Places I Have Lived

August 2, 2010

The Wells, Epsom (bottom of hill)

The Wells, Epsom (top of hill)

So my entire childhood was spent living on The Wells a housing estate near Epsom surrounded by open countryside. Very nice.

Norfolk Terrace, UEA, Norwich

Mannington Hall, Saxthorpe, Norfolk (16th century cottage)

Central Norwich

Three years in Norfolk while I was at UEA. Norwich is a wonderful place to live and the middle year out in the sticks was unique – our front door had no lock and my bedroom window looked onto Mannington Hall.

Willesden Green, London

Ladywell, London

Swiss Cottage, London

Kingsbury, London

My flat rent years, moving on every 6 months. Some of those places were dull, dull dull! Swiss Cottage was good, though.

Great Holm, Milton keynes

Great Holm, Milton Keynes

I lived in two houses in MK, a city I love and enjoyed living in so watch what you say! While owning my first home there I also lived overseas for a couple of years as follows.

Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok

Lardphrao, Bankok

Lardphrao was 13km away from my office, which took 1-3 hours by car! Bagkok is my second home and I love the place.

Reigate, Surrey

Nice big house. Moved there for work and then changed job!

The Wells, Epsom

Back with my parents post divorce. Its a long story . . .

Station Approach, Epsom

Brand new shared ownership flat. Nice, but noisy and no parking.

Commonwealth Drive, Crawley

Unusually I rented my (brand new) house for 6 months and then bought it at a knock down price. I’m very happy here, so hope to stay a long time.

Summary: I’m a a suburban person at heart. I don’t see that as a negative. I love London and big cities, but I need to get out into the countryside regularly. Another feature is that three of my homes have been brand new and one was only five years old. I’m not a DIY enthusiast.  I think you should be able to move into a house and live in it – not spend all your life doing it up and then moving on!

Regrets: apart from Norwich I have never lived within walking distance of a decent pub!


I Have Been Away

May 20, 2010

Sorry I have not posted for such a long time. As many of you will know, my holiday in Thailand got extended by 8 days because of the volcanic ash. I got back at the ens of April and ever since then I’ve been working flat out. Normal service will be resumed from now onwards!


Isaan

February 18, 2010

What is Isaan? Isaan is the North East of Thailand, a huge geographical region that looks like an elephant’s ear on the right hand side of the top of Thailand.

Isaan is a plateau, and most of the northern and eastern boundaries are formed by the Maekong River – one of the great rivers of the world. The plateau is very dry and prone to droughts. There are mountains (small ones) around the edges and within the plateau. This wiki map shows the main features.

File:Isaanmountains.png

Are you sure that’s how its spelt? Well, that’s how I spell it. But it is often shown as Isan or Esarn. Obviously its something else in Thai script.

Who lives in Isaan? There are over 21 million people in Isaan. Most of these are farmers mainly growing rice. Nearly 20 million of them speak Lao, which is a dialect of Thai. Its the same language as is spoken in Laos (but there are only 5 million Lao speakers in Laos!). The other major group is the Khmer speakers. There are about 1 million of them living around Buri Ram and Surin. Khmer is a different language, but I think most Khmer Isaan people speak some kind of cross between Khmer and Thai.  (For my sins I have been married to a Lao Isaan and a Khmer Isaan lady in the past.) One thing you don’t often read about in articles about Isaan is that the people who live in the cities and towns are largely Chinese Thai. In other words, probably no more than a third generation from Chinese immigrants, but now fully integrated into Thai society. Most people in Isaan are poor. Very poor. For that reason Isaan forms a huge labour pool for Bangkok. You can be 90% certain in Bangkok that your taxi driver, the people you see mending the roads, and the women you see working in bars are from Isaan. As are most of the factory workers and construction workers. Similarly, huge numbers of Isaan people work aborad, often in the construction industry. Money from these people is flowing back into Isaan and the standard of living is rising. There is virtually no industry in Isaan, but there are good universities.

So it sounds like Isaan is just another region of Thailand? Well, maybe. But I think there is something special about Isaan. It is partly the scenery of bright skies and big horizons. But mainly it is the people. These people are friendly, generous, open, and have a great sense of humour. Their lives are often indescribably sad and difficult, but they squeeze the last bit of fun and pleasure from everything they do. The Lao language is a gentler version of Thai, and spending an evening in a Lao village you are surrounded by a hubub of people laughing and making bawdy jokes between the houses and across the streets. Wherever you are in Isaan you will see people. Working in the rice fields. Wading through ponds collecting frogs or plants to eat. Taking buffalo out to the fields. Walking to and from school. Walking along every road. Waiting for buses or local trucks. Filling up the markets. Always laughing.

What else is special about Isaan? Two things worth mentioning: food and music. Isaan food is sometimes spicy, often pungent and strong tasting. Key dishes are som tam, larb, sticky rice, and barbecued chicken. Most Isaan homes do not have cookers but use outside barbecues. Food is often eaten by hand with no cutlery. Isaan music is based on a rhythmic folk tradition with an emphasis on two instruments: the kaen and the saw. This has developed into a strident form of pop music. When I first visited Isaan in 1988 Lao music and food was looked down on by Bangkok people. Now Isaan food thrives across Bangkok, and the music rides high in the Thai charts. While a visit to an Isaan pop concert is great (complete with chorus lines of dancing girls in fluorescent costumes), I love to hear the deep sadness in some of the songs about homesickness and lost love.

Good place for a holiday then? Back in 1988 the Tourist Authority of Thailand almost actively discouraged people from visiting Isaan. “Nothing to see there” was the message! In part this was a hangover from the period when Isaan was a genuine centre of communist insurgents, who were only really persuaded to come down from the mountains in the early 1980s. As a result, I was the first white foreigner (farang) to visit my wife’s village, and I rarely if ever saw another foreigner in my travels in the region.  There are tourist attractions. First and foremost are the khmer temples – as good as Ankor Wat, but smaller. Also the national parks are worth visiting, particularly Khao Yai. A lot of tourists transit through Isaan en route to Laos via the Friendship Bridge. And more and more people are simply enjoying a place where travel is easy, the hotels are decent, and you get a real insight into a full on no holds barred bit of true Asian culture.

OK, stop going on about it! There will be more, especially if my plans to spend a week in Isaan in April come off.


Welcome to Thailand!

August 11, 2009

Greenwich Thai Festival, last weekend, was excellent. Freshly barbecued prawns, mango and sticky rice, iced coffeee, smoothies, Thai music, lots of people smiling and having fun in the sun.

Mr Confident

Mr Confident

Miss Confident. Colud they be . . .? Surely not . . . This IS Thailand though.

Miss Confident. Could they be . . .? Surely not . . . This IS Thailand though.

More photos on my smugmug site.


Favourite Places

August 5, 2009

I love cities and I love the countryside. These are some of my favourite cities:

London – of course. The greatest city in the world. The nicest and safest place to simply wander around. Superb architecture. Excellent culture. Great food. Friendly people. I could never stay away for long.

Bangkok- of course. I confess I am addicted. Its like diving into a maelstrom of traffic, people, smells and heat. Bangkok is vibrant and exciting. The best part is obviously the people – incredibly friendly and usually smiling. Its quite a safe city. The food is superb. I love the oases of cool and calm such as the many 5* hotels, the river, and the temples. I will always go back. A year away from Bangkok is a bad year.

Norwich – “A Fine City”. Relaxed, good food, compact, great culture. Good university!

Lisbon –  I have had several business trips there and I love the place.  Very friendly. Compact. Decent food. Stunning views. The most fun tram system in Europe. Brilliant fado music.

Birmingham – but I could equally say Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow, or Newcastle. The renaissance of the British city is an unnoticed success of the last 15 years, and one for which the government should take credit.

Also rans: Valencia, Prague, Singapore

Not placed:  Paris, Rome, Moscow


TOPS – a decade a head of its time

July 4, 2009

On his website Roger Ford lists 100 things that defined British Rail. At number 83 comes TOPS: “Licenced from Southern Pacific in the USA in 1971, BR’s total Operations Processing System brought the computer into the marshalling yard office. Shunters with hands like a bunch of bananas were among BR’s first computer literate employees.”

By the time I joined British Rail in 1981 TOPS was pretty much completely rolled out. Every depot, every yard, and every freight terminal was included. Each train, locomotive, or wagon passing through was carefully recorded and changes of status such as loading or unloading wagons were recorded. TOPS also monitored passenger stock but was effectively mainly a freight system.

At the front end of the system were yard shunters and people on the ground who would go out in all weathers, usually at night, and write down the numbers of every train and wagon they were responsible for. These hand written notes were then faxed (an innovation!) to the nearest TOPS office (there were dozens), where they were manually transcribed by one of hundreds of TOPS clerks into the computer system, which fed into a vast mainframe computer behind Marylebone station.

By 1983 I was a contract manager responsible for day to day monitoring of all construction materials moving by rail in the Southern Region. Each morning I would be handed a swathe of TOPS print outs that would basically tell me what had happened over night. The main think I remember was that each morning I would have to track down a string of broken down wagons from the clapped out fleet that was used on the Redhill to Warrington nightly sand train. Every time this train stopped, it seemed, it would leave behind a broken down wagon. My job was to somehow get these wagons seen to and returned to somewhere useful. This is a simple example of how, for over a decade, TOPS became the basic tool of rail freight management in the UK.

TOPS tracked wagons and locomotives. It could also plan and control traffic automatically – for instance by assigning a new destination as soon as wagons were unloaded, without waiting for someone to intervene. TOPS also managed and monitored maintenance ad had numerous other functions. Gradually TOPS was taught to communicate with the signalling system through a system called TRUST, and this allowed trains to be tracked continually. Customers were provided with PCs so that they could access TOPS directly, not only entering data but using TOPS to manage their own business. These systems were linked into the invoicing systems so that quickly paperwork was completely done away with.

Think about it: by the early 1980s British Rail could track every train and wagon in real time -something no other railway in Europe could do. And, what, 10 years before mobile phones were used in trucks, and 15 years before satnav?

TOPS was not perfect, but it WAS world class. In 1988 I went to Thailand where I worked on freight projects for two years. Without TOPS it was a window on British Rail of the 1960s. There was a whole room full of people trying to track down lost wagons. Rolling stock control added days of delays to every wagon. The Thai railway guys managed their business as best they could – but without TOPS it felt like working with one hand tied behind your back.


My Blogroll: 2Bangkok.com

March 4, 2009

Obviously its mainly about Bangkok. Its focus is on almost exactly the things that interest me including:

2Bangkok.com is the best and most authoritative source of information about the Gem Scam. Please read this section if you are ever planning a holiday to Bangkok! The associated forum is pretty good too.  

Run by Ron Morris, an expat running a translation agency among other things.


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