Sunday, 11 October 2009

Drinking with Thais

In my younger days I was quite an accomplished boozer. It is part of our British ‘culture’. We often drink ourselves senseless. In fact, we take great pride in our ability to get absolutely hammered and then shake off the after effects and do exactly the same thing the next day. Well that was when I was younger.

As you get a little older, you have to accept that you can’t handle the same drinking pace. You need to slow down because you can’t shake off the after effects the way you once did. A major drinking session for me nowadays can mean the entire next day is a write off while I try to recover from the hangover. That is not to say I no longer do major boozing sessions but they are rarer events than they once were. I still enjoy a drinking session but these days they tend to be more moderated.

Mostly I drink with friends from England or other western countries but sometimes I find myself joining a drinking session with my wife and some of her Thai friends. This has been happening more often recently since she opened her little Thai restaurant (full credit to her – she is still going with this long after I thought she would have given up). Well it is quite easy to be drawn into a few drinks with the locals. They are often quick to push a glass into your hands.

Drinking with Thais is a little different. If they are drinking beer they do not each have their own bottle the way we would in a western drinking session. Instead, they buy big bottles of beer and share them around by constantly topping up each person’s glass. This is similar to the way they eat food – putting all the dishes in the middle and everyone tucks in. I guess in a way it is more sociable. It also means everyone can drink at their own pace instead of trying to keep up with the rounds.

Perhaps more often, they will be drinking Thai whisky or rum. They mix it with ice, soda and coke. They think this is cheaper than drinking beer. A Thai bottle of whisky/rum tends to be under 200-baht. Even with the mixers, this is a cheap way for a group of people to drink. I still prefer to drink beer and will often stick with the beer but one thing I will say in favour of the whisky option -- I never seem to get a major hangover when I drink this way. I think it is something to do with all the soda and coke keeping your hydration and sugar levels topped up.

I enjoy a little drink with the locals. They are friendly and keen to socialise. There are some entertaining characters and you always hear a few funny stories about what is going on in the neighbourhood. I think one of the good things Thailand has is there is still a sense of community. The neighbours all know each other, know what is going on and generally try to pitch in and help each other.

I always think drinking with people gives you a good insight as to what they are really like. They start telling you things that they wouldn’t normally talk about. It tests my Thai language ability but also helps me learn a little more. The thing I notice when I drink with Thai people is just how similar they are to western people. The things they talk about, laugh about, it is all very similar. It is sometimes from a different perspective because they are looking from a different perspective but the conclusions and sense of humour are really very similar.

I think it is still natural that I prefer boozing with friends from my own country. It is not a case of one being better than the other, but just that it is easier to communicate with people who speak your own language and come from a similar background. I think it is good for ex-pats in Thailand to join and enjoy Thai style culture but it is also important to still maintain some of your own identity and culture.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Raising Kids in Phuket

Last week was the kids’ birthdays. Ben was 6 and Jenny was 4. Their birthdays are on the same day, two years apart. That is rather fortunate, only one party and no petty jealousies as they both get presents on the same day.

Raising kids in Phuket has its challenges and I often find myself wondering whether it will give them the best opportunities in life. Would they be better off if I took them home to England for their education?

It is an important question. I love my life in Thailand but I also want to give our kids the best chance in life. There are definite pros and cons to raising children in Phuket. It is a balancing act but one which for the moment I am happy to tilt in Phuket’s favour.

The thing is despite my concerns about the Thai education system and environment, I look at my two little kids and they are thriving. In fact, I try to remember myself when I was 6 years old and Ben is way more advanced than I was. He is already bi-lingual. He even knows two alphabets. He can swim (I was 9 or 10 when I learned to swim), he rides a bike and a skateboard. He has lots of local friends and loves going out to play. He is friendly, confident and outgoing. He even likes school.

If we moved them to England, they would miss out on their bi-lingual skills. They would learn more about English culture but lose their Thai culture. I think it is easier to pick up some English culture while in Phuket than vice-versa. They get so many great experiences in Thailand. It is not that there aren’t plenty of good things to do in England, but somehow the environment in Thailand is more conducive to fun.

There are some things I think the Thais do very well with children. There are others that we definitely do better in the west.

Thais are wonderful at showering children with affection. Any children, anywhere in Thailand will get attention. Complete strangers will stop to say hello to children. Thai people genuinely adore children. I think this is a major factor in why Thais grow up to be so open and friendly.

On the other hand, I don’t think Thai parents are so good at involving their children in organised activities. There are not so many Thai parents that will sit down with their children for a bit of colouring or reading. In our household, reading bedtime stories is a duty that always falls on my shoulders.

When it comes to the education system, there are also strong differences. Thais do more hours and get more homework. There is a strong emphasis on manners and discipline. The major complaint everybody makes about the Thai education system - they learn by rote. There is not much time spent on creativity or analysing problems.

I can’t afford to send my little ones to one of the international schools on the island. Even if I could afford it, I’m not sure I would want to. You see some of the kids from the international school out and about and I wouldn’t want my kids strutting around with such a cocky attitude. Perhaps that is not fair on the school and is more a trait of the privileged background of some of these children.

Anyway, my little ones go to Darasamut School in Phuket Town. It is a private Thai school and on the whole, I am happy with it. I think they get most things about right. I would prefer it if the hours were less, Ben does 8am until 4pm which seems a bit much for a six year old. I really don’t think they need homework at their age. I also think the morning parade where they sing the national anthem and raise the flag is hard work for such youngsters. Still it is an important part of Thai culture and the kids all line up and sing the song with great enthusiasm.

On the whole, I am happy with the school. They do plenty of playing, drawing, singing and the other things I think kids should be doing at that age. They have a swimming pool. The kids all seem remarkably happy and well-behaved. They are already learning their alphabets and numbers but I think they are teaching at the right sort of level. The kids are encouraged to eat good food and they get milk. They are taught about hygiene, mosquitoes, etc, they brush their teeth and all the 6 and unders take an afternoon nap

I am also impressed that they don’t charge any extras. The schools fees are a little more than a Thai public school but they cover everything. I have a friend who send his kids to a Thai public school and he is always being charged extras, which probably actually makes the school more expensive.

So for the moment I am more than happy with the upbringing our kids are getting in Phuket. In fact, I think at the early education stages, learning by rote is not such a bad thing. It lays the foundation skills such as alphabets, times tables, etc. My worry will be about when the kids get older and their education needs become more challenging. Will the Thai secondary education be good enough? We will see. We also have the option of moving the kids into the English Program at Darasamut, which is not too expensive.

I guess the challenge is to try to give them the best of both worlds. If they can take the best parts of a Thai upbringing and mix in the best parts of a western upbringing, then they have a good chance of growing up happy and successful.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Pon's New Shop

Well I haven’t had the urge to write for a while. Somehow, without anything particularly exciting happening, I have felt quite busy. It has been nothing too demanding. I certainly couldn’t complain that my life in Phuket is stressful. It has all been easy stuff. A few odd jobs, a few chores, take care of the kids, play football, golf, swim, exercise, computer, etc.

Well come to think of it, I did have a computer hard disc crash. That was frustrating as my last full back up was 3-months ago and when I looked at it, it turned out it had not completed so I did not even have everything from 3-months ago. Lots of little things worked against me in my efforts to recover my data. The main thing was it looked like I had lost 4-months worth of family photos.

I had just about given up on the possibility of ever recovering the photos when I had the bright idea of scraping the memory card from my digital camera. The photos had all long been deleted from the memory card but with the right software, you can still recover deleted files from the card. So that is what I did and to my relief it scraped off the majority of my lost pictures.

So there is a lesson for everyone – make sure you keep regular back ups of the important stuff on your computer.

A month ago my wife Pon got the urge to open a small restaurant. It is just a Thai style food place in a shop front on the local estate. These sort of places will never make a lot of money but she is not really doing it for the money – she just likes food and chatting. Most Thai women like food and chatting.

These little Thai restaurants don’t make much money but they also don’t cost much to set up. She rents the shop for 2000 baht a month, she spent a fair few thousand baht fitting it out and that was it, she was open. She sells somtam for 30-baht and other Thai dishes for 50-baht. Everyday her friends and assorted local characters drift in and out. It is all very informal. Her friends might help with the cooking, bring food of their own or a few drinks. It seems like every few day, the evening develops into a general boozing session.

It is more of a social affair than a business enterprise. Still she is taking in more than 1000 baht a day which is good for a small Thai business. I’m not sure how much of that turnover actually turns into profit. Pon can’t be bothered to keep accurate accounts of her expenses and income.

I just pop in for my evening meal and occasionally join the locals for a few drinks. It is very handy having a restaurant in the family. I pre-order whatever dish I fancy – somtam, tom yam goong, grapow gai, gaeng keeow wahn, etc, etc, so many good options to choose from.

Well I better make full use of it while it is there. If I know my wife, it will be closed in a few months and she will be ready to move on to her next hobby.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Marriage Visa Extension

We have been back from our travels for a couple of weeks now. It was a good little trip. Ben now fancies himself as quite the little 5-year old daredevil. His antics this trip included paddling a kayak down rapids, driving an ATV and he even did an army parachute cable jump. He has been watching the X-games and his new ambition is to be a speed rock climber. It is all a far cry from when I was that age and all we had was football in the street.

Anyway, I am feeling quite pleased with myself because I have finally sorted myself a proper 1-year extension to my visa. I have lived in Thailand for 8-years now but strangely, I have done the entire stay using what are basically short-term visas. Yes, these visas did include 1-year multi-entry marriage visas but even these still mean you have to leave the country every 3-months. Perhaps what is even more strange is that I was quite happy to accept this arrangement.

For anyone who is unaware of Thai visa regulations, if you want to stay in Thailand long-term without doing regular visa runs, then you have to apply for an extension of stay. Firstly, you get your marriage visa (or business visa, education visa, retirement visa, etc) from a Thai consulate outside of Thailand. However, these visas really only allow short-term stays of 90-days (I think it is 1 year for the retirement visa). To stay longer than this you have to go to an immigration office and apply for an extension of stay. You have to meet the various regulations and criteria, which vary depending on what type of visa you are extending.

I always knew I could apply for a 1-year extension to the marriage visa but I could never quite be bothered with all the paperwork. I was happy to take my family for a trip every 3-months and hop over the border. Then every 15-months I went to the Thai consulate in Penang to get a new 1-year multi-entry visa.

However, this all changed on my last trip to Penang when they said they would only give me a single-entry 3-months. Now my hand was forced. I either had to go to Penang every 3-months which really would turn into a major chore, or I had to do the 1-year extension. I started gathering the paperwork. I spent some time researching the required paperwork ( is a great source for up to date visa info).

Currently, the main requirement for an extension to the marriage visa is to either show 400,000 baht in a Thai bank or an income greater than 40,000-baht a month. I was going to apply on the income basis. My income comes from renting out my flat in London. The evidence the Thai immigration office wants is a letter from your embassy confirming the income. So my first step was to send the rental receipts to the British Embassy in Bangkok and request the letter, duly returned for a fee of 1,868-baht.

I then gathered up the rest of the required documents. These include the obvious such as passport, marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates, wife’s id card and tabien baan (originals plus 2 copies of everything). Also required is your Thai bank book (plus 2 copies of every page), even if you are applying on the income option.

One other slightly odd requirement mentioned is family photos and a map to your house so the immigration officers can make random checks on the authenticity of the marriage. It turns out different immigration offices have their own interpretation of the rules and the Phuket office do not require this.

So with wife in tow, we went to the immigration office and made the application. They were too busy and told us to come back next week. We returned the following week and made the application. There was one problem with our paperwork. We had the original ‘kor ror 3’ marriage certificate when apparently what we needed was the ‘kor ror 2’ marriage certificate. Off we dashed to our local Amphur office for the correct certificate. An hour later and finally the application was completed. You get a 30-day ‘under consideration’ period and then you go back to find out if the extension has been granted. I had met all the requirements for the extension but you still worry whether the application will be accepted.

So 30-days later, we returned to the immigration office. This time it was very quiet. We went straight to the desk and the officer took my passport and disappeared with a mysterious expression on his face. He returned with some paperwork, perused it, looked concerned, sucked in some air and shook his head. Then suddenly stamp, stamp, stamp in my passport, a big smile and he returned the passport. They were actually very pleasant through the whole process.

So fantastic, no more visa runs for me. You do have to go to the immigration office every 90-days to confirm your address but that is a lot easier than leaving the country every 90-days.

School starts again next week.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Koh Chang

After a week in Nakhon Nayok I had passed my 'out in the sticks' threshold and it was time to move on. It was a good stay. We did songkhran. I filled in a couple of days by checking out the local golf course. Royal Hills is a very nice course with a good range of facilities. The place is a very nice addition to my entertainment options while I am on 'sticks' duty. They even have UBC so I can get my Spurs action with English commentary instead of having to drive into town and watch it in the local music bar while the band insist on playing Hotel California because a farang is in the bar. This week, even Spurs didn't let me down. They got a 1-0 win over Newcastle that puts us firmly in the hunt for European places. It is strange that a football result actually affects my mood but it really does. I have had an extra spring in m,y step for the last couple of days.

So it was time to move on. We have driven to Koh Chang in Trat. I like Koh Chang. It has certainly developed a lot in the last few years but I think it still retains a bit of a laid back, beach-bum feel to it. It does have fantastic beaches. The prices are obviously a little touristy, but only a little. It is all still much cheaper than Phuket.

We have a nice big bungalow in the trees by the beach for 800 baht a night. The resort sells big bottles of beer for 80-baht, a good bowl of Tom Yam Goong is also 80-baht.

There are plenty of bars and restaurants around. Certainly no problem finding the football here. Basically, they now have everything you need but still at reasonable prices and with a nice laid back feel.

The island is developing rapidly, even from the last time I visited two years ago. There are lots of new resorts and quite a few of the old back-packer huts have disappeared. You can't stop development but hopefully they will contain it and maintain the nice relaxed atmosphere.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Back to Nakhon Nayok

It is time for our annual trip to Nakhon Nayok. We normally take our time driving up but this year the timing was so close to Songkhran that we just got on with the drive. As it turned out, we timed it perfectly. As we drove north from Phuket towards Bangkok, we had nice clear roads while all the way there were traffic jams on the other side of the road heading south. The traffic was heavy as we bypassed Bangkok but we soon found open road again and reached Nakhon Nayok in record time.

The weather was fairly crap for the whole trip and there was a full on thunderstorm as we arrived. It seems like the rainy season has arrived early this year. This is a shame as half the point of Songkhran is that it is normally the hottest time of year and a perfect time for a good water fight. There is not much point in having a water fight during a rain storm. Well fortunately, today is Songkhran proper and the weather has cleared here just in time. It is a nice sunny day outside and the water fights are in full swing.

Nakhon Nayok is still the same. Everyone is very friendly. There is lots of good food and it is all very picturesque. Lots of people come from Bangkok every weekend to play in the rivers and waterfalls and there will be more than normal for Songkhran.

We normally make this a 2 or 3 week trip but we have got here so quickly that I don't know what I will do to fill the time. I enjoy taking it easy in Nakhon Nayok for about a week but then the novelty wears off and I want to move again. We will need a plan to fill our time.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Koh Racha Islands

I do like a trip to a nice island. If it has a good beach and some decent snorkeling then that is ideal. Hopefully, it will not be too crowded but will have a few restaurants and bars. All the better if we can stay for a night or two to really chill out and appreciate the place. So when a few of our local Thai friends invited us to join them on a trip to Koh Racha, I was more than happy to accept. A couple of them work for one of the major hotels in Phuket and they had a very good deal on a speedboat tour and bungalow resort.

There are two islands, Koh Racha Yai & Noi. They are a fair distance out from Phuket and it takes dive boats well over an hour to get out there. Taking the speedboat really makes a difference. We zipped across from Chalong pier in half an hour and moored at the pier in Patok Bay at Koh Racha Yai. There is a great beach in this bay. There is also a posh 5-star resort and a handful of shops and restaurants.

I have visited Koh Racha a few times before on diving and fishing trips. Obviously, this involves spending most of your time on the water so I had never really had a look inside the island. Looking from the sea, I always assumed there was nothing much within the islands except for jungle. I was therefore quite surprised when our bungalow resort picked us up from the beach (with a tractor and trailer) and whisked us into the island. There are tracks and pathways around the island. Along the tracks are a few rustic little bungalow resorts, restaurants and coconut plantations.

Our bungalows were at the Raya Father Resort. It has pleasant little bungalows for 1000-baht a night (unless you are getting a special deal like us). There is a restaurant, internet shop and a little garden. We settled in and then went back to Patok Bay where our speedboat was waiting to take us for a cruise around Racha Yai. There is some great snorkeling around the Racha islands and we even saw a dolphin jump out the water.

After the cruise, our resort provided lunch (all included) and then we wandered across to the island’s other major beach in Siam Bay for the afternoon. It is a beautiful, quiet and laid back beach. We spent a lazy afternoon swimming and sleeping. We spent the evening at our bungalow resort eating and drinking.

It is all just the sort of stuff I like from an island trip. Good beaches, good snorkeling, friendly locals and relaxing evenings by the bungalow supping a few beers (well quite a lot of beers).

The food and drink prices at the outlying islands are generally a little higher than on Phuket, as they have to bring everything out by boat. We did a trip to Coral Island a few weeks ago where they were massively overcharging and we won’t be going back to that beach again. The prices at Racha Yai are what you would expect to pay at the islands and are reasonable. The Racha Islands are a good option for a few days island getaway.