Stickman's Weekly Column January 2nd, 2005

That Bitch Mother Nature


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My deepest sympathies go out to all directly and indirectly affected by the tidal waves throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

That Bitch Mother Nature

It is from a very somber Bangkok that this week's column comes, a city that has been glued to the TV for most of the week, watching initially with morbid fascination, but later almost with embarrassment at the macabre scenes that have flooded our TV screens all week. While I chose not to cover the event on this site when it first broke out, what follows are a few thoughts and anecdotes.

We know what happened and know all about the horrendous loss of life. But how are things now? Are the areas in the south uninhabitable due to the prolific spread of tropical disease or are things returning to some semblance of normality?

Much of Patong Beach has been cleaned up very quickly indeed. Hit hard, it was a hell of a mess, but speedy efforts to clean it up have quickly turned it into the sort of place where one can once again enjoy their holiday. The beach itself has apparently been totally cleaned up and apart from rubbish which washes up each day, it is almost back to how it was. Many businesses and premises on or near the beach road where damaged or destroyed so it will be a while before they are repaired or rebuilt. Apparently over at Kata and Karon beaches it is much the same. And for those who like to party into the night, most bars were open within a few days of all the havoc. So the word coming out of the south is to go to Phuket, enjoy it, and spend some money, that's what the locals want.

Many of the hotels that we had initially thought had been totally destroyed or ruined only suffered a small amount of damage and tradesmen are racing to get them repaired as fast as possible. A few of the online hotel reservation services have lists of all of the hotels and their current status, and fortunately it is not nearly as bad as was originally thought, on Phuket at least. On Phiphi, Khao Luk and at a few other spots, obviously the situation is somewhat different.

Whenever such disaster strikes, there will be those who thrive on others' misfortune. Some hotels with free rooms jacked up their prices from those that were already at high season level. But perhaps the worst story I heard was of tuktuk drivers asking 1,500 – 2,000 baht of tourists desperate to get from Patong Beach to the airport. When the price was appealed as too expensive the tuktuk drivers responded, "ok, you walk." Heartless. And at Bangkok airport many taxi drivers were asking ludicrous amounts to get arriving passengers from the airport to the city centre.

And then there were the stories of looting, from both shops and worse, from bodies. One foreigner with a shop at Patong Beach claims that he lost 52 million baht in stock. ATM machines were attacked, thieves obviously after the cash. I mean the metal variety, not the walking variety.

I hate to trivialize it, but some good will come out of the disaster.

Phuket's beaches had become over-run with beach chairs and umbrellas to the point that on my last visit, which was three odd years ago, it felt more like a giant resort, and not a public beach.

And then there are the prices. It cannot be denied that prices in the touristy spots of Phuket have gone silly in recent years. Some hotels charge astronomical rates in high season, the tuktuk drivers are without a doubt the greediest of all in this profession nationwide and many restaurants in Patong are seriously overpriced. Perhaps there will be some sort of correction? Perhaps not.

A number of readers have asked about lodging money with Thai friends or staff in hotels, in order that they see that it gets to the right people. With all due respect, this is probably not the best approach. In the newspapers, on TV and on the radio they are listing charity after charity to whom donations can be made. I believe every 7 Eleven branch can accept cash donations too. To ensure that money gets to the appropriate charity, donate it to them. A list is provided below.

I truly believe that despite the horrendous damage and loss of life caused by the tidal waves, the future for the tourist industry in the effected area is very bright and there is no doubt in my mind that Thailand, and the Thai people themselves, are going to come out of this smelling rosy red. There has been much compassion shown and the care and unending assistance of the local Thais has been a huge credit to all Thai people. The Thai government also chipped in and did all they could to assist foreigners to get back home as quickly as possible by providing free flights from the effected region to Bangkok and then from Bangkok to Farangland. Many companies have provided assistance, such as the telecommunications companies providing free calls, the airlines providing free flights and so on. Full marks to everyone for rallying around in this time of need.

And for many, in a sort of twisted way, Thailand is now well and truly on the tourist map. Especially for folks from those parts of the world where Thailand was perhaps not so known, they now have a new holiday choice.

The south of Thailand was a nightmare for the country in 2004, but what happened last Sunday completely overshadows all of the other trouble the region has experienced. The chaos caused by the separatists pales into insignificance when we saw what that bitch mother nature can do.

For anyone wanting to make a donation, here are a few possibilities:

American Red Cross – International Response Fund
Australian Red Cross
International Committee of the Red Cross
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad
Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors without Borders
World Vision
UN World Food Programme

WHERE IS THIS PICTURE?

It was the Sukhumvit / Asoke intersection.

And if you're really good, name the taxi driver!

Last week's pic was taken from the Asoke intersection, just south of Sukhumvit Road, looking north up Asoke. The old Asoke Plaza bar area would be sort of over to the right. Only one person got it right, the several others who sent in answers going for Petchaburi or Wittayu. Each week the first reader to correctly state where the pic is by email to me wins a 500 baht credit from Tony's Bar in Soi Cowboy. Please note that the credit MUST be claimed within two weeks. So, to claim that prize, you must be in Bangkok at some time in the next two weeks.

FROM STICKMAN'S EMAIL INBOX

Tourism industry decline?

As if things weren't already slow in Thailand, this latest disaster of truly Biblical proportions might well kill a hell of a lot of the tourist industry. This is the unfortunate truth of 'Acts of God' as defined by the insurance industry – and the events of 26 December were truly an act of God on a huge scale. A lot will recover, but the majority will be too scared to return to the beaches for a long time – the positive side of this is that maybe prices will come down to reasonable levels again?

Brothers in arms.

Tonight on the news I saw a very touching scene. A European who could not find his friends, in a great deal of stress, was comforted by one of the Thais at a relief centre. The Thai saw this mans sadness and placed his arm around him trying to help him. I don't want to see another complaint that Thais don't care.

Happy to be here.

I live and work in Bangkok. Like so many people here and around the world I was horrified by the news of the tsunami and it's toll of death and destruction. The numbers are huge. However, it really hit home today when I read the Phuket Gazette missing persons page, and looked at pictures of those still missing. Perhaps this year we shouldn't wish a happy new year to people, rather we should tell them thanks for being here, and most importantly, I love you.

Almost back to normal.

Being on Phuket is like being on an island of tranquility compared to what is going on in the surrounding countries. The death toll continues to rise rapidly in areas of Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asia that have little infrastructure remaining and are in desperate need of aid. By latest count, 5 million are left homeless in the wake of the devastation. Here in Phuket, where most all of the infrastructure is intact, life is easy. Roads are fine. Yesterday the biweekly local market was here the small resort town of Kata. Food supplies are not a problem as most restaurants and convenience stores are running as usual. Water trucks selling large bottles of bottled water still make the rounds. Running water and sewage systems are both functioning normally. Mobile communications on the AIS system are still a bit spotty, but more reliable now. DTAC seemed to be fine even during those first few chaotic days. Land lines are fine, and internet access is not a problem. Most of the dive centers and business owners I know report no casualties.

From a Phuket bar owner.

What we need is actually people still coming, otherwise we will have our second disaster financially. Tai Pan and Tiger bars have been open for a few days and today rest of the bar sois get their electric back so I guess all bars on Bangla will open tonight except for the ones that was hit hard on the main road. Life is back to normal and people work hard to clean up and renovate Patong, the best way to support Phuket is to come here.

The Thai smile.

I was planning to be in Phi Phi over Christmas, but instead opted to remain in Hong Kong where I work. (Hong Kong is absolutely rocking by the way. Awesome fun, non-stop night-life, vibrant, massive rebound in the economy – a very positive vibe here right now). Anyhow, a Thai girl I know flew over for a shopping trip (man do they love shopping!) and came to visit me for a few days. During a post-Christmas Day dinner at a friend's place we decided to put on CNN on the TV to get an update. There was footage of a beach in Phuket with people running as fast as they could to get away from a big wave. One of the guests, a Westerner, watching the TV with us commented on the footage "Look at all those Thais grinning. Their beach is being destroyed, people are drowning, and they are all just smiling! What is so funny about a disaster like that?" I admit it did look strange to see people literally running from a big wave just behind them, with what seemed to be big smiles on their faces. I tried to explain that maybe they didn't realize at the time how serious the Tsunami was, but the Thai girl immediately clarified "They are not smiling because they think its funny. They are scared and also feel sorry for all the foreigners there, and they might be ashamed something bad is happening, so they are smiling to make every feel more calm and so people don't get worried. Often when something very bad happens we will smile to make anyone who is sad or scared try to feel better. Its our way of reassuring everyone that everything will be OK". You guys who live over there might of course already know this kind of facial expression, but I found this explanation quite interesting. It shows that a facial expression used in one country can be misinterpreted by people in other countries, and it puts the term "Land of Smiles" into a new context for me.

Severance pay for foreigners.

I recently changed employer (after being made redundant) in BKK and I was very surprised to find they were going to pay severance. I believe my boss tried to avoid it but the lawyer told him he would have to pay! They said I was entitled to the same as the Thai staff and as I had worked for the company for more than 1 year but less than 6 years, I got 3 months salary! I don’t know if you are aware of this entitlement but it may benefit you or your friends.

No movie classifications.

Regarding your question last week about children seeing adult movies in Bangkok cinemas…at this time there are no ratings in Thailand…only censors, so anything that makes it to the screen is available for all ages to walk into, with or without an adult. Of course, the censors do occasionally chop up said features, but it is very inconsistent. In general, it seems that all violence is okay, although the odd gun or cigarette may be pixelated. Also, Thai ladies breasts will be censored, but farang breasts are okay. Last week, it was reported that a ratings board has been proposed and was supposed to go through government review imminently. I don't know the outcome of this, but it sounds like a good thing because adults can have more options of what they can see, and parents can have more control over what their kids shouldn't see.

If you're into B+D or something a little spicier than the norm, mosey on down to Demonia in Sukhumvit Soi 33 which is the new name for the bar once known as The Cave.

On New Year's Eve, Hollywood Two was the last bar to close in Nana Plaza and they were still enjoying a drink at 6.00 AM! This notwithstanding, people reported to me that there seemed fewer girls in the Nana Plaza bars this New Year's Eve. Angelwitch and Hollywood Two each only had 28 dancers turn up for work and even the normally brimming Hollywood Carousel had only 37 dancers. It would seem that some bargirls decided to take the 2,000 baht cut rather than turn up for work on New Year's Eve.

On New Year's Eve at 11.30 PM Nana Disco, aka Angels, held one minutes silence for the victims of the earthquake disaster. Good to see that even in Bangkok's nightlife entertainment that people have compassion.

Boss Hogg's (the old Vixen's on floor two) opened on New Year's Eve. With Boss Hogg also owning Lucky Luke's and Big Dogs he will have a huge number of pretty girls to move up there if he wants, or perhaps he will do some serious staff recruitment? It looks nicely furbished inside with a panoramic view from the balcony seats. This latest addition to Nana Plaza is much welcomed after the terrible eyesore that the old derelict building was.

Following on from the destruction of Asoke Plaza, all the beer bars on Sukhumvit between Soi 11 and 13 will be the next to go. As they have gotten a notice from the Sofitel they have a year to move out. This is what happened with the bars in Asoke Plaza by the way, where the destruction of the area was based on a court order. Anyone who lost confidence in investing in Thailand need not worry as everything that happened there was done by the book. Back to the bars near Sukhumvit sois 11 and 13, they should have 3 or 4 months more and then they will be closing them. The other area which has been mooted to go is Washington Square and apparently everybody down there has around two years left there. The current area will be replaced by a shopping complex and condos. This is not really surprising as that area is prime real estate, just a stone's throw from the Emporium and a BTS station. It should be noted that the mooted closing of this area includes the ever popular Bourbon Street. Also to go are the Queens Park beer bars. That area is scheduled to become a parking garage for the Queens Park Hotel. All of these bar areas home to quieter bars, places where people can go for quiet drink, without any real pressure from the staff to buy anything more than a drink. With Soi Zero seemingly winding down, and the strong possibility that these bars will soon be gone, that will remove most of the "quiet naughty bars" in the central area, something which won't please the not insignificant number of locals who like such places.

Flowers To Thailand have decided to give 50% of their revenue for the next week's flower sales directly to the Thai Red Cross. They will be giving our customers individual receipts for each individual donation to the Red Cross so they can see that the donation has been made. GREAT STUFF!!!

This week finally took on the look of high season in Pattaya. Not only is Walking Street overcrowded with wall-to-wall visitors, but bars from Naklua to Jomtien are prospering as well this despite what some Pattaya locals have described as inordinately high prices of alcoholic beverages and less than attractive working girls inordinately low – at beer bars that is. The latter may well change in the coming days and weeks as displaced ladies of the night head north to seek employment in Pattaya on the heels of the tragic destruction in the south.

There were major crowds at many of Walking Street's better gogo bars (Peppermint, Diamond, Carousel, Happy, and the new Beach Club) too. Not coincidentally, the leading clubs all feature low-priced tap beer (45 to 60 baht per glass) and employ large numbers of dancing girls and hostesses, most of whom are not modest about showing their wares and / or performing with one another in bawdy shows.

Pattaya's City fathers cancelled what was to have been a gala New Year's celebration in Pattaya – fireworks, big-name entertainers, 6 AM closing. The announcement came on the heels of the Thai Government request that New Year celebrations be restrained in memory of those who were injured or lost their lives down south. As a result the party at Bali Hai Pier was cancelled, fireworks displays at hotels, restaurants and most other venues were quashed, public festivities in general were muted, and all were ordered to shut down by 1 AM, but then, did you think that would actually happen? Nah, there was partying and all sorts of carry on well into the night, around 3 AM or so to be precise. Of course, it was much the same nationwide. People were told to restrain as an act of respect, but a years wait for a New Years party was not something that was going to be quashed so easily!

Virtually every NGO in Pattaya – led by foreign organizations – has established drives to collect food, clothing and money to help those who were injured and the many who lost have been quick to contribute what they could, including blood. But many were also turned away because they were older than 60 or because their blood type was not RH negative – which reportedly is in short supply. The response of foreigners living and visiting has been overwhelming.

Driving around rural Korat this weekend, I was amazed that there was police checkpoint after police checkpoint. There seems to be a genuine crackdown on the roads this New Year holiday. I did something like 150 – 180 km driving around rural Korat yesterday and without exaggeration, I think I went through about 20 checkpoints! One thing's for sure, they were NOT cracking down on motorcyclists without helmets. I guess they'll wait until the police station chief has his helmet factory up and running before they do that.

And also in Korat, visiting one of Mrs. Stick's uncles, I was somewhat surprised when the topic of conversation switched from the disaster in the south, to Thailand and its reputation in the world and the way other countries perceive it. The topic did not get very far at all when a somewhat inebriated uncle offered what has to classify as the quote of the week. He said, "I am proud that the women of Thailand are the world's darlings to the men of the world."

One of my favourite local authors, David Young, has just released his latest novel, "Sukhumvit Road". I'm reading it now and it's pretty good.

With food so cheap in Thailand, it is a wonder that people don't just eat out all the time. Well, some people do, but most don't. Of course those families without a lot of money will find it cheaper to buy the ingredients at a market and cook it at home, but there are those who simply do not have enough money to eat out. But one thing I have noticed recently is the number of Thai people who eat at home because they claim to have had bad experiences eating out. Some have told me that they can cook better at home, but many have said that the restaurant experience isn't always what it could be, ranging from bad service, to bad food, to long waiting times. The number of Thai people who have told me that they leave a restaurant in a bad mood and would thus rather eat at home took me by surprise.

They didn't waste time down at Big C in Rachadamri this week. One reader reported that the big display screen was advertising the National Geographic Tsunami VCD.

I wonder if many people will seize the chance to disappear? If ever one wanted to disappear completely, now would be the time to do it. With Western passports going for around 80,000 baht in Bangkok, someone who wanted to disappear and perhaps assume a new identity has the ideal chance. And what about those people with long overstays? Saying that they were caught up in the disaster in the south and that they lost everything, may be enough for them to get a new passport issued. I wonder if this sort of thing will become something of a phenomenon?

I dread the toll booths on the Don Meuang expressway, just a couple of clicks north of the airport, heading north. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked to make a contribution to the coffers of the local constabulary. Well, there is a 3 month trial underway with a new flat rate 20 baht charge to encourage more people to use the expressway. The 33 baht saving is nice, but the real benefit is that the cops aren't there waiting for you as the booths are unmanned and you can just drive on through. Believe me, this is quite a relief as one gets awfully pissed off at the attempted to shakedowns.

Ask the Sticks

Mrs. Stick is here to answer questions surrounding anything that confuses you in Thailand, particularly issues of the heart. Please note that for general bargirl related questions, Mr. Stick might answer them. It has to be said that Mrs. Stick is not your stereotypical Thai woman. She is not Buddhist and she is not shy to criticise things about her own country and culture, although she remains proud to be Thai. Mr. Stick will try and answer the questions which Mrs. Stick is not so sure about.

Question 1: Where are all the older and middle aged people of Thailand? Why is it mostly young people working in the shops around Bangkok? Also take a look at the crowds on the skytrain in Bangkok. 90% are under 30 years old. Where is the older generation (say around 40 years old and up)? They do not commute?

Mr. Stick says: Mrs. Stick wasn't sure so I'll give it a go. Successful older Thais will have a car, and if they have a car they will certainly drive it to work, irrespective of where they live, even if home is right next to one skytrain station and work right next to another. Less than successful older Thai people probably commute by bus. There are plenty of people over 30 on the skytrain so I guess your eyes tend to gravitate towards the younger women and you do not notice everyone else. Finally, I am not sure of the demographics in Thailand, but it would not surprise me if a good percentage of the population was aged under 30.

Question 2: Is it true that high society Thai girls prefer not to marry – or be serious – with a farang? Are the hi-so Thai girls preferred to be married to people of their own kind only? If yes, why does there exist such a bias? Why are farangs less desirable mates, unless the woman comes from a poor or middle class family? Please explain.

Mrs. Stick says: I will have to make a few assumptions here. The true hi-so in Thailand are those who have had money for a long time and not really the recently rich. In the families of the true hi-so, the money is often controlled by the older people in the family and they are the types who may not have got used to the idea of more and more Westerners living in Thailand. With this in mind, they may not allow, or at least strongly oppose, anyone in the family marrying someone from another race. But actually, there are more and more hi-so who are choosing to marry farang so I'm not really totally sure.

I have resisted the temptation to include pictures of the horrors from the south in this week's column. Many thanks to readers who took the time to send in pictures but I just don't think they need to be included. There are many, many sites online with pictures or of course you can switch on the box to virtually any channel locally and see footage of the disaster. There are also many, many sites with fresh news and stories of the tragedy, though I have to say that for now, I personally am a bit disastered out.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Thanks go out to Dave The Rave, Mr Write and SunbeltAsia.