. I finally had the operation on the 31st & then spent several days in intensive care. Now this meant that I was in my own private room with hot & cold running nurses — life can really be a bitch! I almost cried when the doc said I could return to the regular rooms! However, my stay in IC ended with a nice flourish — a bed bath administered by five lovely Thai nurses. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it!

Anyway, I was wheeled out of IC to my new bedroom up on the 8th floor on the 5th & that’s where I stayed until the 14th. Since then, I have been at home recovering. It is a struggle, trying to get my strength & weight back. I presently weigh almost 20kg less than I did a few months ago but I am making progress. However, I am still ridiculously weak & just typing this is tiring me out. Therefore, please forgive me if this blog isn’t updated as often as it should be. I shall try to get back into the swing as soon as my recovery allows, but as I begin chemotherapy & radiation in a few days time, I have no idea of when that will be. Here’s hoping it won’t be too long! Anyway, thanks for your patience & understanding.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A girlie bar as a marriage bureau?

It is amazing the way so many western males seem to think that what would be unacceptable in their homeland is OK here. I refer to the foolish habit so many western men have of marrying Thai bargirls. Now don’t get me wrong — there are many good & marriageable bargirls, in both Thailand and elsewhere. However, the men who marry these ladies of pleasure would probably go crazy if their son wanted to marry a European hooker. Now I know several western guys, including at least a couple of former policeman, who happily married former prostitutes and never regretted it. However, I also know several guys who married Thai ‘working girls’ and truly regretted it. Take, as a fine example, a German friend of mine who shall remain anonymous. About eight years ago, he married a girl who ‘worked’ in a notorious Bangkok backstreet known as Soi Cowboy. He gave her a good life and eventually gave her a house here in Hua Hin — by gave, I mean the house was bought in her name, due to the xenophobic Thai laws which encourage this sort of thing! However, despite poor health, he wasn’t dying quickly enough for her. She tried putting rat poison into his soup (I’m not joking, truly), she tried pulling a knife during one of their many arguments, and she even had one of her family try to shoot him. With what some cruel cynics might call typical inefficiency, the shot missed, but that is hardly the point. Now, however, this chap has finally seen her for what she is — a true whore in the non-sexual meaning of the word. He thinks he can fight her using the law (a foreigner versus a Thai in a Thai court — maybe not) and so instead of licking his wounds and returning to Europe, he is sticking it out. Whether he will survive long enough to taste even a sliver of vengeance is debatable but the point remains that marrying a Thai bargirl is as risky as marrying one in New York, London or anywhere else — maybe more so. If you want to read a few examples of what I mean, check out http://www.stickmanbangkok.com/reader/reader90.html. If you or someone you know has had a happy marriage with a Thai or any other lady of pleasure, great — I’m happy for you. However, as an American friend of mine used to say, if you eat fried chicken, expect to get greasy!

In the fair town of Hua Hin, where I live and strive to survive, there are two stores that can be called supermarkets rather than convenience stores or corner shops. One is a giant branch of Tesco Lotus, the other an older, smaller Chinese-run place called Gee. Now many westerners visiting or moving to Hua Hin make the understandable mistake of thinking that Tesco is a western supermarket and Gee must be much more oriental. However, they forget that this is not a Tesco like you’ll find in England or even — remember the latter part of the name, Tesco LOTUS. It’s a joint venture, Tesco being forced like everyone else to find a Thai partner. Now Gee is run by Thai citizens (possibly of Chinese descent) and they can do what they like. Therefore, Tesco is like a giant Thai supermarket, whereas Gee is like a supermarket in a town with many foreign residents. Does Tesco sell, for example, meat pies? No, but Gee does. The first time I visited a Tesco Lotus (in Bangkok), I was immensely disappointed to find so few of the products one might expect to find at a real Tesco. Business is business, of course, and so whenever I do my weekend shopping, I visit both supermarkets. Tesco does have a bigger choice of everyday items, thanks to its large size, but I usually end up having to pop into Gee on my way home, to buy the things I couldn’t get at Tesco Lotus. Also, as Tesco is part of a large and very fashionable shopping mall, parking can be a problem if one doesn’t get there around opening time, whereas Gee — which isn’t fashionable by any criteria — usually has plenty of room. So if you’re planning to live in northern Hua Hin and feel that ‘market Village’ (the mall in which Tesco is located) is not worth the drive and traffic, fret not. Many foreigners survived for years before Tesco came along, relying on Gee for the necessities of life. You can, too!

I was recently very chuffed to get some email from some of my former students, both in Japan and here in Hua Hin. The one in Japan was from a rather eccentric (in a very nice way) gentleman who is now contemplating taking time off from his typically hectic, Japanese-style work schedule to go and study photography in either Vilnius or Sofia! This chap is also studying the Chinese language, just in case he has a few minutes unfilled. Just reading about his schedule makes me tired! The Thai student was a young lady I remember very well. Not only was she extremely attractive in a highly effervescent way, but she was also an exemplary student. I don’t mean she never made a mistake or missed class, as that would imply cheating rather than diligence, but she always sat in the front row, asked a lot of challenging and relevant questions, and as an added bonus, actually greeted me and chatted sociably on my entering the classroom. I was very pleased to read that she had managed to gain a job as a trainee junior cabin crew with the Japanese airline 'Jalways'. She has to undergo a few weeks of Japanese language training, though she’s a bright girl and should get through this OK. However, later she will be serving the passengers aboard Jalways aircraft. If you should happen to fly with the airline any time after December this year, and if you should happen to come across a nicely vivacious flight attendant who answers to the nickname of ‘Pik’, say hi for me. If there is any justice (which may be expecting too much of life), then I’m sure she will do well — better than her former classmates who often seemed to be treading water, academically speaking!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Things to do: Find new maid and 'approve' new constitution!

One thing that many foreigners living in Thailand have that they didn’t have before is a servant. To be precise, they usually find that they can afford a maid to do the housework and other such tasks. Now I grew up on a colonial farm and so this isn’t the first time I’ve had servants. However, finding a good maid is, to quote the Thai proverb, a bit like diving for a needle in the ocean (งมเข็มในมหาสมุทร) — in other words, a needle in a haystack! Even my Thai friends tell me that good maids are like snow in the summer — not totally impossible but damn’d close! When we moved here, our builder (an excellent and helpful chap of whom I shall speak more later) helped us to find a maid. At first, she seemed ideal. Hard working, cheerful, well connected with the people who matter round here — she even spoke some English. However, when we began to trust her more and give her added responsibility, it went straight to her head. She became lazy, she lied about what she’d done and she even began to badmouth us to other people. So we parted company. When our absentee landlord neighbours had a similarly bad experience with her, when she failed to clean their place just before their friends were due to arrive, it took a call to the aforementioned builder, who also happens to be our village headman, to get her back to work. We, meanwhile, used this helpful builder to find a new maid. This one has no English and so communication is a challenge — but at least she couldn’t get too ambitious about her role here. However, like many Thais, she has this Buddhist-based idea that if she does you a special favour today, she can automatically let you down tomorrow — that a favour is an automatic pardon for future misdeeds. This is not the way we did things back on the farm and it still isn’t, and so we have had disagreements with the latest maid. However, she’s still working for us — for the time being. But I sincerely doubt if any foreigner here has the same servant for many years, let alone the three or four generations that my family’s servants worked for the family back in Africa!

If you've ever read 'A Year in Provence' (which I recommend to anyone planning to live in a foreign place), you may remember a character named Menucucci (changed to Colombani in the much funnier TV version). Well, we have our own version, a Thai of Chinese descent named Chanwut. He is the chap I mentioned above, our builder and the local village boss. He is also the man we call whenever anything goes wrong. A leaking window, a dodgy window grille, a suspicious stain on the ceiling — call in Chanwut, and he will respond. Rarely as promptly as one might wish but still a lot more promptly than many others here. If he can’t fix it (and when it comes to construction and maintenance, he is a truly a renaissance man), he is sure (to quote an old AA advert from British TV) to know a man who can. From small things like hanging pictures on the wall to big things like extending the rear patio awning or helping to set up a friend’s new office downtown, he usually gets things done. One amusing aspect of any visit by khun Chanwut, however, is that he will at some time during the conversation complain about how useless Thai workers are. He reminds me of the venerable gent who was 'Head Boy' on my family's Rhodesian farm who always complained about 'them damn blacks', despite his own lack of pallidity! Hua Hin is a small town and many of its better artisans speak no English and therefore do not mix with the foreign community. Knowing someone like khun Chanwut can therefore make a big difference to one’s life here. OK, I am sure that he takes a rack-off from any tradesman he puts us in touch with, and that any help he acts as arranger for is beneficial to him in the long run. However, that’s the way of the world. If a broker arranges a good insurance policy for you, or if an estate agent finds you a nice home, don’t they get some recompense? Of course, and so why shouldn’t khun Chanwut? We have a simple choice: use his recommendation (which is usually very satisfactory) and pay the slight surcharge to cover his ‘commission’ or try to do it alone, which might prove far more costly in the long run!

Usually in August, Thailand can expect to occasionally have a long weekend due to Mother’s Day, which is celebrated on the 12th. The reason for this date is simple — it’s the birthday of Sirikit Kitiyakara, a lady who is now H.M. the Queen of Thailand, and therefore the ‘mother of the nation. Oh, and before you ask, her revered husband’s birthday (in December) is Father’s Day. Anyway, the point I am making is that this year, August is going to have not one but two long weekends. You see, the government, eager to make the new constitution (Thailand’s 18th since the abolition of absolute monarchy 75 years ago) respectable, is considering making the 20th, the day of the constitutional referendum, a holiday — no excuses for not voting! Knowing the locals as I do, having two long weekends is likely to mean that Thailand is basically closed for business this month, and as for colleges — they might as well save power and stay shut till October! Like every other household in this kingdom, we had a copy of the new constitution delivered to our door. The fact it was completely in Thai made it difficult for linguistically challenged slobs like me to evaluate it, but what the hell. However, it has been posted on the Internet and covered in the newspapers, so I have been able to get a look at it. It is immediately clear that this document will be very different to the previous 1997 constitution. For example, although Thailand will continue to have a bicameral parliament, consisting of a House of Representatives and Senate, the latter chamber would be appointed by an unelected committee of judges and civil servants. The lower chamber would continue to be directly elected but would be reduced from 500 members to 400. This is clearly designed to make it harder for a demagogue like the deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was increasingly reviled by the Thai elite until he was eventually ousted in the September coup. However, one must be grateful for small mercies. During the drafting of this latest constitution, Thailand’s already powerful Buddhist clergy staged several protests and demonstrations outside the Parliament building, demanding that Buddhism be declared the country's official religion. Now such a move, apart from offending the roughly 1% of the population who are Christian, Sikh, Hindu, etc., such a move would undoubtedly have greatly upset Thailand’s Muslim community (4.6%) — not a very good idea with the near civil war situation now prevailing in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces. No, the military-appointed drafters wisely chose to keep the wording of the 1997 constitution, which says that the government "shall patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." Anyway, even though I obviously cannot vote in this referendum, it will still be interesting for me. I was once a political scientist and so witnessing Thailand’s first ever referendum will be of some interest to me. I sincerely doubt if this document will dramatically improve life for either Thai or farang, just as I fully expect there to be a constitution number 19 in due course. However, making allowances for the usual degree of vote buying (the poor need something to sell, after all), the result is not completely predictable. Then again …

Anyway, that’s it for now. The cloudy skies of rainy season Hua Hin are presently being somewhat battered by a very strong wind that has just slammed my back door so loudly that it even woke up my ever drowsy dog, but at least it rearranges the dust on the roads.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Doing Business in HH -- and Monkey Business in Bangkok!

A lady friend of mine recently decided to upgrade her business by opening an office downtown. Now it was difficult enough for her to set up her business in the first place and so she asked me to come along and help her deal with her future landlord. This lady is not a Thai and so, under Thailand’s strangely xenophobic business laws, she needed to have several Thai partners before she could establish a company. What’s more, the government expects her to be able to run the company without working — as owning (or co-owning) a company here isn’t enough to get you a visa. She officially needs to have four Thai staff before she can get herself a work permit. How she can pay those Thais when she cannot legally work herself is a mystery that only the idiots in Bangkok can answer but that’s how it is. Anyway, she eventually signed an agreement to rent this shop-cum-office for a 3-year period. The owner then told her that if she wants to have a sign telling the world her company is there, there are two kinds of tax levied by the municipality. If you have a sign without any Thai, you pay a higher rate but if you have even a couple of Thai words, the tax is much lower. Don’t even try to spot the logic in that as logic is one of many subjects not taught in Thai schools — like geography and PE!

You may have read about some violent anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok on Sunday. Well, as usual, what happens in Bangkok has very little effect on what happens here in Hua Hin, and so life continues the same as usual down here. The demonstrators were, unusually enough, venting their anger at one of the King’s chief advisers, a retired general whom they blame for planning last September’s coup. This adviser was, funnily enough, the leader of the military government that was running Thailand when I first stayed here, back in 1988. However, his government did a much better job than the present one, mainly because it concentrated on running the country rather than wasting a huge amount of time, money and goodwill on hunting down its perceived opponents. The former PM, Mr. Thaksin, is still at liberty in London, where is he is likely to remain as his business prospers, and the Thai government’s popularity continues to plummet. If that previously revered adviser was indeed behind the latest Thai coup (which wasn’t the first or the last), then he seems to have been unfortunate in his choice of leaders, as they are proving to be a lot less successful, popular or effective than he was. What do I think of the present government? I think I shall take the example of the wise old owl who, I was once taught, discovered that ‘the more he heard, the less he spoke — the less he spoke, the more he heard.” He also doubtless lived a lot longer than those who did the opposite.

The Rainy Season is officially here but the weekend was noticeably not rainy. OK, Saturday was rather cloudy and threatening, but if there was any rain, it didn’t fall while I was awake. Yesterday, when I had a braai (BBQ) on my lawn, the sun shone down so strongly that my guests and I had to eat indoors until the lawn became shady. This morning is also boding well, with only a very few clouds in sight. This should make me feel a bit guilty, I suppose, seeing all these reports of serious floods in China and back in the UK — but it doesn’t! One reason I chose this town as a residence is because this province, Prachuap Kirikhan, is one of the driest in Thailand. Also, it’s worth remembering that whereas the Brits affected by the British floods are complaining about the government not doing anything, flood victims here would be amazed if the government even noticed! A phrase I learned the hard way during my army days (back in the time of spears and chariots) was “demandez tu”, which basically means “ask yourself”, or deal with it yourself. If my house were to be flooded, that would doubtless be the answer I could expect from any official I sought help. Of course, there is the fact that I pay much less to the local and national government, so you get what you pay for!