Around The Traps in South-East Asia – Part 8
Beware of the low-end:
Generalisations are something I try to avoid when making comment on the LOS. Others may not see it that way but if you read through most of my commentary carefully, you’ll note I’m always at pains to differentiate between the social interaction we can expect from the poor / lower end of this country and what one might expect from the better educated / middle-class / hi-so element. Unfortunately for most farang they only get to associate with the low-end – what else would you expect from hanging out in the red-light areas of Thailand? The problem with this is a lot of the poor experiences one can encounter from liaisons with Thais who either work (bar girls) or hang around the periphery (bargirls’ Thai boyfriends) of such areas tend to cloud, or colour, our interpretation of what can be expected from more normal, or mainstream, Thai society. In my experience, that is clearly a nonsense. The way the Thai middle class and hi-sos go about their lives is a world removed from places such as lower Sukhumvit.
When one considers any of the major tourist traps in Thailand – Phuket, Pattaya, lower Sukhumvit, Khao Sarn Road, etc., – it’s apparent the overwhelming majority of locals who work in these places are the low-end. In other words, the ones with the lowest education levels, whose lives are characterised by poverty, and most likely, hailing from upcountry provincial areas. That’s not to say they’re all bad but the reality is that tuk-tuk drivers, jet ski operators, motorbike taxi drivers, wait staff, massage girls, beauticians, street side hawkers, whores, pimps, touts, bouncers and beggars make up the greater population in these areas and they’re the ones that foreigners will typically have issues with. Be it with communication problems, rudeness, ill-discipline (pushing in), dangerous driving, petty theft, assault, getting cheated, scammed, and lied to, most of the negative side foreigners experience in the LOS, emanates from this low end. As an example, in a place like Patong Beach the population is comprised largely of the low end, or trailer trash, of Thai society. The Thais who are of a higher social status comprise just 5% of the population (or less) in Patong and work predominantly in government positions such as hospitals and medical care, the Immigration office, education, the Police force, and private institutions such as banking, hotels, and health care. The rest are there to rip you off as best they can. Yes, I know the Thai Police are well-known for their supposed dodgy ways as well, but the fact is the only time I’ve had an issue with the boys in brown was when I was actually in breach of Thai law i.e., not wearing a helmet on a motor bike, parking where I shouldn’t, etc., No complaints, I was in breach of Thai law, so I paid the 300 THB fine.
The thing is though, the Thai middle class and hi-sos are also aware of the dodgy ways of the great masses of the unwashed as well and will limit interaction with them to what is the absolute minimum. After all they understand the low-end’s capabilities for indiscipline and violence if they’re not kept in check. A good example of the low end given free rein would be the 2010 riots in downtown Bangkok. When the leaders of the rabble left the compound, the undisciplined mob reverted to type in central Bangkok; burning, looting, and a wave destruction. The low end in an unchecked state become a violent pack animal. This is something which is often seen in tourist areas across Thailand. A taxi driver goes ballistic and beats a tourist to a bloody mess because of a naïve mistake or misunderstanding. Taxi and tuk tuk drivers are especially dangerous because of the behind the scenes stresses at work in their private lives. Most are habitual football gamblers and they’re always stretched for cash, or in hock up to their eyeballs. This is one of the reasons for their constant harassment of customers to pay a fare above and beyond the metre. Many are just a small insult or slight away from a violent outburst and the pity for many tourists is that these low end scum bags are often the first point of contact for many visitors to the LOS. The taxi stand at the basement level of Suwarnabhumi has some interesting but completely useless signage there, supposedly to allay any fears tourists might have regarding over charging by taxi drivers. They are useless because at least 50% of taxi drivers ignore the concept of the fare system and if you do have a problem and call the hotline, what do you get at the other end? A Thai with minimal English language skills, if at all.
To avoid any potential issues with these guys when I go to Bangkok I’ve opted into doing what the Thais do, take the airport BTS to Makasan, then take the MRT one stop from Petchaburi to Asoke. By staying at the Somerset Lake Point Hotel, on Sukhumvit Soi 16, I’m able to make use of the free tuk-tuk service they provide. Walk through the Exchange Tower from the Asoke overhead walkway then call the hotel reception and ask them to send the tuk-tuk up to the corner of Soi 16. I’ve got to the point where I cannot be bothered dealing with the ignorance and stupidity of these low-end taxi drivers anymore. The fact they can’t control their spending habits is not the fault of the tourists arriving in Bangkok. We’re not here to help them prop up their gambling habits. Taxi drivers should be avoided as much as possible. And those freelance tuk-tuk drivers that careen around the streets of Bangkok, avoid completely otherwise there’s the distinct possibility you’ll get a savage beating over some small misunderstanding. Much the same as what happened to this poor fellow.
Apparently, he was ignorant of the Thai mindset when it comes to the soles of the feet being anywhere near their heads (he had his feet up and resting on a steel brace at the back of the driver’s seat). But even so, the overreaction by the tuk-tuk driver was beyond the bounds of normally accepted human behaviour. It was animal-like savagery at its worst. But, as I’ve already alluded to, this is the type of behaviour seen from the low-end in the tourist armpits of the country. It’s not the sort of behaviour or reaction one would see from the educated and the middle-class. Granted they might be offended by the above ignorant farang’s actions, but they would at least explain to you why this type of behaviour is considered bad manners in Thailand.
Some reading this may think I’m being too severe on the poor and poorly educated of this country. Perhaps so, but I stand by what I say in that the tourist traps of the LOS consistently have the worst Thais living and working there. People who think nothing of lying to you, cheating you, and beating you to a bloody pulp over some small infraction. A middle-class Thai lady I know recently backed up my assessment of the low-end in the tourist traps when she confided that she “didn’t feel safe around motorbike taxi drivers.” She went on to explain that her assessment is based on the very real fact “they could do anything to her (including being raped and beaten) and nothing would happen to them.” She further added “they’ve got no money so there’s no chance of compensation and if they were jailed, their lives inside the monkey house probably wouldn’t be much worse than their shitty existence out on the mean streets.” For the doubters out there, take it as a given the upper echelons of Thai society are well aware of the law-breaking capabilities of the low-end, and the wisdom of staying clear of them. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for many foreigners who either take up residence here or are regular visitors. Many end up congregating in the tourist traps and seem to be incredulous when a sweet little thing they met on Soi Cowboy cleans them out. This subject has been done to death on this website, so I won’t bore you with another “bargirl done me wrong” saga. But it is rather mind-boggling when you overhear conversations in bars on lower Sukhumvit between a couple of 50-year-olds who should know better, and they get rather emotional talking about “the scheming little cow” that cheated them. Overhearing one such conversation in The Kiwi Pub recently, I really felt like grabbing the two idiots by the scruff of the neck, banging their heads together and saying, “what the fuck do expect when you’re sitting in some tourist shithole and 95% of the local population working there are desperate to make a buck, any way they can?” Certainly, they’re not there for our benefit.
A recent trip to an off the beaten track location in Thailand – Prachuap Khiri khan – made this plainly obvious to me. Full trip report: http://www.megaworldasia.com/latest-trip-report/prachuap-khirikhan/ This is a place where very few foreign tourists go. It’s a place where the Thai middle-class from Bangkok take their short vacations and weekends away from the big city. There are no low-end scumbags anywhere to be seen. There are no rip-offs by the tuk-tuk drivers operating there. The local people are polite and ever willing to help you out. While there I was fortunate enough to be able to climb one of the coastal peaks in the area, Khao Lom Muak.
Khao Lom Muak – the view from the top
This peak sits within a Thai air force base and for that reason it’s only open on special holidays (e.g., Big Buddha Day). October the 13th 2017 was the first day of the late King’s extended holiday in the lead up to the cremation and therefore the gates were open for the public. A good number of the Thai middle-class were there to do the ascent and make merit for the late king. I was the only farang to make the climb on the day. During the ascent and descent, I was surprised by the number of Thais who offered me bottles of drinking water. Others offered me fruit and during a rest stop on the way up, one of the younger crew offered me his comfortable spot in the shade while we waited for a group to clear the track on the way down. This got me thinking about my experiences with the lower end in the tourist armpits of the LOS, I’d have been lucky to get the smell off their shit. And even then, they’d put a price on it.
A Scotsman who I shared a few sundowners with at a bar / restaurant along the beach-front gave me some insight when I offered my thoughts on the low-end of the country.
“Well it’s lack of education, isn’t it, coupled with a complex mix of poverty, the desperation for money, and the face issue. Most have the emotional maturity of children. They’re like kids really. And kids spill milk. How can you get angry with kids that spill the milk?”
“True enough, but that doesn’t excuse the dishonesty and lack of integrity?”
“And empathy, don’t forget the lack of empathy. With these dishonest types they see kindness as weakness.”
“Or an opportunity to be exploited.”
Deals within deals:
This is a situation we’ve often read about on this website where your Thai wife, or girlfriend, asks you to pay for a load of building materials – dirt, sand, bricks, cement – and the price is x amount. Except it isn’t x amount, it’s really one-third of the stated price, and she’s worked out a deal with the supplier to split the difference. Deals within deals. Another one is where a piece of land, nearby the family home, suddenly comes on to the market. The land is owned by a neighbour or relative, and they need a quick sale, so it’s going for a reduced rate. Except the land is already owned by her, or her family, and you’re just handing them a 300k THB gift. Deals within deals. Never forget that in those upcountry areas a loan is seen as a gift, and there’s never any intention to pay it back. If you force the issue you’re branded a keeneow, and / or jai dum. BTW, if any of those country yokels ever tell you that you’re jai dee, you’re paying too much. There’s always a deal going on and an angle for some kind of advantage somewhere, however small, so that face is gained within the family group and small community. A work colleague of mine built a swanky house on three rai of land down near Sattahip. Thinking ahead, and with an eye for a bit of profit, he planted 500 blue gum saplings on all the available spare land around his house. Five years down the track he was looking forward to making a tidy sum. Blue gums fetch a good market price when harvested at just the right size and height. Except his wife didn’t tell him of the deal she’d worked out with the local temple in the months leading up to the harvest. She’d agreed to give all the harvested blue gums to the monks at the temple. Deals within deals.
On a recent trip to Laos, I took a Nok Air flight from Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom. While waiting to board I had a few minutes of waiting time and found myself sitting next to what I could only describe as a 45-year-old bar girl / mamasan. Although the body was in reasonable nick, she had a face which had seen too many late nights. And the amount of gold hanging off her was a fairly good indication of her profession. We exchanged pleasantries and in passable English she began her line of interrogation – “where you going?” “how long you stay in Nakhon Phanom?” “you live in Thailand?” etc. She then made a point of mentioning she, and her chubby little sidekick, would be “shopping, eating, and drinking” in Nakhon Phanom. Fortunately for me the boarding bus arrived to interrupt the interrogation, although I did make a point of telling them I was going directly to Laos. The flight was uneventful in terms of further interaction with the 45-year-old bar girl and her sidekick. After arriving in Nakhon Phanom I made a beeline for the baggage carousel, hoping to pick up my gear and make a rapid exit. Unfortunately, baggage handling operations at these small provincial airports are a slow affair. Eventually the two harridans made their way across to where I was standing, pulled out their cell phones and asked for a barrage of selfies. Apparently, I was a “handsome man.” Once this occurred my scam meter went on orange alert. After about ten shots they cleared off to get their bags and even though mine were riding around the carousel, I waited for the two schemers to leave the arrivals area before clearing out. I’d flown to Nakhon Phanom previously, so I knew there was a taxi desk on the far side of the arrivals hall. With nobody in the queue I handed over the 200 THB for a private ride to the bus station (approx. 15 km). I emerged out into the pick-up area to see the 45-year-old bar girl, sitting in the front seat of a black sedan, and waving frantically for me two join her and her two mates. With my best shit-eating grin, I flashed her the taxi ticket and gave them an aw-shucks type shrug. In reality I was thinking “find some other mug to pay for your lunch and booze, you social parasites.” Seeing I had my shit sorted, the smiles faded quickly, and they barely glanced my way as they took off down the road. Deals within deals. With the low-end there’s always an angle. Nothing ever occurs without expecting some kind of payoff or tip.
Off the beaten track in Laos:
Thakhek; the swollen Mekong River at the peak of the rainy season (Nakhon Phanom opposite side)
Even though it’s land locked, the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos is one of my favourite “off the beaten track” destinations in the region. It’s a throwback to an earlier time in Thailand (20 years ago) when Thai smiles were more genuine, and the population wasn’t in the grip of consumerism. Typically, it won’t attract too many hardcore whoremongers as there’s no red-light strips or fleshpots to be seen anywhere. However, if you’re someone who enjoys chilling out over a cold beer and chatting with other travellers as the sun goes down across the Mekong River, then Laos is the place to go. It’s also a place which offers the more adventurous traveller the option of hiring a motorbike and riding off into remote areas with spectacular scenery, waterfalls, and caves. One such area in Central Laos is Khammouane Province. Recently, a motorbike tour has evolved which does a circuit through the jungle covered, karst terrain of the province. Known as the Thakhek Loop, it’s a 442 km circuit (completed in 4 – 5 days) which also takes in the world-renowned Khong Lor Cave – http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/the-thakhek-loop-trip-update-2017/ The start and finish point, naturally enough, is the sedate Central Laotian town on the banks of the Mekong, Thakhek. (NOTE: Thakhek sits directly opposite Nakhon Phanom, along the banks of the Mekong). Thakhek is a place which one can kick back and unwind over a beer Lao and some interesting conversation with a diverse range of travellers, or expats.
Along the riverfront in Thakhek
On my second night in town I got talking to a British fellow on a 4-year contract in Laos with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). According to him the ongoing issue in Laos is actually unexploded cluster bombs and not land mines (a problem more common to Cambodia). Apparently, there were more cluster bombs dropped along the Laotian side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War than in Europe during World War II. 40 years later the problem of unexploded ordnance in Laos still persists and as the country undergoes development (mainly mining and infrastructure projects) the MAG is being called in to clear areas which are assigned for development and construction. As with any younger expat with a decent paying job, he’s attracted the attention of the local ladies. So much so that 18 months into his assignment, he’s shacked up with a younger lass in Vientiane. And what he had to say about the arrangement was rather enlightening. It seems the motivations of rural girls, from a poorer socio-economic background in Laos aren’t much different to Thailand. Perhaps the expectations might be a bit lower, but it seems the influence of the family, and the need to provide for them, is the same as the story in the North-Eastern provinces of Thailand. The issue of “face” and the gaining of face is also hugely important. According to him the pressure for a constant flow of money never lets up. Particularly when other western boyfriends are buying new vehicles and motorbikes for their paramours, who are close friends of the Brit’s girlfriend. When he told me this I was hardly surprised. As within the poorer populations in Thailand, gaining face and status amongst friends and/or rivals in a small community is paramount. I made the comment the sad truth is most of these ladies are not terribly interested in who or what we are (our merits and qualities) just what they can gain while the relationship lasts. He agreed completely and said the underlying greed of the family had scotched any possibility of marriage to the girl. Once he’d completed his 4-year assignment he’d be heading back to the U.K. And that, when one considers the constant, ongoing difficulties for any foreigner trying to live long-term in this part of the world seems to be the sensible option; live in your home country, taking advantage of all the benefits afforded to a citizen of the land, and take your holidays in South-East Asia.
After a few days spent chilling out in Thakhek and doing some day trips to a couple of nearby cave sites, I set off on a 3-day caving and kayaking expedition to one of the world’s largest river caves: Xe Bangfai Cave in Khammouane Province, Central Laos. Full trip report: http://www.megaworldasia.com/latest-trip-report/xebangfai-cave-update-2017/
Link to promotional video: http://www.megaworldasia.com/videos/
Waiting to die:
For those committing to retiring in the LOS there’s plenty to consider before taking the plunge. First and foremost is one’s physical well-being, followed closely by financial considerations. Often, one is inextricably linked to the other. For those with a good pension plan and level head on their shoulders, retiring in the LOS can be a reasonably easy way to see out one’s twilight years. However, there are many who are just scraping by on a minimum monthly pension or worse, who’ve invested all their hard-earned retirement money into a property in the North-East of the country and are living in a miserable situation, broke, and waiting to die.
According to Brett, an Aussie I met on the flight back from Nakhon Phanom, there are hundreds, if not thousands of farangs living like this in Isarn <It might even be tens of thousands – Stick>. I was a bit sceptical at first but an hour in to the flight and after a recounting of numerous horror stories I was finding it hard to doubt his assessment. There was another Aussie who’d burnt his bridges back home, was down to his last 4,000 dollars, and knew he’d be arrested on arrival back in Melbourne. Then there was a Brit who’d spent everything on a palatial mansion in Nakhon Phanom and after running out of cash, apart from a monthly pension, his Isarn wife returned to the Pattaya bars to make more money. She returned every 3 – 4 months to sell off pieces of furniture in the house and also to pressure him to leave because his usefulness had expired. Brett told me the guy was digging his heels in and refusing to vacate the house. I said it wouldn’t be long before another farang in Isarn has an unexplained suicide. There was also the 70-year-old German, apparently in good health, who’d died suddenly. His Isarn wife had him cremated the day after he died. The rumour is, it was a cover up to prevent an autopsy by the dead German’s family.
Brett’s story was typical of many older guys who’d got involved with the wrong type of Thai women. Now in his early 60s he’d put in 15 years in the LOS, been through the mill, but fortunately had the presence of mind to return to his native Australia while he still had his wits about him. He was now living in Brisbane, had a reasonably comfortable life, and was able to take extended trips around Asia for 2 – 3 months at a time. He said, although enjoyed coming back to Thailand for short trips, he’d never live there permanently again. He’d just completed what was, in all likelihood, his last trip to see his teenage son and had been told by his ex “you don’t come back here.” Brett, like so many others, fell for a Pattaya bargirl and built a nice, big house on the outskirts of Nakhon Phanom. Unfortunately for Brett, he wasn’t fully aware of his wife’s gambling habits. That all changed the day the loan sharks came to see him and his duplicitous, Isarn vixen finally came clean and said she’d mortgaged the house and gambled away all the money. The loan sharks came to him for an outstanding debt and, after considering the potential threat to his son’s safety, he paid them off. He said he packed up and left shortly after because his wife, ignoring his warnings he wouldn’t provide anymore bailouts, continued her reckless habits. After returning to Australia he continued to provide a small monthly stipend for his son’s education but that ended when he found out the wife had returned to working in the bar, married another Australian, and had gone to Sydney for a 3-month vacation. He eventually tracked down the other guy and sent an email telling him his wife was now married to two Australians.
According to Brett, village marriages for a foreigner are nothing more than a scam and they have no legal recognition by the Thai government without registration at the marriage office. If your Thai girlfriend wants a village wedding but won’t do the legal registration beforehand, run for the hills because it’s simply a farce to relieve you of a few hundred thousand baht and give a bunch of country bumpkins the chance to have a huge booze up at your expense. Village marriages for some girls are a business and due to naiveté of some farang’s regarding the legal standing, they’re able marry a number times without issue. As one relationship ends, they move straight onto another one. Sin sot (the dowry) of course is the prime motivator in this regard. Brett said he got conned out of 20 baht of gold and 250k in cash. I told him that sin sot paid to a bargirl goes against all the norms of real Thai culture. A prostitute is damaged goods and in the Thai world, she attracts no sin sot. As an aside, for those who are interested about the aspect of sin sot and how it might apply to a farang, a green star submission by Camaschula is a great read: https://www.stickmanbangkok.com/readers-submissions/2005/12/the-case-against-sin-sot-and-other-reasons-not-to-give-thai-women-money/
One of Brett’s most compelling remarks kind of summed up my own assessment of a foreigner trying to create a relationship with a lady, from a background of poverty, in South-East Asia. “Good girl, bar girl, massage girl, office worker, bank employee, and nurse, I’ve tried them all mate. And in the end, it all dove-tails back to the same two things; money and family.”
Understanding Thai Culture:
“If a Thai person say they’re not class-conscious, they’re lying. We’ve been brainwashed since the day we were born. It’s just not politically correct to say it so they make a point to keep it hidden.”
“Isaan girls to Thai people are for housekeeping jobs or other low-level / labour jobs. Not to be hooked up. Unless you’re an Isaan moto bike taxi driver. Thai guys with half of an average farang education and socio-economic status won’t have a look at an Isaan girl. Brutal truth for many farangs, I’m sure.”
The above comments were in emails I received from a Thai hi-so women.
By and large, a Thai will always look to forge a relationship or marriage with someone of an equal socio-economic standing or, if they have the good fortune, a partner of slightly better social status. A Thai man with a good educational background and a good career, such as in the government or banking, would never be caught dead with a poorly educated lass from an upcountry village. Aside from the loss of face brought on himself and his family, there would be no move up in status. The thought of taking up with a poorly educated girl from a farm with children from a previous relationship, would go against everything that he represents in Thai society. The point is that knowing one’s place in the hierarchy of Thai society is cornerstone of what Thai culture is actually all about. They are all perfectly aware of this but most farang are not. For the farang, understanding Thai culture is more about learning the language, having an interest in Buddhism, and the arts and crafts. All well and good except this is actually the shallow, showy stuff and doesn’t really get to the heart of Thai social interaction. The unwritten rules.
A timely exit:
This is a story about a work colleague of mine who, after realising he was never going to be anything other than a walking ATM for his Isarn girlfriend, flew the coop after a showdown over a new pick-up truck for papa. Mike, originally from the UK, worked in the offshore oil and gas industry and had been spending his work breaks in the LOS. He eventually got involved with a bargirl he met in Bangkok and during his vacations they’d divide their time between the City of Angels, and her village in the North-East. A couple of months into the relationship the girlfriend floated the idea of buying a pick-up truck for papa. Mike wasn’t particularly averse to the idea and figured a second-hand vehicle might come in handy while he was up at the farm. Mike went back to work for six weeks and while away, the girlfriend continued to provide little reminders, by email, about the pick-up truck purchase. When he finally arrived back in Bangkok, the girlfriend met him at the airport and said enthusiastically that “she’d already been to a Toyota dealership, picked out a new Hilux, and they needed to get over there quickly to close out the deal.” When Mike calmly explained he was only considering a second-hand purchase, due to the very real potential of her “brothers crashing the thing while driving drunk,” the girlfriend lost it completely and said, “she didn’t want a second-hand one because everyone will think her boyfriend was a keeneow.” According to Mike, as soon as she said that he realised that she’d already told everyone in the village she was getting a new pick-up truck. Mike is a cool character and a logical thinker. He is responsible for the lives of many employees whilst offshore, so blowing a gasket over minor issues wasn’t part of his MO. He told me at that point he knew he had to get out of Thailand. After his girlfriend had her hissy fit in the taxi, he calmly put an exit strategy in place. He told the girlfriend they’d go to look at new vehicle but first he wanted to check in to the hotel, have a shower, a couple of beers, and relax for an hour or so. After checking in at the hotel, on Sukhumvit Soi 33, he gave the girlfriend 1000 THB and asked her to go down to a nearby 7 Eleven to buy some beers and a few snacks. A few seconds after she stepped out of the hotel entrance, he handed the keys back to the reception staff, and quickly flagged down a taxi back to the airport. He told me he knew a 1000 THB was enough for a bus ticket north, for the (ex) girlfriend. He turned off his phone as soon as he stepped into the taxi and when he arrived back at Suwarnabhumi, he caught the next available flight back to the UK. Mike has never returned to Thailand and he’s never contacted his ex-girlfriend again.
My irregular contributions to this site are an amalgam of travel experiences (trip reports) in the region, combined with situations I’ve seen and experienced first-hand, and anecdotes from people I meet and converse with on my travels. I generally try to back it up with photographs of locations I’ve been to and links to other relevant information. My assessment of situations I encounter and the stories I garner from the people I meet, are based on the experiences of having lived for over twenty years in the region. Those assessments have been concurred by others posting to this site over the past fifteen years, with the experience of similar circumstances. By and large the responses to most of what I contribute agree with my assessments. Every now and again, someone feels personally affronted by what I write and takes me task over it. Most of us have been raised in democratic societies so I accept the idea that people will disagree from time to time. If you don’t like what I write, fair enough. But instead just coming on here and telling people they’re wankers and losers, how about telling the readership why you feel personally affronted but what’s been written?
Until next time, your roving commentator in South East Asia,
I very much understand how you feel when it comes to dealing with those who work in the bar industry / with tourists. That is one reason why whenever I visit Thailand I prefer to go to better places and stay away from where tourists go. You pay more but you avoid those bad experiences for the most part.
The author of this submission can be contacted at : [email protected]