England, 18 years after
I’m not going to do my usual photo trip report here as a lot of it was personal and visiting family so I’ll post a series of observations and comparisons to living in Thailand and Asia along with a few photos. The following observations are simply what I saw, felt and experienced on a 5 week trip I took to the UK during June and July, it was my first time back there since 1998.
Most of my time was spent in the southeast, flying into Gatwick (Emirates 470 GBP return) and staying at the following places for 3-5 days each; Crawley (Surrey), Rochester (Kent), Hornchurch (Essex), Hythe (Southampton), Folkestone (Kent), Strood (Kent), Stratford (London), Chalgrove (Oxfordshire) and back to Hornchurch.
- The weather was diabolical, even in “summer”. It was the longest day when I wrote this, summer solstice, and it had been pissing down cold rain with wind, fog and a temperature around 14 degrees. There was even a hail storm one day – ice falling from the sky in June, I think there was about 4 days out of the 5 weeks with clear blue skies and sunshine. Needless to say I was rucked up in several layers and a fleece jacket for most of the trip.
- The day I got off the plane I got hayfever, something I haven’t suffered in nearly 20 years living in Asia. Snot and sneeze attacks were a regular occurrence every morning, I guess there is simply more pollen in the colder climes of the UK whereas in the tropics plants are more likely to be pollinated by insects instead.
- Everything seemed a lot cleaner and more orderly, no plastic all over the place (you have to pay extra for bags), no feral dogs roaming the streets, neatly cut verges, hedges, trees and well taken care of gardens. People seem fanatical about their gardens in England (most of which are postage stamp sized) which is surprising considering the weather is too abysmal to enjoy them!
- The daylight took some getting used to and I dont think I ever really did during the trip, it was like having jet-lag every day. I would wake up every morning at 4am as that is when it got light, had to tie a t-shirt around my head to get back off to sleep for a couple more hours. Sleep though was solid and deep – Thailand is an unnecessarily noisy country. I could never tell what time it was and bright daylight at 10pm was just bizarre, the light seemed clearer also, it felt as if the clouds and sky was further away. Seasons are definitely something missing in Thailand where over the course of a year it gets dark at the same time and is just 4 month periods of hot, hotter, and wet.
- I was there for the vote and went to the polling station to have a look … but wasn’t allowed to vote as I’d been out of the country for over 15 years. The general consensus from the people (mostly my age group and older) I spoke to during the trip (and I went to a few different places) was to leave the EU, watching the live debates on TV also made the leave argument look more convincing – the remain camp didn’t actually provide any facts and figures as to why remaining would be beneficial. Never thought it would actually happen though especially with the government and big corporations wanting to remain.
- Drinking the tap water was an alien concept to me, just could not get my head around it. I came up with a few conspiracy theories to wind up the people claiming that there are chemicals in the tap water that are making all of their kids hyperactive. I was told that it is now illegal to smack your own child, teachers are not allowed to reprimand them, and you get fined for letting them have a day of school. I guess the little dudes know they can get away with anything.
- Pretty much every person I met is on some kind of medication and was complaining about some illness or other be it migraines, blood pressure, stress, allergies, depression, anxiety, OCD, etc. Big Pharma really has the UK population in the bag; tablets, pills, potions and GP appointments just to get through the day seems to be a common practice. Very strange to me as I wont even take a paracetamol unless one of my limbs has been cut off!
- The pace of life seems so fast and everyone is stressed out about something or other, they all have to be somewhere ten minutes ago and nobody takes time out to relax. Life = Work – Eat – Sleep. People even speak fast and I struggled to understand a few of them – I really was the foreigner in this case and needed a mate to translate on a few occasions as my accent was apparently incomprehensible to a few people.
- Cameras are everywhere, all over the place you’re constantly on surveillance – even in tiny villages there are cameras. This gives rise to an overbearing sense of caution, almost fear, among the people – everything is so highly regulated and you’ll get fined for even the most minor infractions such as putting a can in the wrong bin – I inadvertently broke 7 laws on my first day! Speaking of bins, the government, in an effort to promote recycling, now forces everyone to have 3-4 different bins (all made of plastic) so the streets now look like a wheelie bin party.
- Shopping seems to be a national pass time and I found supermarket food a lot cheaper than what you’d pay in Thailand, by food I mean breads, pies/pastries/cakes, cereals, cheeses, dairy, meats, fish, and general groceries that westerners consume (of course if you eat like a local in Thailand you can do it for less but few westerners that I know actually do this). There is also a massive selection of products from around the world and no stupid import taxes on food that “non-English” people eat. With the massive competition between supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsburys, Lidl, Aldi, Asda, Iceland, etc there are some super deals on groceries and you really can eat well for less, most shoppers know where to go for what items – it is a science all to itself!
- Now, if you go out to a restaurant it is the opposite, you’ll pay through the nose for “exotic” foods – a laab gai in a Thai restaurant we went to in Reading cost a tenner (500 baht) – and they charged me extra for the prik nam pla! A good Indian meal with all the extras could be had for 8 quid (400 baht) and Fish n Chips or a Kebab for around 6 quid (300 baht) – so prices not too dissimilar to touristy western restaurants in Thailand. The portions however were huge, people definitely eat a lot more than they used to and food wastage is high – get even close to that sell by date and it goes in the bin.
- As much of a novelty as it was I struggled a fair bit with the diet as the food is very stodgy/heavy compared to Asian cuisine, three meals a day was also something I’m not used to – needless to say I still put on 4 kilos. Whether it be a lower liquid intake (its colder and you dont sweat), or bulkier food (a lot of bread and not so much veg), I found going to the toilet quite difficult and had to take laxatives on occasion. Not having a bum gun didn’t help at all – how the hell do people survive using fistfuls of shitty paper to clean themselves?!
- Wine and beer (in supermarkets) is also a lot cheaper than Thailand and with hundreds to choose from, for example you can get 12 big tins of John Smiths for 8 quid – 33 baht a tin which is cheaper than Leo. I absolutely loved the real ale, each pub had so many different choices – and they’re only 50 baht a bottle in Aldi (triple that in Thailand). Pub prices are about the same as bars in tourist areas such as Phuket/Hua Hin/Samui; 3-4 quid/150-200 baht a pint (equivalent to 2 small bottles at 80/90 baht each). The difference is you’re getting a nice brew, not chemical laced Chang/Leo/Singha – the only hangover I had was when I returned and started drinking Thai beer again, the stuff is literally poisonous. The whole pub culture though has declined and many of them are boarded up or have been converted into housing or shops.
- The driving and roads are civilized and far safer than the utter lunacy and life threatening antics that plague Thai roads every day. The cameras seem to be keeping things sensible though drivers do hit the gas pedal when they know they’re clear of the all seeing surveillance. Maybe the fact that you’ll get fined for pretty much everything keeps drivers sane, hitting them in the pocket works, and there are very few cops about. People are generally courteous on the roads and will wait or let someone else go – this would never happen in Thailand. The number of cars on the roads must have tripled since I last visited the country, each household has at least 3 cars and they’re all virtually new – there are no old junkers any more. Parking fees are offensive and the M25 is a whore.
- There are nowhere near as many immigrants and foreigners as I expected or had heard about, but then I have been staying in relatively nice places and away from the inner city. Generally people have been friendly and courteous so far, there is a sense of politeness that you just don’t see in Asia. With all the cheap food comes consequence – the women are huge, even the younger ones – they’re all pushing strollers around and eating pies, certainly no issues with re-population here. I’d seen about 2 good looking girls in a month, the eastern European women stick out for obvious reasons, they’re tall and thin! I’d hate to be single and living in England.
- Technology is way ahead of Thailand, the internet speeds are fantastic, but you pay for it. The entertainment monopoly is like a mafia, people are paying up to a hundred quid (5,000 baht) a month for Virgin or BT lock-in contracts that provide internet and hundreds of channels of crap TV. Torrents and the like are blocked, you cant download anything and have to pay these big companies. I wanted to buy a new phone but you cant get anything with a dual SIM as the mobile companies want to lock you in to their services alone, it is all very regulated. Tech is cheaper though, bought a laptop there which would have cost a lot more in Thailand, paid with cash which apparently is no longer done any longer – the store did not know what to do with it.
A final thought is that everything seemed a lot smaller, more compact and compressed. The houses are tiny, the streets are packed with cars and bins and nobody seems to have enough space (unless they can afford to live in the countryside where houses are often over a million pounds). Living in Asia gives you a greater sense of freedom and a lot more space! Could I live there again? Probably for a few months a year, during the “summer”, and nowhere near the cities or dull sprawling urban bleakness! The English countryside in summertime is a true thing of beauty.