The Frustrations of Thailand

After 8 years I finally decided I had no desire to live the rest of my life in Thailand under these circumstances, and went home. The land of smiles may be alright for the tourist, but for an expat with a family in Thailand I have to say there was little joy and a lot of heartache. 

I mostly write blog stories that revolve around my personal day to day life in Thailand, which has now been a six year journey. Because I have found it to be a mostly positive experience I don’t get caught up in the aspects that can frustratingly intrude if your reality isn’t as friendly and free-flowing as mine has been. This post is to balance up my never-ending cheerfulness with some of the issues that can make your stay here less than perfect.

To start with I thought I would give you two instances of farang who in one case has totally spat the dummy and another who has quite legitimate concerns about some aspects of a future retired life here.

Farang One:

Some people, like me, finally realize it just is not worth the hassle, shake-down for tea money by crooked cops and immigration officers, trying to find someone to get your annual visa renewal by under the table payments to various individuals because you don’t have the needed money in the bank, so you find a well known lady around UDON who will get your passport stamped for around 25,000 baht. It is a shell game where she gets the needed money for us stupid experts, shows the money is there to crooked immigration officers, gets the stamp for you then gets her money back immediately. It is an effective con games that is making these crooks, including lawyers, rich, while the experts breathe a sigh of relief for another year because he cheated and best the system again, so he does not worry for another 10 to 11 months about the visa renewal, broke, no money in the bank for reasons that really boil down to the expat not having enough money in the bank to get his visa renewal legally. After 8 years I finally decided I had no desire to live the rest of my life in Thailand under these circumstances, and went home. The land of smiles may be alright for the tourist, but for an expat with a family in Thailand I have to say there was little joy and a lot of heartache. Goodbye to my dream retirement and goodbye to all the crooked cops, immigration officials, bar girls who will love you to much, until you no longer have the money you had when you met her, big surprise there, to wake up and realize you have given your wife/bar girlfriend millions of baht and there is no way to account for it, through your own stupidity and naivety I am one of them that gave my wife roughly 16,000.000 baht over ten years and I still do not have a home to show for my money, so goodbye land of smiles. Life there pretty much sucked, at least for me. Now I am back home with my 72 K a year safely in my bank where My wife will never get her hands on it, and neither will my best friend who must have had some delusional thought that I would support him and his family for life.then he blames me for devastating his family when I stopped sending him money every. month. I am still trying to figure out how I devastated his family because he could not support them financially. I guess he no longer can buy steaks and other overpriced food at Top market, and eat at any restaurant whenever he wanted some FARANG food. I think the fried rice, sticky rice and roadkill that goes into a poor Thai family pot, does not appeal to him. My answer, get used to it and maybe once a month you can have a ham n cheese sandwich from 7- 11. Life stateside is a dream compared to living there and wondering and worrying how you are going to make ends meet month to month. That is a worry I have flushed down the Thai toilet forever.

Farang Two:

How does one adapt to the rural way of thinking in Thailand? How does one just “let things go,” as it were? You told me yourself in one of your blogs that you burn all of your waste. Xxx and her family do the same. To us in Australia that is something that went out in the ’80’s/early ’90’s I guess. We all used to have our backyard incinerators until it became a big “No-No,” and the councils started supplying recycle bins. Even so, we only burned paper/cardboard and other inflammables. Xxx and her family BURN PLASTIC because they have no garbage pick-up. They DO recycle their glass and metal waste somewhere, but that is all. Everything else is burnt, regardless of what properties it may contain.

Whilst I have never considered myself to be a “Greenie”, I do try to do my bit for the environment. I detest the thought of rainforests being cut down in Indonesia just to make Palm oil at the expense of Orangutans, etc. etc…………. much more!

So, to my question; how do I learn to keep my mouth shut on such matters (or should I) in rural Thailand? Do I just go with the flow? Do I try to educate the uneducated? Hmm; possibly difficult when they don’t even have a garbage pick-up! So, Tony, how do you cope with this incredible lifestyle change? Sure, I can easily do without some of the worries of the “outside” world, but there are some things that I cannot ignore.

Let’s use the first rant as the starting point, move onto the second more thoughtful question and then work through a list I quickly wrote down of all the other negatives I could think of that should be recognised by anyone thinking of making Thailand home.

WARNING

For those of you used to my kind and loving words about Thailand this post is mostly not that written that way. I have taken this opportunity to be more than honest about certain aspects. I will generalise and perhaps be more critical than what I write about deserves, but I aim to make a point. There is no place on earth that’s ideal and Thailand is no different so do not expect a tourist brochure life. It mostly doesn’t exist in a real situation.

Corruption

Let me quickly state that there is NO link between the topic and these lovely Isan policewomen 🙂 It just is I don’t have many police images!

Corruption seems to be a theme that runs through some people’s experience of Thailand. It’s a difficult one for me to respond to because in my case I have NEVER paid money to police or bureaucracy that wasn’t a standard fee. A policeman did once try to get an extra 300 baht out of Gaun but she got stuck into him, threatened to take his photo and no more was heard on the matter. 

There is obviously corruption around, as there is in all countries, but I don’t think it is necessarily an everyday part of life here. Does money change hands if you want your son to get a job in the local government office – maybe. Can you buy your child into university – absolutely. Will some money get you out of a speeding fine – maybe. Do you see a pattern here? Think about the corruption the expat I first quoted was talking about.  In some of the cases I have listed it is us, the ‘outsiders’ wanting to twist the system to suit our needs. The ranting farang was paying backhanders because he didn’t have enough money in the bank to meet genuine Thai requirements to get a legitimate visa. If your kid isn’t bright enough to get into university on their own efforts then YOU can initiate an exchange of money for selection. What I am saying is that there is more open flexibility to manipulate the system to suit our needs, than in western societies. 

In my case I have never had the need to cheat the system so I haven’t had to initiate paying extra money to anyone. I have driven 150,000 km on Thai roads and had a few fines, I have got visa extensions, lodged 90 reports, got a yellow book, pink card, drivers licence, bought two plots of land, built a house, registered a usufruct, got formally married, opened bank accounts, watched the family farm being split into eight blocks, helped Peng get into university and so it goes. If Thailand was essentially a corrupt country at some of these milestones I would have had to pay money to smooth the way and yet I never have. 

My general observation is that if you are living a ‘normal’ everyday life in Thailand it is less likely you will be hit by very much corruption. If however, you are the type of person who ends up drunk and in a fight on the late night streets of Pattaya or Patong and then have to buy your way out of the situation from the police that turn up, or want to rort the visa system then Thailand can be as corrupt as the depth of your pockets!   

Pollution

Charcoal being made at the farm. Logs are buried and slow burned. adding to the smoky environment. Why not gas? Because it’s alway been done like this!

Village people generally lead a traditional village lifestyle, guided quite often by what has been done in the past. I look at Yuan and Lud and their entire life is farm, home, market, eat, sleep. That’s it! By the evening they are so tired they cook, eat and head to bed. They hardly ever have the time or energy to even watch TV and life passes them by. It is no wonder then that concepts we include as a natural inclusion in our lives, such as the list the second expat mentions above especially the area of concern around pollution, never forms part of their thinking or awareness. Gaun, who left school aged 12, thought that rain came from a large pond in the sky. She was surprised when she and I got together and started to fly a lot, that no such ponds existed. I have to say that I am disappointed for her because that explanation of rain is far more understandable than ours!!!! Gaun is intelligent and curious but uneducated and tied to what she knows best. The same can be appied to issues such as pollution.

There is certainly a lot of burning here and you will need to adjust to that. On a massive scale the sugarcane is burnt before harvest and in the far north (Chiang Mai/Rai) corn waste is burnt, which resulted this year in Chiang Mai having a couple of days as the worst air polluted city in the world! With no rubbish collection we take ours to the farm and guess what – it’s burnt. Even if we had a rubbish collection I suspect that would end up being burnt.

The enormous quality of cuttings and leaves from our garden is taken to the farm and…..guess what – burnt. In a small garden, non-tropical situation westerners might say why not mulch? It is just the quantity of waste produced in this environment that makes this unfeasible. We have taken two large ute-loads out to the farm in the last week.

I must say that I have never seen plastic being burnt in Thailand. It is religiously recycled here along with glass, paper and metal/aluminium. We have several people who patrol the main road from Si Bun Ruang to Nong Bua Lamphu, a 30 km stretch, picking up all recyclables on a daily basis. Much better than Australia who only does it once a year! This enthusiasm is not because the Thais are a bunch of greenies. It just is that there’s money in recycling and because of the low basic income, it is economically viable to earn 200 baht collecting other people’s rubbish.

Even leaving aside the big polluters of sugar and corn, charcoal fires are the norm for a lot of cooking and smoke wafts the village streets morning and evening. Garden rubbish is burnt roadside as are fields after cropping and fire is used to clear weed infested areas. You will NEVER get crystal clear days like you do in Australia. The air clarity is always slightly hazy.

A south coast Aussie beach scene. No smoke haze here.

And super clean, white sand like this is a bit of a Thai mystery too from the photos I have seen.

Where do septic tank contents end up? You will see the trucks out in farms spraying sugar crops sometimes. Legal or not I don’t know. Think about that next time you dump a spoonful of sugar into your tea -) If you have respiratory problems then test Thailand before ‘buying’, especially if you want to make the far north of Chiang Mai/Rai your home. Farang have moved from these areas because of the annual smoke pollution. I have had a persistent cough ever since I came here, which I have more recently mostly overcome, but I wonder what aspect of life here has caused it.

Tropical Birds and more?

Taken in the garden a few days ago.

Often seen in the village and farms. Yuan and Lud hand feed one of these every morning..

Sorry. Only kidding. There are no tropical birds just sparrows and other drab offerings. The lack of birds sort of points to a degree of illusion about what to expect day to day when you move here. You might have the impression that tropical Thailand = wandering elephants, vividly coloured birds, majestic trees and a Tarzan rainforest covering the hills. Think again.

The only elephants you will see are domesticated or in tourist parks, the birds have had their habitat destroyed ages ago and most likely have been eaten, the big trees have been turned into charcoal or dining tables and the rainforest is now scrubby bush (an Australian expression for a general wilderness that isn’t urban). The photos you see promoting Thailand or tourist trips are sort of genuine but often in a semi-manipulated way to look the best. You think Phi Phi Island actually looks like the photos?

Ah tropical Thailand – bliss.

Or not.

I do exactly the same with my photos. What you get to see is the very best of what I capture and all my photos are edited to look their as good as I can make them. You think I photograph street scenes here? Why would I? They are ugly, with electricty wires and broadband wires everywhere, advertising and ‘architecture’ that just isn’t worth the space on my memory card. However, it’s these street scenes you see everyday not the deserted Phi Phi island beach and you need to recognise that fact.

Online social media doesn’t help. Who posts ugly images of where they are visiting? It is always the beautiful backdrops to the selfies isn’t it. When you come to Thailand maybe you are expecting a recreation of those social media images. It isn’t going to happen.

I will slip back into nice mode and having said all of that, and leaving aside the expectations of widespread beauty, there are obviously some stunning sights in Thailand both on the small scale like some temples and scenery so well captured by one of the best Isan photographers an English guy called Steve Coupland. You can find his photography Facebook page HERE. I do OK on the photography too.

Handicraft Heaven?

Another of my personal illusions was that Thailand would be a arts and crafts hub. I had this idea of local craftspeople sitting outside houses producing the sorts of items that an art loving farang would pick up for next to nothing. I would walk down the main street of Si Bun Ruang and pass shops selling beautiful things that villagers had made – traditional items in cloth, silk, wood, pottery, garden statues and ornamentation and paintings.

In reality this is partly true but not as I had imagined (story of my life). Like the scenic photo shots of Thailand all of the above are on offer here – somewhere. It just is that this sort of activity isn’t woven into the everyday.

The main street of Si Bun Ruang has six main retail categories, as does any retail street in Thailand. You will find many versions of the plastics/flat pack furniture shop, the 20 baht shop, the farm implement shop, food stalls, the phone shop and clothes. All are stocked with the cheapest things China has to offer with the exception of food where one hundred shops offer the same choice of ten dishes, none of which I want to eat.

You will almost never find an antique shop, arts and crafts or anything beyond basic requirements. There’s a reason of course. The reality is that there’s no excess income and no demand for things that aren’t there to do a job. Pictures on walls are limited to royalty and dead monks. Even picture frames are ornate Chinese looking gold things designed so that you can frame pictures of royalty or dead monks 🙂

If you want a statue of a cartoon character or simple terracotta pots made by the thousands then you are in luck. Anything beyond this is generally a challenge.

What in heaven is this all about? A lovely piece of Thai culture you can add to your garden.

Street markets are a also a huge disappointment if you are expecting handicrafts because you won’t find any. You will find that every market in Thailand looks almost exactly the same. These is a huge warehouse somewhere filled with rubbish from China and this is then shipped out to every local street market in Thailand. You want a T shirt of some American football team or a multinational brand name? You are in luck because your local markets will be full of the stuff. In Chiang Mai tuk tuks made from beer cans or carved soap is about as crafty as it gets. 

Come to Thailand and buy a VW shirt. 

Even nicely presented markets like this evening one at Chiang Khan on the Mekong River in Loei province, are just selling commercial bulk produce. Twenty shops selling variations of ‘I’ve been to Chiang Khan’ T shirts. 

Now, I have to weaken again and bring back Tony. Yes, there are craftworks happening. Yai, or grandmothers are still doing some weaving at the back of their houses, silk is still happening made from silk worms cultivated in sheds and fed mulberry leaves (didn’t know that did you). Reed mats are made, there is woodwork, but at village level pretty basic, temple gongs are cast and there are specialist pockets of craft activities around. My point is that you mostly have to search these things out. What you see everyday lacks any breadth of choice once you start looking for anything beyond life’s basic necessities.

History and Architecture

To start this section I have picked on Chiang Mai and my apologies to that city for that. I am not a big fan but I know of readers that are. My main gripe is not what Chiang Mai is, because it is vibrant, busy and stacked with all sorts of cafes, restaurants, temples and shopping, which if you are a big city fan makes life engaging and interesting. However, my problem is the way Chiang Mai is sold, which is very much how historical Thailand is presented to the unsuspecting newbie.

Very early in my time in Thailand I spent time in Chiang Mai. It was only a few days while we picked up a long term hire car for a three month stay in Chiang Rai. We then returned and lived there for 12 months. For me I originally bought the travel agent sales pitch about Chiang Mai. You hear words like historical, walled town, old city, moat and you immediately start to apply a European context to what you will discover. Forget it. I love this bloggers interpretation of visiting the place:

The unfortunate fact is that Chiang Mai is not much different from any other traffic clogged, ugly Thai city. This section of wall has been rebuilt as a photo opportunity spot. The original wall has probably supplied bricks to half of the houses close by and this section is a small fraction of what was.

This is the historical reality. The wall is on the far left and opposite it is the usual cheap commercial concrete ugliness. This Google photo must have been taken outside rush hours, which are horrendous around the moat. A real test of your Thailand driving nerves.

Inside the moat. This is the ‘old town’ on the left. Maybe not what you had in mind.

And inside the old town. Quirky and maybe fun but any trace of what might have once been has long gone. 

So leaving behind my Chiang Mai bashing (we are driving there tomorrow) what it represents is the sad fact about Thai history and any visible connection to the past. The history is one of constant wars with all of its neighbours up until more recent times. Land was constantly being won or lost and the destruction of war was equally impressive back then as it is now. Go to an old historical town outside Chiang Mai and what you’ll see are some brick foundations and one remaining structure. A combination maybe of war but certainly of villagers looking for free building materials.

Sorry, I got back to Chiang Mai bashing again. Now on the plus side there are historical sites that are worth visiting in Thailand. I am not suggesting that there aren’t. But as I keep getting back to in the theme of this post, history is something you have to search out. It is not a part of the everyday. You don’t just drive through the countryside and come across ancient structures. They just aren’t there. Like Australia, anything more than fifty years old is classified as ancient. 

Following on from this is the situation relating to architecture. If an enjoyment of buildings that are intersting, unique and reflect the character of the country you are living in is your thing you have come to the wrong place. 

Thai architecture generally, either private or public, is built to purpose on a tight budget. Government buildings are generally large imposing concete bunkers with peeling paint and wires running all over the place. Private dwellings are either shanty or modern cubes that are more a statement of the blandness of modern life than any more thoughtful expression. Streetscapes have nothing much going for them. Incorprating trees and landscaping as part of the urban environment is woeful. 

All in all if you want history and architecture, and in most ‘normal’ situations the two are combined, then give Thailand a miss. 

 

Cheap?

No order to any of this as you can tell. Don’t be mistaken that living in Thailand is cheap. That statement depends on your lifestyle of course. If you are able to and are comfortable with living as many Thais do then it can be incredibly cheap. I have seen electricity bills in the village that are under 200 baht for the month. Why? No fridge, no hot water, a coupe of fluorescent tubes for lighting, no aircon, maybe a couple of fans and charcoal cooking. If that’s your retirement dream then you’ve found the right place. BTW my electricity bill arrived this evening and it was just under 2,700 baht!

A house can be built for a few hundred thousand if simple and hot is your criteria and motorbike transport does the job. Eating as a local is wonderfully cheap. We buy a terrific meal from the local village shop for 30 baht.

Once you move beyond the ‘living as a local’ stage then you will find that in some cases Thailand is cheaper than back ‘home’ and in others just as expensive. Farang food basics such as milk, butter, cheese, beef plus anything imported and more exotic drinks like wine are the same or more than you’ll pay in a supermarket in a western country.

Buying a car can be a bit cheaper than Australia but not other countries. You might find that cheap also mean less inclusions. My Nissan NP300 top of the line pick-up only has two airbags in Thailand. Seven in Australia. Independent rear suspension back home, Leaf springs here.

If you want choice in health care than it is expensive. Leaving aside America, which is just weird, most normal countries are no more expensive than Thailand with private health cover.

Clothes are probably cheaper but most are the same imported Chinese stuff you buy anywhere. Brand clothes are expensive. Electronic gear is just as expensive as Australia and sometimes more so.

If you want flatpack rubbish that lasts 12 months, then furniture is cheapish here. If you want quality then it’s expensive. Thai wooden furniture is relatively cheap but uncomfortable.

Most things that involve labour are incredibly cheap. This is where you make huge savings if building a house here. The components aren’t that much cheaper than home but the labour at 300 baht a day will make a massive difference. I built a large, comfortable decent spec home for the cost of a big garage in Australia. 

I could go on but won’t. I feel that I get double the value for my retirement money (leaving aside the rubbish exchange rate) living in Thailand. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can live comfortably here based on those old Asia on $10 a day books. You will be surprised how much you need to survive with the sort of lifestyle I think most people expect when they retire.

Food

Standard farang food for a funeral, wedding or monk ordination!

I can remember Friday nights back in my Canberra days pre-Thailand. End of the week meant a mini-celebration which included a takeaway, a bottle of wine and a hired DVD (Some of you will remember those days – iPads were still a science fiction fantasy) One of the takeaway choices was Thai of course and I used to really enjoy those dishes from time to time.

Coming to Thailand and it was like Friday takeaway every day. Whoopie. Cheap too. It took a while but gradually my desires returned to western foods. A chicken green curry, that was looked forward to every three weeks didn’t seem so attractive if available every week.

The food situation is like so much else that people engage with while on a brief holiday, then retire here and expect to have the same enthusiasm. A classic is the heat. Wonderful in a brief one or two week spell, lying on the beach with a swim to cool off. How about EVERY day when you have to live a real non-holiday, non-beach life? Food has ended up the same. I find Thai food as an everyday intake to be boring and I just don’t get hungry for it. I have returned to a largely western diet as a result.

Now this is personal and I have many friends and contacts that love their Thai food and eat it most of the time. Some local farang have even taken to Isan food, which is whole different level of ingredients, hotness and flavours. It is most unlikely you will have ever had Isan takeaway back ‘home’.

Food can be a frustration for some farang and the extra cost and effort to source the ingredients we used to take for granted can compound that frustration. Eating out locally is something we never do. The only choices are Isan, maybe a Thai dish thrown in the choice but not always, and I it just doesn’t do it for me. The eating places are usually super basic, close at seven o’clock and why would I go somewhere less pleasant than what I have at home?

There are farang eating places around (only one locally) but even in big cities like Udon Thani they tend to offer pub type food. Burgers, pies and pizzas are the main choices. You also don’t get the wide variety of eating choices as you would even in a city like Canberra, which had just about every nationality on the earth represented. I remember we had an Ethiopian restaurant – who would have thought!

Gaun’s world famous Isan chilli paste. Not for the faint hearted!

I have more to add but it is late and I am driving to Chiang Mai tomorrow. I will update with a couple of extra frustrations when we get back. In conclusion I feel a lot better for unloading all of that. You have all been a wonderful therapists and so cheap too – I must add you to the list! Despite what I have written life here suits me just fine. None of the things I have covered actively intrude on my everyday life. I recognise them as areas I would prefer to be different in an ideal world but am going to lose zero sleep worrying about them. Regular readers know how delighted I am with my life here and that is reflected in the stories I write. I have been greatly blessed and it is a fact that I give thanks for every day.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment because it gives me something to read in exchange.

Tony