Living and Working in Bangkok Internet / Telephones / Mobile Phones & Technology
With the hectic lifestyles so many of us lead these days, even here in laid back Thailand, we are more and more dependent on modern, reliable and easily accessible communication systems. It's more than a decade since the likes of the internet and mobile phones were a gimmick. Now they play a very important part in the modern man's lifestyle. Given that it is not yet a country with "fully developed status", the communication infrastructure in Thailand, that of the landline telephone system, the mobile phone system and the internet, is not bad at all.
For anyone wanting to use the internet, there are a variety of options. The most accessible for people who are only in the city for a short period of time, or who do not wish to have a computer at home (What, are you a dinosaur?!), there are internet cafes all over the city – and I mean that, all over the city. Even in dark dingy neighbourhoods that might resemble something of a ghetto, the kind of place you really do not want to be wandering around after sun down, yes, you can find internet cafes even there! Internet cafes are even more common than 7 Elevens – and you can just about find a 7 Eleven on any corner.
There are a huge range of internet cafes, from small, cramped cafes in the suburbs full of spotty faced teenagers who use the premises more to play online or networked games, than to surf the net per se. Such Internet cafes may charge as little as 10 baht per hour for the use of a computer. At the other end of the scale, if you use the business centre in one of the city's better hotels, you could pay up to 500 baht an hour for net access. Yes, the range in prices and quality is that great.
But the vast majority of internet cafes are somewhere in the middle. A typical internet cafe will have 6 – 10 computers sharing one ADSL connection with a speed on anywhere from 512k to 4 Mbps. This might not sound like a great amount of bandwidth but given that the majority of people who use an internet cafe do so for email, it is actually plenty. There is not always a true correlation between the charges in an internet cafe and the quality of the establishment or internet speed, so it can pay to shop around if you're not happy with the service. There are a number of venues where all of the computers are fast new machines and all equipped with 19 inch flat screen monitors, where the price is only 20 baht an hour. You might have a venue around the corner where 5 year old computers share a relatively slow connection at the price is 60 baht per hour. Speaking of which, 40 – 60 baht an hour, or 1 baht a minute, seems to be the standard price in a lot of internet cafes in the tourist areas these days.
Some internet cafes, particularly in the areas where you predominantly find tourists, may have a membership system whereby if you become a member, you get to pay a cheaper rate. The way it works is that you buy a number of hours and the more hours you buy, the cheaper the per hour cost is, so whereas one hour might be 90 baht, 10 hours might be only 500 baht.
There are no internet cafes that I would particularly recommend. There really are so very many to choose from and location is probably more important than anything. I would however caution against conducting any particularly sensitive transactions from a Bangkok internet cafe. Over the year I have received a number of emails from people who did things such as make a purchase online using their credit card, or do some banking online, from an internet cafe in Bangkok. Later there was some fraudulent access made against their account and they are a certain that the abuse was due to using a computer in Bangkok. MANY computers in Bangkok internet cafes are riddled with spyware and keystroke loggers, programs which record all of your keystrokes, including your passwords for any accounts you access from that computer. I personally am VERY reluctant to even access my email from internet cafes in Thailand, such is the abuse and prevalence of such rogue software on the computers.
If you have your own PC in Thailand, you will almost certainly want to get your own internet access so that you can surf the net from the comfort of your apartment / condo. Everyone uses high-speed ADSL connections and I don't know of anyone still on dial-up. The most popular local ISP (internet service provider) is True. With True, you can get a 4 megabyte unlimited time, unlimited data (meaning you can have the internet connection on 24/7 and download as much as you like without supplementary charges) for around 600 baht per month. I believe they offer up to 16 MBps at about 2,000 baht per month. Most people I know go for the 4 or 8 megabyte packages.
The other major ISPs offering ADSL internet are CS Loxinfo, KSC and Buddy Internet. There are a few more but these are the big three, so to speak.
Now if you are in a condo building, there might only be one ISP who provide internet to that condo, or even that immediate area. If that is the case, you may be stuck with them. Simply ask at the office in your condo building and they will be able to tell you what your internet options are. Assuming you are in a condominium, you should be able to get an ADSL connection without any problem at all.
If you are in an apartment building (that is where everyone rents from the same building owner) – and where you might not have your own phone line but rather have an extension of the apartment buildings main dial in number, then you might not be able to get an ADSL connection, as is sadly the case in some buildings. If the internet is as important to you as it is to me, check this out before you sign any lease agreement. The rule of thumb is that if you have a phone number and account in your name and are billed directly by the phone company then yes, you can get ADSL. but if you are in a building where your phone is essentially an extension within the building then you may or may not be able to get ADSL. Like I say, check it out before you sign the lease agreement!
If you are an internet junkie or you require high speed internet for work, you shouldn't be disappointed. In the old days the performance of the internet in Thailand was really bad, but these days it really is quite acceptable. OK, it might not be quite as fast as what is available in some other countries but I really think it is totally acceptable these days.
But don't expect to be able to access every website in Thailand that you can access at home. A number of websites have been banned in Thailand over the last couple of years – more than 100,000 of them! Apart from gambling sites, I don't think I know anyone who has a favourite site which cannot be accessed from Thailand.
On the subject of email, don't rely on this form of communication for business or getting things done in Thailand. Over the years I have sent emails to numerous Thai offices of Thai companies about a variety of things and I seldom get a reply – which is mad really. Even when they do reply, the level of English can be poor to the point of confusion. If a business is going to advertise an email address, you'd think they'd at least be responsive. Where this can become really frustrating is when you're applying for a job. You can find yourself wondering if their failure to reply was because they didn't get the email – or because they've discarded your application? Actually, this is not just an email thing. If you are really unlucky and make a telephone to a company and reach someone who is not comfortable in English, they might simply hang up on you rather than work out just what it is you want or who it is you want to talk to! Oh, the number of times this has happened to me!
Wireless internet connections, that is wi-fi, are common and there are many, many establishments offering free wi-fi connections. Many bars and pubs offer this service and I maintain a list of free wi-fi spots nationwide on this site. Wi-fi is a great way to be able to access the internet when you are out of the office or away from home. You'll see many people in the likes of British pubs and cafes accessing the internet using wi-fi connections. Some of these connections are free, and some you need to pay to access. Unfortunately the pay to access wi-fi connections can be a little on the expensive side at around 150 baht or so per hour. These days most establishments recognise that there is demand for free wi-fi access and it is provided.
Of course GPRS is always an option and it works well in Thailand. If you are unfamiliar with GPRS, it is essentially a protocol which uses your mobile phone to connect to the net. The transfer speeds are faster than dial up, but slower than ADSL, so while not ideal for hardcore internet users, it is still good enough to get the daily news, check out your favourite sites and of course, access email. There are various GPRS plans offered by each of the local mobile phone network providers. DTAC offers one plan which for, I believe, 900 odd baht a month, gives you unlimited internet or if you don't require an all you can eat plan, a few hundred baht will give you 100 or 150 hours. This is really good if you have a laptop because it essentially gives you unlimited internet access nationwide. The other mobile phone companies, AIS and Orange also offer GPRS but I believe DTAC is the local leader.
3G is available through one provider in parts of Bangkok and parts of Pattaya but that is it. There are some problems getting 3G going in Thailand and this does not look like changing in a hurry (late 2010).
Telephones and local calls
You can get a permanent fixed telephone line from either TOT (Telephone Organisation of Thailand) or from True. Installation and deposit runs around 4,000 baht, about half of which you get back when you have finished with the line. It should be noted that a few people suffer the problem of there being no numbers available in a particular area and they are simply unable to get a new phone line. I know of at least 3 people personally who have suffered this fate and it is dreadful because no fixed telephone line means no ADSL connection or even dial up Internet connection either. So one thing that one should be aware of when looking at moving into a property is that there is an existing phone line in place, or that the phone company has confirmed that lines and phone numbers are available.
Local phone calls from a landline phone, that means calling anywhere within the immediate calling area, usually the same city or district, cost 3 baht per call, irrespective of the length of time you talk for. Line rental for landline phones is a very cheap 100 baht per month. Using a fixed line or a mobile, international calls run around 20 odd baht a minute to Europe, North America and Australia / New Zealand, though for the latest rates, you should contact your provider. There are a number of cheaper options, many of which simply require you to make a phone call with a 3 digit prefix. The price then drops to around 10 baht a minute and there is no discernible difference in sound quality.
As far as international calls are concerned, the rates have dropped a lot over the last few years. The usual warnings apply about making international calls from hotels or even apartment buildings who are not adverse to hiking the rates and making a very tidy profit.
If you are in a building where a phone line is provided and you are billed by the apartment building, you will likely be subject to a higher cost per call (often 5 – 10 baht per call) and there will most likely be a time limit, meaning after x number of minutes the call is cut off. For voice calls this might not be such a concern unless you happen to chat on the phone for long periods, but for internet access this is a very real problem. In many apartment buildings, the phone cuts off after 30 minutes.
In the very cheapest apartment buildings, you might not be able to get any sort of phone in your room, although it has to be said that places that cheap generally don't attractive foreigners.
After gold and designer handbags, the mobile phone used to be the ultimate status symbol in this country where one's appearance is all important – seemingly more so than just about anything else. Thankfully those days are gone, when mobile phones were extremely expensive in Thailand. I can remember in the late 90s when you couldn't fine a mobile for less than 20,000 baht – and mobiles purchased overseas and brought into the country could not be used on the local system. Thankfully all of that has changed and you can pick up a basic mobile for next to nothing today. Prices are comparable with the West although when it comes to high end phones like the top end IPhone and the like, they are still cheaper outside Thailand and you're probably better off buying the US or Hong Kong.
A basic phone will set you back less than 1,000 baht. That will get you a basic GSM phone that will allow you to make calls, send SMS messages and have a reasonable memory. Fancier mobiles with a camera, colour screen and GPRS capability, amongst other features, go for 2,000 baht up.
The most popular place to buy mobiles is the centrally located shopping centre, Mahboonkrong. The 4th floor in particular is jammed full of mobile phone shops. In fact you could choose any shopping centre in Thailand and be certain that there are a large number of mobile phone stores there.
It doesn't matter what level of society they come from, Thais are conscious of the mobiles they use, and the phone that others use. Your mobile says something about who you are and along with your watch and your pen, many locals will look at your mobile phone and make a judgment about you based on the model you use. Ah, the class-conscious society.
The cost of running a mobile phone in Thailand is very, very cheap.
There are a number of mobile phone network providers, with three major companies. AIS is, the largest provider followed by DTAC and then True (which used to be known as Orange). Each provider offers many different calling plans which can be broken into two main types, pre-paid and post paid. With pre-paid you buy credit before you can make calls while with post paid you get a bill in the post at the end of each month. To get yourself a post-paid account you need to have a work permit and you also need a Thai national to act as guarantor which frankly is a bit of a hassle. For 99.9% of foreigners in Thailand, pre-paid is the way to go.
One reason why foreigners buy SIM cards on pre-paid plans is that there is no need to provide any of the paperwork required to get a post-paid plan. Even if you have a work permit and all of the documentation, pre-paid really is so much easier. There is no need to give any personal details such as your name name or address when you initially sign up.
To top up the credit on a mobile in the old days there was but one option, buy a pre-paid card which came with a set of numbers you had to key in to the mobile and then you would receive a message advising you that you had X amount of credit. You can still use that method of topping up the credit and pre-paid credit top up cards can be bought just about anywhere. Mobile phone stores, 7 convenience stores, book stores, minimarts and a host of other outlets all sell these cards. With some pre-paid plans you cal also top up the credit at an ATM machine. You simply enter in your mobile phone number and then choose the amount of credit you want to top it up with. Just make sure you enter your own number otherwise someone else is going to get the credit!
The most popular pre-paid mobile phone plan is One-2-Call from AIS. Once you have a phone, you buy a One-2-Call SIM card at a convenience store or at a mobile phone outlet. There are no ongoing monthly charges although the validity of the SIM card depends on the plan you are on. Generally each time you top up the credit in your phone the further it extends the validity of your SIM card although, as I say, every plan is different.
The plan I currently have bills each minute at 55 satang (i.e. less than one baht a minute!). This is the rate irrespective of where I call in Thailand and at what time. It is ridiculously cheap. If I call a number that is on a different phone network provider then the first minute is charged at 3 baht, I think. It really is so cheap that I don't even think about the cost of using the phone.
This is one of the problems of mobile use in Thailand. People literally use them all the time because the costs is SO LOW. But what it means is that people often call you for no reason, and with the busy lives we all lead these days this can be a bit of a pain!
Of course you can use your mobile phone from abroad if it is set to international roaming – but that will almost certainly be much more expensive than if you use a local Thailand SIM card.
All mobile phone numbers in Thailand start with "08" so if you dial a "08" number you know it is a mobile.
The telephone system in apartments and condominiums in Thailand is not always great and for many foreigners, they don't even use that number. Their mobile is their only phone number, this possible because of the low cost of making calls. I personally don't like mobiles and mobile phone culture (sending nonsense messages frequently etc.) but you really do need a mobile in Thailand.
CDs or tapes are readily available with the cost of original cassettes being very reasonable at 90-100 baht for a new release album. Pirated versions of all sorts of items is rampant in Bangkok and copied audio cassettes are readily available at about 50 baht each. However, the quality is variable and you are often disappointed. The reason that the originals are so cheap is to encourage people to buy the originals as opposed to the copies – and Thais simply don't have a lot of discretionary spending money. Buying copied cassettes really is a false economy – buy the original! CDs cost about 400 – 450 baht each – copies are available all over the show for 100 baht per CD and with CDs being digital, the quality should be perfect – but often it isn't. Other options for buying cheap music are to buy CDs with MP3 music on them or use the CD player in your computer hooked up to some decent speakers to negate the need to buy a stereo system. CDs from Panthip Plaza with 10 – 15 of the latest music albums in MP3 format, at near CD quality, can be bought for 100 baht a CD representing incredible value for money BUT they are copies. It's well worth listening to some of the Thai artists as some of them are really good – Loso, Bird and Fly all have a space in my collection – Loso and Bird in particular is damned good. As hypercritical as it may sound, do the Thai artists a favour and buy the originals. I tend to buy original Thai artists' work and copied Westerns artists.