Around The Traps In S.E. Asia – Part 7
During my recent lengthy trips offshore (45 – 60 days) I’ve started working my way through the readers’ submissions of this site, beginning at the 2001 collection. There are some very interesting stories and not just the “bar girl done me wrong” sagas. Some of the travelogues / trip reports of the day on Laos and Cambodia give nice descriptions of how things were in an earlier time when social media and apps were non-existent. The information on the pricing of “services” available at the time is also a good indication of how such prices have inflated over a relatively short period i.e., USD 5 for a short-time in Phnom Penh back in the year 2000 seems an age away.
Even as far back as 2001, there is a recurring theme in many of the submissions still being repeated today. That for some bizarre reason or another, and even though there were red flags and alarms being triggered along the way, guys just jumped in, boots and all, to situations that spiralled out of control. Situations that, with a bit of time-out for sound reasoning and critical analysis, could have been avoided completely and saved them from emotional turmoil, poor health, and a diminished bank balance. It goes without saying that making a relationship with a bar-girl, or marrying one, is decision which carries a high degree of risk. The tales of “the bar-girl done me wrong” have been one of the mainstays of this website since its inception. Stories which, in many cases, seem staggering in the ways in which many a naïve and good-hearted foreigner gets cleaned out financially, ends up destitute and returning to his home country or, worst of all, six feet under and pushing up daisies.
The underlying, and unrelenting, theme as to why bar-girls seem to be so duplicitous, generally untrustworthy, and outright deceitful is their, and their families, lust for money. Be warned, money and family trump everything in this country. However, as with most situations in life there’s more than one explanation as to why people behave in ways which we find difficult to comprehend, or understand. My take on the driving forces behind the insatiable quest for money at all costs is purely down to one issue; poverty. And the general poverty in the North-East is all-pervading. People in such a situation will do just about anything they can to raise their level from the dirt floor. With that as the driver it’s not so hard to understand their motivations and manoeuvres when they see the windfall of a naïve and generous foreigner dropped in front of them.
When considering the many stories of foreigners losing their shirt in the LOS (it goes right back to the earliest submissions in 2001) there is a recurring pattern which emerges; an initial poor decision is followed by another which is then compounded by more until the whole situation spirals out of control in to a horrible mess. In all of these situations, or stories, very little critical analysis is undertaken. Many choices, or decisions, are based on emotion and the spur of the moment. A bit of time taken to assess the potential risks, through thinking with the big head, may have saved many of these guys’ years of misery and thousands of dollars. But, having said that, thinking with the big head in Thailand has never been a strong point for many foreigners. Perhaps Robin Williams was right when he said, “When it comes to the big head and the small head, the body has only enough blood to supply one at a time.”
The trip to the farm (family village):
If you’ve only known a lady for a short period of time, or perhaps you’ve only been chatting on the web, and you get an invitation to head north to visit the family on the farm, you may want to take a step back and do a risk assessment before making any kind of commitment. The first question you may want to ask yourself is “if you’ve only known each other for a short period of time, what’s the rush to meet the family?” You barely know each other. Another question you may want to ask yourself is “what’s the real reason she’s asking me to visit the family?” Cynicism might tell you that you’re being lined up as a walking ATM for a trip to the farm but your gut instinct might also tell you that your cynicism isn’t far off the mark. For those who choose to disregard their instincts and let their fate be carried on the wind of uncertainty, the next question might be “if I go up there, what’s my financial risk. What’s a realistic expectation of how much I’ll have to outlay?” My own take on this situation is that unless you establish some kind of maximum figure, you’ll end up spending more than you anticipate. From my own perspective, I’d never do a farm visit at all these days. I have my own reasons for that mind-set, with age being a significant factor, but younger guys may see it as a mission of curiosity, a trip into the unknown, or the adventure of a life time, and don’t have any issues sleeping on a wooden floor with a threadbare blanket. Fair enough, each to their own but I’ll sleep under the stars thanks. The five stars. At this stage in life, I don’t do camping out around a log fire.
As mentioned, the compounding effect can see a situation spiral out of control rapidly. What one may have initially thought was an innocent request to head north to meet the family can have you sinking under a rapid-fire financial assault. And it’s not just the dirt poor, rice farmers daughter you meet in a go-go bar that can map out a stealth campaign for a financial grab. A couple of years ago a good friend, who also happened to be a fairly savvy old Asia hand, decided to accept the offer a ride north to the far reaches of Isaan, with an old flame. He was actually planning a trip to Laos and figured a free ride in his ex’s car was a deal too good to pass up. The ex was from a reasonably well to do family. She was an educated type who managed a textile factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. My friend had lived with her for a number of months in a flash, downtown condo but her alcohol and drug use had eventually seen him put an end to the arrangement and head back to the U.K.
He returned to Bangkok a few months later with the intent of having an extended trip around South-East Asia. After a few emails to the ex, it was her suggestion that he grab a lift with her instead of taking the train to Nongkhai. Apparently, her village was not too far from the border crossing and he figured there would be no harm in accepting her offer as it fitted in with his overall plans. His ex may not have been a bar-girl but she had the same type of scheming mindset when it came to milking a foreigner for money. The real reason for the offer of a free ride soon unfolded once he arrived at her family home. Around the dinner table, with the whole family in attendance, he was hit upon for a loan of 1.5 million THB. Apparently, the father had got involved with some dodgy business dealings with Lao government and the Thai military. It had all gone pear-shaped and he now owed some heavy people 1.5 million. When my pal relayed the story to me my immediate thoughts were, it was a total crock of shite. It was a scam and nothing more. The real story was the father probably had a gambling debt and was under the kosh to pay up. My friend concurred and this was made even more apparent when he said they offered to sign over a parcel of land to him as collateral for the 1.5 million THB loan. Being a savvy player he realised it would be inappropriate to create a fuss at the meal table so he went along with it all. To their great delight he said he’d transfer the money from the U.K., within the next couple of days and they could get the paperwork drawn up for the land transfer. Little did they know that he was well aware that foreigners can’t own land in the LOS.
After dinner, plenty of whiskey was consumed in appreciation of the closing of the deal. When it came time for bedding down, the ex and her family of grubs got a surprise when my mate said he’d already booked a room at a resort down the road and he’d being sleeping there as he didn’t want to lose his money. The family probably thought they were going to keep him trapped at the house until the money came through but my mate had done a risk assessment prior to leaving Bangkok and figured arranging his own accommodation would be a good control barrier to have in place to keep the parasites at a distance. As soon as he got back to the resort he told the desk staff to order him a taxi for 7 AM. He woke early the next morning, packed his bags and was across the border by the time the ex found out he’d bolted. Apparently, the stream of expletive deletives being messaged through to him were bad enough to put a trooper to shame.
The decision to make the trip to the farm is an entirely personal one of course and if a guy is considering marriage with his teerak then it’s understandable that a trip north to meet the family is inevitable. However, if you’re a relative newcomer, and only been in town for a couple of weeks then you may want to take a step back and assess why you are committing to a trip to the farm? Are you doing so because you feel some sort of obligation? Is it because you’ve been coerced into it, or is it simply because you think it might be a bit of a laugh? The bottom line is any trip up north is going cost you in terms of time and money. And considering that, you may want to assess what the benefit to you might be? In other words, do your own cost benefit analysis before boarding the bus at Mo Chit.
If you ask an Isaan lady where she’s from you’ll normally get some sort of vague reply like “I’m from Surin, or Udon, or SiSaket, or Buriram, etc. But the fact is hardly any of them are actually from any kind of major centre or town. As an example, if a lady tells you she’s from Ubon Ratchathani, chances are the family home is nowhere near the city. She’s telling you she’s from a particular province and not some isolated, remote village 30 – 40 kilometres from the town centre. A lot of guys who set off to meet the family generally have no idea of this and it’s a bit of a shock when they get off the bus from Bangkok, after a 12-hour ride, and then have to jump on an overcrowded songthaew for the slow trip through winding country lanes, to finally arrive at the farm. Take it as a given, the majority of the places these ladies come from are remote, lacking any kind of modern infrastructure, have poor transportation systems, and sometimes not even a decent 3G connection. A good reference on how things actually are in those remote villages of Isaan is “Isaan: Home of the Bargirls – A Visit” from the 2002 collection. Granted it was written quite some time ago but I would suspect the conditions he describes are still fairly prevalent today. Take it as given things are rough and hygiene and sanitation, to the standards we generally expect, are non-existent.
Before jumping on the bus you may want to do a risk assessment and put some controls in place to avoid having yourself completely at mercy of the people and the environment in those remote villages. You could start by trying to pinpoint exactly where her village might be. If it’s in the back-end of nowhere, use Google Maps to check where the nearest town or major centre is. Once you’ve established that you can put your first control barrier in place; booking 3 nights in a reasonable standard hotel in that town or major centre. Be honest with yourself, if you’re not some 20-year old backpacker, do you really want to sleep on the floor boards and get woken at 4:00 AM by cockerels and barking dogs? And even if you manage to slumber through that you’ll definitely get woken at 6:00 AM buy the Kamnan’s morning message over the Tannoy. The romance of village life in Isaan wears off rather quickly. With a good bed in a reasonable hotel you’ll be well rested after the long bus ride from Bangkok and you’ll also have better control of your overall situation. In other words, you’ll be calling the shots and not her and the extended family. If you get any grief from your teerak about staying in the hotel, and not at the family farm, tell her you’re expecting an important work contract for a well-paid job, and you need a good internet connection. As soon as she hears “well-paid job” she’ll go along with the idea of staying at the hotel in town.
Another reason for booking a room in a hotel is that you’ll limit the numbers that will turn up to see you. With the farm being some distance away, the only ones to make the 30 – 40 kilometre songthaew journey into town will be direct relatives, and not every uncle, aunt, and distant cousin from miles around wanting a hand out for whiskey and smokes. And that is effectively your second control barrier because it will reduce the impact on your wallet. The fact is that any trip up to the farm is going to involve spending some money on her family. The trick is to do it so you are in control of the outgoings at all times. If you’re stuck in the village for a few days, there’s no let up on the requests for a hand out. Admittedly, in real world terms it’s not that much but still, why spend more than you have too? Inevitably you’ll need to make the trip to the farm. Try to do it after the family have come into town to see you. That way they’ll already be satiated with your splurge on food, beer, and whiskey at a “flash” restaurant in the big smoke and won’t mind so much if you’re only hitting the farm for a few hours. The maximum amount of time I’d recommend hanging out in the village is about 6 hours. You can get around the old “must stay tonight, have no songthaew after 4 PM” trick by hiring your own private transport in town for the day. Before setting out to the farm, work out a deal with a songthaew driver for the round trip and some waiting time. That way you’ve got an excuse to be on your way before the late afternoon whiskey groups start gathering.
The reality is, and many who’ve done the trip to the farm will concur, there is virtually nothing to do up there which is mentally stimulating. I know because I did the farm thing almost 20 years ago and after putting up with it for 6 months, I told the then girlfriend I just couldn’t take it anymore. The lack of intellectual stimulation is mind-numbing and it’s not hard to see why so many guys who go bush, end up on a never-ending diet of cable TV and beer. I actually had a legitimate excuse for relocating to Pattaya, I was missing out on job offers due to being out of mobile signal range. The nearest internet café was also 40 km away. I guess if you speak Thai fluently then one might have a more meaningful interaction with the village yokels, but for me the reality is there’s nothing in those remote backwaters to offer a tangible long-term benefit in my life. I suppose for retirees and those in their twilight years, there’s the attraction of a quiet, uncomplicated life. If you’re someone who likes a bit of activity in your life, the farm / village is definitely just a place for a short visitation. But before you head up there, make your own risk management plan.
My old mate 006 has fallen foul of the tighter visa rules the Thai authorities have been slowly but steadily putting in place to restrict access to foreigners they deem as undesirables. Not that 006 is an undesirable, he just miscalculated on the overstay. After finally realising he needed to be on his way for a visa renewal, he got his marching orders at Suwarnabhumi after being told he was one day over the 90-day overstay limit. His smooth talking approach did no good and he was duly told by the officious Immigration lady, “You overstay 91 days, cannot come back Thailand for one year.” It was a bit of a shock for 006. With a healthy bank balance and a freehold condo down on Soi 11, he’s not exactly one of the low-end element hanging around the big mango. However, with his recent scrapes with gangs of motorbike taxi mafias and scheming demimondaines, he’s decided a relocation to Phnom Penh might be in order.
With another lengthy trip offshore completed, and a few days of R & R definitely due, I decided a trip to Cambo was in order to catch up with my old mate 006. With the Phuket monsoon deluge still having weeks to run, I got myself a Bangkok Airways double hop through Bangkok and on to Phnom Penh.
Cambodia has an odd financial system in place which, when one considers the benefits of currency stability, is quite clever. All financial transactions in the country are done in USD. The prices of everything are quoted in USD. The local currency is only used for transactions of less than one USD. Phnom Penh seems to be on a continued development uptrend. New buildings, and buildings under construction dot the city central landscape. The riverfront area is the main tourist area and as such is more expensive than the hotels, restaurants and bars further back. An indication of a move into a more upscale offering along the riverfront road is the recent establishment of a branch of Oskar wine bar and bistro. The same organisation as the successful one on Sukhumvit Soi 11, Bangkok.
Further in from the riverfront area, and set along streets 172 & 174 is a bar / restaurant / nightlife area which caters predominantly to longer term expats and those who are looking for cheaper offerings. There seems to be a bit of an eclectic mix of bars available to nightly imbibers. From the upscale Ming’s Bar and Bistro, which caters to moneyed up expats and business people, to the street side bars along Soi 51 with its gathering of down and out foreigners. The focal point for this expat area seems to be the area around the intersection of Street 172 and Street 51. It’s a busy crossroads with a host of tuk-tuk boys always in attendance to harass you for a fare and a conglomeration of beer bars and hole in the wall type bars to choose from. A hundred meters or so along from this frenetic crossroad, on Street 51, is the hangout for the down and out expats in Phnom Penh; Soriya Mall. According to 006, the M.O. for the farang crowd that hangout here is to spend all day and night knocking back cheap beer and if they feel the urge, there are USD 10 a pop, HIV skanks hanging around to avail themselves of.
There’s also number of girlie / hostess bars in the area, which includes a swathe of bars along street 136. The pick of the bars for expat crowd appear to be the Shanghai Bar (on the corner of Street 172 and Street 51), the Phnom Penh Hilton (on Street 136), and the Pontoon Night Club (on Street 172). The drink prices compared with the riverfront are quite a bit lower with local draught – Cambodia, Anchor, and Angkor – going for USD 1 – 2 a half pint. For hard-core drinkers, it’s a paradise. The prices for a bit of company for the night are a good deal lower than one would encounter in the naughty nightlife areas of Thailand. A bar fine is around 10 USD and a liaison for the night can be anywhere between 30 – 50 USD, depending on your negotiating skills. At the Shanghai bar there’s a strange system in place where there’s no bar fine, but the punter must buy a lady five drinks before she can leave with you.
After doing a bar crawl with 006, I was pleasantly surprised at the friendly and less mercenary manner of the ladies. It seemed to be a throwback to an earlier time in Thailand (perhaps 15 years ago) where the girls would give you a back massage and a cuddle prior to hitting you up for a drink. Out along the street things are still a bit third worldish, with poverty and grime very much in evidence. While drinking at a street-side bar one evening I encountered a number of foreigners who had slipped into such dire situations, I didn’t even want to consider how they ended up that way. A couple of blokes sitting a few meters away were puffing constantly on local weed and looked so far out of it, one could only think there was no way back from the black hole they were dropping in to. Another, a likeable French chap, was busted flat broke and regaling me of his efforts to get paid for doing a USD 15 a day job. He had no money and was looking at sleeping on the street for the night. For the life of me I couldn’t comprehend how he’d allowed himself to slide into this kind of situation. Before things get so dire, why not just go back to his home country?
Some of the other bars around town:
On Street 172, and not far from the intersection of Street 51, is the ALL SPORTS BAR; the newest and arguably the best sports bar in Phnom Penh. The bar has been created in a large warehouse building. It is large and spacious and with 22 TV screens spread throughout two levels and it provides plenty of options for punters to watch their preferred sport. Whether it’s the EPL, NRL, AFL, NFL, F1, or the rugby, Dusty the manager will have a screen available even when things get a bit crowded. The food is great and the English breakfasts are currently the best in town.
MING’S BAR & BISTRO is a new addition to the bar and dining scene in Phnom Penh. It is a stylish setting for those who enjoy a relaxed atmosphere for a good quality wine or an imported beer. The food is of a high standard and the steaks and soups are amongst the best in town. If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale than the beer bars along the strip, MING’S BAR & BISTRO is the place to go.
Apparently, the FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS CLUB was the chosen watering hole for journalists covering the Vietnam War and the activities of the Khmer Rouge in the lead up to the 1975 communist takeover. The only evidence of this these days is the historical black and white photos on the walls. The foreign correspondents are nowhere to be scene. Still, not a bad spot for a sundowner or two over the Tonle Sap. The open walled area giving a view of the waterway creates a nice feel, sort of like half outdoors. Worth a look for a cold pint and a pizza.
The SHANGHAI BAR IS one of the bigger air-conditioned bars in Phnom Penh and is situated on the intersection of Street 172 and 51. It serves local beer for USD 1.50 a half pint during happy hour and seems to be one of the popular spots for the expat crowd to gather for early evening warm-up drinks. The bar has a lot of local girls working in the bar as hostesses. The manager Peter, an affable German, told me there’s no bar fine system in place but the girls can out with a customer after buying five drinks. They serve pub food of a reasonable standard and play background music at a volume which is low enough to be able to have a conversation.
After four days spent hanging out with my old mate 006, drinking far too much, I pushed on with my itinerary to check out one of the remote temple sites north of Phnom Penh, and then move onto Laos. For an in-depth trip report on the Khmer historical site of Prasat Preah Khan Kompong Svay, use this link to my travel blog.
Walking on eggshells:
For anyone who’s lived in the LOS for a significant period of time a key component for ensuring one’s health and continued well-being whilst here is not getting angry with the locals or worse, making them lose face. The issue of face and how it is as important as life itself to the Thais is something that foreigners need to be in tune with. Generally, the average Thai is easy-going by nature but if their “switch” flips, due to a perceived insult or slight, they can go totally ballistic and lose all sense of reasoning. The end result being a severe beating or worse, the killing of the person who offended them. Foreigners residing in Thailand are normally well aware of the threat posed by a Thai person who loses it, so they learn to keep a calm demeanour at all times. Keeping calm and displaying politeness is in admiral trait, all well and good. Except there are some occasions where a foreigner is forced to bite his lip, swallow his pride, or walk away, even though he or she has done nothing wrong, and it is quite obvious a Thai person is at fault. In that regard, living like this is a bit like continually walking on eggshells. The whole façade of it becomes wearisome. That is, always having to be on your guard against upsetting a local who could lose it due to the inability to accept any form of legitimate criticism.
Sometimes they can explode over the smallest of issues and come at you with any kind of weapon they can get their hands on. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a beating by a gang of enraged Thais it can definitely change the way you see the LOS and its inhabitants. In such situations many foreigners see the ugliness behind the mask, decide they no longer have an infatuation with the place, and pack up and leave. A good mate of mine was in such a situation a few months ago. After putting in 15 years in the LOS, he has returned to Australia. The way he explained it to me, he was lucky to still be alive. Apparently a group of angry locals, in a village somewhere south of Pattaya, laid into him and his Thai wife for a seemingly innocuous reason. He’d parked his jeep near a narrow laneway and a couple of local shop owners got angry because, in their eyes, his vehicle was blocking their access. One of the shop owners called for back-up and as my mate was doing his best to move his car, the mob threw him and his wife to the ground and starting putting the boot in. Luckily there were some responsible Thais about who knew his wife and intervened to drag them clear of their frenzied attackers. In the aftermath their rescuers said that one of the shop owners, who provoked the attack, was waving a large meat cleaver about and urging on the others attackers, saying “kill them, kill them.”
When you hear such a story it makes you realize the savagery of some of these people which is brooding just below the surface. These kinds of actions are not those of any civilised mind-set. It is something vicious, animal like, and only a small time frame removed from the jungle. It certainly gives one pause for thought. To add insult to injury, when both parties were taken back to the local police station to resolve the dispute, the attackers vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said “the farang started it.” We all know the routine from here, the farang will always need to make a donation to the local constabulary even when he’s had the living daylights beaten out of him. Luckily for my mate, his Thai wife was able to give her side of the story and an uneasy truce was agreed to. In the days following my enterprising buddy decided a bit of future self-preservation was needed, in case there was any additional fallout from the loss of face the enraged group may be feeling from not being able to extort the farang. With the assistance of his wife he was able to get a copy of the video footage from a nearby security camera which filmed the entire event. Little did he know the events that would transpire in the aftermath and how that video footage would create a political bombshell for the police in the local area.
In the weeks following his run in with the enraged group of locals and the police my mate Laurie was still getting harassed for some form of compensation to appease those who figured they’d lost face. It was quite a stressful situation for him and his family and Laurie decided he’d had enough of the nonsense so he gave a copy of the video footage to the top ranking police officer in the area; essentially the boss of the cop who’d been making life difficult for him. This also coincided with Laurie leaving Thailand for a couple of months on an overseas work assignment. Hoping that his lack of visibility in the area would see things forgotten, he put it to the back of his mind during his stint overseas. Unfortunately he failed to fully grasp the issue of face with the cop that had been harassing him. The guy lost some serious face with his superiors and decided, of his own volition, to issue an arrest warrant for my mate. When Laurie arrived back in Thailand he was promptly arrested at Suwarnabhumi Airport and placed in a holding cell for 24 hours. Luckily he was able to make contact with his Thai wife, who then contacted the top cop in the area. The upshot was that to secure his freedom, Laurie had to pay a donation to the police and sign some paperwork to say the matter had now been bought to a conclusion. The only positive thing to come out of it for him was the cop who’d been making life difficult for him was transferred to another area. It was shortly after this that Laurie decided he’d had his fill of the corrupt ways in the LOS, and it was time to pack up and move back to Australia.
Until next time,
Your roving commentator in South-East Asia
A wonderful collection of observations, thoughts and stories. Few people make me wish that I was over there in Thailand / South-East Asia. Your reports just about do….
Mega can be contacted at : [email protected]
or you can visit his website at : Megaworldasia.com