Bangkok Floods: Ground Zero

The floods that have swept across Thailand this year are said to be the worst in over 50 years. When I first heard talk of them, I didn’t pay too much attention. Floods are a frequent occurrence in Thailand during the annual rainy season from June to October. I imagined they’d soon be over, and listed them as unimportant on my mental checklist. Besides, that kind of thing always seems to happen to someone else. But as the floods continued moving southwards, devastating the homes and lives of those who stood in the way, I began to take notice. Still, I didn’t believe they’d affect me.

I have worked as a TEFL teacher these last few years, enjoying the dream that so many people are making into a reality nowadays. The school year starts in May here, with a 2-3 week break in October signaling the end of the first semester. As the holidays approached this year, it became clear that many people’s holiday plans were going to be disrupted by the floods already wreaking havoc in Ayutthaya and other northern provinces.

Initially, our school had planned to take around 100 students on a camp to Kao Yai, a popular getaway just north of Bangkok. But as it became inevitable that the floods would reach Bangkok, the camp date was pushed back until the end of October. Everybody hoped that the floods would have receded by then, and we could all go on camp as planned. In fact, they got worse, and the camp has now been postponed until December. But not only has the camp been disrupted, now the second semester has been pushed back by two weeks, meaning that  precious teaching time is going to be lost.

I also have a family. My wife tends to worry a lot more than me, and so when she suggested leaving Bangkok to escape the effect of the floods, I didn’t take her too seriously. But as the flood situation worsened, I decided that I should support her, at least for the sake of our 15-month-old son. We are now in the northeast of Thailand, staying in her mum’s village and waiting for the floods to pass so that we may return to some sense of normality. All buses returning to Bangkok have been cancelled, and so even if I wanted to return, I couldn’t do it right now. Our money is quickly diminishing, and I’m now waiting on my school to pay me so that we can buy milk for our son.

But we’re not the only ones who are feeling the bite of this flood episode. In fact, we have been rather lucky. Many people have lost their homes, their cars, and other valuable possessions. Years of hard work washed away in a few moments. Our house, as of the time of this writing, has not yet been affected by the flood waters. The last I heard from my friend in Bangkok, the water on the street where we live is beginning to rise, literally rising up through the inefficient drainage system. Perhaps our spell of luck is coming to an end. The only thing in our favour right now is that we don’t have much to lose. We rent the house, and all our furniture and valuables have been moved to the upper floor. Many people in Bangkok will be dipping into those hard-earned life savings to keep their heads above the water – literally and figuratively – in these coming months.

And yet, I can’t help sensing a note of bitter irony in some of these flood stories. Affluent Thais like to build high walls around their houses, creating a physical barrier between themselves and the gritty reality of life for the majority of Thailand’s poor inhabitants. Those walls may have protected them against robbers and thieves, but they were useless against the inexorable onslaught of nature. It’s at times like these that we remember what is really important in life: food and water, safety and comfort for our families. I feel lucky that I have only had my plans disrupted, and I pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones. Let’s hope an end to these raging floods is in sight.

Advertisements

Skytrain Encounters – Multilingual Musings

Sitting on the Skytrain at 12:30 p.m. today, after attending some pressing business in downtown Bangkok (ahem), I was struck by the profusion of languages being spoken around me. Directly opposite me sat three tourists speaking French. On the seat next to me, a man who appeared to be of Turkish or Eastern European descent was talking to a blonde-haired woman in a language that I could not place, though it sounded to be European. To my left, a Thai woman was in conversation on her mobile phone, most of which I could understand (poor guy, I guess he just wasn’t “performing”, but to dump him like that!). And not too far away to my right, two men were communicating with each other by sign language. Another man, further down the carriage, was talking animatedly to his friend in English.

All in all, I realized that five different languages were being spoken around me and those were just the ones I could hear (or see in the case of the sign language). It’s fascinating to think of all the ways people can communicate. Languages are not only spoken, they are the way we tell the world how we’re feeling. Sometimes they’re verbal; sometimes they’re non-verbal: body language, written language, Braille, and codes; to name a few. Art and music are both abstract – and some would say universal – forms of language: we can communicate our innermost feelings through a beautiful painting or piece of music in ways that words would fail to convey.

It also taught me how much Thai has become part of my life these last few years. To think that this strange*, tonal language now means more to me than French – a language spoken only a few hundred miles away from where I was born, with words that have seeped into our own language (boutique, blonde, chaise longue etc.). It made me proud of my achievements, and yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I know who I am anymore. The Buddhists teach that there is no you. But we grasp at an image of ourselves, often unwilling to let go of even the bad things.

In retrospect, it was one of those rocky precipices on the journey of self discovery where we are able to look out across the landscape of life and view our surroundings and progress with absolute clarity: I saw that there is no me, and that I am free to shape my destiny however I choose to. As Nina Simone once sang: “If I die and my soul be lost, aint nobody’s fault but mine.” Change can often be uncomfortable, but in the long run, those who experience more diversity develop a greater appreciation of life than those who never open their mind to new things.

The automated female voice of the Skytrain announced over the tannoy: Satanee dtor bpai Anusawari Chai Samoraphum, then followed in precise, mechanical English: Next station, Victory Monument. I woke up from my musings, which suddenly seemed like so much meaningless conjecture, and I was back in the dense, foggy jungle of life. Keep the mind sharp, so that you may cut through the vines, creepers and poison ivy that block the path to happiness!

 

*Strange in the sense that it is strange to me. Of course Thai is no stranger than English.


Bangkok: City of Swamps and Scams

If you’re thinking of buying a house in Bangkok, take a few minutes to read on and consider whether it’s a sensible investment.

Construction methods in Thailand’s capital leave a lot to be desired and first-time foreign witnesses of this antediluvian approach to building are often shocked at the conditions under which labourers carry-out their tasks.  It is not uncommon to see entire families shacked up in make-shift homes on the side of the road while they complete a building project. Children run euphorically around the site while mum and dad toil under the burden of heavy loads, wearing open-toe shoes and wide-brimmed hats as their only safety gear. A project which would take a month to complete in the West, takes five months in Bangkok. Houses are erected on bamboo scaffolding, concrete mixed with water from polluted sources, and contractors cut corners on material costs then pocket the difference.

Bangkok construction worker

Bangkok construction worker

Needless to say then that many houses in Bangkok don’t last long and, like many things in Thailand, behind the pretty white-painted façade, are the deep cracks and structural weaknesses that will leave your investment practically worthless in around 10 years. For those who have visited or lived in Thailand, “ghost buildings” are a common sight. These empty shells stand disused and blackened from pollution, with remnants of the former occupants – posters on the walls, curtains fluttering in the wind – still left untouched, creating an eerie effect. Many of these ghost buildings are half-finished projects that were left undone after money dried up in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Some of them are just abandoned apartment complexes that are no longer structurally safe.

Ghost building in Bangkok

Ghost building in Bangkok

And if that’s not enough to convince you that buying property in Thailand is an iffy business, get this: Bangkok is sinking. Yes, you heard it, our beloved city of angels is sinking, and experts predict that parts of the city may have to be abandoned as encroaching waves are aided by poor drainage systems, depressions in the earth’s crust – caused by water for industry being extracted from underground aquifers – and poor flood defences. Once dubbed the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok started out as a trading post on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where natural and man-made canals provided transport and drainage. During the post-World War II race to modernize, many of the canals were filled in as the automobile-hungry population demanded road space.

khun samut chin

khun Samut Chin - Temple being pounded by waves on the Gulf of Thailand

Because Bangkok is built on sediment, rather than bedrock, the city is slowly sinking. Estimates vary from 2 to 4 inches per year but that it is sinking cannot be disputed. Parts of the capital are already below sea level and the coastline rises just 3 to 5 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the government’s Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration, says that Bangkok will be under sea permanently in the next 15 to 20 years. Bangkok is the heart of Thailand and if it goes under water, “everything would stop,” says Dharmasaroja. Experts all agree that Bangkok is headed for trouble, though no-one agrees on when. However, one thing to consider is that Bangkok has been under the sea before, as recently as 5,000 years ago; perhaps this swampy city is headed there again!


The Round Eyes, Big Nose Tax: Thailand’s double-pricing system for foreigners

We’ve all heard the horror stories of how Thailand has a double-pricing system for foreigners. But have you actually experienced it, and what was your reaction?

A sign post clearly showing a price for Thais and a price for everyone else.

AGAINST DOUBLE-PRICING

Before I came to Thailand, I read about the double-pricing system for foreigners. When I first came here, I was paranoid that I was paying double because of my “round eyes and big nose.” Over time I came to know how much things cost and found that if I spoke Thai and acted like I knew the score, I usually didn’t have any problems. Double-pricing can strike anywhere, at any time, but the uninitiated are more likely to fall victim to this unofficial tax.

Take, for example, the tuks tuks in tourist central: the drivers want 150 baht for a journey that would cost 50 in a taxi. One-time visitors don’t know any different and often pay for the novelty of riding in these freaks of automobilia. But when you’ve lived in Bangkok for a while, and you know that they should be charging you about 40 baht, it gets kind of annoying. The problem is, no matter how long you stay here, you will always have “round eyes and a big nose” and unless we wear a t-shirt that proclaims: “I’ve lived here for over two years” – we remain tourists in their eyes.

This double-pricing system shows the amazing short-sightedness of Thai people: charge me double and I’ll never do business with you again; treat me with respect and I’ll become a regular, devoted customer. The other day, I went to a new street vendor to buy food because my usual place was closed. I ordered two dishes that I know cost 30 baht from anywhere else and the woman charged me ninety. No big deal. I paid. Didn’t complain . . . and I’ll never go there again. It wasn’t so much the price, it was the principal.

FOR DOUBLE-PRICING

Okay, but it’s easy to see everything from the farang’s point of view and forget that the humble street vendor/tuk tuk driver – who has perhaps suffered years of hardship, living life on the edge, worrying how to provide a staple meal for his/her children – may in fact be the one getting ripped-off. Thailand is their home, they’ve grown up here, paid tax since the moment they were born and given their heart and soul to the nation. Farangs turn up midway through their lives and demand equal treatment. They say the universe has a way of righting itself and perhaps the double-pricing system is Thailand’s way of making foreigners pay their way.

Ever heard embarrassing stories of farangs blowing their lid and losing all self-control in public, smashing up restaurants over 20 baht or slapping the waitress who charged for ice? Come on “hot heads.” Chill out! We have to remember that we are guests in a country that was here long before us, and will be here long after us. The customs and traditions of Thailand are deeply rooted in a long and complex history dominated by social status, age and gender. The farang, typically arrogant, turns up and tries to change all that during a month-long vacation.

And then there’s the smartass farangs, who’ve read all about bartering and have vowed to make it their duty to ask for a discount on everything. I know one farang who – in my mind – is synonymous with the phrase: “lod dai tow rai?” (How much discount can you give?). From the first moment I met this guy he was bragging about his bartering exploits. He once proudly told me how he’d bartered the motorcycle taxi down from ten, to seven baht. I mean, come on, you have to draw the line somewhere. No need to add insult to injury.

So there you have it. Love it or hate it, the double-pricing system in Thailand is going as strong as ever. It would be interesting to hear from the readers and discover what your experience of double-pricing is? Ever been charged an outrageous sum of money for some insignificant item? Ever blow your top and demand the right price? Whatever your story, it would be good to hear your thoughts on double-pricing. If you’re too busy to write a comment, why not vote in the user’s poll below? Are you for or against the double-pricing system? Let the voting begin!