Wild Boars Rescued

A splendid effort, chaps:

Divers in northern Thailand have rescued all 12 boys and their football coach from flooded caves, 17 days after they got trapped underground.

Contrary to my earlier fears that the coordination of a multi-national rescue operation might be beyond the Thais, they appear to have done a fine job. This is probably because, although the foreign divers are being talked about in the media, there were a lot of Thai divers involved in the rescue as well. Indeed, the last men out of the cave were four Thai navy divers.

As I’ve said before, kudos must be given to the Thai authorities for accepting the foreign help and allowing them to work unimpeded. If this had happened in some parts of Africa, foreign rescue workers would have been slapped with a new and arbitrary $20k charge for an entry visa (I’m quite serious about this). Everyone has come out of this looking good, even the boys’ coach about whom you can read a little here.

So all’s well that ends well, thank goodness, save for the death of Petty Officer Saman Gunan. There’ll be a lot of tired people getting some well-earned rest, and each will have a story to last the rest of their lives. Word is Hollywood is already sniffing around, but I will be extremely disappointed if any such film doesn’t end with the sudden realisation they’ve rescued one more boy than went in. Sadly – for I’d love to say it were mine – I have to credit that idea to Damian Counsell.

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Phuket Boat Tragedy

This story didn’t get much attention in the international media:

Divers are searching the hull of a sunken boat off the coast of southern Thailand for more than 50 passengers who are missing after a violent storm Thursday afternoon.

The Phoenix PC diving boat ran into trouble off the coast of the resort island of Phuket when a storm whipped up waves as high as five meters (16 feet), crashing them against the vessel and causing it to keel over.

There were believed to 105 passengers on board the capsized vessel, including 93 tourists, one guide and 11 crew members. Many were thought to be Chinese tourists vacationing at the Thai resort.

I was sat on my balcony watching the rain come down – a nice thing to do – during that storm, but I didn’t realise how bad it was. My friend who lives across the bay said huge waves were crashing into the beach, bigger than he’d seen in a long time. It didn’t last long, more a squall than a storm, but those can be pretty ferocious.

Tourist boats are a common sight around here, as there is much to see and do in the waters near Phuket. You have Phi Phi island where The Beach was filmed, as well as Khao Phing Kan island where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. You also have  a lot of diving spots and, close to the beaches, paragliding boats. The problem is, as with everything in Thailand, you wonder how well regulated this all is. Every so often you hear of one boat colliding with another, and if you look at the guys driving them you’d be a brave man to bet they had all the necessary training for when things go wrong, even if they are skilled at manoeuvring the boat.

One would think it was the boat captain’s responsibility to check the weather and head for shelter if a storm was coming, but in Thailand they are likely under extreme pressure from the boat owners, and the tour operators who’ve collected money from the passengers, to complete the trip. I expect where Chinese tourists are concerned (and Chinese tour operators) this pressure increases considerably: if it were 50 Australians or Brits who drowned in the Andaman Sea, severe questions would be being asked in Bangkok. Somebody will be blamed for this – probably the captains – but you can be sure nobody further up the tree will be prosecuted, even if their instructions directly led to the boats being in harm’s way. This is how things work in Thailand.

It’s awfully sad for the tourists who’ve lost their lives and their families, and you really need to take extra care when holidaying in the developing world. As we’ve seen, your life doesn’t mean as much out here.

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Elon Musk: help or hindrance?

Elon Musk has busied himself over the last few days tweeting out possible innovative, hi-tech solutions for rescuing the Thai kids from the cave.

Of course, many people think this is great, likening him to a real life Tony Stark deploying secret technologies in humanity’s hour of need. Ever the skeptic, I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that Musk means well and genuinely wants to help, but he’ll not be unaware of the PR value of this (and he seems to be as good at PR and self-promotion as anything else, to be honest). But he’s not there at the scene, and I suspect a few of the rescue team are getting a bit annoyed about having to divert time and attention to respond to whacky ideas from a billionaire sat on the other side of the world. Imagine you’re trying to work out how to get kids through a 15″ tunnel filled with water when this arrives:

Okay, that wasn’t from Musk, but you get the idea. I’m sure he means well, but I suspect his input is less a help than a hindrance.

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Saving face while saving boys

This is very unfortunate:

A former Thai navy diver has died while taking part in efforts to rescue 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.

Petty Officer Saman Gunan lost consciousness on his way out of the Tham Luang cave complex, where he had been delivering air tanks.

“His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back,” the Chiang Rai deputy governor said.

PO Saman was brought out by his dive partner but could not be revived.

At a guess, this guy had an awful lot of diving experience but not much cave diving experience, and the difference is likely stark.

The challenges of rescuing the boys are not only technical but organisational as well. For a start, who is in charge? In the early days the Brits who initially found them seemed to have a free hand, and they are probably the most experienced cave rescue divers in the world. However, there is also a massive operation underway to pump water out of the cave, which has brought the military into play. There is also logistics surrounding food, clothing, and medial supplies for the trapped people as well as those working day and night on the rescue efforts. So it will need to be a Thai-led operation, which can bring its own complications.

Like many Asian cultures, Thais are very conscious about saving face and it will be difficult for them to cede control to foreigners when trying to rescue Thais trapped underground in Thailand. I wonder if the poor navy diver who died took risks he shouldn’t have, or disregarded advice from the experienced Brits, because he didn’t want to lose face? It would not be surprising if this was the case. This isn’t to say the Brits or any other foreigners should take the lead, it’s more to point out that the expertise will come in many forms from far and wide, and whoever is coordinating the whole operation needs to put pride aside and draw on outside help to the maximum extent while ignoring the cranks, idiots, and opportunists. This would be difficult in any country, even for an emergency response crew who’d trained for something like this, and I can’t imagine the Thais have.

However they manage things I hope they succeed with the rescue, but it’s looking more complicated by the day. The fact they’ve already lost an experienced diver is an indication of how difficult this will be.

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Going Underground

A few thoughts on the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand.

Firstly, I’m obviously glad they’ve been found alive: after more than a week lost underground, I was surprised. Sure they have enough water so survival ought to be easy enough, but I’d not want to think how well I’d have fared trapped underground for 10 days when I was 13.

Extracting the children looks to be a complicated task, as the only route out is narrow, blocked with debris, and likely to stay flooded for months. Either they bring in enough food, drink, and medical supplies to last until conditions improve or they teach the kids to do some advanced cave diving – while in the cave. I learned to use scuba gear in a swimming pool in Kuwait, and it was difficult enough then: very little of it is intuitive and must be learned, and much depends on getting used to the odd situation. Not only are these kids – some of whom can’t swim – going to have to learn to keep a regulator in their mouths without much practice, but also avoid panicking. According to the linked BBC article, one section is so narrow you can’t go through it with the air tank on. Even with several experienced cave divers per child this is a tough ask. The good thing is their survival is assured; it’s just the next few weeks may be a little rough yet.

The boys’ football coach, a 25-year old man, might opt to stay down there, for I imagine he’s in for one hell of a bollocking. I don’t know how easy it is to wander into this cave system, whether it’s just like strolling through a tunnel when conditions are good, but the reports say it is off-limits to the general public. So it appears this chap who is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of 13 young footballers decided to take them on an unofficial expedition into a restricted cave system prone to flooding without telling anyone (it was only realised they were missing when someone came across their bikes lying outside the entrance). In a lot of countries he’d be facing charges of reckless endangerment, and in a few he’d risk being lynched by the parents.

I did potholing twice with the school cadet force when I was in my late teens. It’s something I’m glad I did, but boy is it a miserable experience when you’re down there. On the second occasion we were somewhere in the Brecon Beacons and our subterranean excursions were led by a lunatic Welshman who’d been in the paras (he was a mate of Steve Gerrard’s, and it was all organised by the unflappable Keith Woodcock). The first thing we were told during the briefing on the surface was that the most dangerous thing we could face was sudden flooding, which is why you always leave a spotter on the surface to come and warn you if it starts raining. The natural fear is that the tunnel will collapse, but these had been intact for a few million years so if that was to change in the two hours we were down there we’d be unlucky indeed.

The briefing over we began looking for something resembling a cave entrance. Instead we saw a pair of boot soles disappearing into a hole right at our feet we’d not even noticed. We wriggled and squirmed our way in, bumping our helmets and catching our battery packs on seemingly every outcrop. We gathered in a small cavern containing a large tree trunk. Our guide told us you see these things miles into the system, giving you an idea of how strong the floodwaters can be. The next step was to get us used to the water, so we waded into a freezing pool that was chest deep. From that point on we were cold and wet so getting colder and wetter didn’t make any difference. This was also the point at which I wished we’d done something else that morning.

Each time we came to a new cavern our guide would tell us something, and I’d wonder if this was the end of the road, so to speak. But each time he’d disappear headfirst between two rocks and we’d continue on our way. At various times we were on our bellies, crawling forward like snakes. We got to one section called the Smartie Tube, and it soon became clear why. Lying flat on the floor the roof was so low you couldn’t raise your head fully before your helmet struck it. You could only really look down at the loose gravel and rock of the floor three or four inches below your nose, and all you could see up ahead was the soles of the boots of the person in front of you. It was claustrophobic in the extreme and someone up ahead started panicking so we all came to a halt. Our guide had told us when you panic you take up more space, and doing the old rugby league move is the worst thing you can do. He assured us he would not take us anywhere we could get stuck, if we kept calm. It was all about controlling your breathing and being sensible: if your battery pack got caught on a rock, just back up a few inches. Don’t start flailing around wildly, but it sounds a lot easier on the surface than it does in a dark, wet tunnel.

We eventually got to the end of the Smartie Tube which was one of the worst things I’ve done. It was horrible. We assembled in the cavern at the end and the guide gave us another little talk, and then said “Guess what the bad news is?” We guessed: there was only one way out of there, and it was the way we came in. I reckon this tiny tunnel must have been about five or ten metres long, but it felt like you were in there forever. All you wanted to do was scream and smash your way to the surface, and it took some effort to suppress those urges. You began to appreciate space and sunlight in ways you never did before. After that we crawled over a nasty outcrop aptly named Castration Rock, positioned in such a way you had no choice as to how you crawled over it. Then we turned all our lights out, plunging us into an absolute blackness which is hard to recreate anywhere on the surface. Quite literally you could see absolutely nothing, yet we made our way along a few passages in the dark using voice commands. We pulled ourselves through flooded tunnels using ropes fixed to the wall, and at one point had to submerge completely for a second or two. That wasn’t very nice either.

After a couple of hours of this we popped out of a hole into the sunshine; the look of relief on everyone’s face was palpable. Everyone completed it, including two girls. Nobody freaked out completely or refused to go any further, and I think in hindsight everyone enjoyed it. Or at least, they were glad they’d done it. I don’t think anyone was too keen to do it again, but some would have and, as I said before, that was my second time doing speleology, or potholing as it’s sometimes called. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’m sure I’d not enjoy it. What’s interesting is I know people who have done all sorts of crazy, cool, and dangerous stuff especially the guys in the military, but very few who’ve done potholing. It’s also the one thing a lot of these daredevils say they don’t want to do, and they’re not sure if they even could. I’ve never done a parachute jump and I’ve found it handy when someone is talking about skydiving to ask if they’ve done potholing. They normally coil away in horror.

Whenever these kids get out of this cave in Thailand, they’ll have a story they can tell the rest of their lives.

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I flew 12 hours and suddenly I’m interesting.

This weekend an article appeared on the BBC website about property scams in Phuket.  Given I’ve owned an apartment in Phuket for the last 5 years, I was interested to see how these scams worked.

British expat Ian Rance and Irishman Colin Vard are now living almost penniless with their children on the outskirts of Bangkok as they struggle against overwhelming odds to recover properties they bought on Phuket. Both men lost all their investments through frauds that neither of them imagined were possible.

Frauds?  Okay, I’m intrigued.

“I’d made my money in England and had enough to retire I thought. I was looking for a place that was warm, a place that had some rule of law, where I could live in safety and peace,” says Rance, a chartered surveyor and professional arbitrator from Hertfordshire, who arrived in Phuket in 2000.

Uh-huh.  With you so far.

In 2001 Rance met and married a Thai woman called Suda and went on to have three children with her.

Uh-oh.  I can see where this is heading.

The prime minister at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, had started a programme called “Thailand Elite”, through which he hoped to attract wealthy foreigners to settle by allowing them to own small amounts of land, something not normally permitted under Thai law.

Encouraged by this, Rance began investing in property, buying two houses, and eventually a restaurant and two pieces of land.

Sounds promising.

But the Thailand Elite scheme never took off, so in the end he did what thousands of other foreigners did

Pulled out of the deal and invested elsewhere?

he put the properties either in the name of the company he had already formed to run his consultancy business, or in the name of his wife.

Oh dear.

The family home was in his wife’s name, but leased to him on a 30-year lease.

Sounds legit.  I mean, which man doesn’t have his family home in his wife’s name and leased back to him?

The company was nominally Thai-owned but Rance, as a director, had majority voting rights – nothing could happen to the company’s assets without his approval. He was advised by local lawyers that this was legally quite safe.

He didn’t own his company but he had majority voting rights.  What could possibly go wrong?

But unbeknown to him, in July 2008 Suda began transferring the properties out of the company. In September she also removed Rance as a director. On paper none of this should have been possible. In practice, all she had to do was to forge her husband’s signature.

So his wife, who he appeared to have married less than a year after arriving in Thailand with his pockets full of cash, forged his signature and ripped him off.  Aside from the fact that he should have seen this coming a mile off, a wife forging a husband’s signature in the course of fleecing him or somebody else is hardly unique to Thailand, is it?

The Land Office in Phuket, where property transfers are formalised, was willing to accept a simple forged power of attorney from Rance to change ownership of properties worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and to cancel his 30-year lease on their home.

Presumably the Phuket Land Office should assume ageing expats are being ripped off by their Thai wives as a matter of course and, in contrast with the rest of the world, not recognise power of attorney documents.

To change the control of the company the forged signature had to be notarised by a lawyer – but that presented no problem. A local lawyer did this willingly, without Rance being present. When the BBC confronted the lawyer about this he admitted the signature was his, but claimed it was normal practice in Phuket.

Just as it is normal practice for expats to circumvent Thai ownership laws by running everything through a “local” company while retaining (hopefully) all control.  Funny that expats have few concerns engaging in legal gymnastics in order to set themselves up with a cushy life in Thailand, and then complain about dodgy practices used to strip them of everything a few years later.

But Rance’s attempts to sue the lawyer have got nowhere.

I don’t think we’re in London any more, Toto.

He only spotted the fraud in July 2010, when checking his company’s tax status.

According to the article, she started transferring the properties in 2008.  What kind of director – other than one who is nothing of the sort and became one only to circumvent Thai property laws – would allow fraud on this scale to go unnoticed for 2 years?

He discovered that all five properties, worth well over £1m ($1.5m), had been stolen. What began then was, he says, a nightmare period for him.

No, the nightmare started when you married a Thai girl a year after arriving in Phuket.  You just didn’t realise it.

His wife ran away.

Say it ain’t so!

Four men came into his house and threatened his life if he did not get out of Phuket. His wife phoned him and told him they would kidnap the children if he did not leave the house immediately.

At which point it dawned on him that the sweet, smiling girl he’d met dancing on that bar back in 2000 was in fact a hardened criminal.

The evidence Rance has amassed is staggering. Document after document shows the same land agent and two moneylenders, transferring the properties back and forth to his ex-wife in a form of pawnbroking, where she was in effect borrowing at astronomical rates of interest, using the properties as collateral.

None of which he was able to spot for two years as “director” of the company which he thought owned the properties.  What’s that saying about a fool and his money?

She was arrested in 2010, and is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

Ah, so justice prevailed after all. What’s the issue, again?

But nothing has happened to any of the other parties linked to the fraud.

I suspect this is because there is no document showing that they knew the signature had been forged when the property was transferred at the Phuket Land Office.  Of course, they would have known, but there is no evidence to show they did.  And Thailand, backward nation that it is, usually requires documented evidence of criminality in order to prosecute.

Rance has filed nine criminal and civil suits against them. He has had to travel to Phuket for every hearing, paying for himself, a lawyer, and a translator – hearings which are usually many months apart, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute.

Unlike everywhere else in the world where fraud cases involving treacherous ex-wives are cheap, simple, and closed out within a week with the utmost efficiency.

Worse, one of the moneylenders has filed a perjury case against Rance, claiming that he knew about the fraud all along.

A reasonable claim, given he was supposed to be the company director.  “Were you corrupt or merely stupid, sir?”

Over five years Rance estimates he has spent the equivalent of £200,000 ($300,000) on legal fees and other costs relating to the legal battle.

Rance has hired five lawyers, some of whom he says have overcharged him and sometimes deliberately sabotaged his cases.

Not content to see his Thai bride walking off with his properties, he’s decided to hand over another £200k to dodgy Thai lawyers.  Has this company director never heard of cutting one’s losses?

The only case he has won resulted in the imprisonment of his ex-wife and the restoration of his company directorship. Yet the same judge ruled that he had no right to sue the moneylenders for the stolen properties, because he had not been a director of the company at the time.

The judge probably thinks that a company director who hasn’t realised for two years that his wife has removed his name and started flogging the properties isn’t a director in any meaningful sense, and that the position was a fudge from the beginning.

Since I started working on this story a number of foreigners have contacted me to tell me about their experience of different kinds of fraud on Phuket.

Colin Vard also invested about £1m in Phuket, after a successful career in Dublin as an author and part-owner of a clothing factory. He lost a total of eight properties, over a similar time period.

Do go on.

Vard’s Thai partner, the mother of his son, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for the fraud.

I do believe I see a pattern forming here.

Ian Rance has a new wife now, and they have a young baby girl.

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

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Another Thai wife.

His main priority he says is to provide a proper home for the four children, and put them through school. With the boys’ mother in prison, and his funds exhausted, this is a huge challenge. He cannot even consider returning to the UK, because of the requirements regarding income and savings, which in his case are now insufficient.

Yes, money was so tight and my situation so desperate that I took another Thai wife and had another kid.

“Don’t. Don’t come here. The system of law is nowhere near as strong as you think it is going to be, there is no protection for you, and there are gangs of people victimising you. The lawyers have very little in the way of ethics or professionalism.”

I think what he means to say is “Don’t come here and hand over everything on a plate to a Thai wife.”

Now I may sound a bit harsh here but this Rance chap, and the other one, should have learned the lessons that were spelled out in Stephen Leather’s bestseller Private Dancer, which I have mentioned before.  Anybody but the willfully blind ought to know that you are never, ever going to meet a decent Thai girl with western values regarding honesty, integrity, and morality in a bar, shop, or restaurant in Phuket – or anywhere else in Thailand.  Difficult though it is to believe, the majority of decent, ordinary Thai girls are not interested in hanging out with fat, ageing, expats who do nothing but drink all day and are effectively long-term sex tourists.  Many expats don’t decide to live full-time in Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, they go because of the young(ish) cheap pussy that is on offer in each and every bar you stumble into between 4pm and 3am.  I know guys who have genuinely moved out to Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, and they generally do not marry a Thai girl within a year of arrival.  Indeed, most of them have their non-Thai wives or girlfriends in tow with them.

It is perfectly possible to own a property in Thailand without the involvement of Thais (the hiring of a Thai lawyer to handle the actual purchase notwithstanding), but you are restricted to foreign-freehold condominiums only, i.e. you can’t buy a house and the land underneath it.  Once you decide you want to live in a villa and impress your new Thai bride and start firing out kids and live like a king, then you will need the involvement of Thais who you can trust.  And although some might be lucky and meet girls in Phuket who can be trusted, a foreigner will have absolutely no way of knowing who is or isn’t trustworthy and must therefore keep very much on his toes in the way of looking out for the odd sign of something slightly unusual – like the wife selling off all his properties over a two year period.  Such naivety would not be without consequences in the UK, and so it is also the case in Thailand.  The problem is not so much Thailand being corrupt and the authorities incompetent as there being a seemingly never-ending stream of expat men who are blinded by the availability of young, foreign pussy over whom they wield (temporary) financial power to the exclusion of everything else, including basic common sense.  Little wonder the police don’t take much interest in their plight.

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The Coup in Thailand

Everyone, including the UN, appears to be getting their knickers in a twist over this coup in Thailand.

Me, I’m not so worried (I have an apartment in Phuket, so I have an interest of sorts).  This is not like a coup in some parts of the world where the military leader seizes power with the intention of running the country permanently (usually by declaring a state of emergency, which remains in force for the next three generations).  Indeed, the Thais have seen multiple coups within living memory, the most recent being only 8 years ago.

Democracy in Thailand has not been an overwhelming success, and the past several years have seen deep divisions between two opposing sides (the reds and the yellows), each of whom vociferously protest against whichever one is in power that week.  The situation appeared to be intractable with no progress or compromises from either side in years, and it looked as though things were going to take a turn for the worse and become violent.

So on the face of it, it looks as though the army has assumed the role of parent to two squabbling kids, whacked their heads together, and told them to sort out their differences or else forget about holding office in any capacity.  I am confident the generals do not want to establish themselves as the permanent head of a military dictatorship, and I am equally confident they envisage ceding power to an elected civilian government as soon as one which is adult enough presents itself.  I am not so confident this will happen any time soon, or the military intervention will not somehow make things worse, but I don’t think there were many alternatives which would have lead to a happy outcome.  Taking all this into account, I’m not sure that blanket, universal condemnation of the coup is warranted just yet.

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More Civil Unrest in Thailand

After sustained protests in Bangkok, the Thai Prime Minister has dissolved parliament and is promising fresh elections next year.  The squabbling appears to be much the same as that which occurred in spring 2010, or at least the two groups involved are the same.  Only this time the yellow shirts are protesting against the supposed influence of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra over the current government, whereas last time it was Thaksin’s supporters (the red shirts) protesting about the yellow shirts, who were in power.

I’ve recently re-read the post I wrote back in April 2010 on the likelihood of a civil war in Thailand, and don’t see anything which would change my mind on its conclusion: a civil war is highly unlikely.

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More Shite Music Played Loud

A few years back I made this observation:

The volume of the music being played by a neighbour is inversely proportional to the quality of the music.

I went on to say:

I am convinced that those who play music stupidly loud in apartments or houses are those who fail to get positive attention by the normal method of not being a complete prick.

Little has occurred in the time since I wrote these words to give me cause to change my mind.

I am currently sitting on my balcony in Thailand having to put up with blaring music from the block opposite.  The occupants of the apartment appear to be two men in their late 50s, lily-white, unfit, bald, and sporting recent tattoos and some swarthy chap with hair down to his arse who looks to be in his 40s but thinks he’s still in his 20s.  I’m not sure what nationality these twats are, but I’d put a strong bet on their being American or British.  Each has a Thai hooker girlfriend in tow, and it is probably for their benefit that the music is being played.  And sure enough, the music is utter shite: commercial house from about 15 years ago.  Stuff like Encore Une Fois and a remix of The Key, the Secret.  We were all listening to this stuff during my second year in university, and we knew it was naff then but at least it was current.  Now we have blokes old enough to be my dad – who would have been past 40 when it was fresh – playing it off balconies in Thailand.  I mean, don’t they have any Rolling Stones CDs?

Like I said, I’m sure this is all done for the benefit of  the women they have lolling about the apartment, who regularly get blind drunk and scream the place down.  It smacks of a desperate attempt to appear young, or at least cool, to girls who really couldn’t give a shit who or what you are so long as you’re dispensing ready cash.

I’ve quoted Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer in a previous post, and I could have quoted a lot more:

I’ve never yet met a sex tourist who I’ve found the least bit entertaining or interesting…sex tourists in the main are men who would find it difficult to get a half decent girl back in their home towns.  You think that just because you’ve sat in the economy section of a long-haul flight for a day that you’ve suddenly become a fascinating person? Think again.

Words which would be lost on these dickheads living opposite me, I’m sure.

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