Stickman's Weekly Column September 14th, 2008

Greg of Sunbelt, Subway and Sunrise Fame


He's the only guy I know who always has his passport and work permit on him, carrying it with him wherever he goes. He can be spotted at the Klong Toey Market everyday, not at all concerned about anyone making a grab for his gold Rolex. For someone so well-known and so successful, he remains down to earth and hasn't lost his infectious laugh. I'd like to introduce you to, Mr. Sunbelt, or as he is perhaps better known, Greg.

This week I had a good old chin wag with Greg Lange who heads up Sunbelt Asia as well as his good lady, the person many say is behind Greg and Sunbelt's, Subway's and Sunrise's success, Nui, who left as the Vice President of CP Group to marry Greg and is known to be a real smart cookie in the business world. They married seven years ago.

When we first met many years ago Sunbelt had a modest office and as far as I can remember was primarily a business brokerage with perhaps a dozen or so employees. For the odd reader who has never heard of Sunbelt, or knows little about it, can you give me a quick run down of the "Sunbelt Group"!

Nui: When we started we had 10 brokers and one secretary.

Greg: So there were maybe 15 staff at first. We also had one lawyer, one accountant. Also Mike, Nui and me. You are correct. It was a small office. We have been blessed to grow to be the size we are today.

Many people still think of Sunbelt as a business brokerage primarily. Is that the largest part of your business?

Greg: We are certainly the largest business brokerage in Thailand, but our other departments have grown to be just as successful or more. It is in fact a small portion of the business now. Legal service, accounting, office rental, real estate brokerage and business brokerage make up the rest.

Really?

Greg: Legal is 40% Um, accounting would be 25%, office rental would be 25% real estate brokerage 3% and business brokerage 7%. If you look back 6 years ago it was predominantly business brokerage, that was about 90% and 10% legal.

So why the change? What happened?

Nui: Even though we are the largest business brokerage in Thailand, I think the other departments have just grown faster than the business brokerage to the point that they can branch out and be an independent unit.

Greg: The business brokerage is much tougher in Thailand than in the US because in the United States the average transaction is 80% owner financed and in only about 20% of transactions the owner has to put down cash. In Thailand almost 100% of the transactions have to be paid in cash. A person who has say 40 or 50 thousand dollars means you are only getting a professional fee on that amount whereas if you were in the US you'd be getting a professional fee of the 250,000 because the person would have leveraged. We do as many transactions as a brokerage in the US, if not more, but at the end of the day we make a lot less money as there is no leverage.

I had a big break in 2003 over lunch. One of the big lawyers in town said we should specialise in helping the little guy as no one was catering to them. The big firms were charging legal rates they charge for big companies. How right he was. I was very fortunate to get that advice from him. Our business took off by referrals with existing clients being happy and now we have over seventy people in the legal department. That was the biggest change why our legal became the largest portion of our business and the need to hire so many Thai lawyers to work with us.

Are most of your customers foreigners in terms of business brokerage?

Greg: 70% foreign, 30% Thai.

Nui: And in legal 90% foreign.

Obviously you work with many foreigners doing business here in Thailand. Which industries are profitable and who is doing well?

Greg: F&B, and tourism related businesses have always and will always be strong in Thailand. Recent trends also include consulting services, technology & website development. Anything that has to do with a computers or software development. Consultants have also done well in IT. There are a lot of foreigners in this industry and we have seen recently with the half year tax result, many of those companies had to write a cheque out to the government.

Nui: This is based on start-ups and small to medium firms. If you ask the big accounting firms you would probably get other info. This is from our own database.

Greg: Restaurants are another area that has done well. We had a number that had to write out tax cheques.

Are there any industries where the opposite may be true, where foreigners seem to struggle, not do so well, or face issues that make running a business difficult?

Greg: Real estate brokerage has been a very tough industry. Many of them are showing losses. Food and beverage can be challenging, but if it's done properly you can be very successful. A couple of companies doing auctions didn't do well.

Those in merchandising have done well.

What's that?

Greg: Taking products from a company and selling to a customer. Exporting in spite of the low dollar last year also has been good. Because of the ease of company formation, small to medium sized export companies are emerging and winning. Jewellery exporters have done very well but most of our clients in this area are larger cap companies.

What about problems businesses face here? What about Mafia interests?

Nui: There is under the table fees occasionally, maybe a thousand baht here and there. It will not break the bank or your business.

Greg: We have never had to pay anything under the table or be involved in anything like that and we have never been approached. We know of people who had to pay like those business in Nana, but it is almost nothing.

I know what you mean. I'll never forget one bar boss of a huge bar moaning and groaning that he had to pay to open on a night when bars were ordered closed. His bar does close to 180,000 baht a night and the fee to open was 3,000 baht. It's peanuts. But you'd think it was the end of the world the way he went on about it.

Nui: Many foreigners who come here don't want to pay even 1,000 baht if they want to stay open late. It won't be a matter of breaking them but they are trying to go against the system. They refuse to abandon their principles. They want to change the social norms. You can't do it in your country so why try to do it here? You have to internalise it or you have to get out of the business. When people mention the Mafia it is more about the frustration of not being able to make their business work according to their expectations or their familiarity with the business environment in their own country. When you are here you have to operate the business according to the local environment and not try and change it to the environment that you are used to. You will find others will pay the 1,000 baht, stay open later and will have the advantage.

How do you think running a business in Thailand is different, or perhaps similar, to running a business in Farangland?

Greg: I don't think there is a big disadvantage of a farang operating a business here. The number one problem that exists is commitment to the endeavor. Some people have the false assumption that it is as easy as putting up a sign and opening the doors and then they can go to the bars at night have a good old time and collect the money. This is not true anywhere in the world. If you have the passion and are committed you can be successful. If you don't, you're not going to be. Many of the failures are people who thought they could party all night and not really be involved in the business and just pick up the money. It doesn't work that way.

Nui: I think you must also not think that doing business is going to be easier in Thailand than in your own country. If anything it is going to be tougher because in your own country if you have questions about anything you can just pick up the phone and ask the authorities or whoever knows the answer. In Thailand you have the language barrier. You do not have business associations who can help so pretty much you have to start everything from scratch and you have to work harder. And if you do not understand that you are going to be frustrated to the point that you think there is no way you're going to be successful in Thailand. Also, I think what makes us successful, Greg and I discussed this yesterday, is our ability to identify niche markets or demand. We chose to be in this business. We were first in the market, be it business broker, or legal advisor. So what is new about that you might wonder? If you really look at the market that provides services to foreigners, our staff are very proficient in English but our rates, when compared to big law firms, we really give value for our service. That is the niche we identified from the beginning. When you are able to identify the niche market correctly you do not need to work as hard.

Greg: You are correct. Also, as in any foreign country there is always going to be an initial culture shock that you need to overcome. With patience, jai yen yen and perseverance you have a good mixture of coping with problems in Thailand. It is quite difficult if you are foreigner who is highly strung! Things won't be easy. I think Nui was instrumental in those early times, helping me when I was not jai yen yen! Once you put the time and hard work into something to get it running smoothly then running a business is not that much different to anywhere else. Oh, and in Thailand you have lots more holidays!

Nui: As Greg says you have to be jai yen yen and keep on training and re-training. There will come a point where the Thai staff's ability reach your expectations.

Greg: I found it very frustrating probably for 5 years. If I said to a member of staff, I want you to hang up that picture. Do you understand that? Krap, krap they would say! I knew they heard what I was saying. I would go back and the picture wouldn't be hung! I would ask them why and they said they thought it wouldn't look right. Krap means they heard what I was saying! But as I found out, it doesn't mean they agreed with you. You need to give them a deadline for something to be done.

Nui: If you look at the same matter from the staff's perspective you will understand that after they said krap they would have difficulty in approaching you and voicing their opinion. They wait for you to come back and raise the question. Maybe 10 days later they will tell you the reason. They have difficulty communicating when you're not operating in the same language. Whenever Greg is on the phone I ask him to get the person he is talking with to repeat what he wants from them or wants them to do.

What's the story with foreign ownership of a business in Thailand, in simple terms? Can we, as foreigners, own a business here or does it have to be in a Thai's name?

Greg: Well we deal a lot with foreigners that own a business 100%. Either they are an American under the Amity treaty or we have set up a company under a BOI – Board of Investment – where they can get it or they are in an industry that has no restrictions such as exporting and manufacturing. Many foreigners are not aware that they can own those types of businesses and do not need Thai partners.

What about other types of businesses such as a bar or a fraternity.

Greg: If you are American you can own the business 100%. If you are another nationality, unless you happen to have an alien business licence then you would have to have a Thai partner. We have gotten Alien business licences and done branch offices as well where the foreigner was able to own the business 100% also.

Some people say that to make a small fortune in Thailand you should start with a large fortune, the idea being that many lose their money here. Many guys start a business simply as a way to keep busy while in Thailand. Do you think this is a good idea?

Greg: Many people get into business not just for the money. It might be because of pride of ownership, they want freedom or maybe they just wanted something to do. There have been many surveys around the world about why people own a business. Many might be surprised to know that making money can be number 5 or 6 depending which survey you read. Many think it would be number one. A lot of people have different reasons. If making money is not your primary goal I would not say that these businesses are a failure. You and I know many people who have done well in business here but on the other hand there are others who have not done so well. There is a reason we have two crossbones and skull with the warning. Owning a business can have a high degree of risk. We require any prospective buyer to sign this to get additional information. Business certainly is not for everyone. But for some they will find excellent opportunities in Thailand.

How has the business environment changed in Thailand over the several years you've been operating here?

Greg: If anything, doing business has become easier. In today's Bangkok Post they talk about how the World Bank has just rated Thailand at 13th out of 181 economies as the easiest to form a business in and to do business in. That is a lot of countries. 181! The human resources have improved dramatically as far as getting better English speaking staff. Better education, better communication skills. Better customer service awareness on what they are expected to do.

I would disagree with that last bit on customer service. I think service in Thailand has slipped markedly over the past few years and have written much about that in the column recently.

Greg: Versus 3 or 4 years ago, I think it is better than before. If you talk to any of our lawyers you'd be amazed at their English skills. If you go to our lawyers, all have very good English.

Nui: I see different things. I can talk on behalf of the food and beverage industry. Even if it is true that English skills are improving, I think the genuine smile and the service mind is going down. I don't know whether this is because, you know, once hospitality becomes business and it is not something that you extend to outside of the home then I think it gets more sterile and I can see it from my staff that sometimes I have to ask myself since when do we have to teach Thai staff to smile! I constantly have to remind myself when they give service, when they talk. I don't think that any other nationality can simile and talk the same time as Thai people. That ability is now less and less. If you got into a fast food or convenience store, sure, you get greeted within 3 seconds but the sincerity is not there. But of all the nationalities in the world, I still believe that Thai people have the innate ability to give the most sincere service.

If you could give a few pieces of key advice to Westerners doing business in Thailand, what would they be?

Greg: Be patient, be diligent and follow up. Never assume anything no matter how many times you have told someone to do it before. Even if they have done it right 6 or 7 times, time number 8 you still need to follow up! Make sure things are done how you want.

Make sure you set up your company structure properly to protect your interests. It might be easier to work without a work permit or put the business in someone else's name such as a Thai national's name. Quite a lot of people come to us afterwards instead of before.

If you would not do it in your home country, don't do it here. The money you save by taking shortcuts in the beginning is eclipsed by what you lose in the end.

Nui: My advice can be implemented wherever you operate a business. If you operate a business outside of your homeland of course you are going to face more problems. Most foreigners unhappy doing business here spend most of their time trying to figure out why the problem happened. If they spend as much time trying to figure out how they can figure out the problems they'll become more successful and happier.

Greg: I'll give you some advice that doesn't matter if you're in Thailand, Siberia or the US. Many times I have asked business owners why they were successful. Many of them said that they put themselves in the customer's eyes and did what they would have wanted if they were on the other side as the customer. They had the passion. The passion is what is going to get you through the ups and downs. We have been lucky in business but hard work and passion has helped. If you enjoy what you're doing, you have to have that passion and the commitment.

Many of my readers want to, or in some cases already do, operate a one man show in Thailand and they wish to do it legally. There seem to be so many hoops to jump through. Are you able to give a brief list of the things they need to do, both in terms of the business set up and then the ongoing requirements as well as a rough idea of the costs?

Greg: The professional fees and the cost of setting up are much less than many other countries. Due to the fact that one of the first things we did 6 years ago was look at other firms charging for work permits. They were charging – and some still are 40,000 – 50,000 baht. We lowered that to 6,500 baht. Our fees are dramatically low across the board. At the end of the day many people were charging rates that were similar to those of New York lawyers but the work was being done by Thais, just as it is here in our firm. Permanent residency for example. There are firms that charge 300,000 to 500,000 baht! We only charge 19,500 which is a dramatic difference! But we do much more volume. Which business model makes sense? The one which does 300k baht or the one which does 15 applications for that 300,000 baht? At the end of the day we think it is the right way to go. We see no reason why it should be so expensive. We have gotten foreigners permanent residence. We did close to 5,000 work permits last year. The name of our game is volume, volume, volume and offering gold standard service! With referrals we get the volume.

With lower prices do you think clients expect less service?

Greg: Absolutely not. They expect that the same as if they were paying 40k – 50k baht for a work permit, especially the last couple of years. Expectations are much higher.

Nui: The only business you can do as a one man show and be successful as a one man show is a consultant. Any other business there will be problems. Be it the nature of the business where you need an assistant, or the legal barriers. Consultant is perhaps the only way you can go solo. You can sit in your bathroom, consult and not have a care in the world!

You often hear people talk of putting a property in a business name. I have always thought this was a crazy idea. What do you think of it?

Greg: Our lawyers draft many many usufructs. We were one of the first firms to do that.

Umm, I don't want to sound dumb here but what is an usufruct?!

Greg: It is the way a foreigner can have a servitude on the land. Essentially he is the property manager. He doesn't own the land but he has a long term right to manage the land and his name is on the back of the title deed. It is actually very simple. For us to draft the usufruct and do the due diligence and check whose name it is in and to register the usufruct at the land department is around 25,000 baht. That is everything. They get their name in the yellow book! All of this is legal!

You've got your fingers in a few pies and are well-known for Sunrise Tacos. I mean everyone loves it and it's your baby. Where did the idea come from and how is it going now?

Greg: I am involved in quite a number of restaurants.

A couple friends asked me several years ago what the first thing I talked about when I got off the plane back home. For me it was tacos! I would always go and get some. It was a natural lead in to do Mexican food in Thailand. I approached a number of franchisers because my wife and I are involved in many F and B outlets but none of them was interested in expanding to Thailand so the only thing left to do was research and development. It involved going through a lot of recipes and I enjoyed it. It has come on great. We will be franchising in the near future.

We make our own flour and corn tortillas with corn from Korat. We have our own manufacturing process where we cure maize in lime, grind it to become masa. Even in Mexico the tortillas can be poor quality in some areas because it is a lot easier to use masa that has been dried and reconstituted with water which is then called masa harina. The masa is much better when it is fresh and there are no additives. We don't cut corners. Everything is fresh. We make the sauces everyday, every couple of hours and you can taste the freshness.

Late last year I predicted Sunrise would expand outside Thailand. Will I be right?

Greg: It is a matter of time. Right now we are in negotiations with a couple of different parties.

What are your plans for the future?

Greg: We're looking to expand to the airport with Subway, possibly Sunrise. We're renovating the Emporium Sunrise location and that will reopen on October 15.

What about Sunbelt?

Greg: We are fortunate as Sunbelt business continues to be right up there. We have not gone down, even with the economy as it is. This is because of the referrals from existing clients. Sunbelt has been growing and going from strength to strength. We own the master franchise for Asia except for a few countries and we have been getting a lot of interest from other countries where people want to open an office, Philippines, Vietnam and Korea. The odds are high that that is going happen soon. We have very good staff now. I am quite happy with our staff at Sunbelt. We are lucky to have them.

Nui: For me, we're at that age where we don't want to do things only to make money. We want to do it for the challenge and continue to identify new niches. For businesses we already have, especially Sunrise and Subway, I think the expansion will be very focused. We will only go to locations that are really right for the brands because if we choose the location correctly it makes a faster return. As much as I want to retire, when I see new things or niche markets or unserved demand I still want to do it and this is also the reason why I cannot explain to myself why there are so many players in an already crowded market like say hamburgers. You have hamburgers from all sorts of countries. You have so many players in the chicken market and you have so many players in the Japanese food market. In some markets there is room to grow but again I think it is so much easier to be successful if you are able to identify the niche market. You just have to observe, research and keep your eyes open.

Greg: Being first in a new industry is very important. Getting back to Sunbelt, we have invested a lot in the staff. We had English business teachers come in and we spent over 500,000 baht on their advanced English training. Our new Sunbelt Asia website has seen much development and will be state of the art next month for users when the new site is launched. And in accounting, we have just switched over to QuickBooks. When you use a different method that accountants are not familiar with in Thailand it is quite hard to change their mindset but we're excited about that and have been talking about it for a number of years. We have over 20 accountants that are now trained to use QuickBooks. The future is indeed bright as we won't rest on our laurels. We want to continue to be paramount in client service.

Nui: What makes Sunbelt better than our competitors is that I think we are somewhat successful at training our staff to be a solution provider and have a service mind. Thai people are good at following detailed instructions but sometimes lack the skills of proposing and exploring solutions and I think over the years we have been successful at making our Sunbelt staff become better solution providers. We try to be problem solvers rather than give just information. Especially in the legal department, there might be a situation where there are 100 rules to be applied and interpreted by the officer. If you are not good at coming up with alternative solutions, our lawyer will become just a messenger. They carry the application to the office. They have a problem, they bring it back and trips are made back and forth so we know to solve this problem we have to train the staff to be better at coming up with solutions otherwise they are not better than a messenger. We are solutions providers.

You can reach Sunbelt, Subway and Sunrise Tacos at these sites.



Where was this picture taken?


Last week's picture was taken of the top of the Sheraton Grande on Sukhumvit with a telephoto lens from the Asoke end of Soi Cowboy. I am sure many have looked up at the Sheraton's sign from that point so I was very surprised that so few people got it right! The first person to email me with the correct location of the picture wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British Fish And Chips restaurant. The second person to get it right wins a free jug of margarita, valued at 840 baht from Charley Brown's, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant, offering authentic cuisine and delicious margaritas. Charley Brown's is located in the small sub-soi off Sukhumvit Soi 11. The third prize is offered by ThailandFriends.com, an online dating community that boasts over 50,000 members, hosts live events in and around Thailand and allows basic members to send 5 messages a day for free. The prize offered is a premium membership which adds more to the ThailandFriends experience with unlimited messaging, detailed member searches, 24 profile pictures, and a whole lot more.

Terms and conditions: The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. The Charley Brown's prize MUST be claimed within 7 days. Prizes are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per month. The ThailandFriends prize must be claimed within one week.

FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column. I get many interesting emails every week and it isn't easy to choose those I feel are best. Apologies if your email is not included.

EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Helping Gaem.

Gaem sounds like a true gem. Sad, until you remember the story isn't over, yet. If our eyes are not clouded, we can see that she has lead a noble, inspired & dignified life, thus far. I can understand you considering and brainstorming ideas for her the easy & quick naughty life to regain her daughter, but given what you have written in the past, well, to have this thought escape your brain and leave your mouth or exit to the world through your fingers & keyboard rather undoes the essence of what you have been saying for a long time. You have previously believed [if I have understood you correctly], that the "dark side" does not solve those practical problems due to its inherent debilitating effect on the soul {my interpretation of your expose} and leads to a further decline in the person's character and life. I believe you were correct from the beginning; be careful you do not betray your instincts and offer her unintentional poison; I can see you wish to help someone whom you admire & like who appears to be in a desperate situation; but be patient; her strength and hope lies in her strong character; she shall prevail, in time, by being true to herself.

Better to meet on neutral territory.

For those that are in the process of considering moving out to Thailand, or those that are trying to come to terms of being able to settle here, I would like to put forward some friendly advice for them to consider. After 13 years of living I really come to the conclusion that nobody entertains in the home – full stop. Thoughts of being invited round to wine and cheese parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties, birthday parties or for that matter any kind of party just simply don't exist here in the Land of the Smiles. You can add to that coffee mornings, picnics, barbecues, in fact the closest you'll ever get to any kind of party is being invited to your own wake. Don't ask me why but for most just the sheer idea of entertaining in the home most people find incredibly threatening. I mean for some they'd have to find something for you to sit on! Next up is that they feel when they turn their backs there'll be nothing left of value, but for most they would have to commit themselves to something more than the water and coaster mat ritual routine. You know the one when they enter the room and go through the motions of saying hi whilst trying to put down this token gesture as fast as possible, then immediately turning and doing some kind of a Road Runner exit out of there. If the two cultures are forced to mingle, separate food at separate times in different locations will be presented, usually with all the Thai women all holed up in the kitchen eating on the floor. So by default when most people suggest meeting it is nearly always suggested that it should be on neutral territory.

Freeloaders and the perils of organising a group activity with the locals.

I have been in Thailand now for 4 years and this last year was particularly good for me in terms of sales performance. I decided to buy lunch for a group of five of my colleagues who have really helped me to achieve this success as I thought it would be a nice gesture. Big mistake! What started out as a group of five slowly mushroomed in size as other people were invited along, and the way this happened was incredibly annoying. Instead of discreetly asking if such and such a person could come from accounts or wherever they would bring me over to that particular department and ask me in front of everyone if that person could also come along. This put me in the rather awkward position of either having to say no they can’t as they haven’t helped me in any specific way, or just saying yes. I find the whole face issue a bit of a cop out and so I just said no and politely explained that this was a thank you to those people I was directly involved with. To cut a long story short, the lunch pretty much fell apart and a number of the people that I had hoped to come along didn’t end up coming. The final numbers ending up being 10 people, most of whom I had no intention of originally inviting (no doesn’t seem to mean no in Thailand). I work for a big multinational and get on very well with the Thais in the office and so I do not think the above was malicious in any way, but is just a part of the culture here. It is much the same as when you have been eating everyone’s afternoon snacks in the office and so decide to buy some snacks in return – guaranteed no one will eat them! Anyway, the moral of the story gained from this and other experiences is that you would be well advised not to try and organise anything for a group of Thais. If they do come along you will more than likely have the feeling that they are not enjoying it and don’t want to be there! It can be great fun being with a group of Thais but for heaven's sake, don’t try and organise anything yourself. Just go along with the group if you get invited and let them organise everything amongst themselves. In fairness, if I was back in Sydney and some Thai guy in my office was trying to organise a group activity I probably wouldn’t fancy it much either!

Land office scamming foreigners.

This past week my girlfriend and I went to the Land Office in Hua Hin to complete the purchase of a house there. We were informed that we had to pay a tax of 26,000 baht plus 300 baht to complete the purchase of the house. We were a bit upset at this unexpectedly high tax. My girlfriend called a friend who is the manager of the Land Office in Korat who told her that the tax should only be 8,000 baht. My girlfriend corrected the Hua Hin land office person telling her the correct rate for calculating the tax and instantly the amount of tax was reduced to 8,000 baht. We were also given only one of the two receipts required for the tax paid. Our real estate person spotted this quickly and went back into the office and obtained the second receipt. My girlfriend's friend managing the Land Office in Korat said that employees in the land offices run these scams frequently on farangs and just pocket the difference.

Bar owners take note!

In Pattaya I often buy drinks for 2 or 3 girls in a bar. In Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy I usually buy just one drink for one girl. Lady drink prices are just too high for me. Although the prices are lower in Pattaya I actually spend much more per bar. And have more fun. Perhaps the bars in Nana and Cowboy should take note?

"I no work bar!"

As I sat in a beach chair in Pattaya this summer, two young ladies relaxed beneath the umbrella to my right. They appeared to be good girls behaving themselves. I know that this was true for at least one of them as she called three different men and spoke to them in English, telling them that she was being true to them and missed them very much. I wonder how many similar conversations happen everyday with some poor dupe on the other end of the line.

The Roi Et approach to tipping.

You mention tipping. Before I met my current girlfriend, I used to leave 5, 10 or 20 baht in most restaurants and bars I would frequent. Then I met my girlfriend and on the last trip I let her do all the paying. What surprised me was she never once left a tip. She has never been in the bar industry and is a good girl from Roi Et so perhaps she is an example of normal middle-class Thai folk from Isaan?

Another member of the Stickman Fan Club resigns. (BTW, I'm not old – not that that is a crime, and not fat either!)

You have ended like Trink. Old, fat and annoyed, complaining about the dirty business and the too young girls. At my fist trip to Thailand is spended all the time in BKK. At my second trip, half the time. Now, I was not in BKK since years. And you? You live in that stinky garbage hole your entire Thai live. In puket the girls are young and pretty. The weather is great. The water is warm. Diving, snorkeling, swimming, fishing, bonking. You wrote the guide to nasty nightlife in Bangkok, The most important script since the bible. And now? You do it every night with the same girl! Until you die. I hope for you, it will happen soon. It is so sad, seeing what happened to you.

The cracks are starting to appear. Walking past two large, popular restaurants in our neighbourhood that are popular with the Thai middle and lower-middle class crowd, both are *much* quieter than they have been. These are venues that seldom see a foreign customer so it is not just farang venues that are down. For the past month or two I have found it much easier to get a taxi at any time and the city's famous traffic jams just don't seem to have been quite as bad as usual, or so it seems to me. The Thai economy is suffering…

Bully's 4th Birthday Bash is fast approaching on Tuesday, September 23rd. The good folks of Bully's will offer a buffet and carvery between 7 – 9 PM. Bully's angels will be transformed into little devils as they leave their uniforms at home and bring out their favourite leathers, whips and chains to keep the historically overflowing crowds in line. The buffet is free and always has been because, as my favourite bar boss, Boss Hogg, says, it would be rude to make guests pay to eat on your birthday. This is always one of Bully's biggest nights of the year and the food goes fast so get there early!

Speaking of Bully's, they have recently added more dining booths and all the pool tables have been refinished and reclothed with imported cloth. The men's room was also given a complete facelift. Business is better than ever with the new food menu in place combining the old standards with new additions including an all imported steak menu.

Jool's Bar in Sukhumvit's soi 4 turned 20 this weekend. And for those who remember the iconic former publican, Big Dave, he may be in need of a new nickname as he is said to have lost over 100 kg!

Bangkok's newest English pub, the Queen Victoria, in Sukhumvit Soi 23, is due to open before the end of this month.

Despite business in Nana being down in general, Angelwitch is on course to have its best year ever according to owner Matt. That's kinda weird given the 150 baht they charge for a standard drink, but what would I know?! Despite being unable to get excited about Nana, Angelwitch and Rainbow 4 remain the two best bars in Nana.

Metro Bar in the Rajah Hotel complex on Soi 4 will celebrate its 3 year anniversary with a party this coming Tuesday, 16th of September. Pi Long, of Hillary Bar fame and organiser of Ball in Hand's weekly tournaments, will be running some pool events like Killer and 3 Ball. If you don't know 3 Ball, it's become an increasingly popular alternative to Killer in some of the bars that participate in the Bangkok Pool League. The tables have just been reclothed so those Brunswicks will be at their very best. The Metro bartender, Bruce, will be blending up free Kamikaze shooters throughout the night, and usually quite a few Hillary 2 and Morning Night staff get part of the night off from their boss to attend Metro or Ball in Hand events.

If you stick your head around a few corners and down a few side alleys you might notice that a few bars in Bangkok's Sukhumvit area are following the Pattaya trend of decent giveaways or even free food to get customers in the door. The Kiwi-owned and run Soi 8 Bar in, funnily enough, Sukhumvit soi 8, has free BBQ advertised out front with any drink purchase of 99 baht or more. It's every Friday at 7:30. Has anyone tried it?

A few thousand horny US seamen descended on Pattaya this weekend and there will be a right old battle amongst the bars to get them in the door. Pattaya has been hurting badly and their injection into the local economy could not come at a better time.

I'm all for the girls making as much money as they can, but sometimes their lofty expectations don't do themselves, their bar, or even the industry as a whole any good. There I was in Apache Coyote on Friday night with a bunch of mates. There was a new girl in the bar – but not new to the industry – and an Australian mate struck up a rapport with her and ended up barfining her. He's a good guy and was the best dressed in the bar. Perhaps she got it in her mind that he is silly rich from his appearance when she said to him, "I am expensive!" The next words that came out were 4,000 and 8,000 baht followed by a question as to his desired timeframe of her company. You have to wonder what is on these girls' minds! This is not a Japanese dominated bar and neither is it a bar that has a stream of customers throwing silly money around. Needless to say, 15 minutes later she was back up on stage dancing and my Aussie pal had his 500 baht back!

In recent weeks I've mentioned how certain venues close at midnight – and how this is a real party killer. Being turfed out of a venue and told to go home at midnight in Bangkok just doesn't seem right! The reason for these early closings is that the venues in question don't have an entertainment license. Apparently none have been issued for a number of years. Those venues that do have entertainment licenses go through a costly renewal process each and every year that includes decibel tests, engineering inspections, police inspections, fingerprinting of the directors and so on.

I've been singing the praises of Tilac Bar recently but this week's visit was a disaster. The first issue was one of the service staff – who was very clearly drunk – knocking over a bottle of beer at our table. Not only did he (she? – not sure what sex it goes by) fail to apologise – or even acknowledge that it happened, there was no offer to replace the drink! Then, another in our party noticed that his gin and tonic was served in a glass that had a large chip at the top of the glass and a crack running from top to bottom. The song and dance to have it replaced was quite unreal. Perhaps success is having a negative effect on the venue's service staff?

Is there such a thing as a "fair fight" in Thailand? Late on Walking Street one night this past week a farang and a Thai were shoving each other and shaping up for a bit of biff. There were two Thais between them, trying to prevent an international incident. Looking into the eyes of the farang, he was enraged and looked desperate to fight. They held not just like anger but pure hatred. And neither was the Thai backing down. It needs to be emphasised that I have no idea what happened prior to this point, nor even who the two were. At this point it looked like the farang was the aggressor but who knows? A crowd was forming and uniforms appeared, comically blowing their whistles, trying to break things up! Their inability to exert authority had zero effect on what was going on. The crowd was getting larger….and the farang wanted to fight. It was written all over his face. A couple of Thais were trying to separate the two, and frankly, they were the 'heroes'. The farang eventually took the opportunity and lunged at the Thai but that was a foolish move and, to no-one's surprise, between 10 and 15 Thais leapt in and set upon the farang. He lasted only a couple of seconds on his feet before going down, his head slamming into the ground. He was motionless. But that was not the end! The Thais let loose and laid into him, brutally kicking every part of his body. For perhaps 10 – 15 seconds he received the beating from hell. They eventually stopped and left as the guy just lay there, lifeless. Two men in uniform picked up the farang. He was bloody and not moving. They dragged him away, hopefully to hospital. What on earth was he thinking? Didn't he know that foreigners in Thailand who get into fisticuffs with a local don't go one on one, but take on all 65 million?

Author and all round nice guy Dean Barrett's latest title "Identity Theft" is available now. Don't you just love the cover? I'll review it soon.

There's a newish Isaan style club in Pattaya, the nearest thing in Bangkok would be Isaan Tawan Daeng. This one is called Champ Isaan and is in South Pattaya although I am not sure of the street but any little friend will know where it is. It's open until 5 AM.

Check out these beer coasters from the No Name Group and see if you can spot the difference. Ooops!

With petrol now well down from its highs of a couple of months ago I wonder if the fuel surcharges airlines are charging will drop? Prices at the pump have moved precious little in Thailand. Ok, the baht has lost ground against the dollar, but not by nearly as much as oil has dropped in price.

Quote of the week comes from a DJ on Metropolis FM in her program giving advice to Westerners. "What is your business is everyone else's business – there are no secrets in Thailand."

I really liked this article from The Economist titled "Worse Than A Coup", probably the best article I have read on the current protests.

Tourism arrivals to Thailand are now a whopping 70% down! The sky really *IS* falling!

This Reuters article says the best of the best, The Oriental, is hurting.

An interesting article about Bangkok taxi drivers ran this week.


Ask Mrs. Stick

Mrs. Stick is happy to answer any questions regarding inter-racial relationships as well as cultural peculiarities that may be confusing or baffling you.

Question 1: The wife recently asked me if I could contribute towards her brother's education costs every month (actually it's her cousin). It's not a great deal a month but what I am considering is that this might be the thin edge of the wedge. Before we married she assured me her family would never want anything from us and apart from smallish contributions to the uncle and aunt who brought her up (his parents), this has been true. Two things make me reluctant. The first is that I paid off 10,000 baht costs to the victim (and the police) of a bike accident he caused in January when, as seems normal upcountry, he had no license or insurance. I never received what I consider to be a thank you (why are Thais so bad at this?) but the Mrs. claims he did thank her in a phone call. Then last year he wasted (in my opinion) holiday job money on buying his mum gold and a new mobile for himself rather than saving for the start of term, so he is obviously not very good with money. I really don't know what to do. He is at college for another two years. She says she is already paying him 2,000 a month but did not tell me until now. Questions to the Mrs. about his income and monthly outgoings to help me decide only result in 'I don't know' he not ask I just want to help'. My wife was not a bargirl. I only ever met this relative at our wedding three years ago, never a card or visit since. I wonder what Mr. Stick's reaction would be were you to ask him something similar?

Mrs. Stick says: I have my own income and would not ask him for help. If you only met this relative once three years ago that changes things. I think you have shown nam jai already by helping him. We always help people in our family but not needlessly and endlessly. You know in some families that always ask for money, well, that is not normal. Many Thai families are not like this. We had a problem in my family a few years ago with one of my closest family members who we found out had a high debt. You know, we didn't just give her money to fix the problem but tried to change her behaviour.

Mr. Stick says: My reaction would be simple. I would tell him to sell his mobile phone and get the gold back and use that. This might sound harsh but I serious. I am not joking. Tertiary education in Thailand is not always that difficult and many students DO work part-time to fund their education or at least get some spending money so working while studying is an option. I would ask many questions. What is the money for? Does he have items he can sell to raise some cash? Can his parents contribute? What you often find is that the farang is asked because he is an easy mark. You set fair and reasonable boundaries when you got married and your wife agreed that the only contributions you would be asked for were for the uncle and aunt. OK, so in an emergency you should be prepared to contribute but I do not see this as an emergency. I think with Thais you have to stick fairly rigidly to the pre-agreed boundaries. If you cave in now, the requests for cash will be never ending!

Question 2: I met my wife working as a bargirl in Pattaya. Her family is from Isaan and have told me that they want a sin sot of 300,000 baht when we have our village ceremony in December. This money will be spent buying land for her family so therefore will not be given back to us. Do you think that this is an excessive amount to pay?

Mrs. Stick says: The more you pay in sin sot, the more you honour your wife and her family. But actually, this amount is more than I would expect. If you can afford it and are happy to pay it, no problem. If you cannot afford it or do not want to pay so much then you can talk with your wife and explain that it is more than you can afford and ask the family to accept a smaller amount. I think a smaller dowry will be accepted if the family is sincere.

There doesn't seem to be a great amount happening in town at the moment. I went out scouring for news and gossip these past couple of days but got precious little. Business seems to be down and with September being the wettest month of the year – you can pretty much count on it raining 20 – 25 days of the month – there's just not a lot happening.

It's going to be interesting to see how things go over the next couple of months and the build up to the high season. Will the high season even warrant that name is the question on most people's mind!



Your Bangkok commentator,
A bit flat this week 5/10
Stick