Stickman's Weekly Column April 22nd, 2007

Alternatives To Thailand


So Thailand is no longer an option. There could be any number of reasons for it, but for many, Thailand really is no longer an option. But neither is home. You don't want to return to your homeland. You like Thailand but it just isn't working. There are alternatives. Throughout South East Asia there are many countries that share similarities with Thailand.

Thailand means different things to all of us. For me, the big positives are the adequate infrastructure in Bangkok, the range of food and restaurants available, the warm weather, the cheap cost of living and more than anything, the people and their joie de vivre.

I also value the safety factor – spending most of my time in central areas and avoiding confrontation with the locals means that my chances of having a problem are minimised. The fact that quality healthcare is readily available and affordable in Bangkok cannot be under-rated.

That Thailand has a variety of interesting places to visit is also a bonus. Mountains in the north, beaches in the south and history in the north and northeast only touches on the leisure and holiday options. Obviously many like the naughty side of life so that has to be factored in.

Do other countries in the region offer a genuine alternative? What follows is a basic look at the other countries in the region, analysing whether they make for genuine alternatives to Thailand, or not. I have visited some of the countries so call on my own experiences as well as referring to friends who either live in some of these countries now, or lived there for a period in the past.

Singapore

I often describe Singapore as the only place where you can find the best of the West as well as the best of the East. One of, if not the safest city on earth, high quality medical care and a true Western infrastructure as well as many pretty Asian women, outstanding Asian food and the warmth of the tropics make Singapore a quite seductive mix.

Singapore doesn't just compare favourably with Bangkok, it outdoes the City of Angels in many, many respects. First and perhaps foremost, you do not have to sacrifice your career. There's no need to be an English teacher in Singapore, in fact there is no demand for everyone speaks English perfectly well already. There are many employment opportunities and you get paid an income commensurate with what you would get in the West! And not only do you get a Western income, with the Singapore taxation at around 10% and the bonus system that in many positions gives you an extra 3 to 5 months salary, most people will be way better off financially!

You do not have the language issues that exist in Thailand. This gives you a real feeling of belonging. In Thailand you are always the foreigner. Even after many years in country you find yourself saying something and a Thai genuinely not understanding what is said. Alai wa! This issue just doesn't exist in Singapore!

The country and the government are stable. Read this as meaning that if you are granted permanent residence – and many Westerners are granted PR status – you know you can keep it, the rules will not change, and you have the same rights as all other Singaporean residents. You can buy any property, and you can do so with the same set of rights as Singaporeans. This is awfully foreign to Westerners resident in Thailand, in fact it sounds too good to be true.

Most foreigners in Thailand love Thai food but even the food in Bangkok – which is very, very good – cannot compare with what is available in Singapore, known the world over as the food capital of Asia. And street food in Singapore may very well be the best in the world. Admittedly it costs more than the equivalent in Thailand – but you get what you pay for.

In this writer's opinion, the Singapore girls are at least as attractive as the Thais. In fact in my eyes the ladies of Singapore are amongst the most beautiful on the planet, although the concept of the five C's (cash, car, credit card, condominium, and (membership of) country club) isn't a good thing! Singaporean women, while very easy on the eye, are known for their materialism.

All of Asia is easily accessible through Changi Airport, one of the best airports in the world. Just as well really for the island nation is small and there are a very limited number of things to do. It is not unreasonable to think that Westerners resident in Singapore would often take trips outside the country. Still, what you do have in Singapore compares favourably with other places. Even their bookstores kick Thailand's in the butt.

Compared to Thailand, Singapore is expensive. Some of the better street food vendors can charge as much as $Sing 10 a dish – although this is not the norm. Taxis are much more expensive than Thailand, but still cheaper than the West. The killer is of course accommodation. For decent digs you'll need to be on the sort of salary earned by professionals.

I like Singapore. I like it a lot. Always have in fact. Visiting Singapore is quite different to living there no doubt. A number of guys who have lived there and later relocated to Thailand speak of the stoic nature of many of the locals and how it can get to you eventually. There is also the issue of freedom of speech. Some things cannot be discussed in Singapore but so long as you keep clear of politics you should be ok.

Of course there are other downsides. The nightlife leaves a lot to be desired and is very expensive when compared with Bangkok. A beer in a decent bar can set you back in excess of 250 Thai baht. But a weekend away in Bangkok is do-able and you can get discount airfares for less than $Sing 200.

For those who have professional careers and want to be in Asia but at the same time advance their careers in a highly lucrative environment, Singapore very well may be the place.

For those who are retired (or unable to fit into the fast-paced, but lucrative, professional life in Singapore), then Singapore is almost certainly not the ideal spot.

For those who wish to spend much time with ladies of the night, while such delights do exist, Singapore is hardly considered the best place for such liaisons.

In summary, Singapore is an excellent option for those who are career minded and the quality of Westerners living and working in Singapore reflects this.

Vietnam

Communist Vietnam is said to be developing at a frenetic pace and whenever you hear of Thailand's apparent poor economic performance, compared to its neighbours that is, you almost always hear that Vietnam will, in time, overtake it. Vietnam recently overtook Thailand as the world's largest exporter of rice and many multinationals are choosing to set up factories in Vietnam than in Thailand.

Often seen with big smiles just like their Thai brethren, the jury is out on the people of Vietnam. Some say they're the friendliest in the region whereas others report them to be pushy, aggressive and threatening. Attempts made to learn the language, itself tricky, will no doubt reward those who make the effort and will ease the ability to befriend and mix with the locals.

The Vietnamese take education much more seriously than the Thais and with a relatively young population – there are 85 million of them and half the population is aged under 30 – Vietnam is going to be a real economic powerhouse, not just in the region, but in the world.

Vietnam's infrastructure cannot compare with that of Thailand and the government remains communist despite their capitalistic drive. Like most of Asia corruption is a problem and the Vietnamese police are to be avoided, although on the positive side, they do not hit up Westerners for petty fines as the Thai police commonly do.

Vietnam is another of those countries where expats, or for that matter any Westerners with major health problems, simply get on a plane and fly across to Bangkok. Healthcare is not a feather in Vietnam's cap, far from it in fact. The highways are all torn up, and in any direction out of Hanoi, you run into terrible dust so bad it gives you a sore throat. Roads and the general infrastructure are not nearly as good as Thailand's.

When it comes to risk on the roads, Thailand wins. The UN and other multinationals specifically stipulate that their foreign staff should avoid motorbikes in Vietnam at all cost. Though with that in mind, the country is said to be safe, much safer than Thailand. One current American resident felt that he didn’t think he could get beaten up there or harmed, even if he tried – but of course the danger on the roads makes up for it!

As far as employment opportunities go, there is nothing like the professional expat population in Vietnam as exists in Thailand, but it is said to be growing. One of the nuances of Vietnam is that English teaching work is readily available and is higher paying than typical positions in Thailand. The students are very hard-working.

With a small expat population you simply do not have the range of accommodation available that you have in Thailand.

Personally I don't care for Vietnamese food and I will qualify that by saying that I have tried it over and over and over and have yet to have a good Vietnamese meal. I was doing the buffet at one of Bangkok's better restaurants not so long ago when I discovered quite by chance that they had a chef in from a leading hotel in Vietnam and a number of Vietnamese specialties were part of the buffet that day. Even the so called gourmet stuff just didn't do it for me. We are talking personal preference here of course though. I do have one friend locally who says the complete opposite, arguing that Vietnamese food is far more subtle than Thai food.

Vietnam does have many positives when compared with Thailand. Despite double pricing being much more of an issue than it is in Thailand, many commodities in Vietnam are very, very cheap. If you think Thailand is cheap, they just about give away many things in Vietnam. Massage and food for example are generally a lot cheaper than Thailand.

In terms of scenic beauty there is no question. Vietnam wins hands down, it truly is much more impressive.

For anyone with yellow fever, Vietnamese women are known for their beauty and their femininity. Often seen in the traditional dress, the Áo Dài, which is famous for bringing out a lady's curves while maintaining dignity, Vietnamese women are foreigner friendly – but you'll have to work hard to meet the decent women who are much the same as truly decent Thai women – they don't tend to sleep around. If you can't control yourself, be aware that while ladies of the night are available in Vietnam, the whole industry is far from being user friendly. In this respect, Vietnam is most certainly not Thailand. If you just have to be a naughty boy, you'd be better off in Cambodia which is home to thousands of Vietnamese hookers.

Vietnam is a lot poorer than Thailand, and less technologically advanced, but it really does feel as if it is catching up – and fast. One can't help but feel that if you are prepared to forego many of the luxuries that we take for granted, then in Vietnam some very real opportunities exist. As far as the fun factor goes, it's hard to compare Vietnam to Thailand.

Cambodia

Cambodia may not be that different to Thailand in many ways, but one of the key differences between Thailand and Cambodia is that foreigners can stay in Cambodia indefinitely. Visas are very easy to come by and at around $US 20 per month, you can stay in Cambodia, well, just about forever. This is one reason why many Western residents of Thailand are making the move east (more about this in the news section, below).

Cambodia is very, very poor and the infrastructure just doesn't match up to Thailand's. There's a real lack of quality healthcare which although improving is still way behind. Stories of Westerners in traffic accidents in Cambodia being airlifted to Thailand for treatment are common. Much of the country is dirty and dusty and many roads shouldn't even be called roads. They're dirt tracks. Don't forget that in many parts of the country you can still find landmines and while the average Westerner may not venture into these areas, it remains an issue. Getting back to the roads, the driving habits of the Khmers make the Thais seem completely civil. The internet is disgustingly expensive – and slow. There are no real shopping malls and no Western style cinemas.

It is very easy to start a business, and in terms of legal matters, licensing, taxes, etc it is easy to continue 100% foreign ownership of most small businesses. Although you cannot legally own real estate, the loopholes are large enough to drive a truck through. Overall the legal structure is less xenophobic. Corruption for small businesses is nowhere near as bad as people think. And as a major embarrassment to Thailand, the Cambodian government is, for the time being at least, more stable than Thailand's.

It is said that there are good restaurants in Phnom Penh but let's not kid ourselves, the quality of food in Cambodia just doesn't compete with what you get in Thailand. Not only can't you find the same variety, the quality of the produce itself isn't that good. Cambodian cuisine has not taken the world by storm the way Thai food has. Much of the available fresh fruit is imported from Thailand and is of the lowest grade – it is joked that they get what Thailand won’t eat! A lot of basic food and household items are not available as consistently as they are in Thailand – in other words, you can always get toilet paper, but your favorite brand may disappear from the shelves for no apparent reason.

Thailand's education system doesn't always get great raps but Cambodia's is much worse and has resulted in a much less educated populace. There's a large pool of very cheap labour, but you do get what you pay for. It is said to be even more difficult to find reliable staff if you own a business and in general, the quality of workmanship is inferior.

The police are not as useless as is commonly believed but the laws are even more capriciously instated and enforced. and yeah, there's even less transparency than Thailand.

Continuing with the downsides of Cambodia, the smiles can be just as fake and the people just as back-stabbing. There is also a growing nationalism, but it's not as bad as Thailand, at least not yet. Outside of Phnom Penh (and to an extent, in the capital itself) there is bugger all to do over the long term except drink. Angkor Wat might be amazing, but you're hardly going to visit it every week.

Cambodia is perhaps the naughty boy's capital of Asia. The alcohol is cheaper as are the girls. That has brought an element to Cambodia in recent times that are not winning many friends. A lot of the now ex-Pattaya crowd can be found in Sihanoukville. Phnom Penh has a thriving naughty nightlife industry that is largely Westerner friendly.

Cambodia is a fun country with an interesting, if rather depressing, recent history, and friendly people who are generally even more laid back than the Thais. However the country is many years behind Thailand in terms of its infrastructure development, as well as its social progress. But many Westerners do find happiness and contentedness there and therefore it has to be said that Cambodia is a genuine alternative to Thailand.

Philippines, Laos and Myanmar

I have visited Laos a number of times and enjoy it as a getaway from Thailand. As a great number of Thai products are available in Laos and most Laotians watch Thai TV and listen to Thai music, you can use Thai when communicating with the locals. In fact the Lao language is very similar to what is spoken in parts of the Northeast of Thailand.

However I do not believe that Laos is a genuine alternative to Thailand. The infrastructure is decades behind Thailand's and there are many strict laws in place that mean that the fun factor of Thailand really doesn't exist. Bars often close before midnight and don't even think about being caught in the company of one of the local maidens. Sure, you can get good French food and wine for a song (and the local food and beer are very good too), but that alone is not nearly reason enough to consider it a real alternative to Thailand. Sure, the people are friendly and parts of the country are beautiful. If you really are considering Laos, read the excellent "Nightmare in Laos" by Kay Danes. Trust me when I say that that'll put you off the place forever… The Westerners resident in Laos tend to be NGO workers and diplomats.

Try as I might, I could not find anyone who had actually lived in Myanmar for a period of time. Plenty of guys have visited for a few days and everyone enjoyed checking it out, but asking them if they felt they could live there, well, not one person was confident. Like Laos, I believe that Myanmar does not offer a real alternative to Thailand.

I am going to upset more than a few people by saying that I really do not think that the Philippines is a real alternative to Thailand, something which I expect many will be surprised at. The locals are probably more like-minded to Westerners than in other countries in the region with perhaps the exception of Singapore. The level of English spoken is generally very good so communication is much easier and the need to learn Tagalog is largely non-existent.

Sadly though, the Philippines has many, many problems, both economic and social. Manila is stricken with poverty and the city's slums are monstrous. This creates all sorts of social problems and crime is a very real problem. Walking around in the evening is simply not recommended.

Many Westerners there suffer the same affliction as many in Cambodia, spending day after day pickling their brains with the nation's admittedly excellent locally brewed, inexpensive beer. Poverty is far, far worse than Thailand and danger can be lying around every corner. Serious and sometimes violent crime against Westerners is a very real issue. The danger factor alone is enough to scare off most Westerners. That's a real shame because the people of the Philippines are, at an individual level, really nice. It just goes to show that you only need one major problem in a country to make it unsuitable. Remember, the Philippines is one place where the locals really want to get out!

Indonesia

You frequently hear of Westerners in Bangkok moving to Singapore, Cambodia and Malaysia but seldom do you hear of people moving to Indonesia, something I find a little curious. The vibrancy and affordability of Thailand is much of its appeal and Indonesia competes well in this regard.

The expat community in Jakarta is nowhere near the size of that in Bangkok but unlike the City of Angels, it is close-knit, especially the Americans. The Indonesian people themselves are friendly and don't let the Muslim factor bother you. They do like Westerners – and yes, they like Americans too.

The traffic in Jakarta makes Bangkok look positively driver friendly. Truly one of the most congested spots on the planet, there's no way to get around the bad spots, unlike Bangkok where you can get on the expressway or use the skytrain or underground. A friend who used to work there tells of one particularly bad day when it took 6 hours to get home! As an expat, you could not drive because if you hurt someone, you will most likely be hurt as retaliation. They generally have an 'eye for an eye' mentality.

When it rains, many places flood so badly that you simply cannot pass, even in the central business district of Jakarta! Pollution is in the air, the water, everywhere. In fact it would be fair to say that the whole place is dirty and run-down.

The Indonesian people are easy going and generally happy. To quote a good friend, "Many farangs thinks that the place is full of radical Muslims and bombs but the truth is that the people are friendlier than Thailand." Foreigners are a minority, so they're treated well. But that said, this is Asia and they can lie about you behind your back. Just like the Land Of Smiles, any loans given should be considered a gift. The educated people's English skills are very good – much better than in Thailand.

Unlike Thai, the language is easy to learn, and also unlike Thailand, Indonesian people understand foreigners speaking Indonesian!

Of course the big concern for Westerners destined to Indonesia is the one we're not supposed to talk about in these crazy PC times, religion. Mostly, the Indonesians are not tolerant of opposing views to their religion. They seem to expect that we will abide by their religious values as to what is right and wrong which is kind of difficult.

Security is a real issue in Indonesia. Both Jakarta and Bali have been the target of bombings. Hotels, embassies and areas popular with Western tourists have all been hit. Home security is another big issue. It is said that you need to have a wall around your house and at least one guard at all times! Added to that, personal security is iffy. It's recommended to only use one particular taxi company for example, Blackbird. And then you have the creepy crawlies. One friend mentioned that he had had several pit vipers IN his house.

Corruption is everywhere and even to get phone service repaired, you may have to bribe a repairman. Many Westerners find this tiring – and in comparison it is much less of a problem in Thailand.

While the food is tasty, hygiene is a problem and eating food from the street takes no small amount of bravery. Many expats report getting severe food poisoning at least once a year, the type where you swear you'd rather be dead.

Medical care in Indonesia simply cannot be compared with what is available at the best hospitals in Bangkok. If you have anything even remotely annoying or painful in Indonesia, you're on the next plane to Singapore.

In what will no doubt appeal to many, Indonesian women are said to be honest, warm, and sincere – yes, you really can trust them. They're said to be easy to meet, and one does not have to hang out in dimly lit, smoky bars to find them. The country is full of many beautiful women, many of whom are Westerner friendly. And with far fewer Westerners resident they have not tried of long noses yet. There are some major bar areas in Jakarta popular with Western men and many of the better hotels have bars where local women open-minded to offers can be found.

A friend used to live in Jakarta and is now resident in Bangkok where he sends his children to arguably the best international school in the country. He always re-iterates to me that the international school is MUCH better in Jakarta. In fact it has an excellent reputation compared with international schools worldwide.

Jakarta sounds very much like a more chaotic, slightly more tropical and in some ways even wilder version of Bangkok. The infrastructure is clearly not as good and personal safety can be an issue, but the city still has much going for it. I get the distinct impression that Jakarta could be a real option. That there is still only a relatively small expat community and that Westerners have not yet gone out of favour as we have in Bangkok has a real appeal.

Malaysia

It should come as no surprise that Malaysia is perhaps the country in the region most similar to Thailand. Thailand's southern neighbour has similar weather, many similar customs and despite the fact that one is predominantly Buddhist, and the other predominantly Muslim, many beliefs are much the same.

As far as appearances go, Malaysia is much greener than Thailand, much lusher, but it is not the visuals which let you know you're no longer in Thailand. The level of English spoken in Malaysia is far better to what you find anywhere in Thailand, and not only is the level of the language spoken superior, the whole way of thinking is not just different, but more worldly. Malaysians seem to have a much better understanding of what is happening around them and outside of their country which makes for interesting conversation. The education system is generally considered to be much better than in Thailand.

Malaysia being a Muslim country is much, much more conservative than Thailand. Many people have the happy go lucky attitude to life so common in South East Asia, but in parts of the country, particularly the most pro-Muslim provinces, smiles are much harder to find. This ultimately means that Malaysia cannot lay claim to being the fun or party centre that Thailand is. The population is much more staid and while fun can be had in Thailand's southern neighbour, Malaysians are not quite the laughing, fun loving bunch that the Thais are.

Malaysia's infrastructure is superior to what is found in Thailand. Better roads, better electricity, better communications infrastructure. You name it and Malaysia compares favourably. British colonisation left Malaysia very well prepared for the 21st century.

Despite the superior infrastructure, Malaysia is not much more expensive than Thailand. Food can be had at much the same price and getting around won't cost you much more. Accommodation, both temporary and permanent, is a bit more expensive than Bangkok. Some claim the shopping in Kuala Lumpur is better than what you find in Bangkok although it really does depend what you're in the market for.

The rule of the law is enforced much more consistently than it is in Thailand and anyone used to the sometimes lax enforcement of the law in Thailand may get a shock. For example, overstaying is much more of an issue that it is in Thailand – you'll end you up in the monkey house for that in Malaysia.

Malaysia is not a difficult place to do business and the Malaysians themselves are generally much easier to work with than the Thais. Just like in Indonesia, the issue of face is not quite as strong in Malaysia as it is in Thailand.

Malaysia would appear to be an excellent option for the more conservative retirees who want a superior infrastructure to what is found in Thailand. In fact the country offers all sorts of benefits to older foreigners, all of which can be found on this site here, Mm2h.com, including a ten year visa and the ability to purchase a car tax free! It is clear that Malaysia sees the value in foreign investment and retirees.

But despite being somewhat developed, Malaysia just plain isn't that much fun. Like any country, a few days in Malaysia is great. The food, the people, and the new places to explore all excite, but beyond that, Malaysia is much more conservative than its northern neighbour. This is not a bad thing by any means, but it does point to Malaysia being more suitable for a particular subset.

Summary & Conclusion

The ideal alternative? There isn't one. We all like Thailand for different reasons and at an individual level we need to look at exactly what it is we like about Thailand when considering an alternative country.

Malaysia is clearly a possibility if you are older, and Vietnam may appeal to some, but neither of these places seem to have the fun factor that Thailand is renowned for. Indonesia sounds interesting and anyone not bothered about the so called advantages of being part of a big expat community may well enjoy it there.

It would seem that both Singapore and Cambodia have much to offer, although each is quite different and obviously appeals to a very different type of person.

I cannot help but think that despite all of the political strife, the increasing xenophobia, the visa issues being faced by many, the soaring prices and the growing disenchantment with Westerners, Thailand still offers a mix that isn't easily found elsewhere.

FROM STICK MARK II'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick Mark II)

Farangland or Thailand?

I have recently moved back to Farangland after nearly three years in Thailand. Yes the weather, service (sometimes), prices and lifestyle are usually better in Thailand. But let's look at these more closely. The weather is better in Thailand, no doubt. Although as I write this it's 24 degrees Celsius outside and sunny, I don't miss the humidity, sweating during brushing your teeth or even drying yourself after a shower. If I want hot weather I could catch a cheap budget flight to the costas and spend a weekend golfing and sunbathing. There are a few things Thailand beats here hands down; dentistry, ophthalmic services, variety of life, superb looking women who are not what the western trash mags say you should like, no middle-aged women showing off their middle-aged spreads and Soi Cowboy. Things I have in the UK not available in Thailand; Free cradle to grave health care, emergency services you don't have to bribe, a non military government, free press, more chance to make money, a more tolerant view of foreigners by the government, no surcharge on any goods not made in the UK and no need for a bloody visa! Last but by no means least, people drive safely and obey the laws of the road. Oh yes, a decent drop of bitter. It's a difficult one, and should I get my chance again I will probably live in Thailand six months and then the UK for six months.

I never was good at spelling.

In the weekly Stick Mark II column of 15/4/2007 you made a bit of a spelling error. I quote: "A reminder that Metro Bar in Sukhumvit Soi 4 has a Belgian beer promotion on Wednesday night. Stella, Leffe, Hoergarden at low prices, sexy
promotion girls and a free buffet. Just the thing to take your mind off the Songkran madness." The famous Belgian beer you call Hoergarden actually is Hoegaarden (this is the Dutch name). The reason I'm emailing you about this is that hoer means hooker in Dutch so it made me laugh quite a bit when I read it…

Do price increases make you consider elsewhere?

I leave for my annual 2 month trip to Bangkok in a couple of weeks and prices are indeed climbing. Here are just a few immediate examples. My airplane ticket cost me $400 dollars more over last year; my rental for the same one bedroom serviced apartment in Bangkok is 6,000 baht more per month over last year; the breakfast buffet has increased by 1,000 baht per month over last year; the pick-up service from the airport has gone up from 550 baht to 990 baht from last year (one way). My visa went from 25 dollars to 50 dollars over last year etc. In short, I figure this same trip, in general, will end up costing me some $1,500 dollars over last year's budget and have budgeted accordingly for my two month Bangkok holiday so to speak. Oh well, Bangkok use to be inexpensive, still is in some ways, but if prices continue to rise year after year and the baht continues to increase in value versus other currencies then Thailand tourism will certainly suffer a blow, not to mention the political instability that is present and the potential for violence, and the visa difficulties.

She prefers liquor to temples?

I wrote to you before in regards to me (31 year old never been in love professional) falling in love with a Thai bar girl in Phuket. After I left she got with an American who spoke Thai and is white. I'm Indian from London. You told me to forget her and move on. I did not want to give up so I went and spent 1 month with her from March to April. He got her drunk nightly then took advantage in my opinion. I instead took her to temples in Chiang Mai and tried to be a gentleman. I took care of her when she was sick. She took me to see her parents again. Before I left for London she said she loves me and wants to come to London and will wait for me to sort her passport out. I agreed to send her money every month. Within a week she rang me and told me she is back with the American and she loves him. All I got was sorry and the phone is now off.

The culling season!

So this is the culling season, where all the farangs are being vetted, natural wastage being the order of the day, and only the strongest will survive. Phuket of course is retirement country. This upping of the stakes of the implantation / enforcement of the 800,000 baht minimum in your account for the previous three months, will again have quite a knock on effect, sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Previously this money had to be in a current account. I wonder now if they still expect this to be so for such a long period, in such a low bearing interest account. Not only will this minimum have to remain in this account, but for these 3 months you've got your living expenses on top, looks as if they are starting a campaign to make sure only the rich have a chance of becoming retired residents here. Think of all those expats with second homes flying in to renew their retirement visas, only to find out that in their absence the goal posts have been moved again. We're all puppets here, and you never know one day they just might cut the strings.

Getting this master and the minor mixed up again.

I finally took a tour of the inside of the house that I'm having built. Every time I went before the place was crawling with workers so I never actually went in. I'm amazed at some of the things they've screwed up. The strangest was they made the guest bedroom bigger than the master bedroom. Other plans I gave to the builder were simply ignored. This will be a fun meeting when it takes place. Sigh…

The confusingly named Pam's Cocktail Lounge, the last Cowboy bar bearing the owner's name, closes at the end of the month. Pam has been a Cowboy institution over the years and many are fond of the matriarchal figure. Her departure will be a loss.

But Cowboy would seem to be named appropriately for earlier this week it resembled the Wild West when a shooting took place. There were no farangs involved. This was a Thai vs. Thai issue.

On Sunday Bernard Trink was spotted amongst the water mayhem of Silom, near Patpong. He was said to appear to be in good shape and good health. Good to hear.

This weekend was extremely quiet in the bar areas. The weekend after the Songkran madness is traditionally the start of the slow season. There is little doubt that a few establishments won't be running in six month's time, such is the drop off in the number of punters in recent times. One of the great things about the slow season is that from May 1st, hotel rates in many of the beaches and islands drop significantly.

A dance contest will be held at Coyotes in Pattaya on April 29, that is Sunday next week.

A number of boats from the US Navy are due into Pattaya real soon…

There is loads going on at Windmill in Pattaya. There has been a major refit, new seating and tables and a completely new dance floor and poles which all create the illusion of a much wider stage. The bar has been altered to give more space and they have fitted a huge extractor fan to keep the non smokers happy. The toilets are due for a redesign in the next couple of weeks and a few other changes are planned. With the changes the bar now has at least 16 more seats. They start a new promotion next week – 1 coupon per day, per person, 10 PM – 3 AM buy one get one free drink which will be for all bottled beer except Corona – two bottles for just 110 baht! They will also include house whisky, rum, gin and vodka at 2 for 1 which is two for 95 baht. They also have an expat VIP discount card which gives a full 10% discount right across the board including barfines on every bill over 200 baht but it cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer i.e. if they use VIP discount card it cannot be used on the 2 for 1 which is already heavily discounted. The card is valid in Windmill, Tramps, Club 69 and Babydolls. The two for one drink offer will also apply to Babydolls which will start tonight and Club 69 when it re-opens after a new re-fit, hopefully next weekend.

In November of last year Club Insomnia opened in Soi Marine, Pattaya. Club Insomnia is a late night disco playing European house music and is said to be the only club with real house music in Pattaya. Their website is Clubinsomniapattaya and they have a special promotion about to hit the bars of Pattaya. Right now you can obtain a 20% discount card from Party Bar, King Bar & King Bar II in Soi 8, Pattaya, which will reduce the price of beers to 95 baht and most spirit mixers to 125 baht – reasonable rates for a late night venue. Next week they will be offering tickets for sale from many bars in Pattaya where a customer can buy a ticket for 100 baht which will entitle the holder to 1 free Insomnia shot, 1 free whiskey or Vodka mixer and a half price 6 hour Insomnia music CD, total value 445 baht, all for 100 baht! Right now these tickets are available from Party Bar, King Bar and King Bar II in Soi 8 Pattaya but will be available in many bars in the coming month as they roll out the marketing campaign. Club Insomnia opens at midnight and gets very busy at around 3 AM. It is an alternative to Marine 2, for those into the late night club scene.

The new visa restrictions have caused a major exodus of foreigners out of Thailand and this is almost certainly the major contributing factor to the swelling of the expat population in Phnom Penh. Reports suggest that the number of Westerners in the Cambodian capital has soared over the last year, particularly the last 6 months – exactly the period since the new visa restrictions appeared. The numbers are upsetting some who have complained that men now outnumber women at weekends in some of the city's popular nightlife venues. These new arrivals are exactly the type that the Thai authorities were hoping to get rid of, and would appear to have succeeded in doing so. It is no coincidence that the attitude of Khmers towards foreigners has started hardening. Many of the Thailand exiles seem unable to convert baht to local currency and insist on paying Thailand rates for all manner of services, which has caused a massive spike in prices from tuktuk fares to massages, again, much to the disgust of the long-termers. One guy said to me that it is too painful to think about what Phnom Penh will be like in a couple of years. It has also been said that Sihanoukville, the southern Cambodia city, is also rapidly increasing in numbers with many former Pattaya residents switching to what is known as the Cambodian city of sin. The rough Pattaya style does not go down too well with the more socially conservative and shy Khmers.

And for those guys making visa runs over to Cambodia and back, you might want to avoid the overland crossing at Aranya Prathet / Poipet. There have been numerous stories of the Thai Immigration authorities grilling people who are coming and going on tourist visas but who clearly aren't bona fide tourists. Such people are being asked to produce proof of onward travel out of Thailand i.e. an air ticket. This crackdown started at the beginning of this month without warning.

I have to be careful what I say because not a small number of you are fans of cocks in frocks, but for those of you who are not, you'll be pleased to know that there was something of a foot race in the Soi 4 area on Wednesday night involving the boys in brown and the you know whats in frocks. Creeping out of the shadows in the Nana Hotel car park, two boys in brown crept up on a bunch of trans-sexuals who bolted across the road into the plaza where they sought refuge. Unconfirmed rumours have it that Dave The Rave took the tall beauties in. A few minutes later the boys in brown returned to the soi, empty handed. Without someone in cuffs to take back to the big wigs at the cop shop, they couldn't miss a pachyderm parked right out front of the plaza, its mahouts peddling sugar cane to those generous enough to see the big beast didn't go hungry. A debarkle ensued as the elephant took off one way, the mahouts the other. Such comedy should not be exclusive to the small number there to witness it. If anyone managed to catch it all on video then please do put it up on YouTube for the rest of us to enjoy.

But then that could be a problem because Youtube.com remains blocked in Thailand. I'm surprised they have not yet blocked Youtubeproxy.org. Still, they can't go and block all of the proxy sites, can they? CAN THEY?

Despite the hoo-ha about liquor advertising, pretty promotion girls are still wearing the uniforms of the alcohol companies in many bars and restaurants. It has to be said that the Heineken girls tend to look the best, but the Tiger Beer dress is better, oh so curve-hugging. Actually these women are not usually employed by the liquor companies but by agencies. And just in case you were wondering, these lovelies typically receive 500 – 700 for a night's work.

I certainly don't wish to encourage anyone to smuggle excess amounts of alcohol or cigarettes in to Thailand without paying the duty for which such quantity is liable, but it is interesting to watch how the Thai Customs department at the airport "catches" people. Both through a number of emails sent to me, and through watching the Customs staff, they seem to have perfected the "look at the people walking through the green lane and check those who are carrying duty free bags which clearly show more than one carton of cigarettes or more than one bottle of alcohol". Clearly they are the masters of this technique…

Following on from the new rule from the Immigration Department that anyone wishing to apply for a retirement visa must have 800,000 baht in the bank for THREE MONTHS PRIOR TO APPLYING FOR THE VISA, the same applies for marriage visas. In the case of the marriage visa only 400,000 baht need be present, but the three month ruling where the balance cannot drop below the level of 400,000 baht, is the same.

The Airports Authority Of Thailand is about to tighten up the enforcement of rules regarding the carriage of liquids, aerosols and gels on all flights out of Thailand. My understanding is that there are rules for flights to certain countries in place at the moment (Western Europe, North America and Australia) but to other countries, no problem. This is about to change and will encompass flights to all countries. You might want to check out the new regulations if you are flying out of Bangkok.

And still at the airport, you have to laugh at some of the silly issues arriving passengers have faced. One of the most annoying and frustrating is the time it can take getting a public taxi at the new airport. The delay is not necessarily caused by long lines or a lack of taxis, but because the taxi desk runs out of the form they give you related to the 50 baht airport pick up surcharge. Frustratingly, when they run out of forms someone is sent for more and comes back with 5 or 6, rather than a huge bundle. So the line moves forward until they run out again and another messenger runs out for more! Amazing you know where! Remember, if you wish to avoid the queues of people waiting for a taxi – I have heard many stories of people standing out in the heat for over an hour – you can simply go up to the top floor and get a taxi which has just dropped off departing passengers. Not only is there no queue, the driver will be delighted to get another fare and will almost certainly eschew the 50 baht surcharge. A true win : win situation.

To add to the complaints about the new airport, it would seem that the Suwannabhumi Airport Post Office do not yet have a proper mailbox as this picture shows.

There has been much conjecture in the press recently about schools, foreign teachers' credentials and the requirement that all teachers have a degree. First of all, let me say that the jury is still out on whether you need a degree to teach in Thailand or not. Schools searching for new teaching staff generally state in their ad that all candidates must have a degree – citing the reason that they are unable to obtain a work permit for the candidate if that person was not a degree holder. This is in fact incorrect. A number of people teach in Thailand without a degree yet have managed to get a work permit on the basis of their specific teaching credentials. But now, it seems as though the policy may be that teachers really do require a degree. All I can say is that the jury is still out on this one. How this will affect people already in the system is also unknown and whether they will be grandfathered through or not, we just do not know. It is likely that they will be. One important thing to note is that whatever you do, if you do not have a degree, do not go presenting false credentials and purporting them to be genuine. A number of foreigners have done this and some ended up in the monkey house.

To the many from the Indian subcontinent who send email saying they just scored band 6 in IELTS and wish to come and teach English in Thailand, I am sorry to tell you that English at that level is almost certainly not nearly good enough to be a teacher. Sure, one could argue that some Thai teachers teaching English in the countryside might not even score that highly, but the big difference is, they instruct in Thai – fluent Thai. You do not necessarily have to be a native English teacher to get a good teaching job in Thailand, but your English does have to be very, very good. I hate to say it but white skin helps too.


The ultimate Thai dating site with ladies from all over Thailand!

I truly believe that you're much better off venturing into Isaan, finding a place you like, and relocating there. Once there you will have no problems at all finding a lovely lady to be your girlfriend and if you so desire, your wife. Just why oh why do people do it the wrong way around?! Venturing to Bangkok or Pattaya to find someone to settle down with and then being dragged to her part of the countryside which is certainly almost not your preferred spot. Take my advice and figure out the location first – the rest will all fall comfortably in place. There are some pretty and pleasant places in Isaan, especially the provincial capitals on the Mekhong.

Video gamers moaning and groaning about the cost of a black market Playstation 3 console in Thailand now seem to be moaning without reason. When it first went on sale, the console cost a wallet-emptying 50,000 baht. Prices quickly dropped and you can now get a new Playstation 3 for less than 22,000 baht. This still seems a trifle expensive to me. But when you look at the price of the console around the world, about the only country selling it cheaper is the US – and the US is invariably the cheapest place for these types of things.

In my country, and I do believe in many other Western countries too, Asians (Thais included) get criticised for their inability (or lack of willingness) to speak the local tongue. I am amazed that the Thais go so lightly on foreigners who fail to learn the Thai language. For Westerners only in Thailand for a short period of time, I can understand, but given the crap that Asians get in the West, the Thais really do go easy on others.

It would seem my pontificating about getting a good breakfast at a reasonable price in Bangkok upset a few. Let me give you a bit of history. Down in Pattaya one has always been able to get a good breakfast at a reasonable price. You can get the cheap hotel breakfast buffets for less than 100 baht, although I personally avoid them. Then you get the British pubs and a number of other spots that do a great breakfast, usually in the 100 – 150 baht range. My personal favourite is Cafe Pitini while others point to Rosy O'Grady's, The Pig & Whistle, Shenanigan's, Jamieson's or the Sportsman, amongst other spots. This week I received 5 (yes, five) emails telling me that you can get breakfast in Pattaya for under 50 baht. One person named some place I had never heard of where you can do the arharn chow routine for 39 baht. No thanks. While I am sure it is edible and you most likely won't get a case of the trots, a slow, leisurely breakfast in nice surroundings with newspapers available (and free wi-fi internet is a bonus) is preferable. Sub-50 baht breakfasts just aren't my thing.

We don't normally run questions from readers but I thought this one would interest many, hence its inclusion. All I ask is that you copy me in on the email so I can run the responses next week – and all readers benefit.

I know that you usually do not allow people to make personal appeals here on your site, however I ask if you could make an exception here on this occasion. I am coming to Bangkok soon and I have no idea where I can stay where I get free wi-fi connection with a hotel tariff for around 1,000 – 1,500 baht a night. Also, I have a few conditions on the accommodation. I would like the hotel to be on or very near to Sukhumvit and a BTS station and the hotel needs to be "guest friendly". I will be staying in Bangkok for about a month so I guess I could get a cheaper rate but the cost, whilst not unimportant (I am not a wealthy person) it does give way somewhat to a wi-fi Internet connection and being guest friendly. Perhaps if you could post this request along with my email address, so as any person willing to suggest a hotel could email me – [email protected]

A legal loophole is set to close, for more check out this in the FT. And another article here from the FT here talks of how Thailand's generals are scaring off investors.

Ask Miss Udon

Miss Udon is here to answer questions surrounding anything that confuses you in Thailand, particularly issues of the heart. Feel free to send questions in for her to answer and get the perspective of a Thai female.

Question 1: Through a dating site I met a lovely girl living in Khon Kaen. We have been talking for around 7 weeks and I will meet her in June for a short vacation. As much as I like this girl, I am not totally convinced she feels the same about me. The (if I can believe all stories) usual 'tests' have been issued pretty early after I did meet her. I was asked to help paying a repair bill for the car (35,000 baht), confronted with a broken mobile and the difficulty for her paying for a new year at school (only one day a week should cost 25,000 baht). Besides that I think the prices are a bit high (but what do I know about Thailand?) It made me more or less suspicious. I did not pay anything to the girl, but did send a gift (something I like to do as well). After I told her I don't have money to help her much and told her she might look for a man who can provide her more, she insisted that she never asked for money as such (which is true) and she does really want to go on vacation with me (and asked me to meet her parents too). This leaves me still with a few questions. Do women with kids (she has a 2 year old son) of the age of 25 go to school in Thailand? Do Thai women fall in love head over heals (I always believed love is not the most important thing for a Thai woman when searching for a man / husband)? What will her family say if we go on vacation and break up afterwards? Will she lose face? Is Khon Kaen a wealthy city? The family seems to have all the luxury I have and even more! As I know no-one is the same I don't know if you can answer my questions, but I would appreciate your view at things very much.

Miss Udon says: Yes, a 25 year old can study. Thai women fall in love easily when we find the right guy. And we always believe that love is the most important thing for us when searching for a husband / father of kids (first marriage) but if the situation changes (second or more marriage) believing in love can change to something else – more practical needs – especially if kids are involved. If her parents agreed to let her go with you, it means they are ready for a "result". Is Khon Kaen a wealthy city? Yes it is, in the main town, but in the countryside it is poor. If she expected something from you that you can not give then of course she will lose face after she pays such serious attention but doesn't get anything in return. After 7 weeks talking through dating sites she is asking for help? It is quite fast and surprises me. In my opinion, this girl thinks she knows about western guys but the fact is she doesn't. We all know that internet relationships are difficult and we should not get too excited about anyone before we meet them in person first. Maybe she feels good talking to you but believe me, she is thinking about something else as well. What you did with the money was good, sending a gift instead. Why do I keep mentioning her thoughts about Western guys? Because some Thai girls think that Western guys don't know anything about Thai people or culture. Thai women know that Western men will believe any story they tell you, so they try things on. Just like in this story, she told you that she needs help for car repairs and school. But the real issue is that she has a 2 year old son to take care of. This story is about her kid's future, isn't it? Remember what I said about second marriages for Thai women. Love becomes much less important than practical needs.

Many readers have asked about the Where Is This Picture competition that used to run in this column. Plans are being made to resurrect it. If you would like to sponsor the competition, please get in touch. I am looking for prize providers, preferably in Thailand, who are willing to offer food and / or drinks prizes – although that said, anything will be considered.

Yours,

Stick Mark II