Stickman Weekly  13/5/2012



Reflecting on Ho Chi Minh City

I was looking forward to visiting Vietnam as I look forward to visiting any country I have yet to step foot in.  But truth be told, I wasn't looking forward to it that much.  I'd never cared for Vietnamese food, had heard the locals weren't as friendly or welcoming as the Thais and then there was the war.  My boys played but a bit part which I quietly hoped would have been long since forgotten.  After the atrocities of that war, how could I expect to be well-received?

Prior to visiting Vietnam I had mixed feelings.  What I'd experienced and heard of the country hardly inspired me, and friends who had visited hadn't been enamoured by the place.  I was to be pleasantly surprised.  Very pleasantly surprised.

Back in Bangkok after a wonderful few days in Ho Chi Minh City, I've been reflecting on a trip to a country which made quite an impression...







Saigon


Environment

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City isn't as built up nor does it have a skyline like Bangkok's.  Modern buildings sit next to colonial architecture and the city is going through a period of rapid development with construction sites everywhere.  The suburbs are bland and feel feature soulless with shophouse after shophouse and less greenery than downtown.

The streets are busy, with motorbikes making up maybe 95% of traffic but unlike Bangkok the traffic actually flows.

Downtown is clean with street cleaners in bright orange uniforms studiously going about their duties around the clock.  With its wide boulevards and high-end European fashion outlets, a few blocks in District 1 almost feel like Singapore.

Vendors sell the usual food, trinkets and junk on the streets you find all over the region, but the city's sidewalks are much less congested than Sukhumvit or Silom.

There are no soi dogs, and when you do see dogs they appear to be well looked after.  There's always been something about the way Thais treat animals and the condition of many that has never sat well with me.

Overall, HCMC is cleaner than Bangkok and the quality of the air is much better.  The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh feels neither as developed nor as cosmopolitan.


People

The Vietnamese remind me of the Hong Kong Chinese, keenly going about their business, something they seem to have a natural disposition towards.  People seem to be more industrious than the Thais, and when it comes to providing a product or service, customer satisfaction seems to be a priority.  Yes, they want to make a sale but they want you to be satisfied, something which it's easy to feel is not always the case in Thailand.

The Vietnamese seem to have a better idea of what customers want.  Quickly working out that no, I wasn't looking for a lady, a motorbike taxi rider suggested a tour of some markets.  No, all I want to do is roam and take photos, I said, and immediately a different itinerary was presented - a visit to a slum where photographic opportunity abounds.  The Vietnamese seem keen to satisfy the market, rather than shape the customer and try to convince them of what they want - refreshing!

Physically, the Vietnamese are noticeably slimmer than the Thais, for which there is probably a multitude of reasons.  The local diet includes more vegetables and other than KFC and a single branch of Burger King at the airport, US fast food chains are conspicuous by their absence.  Apparently this is because the Vietnamese government insists all ingredients must be locally sourced and presumably the Golden Arches and co. haven't been able to find suitable local suppliers.  Of course the Thais as a nation are wealthier - and generally wealthier nations have bigger people.


Saigon


I had heard that the Vietnamese were intense but I saw no real evidence of that.  In fact I found the Vietnamese people easy to warm to and while they don't have the ready smiles of the Thais, actually getting them to smile became something of a challenge.  When they smile, it feels real.

I was approached one day by some friendly local 20-somethings while walking through one of the city's many parks who were keen to practice their English with a native speaker.  Finding myself surrounded by a group that slowly grew in size, I couldn't help but be impressed by their intelligent and well-thought out questions.  They were friendly, interesting, engaging and very keen to learn, both about English but also the world outside their country.  What a pleasant change!

One group had been chatting with me for about 20 minutes and we'd jumped across a range of subjects, some of which you'd never broach with people you'd just met in Thailand when one, very perceptive guy says to his friends, "I think we have taken enough of his time.  He looks like he wants to continue on his way taking photos.  Sir, we don't wish to bother you any more.  We're very thankful for your time and we hope you enjoy your stay in our country."  What a delight they were!


Accommodation

Quality accommodation is widely available and reasonably priced.  For less than $40 you can get a very well-appointed room in a new hotel in the city's commercial district with a decent view, a fantastic breakfast, and the sort of amenities you would only find in 5-star properties un Bangkok.  Internet speeds are significantly faster than Bangkok and free wi-fi connections are everywhere.  Many of the big hotels are in the main shopping district on one side of the downtown area, which is known as District 1.  $40 seems to be the sweet price point where you can get a room that reminds me of miniature version of a room in a Bangkok 5-star hotel.

The backpacker area seems similar to Khao San Road with the usual mix of guesthouses, travel agencies, eateries and bars.  I enjoyed venturing into the shadows of the area, wandering the labyrinth of alleys, some so narrow that two people could not possibly pass each other at certain points.  Exploring these dark alleys late at night, I found some open up into wider alleys full of neon lights, with hotels with but a number for a name and dubious characters milling around outside.  You don't have to have been in Asia long to know what that means.


Saigon


In terms of long-term accommodation suitable for expats, HCMC is similar to Phnom Penh in that prices far exceed what you would pay in Bangkok.  Quite a few expats live long-term in hotels, with those keen to save a few dong staying away from the centre of town, or what is known as District 1.

 

Food

Vietnamese food in both Thailand and my homeland has always left me unimpressed.  Ask me what I'd like to eat and Vietnamese would never be on the list.  But Vietnamese food in Vietnam is fabulous!

Eating well in HCMC won't break any budget.  On the street and in the backpacker area, prices are ridiculously low and you can wash your food down with a San Miguel for less than $1.  Fancy something Western?  A fresh bread roll with pate, meat and vegetables can be had for under $1.  Amazing value!

The quality of the produce is at least on a par with Thailand.  It might even be better - at least if you compare what is readily available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh, compared to what is regularly available on the streets of Bangkok - from where I suspect the best quality produce is exported.

The Vietnamese don't lather their food in spicy or pungent sauces and flavours come from the main ingredients, not primarily the sauces as is so often the case in Thailand.

When it comes to Western food, the Vietnamese stay true to the original recipes.  Local spices aren't used as they are in Thailand where, say, Italian or German dishes often have the original spices and seasoning replaced with Thai variants altering the flavour.

Bakeries produce breads and cakes of a quality that exceeds what you get in Bangkok 5-star hotels - and for less than half the price.

And the coffee?  Heavenly!  Be it Vietnamese style coffee at small streetside stalls or coffee in the cafes which are ubiquitous, Vietnam is rightfully known as a producer of high quality coffee.


Saigon


The most popular beers appeared to be much the same international brews available in Thailand - Heineken, San Miguel, Tiger,  Beer Lao along with a few local brews, none of which I tried.  There's a good selection of French wine too.  Drinks prices in bars are similar to what you'd pay in Bangkok, although in the backpacker area prices are lower than in Bangkok.  A bottle of San Miguel beer could be had for 16,000 dong, or about 25 baht - in a small restaurant, perhaps 2 - 4 times that in a better bar.



General Costs

HCMC is an inexpensive destination.  Accommodation, food, tours and entrance fees are all cheaper than what you get in Bangkok.

Locally made products are cheap, but Western brand names are expensive.

Taxis charge about 3 times what they do in Thailand, but given that the longest distance most will cover is from the airport to downtown, a journey of just 7 km will set you back $7.50, or about 230 baht.  If you can't afford that, you should stay at home.

I never did work out what the story with tipping was.  I personally tipped when service was good and didn't when I felt little extra effort was made.


Saigon


Street food seemed to incur dual-pricing where foreigners paid 2 or 3 times what locals do.  Still, paying 10,000 dong (15 baht or about 50 cents) for a wonderful iced coffee won't break the bank.  As a tourist, a few extra baht here and there won't hurt but if I was an expat resident I probably wouldn't see it that way.

 

Nuisances, Menaces & Scams

Locals tell me that Ho Chi Minh is safer than Bangkok, but I'm not convinced.

I walked around with camera in hand and frequently received comments from expats and locals to be careful.  I was even told by some people that I shouldn't take a camera into the popular Apocalypse Now bar because I might walk in with it, and leave without it!  That seemed a bit far-fetched but I'm not quite arrogant enough to think I know better than the locals.  A dozen or more people told me about the problem of snatchings, where a motorbike whizzes by and the pillion passenger grabs the strap of your bag, camera or other valuables, just like the bag snatching I reported in soi 11 a couple of months back.  The passenger grabs the strap and either the strap breaks or the owner lets go of it.  In some cases the victim is dragged along and is badly hurt.  I heard so many reports about this happening that I would only venture out with one lens, leaving the rest in the hotel safe which was a little frustrating.

Much is made of the difficulty crossing the road and while, yes, the traffic is bad, getting across the road is not that difficult.  The idea is to wait for something of a gap in traffic and move at a steady pace from one side of the road to the other.  Motorbikes will veer around you.  Maintain a steady pace and don't stop and you should be fine.


Saigon


Locals told me that police hassling foreigners in Vietnam just doesn't happen.  The police simply don't wish to do deal with foreigners.  Do something wrong, public affray or and you will be arrested and taken away.  Keep your nose clean and you have nothing to worry about.

A Filipino tried to scam me while I was sitting at a roadside vendor enjoying an iced coffee.  I immediately pegged him as a Filipino from his accent, yet he claimed to be a local and would like to teach me Vietnamese.  I told him I was fluent in Vietnamese and said a bunch of Thai to me.  He responded by saying that my Vietnamese was indeed excellent.  I then let the cat out of the bag and told him to fxxx off.  I reckon he broke the land speed record in the next few seconds...

A big nuisance was vendors claiming they had no change.  This happened many times.  Telling them that you would come back and pay them the next day saw change magically appear!  Annoyingly it even happened in the Apocalypse Now Bar.

Green-uniformed officers with a Tourist Security badge can be seen everywhere tourists go.  A division of the police or merely another government department, I do not know, but they are there to help tourists.  Deployed in significant numbers, they are highly visible.  On more than a few instances I saw them helping (often older) tourists to cross the road.


Nightlife, Bars, Vietnamese Women & Dating

There are plenty of places to drink in HCMC, and many nightlife options.  Many venues close around midnight and a special licence is required if a venue wishes to remain open later.

There are some expat-themed bars, with the Australian-owned and managed Bernie's a pleasant spot.  Figure a British pub-style venue with a good menu and a friendly Aussie with 6 years in HCMC in charge.

Blanchy's Tash is one of the hot spots of the moment, just a few minutes work from Bernie's and nice enough, if not really anything special - at least by Bangkok standards.

There are a number of high-end bars and nightclubs and more opening all the time.  Venues are scattered around the city and I didn't see anything like Bangkok's RCA where you have a strip of club after club after club, right next door to each other.

Smoking is more prevalent than elsewhere in the region, and I think only in Jakarta have I come across more smokers.  If smoking in bars bothers you, HCMC at night might not be for you.

On the same street as Blanchy's Tash are various girly bars, most of which have a number in the name, such as Club 49.  The women seemed hard and the bars were very dim inside - never a good mix.  What was perhaps unusual is that they are located right in the heart of the commercial district - and in what is a very conservative society.  OK, I hear you say, Patpong in Bangkok is right in the commercial district and the Thais are conservative too.  But Patpong is its own soi whereas these bars are located alongside decent restaurants, shops and legitimate businesses.  They are dark and you can only see inside when the doors open.  Exactly what the format is, I don't know, but I got the distinct impression that staff were available.

As far as foreigner-oriented bars go, the most famous is Apocalypse Now.  Expecting something like a cross between Gulliver's and Thermae, I found a 19-year old venue showing its age.  150,000 dong ($7) gets you inside a venue with an eclectic crowd and one free drink.  Girls with easy smiles were amongst the least attractive I saw in my time in Vietnam, which I guess is consistent with working girls around the world.  Pretty girls have options and needn't resort to selling themselves.  Apocalypse Now was a major disappointment.


Saigon


A lot of the naughty stuff can be found at massage houses.  Motorbike riders offer to take foreign men to massage houses and leave you in no doubt that you will leave with a smile on your face for $30 all in.  Massage houses seemed to be located everywhere, with signs in English.

In the backpacker lane one girl tried to entice me inside with a line I will never forget, "$7 for a 70-minute massage and $50 for hand job" caused me to involuntarily erupt into laughter, leaving her confused and probably thinking I was a couple of chilies short of a good som tam.  Crazy prices are frequently offered to foreigners.

If you find yourself walking around late at night, expect to be approached by girls on motorbikes offering to accompany you to your hotel.

What little I saw of the girls in the bars in Ho Chi Minh, they were for the most part better looking than what you find in Bangkok although I should predicate that by saying that if fair-skinned girls aren't your thing you might disagree.


Saigon girls


Hardcore naughty boys tell me that Vietnamese working girls are mercenary.  Girls in the industry struck me as softer in looks, but much harder in attitude than what you find in Thailand.

As far as dating regular girls goes, the Vietnamese are conservative and while many would like to meet a foreign guy, I was told it takes time for the relationship to develop.  Many regular girls are knockouts, with a natural beauty beyond what you commonly see in Thailand.

Public displays of affection are even less common in Ho Chi Minh than in Bangkok and not once did I see the stereotypical image of a foreigner in a wife-beater pawing a lovely in public.  At night young local couples can be seen in parks sat atop a motorbike, arms draped around each other, few words, just sitting there.  I can only guess they don't have enough dong to go to a hotel.


Saigon


I would not consider Vietnam a prime destination for naughty boys.  For nightlife, naughty or otherwise, Thailand is better in every respect.



Phnom Penh guesthouse
Phnom Penh hotel




General Thoughts

Comparing with Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh does alright.  Ho Chi Minh is cleaner, appears to have a better educated populace and there seems to be more pride in the way the Vietnamese go about things, like they really believe that if you're going to do something you might as well give it your best shot.

The tourist attractions are really well done and the information provided, unlike Thailand, often answers exactly the questions you would have asked.  You don't get gouged at tourist attraction with ridiculous entry fees and the staff speak excellent English.  At the Reunification Palace, the level of the English of the tour guides was just brilliant and commentary delivered in a most engaging way.  What a breath of fresh air!  Asking the guides questions did not require you to grade your language at all.  With that said, some of the commentary was delivered with the sort of nationalistic fervour that would make even the most die-hard patriot swell with pride.


Saigon


While locals are proud to espouse how safe the city is, I was constantly being tapped on the shoulder and told to be careful of my camera.  Even right on the backpacker strip, crouched down next to a lamppost shooting down a dark alley opposite, I had people come and tap me on the shoulder and tell me to be careful of passing motorbikes.  One of the receptionists at my hotel ran out after me to suggest I not sling my camera over my shoulder as I would be vulnerable to having it snatched.  Many motorbike taxi riders told me exactly the same thing.  As a keen street photographer, this is a real concern.

There's a real energy in Ho Chi Minh and people go about their tasks with vigour.  There's not the infectious sanuk that makes being around Thais fun, but rather a drive, the pursuit of work and making money.

Unlike the Thais, the Vietnamese are keen to hear what you think about them and their country - what you really think - and they are willing to take on board suggestions.

I've been hearing for a good few years that when Vietnam finally wakes up it is going to overtake Thailand economically.  With 90 million Vietnamese, the population is bigger and younger.  They study hard and appear to have a much better work ethic.  The infrastructure needs work but you get the feeling Vietnam is a sleeping giant.


Saigon


Ho Chi Minh feels like a city on the way up.  Expats told me the economy has slowed but I like what I saw and can see the country clocking up serious growth in years to come.

Massage houses sit next to art galleries, pretty Vietnamese women glide past in their ao dais, the smell of fresh bread fills the air and the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower stands tall and proud.  The traditional and the modern, the Vietnamese and the foreign, all converging to create an atmosphere nothing like you find 1,000 km to the west.

Possibly it's a case of the grass appearing greener, but I feel I could fall in love with Vietnam, and I could fall in love in Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh reminds me of the Bangkok I arrived in many years ago, a city with a relatively small expat community and a city on the move.  Ho Chi Minh City is shrouded in mystery and part of the fun is in uncovering its secrets.  It's a city I'd really like to explore and get to know more.






*Where* was this photo taken?

Bangkok 

Last week's photo was taken at the intersection of Sukhumvit Road and Asoke corner where the MRT comes up near Terminal 21.  All you have to do is tell me where the photo was taken.  There are 2 prizes this week - a 500 baht credit at the Oh My Cod fish and chips restaurant, and a 500 baht voucher from one of the best farang food venues and home of Bangkok's best burger, Duke's Express.

Terms and conditions:  If you wish to claim a prize, you must state a preference for the prize you prefer, or list the prizes you would like in order of preference - failure to do so results in the prize going to the next person to get the photo right.  The Duke's Express voucher MUST be redeemed by June 2012.  The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days.  Prizes are only available to readers in Thailand at the time of entering and are not transferable.  Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month.  You only have one guess per week!

FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.)  Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.

EMAIL OF THE WEEK - If it isn't nailed down...

The spouse received a call from one of her sisters to report that we have had a large amount of soil stolen from spouse's land.  We were going to use the soil to fill in a pond which once had lots of fish, until they were stolen too.  The pond is close to the 2,500 trees we are growing, which I'm damned sure will be the next thing to go.  Short of camping out on the land 365 days of the year we can't do anything about it.  It's also close to a house which had their cable bringing power to their home from the main road stolen one night.  I can't think of a less Buddhist place on the planet.  No respect for life or property or anyone else, only money.

A Vietnam fan.

Vietnam was my introduction to South-East Asia.  I've never been to Ho Chi Minh City, but it's on my list.  I spent several days in Hanoi.  The thing that impressed me most about Vietnam, the women.  Vietnamese women, unlike most Thai women, have a natural beauty.  Long silky hair, no makeup, t-shirts and jeans.  They need very little in the way of maintenance in order to be beautiful.  When they slip into a miniskirt and heels, look out!

Vietnam thoughts.

Beware of jumping to conclusions about Vietnam based on first impressions.  I was thrilled with the place on my first visit - all the bustle in the streets, decent food, friendly people, pretty girls in ao dais.  Unfortunately after just a few weeks in the place the good spirit dissipates.  Thais are remarkably polite, and seem genuinely predisposed to be nice and help out with small things.  Vietnamese are abrasive, pushy, bossy, selfish, and rude in public.  For every daily example of random niceness in Thailand, you'll find two instances of asshole behavior in Vietnam and not much to balance the scale.  On the positive side, Vietnam has prettier girls, and it seems that middle-class people are a bit less shallow, better educated, more hard-working and interested in the outer world and abstract ideas than Thais.

Loving the bars, loving the bargirls!

I'm really tired of hearing guys whine about the bar scene, bargirls, attitudes, mamasans, etc.  I've been to Bangkok 7 or 8 times in the last two years.  I don't barfine many girls but when I do I very rarely have a bad experience.  I've had one bad experience, and it was 100% my fault.  Girls never talk about money with me, they don't ask me for money, they don't quote me ridiculous prices, and they don't push me to buy lady drinks all night long.  As a matter of fact, when I barfine a girl for short time, we almost never even mention the price beforehand.  When all is said and done, and I hand them 2,000 baht, plus a small tip of 10% - 20%, I always get smiles, multiple wais, hugs, kisses, phone numbers, email addresses, and khop khun kahs.  If they are unhappy with what they received, they show no signs of it.  If I go back to barfine them the following night, which I often do, they go with me, no problem.  And these aren't fat old ladies.  These are young, slim, cute, sexy girls.  In Bangkok last week I barfined 2 girls from a Nana bar and without a doubt it was the best bargirl experience I have ever had.  I spent several hours with these girls and nobody ever mentioned anything about money.  So I really don't understand all these guys who whine endlessly about how awful the bar scene is.  In my opinion, guys who have frequent bad experiences with bargirls are most likely themselves to blame.  You're either old, fat, ugly, smell bad, have a bad attitude, are poorly dressed, haggle over money, treat girls disrespectfully, and / or have some other undesirable qualities that repulse women.


Photographing Thai women.

Show ANY class of Thai woman a decent portfolio of lingerie, nudes, or the like and they'll do anything to stock their device with such high quality pictures featuring THEMSELVES!  It doesn't matter if she's a doctor, a bargirl, a student, a receptionist, or a rich girl.  If you're sitting near them start processing such an image and ask them “What do you think, is the crop working?”  They'll see it.  The seed is planted.  When they give their opinion, this is your cue to open a portfolio to show them a like example of one you've already done their way “like this?”  They see the portfolio.  They imagine themselves as the subject and they're yours.  All you have to do is show them work above that which they can get elsewhere, offer them the privacy they can't get elsewhere and they'll rent the room, borrow a friend's house, a boat.  Thai women generally are bored stiff with the typical images they get in the malls.  Give them an alternative and they're putty in your hands.  Unless you give off creep vibes.  This is why Thailand is a photographer's paradise.

The best public toilet in town.

While checking out the new Terminal 21 shopping centre the need to visit the loo arose and I was pleasantly surprised to find an extremely modern setup.  Bangkok's newest shopping centre's hong nam offered multiple sanitary options to include a heated bidet that were kept at a high level of cleanliness by the constant attention of the cleaning staff.  I don't recall there being a usage fee but would readily part with 5 baht in the future.  It's not my practice to evaluate restrooms everywhere I go but I feel these facilities are worth mentioning.  Terminal 21 gets a thumbs up and is on my map for future pit stops.  And perhaps some shopping as well.

The bum gun mystery solved.

Your query about the lack of bum guns in Thai public toilets has been answered at the pretentiously posh Park Lane mall on Ekamai.  A while back I had occasion to use the facilities there and was delighted to find a bum gun.  It made me think I'd go out my way if I needed to go again while I was out and about.  Last week, I was back, and was crestfallen to find the hoses were gone from most of the stalls. I suspect the bum guns had been. stolen or vandalized.  It's a dismaying situation that even a Bangkok mall that caters to the wealthy can't have bum hoses.  This is why we can't have nice things.


Lolitas


The crackdown on streetwalking freelancers - both girls and ladyboys - on Suhkumvit soi 4 is real and not one of these quasi-crackdowns we so often see.  The cops are making daily roundups of those lingering on soi 4, particularly those out front or at the entrance of Nana Plaza.  Loiterers are rounded up and taken to the cop shop where they are tested for drugs.  One night this week rounded 30 were rounded up and all were tested for drugs.  Those who didn't test positive were fined 1,000 baht and let go.  Those who tested positive - about 10 of the 30 on that particular night - were held and I suspect faced more serious charges.  This crackdown in soi 4 is real with ladyboys being told by the police that it has been prompted by a number of complaints from men who have had their pockets picked.  The net effect is that some ladyboys have been forced off the street and have sought work in bars.  Others are leaving for Phuket and Pattaya, where the police are reported to be friendlier.

And just as those ladyboys who have become familiar faces on Suhkumvit might start showing up elsewhere, a long-time reader in Hua Hin reports a massive increase in Africans roaming Hua Hin's small bar area.  He estimates that the number of Africans in sleepy Hua Hin to have increased 10 or 20 times!  We had a crackdown on Africans in Sukhumvit too, so I wonder if those who are showing up were previously expelled from Sukhumvit.

Business seemed to drop this week in the naughty bars and Bacarra aside, which was so busy at 9:00 on Thursday night that myself and a couple of mates couldn't even find a seat, my feeling is that bars in Nana seem to be doing a little better than bars at Cowboy.  In the more mainstream bars, many venues are booming and wandering along soi 11 on Friday night it was great to see the soi doing so well.  Many venues were packed with not a free seat to be found.

The tailor's shop next to Nana was informed his rent would be increased by a whopping 500% and he has decided to leave the soi.  Expect to see him move into the shop in the hotel he owns near Soi 8, called On 8.

The rumour mill has it that Denny's Corner, the open air beer bar on the corner of Sukhumvit soi 22 and the soi 22 entrance to Washington Square, may move across the road, to the Regency Park building.

The authorities shot a drug-dealing taxi driver stone dead on the sidewalk of busy Sukhumvit soi 11 on Saturday of last week, near the Manchester United bar.  Apparently the fellow resisted arrest and legged it and before he knew it, it was game over.  There was a big pool of blood and the soi was flooded with men in brown.  The soi was closed off at both ends and people were lingering, talking about what happened.  Obviously this created a bad vibe on a soi that is usually a happy place.

Speaking of soi 11, a new afterhours venue is due to open above the Australian Bar late next month.  Called Bash, it really is the perfect location for an afterhours spot and assuming a nice job is done putting the bar together, I expect it will do well.

What's happening at the Thermae?  The building that houses the Thermae would appear to be undergoing an upgrade and there has been a barrier placed on the stairs leading down into Bangkok's most infamous coffee shop.  That particular stretch of Sukhumvit is becoming much more upscale, with the new 5-star Sofitel Sukhumvit just metres finally opening its doors recently.  Then there's Terminal 21, probably the most popular shopping centre in Bangkok at the moment which is not too far away and there's another new high-end condo to open on Sukhumvit.  The shopping centre development on soi 5 will also push the area that little bit more upmarket.  Will this have any effect on the infamous freelancer bar?

Bangkok's two fetish venues both have events this coming week - details below.



For the last few months, a number of the staff at Tilac Bar - mainly waitresses - have been folding flowers and ribbons together, making them into intricate designs.  At times it seems they are keener on that than they are serving customers...but that's another story.  Anyway, I asked one of them this week what they were doing and was told they were preparing for a funeral.  That had me thinking...who takes months and months to prepare for a funeral?  I then started to wonder if the person whose funeral they are preparing for is even dead yet.  If not, why are they so confident there will even be a funeral?  It makes you wonder...

The odd, but popular, CheckInn99 venue has an Angels & Fairies party planned for next weekend.

I get loads of emails from guys interested in buying a bar and I usually say that if you are sure it is what you really want, start small.  While fortunes have been made in the industry, I wonder what sort of opportunities exist for new investors today.  The industry has changed with technology the big driver of that change.  With the internet, cell phones and employment opportunities from Thailand's strong economic growth and as close as you can get to full employment, how can this business grow further?  The big problem bar owners face is recruiting pretty girls.  And few pretty girls means few customers.  This is perhaps one reason for the increase in the number of venues with coyote dancers.  These girls get paid a high salary, don't get barfined so often, stay in the bar all night long and so the concept is more sustainable from a bar owner's perspective.  Like I say, there is money to be made in the industry and those with experience, and those who have a good mamasan, manager and systems in place can do very well.  Newbie owners ought to tread gently.

The trend of homeless foreigners on Suhkumvit continues and I spotted two new members of the Sukhumvit Homeless Club this week.  The first was a European-looking fellow, who I'd guess to be in his 50s, who can be seen hanging around Sukhumvit soi 33, near the start of the soi beside the 7 Eleven.  In the first of the two photos below, a caring Thai street vendor led him to the Doctor Youth clinic between sois 21 and 23 but he refused to go inside and just minutes later was back at his favourite spot at the start of soi 33, chugging down a large beer Chang!  He appears to have been living rough for some time and his legs have nasty looking sores and infections.  Alcohol would appear to be his curse and physically he isn't looking flash.  (I spotted him later in the week looking dazed late one night, as seen in the photo at the end of the column.)  In the second photo is another foreigner also living rough.  He wanders around shirtless and seems to be engrossed in his own little world.  The level of dirt on his body suggests he has not been living rough for so long and he appears to be doing ok physically.  However, he appears to have lost his marbles and can be seen perpetually playing a game of pickup sticks.  He walks around scrutinizing the ground before picking up a stick which he then examines closely before putting it into his mouth.  Sometimes he keeps it in his mouth for a while, and other times he discards it immediately, throwing it to the ground with force and screwing his face up like he us about to have a tantrum.  Should you recognise or perhaps even know either of these individuals, they both need help.


Bangkok homeless




Bangkok homeless


What's the story with the Thai guy at Ta Tien pier, the river stop you would get off if visiting Wat Po.  This fellow is charging people getting off tourist boats and long tail boats 20 baht - which he claims is a supposed pier fee.  He has a book of official-looking tickets and from all accounts most people pay.  I've never heard of this before and it sounds like opportunistic scamming.  I find it kind of sad that the Thais who have businesses in that area allow him to operate.  Still, Thais know better than to interfere with what others are up to, even if what that person is doing is not above board.

Thai banks have always given a decent deal on currency exchange and the spread offered is nowhere near as wide as at banks in the West.  It used to be that the exchange booths at the airport offered exactly the same rates as bank branches downtown, but I notice this has changed.  The exchange rates at the airport are now a couple of percent worse than downtown.  Of course all Stickman readers are savvy travellers and none would ever dream of changing money at the airport, right?!

The troubles at the airport in recent months, with lengthy queues at Immigration at certain times of the day, both entering and leaving the country, prompted the authorities to recommend that passengers flying out of the country arrive 3½ hours before their scheduled departure time.  That's all very well and good, but given that many airlines don't allow checking in until 3 hours before departure time, it doesn't make sense.  For what it's worth, on recent trips I haven't seen any queues coming into or flying out of the country and Immigration are on top of things.  I guess it helps that high season is behind us.

Why is it that when it comes to travel in the region, Thais are keen to visit the wealthier Asian countries, meaning South Korea, Singapore, Japan or Hong Kong whereas so many foreigners prefer to visit the less well off countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines and Burma?

Town Lodge in Sukhumvit soi 18 is running its 800 baht per night promotion.  This is a cash price, room-only deal exclusive to Stickman readers and runs for the rest of this month and June.



Quote of the week, "Bangkok is Paradise but never in all my life have I seen so many lonely, desperate losers!
"

Reader's story of the week comes from a foreigner who amazingly lives on 12,000 baht a month in Bangkok.

A major raid on Pattaya's notorious soi 6 saw many girls who were drug tested found to be positive for taking drugs.

The Global Mail looks at action movies being made in Thailand.

In Udon Thani, a German finds his Thai girlfriend chatting with a Frenchman online and goes into a rage, stabbing her 17 times.

A Kiwi goes berserk in Phuket and attacks an ATM machine that had swallowed his ATM card!

The Australian mainstream media sensationalises sex in Bali and Aussies having sex with HIV+ hookers.

From the Wall Street Journal, hotel rates in Thailand's neighbour, Burma, are shooting up.


Ask Sunbelt Legal

Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand.  Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column.  You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.

Question 1A Thai female friend / acquaintance married a British man in Thailand a few years ago.  They had a daughter who is now 3 years of age.  The man has since gone back to Britain and has little to do with his wife or daughter and provides no financial support.  Does she have any legal right to financial support?

Sunbelt respondsWhile she does have legal right to support, and she can go to the Thai courts to obtain it, doing so in the UK may be more difficult as she would need a lawyer to speak for her there.  She may wish to consult with the UK Embassy as to any options they may offer.  If they are willing to help, a Thai court order then going to the Family Court in Thailand is the first step.

 

Question 2:  My Thai wife is in Bangkok for the month.  She owns a house in Bang Bua Tong, a suburb of Bangkok, that was totally destroyed by the recent floods.  It is now a total garbage dump.  Businesses want $10,000 to clear all the debris because they say they have to go hundreds of miles to transport all of it.  We don't have the money.  If we just leave the mess, will the Thai government eventually levy a big fine against us?

Sunbelt respondsThe government will only take measures if the garbage become hazardous to the environment and the people around the house.  However if the garbage stays in the boundaries of the wife's property the government will not do anything.

 

Question 3 :  I'm considering retiring in Thailand and living off investments.  I understand that foreign-sourced income remitted to Thailand is subject to Thai income tax.  But I think I've heard that this only applies to income generated in the tax year.  If I paid myself an annual allowance to Thailand on 1 January, consisting (by definition) of money earned in previous years, would I incur income tax on it?

Sunbelt respondsUnder current Thai law and interpretations, it would be considered savings and you would not have to pay income tax on it.


Bangkok


I still miss Cigar Bob, the popular and cheerful American who sold cigars and ran After Dark magazine.  Bob was only in his mid 50s when died in Pattaya 2 years ago from complications that could have been treated had he sought medical help.  What is not widely known is that despite being an extremely clever guy, Bob, like many foreigners in Thailand, was broke.  He didn't have the money to seek medical attention.  A couple of days ago I received an urgent message from a fellow countryman about a young foreign friend of his in Bangkok with a wound that has become infected and could potentially be fatal.  I was asked to recommend a decent, but inexpensive - presumably the guy has little money - hospital for treatment.  A few friends are insulin-dependent diabetics yet some barely have enough money left at the end of the month to buy insulin and other drugs to manage their diabetes, without which they would be in serious trouble.  Many foreigners become addicted to the Thailand lifestyle and fail to make provisions for contingencies or medical care.  Some end up living on the street, and I'm sure the deaths of more than a few foreigners may have been prevented had they had the forethought and funds to seek medical care.  I cannot stress enough the importance of either having medical insurance, or if you cannot get it, enough money to be able to seek quality medical care.  I have written more than enough obituaries already.

 

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick


Special thanks go out to Steve at BangkokImages.com for image processing assistance.


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Stick can be contacted at: stickmanbangkok@gmail.com.