10 ways you can tell you are a Bangkok Expat

Grand Palace Bangkok

1. You check how much change you have before you get in a taxi, because you can’t bear another run to the cash point in the rain whilst an angry driver harrumphs at you, revving his engine.

2. When setting the table for dinner, you put down a fork and spoon rather than a knife.

3. Time is no longer a precise measurement, but a vague promise of when you may be somewhere.

4. Over the year, you get more public holidays than leave days.

5. The concept of walking anywhere has become alien to you.

6. When someone smiles and says yes, you no longer take this as an affirmation. You desperately run through your Thai smile repertoire – is this a confused smile? Angry smile? Couldn’t give a toss smile?

7. There is a secret to squeeeeeeeeeeezing yourself on a full sky train at 8:20 every morning. You learnt this after months of waiting politely whilst smartly dressed ladies with poufy hair slinked on in front of you.

8. You’ve worked out that every stall at Chatuchak Weekend Market (JJ to the locals) also has a branch in an air-conditioned shopping mall in the city, so you no longer spend your shopping Saturdays hot, lost and feeling alone in the crowd.

9. A special walk and look means that tailors, scammers, prostitutes and beggars leave you alone, even in Nana.

10. You know the friendly food stall sellers in your neighbourhood so well that they now prepare your order as you approach, remembering to put the sauce on the side and only include one chilli.

Bangkok Sunset

This post was inspired by a post I found on the blog Between Worlds.

Spire of Loha Prasat – Wat Ratchanadda

Loha Prasat

Sometimes you are lucky enough to see the world from an angle that not many others have viewed it from. Earlier this week I visited Loha Prasat, part of the temple complex of Wat Ratchanadda. Looking up through the imposing blackened copper turrets, I cursed the fact that I had not come here earlier.

The entire top level of the building was covered in a green veil, where Loha Prasat was undergoing some vital repairs. Although a little disappointed, I still joined the PR tour to visit the rest of the building.

 

Our guide was a friendly chap with broken English, so I quickly raced up the tower to get a couple of shots of the vista. After being trapped in a small space near the Buddha relics (I didn’t want to push past the two young people who were praying), I was about to make my way back down the spiral staircase when I met the guide again.

He pointed up to the scaffolding and asked me if I wanted to go up there. Unsure whether he was joking, I mumbled a confusing yes and no answer. But when he told me he was the engineer overseeing the renovations, I knew I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity.

Scaffolding Loha Prasat 2013

I am not afraid of heights in general, but I felt extremely wobbly making my way up the narrow steps, trying to cling on to the scaffolding poles, occasionally grabbing a power wire out of desperation.

Although the view from the top was impressive, I was far more excited at the chance to watch the two craftsmen at work. They quickly picked up their tools as we appeared, snipping the pieces of copper into shape and polishing the layers that had already been welded to the roof.

Spire of Loha Prasat

I can’t imagine there are many people who have touched the Naga (snake with many heads) mouldings that decorate the roof of Loha Prasat. Definitely a moment for the memory book, one that makes me grateful for all the opportunities I have been given and amazing things I have witnessed.

Wat Ratchanadda

Visiting the Karen Tribe in Chiang Rai – Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe ShrineI have been resisting visits to the Northern tribes of Thailand since we arrived because I was worried about exploitation and staring at people as if they were part of a zoo or freak show. A few months ago I took a trip to Chiang Rai and the opportunity to pay the hill tribes a visit once again came up. In the spur of the moment, I ended up doing something that I really wasn’t sure about or keen on. I have to say that my trip lived up to my fears and expectations. I came away feeling like I had done something wrong, and with more questions than answers.

I had not actually done any research into visits to the tribes, so we followed the advice of the driver we had hired for the day. When we arrived we had to pay for entrance from a sullen young Thai man, who pointed down a dirt path that led into the jungle. Nailed to the trees were wooden signposts leading the way, but already I felt like an imposter. We were not on an exploratory walk; we were basically going to gawp. As a child who was reprimanded when I stared at those who were different it felt so wrong and I was extremely uncomfortable during the hour or so we spent there.

Young Girls - Hilltribe Chiang Rai

The villages look exactly how you expect them to: small wooden huts on stilts made from bamboo and banana leaves. But a permanent home is unusual for these hill tribes, as traditionally they migrated from place to place, clearing forests to farm the land and moving on when the grounds became unsustainable. When Thailand introduced stricter rules about forest protection and slash and burn agriculture, and move the tribes from the highlands to lower less fertile land the Red Karen, Akha and Lahu people were forced to find new ways of providing for their loved ones. Many of the hill tribes first moved to Thailand from Burma, China and Tibet either as refugees because of civil war or persecution. Over half the tribes are not registered as Thai citizens, leaving them with hardly any rights and often nowhere else to go.

Hill Tribe VillageI am not comfortable taking pictures of people under normal circumstances, because it always feels like such an invasion of their privacy, but I did take my camera out during my visit, the photographer in me unable to resist the beautiful and fragile tableaux that were being played out. There were plenty of barefoot children running around the village and even the youngest ones were well-trained in the art of posing. I tried to only take shots of them going around their daily business, but even then I had to wonder how natural this life was to them. My favourite picture of the day was that of a woman chatting on her mobile phone. I think it was the closest I got to the reality of their lives, a clash between old traditions and new technology.

Now these families have turned their front porches into shops, selling products scarves that they have weaved themselves. Although I can understand the need to make a living, it highlights the fact that this is a tourist experience. I found it much easier to slip some money into the donations boxes that were displayed in the village with handwritten School Fund and Karen Development signs tacked to them.

Whilst provisions have been made for children to be educated under the Thai system this isn’t always enforced and often the villagers often have only a basic understanding of the local language and are limited in what they can do to make a wage. If money can be made from inviting visitors into their homes and selling handmade products then am I supporting them? What about my entry fee? Does it really go to help the tribes or is it simply taken by those who own the land, who get rich from allowing these displaced families to reside there? It’s certainly an easy way for a proprietor to make money. There will always be those, like me, who are willing to pay to add local colour to their holiday snaps.

Hill Tribe Girls

The first ‘village’ (the communities live on the same patch of land but each tribe lives in their own hamlet) belonged to the Akha people, who first migrated to Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century from China, with another wave arriving due to civil wars in Myanmar and Laos. Their numbers in the north Thailand are currently around 80,000. No welcome party greeted us. I guess people trampling through your fields to come and take pictures of you in traditional dress for probably the 31st time that week can make you feel a little weary. When they finally appear, we were led us up to a large wooden hut that serves as their meeting point and they performed a half-hearted musical performance. Feeling guilty for disturbing their Sunday afternoon, we slipped some small notes into the tin marked Donations and moved on.

We quickly wandered through the Lahu village, another group originating from China, which seemed almost deserted, and towards the largest settlement, in which big eared (Kayor) and long neck (Red Karen or Kayah) people live. At the edge of the village we found a group of half a dozen children under the age of five playing. So used to visitors, they barely look up from their games. As we walked past stands filled with colourful scarves and women weaving we were greeted with smiles. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a teenager surreptitiously open a compact and powder her face, preparing for her moment in front of the camera.

This village had a real feeling of community, with a small school and meeting hall with an ongoing construction project to add an extra row of huts in the northern corner. But they still heavily rely on the presence of tourists to provide necessary funding. I thought long and hard about what would be the best way to support these communities without forcing them to put their lives on show this way, but with limited resources and a specific set of skills, it seems tricky to help them sustain their traditional way of life, allowing them to work with nature whilst the rest of the world tries so hard to control it, ensuring that they have the same rights and care as all of Thailand’s residents when their ideals clash with those of modern Thais and politicians.

Despite many of the young girls having the first few golden rings around their neck that lead to the slow and painful lengthening process, their futures usually don’t involve staying in the mountains amongst their community, and their lack of education means that even if they head into the city they are more likely to end up working in the sex trade than anywhere else. One in three women working in the go go bars in Chiang Mai originally came from a hill tribe. It makes being a tourist attraction seem like an attractive option. There are NGOs working in the north, attempting and draw attention to the issues that these people are facing, but unfortunately their good work is not headline-grabbing enough, or perhaps just doesn’t get heard over the rustle of tourist dollars.

Young Girl HillTribe

I will not be returning to a hill tribe village in any rush. It was certainly an eye-opening afternoon, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Travelling and exploring should be done with utmost courtesy for the places and people you are visiting, not invading personal spaces or turning their lives into a theatre show, but observing them at a respectful distance, learning and sharing the experience with others.

Best Mango Sticky Rice in Bangkok

Soi 38

Soi 38 is one of the most popular places for street food in Bangkok, attracting everyone from locals to those with a copy of Lonely Planet. I usually take visitors here because it provides a local experience AND it’s clean, friendly with plenty of signs in English.

The stall that keeps me coming back time and time again is the one that sells mango and sticky rice. On the other side of Sukhumvit Road at the beginning of Thong Lor, there is a very famous mango shop, but I still prefer the Soi 38 one.

Firstly the staff here are so friendly, even though I come only a couple of times a month the stall owner still remembers me. The quality is impressive: the mango is always fresh and juicy and the accompanying rice really cuts through the sweetness with its light coconut flavours. All this for 60 baht, either at a table in the street or to take away.

The stall seems to be open every evening of the year. I have never been here and not been welcomed by piles of yellow fruit, whether I come at 6pm on a Tuesday or 11:30pm on a Saturday. It is only steps from the BTS at Thong Lor, on the left hand side. Delicious!

Mango and Sticky Rice

A Day in Udon Thani

Strange bus - Udon Thani

Last weekend I was lucky enough to celebrate Children’s Day in Udon Thani, around an hour’s flight from Bangkok. My company sponsor 25 children in a small village an hour or so from the city, which is very close to the Laos border. It was nice to be up in the hills, where the temperature was cool enough to wear jeans and a cardigan – I wish I had worn shoes as well – and to see a different side of life in Thailand.

Young Performer Children's Day Stage Lady watching Performances

Because it was children’s day there was a big party on, and all the kids were running around and there was plenty of smiley faces. Seeing how the children lived most of the time was pretty harrowing, and I didn’t take many pictures, as I was trying to get my head around it all, and felt it was a little invasive. One of the sponsored children is a boy of twelve who was severely disabled, I had tears in my eyes as my colleague translated the story of his life, but even if she hadn’t the strength it took to bring him up in such conditions was etched on his mother’s face.

We handed out gifts in the afternoon and their excitement at the sight of toys was infectious! I am used to standing out in the crowd thanks to my blonde hair  but some of the younger kids were so surprised by my appearance that they became frozen on the spot when the giant lady from England handed them a doll.

After this we visited two impressive temples in the region, one which had the most serene looking reclining Buddha I have ever seen, and another which was filled with unusual statues, including a tree from which naked women grew.

Peaceful BuddhaLooking up!TempleLady TreeAdoration of a GodTemple Puppies!

Bangkok Food in a month (Dec 2012)

Five Expat Lessons from Bangkok

Nothing beats doing what you love as a job. I never thought that I would take such a huge pay cut, but when the opportunity came up to write for a living it was worth it. I was lucky that I worked out what I wanted to do and managed to find a job only a few months after that. It took me seven long years of doing a lot of dull admin before that, but it makes it all the sweeter. Don’t listen to those who say you shouldn’t or couldn’t do it. If you keep your focus and put the hard work in most things are possible.

You don’t have to be geographically near someone to feel close to them. I haven’t seen my mother or brothers in the flesh for over two years, but I don’t let it worry me. I know that the next time we end up in the same room it will be as if I have just popped away for the night. With Skype, instant messaging and email they are as much a part of my life as if they were around the corner (plus side – I can keep all the cringe-worthy moments hidden from them if I want).

Don’t let the fear freeze you. I get so worried about things and sometimes I just don’t seem to be able to move forward, but this year I have had my hand forced and it has been great. Whether it was interviewing 20 consultants in Jakarta or running around Singapore hunting down 70 stories and taking 900 hundred pictures, I always feel much stronger after facing what I dread.

I need to try more new things. This year has been a blend of successes and failures on this front. I have tried chicken feet, century egg (black inside, eeewwww), white-water rafting, a three-person bicycle, and plenty more. Still no cricket munching though.

The best relationships in life don’t come for free, they require investment, but for the most part what you give you will get back tenfold. There are times when you will have to love harder than before, have faith in the people close to you and forgive them for hurting you. I am not religious but I believe in people, and whilst there have been times I have struggled, especially as someone who has a memory like an elephant; it is much easier to let go of anger and allow people back into your life. No-one wants to end up bitter and alone.



Average Bangkok Breakfast

I feel like this week is moving so slowly. Yesterday we got a delivery of sweet treats from the UK and I gorged on shortbread, gingerbread men and chocolate and then had a massive crash around 4pm. Today I am trying to be healthier. Below is a picture of this morning’s breakfast: Coconut water and Rose Apple. Total cost of 35 Baht (around 70 pence). I have become slightly addicted to coconut water since my friend said it was a great way to replace electrolytes after exercise. To be honest getting to work in this heat sometimes feels like a marathon!