Hot Seat

Patrick Verbruggen

"The poor air quality in the north has made us seriously rethink our plans of moving there" Ajarn is asking expats some random questions on life in Thailand. Patrick lives in Khon Kaen.

Q

Thanks a million for answering the questions. Firstly, where in Thailand are you living and how long have you been here?

A

I live in Khon Kaen, in the heart of Isaan (north-east Thailand). I moved here from Belgium with my Thai wife and my dog in December 2020, in the peak of the COVID misery. I fondly remember those 15 days of being locked up in a Bangkok hotel room for the dreaded "Alternative State Quarantine". Such a joy :-) 

I've been here nearly two and a half years now.

Q

How would you describe your Thai language ability?

A

I've taken some private lessons and I try to practice when I can, but I must say I haven't gotten very far, and that's mostly on me: I don't spend enough time and effort on it. I have the basics to get by in daily life, and I can usually figure out what's being talked about in Thai, but I can't really participate in the conversation. 

I can read Thai - very slowly - in the sense that I can mostly make the right sounds in my head, but I don't have enough vocabulary to understand large parts of what I'm reading. Whenever I have to deal with Thais who don't speak English -  which is 99% of them here in Khon Kaen - I fall back on my wife. 

On top of that, most ordinary people speak Isan here, which is sufficiently different from Thai to make it even harder.  

Q

Now that the Covid years seem to be thankfully behind us, what lessons did you learn from the whole experience?

A

I'm 100% pro the "it's way better to be safe than sorry" sentiment, so I masked up, I kept my distance, I washed my hands, I was careful, and I got vaccinated as early as I could (which was somewhat of a frantic adventure in itself).

That being said: some of the COVID measures and restrictions that were imposed by the Thai government I found simply draconian and worse: utterly useless in some cases. Some of those measures were typical examples of the "amorality of power" that seems to be common here. 

Whole sectors of the economy were decimated and people were thrust into poverty without any regard, but now that it's (mostly) over, nobody in that same power echelon seems to care at all about the other burning problems that still remain and that claim at least as much lives and misery as COVID ever did, and have done so for a much longer time: the high rate of traffic injury and death, the awful pollution, the ingrained corruption at every level of society, etc.

In short: it taught me a lot in a very short time about how power works in Thailand, and that in the end, as an individual, you have to fend for yourself on a completely different level here than in Europe. Not that I didn't know that beforehand of course, but it still surprised me how far it went.

Oh, and the COVID period also taught me that there are a LOT more unbelievably STUPID people in the world than I was aware of :-) 

Q

A common theme on Thailand social media is the rising cost of living here. In what areas have you cut down or attempted to cut down on expenses?

A

I'm very grateful to have the luxury that I don't really need to cut down yet. Compared to Belgium, I consider daily life still very cheap here. It helps that we're not big spenders. We live in a modest house, I drive a small car, and except for our weekly Saturday night out to a nice restaurant, we don't go out all that much. 

We mostly eat Thai-style food. I spend very little on farang foods and amenities, but that's mostly because these things are not so easy to find here in Khon Kaen compared to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, etc. If they were, I'd probably spend more on them, but it would also be the first thing I'd cut back on if I had to.

Q

Another very controversial issue is the annual pollution, especially in the north of Thailand. It’s been particularly bad this year. Has it made you rethink your long-term future here?

A

In a certain sense it has. When we moved here, we had a longer-term plan to eventually move to the north of Thailand and build a house there, somewhere around the Chiang Rai area because we've been there quite a few times and both my wife and I love it there.

However, very recently we stayed for a week - during the worst of the pollution - with friends who live about 45 minutes east of Chiang Mai, and that was the first time we really experienced how bad the air quality actually gets up there, and Chiang Rai seemed to be even worse than that. It has made us seriously rethink our plans of moving there. We're still mulling about it, but we may set our sights on the south instead. The problem is that neither I nor my wife have been in that area much.

At least we know where to set our travel destinations for the coming months. 

Q

Which place in Thailand have you never visited but would most like to and why?

A

That would be the South. I've never been a beach guy, I'm much more into nature and mountains and lush green vegetation, but the pollution situation is kind of driving me southwards to explore it and get to know the area better.

Q

If you had to choose a place in Thailand to live (other than where you are now) where would it be and why?

A

Like I said, if it wasn't for the air pollution: definitely Chiang Rai and the area north of it. Stunningly beautiful nature all around, and Chiang Rai is great little city that has all you could ever want!

Q

Do you have your eyes on settling in another country at some point? Even if you have no plans, which country appeals to you?

A

No. I'm extremely happy being here in Thailand, I haven't regretted the move for even a second, and I totally don't miss Belgium. Last time I was there (early last February), I had the following reflection: it feels very familiar here, I understand everyone, I know the culture and the language, but it doesn't feel like home anymore. Home is Thailand"

Q

“The smiles have disappeared from The Land of Smiles” Agree or disagree?

A

I disagree. Yes, the smiles are still mostly hidden behind the masks, but they're still there. The people haven't changed in my experience. The level of friendliness, service with a genuine smile, eagerness to assist, openness and ability to laugh and joke around I see here has always been and still is like day and night compared to what I was used to in Belgium, where - as my daughter over there puts it - "everyone walked around with a sour face before COVID, and it has just gotten worse after".

Q

Generally, is life in Thailand better for you now than when you first arrived?

A

Yes, but that's mainly because we arrived here at the worst point in time you possibly could: the height of the COVID debacle. When all the restrictions were finally lifted, I felt a great sense of liberation that I could finally fully experience all that I came here for. And also that I could finally go out to eat and have a beer in a beer glass with my food instead of a big cup of...erm..."coffee" :-)

Q

What is the best and worst thing about living here? 

A

Best: the people, the food, the never ending beauty of nature, the sights to see, and the climate.

Worst: the sometimes moronic procedures you have to go through to live here as a foreigner, the level of poverty that's still present, and the pollution, and I don't mean just the air quality. The thought of falling into a khlong in Thailand gives me nightmares :-)

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