Stickman Readers' Submissions December 1st, 2007

How It All Began Part 6

As soon as we had sold our home in America, we had called The Monkey to let him know that we would soon be on our way. We asked him to see if he could find us a place to stay while we built our new home. “No problem.” He would arrange everything. Oh he surely did that, but not in our favor we would soon learn!

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There was another small teak house on the property, owned by a friend of The Monkey’s whom I’ll call “Flea”, because he was like a flea on a monkey’s butt! Brown Nose would do equally as well as a name, since he was the consummate butt kisser. Flea would be willing to rent his house to us. For how much, my wife wanted to know. “Oh not much, we can figure out a reasonable price once you are settled in.” We left it at that, after all, how much could he charge for what was basically a one bedroom cottage?

We actually found a place to store our stuff on our own right across the street. While we were walking around the neighborhood we met a neighbor who rented us an empty house for a very low price. It wasn’t fit to live in, and he planned to renovate it in a year or so, but it was quite adequate for storage; dry and safe. The Monkey wasn’t very happy about us acting on our own initiative. This guy wanted to control all of our movements, and be completely dependent on him. We didn’t like it. He said that he wanted to prevent unscrupulous people from taking advantage of our good nature. I suspected a quite different agenda, which later turned out to be the case.

The next thing on our agenda was to head up to Chiang Mai Immigration to straighten out my visa situation, but first we needed to open a bank account. I didn’t really know one bank from another, but I had heard of Bangkok Bank, so we walked into their main Lampang office open an account. I was told by a not very friendly bank officer that I couldn’t have a bank account, because (take your pick of the following): I was a foreigner, I didn’t have the correct visa, and didn’t have a work permit. I pointed out that a) foreigners could have bank accounts, b) I need the bank account to obtain my visa, and c) I had no plans to work in Thailand. When that elicited no response I got up and walked out. I would have written off Bangkok Bank, but later that morning we were walking by a smaller branch, and decided to give it another try. Much to my surprise, I was told by a friendly bank officer that there would be no problem in opening an account, and in fact, would we like to do it right now! Why had we been refused at the main bank? Who knows? Everybody sing the chorus “Welcome to Thailand!” It took an amazing amount of paperwork to open the account, but it takes an amazing amount of paperwork to accomplish anything in LOS. I have a theory that I call “The Paper Principle”. Why have only one person handle a single piece of paper, when you can have 2 – 3 people handle it also? In the case of Thai government offices, the number of people required to handle the paper increases to 8 – 10, preferably in different offices located in different parts of the city. Let’s face it, it’s a jobs program, pure and simple! In the end though we walked out with a passbook and an ATM card, so mission accomplished and it’s off to Chiang Mai!

After the hell of Bangkok Immigration, Chiang Mai Immigration was a breath of fresh air…literally, with the waiting area outdoors. While still a busy place, it’s on a much smaller scale than Bangkok, which makes it a much more endurable experience.

When we finally met with an officer, we were able to straighten out my situation. I would be eligible for a one year visa, which naturally had to have all the attending paperwork stamped in Bangkok. Luckily THEY would be the ones to take care of this. For some inexplicable reason, they required me to open yet another bank account in Chiang Mai. That’s where I would have to keep the yearly 400,000 baht which allowed me to stay in the Kingdom. Luckily there was a branch of Bangkok Bank a few minutes away. After the usual long wait, I walked out with a second pass book. Back at Immigration I was told that I needed to return to have my passport stamped in 30 days until my paperwork came back from Bangkok. (It actually took 90 days to finally receive my one year visa!)

If we were going to be making this trip very often we definitely needed a vehicle. And so it was off to Lampang Toyota! Why Toyota? I had owned several that I had put well over 100,000 miles on with only the usual upkeep. Whatever we purchased was going to have to last a long time, so I went with what had served me well in the past.

Shopping for a vehicle was a much different experience than shopping for one in the U.S. I don’t know what things are like in other countries, but in the U.S. you never pay the sticker price. That was only the starting point for negotiations. Here in Thailand, the sticker was the price, take it or leave it! We were looking at a Hilux Vigo. It was a 4×4 with a 4 door super cab. We didn’t need the 4-wheel drive for the roads here, but for visiting the family farm in Buriram. The dirt farm roads could turn into a quagmire after a heavy rain. Even without haggling, the price we paid was actually less than we would have paid for the same truck back in the U.S.

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My wife and I were both a little nervous about getting behind the wheel our first times. Driving on the left was not that big a deal. For 10 years I owned a British import shop, and on many business trips had logged many thousands of kilometers driving throughout the UK. My fear was sharing the road with Thais! The only worse drivers I’ve ever encountered are the Khmers. A farang in Thailand needs to quickly grow not only eyes in back of his head, but a pair on the side of his head as well! (Those are for motorcycles.) Could Buddhism be responsible for the reckless way people here drive? In other words, are they simply unafraid to die? How else can you explain: drivers, pulling out into traffic without even a cursory glance to see if the road is clear and passing in places where no sane person would dream of passing another vehicle. (Around blind corners, up hills where you can’t see over the crest etc.) For Thais, “right of way” means, “I have the right to wherever I want, whenever I want, so get the hell out of my way!” Thank God they are finally widening Route #24 from Korat to Buriram to four lanes. I’ve had too many close encounters with the grim reaper on that road, when I’ve suddenly found a vehicle barreling down towards me in my lane! If I didn’t wrench my truck off the side of the road, I’d be dead ten times over! It’s even more frightening at nighttime.

Traffic “laws” in Thailand seem to be mere “suggestions”. Stopping at a red light or a stop sign seem to be purely optional! My standard operating procedure now is just to assume that someone is going to run red lights. It seems to have kept me alive so far. There are several lights at major intersections that are out of service at least 50% of the time. You just have to suck it in and take your chances because there is no way on earth that any Thai driver is going to yield to you. I remember driving on some single lane roads in the UK. When encountering another car, invariable they would rush to pull over and let me go by….and wave to me as well! Here in LOS drivers refuse to make eye contact, let alone yield to anyone! Now in any western county, if a traffic light was out of service, a policeman would rush to the scene and direct traffic until it was repaired. Not in LOS. Lampang has a large police force, but I have never seen a policeman directing traffic. “A policeman did take the time to yell at me for stopping at a red light before making a left hand turn. Aren’t you required by Thai law to do just that? “Welcome to Thailand!”

Speaking of Thai law; although our Massachusetts driver’s licenses were still valid, we needed to get Thai ones, just to avoid any potential problems in the future. And so it was off to the provincial office in charge of motor vehicles. For Thailand, it was a relatively straightforward procedure. That is to say it only took 2 – 3 hours to do what it would take 10 minutes to do in the U.S. It was mere paperwork, plus a rather cursory eye exam. Som also got a motorcycle license, which involved both a written and a road test. Believe it or not, there are actually rules of the road for motorcycles! In reality, those rules are of course promptly ignored by 99% of Thais after obtaining their license. After that, they somehow believe that they are entitled to shove their way through any available space big enough to fit through to get in front of you. Let’s not even talk about passing. I always find it amusing to watch Thais play the helmet lottery with the police. On any given day they must know that they have a pretty good chance of getting nabbed at a checkpoint, but they would rather risk the fine, (and of course death) than put the damned thing on! For the Police of course, it is a sure fired money maker. You could be speeding, driving erratically, driving drunk or even driving while drinking, and never be stopped. But they spend hours each day on helmet violations. Welcome to Thailand!

One morning we got a call from a shipping company B***** Movers in Bangkok. Our container had arrived. It was still sealed, but they wanted to unload everything and load it onto another truck! Plus there were other problems, involving unspecified “fees”. We quickly were on the next train to Bangkok. We also immediately called Omega back in New York. WTF was going on? Our signed contract specifically stated that the container was to be delivered to our doorstep, with the seal unbroken, and that all fees on the Thai side were already paid in full! When we finally reached the agent with whom we had dealt, we were frostily told that once our shipment arrived in Thailand, it was out of their hands, and besides, he was just about to leave on vacation…click! When we arrived at B***** Movers, we were told that unless we immediately paid a long list of fees, not only wouldn’t our stuff be delivered, but we would be charged an astronomical storage fee! Great! Our stuff was being held hostage! I calmly took out my paperwork and showed it them. They could read English. There was no doubt that I was right and they were wrong. An official took me aside and whispered in my ear that the situation could be easily remedied “privately”. This was my true initiation into Thai Society. Ngern-gin-bpla “tea money” solved all problems. Just slip the guy a few thousand baht, and just like magic our sealed container is on its way to Lampang! I’ll have much more to say about the all pervasive influence of corruption in LOS later, but for now I was just happy to get our stuff back. We arrived back in Lampang in time to supervise the unloading of our stuff into storage. Everything had arrived safely from America!

It was time to start designing our house. We sat down with The Monkey and an architect he had invited. The architect was actually a very nice, very professional young man, with no ties to The Monkey. We went through books of house plans and found an attractive design that suited us well. The next week he came by with a set of blueprints for us to go over. It looked good. The next step was to meet with a builder. The Monkey said that we should use a builder that he selected for us, so that “we wouldn’t be taken advantage of”. At the time I couldn’t argue with that, since we were completely unfamiliar with how things were done. I was starting to get somewhat suspicious of this guy. He already told us that the price of construction was going to be higher than what he had quoted us earlier. “Wood now is more expensive!” He started taking us around to different building suppliers, for us to look at what was available for materials. Everywhere we went The Monkey always took the store manager aside for a whispered conversation. Only then were we told the prices. We weren’t all that happy with the quality or the prices of what we were being shown. For example, most homes in Thailand use CPAC “tiles” made from molded cement. Functionally they are okay, but for aesthetic reasons we wanted to use ceramic tile. We especially like tiles produced by Excella. They were high quality and had brilliant colors. Unfortunately we were told by The Monkey that that were too expensive, at least 30 % more than CPAC. It was like that everywhere we went, what we wanted was always more expensive that what The Monkey suggested we use. Do you see a pattern here folks? I may have been born at night, but not last night! I knew we were being set up. Later we found out that The Monkey was demanding kick-backs from every place we went…and getting them!

The price of our 1.2 million baht home was skyrocketing by the day. It was now up to 2.8 million baht and continuing to rise. Fortunately this was all before we had signed any contract with the builder, who seemed unable to look us straight in the eye. Something was obviously bothering the guy. We would soon find out what!

Stickman's thoughts:

Ah, you’re starting to experience the frustrations of Thailand!

nana plaza