Community

As regular readers of this blog will know, Mos and I live in Thailand. Sometimes we travel around the world for work. But we live in Thailand. And nearly a year ago we, left our house in Chiang Mai, and moved to Ba Na Kam. A small village, in the north-east of Thailand, nestled between a number of vast lakes, themselves encircled by the Mekhong river.

Our work abroad was a big deciding factor in this move from Chiang Mai. With us being out of the country for six to eight months per year it didn’t make sense for us to keep a large house with gardens. Instead, we made the decision to rebuild Mos’ parents home in Ba Na Kam. The new house would be much bigger, more ‘western’ and house all of our family. Mos’ parents, brother – Foamy, Sister – Fern and Ferns boyfriend – Golf. With all of the family under one roof, everyone’s living expenses would drop, and we could leave the country without moving all of our belongings into storage.

The village of Ba Na Kam is tiny. The residents are all latex farmers, there are three small shops, each selling meat, vegetables, bottled and canned goods and prepared, single serve meals in plastic bags. At one end of the village there is a shed with a horizontal opening at the front that is covered loosely by a sheet of corrugated tin roofing. This is the village petrol station. Inside, there are two drums of fuel, one petrol, one diesel. On top of each is a hand-pump, hose and a glass cylinder which shows the quantity of fuel being pumped.

There are only three roads into the village, all three are potholed, muddy and unlit. Which hardly comes as a surprise when you consider that they have to weave through ten kilometers of rice paddies and latex farms in order to reach a main road. These roads are regularly maintained by residents, who will fill in the holes with dirt and twigs. But once a couple of buffalo, a pick-up truck and some motorbikes have used the road, all of their hard work has vanished.

The houses in the village are all largely traditional Thai structures. Many of the houses are on stilts with sheltered areas underneath to keep farm equipment, dry clothes and to socialise. Concrete is starting to slowing creep into the construction of the newer or recently renovated or repaired properties. But you can still find the odd older house made entirely of the much prised teak wood.

Walking down the main road of Ba Na Kam you will see nothing but smiling faces. A few pointing fingers, and a few children screaming ‘Farang’, which translates to ‘foreigner’ but is usually used when referring to any non-Asian person. In this area of the country there are very few foreigners, so the children get very excited when they see one!

You’ll also see plenty of chickens, dogs, puppies and maybe a pig. If you come at the right time of day you’ll have to step off the road to let a heard of water buffalo casually stroll past as they make there way back from the swampy grazing ponds to their home on the other side of the village.

We’re lucky enough to call this village home. A village where everyone knows everyone by first name. A village where everyone works very hard, for very little, but they will always offer you food and drink. A village where friends sit and talk outside their homes and welcome any passers by to join the conversation, and share the whiskey.

I already knew I was lucky to live in this village. But, a few nights ago, and in tragic circumstances, I really got an insight in to this community.

It was about 19:00. Our family was all sat on the seating area at the front of the house eating what was left of dinner, sharing whiskey and repairing a large green fishing net. Mos and I were just about to go to the shop and buy some milk when we heard some shouting from a few houses down. We listened for a minute, trying to figure out the context of the noise. Then I noticed my families faces all change. They went from cheeky eavesdropping neighbours trying to catch some gossip, to alert, serious and concerned friends, all within a few seconds of each other.

Before anyone had a chance to explain what had happened, we all had head-torches on and had walked down to see the lady that was now screaming. Other neighbours soon also joined us.

This womans son had gone to spread fertiliser on their rice farm five hours ago, and no one had heard from him since. The woman had sent friends and the mans daughter out to the rice field to find him. The reason for the sudden concern from the villagers was a phone call from the daughter. She had found her father, face-down and motionless in their rice paddy. Immediately, people jumped onto motorbikes, pick-up trucks and tractors and rushed to the farm. Within a few minutes the mayor of the village was speaking over the emergency public address system informing the whole village what was happening. Minutes after that announcement was made, the entire village had arrived. Torches, motorbikes, dogs, babies, children, sticks and homemade stretchers. The road was now full of people, all at the womans house, all trying to ask where her farm is and how they can get there to help.

The women of the village all set to work cleaning the house, making a bed, and comforting the mother. They hoped for the best, but we’re clearly preparing for and expecting the worse.

About twenty minutes passed, as the crowd of concerned and equipped villagers grew. Then, heading towards us came a pick-up truck. The first one that left to go to the farm. It was driving slowly towards the house. Once we saw it, we knew the search was over. We knew the man could not have been resuscitated. We knew that behind those two headlights, coming slowly towards us, was the body of the man the whole village had been looking for.

The crowd of villagers stood in silence as the truck backed up into the house. The body of the man was carried into the house by those who had helped bring him back. The villagers who were now returning from their search started to gather around the house. Shortly after everyone had returned the volunteer ambulance from the neighbouring village arrived. They assessed the man and pronounced him dead. The police were called, as they would need to officially document the event. The villagers stayed well into the night to offer comfort to the family.

The following day, outside the house, the villagers had erected a large gazebo, laid down bamboo mats on the floor and garnished makeshift tables with plenty of food. Even today, two days later, villagers are still at the house, making sure the family have food, shelter and friendship to help them through the grieving process.

Our village may be lacking in various aspects of modern western living. But we do have one thing that I’ve never experienced in the UK. A real, honest and pure sense of community.

I’m back!

So, here it is, my first post in what seems like a decade. I know I have a small, but dedicated readership on here, so I apologise for my absence. Sorry. But, I’m back! And I hope to be posting on a far more regular basis than before. I’m sure you’ll understand both why I’ve been inactive for so long, and why that is now going to change, as you read on.

My last post on the 28th May 2013 detailed my first couple of months working on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas. Since then, not much has changed. However I was promoted to Head Broadcast. Which basically means I delegate work rather than actually do it… I’m hoping to base myself on a much larger ship, then I will be able to properly maintain equipment and fix issues.

I did have a short, three-week, holiday back in Thailand. Most of it was spent in airports, on planes, busses and trains. But I did enjoy the remaining time. And of course, seeing Mos again after seven longs months was amazing. We spent every minute of the holiday together. We immediately decided that we’d never be apart for that long again. It’s not fair, it’s not fun, it’s horrible. But, there was light at the end of the tunnel, Mos had been offered a job on my ship. I won’t go into the frankly ridiculous hoops that we had to jump through to get the job offer. But I will say that Royal Caribbean need to take a serious looks at their hiring system. In particular their hiring partner in Thailand. Unhelpful, dishonest and corrupt.

Sadly most of the holiday was spent filling out paperwork and visiting various hospitals, offices and embassies to get Mos’ visa. This is a fairly simple process, but as with everything else the hiring partner (recruitment agency) made it far more difficult and complex than it needed to be. Even so, we enjoyed the hours of taxi rides around Bangkok, we enjoyed the hundreds of BTS train journeys , we even enjoyed a handful of crazy tuk-tuk trips.

In between the two main paperwork periods we managed to escape to our farm and family in Bueng Kan, northern Thailand. It was great to see them again, and our dog Khao San! Who I hadn’t seen since I left Thailand in April 2013. It was also a chance for us to see the new house our family had been building. It is on the same site as their previous house, but far bigger. Mos and I have helped them out with money to get the house built and up to a decent standard. Our family are farmers and happy with the most basic accommodation. Naturally, Mos and I want the best for them, so we’ve helped fund a new kitchen, tiles, equipment and labour to assist the construction. They even built me my own western style bathroom.

As usual out visit was far shorter than we’d have liked. And it was now time for us to head back down to Bangkok to completed the final few tasks to get Mos on her way to Miami! Mos’ contract started a week earlier than mine, so she was going to be flying to Miami, boarding the ship and getting to know people all by herself. I knew she’d be fine, but I was still very nervous for her.

As Mos holds a Thai passport, she was told that she would have to start her career in Royal Caribbean as either a laundry attendant or in room service. She chose room service, which is much less physically demanding, but still has horrific hours. Again, I could talk for hours on the unfairness of this system and what many rightly see as racial profiling, but I won’t. That is the system, it’s been very cleverly set up by the Royal Caribbean legal team and it’s pretty bullet proof from a legal standpoint. Ethically however, it’s disgusting and archaic.

Mos’ role is a mid-level job in the food & beverage department. She works very long hours and answers to a team of supervisors that are tripping over themselves to impress their manager. Sadly, this is normally executed by overworking those under them and pushing the legal working hours to the limit… sometimes exceeding them. This role for Mos is very much a stepping stone to get into the Adventure Ocean team, who look after the babies, toddlers, kids and teens on the ship. As a result, she puts up with far more than she should. There is a light at the end of the tunnel as they say.

Having said that, I have learnt not to trust any information the company gives me. I only believe it if I can see it. There are countless examples I could give, but again, to refrain from this post becoming a rant, I won’t. We’ll just say this, Mos has all the qualifications needed to join the Adventure Ocean team. She has been approved by our Miami office. She has been told by HR that it’s very likely to happen. But, I’ll only believe it when Mos starts her first day in Adventure Ocean.

Even if our next contract does have Mos in Adventure Ocean, we’re not fully sure that we’ll return to the company. There are a few points that are making us look elsewhere. Mos’ biggest factor to leaving ships is the distance from her family. Not so much the geographical distance, but the time delay in information. We often only check our Facebook pages, phone home etc twice a week. So, if anything happens at home, we will hear about it a couple of days late. Meaning it difficult for us to respond to anything urgent. An issue which has affected us and one that I will discuss later.

One of my main issues with our work on ships is the lack of a ‘home’. Sure, we have a cabin on the ship, but it’s not a home. I want a home, that we can own together, that we can furnish, decorate and enjoy. We are also keen to start a family in the next few years, and that is simply impossible on ships, and difficult without a homely home.

Another issue that plagues me throughout this industry is the feeling that nothing I do means anything. I don’t help anyone. Nothing I do matters. Sure I can install a full HD broadcast studio, I can build a stereoscopic camera system from scratch, I can operate a multi-national satellite network. I can do plenty of complicated, difficult and technical things. But at best, all these skills do is enable people to watch TV. It lets people watch a football match live from the other side of the world. That’s it. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change lives.

I don’t save lives, I don’t put out fires, I don’t help people, I don’t serve in the military. And that is something I want. I want to do something that benefits someone else. Someone that needs it. And that is why teaching has caught my eye. And not just any teaching. I am looking at teaching English to children in rural Thailand. Children who’s families can’t afford to send them to the expensive schools, colleges, universities. In Thailand, fluency in English is the holy grail of education. It can open doors to scholarships, jobs, societies and it is a vital skill for any visa application in the west.

As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, I could also travel, like I do now. These teachers are in demand across the world. And salaries vary greatly. In Thailand, a TEFL teacher can expect around $1,000 USD per month. Some schools will also provide accommodation, flight and lunches, but not all. A TEFL teacher in South Korea and expect to receive $2,500 USD per month, again some schools will include some added bonuses, some won’t. In addition to this base salary, many TEFL teachers take on private lessons, where they teach students 1-to-1 for an additional fee. Which can be anything between $8-$50 USD per hour.

Both of these salaries will strike anyone from the ‘west’ as low. But you have to take into account the living expenses and quality of life. In Thailand for example, your $1,000 USD salary which equates roughly to 30,000 Thai Baht, would easily allow you to have your own air-conditioned bungalow, run and maintain a motorbike, drink socially and eat every meal in a local cafe and still have 30-50% of your salary to put into savings. The quality of life is also vastly different to that in the UK for example. There is very little stress, you have far more spare time and far less admin work such as paying personal taxes and bills.

Most valuable to me though is the impact I would have on the lives of my students. I would be giving them a skill that they will have for life. A skill that will give them more opportunities that their parents would have had.

To get started on this idea of becoming a TEFL teacher, I have started my certification and training program. It’s with a company in the UK, and I am able to complete the course online with tutors and various bits and pieces at my disposal. I’m currently 36% of the way through the course having completed four exams and having scored an ‘A’ grade on all four. I will have completed this certification before the end of my contract at the end of July.

Also, as if fate has already decided that I am going to become a TEFL teacher, I have been offered a job in a tiny remote rural village in the North East of Thailand. This village has also happens to be home to Mos’ family. Bueng Kan.

So, right now, Mos and I are working away at completing our current contracts. We’ve got 87 days left. I’ve got my certification to complete. We’d both like to start learning Spanish. And we’re also researching ways to invest our money. So lots to be done. Plenty to keep us busy. Who knows, maybe by the next time I update this blog we’ll have a completely different set of plans… That’s what’s so exciting…

Back to Koh Tao

Earlier this year, following my spinal surgery, Mos and I decided to leave Chiang Mai and move back down to the island of Koh Tao. Which, as you may remember is where we got married on the 14th March last year. Chiang Mai was amazing and we loved it there, the climate was great, much cooler than the rest of Thailand. We had a really nice house, an awesome dog, and some great neighbours. It had started to feel like our home. It was after all the first place we had lived as a married couple.

But, I wasn’t working. Any work I was doing was done remotely over the internet. Or the odd bit of film and television production work in Bangkok. So there was no need to be tied to a location. And Mos had been offered her old job back, at Scuba Junction on Koh Tao. These factors, and many more, made the decision a sensible and ultimately easy one.

We packed up our belongings into large boxes and divided them into two piles. The first pile was stuff that was to be sent to our farm and family in Bueng Kan. We had a few things that we wanted stored safely, there was aslo Em and Sak’s belongings. As at this point Em and Sak were both living with us with their daughter, our niece, Oon Ing. They would be moving to live in Bueng Kan with the rest of our family, Em and Sak would also take the reins on our farm. In addition to Oon Ing, they would be taking another very special cargo with them. Khao San, our dog.

Over the last few weeks Khao San had bonded with Em and Oon Ing. And she normally finds it very hard to build relationships thanks to her fairly horrible past. But with Em, Oon Ing and later Sak, Khao San had no issues. She could see that Mos and I trusted them and she gradually started to trust them too. She would come and sit on the sofa with them, play around them, and generally be far more relaxed than we had seen her in front of other guests to our house. Possibly the best sign was when she started to get protective of the then two-month old Oon Ing. If she could hear her crying upstairs she would immediately find Em and try to signal upstairs, mostly by repeatedly running from Em to the door of the room Oon Ing was in. If a stranger walked past our house she would immediately check where Oon Ing was and then sit within eyesight of her.

It was horrible for Mos and I to leave Khao San, but we knew that we had already improved her life dramatically by rescuing her from the Care For Dogs shelter and giving her the love and care she deserved. We also knew that she would grow to love life on the farm. We have two other dogs over there, both a similar size and look to Khao San, but considerably more robust. They are both sisters, so we hope Khao San will eventually fit in as a third.

The second pile of boxes would be sent down to Koh Tao. In Thailand postage is so cheap it’s easier to move house by post than to hire a van or truck. I think we posted the entire contents of our house for a little under $200. In these boxes we loaded extra bedding, all of our clothing and other bits and pieces like keyboards, cables, adaptors and speakers. Oh, and we also posted our scooter, which cost a further $100.

For the remaining bits of furniture and general household stuff we called a local second-hand shop who came in a pick-up truck and gave us a fair price for the lot.

Once we were all packed up, postage sent and remaining bits sold, it was time for us to leave. Em, Sak, Oon Ing and Khao San would be leaving later that night on a ‘VIP Extra’ bus to Udon Thani. A twelve-hour, overnight journey through very tight and winding mountain roads. Not a pleasant journey, which is why we sweetened it slightly by buying tickets for the ‘VIP Extra’ bus. This bus has very wide and fully reclining seats. Waitress service with free refreshments and also blankets and pillows to help you sleep.

Mos and I were leaving on the sleeper train to Bangkok. My back was still in recovery as this was still only one week since my surgery. So I decided that we couldn’t fly or take the bus as both of these would greatly exceed my sitting threshold. At this point I could only sit for about ten minutes before feeling pain. By fifteen minutes the pain would be unbearable and I’d have to take a painkiller and walk around. The sleeper train was the only option really as it enabled me to lay flat for the entire 14-hour journey.

Once we arrived in Bangkok we took a taxi to Khao San Road (no relation to our dog). We often stay in or around Khao San Road, it’s a very busy street famous for catering to backpackers. There are hostels and cheap hotels all over the place, along with cheap bars and a lot of street food. Because it is a hub for backpackers it’s travel links are very good. You can get buses, trains, planes, boats all from Khao San Road (or at least a $2 taxi ride away). Khao San Road is also my least favourite part of Bangkok, if not the whole of Thailand. Thanks to the constant waves of 18-20 year old gap year students and travellers flooding the street with their cheap booze and luminous clothing, other industries have emerged. In short, the area is now teaming with con men, criminals and prostitution. There are Indian palm readers who aggressively grab your wrist, Tuk Tuk drivers who follow you asking if you want to see a ping-pong show, or the pickpockets that follow drunk travellers waiting for them to reveal the location of their wallet. But, we still go there, and will do in the future.

Once we’d checked into our hotel, the Khao San Road Park, we had a quick shower and got in another taxi, back to Bumrungrad Hospital to see my surgeon. It was time for my first week check up. Thankfully, the surgeon agreed with my diagnosis. My back was healing well and I was well on the way to making a full recovery. He said I should stay on ‘light-duties’ for another three weeks and then gradually build up my activity after that.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that before my back surgery I had just completed a pre-employment medical for my new job. Obviously this surgery had put my medical on hold until I was cleared to continue by my surgeon and the companies medical team. The job is for Royal Caribbean International. They require geeky people like me with a professional history of satellites up links, camera feeds, broadcast systems and various other technical bits to work on their ships. And by ships I mean cruise ships. Currently their fleet consists of 22 ships. Two of these, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, which are sister ships, are the worlds largest passengers ships. The fleet sail pretty much everywhere you can think of too. This, along with their offer to employ Mos once I had completed my probationary period onboard made this very attractive. All I had to do now was wait a month and revisit my surgeon to get signed off as fully functioning and fighting fit.

This was also another factor in moving down to Koh Tao. It’s a small island so I could walk just about everywhere and there are plenty of spots for me to lay down and read a book on my Kindle. It was the perfect recovery location for me to fully heal.

Once again Mos and I chose the sleeper train to make the journey from Bangkok to Chumphon. Chumphon is the nearest point of the Thai mainland to Koh Tao, about 60km. As a result it’s also where the Lomprayah catamaran boats ferry people to and from the island. The Lomprayah is the fastest of the various boat services taking around an hour and forty-five minutes. Other boats leave from the nearest big town on the mainland, Surat Thani. These vary from cargo ferries to overnight sleeper boats. Some of these can take over twelve hours to reach Koh Tao. But, are about half the price of the Lomprayah.

Although the Lomprayah is the fastest boat to Koh Tao, it still well exceed my 20-minute sitting barrier. So I stood outside on the back of the boat. Unfortunately this is also the area where the landlubber’s come to share their travel sickness. Often in a projectile fashion. Thankfully I managed to find a spot behind a door that kept me out of eyesight of the chunder fountains and gave me a good view out to sea. Although once you leave Chumphon peir there is very little to see for 60km other than water and sky, there are the occasional sights that make the journey more interesting. There are often fishing boats with children on board, madly waving at the boat full of tourist as it thunders past. There are shoals of flying fish that jump out and skip along the surface of the water to safety. And sometimes sea birds come and fly next to the boat as if they are escorting us on the journey. I think it’s much more fun standing outside than watching some commercials and out of date infomercials, despite the sound of people loosing their lunches.

Once we arrived on Koh Tao, it immediately hit us how much had changed since we were last here almost exactly a year ago. We got off the boat to be greeted by an army of pick-up trucks from various dive schools and resorts. On our first visit to Koh Tao there were probably a total of thirty cars/pick-up trucks on the island. Now there where twice that number, all on the pier  We eventually made our way to Scuba Junction, the shop where Mos would be working. The two managers and a few dive instructors were still there, but the rest of the staff were all new. The Thai boat boys were all still there; Pak, Tak and Sak. There is also the captain of the dive boat, who only seems to go by the name of ‘Captain’. He was still there.

As usual, finding accommodation on the island was a long and frustrating process. Because of the huge number of tourists that visit the island for short periods, costs are high. We stayed in a couple of different bungalows on the beach road for a week. And just to clarify, bungalows on Koh Tao are not single floor houses  as we might imagine in the UK. They are a very basic shack, which often consists only of a single room with a bed, some have en-suite toilets. We stayed in one, part of the SBC2 resort, that was pretty crappy. The room was small, the mattress was old and hard and they hadn’t given it a good clean in months. Sadly that is fairly standard for Koh Tao. There is a lot of accommodation  food and diving instruction that is well below par. But, on the other hand, if you know where to look there are also some really good places. I imagine it’s the same everywhere in the world with there is a high volume of short-staying tourists. If people can get away with running a resort with low standards and still manage to charge what others charge, they will. The other bungalows that we stayed in were part of Nat Resort. The bungalows are all concrete construction, so there are no rotting floor boards or termites. They are spotlessly clean. There is plenty of natural light and lots of fresh air. Exactly the same price as the SBC bungalow, but so different. Most also come with hot water showers and some with cable TV.

Thankfully, after a week in bungalows, we managed to find a nice en-suite hotel room for a months rental. Hot water, air conditioning, cleaning and bed changing every four days. That set us back $500. Which is about four times the price of an equivalent room in Chiang Mai. We just needed to get in somewhere, unpack our bags and relax. The hotel was the La Ville View Guesthouse, which is fairly new. For anyone that knows Koh Tao, it’s between Choppers and the 7eleven on the junction in Sairee. Other than the temperamental WiFi we had no complaints about our room.

Two weeks into our months rental at La Ville View we started to look for a more permanent option. We wanted a house. Something with a kitchen, living room, fridge etc. A place that we could make feel like a home, not a hotel. After a few days of searching, a friend of ours, P’Daeng, offered us on of his families houses. P’Daeng is one of a handful of locals that own and run the island. He’s a very good friend to have in this kind of community. The house was a little further from the beach and Scuba Junction as we would have liked. But once I’d walked the journey a few times it seemed much shorter. It takes 12 minutes to walk from our house to Scuba Junction. 15 on the reverse trip as half the route is uphill. If you know Koh Tao, we’re about fifty meters up the hill from Roctopus dive school.

Today is our last full day in the hotel, and as Mos is at work I have been moving stuff from the hotel to the house. We’ve had the keys to the house for two weeks, and I’ve been gradually moving bits and pieces. All that is left in the hotel now is a change of clothes and a few toiletries for our stay tonight. I’m looking forward to moving completely to the new house, it will be nice to feel like we’ve got a home again.

Microdiscectomy

This post doesn’t really follow the trend of my others. But it does cover, in some detail, a recent fairly major event in my life. My first surgery.

In October 2012 I started to feel some pain in my left leg when sitting. Nothing major, just a fairly dull ache that got worse the longer I sat. This stayed fairly constant until mid-November, now it was quickly changing from a dull ache to a shooting pain in about ten minutes of sitting. Soon I was only able to lay down or stand comfortably, sitting became far to painful.

At this point I decided it would be a good idea to seek medical assistance. So Mos and I headed off to our favourite clinic in Chiang Mai, the highly recommended Health Care Medical Clinic. Earlier in the year I had had some stiffness in my neck which had caused my last visit to the clinic. And because of this the assumption was made that I might be suffering from muscle stiffness, this time in my hamstring. So I was injected with a dose of muscle relaxant and given a four-day course of pills to keep me relaxed.

During the my check-up at the clinic, they mentioned that a few things were not right. If this was purely a tight hamstring some of my symptoms didn’t quite fit. So they suggested that if there was no improvement after my four-day course of pills, that I should visit a physiotherapist at the local hospital. My doctor recommended Khun Took at Rajavej Hospital.

Over the next four days I tried to remain active, take the pills as and when ordered and to make sure I didn’t do anything that could pull or twist my hamstring. But, it didn’t get better, in fact, it got worse. By the end of the four days I was now barely able to walk for more than five minutes and had to spend most of my day in bed. We booked the next available appointment with Khun Took, thankfully it was only a few hours after we phoned.

After a very painful scooter ride I arrived at Rajavej Hospital, headed up to the physiotherapy department and introduced myself to Khun Took. She immediately set to work, strapping me up to machines that stretch my leg, straighten my pelvis and heat my muscles. I also had intensive and very painful massages (which although they hurt, felt like they were doing something good). She also used ultrasound to ease the pain. Once my session was over I felt better. Not Olympic fit, but able to walk without a limp, which was a big step.

I continued on a fairly intensive seven-day course of physiotherapy, but on the sixth day, the results nose-dived. Previously I had ridden my scooter, with Mos, to and from the hospital. It’s ten minute ride. The journey to the hospital was always painful but nothing I couldn’t handle with some codeine and a stiff upper lip. The ride home was always less painful. On the sixth day however, the pain was greater even after the first few meters. By the time we reached halfway I realised that I was going to have to stop the bike. Thankfully I managed to pull over, put the bike on its stand and loosen my helmet before I blacked out draped over a nearby gate. I was only out for about twenty seconds. I limped around in circles trying to get some blood back to my head and pain out of my leg. We got back on the scooter, this time with Mos riding so I could keep my legs straight at the side of the bike, which seemed to help the pain.

On arrival to the hospital I informed Khun Took of the drama that was my commute to the hospital. She said that because of that, paired with the fact I was making nowhere near as much progress as she had hoped, I should see an orthopedic surgeon. Within ten minutes a member of staff was there to whisk me down to the orthopedic section where I chatted to one of the hospitals surgeons. Over the next hour I had an X-Ray and a very large dose of morphine. From this moment on, I would be on a constant stream of the of highest strength painkillers available. All of which barely dented the pain I was now in. The doctor also booked me in for an MRI scan, but that would have to take place at a neighboring hospital due to a malfunction at Rajavej. But to my surprise they managed to fit me in that afternoon.

The following day, with MRI results in hand we went back to see the surgeon. He said immediately that the X-Ray showed to bone damage. So that was a big relief. He was concerned that maybe I had fractured a part of my pelvis. We then handed over the MRI scan and even Mos and I, with no medical training could tell there was a problem. He pinned up the scans on the light-box on his wall and started to circle various parts of it with a red marker. We all know that red markers mean bad things. He went on to explain that one of my discs had ruptured and in spectacular fashion. The cause of my sever leg pain was now apparent, the material that had ruptured from my disc had pushed against and now become wedges against my sciatic nerve. Causing what is commonly know as sciatica.  Well known as one of the most severe pains going. Pregnant women can sometimes get a mild sciatica from the pressure from the womb, this is however less painful due to the direction at which the pressure is being applied, as the surgeon explained.

So as I lay on his examination bed, fully dosed on morphine and a cocktail of other über-strength, but ultimately useless painkillers. Shaking and sweating with pain. He continued to describe in great detail just how painful sciatica is. But then he paused. And made a very careful and very deliberate red circle on a different area of the scan. Then, to himself he muttered ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. He looked at me and then back at the scan. Then he peeled the scan from the light-box and showed it to me. The material from my ruptured disc was not only crushing my sciatic nerve. It was also putting pressure on my spinal column. The surgeon went on to explain that I would need surgery to remove the ruptured material from my back, this would cure the sciatica and remove the possibility of the material causing permanent damage to my spinal column. And he didn’t need to detail what exactly ‘permanent damage to my spinal column’ meant.’ We all know that at best wheelchairs would be involved. We went on to discuss what the surgical options where, quite simply, there are two. I could have a Discectomy or a Microdiscectomy. They are both ultimately the same procedure, however the ‘micro’ option is a form of what most people call keyhole surgery. Whereas the regular Discectomy involves a far larger incision and a much longer recovery time.

Both procedures have the same objective. Cut a whole in your back, where on your back depends on where your damaged disc is. They will move your sciatic nerve, guard your spinal column and then the surgeon will pull, scrape, cut and burn the excess material away from your disc. That’s it. A fairly simple procedure in a potentially dangerous area.

From my fairly extensive research on the internet, many people seem to think that they have had the micro option but they have in fact had the regular option. The scar from Microdiscectomy surgery is between 2-3cm in length. And is almost always glued, not stitched or stapled. My scar for example is smaller than a ten pence piece.

The orthopedic surgeon at Rajavej Hospital went on to say that they do not have the specialists or equipment to perform the Microdiscectomy, but could perform the regular surgery with four days notice. He advised however that I have surgery as soon as possible. And that the best option would be to travel to Bangkok to see one of the major hospitals.

Mos and I immediately thought of Bumrungrad International Hospital. We had been there previously during a visit to Bangkok about a year previously. Mos had come down with a kidney infection and they treated her like royalty. Superb service, excellent facilities and one of the best rated hospitals in the whole of Asia. We didn’t even need to discuss it. That night Mos called Bumrungrad and explained the situation. We knew that I would need to travel to Bangkok by sleeper train, as this was the only option that meant I could lay down. So the following day we boarded the sleeper train in Chiang Mai, I swallowed a handful of multi-coloured, prescription-only painkillers and we set off.

I managed to sleep for a few hours. I’m pretty sure it was pure exhaustion rather than lack of pain. But as we pulled into Bangkok I was very happy to see an ambulance team from Bumrungrad who had been sent to collect me from the station. Unfortunately they had not been allowed to bring the stretcher onto the platform so the two taller guys held me on either side as we slowly hobbled to the station exit and the waiting ambulance. The driver helped Mos with our bags.

It was a short trip to the hospital, and as soon as we arrived I was whisked up to the twelfth floor, which is the Spinal Center. Although we had arrive four hours early, my surgeon came to meet me within two hours. He looked over my MRI scan, poked and prodded me, and then told me that I must be in a lot of pain. Surgeons seem to like to point that out here.

My surgery team would be led by Dr. Surapong Anuraklekha, who was brilliant. He could see that I was fairly nervous and in a lot of pain. So he described the surgery to me and asked me when I wanted to have it. I was expecting to have to wait maybe a week, or two. I had heard of people in the UK on the NHS waiting list having to wait up to three years! But not here. By this point it was 13:30, and we had scheduled my surgery for 17:00. Which was brilliant, as soon my pain would be gone! But also because it meant I didn’t have enough time to get worried.

I was taken to my room, which was far more like a luxury apartment than hospital room. The nurses positioned my fully electric robotic bed into an ‘s’ shape, which was amazingly comfortable. Then, just as I was still sinking into the bed, two nurses came in, introduced themselves very politely and then proceeded to strip me naked. Before I had a chance to buy them a drink I was in a hospital gown with a morphine drip in my left hand. Mos arrived after completing some of my paperwork and we talked for a few minutes before I fell asleep. Again, out of exhaustion rather than lack of pain. The next thing I knew my surgeon was waking me up, it was 16:00 and time for me to move into the special room for people about to have an operation. I’m sure it has a more catchy title, but I don’t know it. Mos walked alongside my bed as I was wheeled to this new room. And she said good luck and ‘I love you’ at the door, quite tearfully. I’m not sure if I replied. I was in a different world, a world of morphine on tap.

I stayed in that room for what seemed like ten minutes before a nurse said that I need to go to the toilet before my operation. So she helped me hobble over to the toilet and thanks to the many grab handles and safety rails I managed to do the rest on my own. Minutes after getting back on my bed I was met by my surgeon, this time dressed in surgical scrubs and looking far more like a surgeon than a doctor. He and his team wheeled me out and into the operating theater. The pulled my bed up next to another bed which had a large triangular object in the middle which it quickly became apparent I was to be placed over, naked and arse in the air.  Before I have the chance to take a second glance the anesthetist introduced herself through her protective gear. Placed a plastic mask over my mouth and nose and told me to count out-loud from ten to zero. The last number I remember was six.

I woke up in the same pre-operating room as I was in previously. A nurse was monitoring my oxygen levels, and as I woke up she removed my oxygen mask and told me to breathe slowly and deeply. I managed for a few breaths, looked at my oxygen monitor which was dropping from 99 down to 98 and then 97, but then fell back asleep. She re-applied the oxygen mask and we tried again. On about the fourth time I managed to stay awake, I looked at my oxygen monitor and proudly, and I think quite loudly, declared ‘I did it I’m at 99’. The nurses laughed got me ready to leave. As I was wheeled out of that room The first person I saw was Mos. Leaning against the wall and looking tired. Apparently I’d been in there for nearly six hours. The operation took just under two hours, the rest was preparation and waking up. I was very happy to see her and squeezed her hand as tightly as I could, which I imagine was very weakly. The nurses used a spinal board to move me from the transport bed to the bed in my room. They reset the bed and arranged my blankets, I think I managed to stay awake for about an hour before falling asleep.

Every hour the nurses would sneak into the room like medical ninjas to measure my blood pressure, temperature and my various bags of liquid drugs that were being fed drip by drip into my hand. Mos was fast asleep on the sofa, I imagine this time, she was sleeping thanks to exhaustion.

In the morning, just after I’d been served breakfast, my surgeon appeared. This time looking like a very smart doctor, not a surgeon. He told me that everything had gone very well, and despite taking slightly longer than expected, the operation had gone perfectly to plan. Then he handed me a small plastic pot. This pot contained a pale transparent liquid, and in it was white lumps of hard and soft tissue. This was what he had removed from my spine only last night! Mildly disgusting but completely fascinating. He also gave me a DVD video of the procedure. Which I had asked for previously when I found out that the keyhole procedure was done using a remote camera.

Then, after I had played with my ruptured disc in the plastic pot, he asked me to stand up. Now, for three months I had not been able to walk without pain, and for the last two I hadn’t been able to stand up straight. For the last two weeks I had been completely unable to walk without people helping/carrying me. So to ask me to stand up only hours after surgery seemed a bit much. But I shuffled out of bed and a nurse helped me to my feet. Aside from the slight tightness and soreness from the incision, I felt no pain. None. Not even an ache. My left leg was slightly numb, but my surgeon explained that this was normal. My sciatic nerve was simply readjusting to not being crushed. All of the pain had gone. I no longer had to drag myself off the bed, onto the floor and to the toilet. I could walk! No more sleepless nights. No more painkillers and morphine drips. No more blacking out through pain and exhaustion. I felt completely normal.

I opted to stay in hospital that night, just to make sure everything was as it should be. I thought that surgery on my spine deserves that extra bit of caution. After all… it is my spine!

The following morning we headed back to Chiang Mai, again on the sleeper train. I slept like a baby. I enjoyed a week of bed rest mixed with regular exercise, light walks, mostly between 5-10 minutes. After a week I was feeling great. Fairly week, but that’s to be expected after being stuck in bed for months prior to my operation. We headed back to Bangkok for a checkup, my surgeon was very happy with my progress. And signed me off as able to continue normal activities from March. In the meantime I should continue with light duties. Which meant not sitting on the floor, at all. Not sitting on chairs for longer than twenty minutes at a time and not lifting more than five kilograms.

I had my surgery on the 25th January 2013. It’s been twenty days now and I am improving everyday. Most people wouldn’t even be able to notice that I am still in recovery. I am living a perfectly normal life. And I’m still on ‘light-duty’.

Here is a picture of my scar. Taken today, 20 days after surgery. For people not familiar with Thai currency, that coin is the same size as a ten pence piece. For you Americans, the coin is about an inch in diameter.

Scar

Absence

So, this is my first update in what feels like years. The lack of writing has been caused to a number of factors. I’ll try to cover as many of them as I can, and can remember now. One of the main reasons for me to start writing this blog was to have a detailed journal of what I’ve done, the adventures I’ve had and the trouble I’ve caused. Hopefully this update will fill the gaps that are missing.

MacBook Pro

There’s only one logical place to start in this update, at the beginning. It happened a couple of days after my last update. My MacBook Pro laptop melted. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. I’ve had this MacBook since starting my last job in London. It was a company laptop, which was already four years old when I was given it. Whilst at the company it had been used for high demand editing, audio work, rendering and all sorts of other recording and mixing tasks. When I left the company, they gave me the laptop. By this point, in terms of video and audio work this laptop was very out of date and underpowered. This was highlighted by the battery failing shortly before I left. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, it was a great gift, but at that point the laptop was well past its prime.

Almost immediately after leaving the company, in March 2012 I packed my bags and headed back to, what at that point was my second home, the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. It was a few weeks before my wedding. At this point I hadn’t even started this blog. As you can imagine my mind was elsewhere. I had a whole new family to get to know. I had a paradise island to live on, and my friends around me.

Since entering the heat and humidity of South East Asia with me, the MacBook Pro hasn’t been under an average temperature of 30⁰C. Well apart from a few nights in air-conditioned hotel rooms in Malaysia during business/visa trips. As with all technology, the cooler you can keep it the better it performs. And as you probably already know, laptops have internal cooling fans to pull air through the machine and keep it cool. Which is great if your laptop it heating up to 60⁰C+. A steady stream of cool British air would pull that temperature back down to a more stable 30⁰C. However, when the laptop is in the humid heat of Thailand, rather than the cool British countryside, the air it pulls in is already warm.

One night, I left the laptop on overnight, it was downloading some television shows from the UK. By the time I woke up, the MacBook had failed. I rushed it to the local repair shop, then to a registered Apple repair shop. The diagnosis was grim. The logic board had overheated, with a last recorded temperature of 97⁰C. The logic board is the brain of a MacBook. So I was now left with a choice. I could replace the logic board at a cost of nearly £400, or I could let my brain-dead machine die in peace (in a cupboard under the stairs). I chose the latter.

Luckily, I had another laptop, a tiny Samsung NC10 netbook. I’d given it to Mos when I was using the MacBook. Although the NC10 is great for putting in a backpack and walking around town, or some quick web browsing, it’s a less than ideal machine for writing. The keyboard requires microscopic precision to hit the right keys. That, or the fingers of a five-year-old. I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d need to buy a new computer.

Damian

Shortly after I lost my MacBook to the heat of Thailand I got an email. It was from a friend of mine from university, Damian. We lived together in halls of residence then again later in a private rented house in our middle year. But more notably, we started a company together. The company was set up to produce corporate videos, with the aim of moving into television production once we built up enough cash to fund the transition. Damian and I started the company with two other friends of ours. The company was very successful and started to make profit after just two months of trading. We invested in cameras, new offices, staff and all of the other expenses you would expect of a growing media business.

Damian and I had taken a year off from our studies to run the company, and decided to take a temporary step back from the company the following year to complete our final projects and assessments. Whilst completing my final projects I decided to make my ‘step back’ a more permanent move and left the company entirely. I left for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t happy with making corporate videos, but I was more concerned about the lack of ambition and professionalism from the other two, that we had started the company with. So I left, and Damian and I gradually lost contact as I moved to London and he stayed with the company in Staffordshire.

Damian’s email said that he was coming to Thailand. No reason, no explanation. I put him in contact with my travel agent friend ‘Bangkok Dave’. Damian has a reputation for jumping on the first mode of transport that he sees. So I knew Dave would get him to Chiang Mai, where I live, safely.

Damian’s arrival in Chiang Mai would provide the second obstacle to my writing. We had a huge amount of catching up to do, and beers to drink. And I still hadn’t got a new computer.

We visited all of the tourist spots, drank in all of my favourite places and ate in all of my favourite restaurants, cafe’s and eateries. I also managed to get him addicted to the ham & cheese toasties that they sell in 7 Eleven. Sorry.

One morning we decided to ride our scooters up Doi Suthep (a mountain) and shoot a time-lapse video of the sunrise. We made plenty of sandwiches and headed off. The video was great, but the real memory of the trip was just relaxing on the side of a mountain, watching the sunrise, with a good friend and my wife.

Our most memorable trip with Damian was our drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. Which has one of the most winding and stomach churning roads I’ve ever driven on. We took the truck. Halfway through the drive we discovered that the tyres where backwards. As you may or may not know, car tyres are designed to turn in one direction only. It’s designed like this to push water from under the tyre to the side. Driving on backwards tyres pulls water under the tyre resulting in a very unstable drive in wet conditions. And we found this out on a mountain road, a few hundred meters above the canyon floor on a patch of road with only a few rocks to mark the edge. We span nearly 180 degrees.  But thankfully the road was fairly empty and I managed to keep the truck on the good side of the marker rocks. Don’t worry mum, we only drove another hundred kilometres or so on these tyres…

Once we got to Pai we met up with our friend who owned a bungalow resort on the mountain. We feasted on barbecued… well… everything. We drank whiskey, beers, shots, the lot. We then headed off into Pai to a karaoke rock bar. That was fun. And the next morning we all headed home. And yes we got the tyres swapped over before driving back!

The BBQ in Pai

On the drive back, on the very top of the mountain, the truck ran out of brake fluid. It was a spectacular place to break down. Luckily the local army base was able to top us up before we headed down the mountain. Something I’d always rather do with brakes.

Damian’s next stop was Australia, where he would meet his girlfriend Georgia and go travelling around outback in a campervan. So we said our goodbyes and we sent Damian back to Bangkok on the train. Bangkok has him now.

Bangkok has him now.

Bueng Kan

Almost as soon as he’d left, Mos and I packed up the truck and headed off on the 20 hour drive to our farm in Bueng Kan. So that accounts for yet another day of no blogging. And once there, I am put to work by the family. Chasing chickens, fixing trucks, feeding dogs, rescuing motorbikes from rice fields and other general Thai farm work. And as you may have guessed, there is no WiFi connection on the farm.

Our farm is also only a few hundred meters from the Thai-Laos border. It’s a geographical border in the form of the Mekong River, which runs from central China, all the way through south-east Asia and finally into the sea in Vietnam. It is home to many legends and religious tales. And as a result is very important to the locals that live along it. Here is Mos, my brother-in-law (Foamy) and Mos’ Mum (my mother-in-law) enjoying a some lunch overlooking the Mekong.

Lunch on the Mekong

The purpose f this trip to the farm was to hand over the new truck. So after showing them the ropes and handing over the paperwork we made our way back to Chiang Mai via public transport. Which means a five-hour aircon bus from Bueng Kan to Udon Thani, followed by an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. We opted for the more expensive ‘VIP Extra’ bus. Which includes wide seats that nearly fully recline, waitress served snacks and drinks, aircon, and you also gets blankets and pillows. The one thing you can’t upgrade is the endless and tight-turning mountain roads that will ensure you can’t sleep. Good fun though.

 Harry & Charlene

Once back in Chiang Mai, just as we’d managed to grab five minutes to relax, Harry and Charlene arrived. Harry is my younger sister, she works in PR, but we mustn’t judge her on that alone. The last time I’d seen her was at my wedding which she had flown over from London for. And we all know how hard it is to get PR folk to travel without the promise of pens, mugs, lanyards and other soon-to-be-binned freebies. Charlene is Harry’s housemate in Clapham. Charlene also works in PR, but in a different field.

Mos and I decided to make a sign to welcome them to Chiang Mai when we picked them up from the airport.

Harry & Charlene

Once they had touched down, collected their bags and laughed at our sign we gave them another surprise. We took them home on the backs of our scooters. Thai Style. They looked horrified.

We got home safely, and for the next week they kept me suitably busy and as a result, offline. We had a great time, I’m fairly sure they did too. One of my favourite memories was eating on Huay Ting Tao lake, literally. We love it there.

Huay Ting Tao

Mum & John

Soon after Harry and Charlene left, less than 48 hours after, Mum and John arrived. We repeated most of the activities that we’d done with Damian, Harry and Charlene. But we also did some new ones that even Mos and I hadn’t done. We went to the Elephant Nature Park (Mos’ first time), we flew to Mae Hong Song in a tiny twelve-seat plane, took a longtail boat to visit the Karen hilltribe (longnecks). Mum and John also accompanied us on another trip to our farm in Bueng Kan, that was awesome! We had a great month. It went far too quickly. And I hope to write about it, and all of the other events in far greater detail at some point. But the purpose of this post is to detail the reasons that I’ve not blogged in so long.

Hospital
Two days ago, I took Mos to the hospital, she’d suddenly come down with something and it quickly became clear that she needed medical help. I’ve been by her side since she was admitted and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

Thankfully the issue is not too serious. Something to do with a virus and low blood pressure. But solved by a few days rest in the hospital on a variety of drips. And during this time I’ve managed to catch up on my blog. I nipped out and bought a new laptop just after Damian had left. But I had hardly used it. Mos is now fully recovered and at home. And I am back on schedule with my blog.

Chief of Police

Today I completed one of those manly life goals that I like to call a man-bition. Today I became the owner of a pick-up truck. It’s big, it’s blue, it has four doors and a big diesel engine.

For those of you who are judging me and thinking ‘what do you need a big blue pick-up truck for?’. Well, I live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. And 1,000 kilometres East from my house (by mountain road and dirt track) is our latex plantation, along with our families home and their latex plantation. And from December this truck will be used to transport our combined latex harvest to market every other week. Currently our family use a single scooter, making multiple trips, with bags of latex balanced on the back. Each one weighing fifty kilograms.

I know, you can’t wait to see this truck that I am so chuffed with. I warned you, it’s big and blue. And here it is, under our porch, an hour ago being cleaned by Mos.

Yesterday we met up with the previous owner to have a test drive. And it drove well, the brakes were very soft, but usable. It was all round much better than trucks that were being sold for twice the price that we also test-drove.

Today the previous owner drove the car to our house where we completed the purchase. Shortly after we took the car to a local garage to get some small bits seen to, along with the brakes. This was the start of a fairly memorable day.

As we pulled into the garage, two guys ran out to help us. Then immediately started analysing and poking around. They said that we’d got ourselves a very solid and reliable car. Then I asked them to look at the braking system. They took it for a drive and agreed, it was too soft.

The garage itself was two bays wide. each filled with a car. The mechanics rolled one of them out to make room for our new truck. Within minutes it was lifted up and had three guys pulling bits off and showing us, as we sat there watching TV only metres from the action. Mos was very pleased, as the mechanics and their wifes/girlfriends were all from the south of Thailand. Southerners have a very different dialect to the rest of Thailand. And up here in the mountains Mos can sometimes feel as alienated as me by the language.

After a couple of hours of talking to the mechanics wife and watching our new truck gradually being dismantled we had a full diagnosis. They suggested new hoses and pads for the front brakes. We agreed, and along with a list of other less challenging tasks we left them too it and went for lunch in a street restaurant opposite.

Once we’d eaten our superb fried pork, noodle and sauce, we headed to a nearby ice cream shop on a scooter that the mechanic had lent to us for free.

As we left the ice cream shop we noticed a police man writing up a ticket on the scooter. Knowing from previous experience that if he knew a farang (white person) was driving the bike he would add a few zero’s to the fine we walked past and waited for him to leave.

Once we got back to the garage, we apologised and handed the mechanics wife the 400 baht (£8) fine in cash. The woman snatched the ticket and refused the money. She immediately picked up her phone and started talking in a calm but clearly angry tone. A few seconds later she hung up the phone. And was smiling. She explained to Mos that the Chief of Police for Chiang Mai is also a southerner. And, all of the high-powered southerners in Chiang Mai gather for after-work drinks and food at this garage, on this sofa. She said that we didn’t have to worry about the ticket.

When the mechanics left to pick up spare parts we also decided to head off. I needed a haircut. But with no car, and with my usual hairdressers being too far to risk a helmet-less journey on the borrowed scooter we jumped in a tuk-tuk. I love tuk-tuks. Mos hates them.

After a successful haircut, a quick drink and snack in our favourite bar and a return tuk-tuk journey we arrived back at the garage. By this time they had just finished putting the tyres back on and lowering the truck back to earth. As they did, people started to arrive. They where the south Thailanders that we’d been told about earlier. Among them, the chief of police, two senior officers, and a lawyer. All from the south. And all very friendly. They immediately started offering my whiskey and various meat based snacks. The police chief looked over our paperwork for the car and said he could rush through the new license plate. Another officer took our scooter ticket and said he would cancel it at the station tomorrow.

We sat and chatted for a while, exchanged phone numbers and asked for the bill. They had itemised everything they’d done throughout the day. This included changing the entire braking system; brake pads, drums, disks, hoses, fluid… the lot. They also tuned the engine. Cleaned the heads. Tweaked the suspension. Replaced the front light units, including new bulbs. Changed the oil. Fixed and interior light and cleaned the whole engine bay. This took three men eight hours. And the total came to just under £300. To put that in perspective, I’ve paid £155 for a single brake disc in the UK, and that’s without labour.

Along with the fantastic service and work completed on the car, we had also gained a handful of new contacts that will be great to have in the future. When isn’t it useful to be the drinking partner of the chief of police?

Cleaning a Tuk-Tuk

We’ve had another busy week. Both Mos and I have both had a birthday, we’ve been to the cinema, twice. And, we bought a latex plantation.

After a quite and relaxed day at home, apart from a trip to the cinema, for my birthday, we started to get our stuff together to head back to Bueng Kan. Previously we’ve driven from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan, this time we decided to avoid the 900 kilometre, 16 hour drive by flying. Unfortunately you cannot fly directly to Bueng Kan, the nearest commercial airport is Udon Thani. From here we would hire a car and drive the remaining 240 kilometres to our favourite hotel.

I have flown with many airlines over the past few years, some good, some bad. My favourite domestic airline in Thailand is Nok Air (‘nok’ is Thai for ‘bird’). They offer good prices and have always provided a matching service. Also, their planes have a smiling beak…

We headed for the airport after dropping of Khao San at Lucky Dogs (it’s like a dog hotel). It’s only a twenty-minute trip on the scooter from our house to the airport. It was nice to know that I’d only be driving for a total of 4-5 hours rather than 16 hour mission of previous trips. Anyone familiar with air travel will be used to the sign at check-in that shows all of the items that are prohibited in the cabin of the aircraft. Normally this contains; guns, knifes, aerosols, lighters, fireworks, handcuffs, flammable materials, hand grenades and nuclear weaponry. A pretty sensible list. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in a plane with a disturbed person in possession of these. The Nok Air check-in desk warns against only one item that you cannot, under any circumstances, take onto the aircraft. Surely, they must be refereeing to a pretty serious piece of kit? Well… not exactly.

Major security risk.

The people in charge at Nok Air are clearly more concerned with the Durian fruit than a slab of C4 explosive or a machete. Lets investigate this further. The Durian fruit is very popular in Thailand, you’ll find it being sold all offer the place. It’s only crime as far as I can tell is that is smells like vomit once it has been cut open. It is also quite large and hard, like a spiky coconut. If you Google the Durian fruit you stumble across something it’s Wikipedia page. Which will show you its scientific name, ‘Durio’. And it’s higher classification, ‘Bombacaceae’. Maybe the Durian fruit has an explosive secret. Maybe some of the airlines in the west should take note and add it to their prohibited list.

We completed the check-in and removed all of our concealed Durian fruits at security. After a short wait we got ready to board. Mos was very happy with the plane, she’d never flown on a small propellor plane before. The plane had eleven rows of three seats and was staffed by two pilots and just one air hostess. The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes so we only got a small snack and a drink.

As we made our approach to Udon Thani we flew through storm clouds and the rain got heavier and heavier. The rain lasted, without break, for our entire trip. We picked up our rental car, this time from Lek Rental. After destroying at least one hire cars suspension this time we opted for a huge Toyota Hilux Vios 4×4. This is a pick-up truck with a double cab. Meaning that it can sit five people inside, comfortably. And a mixture of more daring people and cargo on the back. I was even more pleased with the selection of the car as the rain increased as we pulled out of the airport. We would have about 100 kilometres of dirt tracks and potholes to cross before getting to our destination. And that’s on top of the hours of motorway driving. We will definitely be getting one of these next time.

We reached out hotel in Bueng Kan at lunchtime, checked in, sent a few emails, Mos updated Facebook and then we headed off to see the family. They live in a small village called Ban Na Kap, or as I call it, Ban Na Na town. Sometimes I feel like my humour is wasted on the Thai’s. We collected the family, picked up the head of the village and headed to the neighbouring village to meet their head and the local men of power (mafia). We had to meet with the two groups because technically the land we now own is in Ban Na Kap. But some of the locals think it is in the neighbouring village. So we thought it best to have the approval of the heads of both villages to avoid any dispute. We were also joined by the land owner who bought all of the relevant documents. I sat there trying out my basic Thai on the people not busy reading the contracts and overlooking the paperwork. Which turned out to be two toddlers and a dwarf, who was clearly intoxicated. Between us we managed a sentence or two. The dogs seemed to understand.

Shortly after the contracts were signed bags of ice and crates of beer were delivered to the house we had been sat outside. This was fairly awkward as most Thai’s are Buddhist, and they take this seriously. Buddhist lent had started a few days previously, which forbids consumption of alcohol for three months. The villagers from Ban Na Kap won’t touch a bottle until the three months have passed. The neighbouring villagers however didn’t seem to care. So as my family dodged the beer and said goodbye I had a quick glass for politeness and got in the car. We had arranged to meet the land owner at the bank the following day to bank transfer the money and for him to give us the documents. He and his wife are genuinely nice people, very trustworthy. Unlike the owner of the previous farm we had considered buying.

To celebrate we took the family for a meal in Bueng Kan in a nice little restaurant looking over the river at Laos. This whole area is bordered by the Thai/Laos border which is marked by the Mekong river. Between the five of us we ordered seven different dishes, it was great. Chicken, fish, rice, soups, vegetables and spices. The cashew nuts fried with chicken was amazing. Total cost, including drinks, was ฿750 (£15).

The next morning we headed off early to the local Kasikorn bank branch to make the transfer and swap the documents. It was still raining. There was some confusion as banks in Thailand seem to be fairly upset when you try to transfer money to a different bank. But after working out that it would be much easier for the land owner to open a new account with Kasikorn, and transfer from my account to his, everything went smoothly. We now had the handful of old documents we had been waiting for. Very exciting. We ordered a load of noodle soups to take away from the food stand outside and headed off to the Land Registry Office.

One reason we liked this land owner so much was that he was from the southern Thailand, like Mos. They both spoke the same dialect. Well so did the man in charge at the registry office. He rushed through our paperwork and wanted to talk to Mos all day. He missed the sound of southern Thai. We changed all of the documents to Mos’ name. Apart from one, the Land Tax document. This, much like a car in the UK, is a tax that is paid annually. The previous owner had already paid it in July 2012 so when we renew the tax in July 2013 that document would also be changed. The tax for our land is ฿28 (£0.56) per year. It would cost us more in fuel to drive the thirty kilometres from our farm, to the office and back every year than the actual tax.

After we had done all of the paperwork we headed off to our families house. As usual, we were greeted with hugs and smiles, which we exchanged for the bags full of noodle soup we had ordered earlier. Today was Mos’ birthday, so the greetings were even more excitable than usual. The family had planned a birthday trip to see relatives that none of them had seem for over a decade. Mos’ dad, who is obsessed with chickens, made it clear that he wanted to buy some chickens whilst there. Apparently the area we were going to is renowned for its prize chicken breeds. Mos’ dad, when not working on his own latex farm of maintaining his two huge fishing ponds, enjoys making chicken cages and fish traps. So we packed a few of these onto the pick-up as gifts for the people we would be visiting.

On the way out-of-town we took the whole family back to the farm. The first time we would have been as the owners. The grandmother was excited. She walked around talking to each tree, telling them to be on best behaviour. Foamy (12-year-old brother) ran around with my iPhone shooting video of everyone, and the floor. Mos, her mum and her dad walked around the perimeter talking about the plans for the next cut (cutting the trees for latex). To access the farm we have to drive on a track, which when it rains turns into a muddy waterside. I was very happy to have the 4×4 at this point! As it was still raining we didn’t stay long and made our way back to the main road.

We had been driving for just under an hour before the grandmother started asking the dad if he knew where we were heading. He insisted that he did, and we carried on. We headed due south from Ban Na Kap. Not that we had many options, east would take up to Vietnam, north would take us into Laos and west would take us back to Bueng Kan. This was a part of Thailand that I’d never been to before. Lots of new sights, customs and people. At one point we drove past a lake. I spotted a man with a tuk-tuk. Which was strange as we had to be about ten kilometres from the closest town. Then, he forced some rubber off-cuts into his exhaust pipe and pushed the tuk-tuk into the lake. The water was about half a meter deep, coming up to just under the passenger seats. He than whipped out a sponge and started wiping down the chrome supports and bright pink and green seats. Apparently this is standard procedure for washing a tuk-tuk in this part of the world.

After a few more oddities along the route we arrived at the village we had been looking for. And eventually found the right house. We all greeted each other and exchanged gifts. We gave them two chicken cages and four fish traps and a few buckets of preserved fish. They gave us sacks of coconuts and rice. Mos’ dad had been saying he was hungry from the time we left Ban Na Kap, and now we had arrived we were about to sit down for a meal in the tin-roofed shelter in front of the house. Just as food started to emerge from the house, Mos’ dad, Foamy and the dad of the family we were visiting started talking about chickens and headed off on a scooter to find some. The rest of us tucked into a meal of various soups, pork, chicken, rice, noodles, and a local favourite, chicken feet.

Just as we were finishing up, the dads and Foamy returned on the scooter with three chickens. One impressive looking male and two smaller females. Total cost was ฿500 (£10). These chickens are a fighting breed, hence the high price tag. For the next hour we fought to put the chickens into boxes, and chase the one that Foamy accidentally let go. And instead of helping load the pick-up or chase the escapee chicken Foamy decided to shoot some more video on my iPhone. Once I got it back, I had 62 videos of chickens, four of a dog and one of himself using the phone as a mirror. We finished loading up the pick-up and headed back to Ban Na Kap.

On the way home we spotted a night market in a field. So we stopped to stock up on snacks. Between us we had chicken skewers, corn on the cob, pork skewers, rice, drinks and some sweets. After these had been eaten, everyone, apart from me (the driver), fell asleep. We dropped the family off at their house and said our goodbyes. Mos even got a quick massage from her mum to help combat a headache. Then we headed back to Udon Thani. Our flight was at 09:15 the following morning so we thought it best that we stay in Udon Thani, close to the airport, than in Bueng Kan and face a three-hour drive before our flight.

I was tired and we had no internet connection so I turned to my sat-nav for advice on hotels near the airport. The first result was ‘Udon Thani Airport Hotel’. Exactly what we wanted, so we headed there.

Once we arrived we checked in for the night, ฿650 (£13), including breakfast. The rooms were clean, the bed was comfortable. But, it was a strange place. Imagine a hotel designed and built in 1985, that was then abandoned in 1986. Left sealed from the world until 2012 when staff appeared, made the beds, dusted and cleaned the toilets. That is how it felt. Everything was original, the bedside radio, the phone, the shower unit. Very weird. Also, something that you very rarely see in any hotel anymore, a big glass ashtray. Other than the feeling of being in a bad 1980’s soap opera the stay was nice, the room service was OK. And it was close to the airport.

In the morning we dropped our pick-up off at the departures gate. Overall I was impressed with the rental company, will be using them again on future trips. We checked in and headed up to the departures lounge. Mos managed to sneak a bag of chicken skewers past three security check points and tucked into the in the lounge. Just before checking in we got a message from a friend in the UK, his wife, and our friend Jaew was in the airport too. So we sat with her as she waited for her flight to Bangkok.

Mos was equally pleased to be travelling on another small propellor plane, this time a different colour that the last. She even took a video of the walk from the terminal across the airfield to the plane.

I like Nok Air, I think they are great value for money. But the ratio of nuts to space in the inflight snacks was shocking. This picture shows the entire contents of one bag.

The flight back to Chiang Mai was nice, and now we are both back home and planning the future for our first farm. Possibly even considering a second!

Latex Plantation

This week we’ve been over in north-east Thailand. Bueng Kan to be specific. As you may have noted previously, this is where my wires family live. Mother, step-father and step-brother. But as she has grown up with her step-father from such a young age, we call him dad.

On our previous visit to Bueng Kan we talked about the possibility of investing in a latex farm. Our family are in the latex farming business, and the surrounding area is full of latex trees. We talked with the village elders, police, governors, and even some local loan sharks and mafia figures to get our head around the situation. We found one farm that was a perfect size and ticked most of our boxes. We were told it had 960 trees and was 12 Rai in size. One Rai is equivalent to 1,600 meters squared.

The farm was rectangular in shape and had a small concrete house in the corner, which the workers would live in. A farm this size would only require two workers. We had already planned this, Mos’ sister (Em) and her long-term boyfriend currently farm latex in the south of the country. Em is due to give birth in October and is planning to move closer to her family (in Bueng Kan) after she has. So it would be perfect for the three of them to live in this house with no commute and some peace and quite to bring up the baby.

We inspected the farm with our family and Mos’ dad did some digging to see if there are any issues with the land ownership, debts on the land and so on. We already knew that this land was still waiting for its title deed to be issued, so a sale was going to be largely done on trust rather than updating the official title-deed as you might expect. In addition to this we found out that the owner of the land had gambling issues and was being chased by his debtors, largely the local mafia. This is why he needed to sell. He had also borrowed money from a loan shark which he had secured on the land. All of this information was found by Mos’ dads contacts.

On this visit we spoke with the loan shark, who was surprisingly a very nice man. And a close friend of our family. He came to meet us and showed us all of the original land documents. The next day we spoke to the owner who said there are no debts on the land and that he had the original documents. We asked to see them, he showed us photocopies. We had our suspicions previously, but now we knew he was lying. We decided to walk away. Regardless of the legality of the sale, we did not want to do business with someone who we can’t trust, and is clearly dishonest.

This was fairly disappointing as we’d driven the 950 kilometres from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan just to seal the deal. But, as I said, you can’t do business with liars. We had a nice meal with the family and got ready to head back to our hotel. As we were about to get in the car we got a phone call from a friend of Mos’ dad asking us if we were still looking for land. His friend was selling and it matched what we wanted.

We all jumped in the car and headed out to pick up this guy from the neighbouring village. Thankfully we’d hired a big 4×4 car this time, not a weedy little Honda Jazz. The roads in and around Bueng Kan are terrible, and that’s if they even exist. Sometimes you just have to drive through streams, farms, or gardens. It’s madness. And last time we very nearly crippled the Honda Jazz. I managed to get it to limp the journey back to Chiang Mai but I imagine it’s on the scrapheap by now. This time we had a Honda CVR G3. Much better.

The new farm was much closer to our families home than the previous one, only about ten minutes on a dirt bike or twenty in the 4×4. This farm does not have a house, but the close proximity to our families house would enable them all to share. We are all currently in the process of planning a new house to build as a replacement of the current very basic house. So planning for the addition of the sister, boyfriend and baby is not too difficult. Mos’ parents are also insisting on having a guest bedroom, with air-con and western style en-suite to enable my family to visit and stay with them.

The actual farm was perfect. Great location, good trees, which have already been cut, and cut well. And, it’s cheaper. It has no debts, issues or dishonest owners. In fact the owner is from southern Thailand so he spoke the same variant of Thai as Mos.

We will be heading back next week to buy the farm. We’re very excited.

Khao San, our new dog

At one of the supermarkets Mos and I regularly use, Little C, as we like to call it. It’s a BigC, but there is a bigger one further up the road. Anyway, unlike supermarkets in the UK the supermarkets here are normally all raised up, with a mixture of parking, stalls and shops under them. One of the shops at Little C is a pet shop, it’s always got a selection of puppies, hamsters, budgies and other furry friends in the window.

Anyway, one day we spotted a pair of Beagle puppies. I love Beagles they’re brilliant. These two females were for sale at 6,500 baht each (£130). I was expecting a fairly high price tag as we paid a fair amount for our Norwich terrier, Fudge, who is back in the UK. After some research I found out that the gene-pool of pedigree dogs in Thailand is very small, often only a handful of breeding pairs. As a result the dogs can often have health issues. And sadly, these are normally far more severe than the average vet is able to treat. As a result of this, and the price, we decided to stay clear of the pedigree dogs.

The next time we walked past the pet shop the Beagle puppies had gone. Mos and I were both a little bit disappointed. We’d already decided not to get them, but now we couldn’t even if we wanted to!

Later that day I started to search the internet for other options. I quickly came across Care for Dogs, a dog rescue centre about half an hours drive from our house. From looking at their website they had plenty of dogs available and also did some great work in rescuing vulnerable, injured and abused dogs from the streets and pet markets.

Rescue centres in the UK have to deal with dogs that are unwanted, homeless and sometimes dogs that have been abused. The rescue centres here frequently rescue dogs from meat markets, breading centres, pet markets, abusive homes and of course the soi (street) dogs. It’s a whole different issue over here. I know in the UK it is standard practice to have your dog neutered or spayed. Have regular vet checks and to care for them like a member of the family. Here in Thailand the pet dogs are often treated like their wild relatives, the African painted dog (which I spent a lot of time chasing around the bush and filming last year). These dogs that are left to roam are often not neutered or spayed. They form gangs, get into fights, get hit by traffic, catch diseases and generally become more and more feral until they eventually get killed, eaten or rescued by an organisation like Care for Dogs.

We visited Care for Dogs and met with Hanna, one of the workers there. She showed us around and introduced us to some of the dogs and their stories. I walked around the main holding pen area where most of the dogs are kept. There are dog houses, platforms to jump on and run under and of course, loads of dogs. Some had been bred for the illegal meat trade with Laos. They would have been kept in horrific conditions and I’m sure they would have seen other dogs die from the conditions or killed in front of them. Some of the dogs were bought as puppies and then dumped when they grew up. Others were simply ditched onto the street. Some had been abandoned at kennels. And some had been bred for the pet markets that churn out animals like a factory. The animals are born and put into a wire cage, given the water and food they need to survive each day, but apart from that left completely alone. They can’t interact with people or other dogs. They can’t exercise, play or socialise. These dogs grow up without any of the life skills you might expect. It’s one of these dogs that we rescued.

Hanna had shown us a few dogs and I’d had a walk around the enclosure. If we could we would have adopted ten or more. There are so many characters there. But, we sat back down and Hanna said she had one more dog. “She’s very shy and nervous” Hanna explained and then went to get her. She spent most of her time hiding under one of the desks in the office. She sat on Hanna’s lap for a few minutes whilst she told us her life story. Her name is ‘Khao San’, which means ‘rice’ in Thai. She had been rescued from a pet market where she had spent her whole life in a small cage. They estimated that she was between one to two years old and probably fully grown. It’s impossible to tell with these dogs as you don’t know the parents.

As Hanna talked to us with Khao San on her lap, it was clear she was very nervous and jumpy. Even when Mos when to stroke her she panicked and tried to run. Hanna put her back in the office and we looked at a few more dogs before leaving.

Over the next 24 hours Mos and I talked about all of the dogs and made a shortlist. But we both knew that we wanted Khao San. Mos had even started referring to her as Foxy, as she looks very much like a fox. We wanted to pick her up and get her home but we’d already planned a week visiting out family in Bueng Kan (North East Thailand). So we phoned Care for Dogs and told them that we really want to adopted Khao San into our family, and would pick her up the following weekend.

Our family in Bueng Kan have two dogs that are also fairly foxy in appearance. So the week we spent with them only got us more excited about picking up Khao San. And after destroying the suspension on our Honda Jazz hire car we were more than ready for the 18 hour drive home.

We phoned ahead and told Care for Dogs that we were on the way. Hanna said she’d get the paper work ready. We headed off  in our limping Honda Jazz, which thankfully I’d managed to spray and scrape most of the mud and dirt off. We arrived early and waited outside the gate for Hanna to come and get us. It’s crazy in the mornings, they organise the pick-ups of rescues dogs coordinate the rescue of others and all sorts of other things. So we waited patiently. After about ten minutes we spotted Khao San come out of the office to see what was happening. Clearly still nervous, but much better than she had been. We completed the paperwork, gave a generous donation and took her home. We very nearly also took a small dog call ‘Sweat Pea’ too, as Hanna told us they had become friends.

We got home, locked the gate and let her go. She had a nervous look around the front garden and eventually settled in a well sheltered and protected spot under one of our trees. She sat there for the rest of the day.

Over the next few days she began to relax, became more confident and generally got to know Mos and I. She walked on grass, which would have been a first for her. She also played with me for a few minutes. She was clearly not used to playing with me or with dog toys.

Now, a week after we adopted her she spends most of her time on the sofa or in her newly delivered custom made dog house, with designer pillow (made by Modern Pets). She is eating properly and will happily sit on our laps whilst we groom her. She is still far from fully recovered though, she is still very nervous around strangers, she won’t let us walk her on a lead, she is still very jumpy when there is a loud noise. But, every day is a big step in the right direction. And we couldn’t be happier with our decision to adopt her into the family.

Kuala Lumpur MKII

The time has come. My 90-day Non-Immigrant ‘B’ visa is about to expire. A visa that could be renewed for a further nine months with the addition of a work permit. Sadly, in my role, I technically work on a project by project basis. The work permits that I get issued from the Film Authority only cover the project period. And at the moment, it’s the beginning of the rainy season with few valid projects. So… time to get a new visa.

I’ve done a bit of research and Thailand offer a Non-Immigrant ‘O’ visa. This is for people retiring in Thailand, for those who have Thai children or for those, like me, with a Thai spouse. I would have been able to apply for this in Thailand providing I met the criteria, which I do, apart from one point. Due to this one point I’m having to apply from a Thai embassy (outside of Thailand). My most recent trip to get a visa was to Kuala Lumpur. It’s not the cheapest option (Laos and Burma are the cheapest), but it’s easy. I can fly directly from Chiang Mai with AirAsia, it’s a well-developed city with plenty of distractions and places to eat and stay. And, most people speak good English. Which is a huge bonus if you’re on a fairly stressful hurried trip to apply for a visa in a strange and foreign land.

I leave on the 16:55 flight from CNX to KUL with AirAsia. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve flown with Asia’s answer to EasyJet so hopefully there good. Once again I’ll be staying at the all green PODs hostel in Brickfields. And I’m sure I’ll be walking the five-minute walk to Little India a few times to stock up on curry, rice and naan bread. Or maybe jump on the bus to China Town and eat some chickens feet and cow tripe. In the interest of saving a bus ticket, I think I’ll stick to Little India.

I’m also going to make more of an effort to make use of the brilliant public transport in KL. Last time I used a combination of taxi’s and the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. Which was great for getting and idea of the geography of the city. But not so good for the wallet. Will also be trying out the AirAsia SkyBus service from the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to KL Sentral station. AirAsia, along with other budget airlines, fly into the LCCT rather than the main international terminal. It’s effectively a different airport. If I was to use the superb KLIA Ekspres train again I’d need to first catch a bus from the LCCT to the main terminal. The SkyBus however equates to £3.50 return whereas the KLIA alone costs £7 each way + the connecting bus.

In total, I’m expecting this trip to cost around £300. Which includes the £110 visa fee. I’ll be gone for four days. Although it could have been two if the flights had been slightly better timed. To give a comparison, the visa companies in Bangkok, quoted me 25,000 baht (£500) to complete this. And they would do it all by post. So not only would I be £200 down, I’d also have to trust my passport and wedding certificate to an unknown man and the Thai postal system. No thanks.

After planning this new visa-adventure I also decided to apply for a new job. Pro-Consul at the British Embassy in Bangkok. Not entirely sure what this involves. But, sounded good at the time. And, I wouldn’t have to make any more visa runs.

I’m going to try to write some blog posts while in KL, but I’m only taking my iPad, not my beloved MacBook Pro. So forgive and mistakes if I do.