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.

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Skytrain Encounters – Graffiti Man

Mark jumped off the Skytrain at Siam station – weaved between the crowds of people, all heading selfishly in their own direction – and crossed the platform to catch the connecting train to Mochit. At the edge of the platform, a puzzled-looking man was glancing up and down the tracks. He seemed to be lost, as though he wasn’t sure where to catch his train. Mark walked to the edge of the platform and chose his place to wait for the train.

“Excuse me,” said the man, he appeared to be of Middle-Eastern descent. “Is this where I catch the train to Nana?”

“Erm, I think it is,” said Mark. “Let me just check my ticket.” He pulled his ticket out of his wallet, which had all the stops on it, and looked for Nana. “Ahh, no, it’s not here. You have to go downstairs.”

“Ahh, downstairs,” said the man. “Thanks.” As he walked away, another man approached Mark:

“Was he looking for Nana?” He asked. He was an American, well dressed, and polite.

“Yes,” said Mark.

“It’s the one downstairs. You have to head for On Nut.”

“Yes, that’s where I sent him.” Mark smiled and turned away. He felt as though the man wanted a conversation with him, but he didn’t know what to say.

The train arrived and everyone boarded in that selfish way that people do in big cities: ready to elbow each other out of the way for a seat on the train. Mark got on and went to stand by the doors at the opposite side of the train. He usually left the seats free for others. The man stood next to him. Mark didn’t want to be rude so he changed the hand he was holding onto the bars with so that he was facing the American. He must have sensed the opening:

“So, do you live here?” He asked. He was tall, casual, and looked like the type who couldn’t help being friendly.

“Yes,” said Mark. “How about you?”

“Oh, I’m just here on vacation. What do you do out here?”

“The same as most foreigners here: teach.”

“Oh yeah? Is it good money?”

“Not really, but I’ve just been interviewed for a new job. It’s a music teaching job, which would be right up my street as I trained in music.”

“Cool! I’m a teacher also but I wasn’t able to find any work out here. I have a degree in psychology, and I work at a school in America, but I couldn’t find anything that matches the perks I have in my job back home.”

“I see,” said Mark. “Because it’s easy to find work here, it’s just not that easy to get a high-paying job.”

“I hear you. I just come here on long vacations. I love the place but it’s nice to have the option to go back home.”

“Yeah. Honestly I think that’s the best way: enjoy a long holiday here, then go back and earn more money in the West. I would probably do the same if I could.”

A Chinese-looking man sat watching them, probably listening to their English, seeing if he could understand the natives at play.

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, me I’m from London.”

“Not much to go back for at the moment then; except the riots and looters.”

“Yeah! Or beating up some innocent kid! Where are you from?”

“The States.”

“I see. Whereabouts?

“New York.”

“Ahh, I’ve always wanted to visit New York.”

“Yeah, it’s a cool place. A lotta history.”

“I was always into the New York graffiti, thought it was cool.”

“Yeah? I used to do some when I was a kid.”

“So are you like a famous graffiti artist or something?”

“Naa, just did it because everybody else did.”

The train stopped, and Mark was about to continue the conversation when he sensed the man moving away from him:

“Anyway, this is my stop.”

“Nice to meet you.” Mark reached out his hand and they exchanged a curt hand shake.

“You too.”

As the train sped off, Mark felt glad for his brief encounter. It was good to know there were still some friendly people in the world. He realized about a minute too late that he never asked the guy’s name. He cursed himself for missing the opportunity to extend his circle of friends in this lonely city. He looked out the windows at the concrete mass of Bangkok and knew there’d be other times.


The Frustration of Learning to Speak Thai – Be Careful What You Say

Learning to speak Thai can be a difficult task for Westerners who are not accustomed to tonal languages. But there is one obstacle that will get in the way of your learning that is not mentioned in any language books: Thais do not want you to speak Thai. Okay, this may seem rather severe, in fact, it is. The truth is, some Thais will be very flattering when it comes to speaking Thai: pood Thai keng (you speak good Thai), pood Thai chaat (you speak Thai clearly). But there is –despite this – a bit of a taboo regarding Westerners speaking Thai. It does not extend to Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malaysians or any other inhabitants of Asia; only white-skinned Westerners. If you are white, you simply cannot speak Thai, it’s beyond you; you are too sophisticated for this base language.

If you teach English in a school, you will more than likely be forbidden from speaking Thai. This can be a frustration when you have gone to great lengths to learn the language, impressed yourself with remembering tones, only to have it thrown right back in your face: DO NOT SPEAK THAI. This rule does not extend to Chinese teachers, who clearly have the grace to speak this tonal language; only the dumb farang should be forbidden from speaking Thai. I believe there are several reasons for this:

Firstly, Thais believe that English is the most important language in the world right now; quite rightly so, it is the international language of business. But the Thai parents have no concept of balance: it’s all or nothing with them. If there was a spectrum showing how enthusiastic a parent was about his or her child’s education, Thai parents would be at the far end of obsessive. I once tried to explain to a Thai father, who couldn’t understand why his seven-year-old daughter didn’t speak English as well as his fourteen-year-old son, that you need a balance: don’t push your child too hard, but don’t be completely blasé about their education, either. You need a middle ground, I tried telling him, where you care about their progress, but accept their shortcomings. I don’t know if he really heeded me, and besides, let’s face it; most seven-year-old girls are more interested in Barbie and playing with their friends than learning a foreign language.

Secondly, the Thais have gotten onto the band wagon of total immersion, and believe it’s absolutely necessary that the teacher should speak English at all times if their children are to learn the language. To some extent, they’re right. But once again, Thais show themselves to have a culture of extremes: there’s no middle ground; no Thai, not one word, not even outside the classroom, not even in the school grounds. Speaking Thai in a lesson can often be necessary to get a word across, and although there are sometimes Thai helpers in many English classrooms, even they sometimes don’t know the translations, though this is rare. The prevailing thought is that, if we speak Thai, they will not make any effort to speak English to us and just resort to Thai. There is some sense in this second point.

The third reason why farangs speaking Thai is taboo is that foreigners have a historically bad reputation for being able to speak it. It seems that until recently, relatively few farangs could speak Thai. It’s only now that a more progressive generation of visitors are flocking to the country that people are really eager to learn Thai. It seems to be more popular among the younger generation, though no doubt, there are older farangs who speak perfect Thai. Conversely, there are older farangs who have lived in Thailand for ten/twenty years and claim to speak not a word of this exotic lingo. Because of this reputation, Thais often make the assumption that you can’t speak Thai before you even open your mouth, which can be highly frustrating when you understand what they’re saying: farang pood pasa Thai mai dai (the foreigner can’t speak Thai), I’ve been known to walk away from shops that have given me that treatment.

If you’re applying for a job as an English teacher in Thailand, just beware that your proud claim to speaking Thai might actually be an impediment to you getting the job. Sometimes, they prefer to confirm their stereotypes and meet the big, dumb, white farang, who can’t speak Thai, and is easy to gossip about right in front of his face. They don’t always like you to be smart enough to understand them. The Thais want us in their country, but only on their conditions: remain dumb, white, and farang, then leave after you’ve taught my little angel to Speak English!


Temple of the Emerald Buddha – Sacred or Sacrificed

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

In Bangkok’s spiritual heart, next to the lifeline of the Chao Phraya River, is Wat Phra Kaew – known by foreigners as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Located in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is one of Bangkok’s must-see temples and draws hundreds of visitors each day. The temple houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which was brought to Bangkok by Rama I when he was a general in the army of King Taksin. In 1785, when the Grand Palace was officially opened, Rama I enshrined the Emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew, where it has remained since.

To get to the temple, take the express boat to Tha Chang, then take a short walk along Thanon Na Phra Lan through the maze of street vendors and souvenir sellers until you come to the Gate of Glorious Victory. Once you step through the gates you will get a glimpse of the magnificent spires of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi and Phra Mondop, which are located on the upper terrace. This tantalizing view is just the tip of the iceberg, and more wonders wait to be revealed inside. The ticket office is at the end of the driveway on the left. As of the time of this blog post, tickets cost 400 baht for foreigners.

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires from the 1930s

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires, circa 1930

Inside the temple grounds, your eyes will be dazzled by the iridescent blues, reds, golds and silvers of the mirrors adorning the temple walls, which refract light in a thousand directions. Surrounding the whole compound are high arcaded walls, decorated with murals showing scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien. Fearsome statues, known as Yaksha, guard the Emerald Buddha and ward off evil spirits. The whole scene is like something from a gaudy fairytale, and the English novelist, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of it:

“It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”

Since it was first built under Rama I, successive kings have added to and renovated Wat Phra Kaew. A wide range of architectural styles are present throughout the temple grounds including Thai, European and Chinese. This gives the temple its hodge-podge nature. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), a scale model of Angkor Wat was introduced. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Thailand and Rama IV reputedly wanted to move the entire Angkor Wat to Bangkok. However, he was dissuaded from this excessive undertaking and decided instead to commission a scale model. To the east of the upper terrace is Phrasat Phra Thep Bidon, known as the Royal Pantheon. This ornate building is designed in Khmer style and features life-size statues of all the previous kings. It is only open on ceremonial days such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the current Chakri dynasty is celebrated, and Coronation Day (May 5).

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew, 1930s

The Emerald Buddha is enshrined inside the bot, the largest building at Wat Phra Kaew and one of the few original structures remaining. The bot is garishly decorated in traditional Thai style, with gilt and coloured glass walls surrounded by 112 garudas (birdmen) holding nagas (serpents), telling the tale of Indra, the god who saved the world by defeating the serpent-cloud that had swallowed all the rain water. Inside the bot, the Emerald Buddha sits on a nine-metre-high pedestal. This legendary statue is revered as protector of the country and only the king is allowed to touch it. The king traditionally changes the Buddha’s costume three times in the year to correspond with the start of the hot season, rainy season and cool season. Despite being called the Emerald Buddha, the statue is carved from a piece of solid jade, in the meditating posture of the Lanna school of northern Thailand. The statue was first discovered in 1434 when “lightning” shattered a chedi in Chiang Rai. In the ensuing chaos, a stucco Buddha image fell and some of the stucco was chipped, revealing the Emerald Buddha beneath. The figure then moved to Lampang and Vientiane before finally being carried to Thonburi by Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I) in 1779.

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

If you’re looking for the tranquillity and authenticity of a traditional Buddhist temple, you won’t find it at Wat Phra Kaew. The steady stream of tourists ensures that the place is constantly bustling with a multitude of languages and nationalities. This makes it hard to really appreciate the beauty of Wat Phra Kaew and you will spend most of your time trying to avoid getting in other people’s photographs, or getting them in yours. As you enter the central bot, you will most likely get pulled along by the strong current of people – all fighting for space to leave their shoes – and find that you don’t really get any time to observe the exotic images that surround the walls. Before you know what’s happened, you will be back outside wondering what all the hassle was about. Wat Phra Kaew is best visited in the morning while you still have plenty of energy, it could be a real drain in the late afternoon.

The temple is definitely worth a visit but for a quiet place to relax, you’d be better heading to temples such as Wat Sanghathan, which, although off the tourist radar, is a great place to take in the ambiance of temple life. Wat Phra Kaew, unfortunately, has become little more than a money making machine, where the original sanctity has been replaced by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and the rush towards “modernism.” The Thais are a Buddhist people, and Buddhists believe in the universal concept of cause and effect. One has to wonder what the effect of all those unaccountable masses will be. If the countless kisses of pilgrims can wear away the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, what will the noisy calamity of tourists in Wat Phra Kaew bring about as they continue to flock in the selfish pursuit of been-there-and-done-that.


The Not-So-Democratic Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:

“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”

In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy - Democracy Monument

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy

The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.

Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.

Democracy  Monument in every day life

Democracy Monument in every day life

See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.


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!


Discover Thailand’s Diversity in Museum of Siam

Siam Museum

Thais aren’t particularly well-known for their objectivity when it comes to talking about their proud nation. Most seem to believe that “Thainess” is an inbuilt trait that can’t be understood by outsiders. But it is interesting to note that Thai people are made up of an estimated 57 ethnic groups and their history is replete with immigration and changing powers. It comes as a refreshing change, then, that the people behind the Museum of Siam have posed the question: What is Thainess?

Through a series of interactive and compelling exhibits, you are guided from Suvarnabhumi (The Land of Gold) to modern-day Thailand. The museum designers used the ever-changing face of Thailand as an inspiration for the layout of the exhibits and compared its progression to the flow of a river or rainbow (roong in Thai). The “roong” begins in the immersive theatre with a short movie that feeds your imagination and leaves you with many unanswered questions to whet your appetite.

Typically Thai

After the immersive theatre, you are guided to the next room which features a street stall complete with pestle and mortar and artificial chicken wings, where you can get an amusing photo of you and your friends making som tum. There is also half a tuk tuk built into the wall, which is about the closest you’ll ever get to sitting in the driving seat of one of these freaks of automobilia. The tour then heads up to the third floor in honour of its flowing and ever-changing theme.

Once you arrive breathless on the third floor, you will find the section entitled Suvarnabhumi. This part of the exhibition attempts to unravel some of Thailand’s ancient history and give you a clearer picture of how the land mass we now know as Thailand first came to be inhabited. One of the more extraordinary claims in this section of the museum is that Bangkok and the central plains (Thailand’s “rice bowl) were under the sea as recently as 5,000 years ago. However, I have not found any other sources that clearly state this as of yet and so I encourage the reader to look further into this, or perhaps shed some light on it.

The tour then guides you through Thailand’s rich and colourful history, from the Ayutthaya period to the beginning of the current Rattanakosin era and on to modern influences and possible future outcomes. Many of the exhibits are interactive and allow you the opportunity to use your hands or input ideas. As you follow the roong, you will learn about Thai Buddhism, warfare, trading, crafts, culture and modern Thailand. At the end of the tour you are encouraged to write messages in the “Thailand Tomorrow” room, which will be saved in a database and used for research in the future.

In the War Room

But I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you and tell you what it’s all about; I just hope to spark your interest so that you may go and pay the museum a visit! The Museum of Siam is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday and costs 100 baht for Thais and 300 baht for foreigners (read my post on double-pricing) though if you work in Thailand they will allow you in for the same price as Thais. A Black Canyon coffee shop is located within the museum grounds and the facilities are clean and well-maintained. To get to there, take a ferry to Memorial Bridge (N6) then walk through the flower market for about 10 minutes. The museum is on Sanamchai Road, not far from Wat Pho and other popular attractions.

Map showing Siam Museum