Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 409: US Presidential Election 2016 [Posted November 7th 2015]

Hold onto your seats, because one year from today the United States of America will go to the polls and elect their 45th President, and my prediction is that during the next twelve months, things are going to get rather messy. Who eventually wins the election on November 8th 2016 depends entirely upon which candidate each of the two main political parties nominate – Democratic Party and Republican Party – and just like with the British electoral system, it’s not simply a question of which candidate receives the most votes on Election Day.

In simple terms, on November 8th 2016 voters in each State will cast a ballot for their preferred candidate, and the candidate who receives the most votes will gain the support of that state’s “Electors”. At some time in December 2016, the 538 “Electors” who together form the “Electoral College”, will vote for their State’s candidate and the first candidate to receive 270 Electoral College Votes will become the 45th President of the United States of America. Simple?

The serious candidates, as I see it, are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party, and for the Republican Party, which has a much deeper field, I suspect that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump will be some way ahead of the other runners. By the end of July 2016, through a process of Primary Elections held in each State and Territory, each Party will have nominated a candidate who’ll appear on the November 8th presidential ballot papers.

Had I a vote in this election, my choice would be Bernie Sanders, but I don’t have a vote and I feel that in a close contest, Hillary Clinton will scrape through as the Democratic Party’s nominee. For the Republican Party, I have a hunch that it will come down to a tight and bitter battle between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and whichever one of them wins, in exchange for the transfer of voter support at the Republican National Convention, they’ll select Marco Rubio to run as their Vice President.
In this election more than any other, choosing the eventual winner this early would be a fool’s game, but here goes nothing:

Hillary Clinton v Ted Cruz      =     President Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders v Ted Cruz      =     President Bernie Sanders
Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump  =  President Donald Trump
Bernie Sanders v Donald Trump  =  President Bernie Sanders

Of course, this is based on nothing more scientific than my own personal feelings and a little research into each of the candidates and their assumed positions on future policy. I see Ted Cruz as the least likable candidate, very closely followed by Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is as yet an unknown quantity, but as the maverick candidate, he must be taken seriously. And, as for Bernie Sanders, well, beyond those who appear to unquestioningly ‘love’ only Trump, Cruz, Clinton or Wall Street, he appears to enjoy almost universal approval, and the value of a trustworthy politician in dangerous times such as these, ought not to be underestimated. 

[EDIT: In the early hours of 9th November 2016, Hillary R. Clinton, who on the morning of the election had been given a 98.10% chance of winning the Electoral College by a landslide margin, conceded the election .... making Donald J. Trump, President-Elect of the United States of America.] 

Post 408: Major Changes for ‘Tourists’ in Thailand - [Posted November 6th 2015]

For five glorious years, I’ve avoided the ravages of winter by spending six months of the year in, and around, Thailand. By accident of birth, a British Passport has allowed me to access reasonably priced double-entry tourist visas with, thankfully, very few questions asked. However, as of November 2015, the Thai visa system has changed.

Previously, I’d arrive in Thailand as a tourist under the 30 Day Visa Waiver Programme, a programme that remains unchanged. As that initial 30 days began to expire, I’d venture north into Laos, and at the Thai Embassy in Vientiane, I’d apply for a double-entry 60 Day Tourist Visa. That particular visa cost $60 and for a further $60 it could be extended for an additional 30 Days on two separate occasions. Under that system, with the exception of two short trips to Laos or Cambodia, I could remain in Thailand for 210 Days.    

However, as of November 2015, the double entry tourist visa has been withdrawn. It has been replaced by a Multi-Entry 6 Month Tourist Visa, which initially sounded like very good news indeed. However, in the words of the original Night Owl ‘This is Thailand’, a Kingdom where things are never quite as straight forward as they seem. To obtain this new multiple-entry visa you must:
                 1: Apply in your home country
2: Provide six months of bank statements with a balance that never for one day dips below  
   $6,000 (Some early applicants are saying the minimum amount is actually $12,000)
3: Provide a letter from your employer guaranteeing your continued and future employment.

Unfortunately, for me, I fail on all three of the new criteria. So, when the 30 days on my initial visa waiver are about to expire, I’ll head to Laos and apply for a 60 Day Single-Entry Tourist Visa at the Royal Thai Embassy in Vientiane. Hopefully, I’ll be able to extend that 60 Day Visa for an additional 30 Days at my local Immigration Office here in Bangkok. That should allow me to remain in Thailand until February 2016, at which time I’ll have to once again leave the country. Hopefully between now and then, the new system will have settled into place and my options for extending my stay will have become clearer.


Post 407: The Thai Festival of Song Kran 2558 - [Posted April 18th 2015]

Between 13th & 16th of April, Thailand celebrates the arrival of New Year with the festival of Song Kran. Every April, millions of tourists flock to Thailand and join the now infamous water fights in the Silom and Khao San areas of Bangkok. However, in the Bangkok district of Lak Si, the place I call "home", far away from the commercial tourist traps of the city, in an area where tourists seldom tread, this is how Thais really celebrate ….

Post 406: Supporting The Dhamanurak Foundation – [Posted April 14th 2015]

Our association with the Dhamanurak Foundation began in 2013. That year, my partner Nongnoo decided to celebrate her birthday with a party, but, it would be a party with a difference.  Instead of the usual night of food, beer and birthday cake with a few close friends in Bangkok, she’d decided to host a party for a large group of underprivileged kids in the Province of Kanchanaburi. 
 Located just a few miles from one of Thailand’s major tourist attractions, but appearing nowhere on any map, the Dhamanurak Foundation is home, school and medical centre for approximately 120 kids. Ranging between 1 and 16 years of age, the kids are either orphans, or from homes where for various reasons, their parents are simply unable to care for them. Founded in 2001 by a Buddhist Nun named Jutiporn, who continues to run the centre on a daily basis, the Foundation survives on voluntary contributions from the public.
 Back in 2013, Nongnoo had spent a couple of days gathering supplies and raising money before heading off to Kanchanaburi with four or five close friends. Repeating the celebration in 2014, we’d raised more money and a few more volunteers had joined us, but in 2015, we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of others. Long before dawn on March 7th this year, fifty people in thirty fully-laden vehicles set out from their homes in various parts of Thailand to offer their support for the kids of the Dhamanurak Foundation.  
 In 2013 all efforts had been concentrated on the party, an opportunity to provide a few hours of fun and entertainment for the kids.  In 2014, the party had still been central to our efforts, but we’d also managed to provide additional support for the Foundation in terms of money, equipment, clothing etc. Another byproduct of our efforts has been an increase in public awareness, and that awareness appears to have kick-started an entirely new movement of independent supporters.
 This year, a group of university students had concentrated on hosting the party, which given the closer proximity of age and energy levels, was an amazing development for the kids. We’d still provided food and special treats for the event, but the student’s support has allowed us to concentrate our own efforts in other areas.
Without the support of volunteers, organisations like the Dhamanurak Foundation simply wouldn’t exist, but once established, money becomes their lifeblood. From our efforts, we do raise and give a certain amount of money to the Foundation, but this is Thailand and we’re silently aware that hard cash in any organization here can be the catalyst for corruption. It’s difficult to believe that anybody would steal money from these kids, but unfortunately, the world is what it is and not necessarily what we want it to be.    
 However, by providing the seemingly boring but costly everyday essentials; classroom equipment, cleaning materials, sewing machines, food, crockery etc., we help them to manage and release their own funds for various capital projects. The Dhamanurak Foundation’s list of needs is long, but with the help of some amazingly generous people, progress is being made. Recently, work has begun on replacing the temporary bamboo accommodation units with more modern low-maintenance permanent buildings, and at the same time, converting previously unused semi-derelict buildings into such things as mushroom growing houses, workshops and poultry enclosures.
If anybody following this would like to learn more, or to in some way help or become involved, then please drop me an email: GMail   geoffgthomas 

Post 405b: Why Don’t You Believe in God? – [Posted April 11th 2015]

If there’s one lesson that travelling’s taught me, it’s never to offer my personal opinions on partners, politics or religion, especially when drinking. So, when the only other English speaker asked me why I didn’t believe in God, I’d fobbed him off with a generic answer and quickly changed the subject. But, his question had intrigued me.
For all of my adult life I’ve consider myself an atheist, but, I’ve never really investigated the root of my non-belief. My parents were certainly Christian, Methodists, and at an early age I attended Sunday school, and perhaps, that’s where my journey towards atheism really began.
Before I could walk, I was christened, and as soon as I could talk I would kneel at the side of my bed each night and recite this simple prayer: Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child, pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee. It’s safe to say that being christened wasn’t a personal choice, and the words of that first prayer had actually scared me. Why did I want ‘pity’, pity was for people who had worse lives than me, and why would I ever want to ‘suffer’ for anything?
Throughout my time at junior and secondary schools, I’d struggled with reading and writing - later diagnosed as dyslexia - but I’d known that I wasn’t an idiot and actively tried to prove that point by asking lots of relevant questions in class. In general my questions were welcomed by the teachers, but at Sunday school, well, the ministers weren’t quite so accommodating.
At school, my physics teacher had told me that the universe was almost fifteen billion years old and measurably expanding, and that planet earth had been around for at least four billion years. As I’d questioned his reasoning, he’d pointed me towards an entire section of scientific research material in the school library and encouraged me to investigate the evidence and to draw my own conclusions. In social studies, they’d introduced me to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and shown that recognisable humans had inhabited the earth, specifically Africa, for at least 200,000 years. If I wanted further evidence of evolution, I should visit the Natural History Museum in London and evaluate the evidence for myself. So, at the age of twelve, we spent our summer vacation traipsing around London on an amazing voyage of discovery: The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, The British Museum and the Planetarium. 
For my inquiring young mind, the school teachers’ responses to my questions were appropriate, but in church my questions had seemed neither reasonable, nor in most cases, answerable. I’d been told that God created the earth, and that five days later he created Adam before taking a day of rest. But, if Adam came two thousand years before Abraham, and Abraham lived two thousand years before Jesus, wouldn’t that make the earth, and therefore mankind, at the very most six thousand years old? When I’d innocently questioned the Sunday schools teachers’ timeline, they hadn’t pointed me towards scientific papers, to independent research or to physical evidence in various museums, they’d simply pointed me to their book, the Holy Bible.
The Bible wasn’t an easy read, but I’d struggled through a few random chapters and what I’d found had disturbed me far more than that early childhood prayer. At the time, many of the words had been beyond my comprehension, like ‘Apostasy’, but being told by a loving omnipotent God that if members of my own family ever cease believing in him, I should stone them to death, had seemed more than a little harsh. When it comes to wavering belief in God, I also discovered that the name Thomas had history, and I’d decided that it was time to stop asking questions, and, to stop attending a church that actively discouraged scrutiny.     

Post 405a: Je Susi Charlie [Posted 8th January 2014]

As you’re no doubt aware, on Wednesday 7th of January at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, masked gunmen slaughtered ten members of the editorial team and two French police officers. The reason for this barbaric attack, it would seem, was a reaction to the publication, on several occasions, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. On a personal note, I didn’t find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be particularly amusing, or informative, but any verbal assault on humour, politics or religious beliefs should surely lead to dialogue, not death. Sadly, this isn’t the first such deadly response to criticism, satirical or otherwise, of Islam and its envoy on earth, and I’m not referring to the previously published Danish cartoons or even Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses.

For the first example of such a violent response to criticism of the Prophet, we must travel back to 7th century Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad. Asma bint Marwan – daughter of Marwan – was a local poet who openly mocked Muhammad’s claim to be the Slave of Allah, Allah being the Arabic word for God. Vexed by the content of her verse, Muhammad had asked “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” That evening, one of Muhammad’s followers murdered Asma while she slept, and upon hearing the news Muhammad exclaimed “you have helped both God and His messenger”. If Islam is a religion of peace, then as with most other religions, it didn't get off to a very good start.
So, is it right that we, society, should be openly critical of religion? Many believers will say 'No', especially I suspect when it relates to their own chosen belief system, but on any logical basis, the answer must surely be 'Yes'. Religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, are by their very nature expansionist, and in this respect Islam seems more determined than most. Religions are like political movements, without national borders, and their manifestos are their sacred books; Bible, Quran, Torah. As Islam’s ultimate and undisguised goal is to attract the remaining five-billion of the world’s non-believers to its fold, by all means necessary, then society has a moral obligation to review, dissect, question, and where necessary, even openly mock its policies and actions.

But, the free thinking world has become an amazingly sensitive beast, especially when it comes to discussing Islam. It’s a beast burdened by the weight of political correctness, and for this deafening silence in the face of mounting sickness, we must all accept a degree of personal responsibility. Since the birth of electronic media, the rise of Islamic violence has monopolised the limelight, but, although Islam has stolen the headlines, none of the faith based movements have been totally free from sin. Charlie Hebdo might not be funny, in my eyes at least, but at least they don’t discriminate. When it comes to being critical of faith, Charlie Hebdo are certainly advocates for equality.

No faith escaped the cartoonist’s pen, but only one movement reacted against them with violent and deadly force. Of course, the artists knew that their cartoons would be controversial, and that was precisely their point, they were a catalyst to conversation, debate and hopefully, enlightenment. They were fully aware of the risks to themselves, but they didn’t fear the wrath of Allah, to them Allah was as real as a Unicorn, what they feared, justifiably, was the reaction of individuals who’d been poisoned by his brutal manifesto.
Some will take exception to my choice of words, brutal manifesto, but as with the books of other religions, many of which are reflected in the Quran, the suras of the Quran and Hadith are no strangers to the glorification of violence. 'If they turn their backs, [on Islam] take them, and slay them wherever you find them'.

The editorial staff and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo paid the ultimate price for fulfilling their obligation to the world. But, hopefully, from their martyrdom will rise a movement, a new generation of critical thinkers who will detect the true scent of religion and identify it for exactly what it is.

Post 404: Why Thailand? My Thailand - [Posted 7th January 2015]

When strangers ask “where do you live?”, and I reply “Thailand”, their reactions are often quite predictable. Most are too polite to tell me what they’re actually thinking, but their knowing smiles are the perfect windows to their thoughts - A rustic home on the beach, evenings on a bar stool, cold beer in hand and bikini clad maidens tending to his every desire ... The lucky bastard!

  The paradise beaches of Koh Phi Phi
I can understand why they think that, just as I can understand why many Thais, and probably quite a few Americans, firmly believe that every Englishman lives in Downton Abbey, but the truth, for me at least, is far removed from their perception. 2014 was probably an average year for me, and I spent just five evenings attached to various bar stools across Thailand. Three of those evenings were at a travellers meeting in Chiang Mai where I was speaking, and the other two were in Bangkok with a good friend; writer and adventurer, Dr Greg Frazier. In each of those bars I was seen, and probably photographed, with a cold beer in my hand, but to the best of my knowledge there were no bikini clad maidens tending to my every desire or anything else for that matter. Sure, I do have a Thai girlfriend, but if I ever asked her to tend to even the mildest of my actual desires, well, I’d become a eunuch and she’d be out of my life in a flash. As for living close to a beach, well, I’m at least 200 miles from any beach that any sane person would ever want to visit. I live in Bangkok, a little area called Lak Si. Ever heard of it? No, nor had I until I moved here four years ago. It’s certainly not a slum, but neither is it gentrified, but at £70 per month the rent on my studio apartment is slightly more attractive than the view from the balcony.
  The early morning haze of Lak Si
So, if I’m not here for the beaches, the booze or the bikini clad beauties, then what the hell am I doing in Thailand? Well, it basically comes down to a combination of economics and laziness, something that I’ll try to explain.
After riding around the world, settling back into my normal life was impossible. That's not just because my house had burned down while I'd been crossing Siberia, but because a year without working had become an impossible habit to break. What I really wanted was a gentle middle-class lifestyle, the UK definition of middle-class not the lower income American version, and I figured that the annual income of a teacher would be a really good starting point. In England, that would mean earning around £40,000 per year, which sounded like an awful lot of Monday morning feelings and a decent amount of hard work, but in places such as Thailand, a local teacher earns around £5,000 per year. I guessed that with my messy writing, and with a few additional irons in the financial fire, I could earn £5,000 a year without having to sacrifice too many hours of idleness. So, if I could do that while living in Thailand, and Thailand would allow me to stay there, then I’d be laughing.
The economics of teachers
Of course, I could have easily chosen Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos or even somewhere in Africa, but I didn’t. I already spoke a little Thai and, well, in the interest of full disclosure, I already had a few female friends here in the Land of Smiles. [Don’t shoot me, I’m only human and I thought you might appreciate the honesty]
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live life with a cold beer in my hand and the warm ocean lapping at my feet, and even to occupy more bar stools, but when you’re living on £5,000 a year, paradise looks nothing like the marketing material that brought you here in the first place.