Self Build Horror – Thailand – Part 2

March 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Welcome to Part 2 of the Self Build Horror in Thailand, which follows the true story of a very unfortunate chap who’s self build project not only cost him everything he had, but almost cost him is life.

The story commences…

I was delighted to visit the site to find that the ground works were underway.  Although I had no previous building experience (most first-time self builders don’t) I knew the method of constructing the foundations was a little different than those methods employed in the UK.  I wasn’t concerned, the architect, while he didn’t speak any English (everything was translated by my wife), did appear to know what he was doing and he did come highly recommended by other people who had used his services to build.

Digging the foundation pillar holes

Digging the foundation pillar holes

To start with the builders, all from Burma, had to dig a number of holes.  In fact there were a total of 39 holes, each measuring about a meter square and approximately 1.5 meters deep.  These holes were all dug out by hand and in the heat of 30 C + it could not have been pleasant for the guys and girls doing the work.  If you look at the picture, to your left, you can see some old corrugated tin roof, this was used to keep the sun off the workers while digging the foundation pillar holes.  Again, each one was dug by hand and the work was not only back-breaking it was very hot.

In Thailand, most of the construction work, is carried out by Burmese. The Thais consider it a low class job and in a society that is ruled by class they consider it to be beneath them.  Thais don’t like the Burmese, mainly because hundreds of years ago, Burma raided and burnt the then capital Ayutthaya to the ground on more than one occasion.  It was one of the main reasons the Thais moved the capital to Bangkok.  Again, this was hundreds of years ago, but Thailand is extreme in it’s nationalistic attitude – they really do believe they are the greatest nation on earth and that everyone who is not Thai is beneath them.  Being a foreigner in Thailand is not always a pleasant experience and the Thais are extremely discriminatory towards foreigners… but I’ll get back to that later.

Buddhist Ceremony for the Building Foundations

Buddhist Ceremony for the Building Foundations

Thais are mainly Buddhists and so they believe that the foundations need to be blessed – to make sure nothing goes wrong with the build and that it doesn’t suffer from any ill fate or problems with ghosts.  Personally, I’m not superstitious but I did respect their beliefs and the expense of the ceremony was not a great deal of money.  I also had to keep the wife, architects and the builders (Burmese are also mainly Buddhists) so I went along with it.

During the first week the Burmese had managed to completely dig out each of the foundation holes, construction the rebar cages and dug out a fair amount of the ground for where the swimming pool was to go.  The pool was pretty big at 10m x 5m and so there was a lot of earth to be dug out.  Again, no mechanical equipment was employed, every shovel full was dug out and removed by hand.

Now that the foundation pillar holes were complete it was time to move onto the foundation trenches and constructing and fitting all the rebar cages that would add strength to the concrete.  All of this work was carried out by women.  The oldest lady on-site was in her late 50’s and the youngest was just 15 years old (apart from Poppet – see below – but she didn’t actually work).  I watched in awe of these ladies and just how hard they worked, especially in the heat.  I was told, from the beginning of the build, that I shouldn’t really chat with any of the workers or be nice in any way, but for me these were people, with real lives, real feelings and they worked so hard for practically nothing.  The average daily wage was approximately £3.50 and that was for a minimum of 10 hours a day and it wasn’t unusual for them to work 12 hours plus.

Burmese Ladies hard at Work

Burmese Ladies hard at Work

I got on great with the Burmese – all in all, a really great bunch of people and even though they didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Burmese, we managed to communicate just fine. At the end of each week I would bring in a few beers or a bottle of whiskey and some food and chow down with them having a laugh.  I believe it paid off – they didn’t just see me as another rich western arsehole (although I wasn’t rich, but compared to them I was a billionaire) and they certainly put in a great deal of effort into the build.  They would often stop working when I came on-site just to ask me if everything was OK, regarding the work they were doing.  Again, great bunch of people.

I made sure that I spent as much time on-site as possible, throughout the build, as this would be a good learning experience and would stand me in better stead for the next villa I would build.  The architect was great and explained, through interpretation with my wife, each stage and what was going on.  I will admit, there were times that I looked on in horror – I couldn’t believe that the workers didn’t have any type of safety wear, it was all bare feet and flip-flops.  No safety shoes, eye protection or anything and yet, not once did I hear any of the Burmese complain.  It did make me wonder just how bad living in Burma must be for them to want to come to Thailand, knowing the are despised by the Thais and their working conditions would be appalling.

Villa Foundations complete

Villa Foundations complete

By the end of Week 2 all of the foundations where in.  From the picture you can see that the timber forms where still in place while the concrete cured, but in just two weeks, and all by hand, my group of Burmese workers had dug 39 foundation pillars, all the footings, built and installed all the rebar cages, built the timber forms and put them in place and then, by hand mixed the concrete and poured.  I was in awe of these people and it never ceased to amaze me just how hard they worked.

While the concrete was curing the Burmese didn’t sit around doing nothing – the foreman, while a really nice guy, was Thai and he was not about to pay a bunch of Burmese to sit around doing nothing.  The whole crew, for three days, was set to work on the swimming pool foundations.

The swimming pool presented a number of problems, because the land at the back where it was situated, sloped away quite dramatically.  The solution was to dig down the sides and then build up the back. This allow us to build an Infinity Pool and the overall design was very attractive and once it was completed it would look like the water was just cascading over the edge and into the tropical jungle.

I provided the architect with the specifications for the pool, that is the width, length and the internal depths.  He did try to tell me on a few occasions that he had reservations about my  internal depths and even my wife tried to relate this too me.  I was convinced however my calculations where right – but as it turned out I really made a mess of things.  I put the shallow end at a depth of 0.4m and the deep end at 1.6m – for some really stupid reason I was thinking in feet and meters, that is I knew the deep end was OK but I was thinking in feet for the shallow end and therefore 0.4m just was nowhere near deep enough.  Unfortunately for me, this mistake ended up costing me £3,500 by the time it became obvious.  I’ll explain more about the pool later and provide some pictures. As this mistake occurred a little later in the build when the concrete was being poured.

Foundations nearing completion

Foundations nearing completion

During mid-week, the timber forms got dismantled and for the first time I could see, roughly how the rooms where laid out.  It was a fairly big villa with an internal living space of 265 sqm.  I was really impressed and there wasn’t a day that went by without some excitement.  The thrill of watching a home being built is just incredible.  Yes, there are stressful moments, but the satisfaction is unparalleled in my book.

Once the floor timber forms where removed the Burmese crew got to work on the structural pillars. Again, it was an unusual sight, not seen in the western style of building but this was Thailand and it had it’s own ways of building. I couldn’t complain and with each passing day I was amazed at just how much was achieved.  Each supporting pillar was constructed with timber forms that surrounded a rebar cage.  All the cement was then poured by hand into each column. This was the first time I had seen any type of mechanical equipment on-site.  They used a long steel rod that was attached to a generator and then slide inside the timber forms. This rod then vibrated in order to remove any air bubbles in the columns.   I had never seen anything like it and yet, this was apparently, the way things in Thailand were done.

By the end of Week 3 all of the supporting pillars had been been completed and the forms removed. I was in awe once again.  I just couldn’t believe how 9 Burmese Men and 11 Burmese Women could achieve so much in such a short space of time –  it was remarkable, considering they had nothing much in the way of machinery and the fact that they were working in temperatures that would make the average man faint.

Poppet - Kitchen Supervisor

Poppet - Kitchen Supervisor

I mentioned earlier, that safety was never a concern on-site.  I know in the UK you can’t even walk on a building site without wearing all the appropriate safe gear, but here in Thailand, safety is of no concern – the only concern is getting the job done on time and on budget.  We did have a very special member of the Burmese Team turn up at the end of Week 3.  I took it upon myself to put her in charge of the food.  I did not know her name but took to calling her Poppet – she was adorable, and while a building site is no place for someone so young I had to accept that this was acceptable practice in Thailand.

The last week, in the first month, experienced a flurry of work, mainly to the swimming pool area, while the support columns where left to dry out.  It was a very busy first month and I was amazed at just how much was achieved by a group of people all working by hand.

In Part 3 we’ll take you through the 2nd Month of the build and you’ll see just how much progress had been achieved.  So far things have gone smoothly, but in the coming months things will take a turn for the worst.  Look out tomorrow for Part 3.


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