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Colin Jarvis

Letter from Thailand No 9 - February 2014

Colin Jarvis is a management and communication consultant living in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.  Before he moved to Thailand from the UK he was a committee member of the Anglo Thai Society, ran the Thai Arts Foundation and helped form and support the Thai Dance Academy. Currently Colin lectures at a number of universities in Thailand, is active in many organisations including the British Chamber of Commerce, Lanna Care Net, (an organisation which helps foreign residents in Chiang Mai who have health or other issues), the Royal British Legion and many other organisations.  Colin also writes for several newspapers and magazines in Thailand, the UK and America.

The following is the ninth in this regular feature:

Now, Now!

For two months now it has been cold, very cold for Thailand. Even I, who is used to the harshness of the Northern British winter, am freezing. In some ways it’s quite novel feeling cold again. The dew drop on the end of one’s nose, the occasional sudden shiver and the desire for a bowl of hot soup are all reminders of what winter should be like. But in Thailand?

It’s bad enough for me but the local residents are wrapped up in quilted jackets, woolly hats and thick gloves as though they were about to go skiing. It really is cold though the thermometer reads 65°F, 20° C. The trouble is there is no system for getting warm, except perhaps for taking a bath. In colder climates where a cold winter is expected there are always systems such as central heating, electric heaters, wood fires and so on that can warm up a cold person. Here in Chiang Mai there is no such thing. If you are cold you stay cold until the sun warms everything up.

These days I frequently find myself emerging from my office at 10 o’clock in the morning in order to sit in the sun, like a lethargic lizard, waiting for the sun to warm me up so I can function properly. It really is a truly unusual climate.

Luckily the cold spell will soon be over and we shall start complaining about the heat again.  This time we have air conditioning, swimming pools, cold beer and other means of cooling down.

Despite the fact that the Thai climate seems to lurch from extreme to extreme it is one that stimulates the most amazing fertility. Everything that grows seems to grow more quickly and far larger than anything I have seen in the West.

In our garden the papaya plants seem to grow about a foot day. Soon we will have fifty or so papaya and like all the other local residents will be attempting to find people to eat them. The conversation often goes as follows. “Would you like some papaya?”, “No thank you, would you like some of mine?”. Soon, oh joy of joys, it will be the mango season and we can expect a hundred or so big juicy mangos to slurp, with or without sticky rice.

Our coconuts are beginning to present themselves ready for harvesting and the jackfruit seem to be determined that we shall not go without.

The only fruit that seems a normal size is the thousand or so rose apples which will be ready in a few months.

It is not just the fruit and vegetables that seem to grow to giant sizes. Insects, too, can be gigantic. I spotted this large brown beetle on the lawn.

Sadly he was dead as I would like to have seen him fly but it looks as though he flew into a window and expired. Then there was this amazing moth, all of 8 inches across from wing tip to wing tip.

Sometimes walking in my garden makes me feel like a small gnome as everything else is huge and I always suspect there is a danger, when planting seeds, that if I do not step backwards quickly enough the plant will grow so fast it will punch me in the face.

I feel very sorry for my colleagues in northern Europe and USA as their gardens are currently covered in snow and when the snow finally disappears, their gardens look bedraggled and unkempt despite the hard work that was put in some months ago. Although a Thai Garden may look superficially the same month by month in fact, if you look closely, there are dramatic changes happening almost weekly.

Some things, however, never seemed to change at this time of year. Every day we awake to a clear blue sky and the perfect weather becomes almost tedious. I do not think I have seen a cloud for three months. Rain has been absent for so long we have to water the garden twice a day. But, come April we will have the daily deluge and the ill become unnecessary.

This talk of cold and climate reminds me of a story told by a friend of mine. He had been invited to Doi Intanon observatory one night to view a meteor shower. There he was, at about 1 o’clock in the morning, surrounded by keen Thai astronomers awaiting the imminent spectacular display in the heavens. All of a sudden the cry “Now, now” rang out and my friend looked up exclaiming “Where, where”. It was only when he recognise the confusion on the faces of its Thai colleagues that he remembered that “Now” means cold in Thai and all those, stuck on that mountain top, were shivering!

(C) Colin Jarvis 2014

 

Letter from Thailand No 8 - October 2013

Loi Krathong

Thailand’s spirituality is a wonderful mixture of Animism, Hinduism and Buddhism. These come together in the temples and are usually mixed up in the major festivals, such as Loi Krathong when floating rafts of flowers are placed in a river, lake, pond or other water.

You probably know the story of how the Festival of Loi Krathong was invented by a lady of the Sukhothai court named Nopphamat. However, this is not true. The story originated in a poem written in the early Bangkok period, far later than 600 years or so implied in the story. So who did invent this festival? According to King Monkut, Rama IV, writing in 1863 it was a Brahmin festival that the Thais adapted to pay homage to Buddha. The light of the candle venerates the Buddha whilst the floating away of the Krathong is meant to take away life’s frustrations, anger and bad luck that has accumulated over the past year.

But that’s not all! The Krathong also is used to pay homage to Phra Mae, the water goddess. So we have a Hindu Brahmin ceremony that has been adapted to pay homage to Buddha and at the same time appease the animistic water goddess.

In case you don’t know a Krathong is a floating base made of and bamboo leaves or bread. They used to be made of polystyrene but thankfully this material is becoming less and less popular due to its lack of biodegradability. Bread is becoming more and more popular because it will also feed the fish which should generate some merit.

On top of this floating platform, bamboo leaves and flowers are arranged making a beautiful bouquet. In amongst these miniature gardens is a candle and an incense stick. A coin is usually included and sometimes people will put nail clippings or a lock of hair to indicate that the person intends to jettison their negative thoughts and think more positively in the future.

It is very easy to buy ready-made Krathong which look wonderful but it is far more fun to make one’s own. If you take part in the ceremony you need to beware of some of the traditions.

If you and your partner place your Krathong in the water at the same time, watch to see whether they float apart or come together. If they head towards each other you can be sure of another rewarding year. If they float apart you should start looking for another partner.

Personally I always find the ceremony emotional. I imagine all the bad things in my life floating away and I do find the ceremony useful in that for a few moments I experience a calm and wholeness that normally takes a long period of meditation to achieve.

Should you decide to float a Krathong with a bread base you need to be aware of one, fairly obvious fact. The bread will feed the fish but if you are at a temple or other pond where catfish and other large fish are kept, they can devour a Krathong in a matter of seconds. Instead of a scene of tranquil beauty the view looks like a major ship wreck.

It is wonderful to see a mass of Krathongs coming together, their candles burning and giving light and the smell of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incense sticks, heavy in the air.  As so often happens the Thais have managed to create a wonderful festival by adapting and combining features from different regions and religions.

In the North, in Lanna country, they have their own special ceremony which happens to take place at the same time as Loi Krathong. This is the Festival of Yi Peng. This is the main festival when the sky lanterns (Khom Loi) are let loose. Although this festival developed separately from Loi Krathong and is more about making merit than paying homage it does appear to be becoming part of the Loi Krathong Festival

We are lucky to be able to take part and enjoy these festivals. They are spectacular, emotionally satisfying, fun and much cheaper than Christmas.

   

Letter from Thailand No 7 - March 2013

Sanuk

First I must apologise for not writing sooner. I allowed what I thought was a slight illness, I mentioned it last time, to get out of control and turn into Pneumonia. I lost December and January and have been playing catch-up ever since. However all is now well, as am I, so we now intend to publish a letter every two months. This is the one for March so the next will be published in May.

I have just come back from Bangkok and on the plane I started looking back over my time in Thailand and remembering many of the amusing, sometimes embarrassing, things that have happened to me.

I remembered my first trip Chiang Mai. I had only been in the city for four days and had hired a motorcycle in order to see around the town. I decided to explore the area around the Night Market on foot and to find a place have some lunch. There, in the middle of a long line of parked motorcycles was a small space in which I could fit my trusty Honda Dream. Imagine my horror and shock when I returned after lunch to find that my motorcycle had been chained to about 30 or 40 other motorcycles. One incredibly long chain went through the wheel of every motorcycle and was secured by one single padlock. I had not realised that red and white stripes painted on the curbside meant that no parking was allowed. Neither, presumably, did the other 30 or 40 riders.

I spotted a piece of paper attached to the saddle which meant nothing to me as it was entirely in Thai but I recognised that it must be some kind of parking ticket. What was I to do? I could not read what it said therefore I could not do what was required of me in order to free my motorcycle.

I spotted a policeman and I had heard that the thing to do with policeman in Thailand was to bribe them. A bribe would no doubt quickly release my machine and allow me to be on my way. I felt fully equipped to negotiate my freedom as I had already completed three days of the AUA, book 1, Thai course.

“Sawadee krub” I said with all the unwarranted confidence of a beginning AUA student. A Gallic shrug of the shoulders coupled with a waiving of the piece of paper indicated to the policeman that my language skills had run out and that I did not know what to do next in order to free my trusty steed.

My attempted bribe was politely declined. Eventually, with the help of passers-by and the policeman’s English, which was far better than my Thai, I understood that I needed to go to the police station and pay a fine, after which my motorcycle would be unlocked. But how to find the police station? How to find my way around Chiang Mai at all? What is worse, how would I find my way back from the police station to my motorcycle. The solution seemed to be to hire a Tuk Tuk which would take me to the police station, wait and then return me to my Honda Dream.

A satisfactory negotiation was concluded with a passing Tuk Tuk driver who agreed to take me to the police station, wait and then return for the sum of 100 baht. The driver duly deposited me at the bottom of the stairs at the police station and indicated I should ascend into the fineing part of the police station. I entered a large room full of about 150 people, all gloomily waiting to pay their appropriate fine. There was obviously some system but I had no idea what it was. I resorted to paper waving once again and some helpful person seized my white paper and placed it on a spike, on a desk, behind which sat a ferocious policeman. So far so good, except that within about five seconds another 10 or 15 pieces of paper had been placed on the spike by other finees.

I now realised I was in serious trouble as I had no idea what was on my paper or indeed, which piece of paper was mine. Neither did I know the number of the Bike. I realised it was now likely that I would have to wait until the end of the day, when there was only one piece of paper left and presumably 30 feet chain holding my poor motorcycle down.

A helpful fellow Thai inmate and a surprisingly friendly policeman quickly worked out which was my piece of paper by which time Sanuk had begun to rear its head. In any situation if there is the possibility of having some fun, the Thais will seize it. Here was a hapless foreigner in the same miserable position as themselves except that he was obviously a blundering idiot. They had source of amusement in a very un-amusing situation.

Eventually I was called in front of a policeman who sat with others behind a desk. The crowd was hushed as they waited to hear what he would say to me. “Fine 1,000 baht” he stated firmly and loudly enough for everyone to hear. Suddenly the air was sucked out of the room as 150 people gave a sharp intake of breath. 1000 baht? Everyone else was only fined 200. This is Thailand, I thought, and they are taking advantage of me. I decided the only thing to do was to go along with it in order to get out of this horrible place as quickly as possible. Then I noticed that the policeman was beaming at me. His smile seemed genuine and he seemed greatly amused “but for you, discount, 200  baht” he announced. Suddenly the air pressure increased and ears popped as everyone let out a forceful sigh of relief.

I had heard about Sanuk and now I saw it in action. Everyone started falling about laughing.

I then moved along to the next policeman who took my money. Then on to the third who gave me a receipt. He then stated in broken English, “Gate three”. I understood what he meant but I had done four days at AUA and knew that the Thai word for Gate it was “Pratu”. I looked at him blankly as though I could not understand what he said whilst his colleagues were all laughing and saying he was a very clever to be able to speak English. By now we had an audience of 150 people hanging on our every word. I repeated “gate” as though I had not understood him. He looked at me again and repeated hesitantly “Gate three”. I looked quizzical and then feigned a sudden understanding and exclaimed “Ah pratu saam”. The laughter of everyone, including myself and the policemen, was hysterical.

Sanuk is a wonderful aspect of the Thai character that can make the most miserable circumstances bearable. This had livened up what would otherwise have been a rather boring afternoon. But then I realised that my problems were not over.

I was convinced that the Tuk Tuk driver would not have waited for me for such a long time. I resigned myself to hours of meandering around unfamiliar streets looking for a motorcycle, identical to thousands of others. But he had waited. What an excellent fellow he was. He quickly returned me to my motorcycle and I was so relieved I gave him 100% tip.

What an amazing experience. I did not feel that such an adventure could be repeated anywhere else in the world. I had experienced Sanuk first hand and realised it is a very important and delightful part of the Thai character. It is not dissimilar from the British, stiff upper lip attitude of creating humour out of hardship and such an attitude can make a fairly mundane, miserable life more tolerable. I felt that the experience was well worth the 400 baht it cost.

I returned to my studies at AUA the following day and was delighted to realise that the logic of the language is often incredibly straightforward. For example, Naam is basically the word for liquid or water so Naam Plow means clean drinking water, Naam Pla is fish sauce and Hong Naam means water room or bathroom.

There comes a time when learning a new language, where instead of translating in your head the words pop straight out of your memory and onto your tongue. The words that pop are not always entirely correct and mistakes can create Sanuk for all concerned. Probably about day 11 of my AUA course I was asked what I wanted to drink by a waiter in a small local restaurant. I confidently replied “Naam Pla”. This caused great consternation as none of the staff, or indeed the other customers, could understand why wanted to drink a bottle of fish sauce. This error was magnified a few days later when I actually asked for a “Hong naam kuat nung” in other words I had asked for a bottle of bathroom. Now, many years later, when I return to the restaurant they still ask me if I want a bottle of bathroom or perhaps we should call it toilet water.

Oh what fun, we can have in Chiang Mai.  I am glad to be back.

© Colin Jarvis

 

   

Letter from Thailand No 6, November 2012

Unfortunately, I have not been well for the last four weeks. Nothing serious just a great inconvenience but it did enable me to sample the health service in Thailand first-hand.

In the last 18 months I and a few others have set up the Lana Care Net in order to help foreigners, living in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, live healthier and safer lives as they become older. This has meant that I have been involved with hospitals and medical practitioners fairly closely but I did not have personal experience.

Actually that is not quite true, I have a major health check-up every year and a quarterly “service”. The quarterly service enables me to have a lengthy chat with my doctor and my blood is checked for just about everything imaginable. The whole atmosphere is far more efficient and relaxed than I have experienced in the UK and the total bill is usually about £16. The major service, which includes x-rays and all the tests you could think of costs only about £50.

Medical insurance for people of my age, a young 65, is difficult and prohibitively expensive to obtain. Yet major operations such as heart surgery, hip replacements and so on are about a quarter of the price of the UK. I am told that the quality of these operations is world-class.

It was with considerable interest therefore that I spent a few days in hospital which, with all the tests and excellent food and accommodation (four-star at least) was less than £100 per day. Frankly, the service was so good and I enjoyed myself so much I wouldn’t have minded staying longer.

I was particularly interested to notice the differences between a Thai hospital and those provided by the NHS. In my room there was an extra bed. At first I did not understand what this was for but, in Thailand, the patient’s family are expected to take some responsibility for looking after the patient. Consequently it is quite normal for a family member to sleep in the room with the patient in order to cope with, well whatever is needed to be coped with. Excellent nurses are always on hand but the basic menial jobs relating to patient care can be handled by the family and this, of course, reduces the cost.

I really cannot fault the provision of health services, and their cost in Thailand. I do not believe my experience is anything out of the ordinary and I certainly find it preferable to the National Health Service.  I hope I am similarly impressed when I make my first visit to a Thai dentist in a week or so.

Although the costs of health care in Thailand are far less than the UK there are many foreigners living in Thailand who simply cannot afford even these low charges. Some foreigners, such as the Japanese and the French, are lucky in that their governments pay the full or major proportion of the cost of any healthcare. The British government pays nothing. It is also withdrawing the ability for British Subjects from using the National Health Service if they are deemed to be living abroad.

This means that many British residents, as they become older, can have a very hard time. This is made even worse by the fact that the British government freezes the government pension of anyone who decides to live permanently in Thailand. This affects many British subjects who have come to Thailand to retire. Many had their pensions frozen some years ago and consequently the value is now relatively low.

What makes it worse in the financial crash of a few years ago the pound was devalued by one third against the value of the Thai baht.

In Lana Care Net we have helped many people overcome many problems but there is no doubt that the British government treats its pensioners who live abroad far worse than any other country. I would love to spend more time complaining about this but these letters are about Thailand rather than about the disgraceful way the British government behaves.

Even though Thailand is a very poor country compared to the UK the provisions of healthcare, education and so on are almost on a par. The style of teaching is different and most Westerners would say that is not as effective as a Western education. However, listening to my friends who have children being educated in the UK I am not sure that the difference is as marked as it once was.

For many years Western countries have been considering themselves better than the ASEAN countries. Of course, it depends on how you descend “better” but I have always felt that many Europeans and Americans felt superior to people in Southeast Asia. It’s very easy to see with foreign tourists that come to Thailand. Many of them portray and arrogance that is very unappealing.

Asia went through the most terrible trauma when it suffered their its financial crash some over 10 years ago. If Thailand is suffering, now, in the global financial crisis, it is not because Thailand have been irresponsible in its financial dealings it is simply that its customers do not have as much money to spend in the country as before.

With the ASEAN market about to become a reality and the recognition in Southeast Asia that they must see their own countries as markets, the future looks good.

I think if I were a young person today I would emigrate from the western world into south-east Asian as it is developing fast and providing an ever improving lifestyle for its citizens. They also seem to be doing this with out losing the determination to work and creating a society dependent on government support rather than self-reliance.

 

   

Letter from Thailand No 5 - September 2012

Letter from Thailand - September 2012

I was last in Bangkok before the floods and just after the red shirt demonstrations had subsided.  I returned last month and because I have been away for so long I noticed a number of changes.  Most of them good!

When I last saw Central Plaza it was nothing more than a gaping black hole after the fire, now it is a superb shopping mall.  I really have no idea how they have managed to achieve so much in such a short time.

The red shirt demonstration caused a great many small businesses around Silom and the Siam Skytrain station to go out of business.  One little noodle bar I particularly liked managed to hold on but the watch repairer, the little lady who sold me socks and many other small independent stallholders seem to have disappeared.  I hope they have managed to find new locations and are thriving but now their places have been taken by other similar businesses.

Another small indicator of the thriving Thai economy is the fact that on a recent trip on the Skytrain I realised that about 30% of the passengers were tapping their fingers on a smart phone.  Whether they were sending messages or playing games the fact of the matter is that one year ago smart phones were very scarce and in the intervening time many thousands of ordinary Thai people have managed to purchase what is a relatively expensive consumer item.

On one of my Skytrain trips I found myself surrounded by schoolchildren and university students on their way home.  Now one of the reasons I like Thailand is that I am relatively tall here but merely of average size in the UK.  It is quite nice to see a long way when I am in a crowd, rather than the head of the person in front.  But when these young people crowded into the train I realised that many of them were taller than I am.  This was never the case when I first started coming to Thailand some 15 years ago.  I realised that, at that time, the young people I was now surveying were small pre-school children who had now grown up into potential basketball players.

I assume that this development is due to a better diet and the copious amounts of milk I see young people drinking these days.  I suppose this is a true benefit of the globalisation of diets.  Unfortunately this globalisation has a negative affect as well.  A globalised diet also includes things such as sweets made from sugar, sugary drinks and other comestibles of doubtful nutritional quality. I am told that the childrens’ teeth are suffering.

Years ago, when children existed entirely on a traditional Thai diet, dental decay was almost unknown particularly in the first teeth.  Sadly this is not the case today.  The number of young children whose milk teeth have been severely damaged by sugar and similarly damaging items is reaching almost epidemic proportions.  There is also a great shortage of dentists in Thailand, particularly those who are willing to work in the less well off communities; a sad state of affairs that the public health organisations are attempting to improve.

One very obvious improvement is that many of the klongs and drains have been cleared so that they not only look better but they should be able to cope better with any flooding that takes place this year.  But things are not entirely perfect, I was due to attend a meeting one night but a sudden downpour caused the Soi, in which my hotel is situated, to be flooded to a depth of about 6 inches and I was entirely cut off and unable to make the meeting.

The flood had cleared away the next morning and I was able to make a number of very interesting meetings at Government House.  My meetings were with several advisers to the Prime Minister. I noticed few changes from previous similar meetings, even though there has been a change of Prime Minister, indeed of government.  That is, except the one major development. A very splendid building that was used, until recently, by the Crown Princess, has been turned into what is now called the "Single Command Centre".  Many people were quietly working away planning and reviewing the plans for water management in the whole of Thailand.

On the wall there were computer displays showing the height and state of water retention by every dam in the country and many other reports showing the state of water flows from North to South.

I gained the impression of a great many, very intelligent people, attempting to solve a very difficult problem both by technical solutions and organisational changes.  There was an air of quiet determination that makes me feel more relaxed about potential flooding in the future.  I think it is possible there may be some horrific floods before their plans are finally completed and implemented because they are trying to redress the problems that have been caused over the last fifty years.  I think my impression is perhaps a little more valid in that I had not been invited there; indeed I simply walked in with one of my colleagues from the Prime Minister's Department.  We just wandered about the building, chatting to people, and observing what was going on.

This new organisation is attempting to coordinate water management throughout the country, this, together with the significant effort that has been put into clearing the waterways should reap benefits in the relatively near future and I wish all these people the best of luck, as they have a very difficult job.  If you want to see what is going on, and can read Thai, go to the website "www.waterforthailand.com".

Almost everywhere I went I noticed that buildings were being improved.  Not always because they had been damaged in the floods last year.  If you know Nana Skytrain station, you will remember that ghastly concrete skeleton of a building that was never finished after the financial crash about 15 years ago.  That has now, at last, been demolished which greatly enhances the view from the station.  Many of the buildings surrounding the site seem to be either cleaned or repainted.

All these changes following the disasters of the red shirt occupation and the flooding are indicative of one central characteristic of the Thai character.  It is the amazing ability of the Thais to accept disaster and then rise above it.  Bangkok seems to have improved significantly since I was last here and has certainly recovered from the problems, at least the visible ones.  I think this resilience is one of things that make me glad I live in Thailand.

© Colin Jarvis 2012

   

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