Elephant’s Leg


THE EXCESS BAGGAGE OF SHOPPING IN THAILAND
This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

Forget everything you learned in your Lonely Planet phrasebook about how to greet people or how to buy two train tickets to Chiang Mai.

Probably the most common Thai phrases I use is “mai ao thung” (I don’t want a bag). I say this almost every time I buy something in a shop in Thailand. If I do need bags, I frequently repackage them so that my goods fit in one or two, rather than three, four or even five, and give back the superfluous extras.

They are handed out with everything. I don’t need a plastic bag for a bottle of water or a packet of tissues. I obviously don’t need one for an ice-cream. I absolutely don’t need one for a four-pack of paracetamol. (All real examples).

And even when they are necessary, they are over-used. A single bag is not going to split open if you buy two 1.5-litre bottles of water, so it doesn’t need to be double-bagged. And what’s with these chain stores’ insistence on separating items based on category? That sealed bottle of ketchup is not going to spoil my sealed packet of ballpoint pens. Don’t give me two bags for them! Why does alcohol go in one bag, and soft drinks in another? Furthermore, I don’t need four plastic straws for those four beers, and I certainly don’t need a straw for my large bottle of water.

Thailand is awash with plastic bags. According to the Pollution Control Department, 5,600 tonnes of plastic bags are produced in this country every day. Nobody seems to care about that. The customers don’t give it a second thought when their packaged sandwich is placed in a plastic bag, which they then place inside another plastic bag they already have! And the shops evidently don’t care either, even if massive corporations such as 7-Eleven should be seen to apply environmentally friendly practices. Making matters worse, recycling efforts nationwide are minimal to say the least.

Staff at these shops react in different ways to my unorthodox words and behaviour. Some just ignore me, perhaps thinking the farang said the wrong thing, and dish out the plastic with aplomb anyway, and then look offended when I re-pack or return unwanted bags. Others react as though I’m a risk-taker, asking me if I’m “sure”, shooting me a look that suggests I’m either weird, or brave, or both, to walk out of the store carrying a single bag with six items in it. The nicer ones thank me, as if I’m being benevolent to the company by returning the bags.

Koh Larn landfill

Koh Larn landfill

As with many things, changing practices requires a change of thinking on a mass scale. Of course, my home nation, the United Kingdom, used to be just as bad, but most shops there now either charge for plastic bags or at least don’t give out bags unless they are asked for, and the general populace now either reuses bags or hand-carries if they can. Perhaps companies here in Thailand would be nervous about the former approach, fearing customers might eschew a store that charges for bags and shop at a competitor instead, but there’s no reason the latter approach couldn’t work. It would at least make the customer think if they do actually need a bag, rather than just blithely accepting whatever they are given.

Apparently, last Saturday (August 15) was a nationwide bag-free day. It was the first of what is intended to be a monthly event, when every 15th day the major supermarket chains refrain from handing out bags unless they are expressly requested.

I didn’t realise this occurred until two days after the event. It was minimally promoted, if at all. And, looking back, I did visit a supermarket on Saturday (Tops) and, lo and behold, it has been business as usual in the bag-dispensing department.

To its credit, Tesco Lotus did embrace the campaign, and it reportedly spared the use of 1 million bags as a result. A million bags! In one day! Just take a moment to let that sink in and you will understand the scale of the problem.

I suspect this campaign – if it even continues – will be embraced the same as other do-gooder campaigns are in Thailand, i.e. not at all. Look at “Car Free Day” – every September, Bangkokians are offered free public transport for one day, but the roads are just as busy as ever. And there have been any number of campaigns aimed at improving the lawless nature of the traffic in this city, yet the situations is just as dire as it ever was.

The plastic bag problem persists because it its consequences are out of sight and mind for the ordinary person. Once it has been binned, the bag is forgotten, and the customer doesn’t think about the landfills that blight parts of this beautiful land, nor that they are a major contributing factor to the floods that often threaten this city, as they gum up sewers and irrigation canals. Even further from their mind is the threat they pose to wildlife, especially marine animals that die after mistakenly eating them.

There’s little I can do to improve the situation, and I realise my one-man war is in itself a futile gesture in a city of 10 million people. But I would like to improve my Thai skills, so please, retail staff of this kingdom, at least give me something else to say at the checkouts than mai ao thung!



SIX OF THE BEST: DESTINATIONS OUTSIDE BANGKOK

Continuing my “Six of the best” series, I present the nicest or most interesting places I have travelled to outside of my home city of Bangkok.

Khao Sok sunset

Khao Sok sunset

1. KHAO SOK

Shortly after my move to Thailand, and with the good fortune to have a few weeks’ grace period between arriving in the country and starting work, I headed south for a combination beach and jungle trip. The beach leg was Phuket, which was exactly as I expected (beautiful but over-touristy), but before then I spent a couple of nights in Khao Sok in Surat Thani province. Unfortunately, a planned-for excursion into the jungle was called off, as heavy rainfall in preceding days had caused a landslide risk, and all organised tours had been cancelled. Even so, a brief stay in Amphoe Phanom, the hub village from which the national park is accessed, was delightful. The clean air and utterly laid back ambience is addictive, and the lush scenery some of the most dramatic in Thailand, from sweeping vistas of dark green to towering limestone cliffs. Even with tours cancelled, I could still go on more casual walks in the national park and had fun tubing down the Sok River. I’ve been promising myself a return ever since so that I can delve into the full Khao Sok experience of hiking, kayaking and more. Continue reading



FINAL BELL TOLLS FOR LUMPINEE BOXING STADIUM
The infamous "bear pit" inside Lumpinee Stadium

The infamous “bear pit” atmosphere inside Lumpinee Stadium

One of the world’s most iconic sports venues closed last Friday, with the ringing of the final bell for Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

It was to muay Thai what Madison Square Garden is to boxing and wrestling – a venue steeped in history that fans would make pilgrimages to and competitors would dream of fighting in.

Opened in 1956, Lumpinee would go on to rival the older Rajadamnern Stadium in terms of prestige, both as a venue and a championship (the championships of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums are among the most respected in the sport).  However, I always preferred Lumpinee. My first visit there remains one of the most vivid cultural memories I have had.

Back in 2005, while backpacking with my step-brother Andy, we attended a Lumpinee fight card just days into our two-month stint in Thailand. On a budget, we opted for the cheapest tickets, the so-called third-class section, and we were so glad we did. Continue reading



BALI HAIS AND LOWS – 5 DAYS IN INDONESIA’S TOURIST HAVEN
Balinese Hindu architecture

Balinese Hindu architecture

Last month I travelled to Bali, Indonesia, in what was primarily a social visit, as I have a friend who lives and works there. It hadn’t really occurred to me to visit Bali before, being that is an uber-touristy destination, but I figured that I would see more than beaches and bars with the combination of a local friend and my own inquisitive style of travelling. And so it was. As expected, the main tourist area of Kuta didn’t hold my attention, but some other parts of the island – unfortunately time constraints limited me to the south – were charming.

My thoughts on what I saw of Bali are as follows. It is not a chronological travelogue; more like a scrapbook of impressions and recommendations. Continue reading



THE VALUE OF VAGINAS
An acceptable way to wear fur

An acceptable way to wear fur

The amazing response to my last post was quite an eye-opener. Initially, my blog was just a way to share my general musings with friends and family back home after I moved to Thailand. I wasn’t bothered about page views, although I’d had some good critical feedback on some past pieces. Even so, the most views my site had had in a day previously was a little over 200. But my “10 ways expats can avoid being mistaken for tourists” post has now picked up more than 3,300 views!

Since I’d only posted it on my own Facebook page and sent an email to a few people I already knew, I was very pleasantly surprised by this. It was my own experience of something going “viral”, and while 3,300+ views is a pretty modest stat in modern internet terms, it was achieved through the branch of “shares” on Facebook, Twitter and the link being posted on various forums. While technology has changed a lot in recent years, the adage remains that the best kind of advertising is a recommendation, so for my work to be publicised by people I don’t know whatsoever is a nice seal of approval.

As I hadn’t had particularly big numbers before, I hadn’t looked much at the referrers, search engine terms, and so on, but when I got the huge spike in views, I had a look at the WordPress stats page to see how people were finding their way to the site. I had a few surprises and laughs at some of the search engine terms that had directed people here, but one word in particular stood out because it cropped up over and over again.

Vagina. Continue reading



10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS
Nice tan!

Nice tan!

Everybody needs somebody… to look down on, and few lifeforms get less respect than the lowly tourist. In Bangkok, they are easy to spot – bright pink skin, dripping in sweat, wearing a Chang Beer T-shirt and scratching their heads over folding maps and the BTS ticketing system. Tourists are naïve, vulnerable, confused and trusting – everything that the noble expat is not! But to the average Thai conman and opportunist, every foreigner is a potential tourist, and to every tourist, anyone of their same colour is likely one of their kin. But the resident farang is a wiser, nobler and all-round higher class of foreigner, and we must flaunt our status with our behaviour and habits. However, this is something that can only be cultivated over time, with experience – unless you consult my handy guide to…

10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS

Continue reading



MOMENTS, EVENTS AND PEOPLE THAT DEFINED 2012

As the end of last year approached and people started talking resolutions and fresh starts, and so on, I thought I didn’t really have much to report from 2012. My work had remained much the same, I had no new love interests, I continued to live in the same place, I had only one visitor and I’d only taken one foreign holiday. However, I had a browse through my Facebook friends list and phone contacts to jog my memory and it turns out 2012 was actually pretty packed, albeit mostly with small moments, but perhaps a long list of different – and mostly happy – moments is a good year after all. On that note, in no particular order, I present the people, places and things that shaped the past year for me. Continue reading




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