When the Lights Go Out

November 1, 2013

The latest trend in movies and TV shows are either zombie stories or stories of a dystopian world after the “big one” comes in the guise of a plague outbreak, climate change, nuclear holocaust, or alien invasion.

In most of these stories the inhabitants that are still around often have to deal with undead zombies (Check out The Walking Dead – slow zombies, and World War Z – really fast zombies, two of my favorites.) or space aliens (Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds is lots of fun.) The last few people on Earth also have to deal with something much worse; a world without computers, electricity, cell phones, running water, Internet, and all other the good stuff that we rely upon in our daily lives. For me that means no Breyer’s Butter Almond All Natural Ice Cream – The Horror!

These stories illustrate just how hard it is to learn to live without our modern amenities. But for those of us living in Thailand, we already have a head start.

There is always a scene in these shows when the lights first go out. Panic ensues, screams, tears, gnashing of teeth, renting of clothing. The Internet is down, “Oh my god!” The Electricity is out. I can’t recharge my iPhone, “It’s the end of the world!”  And nobody ever seems to take a bath. Dystopia will be real stinky.

The Thais take on all this terrifying future world view is “What’s the big deal? This kind of thing happens here about once a week.”

These thoughts of a Mad Max world have been crossing my mind lately since I am currently in my second day without Internet connection (a fire in the spaghetti system of wires leading to our neighborhood), and we just had 3 days without running water (one of the large pumping stations broke down).

Thai Electrical Speghetti

Thai Electrical Spaghetti – with my Internet connection somewhere in there.

So I thought that for my readers who are living in Thailand or planning on living here I might give a warning about what to expect, and let you know how I survive without all these modern wonders.

But first a word of comfort.  You probably won’t have to worry too much about zombies, except maybe for some of those older male Expats who never seem to leave their bar-stools. They seem pretty “undead” to me, but I don’t think they are dangerous.


The Problem – Almost all of Thailand’s electrical grid is above ground, as illustrated in the spaghetti picture above. Because of that the system, especially the utility poles carrying the wires, is prone to getting battered around by winds and thunder storms and out-of-control pickup trucks, and gnawing squirrels, and raging buffalos.

Quite often the lights go out just as a huge rain storm begins to come down. I am not sure but we all feel that the electric company must turn off the power whenever these downpours occur just to play it safe and not have one of their transformers blow up (something I have seen, and not a pretty sight I must say so.)

On average our electricity goes out about once a month (mostly in the rainy season), usually for about 4+ hours at a time. The repairs are done rather quickly; all the wires being above ground making it lots easier to fix. Other areas of Thailand may be better, some are worse. (Although it’s never been as bad as it was when we lived in Iran many years ago during the Shah’s time when the lights went out on average twice a day. In comparison, Thailand is electricity heaven.)

The Solution – If you are writing on a computer like I am right now, hit the save button often so you don’t lose your stuff. But basically you just have to sit around in the dark since the lights usually go out at night. Here is what you should do (and which I never seem to do). Have a flashlight with working batteries where you can find it in the dark. The flashlight should lead you to the candles and matches you have stored away. Shut off most of the electrical appliances you had on at the time of the blackout like TV, fan, microwave, and air conditioners so when the electricity comes back you don’t blow a fuse or circuit breaker. Light the candles and sit in semi-darkness, sweating profusely due to the lack of air conditioning. But leave at least one light on so you will know when the power is back.

Of course I never can find the flashlight, and if I get to the candles I won’t have any matches. I keep telling myself that I’ll be better prepared next time but what I usually do when the lights go out is I go to bed.

If you don’t have any candles there is a neat trick I learned during the New York City blackout of 1965. Get a small bowl and a short length of white twine. Pour some cooking oil into the bowl; wet the twine with the oil, put the twine in the bowl with the end hanging over the side. Then light the end of the twine. This makes a really cool oil lamp that really works. I wish I didn’t have to use this trick as often as I do. Note to self: Go get some candles and matches.

Curious historical note: The New York City birthrate jumped considerably exactly 9 months after the 1965 blackout.


The Problem – Of course when the lights go out you won’t have an Internet connection either. But the Internet goes down even when the electricity is working fine. Most Internet connections here are through telephone lines and they have the same problems as electric lines. But sometimes the ISP itself will go down – as mine is right now.

Solution – This is usually a good time to see how life would be without being online 24/7. I must admit that withdrawal happens quite quickly to me and I find myself shivering and feeling spiders crawling over my skin as I go to my computer to check my email every 30 seconds, even when the screen is completely blank.

If you have Wi-Fi you might find a connection but usually everyone in the neighborhood is also down. The only thing you can do is drive off out of your neighborhood to a Wi-Fi or a 3G hot spot or go to an Internet café. You can find these in big cities all over. If you live upcountry, then it is cold turkey for you.

Running water

The Problem – The water pipes in my neighborhood are below ground and for some reason break at least once a month or so. They always seem to break in the same place too. Gremlins? Who knows?

I once lived in a house bordering a rice field. Our city-supplied water came in a pipe which had to cross the field. Since the pipe had broken many times in the same place, there was always a small leak which, especially in the dry season, made for a large muddy area. The water buffaloes found this a wonderful wallow and enjoyed rolling around in the mud. Of course they would roll right over our pipe causing it to break again, and again, and again. If I didn’t know better I would think that the buffaloes did it on purpose.

And the water always seems to stop running right after you have gone for a run or worked in the garden and the temperature is in the 40s, and you are sweating profusely, and you go to take a shower and nothing happens. That is when the body fungus begin to smile.

The Solution – Whenever you see people in the movies without running water the first thing they do (usually westerners are doing this) is to invent a complicated showering system or fill up a huge tub to immerse oneself in. Wow, that’s a waste of time and energy.  Ever hear of a splash-bath? The Thais know about them – they call it a “chicken bath”.

How to take a splash bath: You should always have some large containers of water filled up so when the running water stops or the water pressure is low you’ll have water to use. Take some of this water and put it in a bucket. Have a small plastic bowl handy. If you want you can boil some water and pour it into the bucket so you won’t be screaming as you pour cold water from the bucket over yourself. Start with the head and use the plastic bowl to pour the water through your hair and down over your body. Get yourself completely wet and then lather all your nooks and crannies. Later use the rest of the water to rinse the soap off. Voila, problem solved. I find that ¾ of a bucket is enough for a really refreshing bath.

I know all about this because when I first came to Thailand I didn’t have running water at all but had a large container of water outside my house which was filled with well water. I took splash-baths for 3 years and never even missed taking a hot shower or sitting in a bathtub.

Another thing you can do is to have a large water tank outside with an electric pump. The water when it is running fills the tank (or you can catch rain water) and the pump gets the water from the tank to you inside the house. Problem again solved, right? Sure it is solved, as long as the electricity is running (see above).

Now if only they would import Breyer’s Butter Almond All Natural Ice Cream here to Thailand; my life would be perfect.

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