In general, I’m not one to complain unnecessarily. Normally I’m quite a ‘stiff upper lip’, just get on with it type of person. And it’s true when people started talking about the air quality situation in Thailand last year, and all the masks and air purifiers they were investing in, I secretly thought they should just man up.
But now, as we enter what I think is the fifth week of fairly consistent unhealthy breathing conditions, I feel compelled to write about how completely pissed off I am about it.
Maybe it’s psychological? Maybe knowing about it makes it seem a lot worse than it really is? But actually, I got a cold at the end of December, of the nasty, chesty cough variety. I was coughing up all sorts of grim stuff for about two weeks. And even today, a whole month later, I still have a slight congested feeling in my chest and am susceptible to a random coughing fit mid-conversation. This is not normal.
Recently, we have started wearing dust masks when we walk the dogs. We check the AQI on our phones and if the rating is ‘Unhealthy’ the masks go on. It’s pretty unpleasant wearing that mask. We don’t have ones with filters so your face just ends up soaked in water vapour from breathing out. But now there seems to be a nationwide shortage of any masks we’re just glad we have them. The dogs aren’t so lucky. There is a dog version but it’s also out of stock now. Not that I could get them to wear it anyway!
The advice for ‘Unhealthy’ conditions is to stay inside, keeping all your doors and windows shut, and also to run an air purifier. To assess our requirement for an air purifier, I bought the Air Tricorder: Portable Personal PM 2.5 AQI Monitor from Makerspace Thailand. When it arrived, I eagerly plugged it in, hoping for reassurance that we had a moderately safe breathing situation in our house. Nope! There is literally no difference between inside and outside. I was gobsmacked – I thought air conditioning would have some impact.
I can’t really describe the feeling of not being able to go anywhere to find clean air. To know that, even though you should be safe in your own home, just sitting in your house is unhealthy. I genuinely keep thinking about getting on a plane and going somewhere to briefly escape it. And no, the irony of this is not lost on me! Chris is in Chiang Rai this weekend is experiencing ‘Moderate’ air quality – what a treat!
There is a lot of talk about this being a city problem, a Bangkok problem. But I mostly work outside of Bangkok and it’s just as bad in the more rural (yet quite industrial) provinces of Rayong and Saraburi. But I don’t think there’s a quick fix. You can obviously see some vehicles are a problem – the thirty-year-old buses belching out acrid black smoke every time they pull away. But Thailand is just so far behind in terms of having any standards! The other day Chris pointed out a lorry that looked fairly modern but had a Euro III engine. This is 19 years out of date – we’re up to Euro VI in Europe! And the practice of burning in the fields and mountains across most of SE Asia is pretty widespread and shows no signs of abating.
It’s strange how something you never ever thought about before can become a mild obsession. We’re going skiing in Bulgaria in a few weeks and I was looking forward to some clean mountain air. But then I checked the AQI nearest to the ski resort and it ranges between ‘Moderate’ and ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups’. But I don’t remember being able to see a toxic soup like there is in Bangkok so I’m assuming the sensor is probably positioned next to a chimney or something.
So the only thing for it is an air purifier. Which is likely to be incredibly inefficient as our house is clearly full of holes! My attempts to physically buy one in a shop were scuppered when it emerged that Power Buy do not actually stock anything! So hopefully Lazada will come to my rescue. But that’s a rant for another day.
A few weeks ago I had an incredibly vivid dream that was so packed with symbolic objects and actions, it would have been a treat for any dream interpreter to decipher. Chris and I were at a train station, hoping to get a train somewhere. The problem was that we couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets. We instead stumbled across a supermarket and went to buy some food.
Whilst we were in the supermarket I was attacked by two pigeons. They dug their claws into my head but I was quickly able to remove them and shoo them away. Then whilst Chris was in the queue for the checkout, I was attacked by two crows. They proved more difficult to remove and I remember struggling to get them off my head. When I did finally manage to extract them, I threw them on the ground outside the supermarket. But their legs were entwined and they struggled on the floor to pull apart from each other.
I went inside to find Chris and by this time we had definitely missed the train. So, instead, we got on a bus that was about to leave but wasn’t exactly sure where it was going. As it pulled onto the road it immediately got stuck in a traffic jam and I asked someone where it was going. He told me it was going to Hounslow but we actually wanted to go to Stoke-On-Trent.
What’s it All About?
A very brief search on the internet led me to the website www.dreammoods.com and a few clues to what my dream might mean.
‘To see birds in your dream symbolize your goals, aspirations, and hopes.’ However, ‘To dream of birds on the attack means that you are being pulled into too many directions. You are experiencing conflict with your spirituality.’
And then the significance of the two types of birds is quite interesting: ‘To see a pigeon in your dream suggests that you are taking the blame for the actions of others. Pigeons also represent gossip or news. Perhaps they carry a message from your unconscious. Alternatively, the dream may be expressing a desire to return home.’
The crow has a few suggested meanings but like the pigeon, it ‘may be conveying a message from your unconscious’.
And then the transportation angle is also quite intriguing. ‘To dream that you miss a train denotes missed opportunities. It also suggests that you are ill-prepared for a new phase in your life. You may be procrastinating or putting things off that should have already been completed.’
The One Year Milestone
So who knows? But it’s funny that this dream occurred as we passed the one year mark in Thailand. And as Chris is officially on a two-year assignment, it’s technically one down, one to go. I will admit I am feeling a bit conflicted about the thought of this whole crazy experience ending! Even if it is a whole year away, it’s difficult not to subconsciously start the countdown and start obsessing over whether we’ve made the most of our time here.
Expat life is pretty weird. Bangkok is a hub city for SE Asia so attracts a lot of expats and a lot of serial expats at that. Chris and I are newbie expats, this being our first venture into properly living abroad. We did both live abroad whilst we were students, but it doesn’t really count when you have the security of the Erasmus program to protect you. It seems some people get bitten by the expat bug or the nature of their work means they hop from one assignment to another. These people seem to be able to quickly transition to life in a new country and immediately establish a circle of best friends.
Chris and I felt we settled into Bangkok quite quickly on a practical level. We already had somewhere to live, we worked out where all the amenities were and quickly ticked off the milestones like going to the doctors and getting a haircut. But it takes both of us a bit longer to really make friends. There is no shortage of people to hang out with in Bangkok, but it takes both of us a bit longer to really develop relationships. Or maybe it just takes time for us to wear people down so they can’t escape from us!
We now feel like we have some friends within and outside of work so it feels quite sad to think of leaving that life behind. But anyway, it’s still a year away and I don’t think any of our expat buddies have big plans to live in Thailand forever so things won’t stay the same forever! With my Thai work colleagues, it’s strange. I feel I’ve had an impact on people’s lives and then I just will completely disappear never to return! Will we stay in touch? Will they remember me?
And work is actually ok! After going through the full cycle of it being a novelty, to being horrific, to now being ok. It also seems a shame to waste all of that progress!
The Good Times
Although Bangkok is actually still disgustingly hot at the moment despite it apparently being winter, I really don’t look forward to a grim UK winter. It was depressing in June/July when the UK was basking in tropical temperatures and everyone was spending all free time in pub beer gardens. But the envy really subsides once the mercury starts to plummet back home.
The phrase ‘first world problems’ springs to mind but there is no doubt we will miss having Rena around to look after us! Getting to the weekend and not having to consider doing even a tiny domestic chore is amazing. I actually did try to use our washing machine recently and when the cycle finished a sea of foam exploded out of the drum!
And living in Bangkok means that every weekend is like being on holiday! When your free time is actually free, you can make the most of the city with endless possibilities.
And the dogs! What will they do without their own dog nanny? Genuinely I’m not sure they could cope with being left alone anymore.
The Bangkok Bubble
Living here is really like living in a bubble. It real but not real. We have real jobs but our lives seem much simpler somehow. We’re not burdened by knowing or understanding anything more than we see in front of us. It’s like we don’t have to take anything seriously.
And living in this pseudo-reality means that we can’t quite connect it with life in the UK. It’s like this life is in a different dimension to our life in the UK. And this means it’s easy to forget that life back in the UK continues on without us.
Life Goes On
And after one year you actually start to feel like you’ve missed a lot. Whilst we’ve been here my friends have had a million babies! Ok, a slight exaggeration but there are a lot of new little faces that I probably won’t actually see until they’re no longer babies, as if they never were. And please don’t test me on the names!
And at the other end of the spectrum, my parents’ cat died and Chris’ parents’ dog also passed away. I’m not sure what value we could have added if we had been there, but for us, it’s like these two events didn’t really happen. And as Chris’ parents now have an identical replacement dog it is like it didn’t happen!
Chris’ parents have also moved house since we left. Actually, they are renovating a bungalow but by the time we see it this will probably be complete and we’ll never appreciate the ‘journey’. Like we can’t really appreciate Chris’ sister Emma’s grueling winter marathon training only to be confronted by the hottest ever London Marathon this year.
And In Conclusion
There isn’t really a conclusion to any of this. It just makes you feel really weird all the time! It’s not stressful feeling like this, more spaced out, but clearly, my brain is working overtime at night churning out these weird dreams!
Workplace gossip is pretty common. There’s always a rumour floating around about what someone got up to at the Christmas party. But in my experience it’s normally harmless fun and indulging in a little gossip is a nice interlude.
In Thailand, it’s so much more than this. It genuinely seems to determine the effectiveness of your entire team. No matter what you’re doing to manage workload and engagement, the complexities of the individual relationships actually make the real difference.
There is so much going on behind the scenes that Farang managers will never know about, nor understand. Right now, there are so many people within my extended team who are not speaking to each other I’m surprised anything is getting done!
A Little Respect…
From what I’ve observed so far, it all seems to boil down to respect, or lack thereof. As a Farang, I feel somewhat protected from the ‘respect’ conundrum in Thailand. During the Cross-Cultural Management course (as described in The Cross-Cultural Challenge – Part 2), we learned that Farangs sit outside the hierarchy of Thai society. It seems there’s a default respect for Farangs even if they don’t do much to earn it. For me, it means that I don’t really have to worry that much about people respecting me, but also that I will never truly be let into or understand the inner workings of our workplace community.
Too Big for Their Boots?
The latest series of fallouts mostly involve young colleagues apparently not showing enough respect to their elders. This is a difficult one for me. In my younger working life, I was encouraged to step outside my comfort zone and take chances. I was often involved in projects that were ‘above my paygrade’, so to speak. And actually, my empowering management style has only encouraged the younger staff to take more initiative.
The unfortunate side effect is that they seem to have got ‘too big for their boots’ and are now calling out their more senior colleagues quite publicly. Maybe they are being a bit rude but I imagine they’re probably touching a nerve! Anyway, it doesn’t seem that I can have much influence on any of this other than to make it worse. So I need to let it play out.
The other observation I’ve made is that once two people have fallen out and declared themselves enemies, there is no going back. There are two representatives of my main customer with adjacent offices who will not even look at each other let alone speak to each other! Actually, if they do ever have to attend the same meeting, they will sometimes have an almighty spat which is both bizarre and entertaining to witness.
And generally, nobody knows why they fell out in the first place. Or the reason is just inexplicably complex, far too much for my Farang brain to comprehend. Earlier this year I had two colleagues join the team who had previously been very close friends. They’d worked together and socialised together. But then for some unknown reason, one of them decided they had been gravely wronged by the other. And that was the end of their friendship. The only resolution was for one to transfer to another site. I still don’t understand what the problem was!
A Question of Morals
I had been led to believe that extra-marital activities were fairly common in Thailand. Many married men had a mistress or ‘mia noi’ as it’s known here, and this was just widely accepted. So I was quite surprised that there was such outrage recently when a workplace affair came to light.
Actually, the whole episode had been going on for a long time, although I’d been oblivious to it. Steps had previously been taken to address the situation by moving one half of the offending couple to another site. At the time the reasons given to me for this move were probably quite standard, career progression etc. I had no reason to question it.
But then for various reasons (that with hindsight were probably complete rubbish) this person returned to their previous role. And then it all kicked off again! I think maybe people are only bothered if they feel it’s happening right in front of their eyes. Maybe they accept it if there’s a bit more discretion?
It’s amazing that I even know about it! But I’m still not clear if anyone expects me to do anything about it? I cannot tell if this is a serious workplace issue affecting many people or if it’s just being stirred up by one person with their own agenda. Is it even really happening?
For now, I shall steer clear of the whole thing and let the Thais deal with it themselves. Hopefully, I won’t have to hear about it again!
I think it’s fairly well known that Thailand is in the top ten of most dangerous places to drive in the World. Around 24,000 people die on the roads in Thailand every year. Holiday seasons like New Year and Songkran are the most dangerous times as almost everyone seems to be travelling and partying at the same time. But actually, there is constant risky behaviour on the roads.
Working in the Distribution industry in Thailand means I get to hear about some pretty horrific accidents. Hearing news of a fatal accident is quite a regular occurrence. Yet it never seems to get any less shocking for me.
So why is Thailand so unsafe? In my company, we talk about Safety relentlessly. Every accident, no matter how minor, is investigated in great detail with preventive actions outlined.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Driving through various industrial estates each week, I can see that other businesses also focus on Safety, on the face of it at least. They proudly display their records of days without lost time accidents in front of their buildings. Many also boast compliance with various ISO standards for Safety and Quality. It looks like Safety is the number one priority.
In fact, I don’t remember there being such an outward focus on Safety anywhere I worked in the UK. It was still top of the agenda in any operational meeting but it never felt like anyone had to constantly go on about it. Yet accidents were very rare.
One of my most frequent observations is that Thais like to make things look nice to please important people. It’s like when you make a last minute decision to invite people to your house and only have time to shove all your crap in a cupboard and spray some furniture polish around. I’ve lost count of the times when we’ve had an upcoming visit from a senior manager and everyone has spent the day putting up posters!
But as soon as you scratch the surface you see there is likely to be nothing behind it. It really is all for ‘show’.
The Missing Link
It seems as though people fail to make a connection between an accident they might have heard about and the risk of it happening to them. Even when they might have had some sort of connection to the person involved the accident it doesn’t register. Recently at work, we heard about a very tragic accident with a sad outcome. Everyone sprung into action to brief their teams with the safety alert, of course capturing photos as proof! But on that same day, I got into a car with four Thai colleagues and I was the only one to put my seatbelt on!
And I see it everywhere I go. The builders opposite our house dismantling scaffolding whilst still standing on it. A workman digging a hole in the street with a jackhammer whilst someone else’s hand rests perilously close. Motorcycles driving towards me on the pavement, giving me a look of disbelief that I don’t immediately give way to them.
The Danger on Two Wheels
I could write a whole post on motorcycle safety in Thailand and actually, they tend to be involved in most fatal road accidents. I can see that people have started to wear helmets in Bangkok more, but probably only because they risk a fine from the police. The classic sight is the adult on the bike with the helmet yet the two toddlers they’re carrying don’t even have shoes on let alone any headgear!
Fatigue and intoxication also play a big part in the level of risk. During the week we walk our dogs at around 6 am and pass many ‘local’ establishments where people are drinking. They generally stagger out completely intoxicated and ride off on their motorcycles, probably to work.
When we pass the ‘cat shop’ (a local shophouse that’s full of cats) the owner will have at least a bottle of Chang on the go if not something stronger. And he’s generally joined by a few motorcycle taxi friends. We’re never sure whether they’re just starting or finishing! There doesn’t seem to be such a strict distinction between day and night in Thailand. And people don’t seem to sleep in a conventional way; they just grab a few hours here and there.
Nothing to Fear?
One theory is that Thai’s don’t have quite the same fear of death as westerners. For Buddhists death is not the end, it actually signals rebirth. So basically your life continues, just in a different body. So maybe someone being killed in a road traffic accident just isn’t a big deal?
There are a lot of Thai cultural traits that I have learned to understand and accept. A lot of quite frustrating ways of working that I’ve adapted to and even started to like. But the lack of acknowledgment of personal safety is not something I can truly explain nor get used to.
As we’ve passed the one year in Thailand milestone, it feels like we’re running out of ‘firsts’. I’ve already been for my second annual medical and have renewed my work permit. Our second Christmas is fast approaching and we feel like we know the drill for New Year and Songkran. I’m sure I’ll still feel like an idiot the next time I have to ‘make merit’ but at least I will know what to expect.
So, I was very excited when we got our first wedding invitation! The invitation was from one of Chris’ staff at work and we were requested to attend the evening reception. I think it’s quite normal for only close family and friends to attend the actual ceremonial parts of the day. A wider group then joins in the evening.
A Last Minute Decision
Initially, Chris had declined the invitation. This was because our flight home from Japan was originally not due to land until around 7pm so we would have missed the whole event. Following a change of flight time and a drunken chat with some Thai friends it turned out we could go. Actually, it turned out that we HAD to go. Apparently if one of your staff invites you to their wedding it means they truly respect you. Especially if you are Farang. And there was even a risk that Chris would have to give a speech!
So, we landed at Suvarnabhumi on Sunday evening, raced home for a quick shower and were back in the car 45 minutes later. Having made quite a last minute decision to attend, I hadn’t quite had enough time to really find out anything about the happy couple. And whilst Chris obviously knew his colleague, unfortunately, he had not found out the name of his bride to be!
The Right Wedding?
It’s very normal in Thailand to make things look very nice with very staged photographs. This wedding was no different. We made our way to the function room, guided by large, glossy photos of the bride and groom in various outfits. They looked so polished that Chris had double check that we were definitely going to the right wedding!
We understood that we had to bring money as a gift so as we arrived we quickly located the letterbox and posted our envelope. We took away some cute personalised post-it notes in return.
Before we entered the room, there was a nice place for photos so we took a quick selfie! Our milling around meant that we didn’t notice that the wedding party had actually started to enter the room! Fortunately, we managed to sneak in and lurk at the back.
Guests of Honour?
After the couple had finished their walk to the stage, we found ourselves standing a bit awkwardly not really knowing what to do. There were tables closer to the stage but more of a buffet style set up towards the back of the room. Chris wasn’t sure if anyone else from his work would be there. He had considered asking but didn’t want to offend anyone in case they hadn’t been invited!
Before we knew it, a lady approached us and ushered us to sit down at a table. She also very quickly got us some wine! We got introduced to the other people at the table yet were still none the wiser as to who they actually were. Through our respective limited Thai and English, we managed to discover that we were sitting with some fairly close family members. Definitely a Brother and an Aunt but we weren’t completely sure whether they were related to the bride or groom!
I talked about my embarrassment at being ‘fawned over’ as a Farang in The Helpless Farang… So I really should not have been surprised that two Farangs who turned up late and didn’t even know the bride’s name would end up on one of the main tables! And when we did eventually find the rest of Chris’ work colleagues it emerged that they didn’t even have a table and were just loitering at the back.
The actual table setup was quite informal and we ‘chatted’ and helped ourselves to food. We were also regularly topped up with wine. On the stage, proceedings were more formal and there were various speeches. But it seemed Chris was not quite as important as he thought so did not get summoned to the stage to say a few words! There also seemed to be some sort of ‘Mr & Mrs’ type game but I might be wrong.
Cutting the cake was a spectacle! It was literally the biggest cake I had ever seen. It was so big they cut it with a sword! I did later discover that the real cake was actually elsewhere and this was just a show cake. So typically Thailand!
Dress to Impress
What was also interesting was the different outfits that people chose to wear. I’d elected to go for standard wedding attire – a nice modest dress, heels etc. Chris was of course in a suit. Some people looked similar but others were a lot more casual. This might be complete rubbish but I heard that what you wear reflects your social status. It seemed that those on the outside of the room looked a bit more casual.
Save the Best ’til Last
Overall it didn’t seem too dissimilar to a UK wedding reception. They even included the part where the bride throws the bouquet to her single friends to work out who will be next to marry. Actually, after a length set up, she just handed the bouquet to the groom who passed it to his friend who immediately proposed to his girlfriend. Clearly, nobody was willing to take the chance of the bouquet ending up in the wrong hands! And nobody seemed to think that a marriage proposal at a wedding was in anyway attention seeking.
The one big difference and in fact the best part of the whole event was that we were not obliged to stay for any longer than absolutely necessary! At the end of the formal proceedings, we posed for a few photos and then everyone scarpered! So we followed suit and were tucked up in bed by 9:30pm. A perfect event!
I probably should have done some research before we departed for Japan, as I had quite a limited view of what Japan might be like!
I remember a friend going on a school trip to Japan and her Japanese roommate getting up at 5 am to study every day. In ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ when the Mark Darcy is introduced, we find out that his wife divorced him. Bridget’s Mum comments that ‘His wife was Japanese. Very cruel race.’I also remember the film ‘Lost in Translation’ with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson bonding over their mutual loneliness in an alien city.
So my expectation of Japan was that I would feel like an alien, surrounded by mean workaholics! What I actually found was quite different, and actually a lot more familiar than I expected.
Japan with the Thais
Now, it’s worth remembering that my immediate reference point is my life Thailand. I only understand around half of what’s going on almost every day. There’s a scene in ‘Lost in Translation’ where Bill Murray is filming the commercial for Suntory whiskey. The director gives a lengthy explanation in Japanese only to have the translator covert this to three words of English. This is quite an accurate representation of my day to day existence in Thailand.
And being used to that experience brings with it a relaxed, ‘go with the flow’ kind of attitude when faced with the same situation in a new country. As the first four days of our trip were on a Thai tour it was like a double whammy of cultural and linguistic oblivion.
We spent day one exploring Shirakawa-go and Takayama in the Shogawa River Valley, a mountainous region in central Japan. What captures your eye immediately are the strikingly vibrant autumn colours of the leaves on the trees. Maybe it was just the contrast with Thailand where this season does not exist, but it was incredibly captivating.
Another Thailand contrast was the cool, fresh air. I immediately felt my cheeks getting rosy and a sense of vitality returning to my body.
Nothing can happen without food!
We spent our first night in Matsumoto and after a tasty Shabu dinner, we headed to the local Irish pub. We set off as a group but a few of our Thai friends were immediately distracted by what Family Mart had to offer. There must have been something spectacular in Family Mart as an hour past before anyone turned up at the pub!
Bearing in mind that we’d all just had dinner together and had stuffed our faces with snacks all day, the amount of crappy snack food that everyone insisted on ordering was remarkable! I don’t think Thais can do anything without eating!
Now, where is that mountain?
The next few days continued in this way, getting on the bus to go who knows where, listening to tour guide speak in Thai for hours but assuming he didn’t say anything important, going to a restaurant, getting back on the bus and then going somewhere else to explore. All in all quite a simple itinerary and definitely focused on just absorbing our surroundings! Unfortunately, we spent one day looking at Mt Fuji from different angles but it was so overcast it was invisible. There were a few other things to do, buy and eat, but it probably wasn’t quite as interesting as it could have been. Fortunately, we were able to see the mountain from the Shinkansen later in the week and it was awesome!
Leaving the Thais…
On day 4 we abandoned the Thai tour and set off on our own! It was quite a weird feeling to leave the security of being in the Thai group to travel across Japan alone. A culture we still didn’t really know anything about and a language we definitely didn’t speak!
Throughout our trip, I found myself constantly comparing Japan to Thailand. Maybe I’m ignorant in assuming that Asian countries might have similarities? This week someone on Twitter got lynched for saying that they were surprised that Kuala Lumpur was different from Bangkok! However, when you’ve lived in one culture for some time it’s difficult not to make immediate comparisons when you visit another country. So I apologize in advance that I found myself surprised at how different Japan was from Thailand.
Trains, buses, and automobiles…
Our first challenge was navigating the Shinkansen which really was no issue. Very clear signs on where to go, everything in English and Japanese, clear announcements… just perfect. And even on the train, there is actually enough space for your luggage and plenty of legroom. In fact, all public transport we experienced in Japan – bus, JR train, local train, metro was amazing! A bit different from the old buses in Bangkok belching out toxic fumes and barely stopping to let people off!
And getting a taxi was also a surprisingly hassle-free experience. I had been concerned about our ability to communicate our destination effectively but thanks to the Booking.com app, we were able to show the driver our hotel address in Japanese and this was enough. The taxi drivers were all dressed in a chauffeur style uniform and lacked the inexplicable fidgeting that seems to afflict most Thai taxi drivers.
Feeling moved in Hiroshima
In Hiroshima, we visited the Peace Memorial Park, containing memorials for the atomic bomb. There were various inscriptions around the park and the language used was incredibly strong and powerful.
The most moving part of the day was at the Children’s Peace Memorial. This statue commemorates all children who died as a result of the atomic bomb, but specifically, one girl called Sadako Sasaki. She was two years old when the bomb hit and died ten years later as a result of radiation-induced leukemia. Before her death, she attempted to fold 1000 origami cranes to be granted one wish. Her wish was World Peace. She didn’t quite manage it but now children bring origami cranes as an offering to the memorial.
Whilst we were there we saw a group of school children on a day trip with their teachers. They stood together in front of the memorial and recited some sort of mantra. Each of them said their bit, with no apparent coordination from their teachers. They then all sang a beautiful song together where the lyrics are all about praying for world peace.
Feeling ‘zen’ in Kyoto
A few days later in Kyoto we told our guide about our experience in Hiroshima. She was so pleased that school children were still visiting the memorial and performing this ritual.
Other than the Peace Memorial Park which was fairly busy with tourists, and also the random Ramen festival we stumbled upon, Hiroshima was a fairly quiet city. Kyoto had a lot more going for it in terms of bars, restaurants and food markets. We unwittingly booked ourselves into a hotel just down the road from Nishiki Food Market which was nice to wander through, gawping at weird looking food! We did enjoy a nice matcha ice cream crepe there and Chris helped the lady that owned that particular shop put up a new shop sign. For the first time on our trip his superior height was an advantage and not a source of head injury.
We took a one day tour of North West Kyoto, taking in a bamboo forest, Ryoan-ji rock garden, the Golden Pavillion and Nijo castle. For lunch we had Omurice. This is something I’ve been making quite a dodgy version of in Thailand after seeing a video on Instagram. We traveled by a combination of trains, buses and walking which really added to the whole experience. Our guide Yuri was around the same age as us, very chatty but very knowledgeable so for the first time we got an insight into Japanese history and culture. We probably would have got some of this information from our Thai tour guide who talked a lot but we just didn’t understand!
Trying to be ‘hipster’
We attempted to be ‘hipster’ in Kyoto and found a cool, katsu curry restaurant. It only opened for 3 hours and could only seat 10 people so we had to wait in line for 45 minutes before we could get in. The katsu curry was delicious though so worth the wait.
The final leg of our trip was a few days in Tokyo. We’d actually already been to Tokyo on the Thai tour. We spent the night in Shinjuku where Chris became the world champion of darts against a Japanese bartender. But Tokyo is huge so you can stay in different areas and feel like you are in completely different cities.
Taking in Tokyo
This time we were staying in the central and pretty upmarket area of Ginza. We made no real plans for Tokyo and instead decided to follow recommendations that we picked up along the way. Other than temples and shrines, I don’t think there are actually a lot of things to do in Tokyo. I think it’s more of a city just to ‘be’ in, walking around, taking in the atmosphere, stopping for lunch, having a coffee, people watching. So that’s pretty much what we did.
We took in the main sites – the Imperial Palace, the Asahi Tower, the Shibuya crossing and the Meiji Shrine. Here we befriended some Japanese students who wanted to practice their English by giving us a private tour. We also hung out in a cool area called Shimokitazawa which is full of vintage shops and coffee houses. Obviously, we were completely out of place but we soaked up the atmosphere anyway!
Fashion seemed to be a big thing in Japan, Tokyo especially. Everyone wore the most amazing clothes. Everyone looked like they’d stepped out of a magazine in their elegant Autumn apparel.
Order or chaos?
Since living abroad, I not only find myself comparing all countries to Thailand in general, I also seem to consider what it would be like to live in those countries. Obviously, when you’re on holiday everything probably seems rosier than it really is, but at the time I felt like I could totally see myself living in Japan!
But at the same time as thinking everything was so user-friendly, I also felt a bit bored. Getting from A to B was just too easy. In Thailand, I build in extra time because I will probably get lost. Or I wait forever to cross a road because the pedestrian crossing is only for show and I still have to just walk out into the traffic.
In Japan, the pavements were flat and even. There were no motorcycles hurtling towards me insisting I get out of their way. People were riding pushbikes on the pavement but were able to easily avoid pedestrians. At no point in my trip to Japan did I feel there was a risk of dying!
I spent the whole trip reflecting on how much I despised the chaos of Thailand but ultimately, I found myself missing it. On some level anyway.
As we’re approaching one whole year in Thailand, I thought it might be nice to check in with the dogs and see how they’ve found the whole experience. How have they survived the rainy season? Have they made any new friends? Do they miss the rolling green fields of Northamptonshire?
Charles the laziest dog in the world…
Let’s start with Charles. Now he is the older and larger of the two, and definitely, the dominant one, which quite frankly is a good thing as goodness knows what would happen if Siale had to take the lead!
Charles is more greyhound than any other type of sighthound. He looks very athletic, he’s very agile – able to jump very high and very precisely from a standing start.
He’s a complex character, sometimes behaving aggressively towards other dogs (which actually works pretty well to keep the soi dogs at bay) but also loves nothing more than being spooned on the sofa. He is obsessed with cats but is constantly battling his urge to chase them with being truly terrified of them.
The main problem with Charles is that he is the laziest dog in the world, and living Thailand has done nothing to improve the situation. Other than when we take him for a walk, Charles barely engages in any voluntary physical activity. When I open the back door, he will run to the gate to see what’s there, but then he will just stand there staring at the world outside. He might join Siale in the initial chase after a squirrel, but he will quickly find his central position and let Siale do the legwork. And if you can get him to engage in a game of fetch, he will lose interest if you throw the toy more than a metre from him and then just wander off. And the Bangkok heat has only added to Charles reluctance to move.
So the result of this is that Charles has started to gain a little weight – I think at worst he was probably 1.5kg heavier than he really should be. A lot of people move to Thailand and put on weight because they want to try all the delicious food – this hasn’t been a problem for Charles as he just gets kibble and a few dentistix. No, Charles’ problem is that he lies down for around 22 hours a day.
So poor Charles has been on a little diet – this always feels like quite a mean thing to do to a dog as they just don’t understand. I do keep trying to explain to Charles that if he ran around a bit more he’d be allowed to eat a bit more, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through.
So other than being a bit hungry, Charles is pretty content with life. The sights, scents and general hubbub of Bangkok seems to stimulate him sufficiently and he’s pretty happy that Rena (dog nanny/maid) strokes him and plays with him for most of the day.
Siale, the puppy who wouldn’t grow up…
They say opposites attract and the best couples are often those that balance each other out in terms of strengths and weaknesses. If Charles is the laziest dog in the world then Siale is happiest, bounciest and generally craziest dog in the world. Siale typically seems to find himself behind the curve and is always rushing to catch up so seems to run everywhere. Rena describes as always being ‘busy’, running to see what Charles is sniffing or fetching his favourite toy from the box.
He is also incredibly inefficient with his style of walking and running, putting an unnecessary gap between his feet and the ground that means he resembles a horse doing dressage. One man in a pub once made the infamous comment ‘that dog thinks he’s a horse!’ which in my memory was in the voice of a Victorian-era street urchin, prefixed with a ‘cor blimey guv’nor’.
And it seems that Siale uses up even more energy in Thailand so has lost weight – he’s now on a weight gain programme although giving him more food just seems to be making him run around even more.
Siale is also the friendliest dog in the world – he wants to be friends with every person, every dog and probably every cat. If we see another dog on our morning walk, he will strain to get closer, simply fascinated by the existence of another canine.
For some reason, motorcycle taxi drivers, security guards and ‘men with whistles’ have taken quite a shine to Siale. Some Thai people are quite scared of dogs but I normally have to stop several times to allow people to stroke and fuss Siale. They don’t seem quite as interested in Charles and he’s definitely not interested in them.
I think I wrote in my very first blog post that the biggest factor in our decision to move to Bangkok and also our house-hunting criteria was whether we could make it work with the dogs. At the time, there was quite a lot of negative things written about the impossibility of owning a dog in Bangkok, even now I read horror stories of people with dogs finding it very difficult to look after them in Bangkok and sometimes being met with hostile neighbours who really object to dog ownership.
But the truth is that I just haven’t experienced anything negative in terms of the dogs being here. You can walk them along the streets – yes you might have to manoeuvre around street food vendors and motorcycles but it can be done! And the streets are not filthy as some people say – they are constantly being swept and hosed down so I really don’t worry about anything nasty getting on their paws.
Dogs are not allowed in most Bangkok parks but there are places you can take them; like Nong Bon Lake which is absolute paradise in terms of space, peace, and scenery.
Contrary to popular belief, there are not packs of aggressive, territorial soi dogs on every street corner. There are plenty of dogs around but generally keeping your distance and walking by purposefully means that they won’t bother you. Actually, I’ve found that they’re normally more intimidated by Charles and scuttle away. But we have at times amended our walking routes if we know we’re venturing too close to another dog’s territory – it’s just a case of being sensible.
Many of our neighbours have dogs and, other than the fact that they are just allowed to roam the streets, they seem pretty well looked after. I think Thai people do like dogs really!
Maybe we’ve been lucky, at the very least we made a great choice in terms of house and area, but Bangkok is as dog-friendly as any other major city.
As I sat in Siem Reap International Airport watching the various travellers preparing to depart on the next stage of their adventure, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was living life in a bit of a strange order. I don’t think I’ve regressed exactly, despite my new found interest in travel my 35-year-old body does demand a certain level of comfort that a hostel can’t provide. But I do seem to be retracing the steps that my friends took in their early 20s.
So last weekend we visited Siem Reap – the novelty of being able to hop on a flight on a Friday night to visit somewhere that previously seemed remote and exotic has certainly not worn off!
I’d pre-booked a 2-day tour -I use the word ‘tour’ is used in the loosest sense as it was essentially a driver and a car who drove between the various attractions and gave us water. That being said it did take away all the thinking about where to go, where to get tickets etc., and as it was insanely hot getting into an air-conditioned car was very welcome.
On Day 1 we headed to Tonle Sap Lake to take a boat trip and see a fishing village and floating market. I’ll admit that I hadn’t exactly researched what we were doing all that extensively, so every step of the day felt like a nice little surprise!
We were ushered onto a boat of questionable seaworthiness, piloted by a woman and toddler and a bloke with an oar; for the first leg anyway. We headed towards a cluster of boats and for a moment I thought we would be switching boats but no, we were just depositing ‘man with oar’ to a new location. We set off again and headed towards another cluster of boats. This time the woman and toddler got off and some completely new guy got on. And then we were on our way. At this stage I don’t actually think we were even on a real lake, technically it was just a flooded field.
The scenery was pretty consistent for a while and then we started to approach the village comprising houses on stilts with no land anywhere near them – this must be the floating fishing village.
It all sounds quite romantic visiting an authentic fishing village, witnessing a different way of life but I actually found it a bit weird! I’m not sure I’ve ever visited anywhere before where the sole objective was just to look at how other people live, so I felt a bit uncomfortable just gawping at people in their own homes.
We left the village and our next stop was a large raft house where we disembarked without really knowing why. We were quickly ushered towards a desk to buy another ticket for another boat plus some over-priced exercise books for us to give to the children. Everything seemed to cost 5 dollars!
Boat number 2 was more basic than boat number 1 and our lady driver paddled us through the ‘river forest’ whilst we sat cross-legged and enjoyed the tranquility. It was actually all quite nice until we got to the ‘floating market’ which essentially was 3 boats loosely lashed together, selling drinks and snacks way above the recommended retail price. One boat owner grabbed onto our boat and it was clear from her vice-like grip we were not going anywhere until we bought something. After establishing that we didn’t want any refreshments nor did our mother, father, brother or 2nd cousin once removed, we finally gave in and bought a drink and some biscuits for the driver, although I doubt she wanted them. Anyway, we obviously did enough to secure our release and on we paddled through the trees, picking up the odd discarded plastic bottle to support our driver with her sideline recycling business. Chris commented that it wasn’t too dissimilar to the ‘Swan Ride’ at Alton Towers.
We were returned to the raft house and again slightly unsure of what we were supposed to do. The rapid switching of drivers on boat number 1 meant we couldn’t recall what our driver looked like and in fact, we weren’t entirely sure he’d even hung around. Other boats were arriving so we considered just getting on one of those but before took that leap of faith our guy appeared and we got back on the original boat.
We ventured onto the actual lake, albeit only briefly, as it’s massive and there really isn’t anything to see other than a vast expanse of water. So we made our way back to the start point, retracing our steps through the village. At various points in the journey, our driver did keep leaving the steering wheel unattended to attend to something at the back of the boat but I’m sure that was nothing to worry about!
Once we had disembarked we had a brief moment of minor panic when our guide/driver seemed to have abandoned us but we soon tracked him down and started heading back to town. The weather had been absolutely stunning all morning but a storm quickly moved in and by the time we got back it was hammering it down.
This seemed as good a time as any to take our lunch break. Since living in Thailand I’m not sure I can actually just eat one dish for lunch so we ordered a selection of different things to share. To be honest the food was pretty similar to Thai food; it just seemed to have a lot more garlic. We washed it all down with the local Angkor beer and before we knew the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. A coach load of Chinese tourists pulled up so we took that as our cue to exit.
Obviously, the boat trip was the main event of the day so our afternoon itinerary was a bit lighter. We went to a Buddhist Monastery and then the Killing Fields Memorial. I believe the main points of interest regarding the Khmer Rouge atrocities are actually in Phnom Penh, but there are memorials in other locations with information boards that tell the stories of some of the people that were affected. Cambodia sees this moment in history as something that should not be forgotten and must be learned from; a point that seems to have been missed by those Cambridge University students who want to ban Remembrance Sunday in the UK.
We had an early night as we’d planned to leave at 5 am the next day to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. To be honest, we barely need an excuse for an early night but this seemed like a good one.
So Day 2 was our temples day and the spectacular Angkor Wat was our first stop. I think the main advantage of starting early is that you avoid the heat as later in the day it was pretty unbearable. On the way in I bought a book from a woman who allowed me to pay for it in Thai Baht but gave me change in US Dollars so I’m not exactly sure what the final price was. The publication date was 1999 but as Angkor Wat dates back to the 12th Century I figured it would be ok!
Hordes of people had gathered in front of the reflection ponds hoping to capture the perfect Instagram shot of the sunrise over Angkor Wat – the tour guides seemed very keen on their groups capturing this shot. I could hear one Australian guy protesting that it was ‘too cloudy’ and as we were only armed with iPhones for cameras we decided to head straight through Angkor Wat to the other side. Actually, this was unwittingly quite a good move as there were relatively few people around so Chris was able to take quite a few photos without other tourists obscuring the nice view.
I can’t really describe Angkor Wat in any way that will do it justice – you just need to see it, or maybe follow the hashtag on Instagram!
After a quick pancake, we headed to Angkor Thom, the ancient 12th Century Khmer city, within its walls containing some pretty stunning temples. The Bayon is probably the weirdest one, with face towers and maze of tunnels. Baphuon boasts literally the steepest staircase I have ever climbed up, and actually much more frighteningly climbed down. The Ta Promh is the infamous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple with trees growing through the walls and is actually barely standing. All very impressive in their own right.
A consistent theme of all the temples was the people trying to get money out of you. I haven’t experienced quite the same thing in Thailand, but in Siem Reap, there are countless men, women, and children trying to get you to part with small amounts of cash. They will either be trying to sell you some souvenirs or clothing, which seems fine on the face of it – I’m very partial to ‘tourist tat’ and always buy something. It just becomes relentless though as they try to strike a multi-buy deal with you – what do they think I’m going to do with five identical fridge magnets, especially as I already bought two earlier in the day. And saying you’ve already bought a fridge magnet does not deter them, it just shows them that you will eventually give in!
The second tactic is to offer you some advice and information about the temple you’re looking at, apparently just wanting to be friendly and share their knowledge. But you know it’s only a matter of time before they mention that they are a teacher in a school that needs donations.
I’m actually quite relaxed about this and tend to go along with it all, buying a few things, handing over a few dollars here and there which seems to work. I know it really bothers some people – that feeling that you’re being preyed on. In Thailand, I’ve found that people will try to sell you things, but normally the quality is better and if you don’t buy anything they back off. In Siem Reap there was a definite sense of desperation – they know they’re selling you poor quality goods but they hope you will take pity on them and buy anyway. I hope things in Cambodia do develop enough to legitimise these efforts; as a tourist, I’m quite happy to pay for goods and services and actually some of the ad-hoc advice we were given was pretty useful!
By mid-afternoon, we were all ‘templed out’ so we relaxed by the rooftop pool of our hotel which was awesome. There only appeared to be about 3 other people staying in our hotel so we had the place to ourselves.
That night we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed to ‘Pub Street’ so Chris could relive his backpacker days. A few months after we first got together in 2007, Chris went on a trip to Southeast Asia and had some crazy night in a bar in Siem Reap called the ‘The Angkor What?’. This bar encouraged its patrons to write messages on the walls and ceiling, to leave behind an indelible mark of their time in Cambodia. Chris had written our names on the ceiling so was hoping to rediscover this moment of history. Clearly many people take advantage of this freedom and the walls had been painted over many times since to allow the latest crop of backpackers to make their mark.
As always going back to somewhere where you have memories of crazy, hedonistic times is never quite the same but we tucked into our bucket of gin fizz nonetheless. I’m not sure if it was a bit early in the season or those stories about young people not drinking nowadays are accurate, but ‘Pub Street’ wasn’t all that lively. We did a bit of a crawl, which included some sort of weird semi-karaoke night for the elderly, but then ultimately ended up back at ‘The Angkor What?’ for a margarita bucket nightcap.
There doesn’t appear to be much sign of any Thai lessons starting through work any time soon – I really wish I’d had the thought earlier! But anyway I’ve decided to try to expand my knowledge of basic, everyday Thai phrases. I quite quickly learned the various greetings, the numbers and how to say left and right, which essentially qualifies me to get a taxi and buy things! Actually, this basic level of Thai has served me well so far, but there are a few more things I’d like to be able to say.
So this week I have learnt to tell the time in Thai. The main reason for this is that I have a daily conversation with Chaiwat, my driver, about what time we need to leave the next day, or when I need to be picked up. He’s managed to learn how to tell the time in English and actually since I’ve known him he’s definitely made an effort to learn more English words. I at least need to maintain the same equivalent level of Thai as Chaiwat’s level of English – it’s just embarrassing otherwise!
My first step was to consult the internet where there are many websites explaining the logic of telling the time in Thai. I’d already got an idea that it was not exactly straightforward from one of my colleagues who told me that 8 pm was ‘Song tum’ which actually features the number 2 and not the number 8. But I’d just thought this was some sort of colloquial thing and I shouldn’t really worry about it.
Actually, the whole thing is a bit strange and quite difficult for my poor Farang brain to understand. Instead of splitting the 24 hour period into AM and PM, in Thailand it’s split into four segments but then there are also variations within them. I won’t get into as there’s plenty of other websites where you can read how it works and also YouTube videos, which are useful to grasp the all-important tones.
But the greatest thing about trying to learn a language when you live in that country is that you can immediately put it into practice and get instant feedback about how incorrectly you’re saying the words! Chaiwat is loving my hilarious attempts at butchering the Thai language but it is working – I’ve got better as the week has gone on. This shouldn’t really come as that much of a shock to me but it is amazing how learning a language literally as you’re using it is so effective – it’s like the words go into a different part of your brain than if you’d learned them in a classroom.
The other exciting event this week was the lunch at the house of the sister of one of my colleagues. I feel like this is actually a bit of a milestone, the first invitation to a Thai house. I remember when I was on the cross-cultural management course, one of the Thai guys said it would be quite unusual for a Thai to invite a Farang to their house as they might feel embarrassed by it being messy or not that luxurious. So I was feeling pretty special actually getting the invite.
Fortunately, on the day it emerged that I wasn’t the only person invited, some of my other Thai colleagues were coming to which really took the pressure off! We set off from work at about 12:30 and obviously, the house was a million miles away so I knew I’d be lucky to return before 2 pm – lunch is always the priority in Thailand.
On the way there was concern that I was hungry, so we bought some donuts from a lady on the side of the road – I have no idea how anyone knew she was selling donuts as she just seemed to be wandering around with a few unmarked carrier bags. This did satisfy my immediate hunger pangs but was unnecessary as at that point we were only a few minutes away from the house.
The house itself was not actually what I expected although on reflection I’m not actually sure what that was. It had a large outdoor Thai kitchen area which wasn’t too dissimilar from the various places we go to eat lunch normally. I imagine that it has been run as a restaurant – it seems the sort of thing you can just do on an ad-hoc basis in Thailand. It also seemed to have some sort of beauty salon at the front of the house.
I’d felt obliged to bring a gift, I have no idea whether it’s really necessary to do this in Thailand but I just don’t feel I can turn up to anyone’s house for a meal empty-handed. I went for some posh looking English biscuits and some Earl Grey tea – I wanted to capture the British angle although there’s every chance that the family has no idea on what’s traditionally British. Anyway, it seemed to be well received.
My colleague’s sister had prepared a lovely spread including ‘Phad Kra Pao Moo’ (Thai Basil Pork) and ‘Tom Yum Goong’ (Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup). It was all delicious or ‘Aroy’ in Thai. It actually seems as though you can get by at a Thai lunch by just saying ‘Aroy Dee’ and giving a thumbs up and then throwing in an ‘Im Aroy’ at the end, which essentially means ‘I am full from eating all the delicious food’. This is my favourite Thai phrase.
I also got to meet my colleague’s elderly mother whilst she was being fed her lunch. There’s not really much to tell here as we were never going to have a scintillating conversation, but she did ask whether I missed my family and also I did tell everyone about my Grandad who was actually going to turn 94 the very next day. I think I just looked like such an alien to her so she mostly just stared at me!
The week was then finished off with a farewell party for one of my direct reports who has left the company. Farewell parties seem to be quite a regular thing in Thailand – staff seem to move around quite freely. This was actually the second of my direct reports to leave which maybe I should take as feedback? Anyway, I did feel quite sad about the whole thing, this colleague had been very supportive and welcoming towards me despite us having quite different styles. He was also what I would describe as a ‘godfather’ type figure who commanded a lot of respect so it seemed like quite a sad occasion from quite a few people.
In typical Thai style, there were only 5 of us there for the first hour and that didn’t include the person who we were saying farewell to! But we tucked into the food and beer anyway. After a few Changs to loosen up my I hit the karaoke! On previous attempts, I’d been fortunate that the catalogue of English language songs was relatively limited which got me off the hook. This karaoke machine had everything and it seemed that everyone was enjoying my vocal talents so I knocked out 6 songs without interruption!
Thankfully someone else then took over and I could resume clapping along. I got forced into a few more songs, one of my colleagues actually seemed to be well versed in many English language songs so we did a few duets. Then, with my now very hoarse voice, I initiated a session of farewell speech making. Thai people are fantastic public speakers and I always feel quite overshadowed when I listen to everyone else speak after me. It doesn’t help that hardly anyone would have understood what I said! Then our leaving colleague said his farewells and actually said a few words to everyone that was there, including me. He said I’d been a great boss which was nice to hear whether it was true or not!
What was interesting about this Thai party compared to others was that I didn’t feel completely out of place. Previously I would have stayed for a little while to show my face but then would have politely made my exit and let everyone else get on and enjoy themselves. This time I actually only left because I was 1h30 minute drive from home and didn’t want to be too late! I definitely could have stayed longer although I’m not sure anyone wanted to hear me sing again!