Readers' Submissions

This Is Thailand

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • July 28th, 2007
  • 15 min read



Watching a movie with my son the other night we both noticed the high intensity accent lights in our living room flickering. We look at each other and silently ask if we should ignore the problem and keep watching the movie. We decide to finish the movie, but moments later the picture disappears off the television screen and it goes blank! We figure UBC, the largest and perhaps only cable television company in Thailand, is having another “technical moment” and the movie will be back on in a few minutes so we wait. No movie. The cable box shows a green power light but no channel number but we’re not worried, days before we just had a very intellectual chat with UBC that went something like this: I want to talk to someone about the recent addition of “Gold” or “Plat” or “Silv” before the description of each in your on-screen channel guide.

“Why?”

Because it takes up most of the room leaving only a few characters for the show description.

“This bothers you?”

Yes.

“Why?”

Didn’t we just cover this?

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say sir.”

And friends, she was deadly serious. So I tried a few more times and still didn’t get anywhere so I asked her if she could speak Thai. She claimed she could, but I still have my doubts. I asked my housekeeper to explain to her what the issue was and for about ten minutes they’re firing back rapid fire Thai and I’m wondering what they’re really talking about. My housekeeper, who is a very intelligent lady, tells me “she wants to send a technician to your house, is next Tuesday a good time for you?”

And I ask “why does a technician need to come to my house?”

And with a very straight face she replies “I cannot get the lady to understand, so she wants to send a technician out here to look at your on-screen channel guide and then phone in to her what the problem is.”

I feel the temperature starting to boil over, but I play along “Why, doesn’t she have access to a television at UBC?” She asks and says they do indeed have a television.

I say “good, now hit the “menu” button on the remote and look at the on-screen program guide.” So I’m told she does, so I ask my housekeeper to explain it to her again.

Ten minutes of rapid fire Thai later my housekeeper turns to me and says she still doesn’t understand and wants to send a technician out to describe my screen to her. Ok, now I’ve had enough. My housekeeper is far from stupid and if she can’t make another Thai person understand that “Gold” and Plat” and other abbreviations are appearing before each description then the operating must be extremely slow, or perhaps she’s never seen an on-screen program guide before despite working at UBC. I ask my housekeeper to request to talk to a supervisor who speaks REAL Thai or English and eventually we get the message across.

I’m sure you want to know why they’re taking up from 50-75% of the character space to show these letters before EVERY show? Because the letters stand for the level of service required for that channel. Great. So I ask “isn’t the purpose of the channel guide to describe what show is on, and not to advertise for UBC?” I’m told it is, so that supervisor bumps me up to the next supervisor, same thing happens, so we’re bumped up to another supervisor.

2-3 supervisors later we’re talking to the guy who actually programmed in the changes and it goes like this “Sir, I understand exactly what you’re describing and I agree with you that it’s not good.”

So I ask “Why are you doing it?” The man hesitates and then starts talking really fast. It seems a new “executive” wanted to know what level of service was required for each channel and he kept misplacing his paper program guide so he asked this technician to make the changes. He needed to know so he could make his marketing recommendations, and he said he needed a way to “count” how many people were at what level of service so that was also programmed in. Why didn’t he just ask billing how many people were at each level of service? According to the technician because the ‘executive’ in charge of billing was an idiot and wouldn’t honor his requests. Hmm…

An executive with far too much power and way too little grey matter making changes that affect tens of thousands of customers because he can’t get along with his fellow executive. THIS IS THAILAND! (or TIT as we all call it) Folks, you won’t see this anywhere else. Not a technician answering the phone who can’t understand her native language, and not an executive who is so unprofessional that he’d rather give poor service to tens of thousands of customers than work out a personality conflict. Of course I let them know about my dissatisfaction and moved on to the rest of my day. After all, as those of you who live here know, this sort of thing is rather common.

Back to the flickering lights. At the same time the lights started flickering and the cable box went out we noticed lines of ‘noise’ running across the television set. The next day the situation was the same so we decide to get to the bottom of it before the television stops working also. We replaced a power strip, both the cable box and television were plugged into and no change, but my son says to me “Dad, do you hear that noise?” I listen more carefully and I hear the “tic tic tic” you hear when an electric animal fence is shorting out to something. Looking more closely we see GIANT blue sparks shooting off inside the cable box, powerful enough to be noticed through the tiny vents. Unplugging the cable box results in the lights working normally and no more lines of noise on the television set. My housekeeper who is observing looks at me and groans, she knows what’s coming. I won’t bore you with the subsequent conversation (like I’ve been doing for paragraphs already), but we finally get to the point where UBC acknowledges the box needs to be replaced and they agree to replace it for free. One problem. They have no more boxes and have no idea when more will come in, so we then go through four supervisors before they agree I shouldn’t get charged for service I’m not getting because they can’t replace my box. TIT! Thailand, where the countries biggest cable company ran out of cable boxes. Priceless.

I buy Dell laptops. Most people don’t realize that almost all laptops from IBM, HP, Compaq, Dell, and other makers, are all made under the same roofs of just a few companies. These days when I shop for a laptop I shop price vs. features vs. warranty. Other factors are present, but just aren’t significant enough to matter to me. Dell consistently has a decent product, decent price, and their warranties are international! I bought my last IBM ThinkPad in 1997 when they wouldn’t sell me an international warranty. 1997 was the year I went with Dell, and I’ve purchased one laptop per year on average since. Dell has been out to my home in Thailand on 4 – 5 occasions and made adequate repairs. Today they knock on the door with parts in hand to repair my M90 mobile workstation. The problem started when we noticed a few parts were missing.

The parts replacement list included a new motherboard and other internal parts. Once you open the machine you would replace all the parts at once, replacing just one or two parts wouldn’t be helpful because you’d have to repeat the work again when the rest of the parts arrived. The technician knows this and asks me if it’s ok if he disassembles my machine today, puts it back together, and when the parts arrive next week repeat the same work once more. He goes on to explain to me that he’ll only get paid if he does the work, otherwise he came all the way to my place for nothing. I suggest we say he did, but don’t. He claims to be too honest for that! Ok, so I suggest that instead of working on that machine, perhaps he can lift the lids and clean out the insides of my other Dell laptops. Now he’s happy, and he goes ahead and cleans my laptops before leaving. TIT!

Hours later I receive an email from the Dell business support center asking me if I could bring M90 with me to the States and exchange it for a new one. I email back and explain “their tech” was just out here and will be back in a day or so to replace all the parts, but if they want to give me a new one I’ll be there in a few days so I ask if they can have it waiting for me. An hour or so later I get a detailed email telling me to let the Thai tech do “whatever he wants” to my laptop, and that they’ll build me a brand new one and have it delivered next day FedEx for exchange. I felt like there was so much the writer of the email wanted to say but didn’t. Still, TIT and the M90 is in my carry on at this very moment and the tracking number from FedEx shows it’s replacement will be waiting for me when I get there.

I’ll also be picking up a new phone. My son lost his and since we had the same phones and he needed one to fly home with I just gave him mine and ordered another I’ll pick up when I arrive. You wouldn’t think this is a big deal but read on. Getting out of a taxi in front of our building with my wife my son notices he left his phone in the taxi. With the taxi still in sight he borrows my wife’s phone and quickly dials his number and both my wife and him see the taxi driver reach into the back seat, pull up the phone, and turn it off and then drive away quickly! Immediately they go to the police station and file a complaint and my wife fortunately remembered his name and my son the license. The police “promise” to look into the matter and they come home feeling the phone is history. Those of you who have lived in Thailand a while have already recognized their mistake, read on and I’ll explain it to you.

About four days go by and the police call and give us the taxi driver’s number. I’m certain the taxi driver immediately took the phone to MBK or somewhere similar, sold it, and spent the money in the first hours after the theft an the chances of him having the 9000 baht to replace the phone are slim to none. Still, my wife calls him as the police recommended and asks him to return the phone. He claims he never saw the phone, that perhaps his next customer took it. We really didn’t expect much of a different answer. Since my son and wife both witnessed him pick the phone up from the back of the car and turn it off she decides to call the police and file a formal complaint. The police request all concerned parties appear at the station house and everyone does. The taxi driver denies everything as expected, and then decides to file charges against my wife for accusing him of stealing and he does an impressive job of blustering through his pain. The police offer to get him to drop his charges if we drop ours, and this is when my mild mannered wife, for the first time in all the years I’ve known her, raises her voice and chews his azz a good one. The policeman just looks at me and smiles and gives me a wink as I grab her by the elbow and get her out of the police station.

Putting her and my son in a taxi home I stick around a few minutes and go back into the station. Finding the same police officer I asked him if he could see the taxi driver was lying, and he said of course but it’s his word against ours and not an important matter. I open my wallet and ask him how much it will cost to make it an important matter and hand him 2000 baht. Surprised? Don’t be. If your house / condo ever gets ripped off and the police don’t seem all that excited about finding the bad guys and getting your stuff back, find the lead police officer and give him a bit extra to help with motivation. I learned this watching an old girlfriend deal with the police years ago, and they recovered all her property! Two days go by before the police officer calls and asks me if I could come down to the police station, and I laugh when he asks if I could come alone. Arriving at the police station I find a sullen faced taxi driver standing in his office while the police officer does paperwork doing a good job at ignoring the taxi driver.

Walking into the office the police officer greets me like a long lost friend and thanks me for coming and asks if I have the time to listen to the taxi driver. I agree and translating the taxi driver admits to “finding” the phone, trying to find its owner, and then finally selling it so his sick son could get medical treatment. I say nothing and just stare at him, and finally he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mixed wad of bills totalling 5000 baht claiming that was all he got for the phone and asking me not to make him replace it with a new one, claiming 4000 baht is all he earns in a month and his family would starve if I made him replace it. I accepted the 5000 and the taxi driver was sent on his way. I turn to the police officer and ask “he doesn’t have a son or family does he?” The police officer bursts out laughing and asks me if I’m really not Thai…

The police officer went to this guy’s work and followed him after he left before pulling him over. He said he “interrogated the suspect” and the taxi driver admitted to the theft and told him he spent the money the first night on whisky for him and his friends. TIT! After it was all said and done I got 3000 baht for a 9000 baht phone. It could have been a total write off. I suspect the police officer got 3000 baht as well after making the taxi driver give him another 1000, but I didn’t ask.

Yes, in Bangkok especially it pays to ‘buy’ your police services. It also pays to buy them before the other guy does. This works for a variety of incidents, and it’s always better to have a police officer working for you than working against you. As with all graft your manners and methods in the negotiation and giving matter a lot. Don’t insult the police officer or be anything less than polite and nice. Also, don’t ask the price unless one is offered. It’s a bit of an art. If you offer too little they’ll take it, but they might be insulted enough to take a better offer from the other party. If you offer too much you lose respect. As my old girlfriend explained to me, her entire condo was cleaned out and without the help of the police she figured she would never see her stuff again and would have lost 100,000 baht. She paid the police in three installments. 5000 to get them started and find out who actually ripped her off, 5000 to make the guy get all the stuff of hers he sold back, and a final payment of 10,000 as her stuff was delivered by a truck with men who carried it all back inside. She told me for larger “services” the payment method is the smart way to go and keeps the police officer from coming back with empty hands and shrugged shoulders. I’ve heard of this working in domestic disputes, drunk driving, and even bar fights though I’ve only witnessed these two instances.

We’ve all heard the stories about the issues of doing business in Thailand and how it’s different, and usually I don’t think much about it when these things happen. This week though I had a few good examples to share, and I hope I didn’t bore you too much.. though I probably did.

Until next time…

Stickman's thoughts:

I know what you mean about this UBC menu nonsense. It gives me a right headache. Frankly, UBC’s service is a let down in many, many ways. When I had problems with a faulty box it took the best part of a month to get it sorted, and that comprised a few visits.

And the boys in brown wanting a pay out for work to be done. Sigh, that is the norm here.