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Thaiing up my life

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About this blog

How it is to be an expat in a very individual country

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I went tonight to the Grand Opening of my friend's bar. It was great. Lots of people, good live music, great food -including a roast suckling pig. I reckon it cost her at least 10,000 baht - about $350. Doesn't sound a lot, but here it is. I live on about 30,000 baht a month. There were LOTS of people there. Some were fellow bar owners, there to wish her luck - they won't be back, they have their own bars to run. Some were friends and family, who don't usually go to bars - but came to show support. Many were what we call balloon chasers - when a bar is having a party, and giving away free food, they put balloons outside. Some people go from balloon to balloon, to avoid paying for food. I saw some come in, eat, have a glass of water or a small beer, and leave. One table had three different groups in less than 90 minutes. And then there were some who are and will be customers. I''m just not sure there were enough of them. Out of maybe 150 people all night - I was there from shortly after it started at 7pm until nearly midnight - there were maybe 20 to 30 who will be regular customers - and they won't be there every day. I'm her friend, and was there with some of her relatives. We'll probably go as a group about once a week. I'll go another night with other friends. I'm just not sure it's enough to sustain her business. She has three employees, whose wages must add up to at least 40,000 baht a month. Tonight, she had four extras, because she knew it would be super busy. I really want it to work for her, but the freeloaders tonight upset me. So I'm feeling a bit down.




New businesses in the Low season

The high season for tourism in Thailand is Nov - Apr. We get little spurts around European summer holidays, but only minimal And tourism is down - badly, Having an authoritarian military government has upset many nations, the spate of bombs last year - two in my town - the perceived lack of integrity into criminal investigation of murdered foreigners - well, it ain't good for business. At the moment, our town centre is devoid of tourists. Yet this is when two of my closest friends have decided to open bars. One opens on June 1st, the other has had a 'soft'opening, and will have its Grand Opening on June 3rd. I love these people. They are all Thai, and particularly for one, failure will be financially devastating. These latter are my taxi driver, his wife, her sister, and her sister's daughter - Nung, Am, Oyl and Em. Am is a great cook - both Thai and foreign food. Oyl has run a bar successfully for 10 years, and many of the locals will follow her. They are opening in the town centre, only 100m from where they used to work - but rents are high there.They need steady business. The former is my Thai friend N from the NorthEast, with whom I spent Songkran. She has had a successful guest house - in the nineties - and two successful resorts - until about 2003. Then she and her husband sold the resort, and he promptly left her for a woman less than half her age. She has struggled a bit since - she lost a lot of self esteem. She ran a furniture shop, but competition eventually undermined her. She has a beauty/massage shop - and now she has bought a bar outright. It has quite a bit of land, so I don't think she will lose capital,as she got it at a good price. It also has accommodation, both for herself and for customers. She wants to make it a bar/restaurant, and a destination stop. It is not in town, but about 4km out, in an area with a great many developments, with many foreigners. (Thais don't tend to drink in bars, unless they are westernised. Instead, Momma/Poppa type shops have seating outside where you can drink and eat snacks at low retail prices. Bars cost more.) I am terrified of either failing. It would destroy one financially, the other emotionally. So - I'm trying to help. I've had talks with a wide range of acquaintances about what makes them go to a bar - and it is coming down to one thing - price. The Thai baht is very strong now, which means EU/UK/US/Scandinavian pensions - the main expat groups - are all devalued - by as much as 70% Most bars do 'Happy hour" - either two for one, or a greatly reduced price. They need to be different. I've suggested a loyalty card scheme  - after you've had at least ten drinks in the bar, you become eligible for a card which gives you a 10 - 15% discount. The thing is, there are so many bars - and no one goes into an empty one. If you can have half a dozen loyalty cards on discount, making the bar look occupied, it will bring in more people. 25 baht a drink profit on 6 people is better than 40 baht on none! Both have really good cooks. I suggested they do two or three very cheap meals - noodle or rice soup, noodles and  pork sauce - for 30-40 baht - same as the street vendors and local noodle shops. Get them in - then they may get interested in your specialty dishes.... My friend from the northeast is employing a cook I introduced to her  - she can cook Thai, European and Mexican food. There is NO mexican food in town since the bar she last worked at (abysmally run) closed. That's N's unique selling point. She put on a free Mexican buffet at the pool match today, and everyone raved at how good it was.(Free food at pool and darts matches is a given here.) Hopefully, they'll come back for more. Anyone else got any ideas? I have no marketing background - any advice I've given is seat of the pants, and reaction to conversations I've had. I care very much about all of these people, and really do not want them to fail. Words of Wisdom welcome!  




Driving in Thailand

I never learnt to drive in the UK. I lived in London - brilliant public transport - and travelled for a living . It wasn't necessary. But when I moved here, and had a business, I needed to drive. And I was over 50! So  I bought a vehicle. On the advice of friends, who said it would be safer, I have a rather - muscular - truck. It's big. Most smaller vehicles give me a wide berth. And the bull bar on the front scares the motor bikes a bit, so they also steer clear. Thank g-d they do. In Thailand, you can't get insurance until you have a licence. So you have to learn without insurance. This terrified me! So I learnt the very basics, and then went to take my test. An employee drove me there.......and my secretary, whose Dad was best friends with the chief examiner, came too. Her Dad's friend took me into his office to take the written test - 'just ask if you are stuck'. My favourite multiple choice question was this: If you are driving a long time, and get drowsy, you should: a)Drink lots of black coffee b)Pull over and take a break c)Turn the music up loud in your vehicle to keep you alert d)Take some amphetamines Truly! And he told me d) was a frequent answer...... Then it came to the practical part of the test - which took place in the licensing centre car park. I had to pull forward, turn a corner, steer to a corner ahead, reverse between two poles , then turn a corner and park no more than 18 inches from the kerb. I couldn't reverse. So he told me to wind my window down, and he called out to me -'left hand down - now right - more left' until I was between the poles. And I had my licence. My employee drove me home.  Then I was on the road. I practised a lot more in a very quiet area in the National Park before I ventured into town. And on my first foray, I came to a 4 way junction where NOBODY gave way - you have to edge out, and force people to let you in. (A technique I've now learnt!) I sat there, frozen, waiting for a gap that never appeared, for 15 minutes - and backed up traffic halfway through our small town....eventually, a driver behind me got out, stoppped the traffic, and got me moving. I've been driving now almost 15 years, and no longer cause traffic jams. But I am still terrified by the motor bikes and scooters which outnumber cars here.They drive the wrong way on a dual carriageway (divided highway), they ignore red lights, they thread through traffic to be at the front of any queue. To have a licence to drive one, you have to be 16. When I had a resort, my chef's 8 year old sister used to come to pick her up.....School finishing time is when I will NOT be on the road - not only is the average age of the drivers 12-13, but they are 4 to a bike! In the UK, the police always had a special effort to stop drunk drivers at Xmas/NewYear. Here, last year, at Songkran, the police stopped 170,200 motorbike riders without helmets. They stopped 178,000 without licences, Oh, and they turn off all the traffic lights in my town at midnight. Bars close at 2 am. I don't drive at night either. And I have a teetotal taxi driver. The accident statistics are very high.   .  




Thailand and Prostitution

The question I was most asked by my Brit friends when I first announced I was moving here, was " But how, as a feminist, can you go to live in a country that is a byword for prostitution and the exploitation of women?" I'll try and answer. First, the prostitution that is most famous - ie that involving foreign customers - is actually quite small, and confined to fairly defined areas. Bangkok, in certain districts only, and the major tourist towns, especially Pattaya. I live in a small tourist town, and it is found in only a small area in the centre of town, and one other street of bars. So it is not always in my face. And I don't really know the culture of the floorshows and sex cabarets which you find in Bangkok and Pattaya. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't be aware, and informed, about it. So it's a subject I've talked about a lot with my Thai friends. This is what they have told me. Most of those involved in falang (Foreign) prostitution - they are known as bargirls - are from Eesan - the extremely poor north east, where education tends to end at about 12 to 14 years of age. Many girls marry young; those that don't, go away to work and send money home. Many of those who marry are deserted by their husbands, and there is no system of enforcing child support - so any children are left with their grandparents, and the mother goes away to find work to provide for them. With very little education, what jobs can they get? 1.A minimum wage factory job in Bangkok or one of the industrial cities. This carries a wage of around 8,000 baht a month. By the time they pay for their accommodation, food and transportation, they can send home maybe 3,000 - 4000 a month, by living on the breadline. 2.A live in job as a maid, usually in Bangkok. They would earn about 4,000 - 5,000 baht a month all found, if they are lucky, as illegal Burmese workers will work for considerably less. 3.A live in job all found at a hotel, resort or guest house in a tourist area. This pays around 6,000 - 7,000 baht a month, with tips if they are lucky. Considered a good job. 4.Bargirl. In high season, she can earn 30,000 - 35,000 a month, and many meet a man who is willing to pay them a monthly allowance to stay out of the bar when he is not there - I am afraid most take the money, sometimes from more than one man, and still work the bar. She can send a lot of money home. In low season they can earn almost nothing. But she does need to speak at least a minimum - and I mean a minimum - of English. There is no shame in the family in working as a bargirl - you are supporting them financially. 5.Golf Caddy. Thailand is a major golfing destination - my relatively small town has over a dozen golf courses within 15 miles. Caddies are all women, and their use is compulsory on most courses. They are paid 8,000 - 9,000 a month, and can expect to at least double that on tips. But they do have to speak some English, and be able to learn the intricacies of the course where they work, and advise accordingly. It is also a year round job. To make sense of the earnings I am mentioning here, I don't know any foreigner living on less than 30,000 a month. I spend between 30,000 and 40,000, and I own my house outright, and don't lead an extragavant lifestyle. There are , of course, other jobs. Masseuse, noodle stall, retail work in a Thai environment - but 1 to 5 above are the main employers for those Eesan people working away from home. Golf caddy is the most coveted job, but I can certainly understand an uneducated girl with a family to support becoming a bargirl. The only answer I can see to this cycle is education, and thus access to a greater range of employment. In the short term, better access to education in Eesan isn't happening. So - how do I live here? I don't judge. I have friends who are or have been bargirls. I respect them, and the choices they have made- or have had to make. I don't go to bars where it's in your face - the bars with the floorshows involving ping pong balls and the like are mainly in Bangkok and Pattaya, and in our town, there are none.  The girls are usually wearing T shirts and shorts or jeans, and the occasional short skirt/dress - but they all have the most incredible shoes! You only know it's a 'girly' bar because there are obviously too many staff for the size of the bar....I  have even played pool against bargirl teams - and had a great time! You often see May and September - or even December - pairings. But just as many are more age appropriate. Often - more often than you would imagine - their falang boyfriends buy them land or property. A surprisingly high number marry a customer. Many go to the home country of their husband. Some of these girls are very bright indeed, and see 10 years of being with a much older man, whose every need they cater to, and whom they spoil to death, as worth it for financial security for life.* In these cases, I  believe both parties benefit - I think most men would rather spend their declining years being fussed over in Thailand than in a nursing home in their home country.** Often they will have a child - and at least that child will be properly educated. Often the Thai girlfriend's children from a former relationship will join them - and usually, they too are given a proper education Don't get me wrong - I'm not condoning a culture of prostitution. I'd rather - much rather - they had the education to have a much wider range of choices. But those girls that I know, in my town, where it is very low key, are making the best they can of a bad hand - and I admire many of them. * The value of a falang style house in a tourist area will translate to a village house and land to farm or a small income , even if they are not left with a lot of cash/pension/life insurance. ** My neighbour is 92, and his Thai wife treats him like a king. She's in her 40s, and they have been together 12 years. He is very happy, and she seems content - she's a very nice lady.    




The Land Of Smiles

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. And yes, everyone smiles - a lot. As you walk along the street, strangers smile at you  - it's a lovely day - why not smile? But the Thai smile has many different meanings; I've lived here for over 15 years and still have things to learn. It can be: 1.I really like you, and we are going to be friends. 2.Not sure about you, but it's rude to be unfriendly. 3. I don't understand any thing you are saying, but I will smile and nod to be polite. 4. You are a very strange foreigner, and I don't know quite how I should react - so smile is the default position. 5. God, you're an idiot, and I can make some money here! I've met all of those - and I am sure there are more. I speak some Thai (not enough - the tones defeat me!) and on the whole, it's numbers 1 - 4 I have met most. But when I first came here, I met a lot of number 5! And unfortunately number 5 is the one most likely to be encountered by tourists - especially in Bangkok. Royal Palace 'closed to visitors' because of Buddhist holiday - but I can take you to this marvellous place having a jewellery sale/handbag sale/watch sale.... No 5 aren't the real Thailand. 1 - 4 are. It breaks my heart that so many visitors who only visit Bangkok only meet No 5. Most Thais are the most hospitable, friendly people you will ever meet. They will go enormously out of their way to help a stranger. But, like any country, there are those who wish to take advantage of the naive. I hate that so many blogs etc on Thailand list only the scams - of which there are many, especially in Bangkok, and at the airport there -and don't acknowledge/know the many, many people who will go out of their way to help a stranger. I have seen drunken foreigners driven back to their accommodation - free -sick visitors taken to the hospital, and those that live here all have stories of Thais just being there when needed. I was very sick a while ago, and my (once a week) maid came daily to check on me. My regular taxi driver rang daily to see if I needed anything. I live alone, and my (twice a week) gardener always checks I am up and about.... So - yes, there are the scam artists, and they make the travel blogs etc - but the Thais I know have been much more concerned about me than I would have found in the UK. For me, the smiles have been real.




Songkran in the village

My friends' village is in the North East - Eesan in Thai - of the country, which is by far the poorest area. Most people there are subsistence rice farmers, and their situation has worsened with climate change: most years they get only one, not two harvests, as rainfall has decreased. Usually, one child in a family will work the family paddies. Others may marry locally, someone else who owns land, but often the other children go to work in Bangkok or in a tourist area. This is my friends' situation. There were seven of them. D - boy - died aged 21 over 40 years ago. He had taken a job logging in the jungle after a failed rice harvest, and caught malaria. So did their father, who also died. L - girl - married a village man who deserted her, leaving her with 3 children. She took a job as a maid in Bangkok, and her mother took care of her kids. 2 of the 3 died of dysentery aged 4 and 6 - there was no medical care close enough to save them. She later met an Englishman in Bangkok, and has now been married for over 30 years; they have one daughter. They lived and worked in Saudi Arabia until his recent retirement,when they came to live permanently in our town. B - boy - married a local girl, 3 children. Worked in Bangkok, and later for his sister L in the resort town where we live.Died of leukemia at 51. K - girl - married a local man, moved to Pattaya, where he works in construction and she has a noodle stall. Planning to retire back to the village, and open a shop selling agricultural supplies. N - went to work as a maid in Bangkok at age 14. At around 20, met an Englishman in a disco, married him and had 2 children.They were later my business partners, but I first met them 25 years ago. Their marriage ended, and she now has a beauty shop and a bar/restaurant in our town. K2 - girl - Married a local man and stayed in the family house in the village. They farm the family land. J - boy - Came to work for N in our town in his very early twenties. Has now established his own business, and is doing very well. N, J and L are all close friends, as are J and L's spouses.We live very closely, less than a mile between all of us. Financially, these three are all very comfortable by Thai standards, and all help the rest of the family, sometimes by offering employment, sometimes by supporting village projects.  Recently they helped install pumps and piping to allow irrigation of the paddy fields from the nearby dam - which allows the village to get two rice harvests a year. As they grow jasmine rice - the highest quality and most expensive - this has vastly improved the income of the villagers. I have known this family for years - but I only know one's real name! Thailand has a tradition of nicknames, which are used to the exclusion of the real name. So, sister No.1 is 'little' - and my favourite, brother No 3 is 'pouty mouth' - because he had tantrums as a 2 year old! Sadly, the word for 'pouty mouth', if the tone (Thai has low, medium,high, rising and falling tones) is not correct, also means 'penis' - so a lot of foreigners, without knowing it, are calling him a dick......I have other friends called mouse, crab, small, fat, one, dog and rat! N, J and L are all quite westernised, and speak good English - self taught. They all had/have businesses where they interact with foreigners in our resort town. But back in the village, they are pure Eesan! I was educated in the delights of fresh, field caught fried crickets as opposed to farmed ones, and watched the balls of a bull being roasted over an open fire - and then they did the tail. The poverty of the past means they will eat just about anything. N and L would go for a walk, and come back with wild greens of various kinds for dinner. There is not much wildlife - the name of the village includes 'crocodile', and I asked where I could see them - "Oh, we ate them all"! I'm so lucky to have made these friends all those years ago. They treat me as family, and call me 'big sister' - I am the same age as L. This is a tremendous compliment in Thailand, and I feel privileged. I've been at their weddings - the second generation now - and their funerals.At their memorials and merit making ceremonies. And at their GREAT parties! Thanks to them, I don't feel an outsider in my much loved, adopted country.  




Being Thaied up

I've dropped a few comments in Specularium about how it is living as an expat here - maybe instead of interrupting, this blog is the way to share. I've lived here in Thailand for almost 14 years - and was a frequent visitor for at least 14 years before that. My first business was a a joint owner of a beachside, 20 bedroom resort - idyllic, except for my business partner, whose wife has since been charged with attempted murder...that was my lucky escape!( He was a Brit, by the way). Sold out of that, and went into business with old friends - he is Brit, she is Thai, were then married. We built houses - very good ones! Our developments sold out fast. I'm now retired, and enjoying it! I've both Thai and Falang (foreign) friends, and most social occasions involve both. Been down at the beach today - and have not been so embarrassed for a very long time. I was with an English family I know well, a Thai friend, and a visitor. We were sitting in a beach cafe - and at the next table was an English guy, probably in his sixties, who at 3 in the afternoon was very drunk, singing loudly, expressing his opinions at the top of his voice (and his only adjective was' fucking' and only personal noun was 'cunt'). The bar owner was having a massage - Thai massages are world renowned - but had to listen to a barrage of 'you're fucking gay, you are! you fucking gay cunt!'. I wanted to go into a corner and die. I know all the staff at this cafe - we go there at least once a week. We - a party of 8 - had a choice - to leave, and deprive the owner of much needed income because of this idiot's behaviour, or stay, and endure it. We stayed for a while - and when we left, apologised to the owner, and said we were ashamed to be British. What would you have done? This is a country where the local people are NEVER rude to a guest, and just endure bad behaviour. But confronting this eejit ourselves could have caused an incident. I still don't know - I was itching to tell him  to shut up!



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