View From The Red Planet
My first trip to BKK was around 5 yrs ago. Landed there by complete fluke, I was looking to leave the UK at 3 days notice, and BKK was the first suggestion out of the travel agent's mouth. Booked the flight, one night in a hotel and armed with the Lonely Planet guide off I went (12 trips later and I still haven’t read the damned thing!!).
A couple of years ago (having been back to LOS 10 more times) I talked it over with the better half and decided we’d give a go to trying to move out to BKK or Singapore (both tired of London life). For anyone who’s thinking about doing the same, trying to find the right job (actually any job!!) is hard, if not damn near impossible. My background is investment banking, which I guess didn’t help; impression I get is they see your CV and assume they can’t afford you.
Tried for 2 years and had pretty much given up on the idea of working in Asia, then out the blue my company asked me to move to China to set up and run a couple of rep offices (Initially in Beijing then in Shanghai) took me all of about 2 seconds to accept!! Just as well as I needed all the spare time I could get, had a three-week holiday booked to Thailand 4 days later with a couple of mates (around Songkran), then it was straight out here, do not pass go, do not collect 200.
So here are some first impressions after three months:
1) To all of those people who bitch about ‘fake’ smiles in Thailand, hey at least people smile at you!!! Don’t get me wrong, it's not that people here are oppressed (still a stereo type in the west), it’s just that your more likely to get a smile on the MRT in Singapore or the tube in London than pretty much anywhere here. So enjoy the fake smiles while you can.
2) Three or four Chinese girls have asked me whether Thai women or Chinese women are better looking. So far have been diplomatic and avoided answering directly (especially with the Mrs. being from Trinidad), truth be told though it’s not really a contest. I have yet to see anyone here who comes close to office girls on the BTS in rush hour. The women here are bigger up top but are not in nearly as good shape, oh and the girls in BKK smile more!
3) Despite how badly the taxis drive in BKK, they don’t have a patch on the ones in Beijing, when the traffic decides to move at all that is. On the plus side there are no pointless government stats claiming that 90% of taxi drivers speak English, more like 90 in the whole of Beijing, but hey at least they’re honest about it!! Oh and none of that, ‘meter not work’ shit, no English actually means NO ENGLISH, so they can’t rip you off even if they wanted to!!
(My personal favourite Beijing taxi maneuver is the U turn across a 6 lane dual carriageway to take a slip road going the opposite way on the other side, all in order to cut back into the dual carriageway from the slip road, just in time to gun the engine and avoid the oncoming buses.. which, BTW accelerate whether you're there or not, so you need to hope he doesn’t stall, otherwise kiss your arse goodbye!!)
4) The only people who speak English and are actually friendly enough to come and say hi to foreigners, are students trying to sell you art. When a 20 year old student asks if you want to come up and see her studio on Wang Fujing, it DOES NOT mean the same thing as it would on Sukhumvit!!! (Have seen a couple of, hmm, ‘older farangs’ with their ‘nieces’ so I’m sure it does happen here, but definitely more discreet.) Have to say they are all really polite, makes it harder to tell them to sod off in the same way as I would a tuk tuk driver trying to sell you… well pretty much anything you’re prepared to buy.
5) Corruption here is institutionalized enough to make one of the boys in brown shaking you down for 200 baht look like a rank amateur. In business everything seems to need approval from 14 committees, so you definitely need to bring a whole stack of brown envelopes!!!! (Oh and a good lawyer definitely helps). For an example, one of the government ministry’s here recently ‘lost’ US$13million of IOC money earmarked for the 2008 games. 4 yrs away and they’re already creaming of $13million WTF!!!! There does seem to be a distinct lack of corruption in the ‘retail’ market though, so less likely to get a fine for just walking past some shit that you just happened not to drop.. which is nice.
6) Despite what you may have heard, Beijing is not cheap!! Anyone thinking of moving here from BKK, if your company is not picking up the tab (thank god for the company visa card!!), make sure you get a pay rise or really don’t bother. Decent apartments anywhere central are US$1000 +, and unless you speak Chinese you do not want to travel in from the suburbs. The underground is cheap, but it's old, dirty and gets very crowded. Fast food (Chinese not McD’s) is about the same price as S&P or DaiDomon, but restaurants are definitely that bit extra on top of BKK prices. Shopping may be cheaper in the suburbs, but unless you have a guide / translator forget about it.
7) China may have thousands of years of history on most countries on the planet, but if you're planning on visiting the Forbidden City, make sure you do it before you’ve seen the Grand Palace, otherwise you will be disappointed, although having 007 (Roger Moore) doing the commentary on the audio guides was a nice touch. The temple of heaven is impressive but take an extra pair of walking shoes, good 3 or 4-hour toe slap to get around the whole complex.
8) Final point, you know the most famous image of Tian An Men square (in London at least), you know the one, student single-handedly holding up a tank.. no-one here has ever seen it!! People I’ve spoken to have at best a vague recollection that something happened in Tian An Men, and no they really do not want to talk about it either. (Think discussing the shortcomings of the Thai Royal family in Thailand and you get an idea of the reaction!!)
Don’t get me wrong, Beijing is a great place to come and experience, and once the Chinese lessons finally begin to pay off I’m sure the sky will be the limit, but it's not Bangkok and if you happen to be lucky enough to live in BKK make the most of it, the grass is not always greener.
Haven’t had time to explore the nightlife too much yet, 14 hour days will do that to you. Besides the visa situation here is as confused as in Thailand; have a multi entry business visa, sounds great right? But because its multi entry I have to leave the country every 30 days until the rep office license comes through. On the plus side it’s a weekend away a month funded by work.. Now where to go..hmmm. Think I must be one of the few farang alive doing a monthly visa run TO LOS, clouds and silver linings spring to mind!!
DISCLAIMER: These are just my impressions, if you disagree, and you’ve actually been to Beijing and BKK then would love to hear from you, if you disagree and you haven’t been to both cities for at least a reasonable period of time, call your travel agent then get back to me.
The more I hear about China, the more I feel I am less likely I am to ever go there.