Stickman's Weekly Column October 5th, 2008

Vientiane Again, After All of These Years


Dirt roads from the border all the way to the heart of downtown. Plain white-skinned girls in old, often scruffy clothes who looked like a deer in the headlights if you approached them or God forbid, said something to them. The magic there letters in Asia, ATM, were yet to arrive and the term "walking ATM machine" was light years from being included in the local lingo. Great bread, pate and cheese available on every corner. These are my memories of Laos, a country I have visited a handful of times, the last way back in 1999.

It's holiday time so with a friend in tow, we hit Highway 2 and headed up through Isaan, all the way to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

It's not my intention to talk about the journey through Isaan, but a couple of spots are worthy of a mention. Two old favourites continue to deliver, high on quality, low on price. Thumbs up go to the Kiwi Cafe in Khon Kaen and Piccolo Roma in Udon Thani, the latter better than ever. Unlike pretty much every business in Bangkok that caters to foreigners, neither of these Isaan bastions of Farangdom appear to have so much as raised their prices by a single baht since my last visit. I cannot reiterate enough just how good Piccolo Roma is. Italian food as good as most Italian spots in the capital and prices, well, prices you just cannot find in Bangkok.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Nongkhai Grand which seems to have adopted that most odious of Thai business practices – when trade is down you put your prices up! Since my last stay there in the middle of last year, prices have increased 50%. We were able to wrangle a 25%+ discount from the pretty receptionist. With only 20 rooms taken, they should be grateful for customers in the slowest period of the year.

But this report is not about Thailand. Let me introduce you to the Lao People's Democratic Republic!

Actually, this report is primarily about Vientiane because that is as much of the country that we managed to see. The idea of the trip was to show a pal from home another country without jumping on an aircraft – and with the Lao capital just 20 km from the Thai border, it was the obvious choice.

Vientiane has been described as one of the world's sleepiest capitals, a deserved title that will do nothing to entice the naughty boys or the party animals. In what is still a Communist country, perhaps in name only, most locals have an incredibly laid back attitude to life and seemingly no-one is in a hurry to get anything done. Service is polite and friendly, but often rather slow. It's not a party town and there is a limited number of nightspots in this city of barely 250,000, most of which close as early as 11:00 or 11:30 PM. Frankly Laos ranks even lower on the party scale than it does in the world corruption index where it can be found at about number 150 of 175 territories.

But don't let you this put you off. If you're looking for a party, Laos might not be your dream destination, but in many other respects, it delivers in spades. Set against the Mekong River, Vientiane is a wonderful mix of East meets West, the remnants of once being a French colony clear for even the briefest visitor. The Asians bring friendliness, a ready smile and low prices to the mix while the French refuse to be outdone, contributing beautiful wide boulevards, colonial architecture and the best of French gastronomy with French wines, cheeses, pates and one of the world's most wonderful cuisines very well represented in the Lao capital.

Vientiane and Laos are clearly on the South East Asian tourist travel and the last decade has seen tremendous growth with guesthouses and hotels popping up everywhere. The issue my travelling companion noticed in Bangkok exists in Vientiane, namely that of there being all sorts of odd white fellows rampaging through the countryside which brings me to the first story of the day.

I just have to tell you about the plonker we met on the bus the morning we crossed the Friendship Bridge, the stretch of tarmac connecting Thailand with Laos. There are fools in this world….and there is this guy. This is the type of guy that just encourages the locals to try and rip Westerners off. Even with a Thai wife he was most proud to tell us about, he was completely clueless. He sat down next to me on the very brief bus ride across the Mekong River and me being me, I said hello and engaged him in conversation. A Yorkshireman living in Isaan with his Thai wife, I just knew from the outset that he didn't have a clue. As I had not taken this journey for many years and was out of touch with current prices, I asked him how much it cost to get from the border to downtown Vientiane.

"Mate, I paid 800 baht but I don't know if you'll get such a good price", he said, looking at me like I was some sort of fool.

I mentally filed that away, thinking that such a price was outrageous for a 20 km journey.

I couldn't help myself and asked him if he could speak Thai. "No mate, my wife looks after all that stuff for me."

I then asked him about the price of the visa to enter Laos.

"1,500 baht, mate", was his response.

I explained that I would be paying in dollars and that I had heard that doing so was much cheaper.

"They hiked the price, mate. You're going to get ripped", he said, a gleam in his eye, unable to hide his excitement that the two Kiwi lads wouldn't get the same good deal he would. Uncontrollable laughter followed.

As it turned out, the price in US dollars was $30, or the equivalent of about 1,000 baht whereas if you wished to pay in Thai baht, the price was 1,500 baht. You wonder why his Thai wife doesn't put him straight…

I was a little worried that my travelling companion, a long time friend from NZ, might ask him the question I told him that you just do not ask in Thailand. Yeah, that one – you know the question! You don't? What do you mean you don't?! The question you never ask in these parts is "Where did you meet your girlfriend / wife?" My mate was giving me looks like he just had to put this guy on the spot…

We passed through border control quickly and negotiated a car into town for 300 baht, a 50% premium on what a Bangkok taxi would charge for a similar distance but hey, this isn't Bangkok.

Vientiane is a smallish place with the main area where tourists hang out spread over a few small blocks near the river. You'd be lying if you said the city was full of tourist highlights with Pra Tat Luang (the main temple), Patuxai (local version of the Arc de Triopmhe) and the riverfront area dominating most tourists' agenda. There's a Buddha park 20 odd kilometres outside the city centre but it pales in comparison with the far more impressive Buddha park over the border in Nongkhai which, incidentally, was the handiwork of the very same man. If you were in town for the sights, you could probably do them all in a day and even then that wouldn't feel like a whirlwind tour.

Vientiane's appeal is not so much its attractions, but its vibe. It is the genuinely relaxed, laid-back approach to life of the Laotians and their friendliness and genuine desire to help visitors which is much of the appeal. The Lao people may not be as openly friendly and gregarious as the Thais, but I couldn't help but feel that they were genuine, more sincere. Younger people have a ready smile whereas the older are less likely to grin. But engage them in conversation and you'll be rewarded with a discussion which transcends food, seemingly the only topic many Thais are capable of talking about.

Language difficulties are an issue and the level of English spoken in Laos is generally not that good. The locals who work with and deal with tourists generally speak functional English but few are at what could be termed conversational level. However, most Laotians understand and speak Thai to some degree so if you're comfortable in Thai, you can get by just fine in Laos. The only issue is that while many understand Thai, they respond in Lao. The languages are sufficiently similar for you to catch the gist, sufficiently different for you to miss the detail. Some of the older folks I spoke to asked me if I spoke French so Francophiles have a chance to use their native tongue.

My impression of the Lao people was extremely positive. For a country so poor – those in good jobs earn a mere 2,000 – 3,000 baht equivalent per month – they had a resilience and pleasant manner that endeared you to them and more than anything, I felt it was the people who make the place what it is. Where the Thais seem to want to get their hands on your money without any great concern for whether you're happy or not, the people of Vientiane seem concerned that first and foremost you are satisfied. Parting you with your money does not seem to be their primary desire – and that makes a refreshing change for those jaded by Thailand.

Being such a poor country, many products and services are extremely cheap, but that does not apply to everything. Prices have shot up since my last visit. Decent hotel rooms, for example, aren't cheap. For short journeys, the tuktuks ask rates that would make a Bangkok cabby blush and while the city abounds in French restaurants, a single dish at some establishments could blow a backpacker's daily budget.

These days there is clearly money in Laos. There were a number of large late model Mercedes-Benz being driven around and no shortage of new Japanese sports cars. Party members, perhaps?

The official currency of Laos is the kip, but in Vientiane, and I gather much of the country, US dollars and Thai baht are preferred.

The internet works well in Laos with speeds comparable to what you get in Thailand. Internet cafes are everywhere and in the hotel wireless worked a treat. That said, few hotels seemed to offer free wi-fi.

The general infrastructure in the country has come along in leaps and bounds. Everything from improved street lights to new roads to a seemingly decent power supply in the capital that doesn't cut out like it used to. The city really has come of age. It might not be Bangkok, but then it doesn't suffer from all the ills of Bangkok, traffic jams, pollution and tourist areas infected with money hungry touts and scammers.

Beer Lao needs no introduction and regular readers of this column know that I am a huge fan. I don't know what it goes for in lower end places, but in mid to upper end restaurants we were paying about 20 baht for a handle of Beer Lao draft which really is even better than the bottled variety. 20 baht for a handle of fine beer in a decent restaurant. You just cannot complain at that price, can you? 660 ml bottles typically went for less than 50 baht and if you were really on a budget and hunted around, you could probably get it for a lot less.

Vientiane's nightlife is something of a letdown although that was the last thing on our minds. Most venues shut up shop around 11 PM although some venues run much later. The riverfront is pleasant early evening but come 9:30 or 10:00 PM another of the odious aspects of life in Bangkok and Pattaya comes out, the katoeys! Calls of "where you go, handsome man" echo around some dark alleys. And those Laotian women who are on the game are just as brazen as their Thai sisters. After 10 PM I had single girls on motorbikes stopping next to me, offering themselves for the night for 3,000 baht, which as it happens would be about the average monthly salary for a graduate who had secured a good job.

The nightlife was never part of the plan, but when asked by a tuktuk driver if we wanted to check out bars with women, we thought what the hell. It was early evening and sitting in the back of the tuktuk as it screamed through, dark empty city streets I admit some trepidation about where we were going. I hadn't planned for this and was carrying all my valuables, a wallet full of cash and a camera with a big lens, obvious items of value. That said, we needn't have been too concerned as the crime rate in Laos is extremely low.

The tuktuk pulled outside a venue. We'd been brought to a Lao style low-end bar. Thai music filled the air and 10 or so pretty, fair-skinned girls looked a little bemused to see foreigners getting out of the tuktuk and entering the dark, sleazy low-end bar. A few red lights illuminated the grim venue and we were led to a table. Two large bottles of Beer Lao were produced. Before we knew it, five of us were slugging back the most famous of Laos' exports. A lady had joined each of us and the tuktuk driver had seized the opportunity to enjoy the local brew, a treat often out of reach.

If you've ever been in a low end Thai brothel – and they are awful places – then you know what this was like. Our ever entrepreneurial tuktuk driver tried his best to convince us to take a lady out the back to do our bit for international relations and it would be a snip at 1,000 baht he said. My best guess is that such a price would be at least 10 times the going rate. But the idea of being naughty was the last thing on our minds and we were quite content to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the fine beer. I have no doubt that we were overcharged at 13,000 Lao kip per 660 ml bottle of Beer Lao, but who is going to complain? That's 56 baht a bottle and no, there were no lady drinks. The concept doesn't exist. No lady drinks, no whiskey. There's only one beer available. You simply say how many bottles you want. Everyone drinks Beer Lao. Ice is optional. With the local brew so good, who would complain?

On to another such venue – there were many along this particular suburban street, and the format was exactly the same. While my travelling companion took in the surroundings and slugged back the local brew, I engaged the girls in conversation, keen to understand how they had ended up there. Just like in the whorehouses of Bangkok, these girls were not from the capital but the countryside. They claimed to be there of their own volition. Most were young with the age range 18 through to 22 or 23. Attempts made to find out just how much they usually charge were met with hushed comments to Khun Tuktuk. What made me somewhat depressed was that every girl – and I mean every girl – had a brand new mobile phone with a massive LCD screen, the sort that must run 10,000 – 15,000 baht. If you start to do the maths of how they earned that phone, well, it isn't pretty…

I was to learn that few foreigners make it to these venues, but all are welcome. I couldn't help but think that such domains are not to your average foreigner's liking. There was a complete lack of English – not one girl spoke one word. The girls didn't have the smiles that you associate with Thai girls although once engaged in conversation they began to relax and appear more comfortable.

I couldn't help but notice the other customers in these venues, the local boys. They were young, most looked to be early to mid 20s and they really treated the girls like dirt. The girls were being groped, kissed and there were hands and fingers darting in all directions as the local boys – young blokes themselves – saw the cost of the Beer Lao as an invitation to do almost anything. Even with so much beer in the system, desensitising you to the surroundings, when you opened your eyes and tuned into what was going on, it really was a little bit much. After four such venues, we decided that we couldn't stomach it any more and it was time to return to the hotel.

Forgetting the naughty stuff, there's something about Lao women that endears you to them, that try as hard as you can, you cannot repel the feelings. With fair skin, soft features and a smaller stature than even their Thai sisters, Lao women are like a delicate flower, so pretty and oh so feminine. They may not have the same infectious playfulness about them as the Thais but I couldn't help but feel that their desire to be a good woman would mean they would make good wives. In fact a number of Thai guys I know speak fondly of their Lao wife, convinced that they made the right choice steering clear of a local Thai girl.

There was something about Vientiane and the Lao people that made me think that the Thais and the Thai culture that we read about in guidebooks largely does not exist (perhaps with the exception of the north). But it does exist in Laos. The women of Laos are pretty – though in a different way to Thai women – and you would have to say that while Thai women are more beautiful, more confident, more playful and easier to meet, the evocative mix of fair skin, soft features and genuine femininity of the Lao women is hard to resist.

Laos has developed hugely since my last visit. The hotels and restaurants are much better with better service, more English spoken (there remains much room for improvement) and a far wider choice of dining options. The quality of produce was every bit as good as Thailand. Actually, make that as good as what you find in Bangkok. The power supply didn't cut out despite the rain. The internet was fast. Wireless could be found everywhere. People seem to be better dressed and there are far more vehicles and motorbikes on the roads. What was once an open market, Dalat Sao, is now the country's first air-conditioned shopping centre. There are many, many air-conditioned appliance and mobile phone shops. The list goes on and on and on. Vientiane has come on in leaps and bounds over the past decade.

Anyone who travels around the region speaks up Thailand's neighbours, particularly Vietnam. Word is that Vietnam and perhaps some other countries are going to overtake Thailand. What I think Thailand needs to wake up to is that the Lao capital, Vientiane, once a sleepy back water, has undergone significant development and infrastructure upgrade to the point that it now feels more developed than many Isaan cities.

Compare that with Nongkhai, the nearest Thai town, which doesn't seem to have changed much in the last decade. OK, it has. Everything is ten years older and apart from a riverfront promenade there seems to be little improvement. The hotels get older, streets are in disrepair and there is very much a feeling of decay in the air.

Compare that to Vientiane which, despite its sleepy nature, feels as if it is moving ahead. Life for the locals seems to be improving rapidly. There are more vehicles, more motorbikes, more buildings and most importantly, people seem happier. There is less poverty and a general feeling of perhaps not prosperity, but a feeling that the country is moving in the right direction. And I am thrilled about that. It couldn't happen to nicer people.

Thais can be rally cruel towards Laos and the Lao people who are the butt of many jokes in Thailand. But frankly the last laugh is on the Thais. Thailand might be a much wealthier country, but when it comes to decency, sincerity and downright charm, the Laos have it all over the Thais. They really, really do. And as Thailand seems to be standing still, Laos is moving ahead. Thailand has been caught with its pants down.

* If Laos interests you, check out my Laos photo gallery.

Where was this picture taken?


Last week's picture was taken outside King's Castle, one of the most popular chrome pole palaces on the main Patpong soi. It was easy and heaps of people got it right. This week's picture will be easy for those who know Bangkok, difficult for those who don't! 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 one month 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.

EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Thai retail bliss.

Buying electrical goods in Thailand can be risky at the best of times. You can often get a good deal but if anything goes wrong with your purchase, more often than not the retailer will do nothing to help and just refer you to the manufacturer. That's why these days I don't make major purchases at places like MBK or Panthip Plaza. In fact, more often than not I buy computers, cameras and the like back in the UK. Curry's are hard to beat on price and if there's a problem the Sale Of Goods Act kicks in and you get a replacement or your money back, no questions asked. I broke my own rule last week and bought a Sony portable DVD player, a snip at just over 10,000 baht. I bought it at the Sony shop on the third floor of the Emporium. As I was buying it, the sales girl asked me if I wanted her to take it out of the box to check it. That's something that never happens in the UK – you buy it in the box and bring it back if there's a problem. The Thais like you to wait while they slowly unpack the box, carefully inspect all the contents, and repack it. I figured that Sony were always reliable (I'm a big fan of the company's products and have five Sony TVs, two laptops, two digital cameras – you get the picture!) so I said I wouldn't bother. Big mistake, of course. That night I'm lying in bed watching a video and notice that the right hand quarter of the LCD is slightly darker than the left hand side three quarters. Just a fraction, as if that part of the picture was in shadow, but after a while it became really annoying and I knew that I had to take it back. I spent a sleepless night knowing what lay ahead of me. They'd shake their heads, they'd sigh and they'd tell me to take it up with Sony, and the best I could hope for was for them to send it away and to get it back in a couple of months. I couldn't have been more wrong. The girl remembered me, agreed that there was a problem and offered me a replacement immediately. And she apologised! That was what amazed me. She was apologising for something which wasn't even her fault, and that's as rare as hen's teeth in Thailand. Great customer service, and a nice smile too. If only all Thai retailers were the same.

The perils of riding a bike in Thailand.

Driving into Pattaya last Friday, the taxi slowed to a crawl along Beach Road. I soon found out why. A farang had come off his motorcycle and was lying on the ground. There was a crowd of Thais and few foreigners watching, but no one was doing anything to help and there was no sign of the police or an ambulance. I reckoned it couldn't have happened more than a minute or two earlier, but already there was a glistening pool of blood around his head, at least a pint. I'm pretty sure he died, and if he didn't he'll be brain damaged for sure. Beach Road is busy and usually so crowded that fast driving isn't really possible, and the accident probably happened at below 30 mph, probably a lot less. The lesson is obvious – if you drive a motorcycle in Thailand, wear a helmet. Just because the Thais often go without a helmet doesn't mean foreigners should. In the UK we brought in helmet laws decades ago for a simple reason – in any sort of collision, a motorcyclist stands a very good chance of hitting his head. The UK helmet laws have saved thousand of lives and kept thousands more from becoming vegetables. So wear a helmet, and not one of the plastic buckets that the Thais wear. They are worse than useless. If you ride bikes back in your own country, then bring your helmet and gloves with you. And if you don't ride bikes back in your own country, don't even think about renting one in Thailand. The risks are just too great.


The best Thai dating experience

Bemoaning Bangkok.

Bangkok. Honestly, how can you live there? I found it quite fascinating watching a rat the size and length of a friggin' Labrador go scurrying on to and then leaping off the front of my right foot recently. Arriving in Bangkok late at night is real badlands shit! Cities are supposed to get better. This cesspit is worse than I've ever seen it. My midnight drop off by the airport bus on Silom Road to then go try and look for my hotel room down some steaming, putrid side street looked like I'd been deposited into the gates of hell. Rodin would have been proud of this scene. Beggars, the insane and deranged, the criminal, the touts, the transvestite hookers who appeared to be ghostly imitations of discarded shop mannequins, the feasting rats and the running, ever conniving cats, just like their human peers were brushed to the side as I, sweat soaked more from the adrenalin than the humidity tried to weave my luggage and self through this detritus of filth. For the extra touch there was thunder for effect and lightning for the pyrotechnics show. It doesn't matter where you stay in Bangkok, whether it be the Marriott or a hovel on Khao San Road, you're only ever a few minutes walk away from your very own localised version of the gates of hell. Walking along Sukhumvit Road last night, famous for embassies and fine hotels, I counted 6 beggars within metres of one stretch either crawling, hopping or sitting. Welcome to Bangkok folks. I'm outta here in four days!

Daughter repossessed!

I have two Thai friends. One is a news anchor for Channel 11 in Isaan and another is a news anchor for KTV and an editor for The Nation newspaper. Both of them have travelled the world. My friend who works for Channel 11 said to me last week that he has no idea why his Thai wife left him and went to America other than greed. He had a great job and no second wives. My other friend is living with a nitwit so he has gigs. Can you blame him? My friend from Canada who had a Thai wife of 10 years went back to his country for 6 months and came back to find her cheating on him with another Westerner. My other friend found out after 6 years his wife had always had a Thai husband! And I, who always believed that I had the perfect Thai wife, who was never asked for money from her parents, just had her "repossessed". And she went like a whipped puppy. Incredible! She cried like a baby before she left. I asked "Why are you going then?" She said she did not want to lose her family. Again, incredible, sick, abusive mind control on their daughters. You don't marry a Thai girl, you just lease her until her family revokes the contract. It is sick. I am American and have friends from all around the world here. All of them, including my 2 Thai buddies, have said that Thai culture for married daughters is awful. Laos and Vietnam has better families to marry into. Screw it. I'm moving to Budapest, Hungary because I hate Thai food and Thai racist culture. Thai people do not have the same concept of love as we do. That is why you see millions of strangely located resorts around here because they are made for cheating. The men have screwed the women for so long here that it has changed the women's ability to love. Three years ago I read on the huge list of complaints from western men on your site many stories but I was dumb enough to think it would never happen to me. I do remember one in particular and it has always stood out in my mind. It said "Thai women, your hearts are as black as your ass."

Farang food, Thai style.

I have finally given up trying to eat Western food in any Thai establishment. They really are not up to the job. This week I tried Sante Fa, a chain of restaurants that serve steaks as their main theme. But the so-called ‘imported’ NZ sirloin I had was small, completely tasteless, and TOUGH. It was also served cold. And the three of us all had our meals served at different times. Why can’t Thais understand that when people go into a restaurant together they actually want to EAT together. My wife and her brother both ordered exactly the same meal, yet one was served 10 minutes after the other. I’ve lost count of the times I or my wife has finished a meal before the other's meal has arrived. Okay, in Thai restaurants they serve a dozen dishes and they keep rolling in, but a western meal is not like that. Haven’t they noticed? <I bet it was a Thai steak and not sourced from NZ at allStick>

Hollywood Hotel is the name of the new short time hotel (with a long-time option) to be opened in Nana Plaza in the space previously occupied by the Big Mango Bar. Owner Peter has said short-time rooms will go for around 300 baht and he is optimistic that the venue painted a garish bright yellow and currently resembling a warzone, will open next month.

The beer bar area outside Pretty Lady and Red Lips bars in Nana has been tastefully transformed and features a palm tree. Could this be the start of much-needed major renovations to the plaza?

Word coming out of Pattaya is that business has picked up in Sin City. Frankly, I don't believe it but I guess I should keep an open mind and report after my next trip down there.

As mentioned in a previous column, there is a new Manchester United bar opening soon on Sukhumvit's Soi 11. In addition to that there is supposed to be an Irish bar coming to the soi as well as a new nightclub. The club is in the old Genesis spot – the last building on the left at the top of the soi and is expected to open in the next couple of weeks. To be called Diva, it is said to be owned by those who were behind the now defunct Mystique club.

There was a major fracas at Ekamai bus station this week involving a well-dressed American resident of Bangkok. Walking through the bus station with two Thais, he was grabbed and shoved up against the wall by two of the boys in brown. Being a New Yorker, he is used to fighting fire with fire and let rip with a barrage of abuse and the foulest language you could possibly imagine. The cops appeared almost scared as the furious Westerner refused to back down and they took their hands off him. The American's two Thai friends, also well-dressed, had words with the cops and the situation de-escalated, but not before the American was seen yelling and screaming at the cops, questioning their honesty, integrity and reasons for grabbing him, which I can't help but think was rather bold, perhaps even antagonistic. He proceeded going about his business. Exactly why the police grabbed him is unclear but it should be noted that police have long been known for checking the belongings of Westerners getting off buses at Ekamai as well as those getting off at destinations on the Eastern seaboard where the bus originated at Ekamai. Were they perhaps looking for drugs? Needless to say, if you're going to the eastern seaboard, anyone taking anything to enhance their mood should think twice about it.

At 145 baht a drink, are Kiss Bar's drinks the most expensive in Cowboy? Ouch, that's pricey, especially if you have just walked out of a Cowboy bar at happy hour.

There is still no word about possible closures of bars or prohibition on alcohol sales in November when the official cremation of HM The King's oldest sister will take place. The rumour mill has it that bars could be closed from anywhere from 2 – 5 days. My feeling is that one day is most likely, but that is just a feeling and not based on anything concrete. In all likelihood, we won't know until the very last minute. Keep an eye on Dave The Rave's site around the middle of November as he updates his site with last minute bar closure news.

Punters visiting Bangkok's bar areas last night were disappointed with Cowboy closed, Nana open but with no alcohol available. Alcohol was hard to come by in the capital last night and tonight won't be any different. It's election day for the Bangkok governor and as such, alcohol sales are prohibited. Alcohol will be hard to come by tonight too with the law stating that it cannot go on sale before midnight. Some bars may have food and lolly water available but many establishments expect to close early, around 10 or 10:30 PM. Some of the city's naughtier establishments have indicated that they hope to have alcohol available from "mid evening". Each bar, and each bar area, will be different so if you're in desperate need of a drop, you might need to look around…

Between Sukhumvit sois 27 and 29 is a new bar which opened on September 25 from the team behind Tilac bar on Soi Cowboy. Called The Penalty Spot, it's pretty hard to miss and is trying to be all things to all men. They have a small smoking section outside, staffed by barkers, you know, the "Hello, welcome please" crowd. Inside it's a sports bar with big screen TVs, pool tables upstairs and lots of wooden paneling. They also have a live Thai band playing, oh God, you guessed it, Hotel California, Have You Ever Seen The Rain, Desperado etc, all the usual 70s hits you hear all over Asia. Small draft beer costs 100 baht each and the staff are friendly with the occasional cutie. One downside is they have brought the "You buy me Cola" mentality from Cowboy to what could perhaps be termed mainstream Sukhumvit. It's also a hostess venue with barfines an eyebrow-raising 900 baht. There are a few pretty girls there, but whether any warrant the princely sum of 900 baht, I'll leave up to you to decide.

In Sukhumvit Soi 11, which is becoming a lively lane, comes news that the sub-soi that includes Cheap Charlies, Charley Brown's, Tapas Cafe and The Pickled Liver will be turning into a night market from 15th October. Every night from 6 PM until midnight there will be an arts and crafts market, sort of like a little Chatuchak Market. Food and drinks will be available and traditional Thai entertainment will be staged on various nights. This is a lively little soi with a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere that makes a change from the big name bar areas. With it being a sub soi and largely out of sight, many do not even know that it exists. This new promotion should bring many new customers into the lane and obviously the restaurants and bars are looking forward to increased trade.

Thai Immigration is set to issue a new "immigration card" which will entitle the holder to various privileges. Details are scarce for the time being but from what I can work out, it looks to be similar to the APEC card, a card available to Australians and New Zealanders with privileges such as priority processing at Immigration control and unlimited 90 day entries into Thailand. If this new card is similar to the APEC card, it can only be a good thing. More details as they become available.

In last week's column I mentioned the alcohol content of Singha beer had been reduced some time ago. Apparently this happened way back in early 2007 but as someone who doesn't touch the stuff – too many bad experiences on that stuff in the early days in Thailand – I never noticed it. It has been mooted that perhaps they did it to save money on liquor tax. The change was made on the sly and there was no announcement made at the time as best I can remember.

And just to show what a snob I am shirking the local beers, I have just realised that Chang beer's alcohol content is down to 5% from 6 or 6.5% before. Hmm, just what is going on?

The Deutsch and Italiano versions of "Hello My Big Big Honey" can now be found on the shelves of Asia Books branches.

Quote of the week comes from a reader. "Usufruct – I have never come across this loophole in all my years worth of research, it sounds however to be very distinctly close to a Glaswegian expression, "Yous're fucked!"

The Age reports deaths by lightning in Thailand.

The New Zealand Herald is a most unlikely place for a well put together article about former Premier Taksin.

The Nation reports that an American was beaten up in Pattaya for refusing to pay 170 baht for his beer. Pictures here.

The Bangkok Post ran this item on foreigners married to Buriram women and the money this brings into the province.

The rains at the end of the rainy season are causing flooding resulting in death and disease in Thailand.

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: I've been here so long now that I no longer ask straightforward questions as there's every chance that I will fall at the first post with a long string of mai mees. For example, in trying to establish a person's identity, I now phrase this enquiry by asking, "Does this person have a name?" This sometimes produces results but is not always guaranteed, only to be followed up with, "If they don't have a name, do they have a number?" It's got to be a conspiracy. I mean when you first enquire as to someone's Thai name, there's every chance that not only are they going to use all of the alphabet, but also that you stand no chance at all of pronouncing or remembering it. To compound this identification crisis, they then go on to abbreviate it into a handful of nicknames, so when you ask to speak to Noi half the office puts up their hands. What is this? Why is it so difficult just to have easy, straightforward names, that are not only different from one another but easy to say and remember?

Mrs. Stick says: Do you respect or even try to understand our culture? We have nicknames that are short and easy to remember to help people like you who have memory problems. I never once heard someone complain that English needs many more words to say things than in Thai. In my office we have many people and no-one called Noi! I don't have any friends called Noi. There are many different nicknames and you know nowadays Thai people use words from English too for nicknames so it should be easy for you to remember them. Why do some foreigners complain about silly little things like this? You're Mr. Ngee-ngow, right?

Question 2: After living in Thailand for a number of years my wife and I returned to the west to raise our family. We soon made new friends with Thai / Farang couples that were living in our district. My wife has one problem with her Thai women friends and that is she gets very jealous of them. The Thai friends do flaunt what they own but that sort of goes with the territory and should really be of no concern. But what I find quite odd is that my wife is only jealous if she perceives the woman to be less attractive than her and with the more attractive friends she is not jealous at all. So my wife's way of thinking is if you're "damn ugly" you're somehow less deserving of wealth or to have a rich husband. Is this sort of jealously common between Thai women?

Mrs. Stick says: You know that women of all nationalities compare each other and look at their husband and their house and possessions and we want to feel that our life is good compared to others. This is not only Thai people but for farang and all cultures. So I can understand how your wife feels. If she knows someone who is not so pretty or comes from a background that is not so good and she is given a fabulous life then it is natural for another to feel that maybe their life is not as good as it could be. This is natural human nature. All women have this feeling.

As the world economy's problems bite, I cannot help but think that Thailand is an ideal place to ride out the recession in. Around the world jobs will be lost and new positions increasingly hard to find. Life in the West will become more difficult. Thailand's adequate infrastructure combined with its low cost of living mean that anyone who is genuinely willing to tighten their belt and live a quiet, but ultimately low cost life, could survive quite nicely. I wonder if the Thai government should look at some way to accommodate these people? The way the visa situation is currently structured makes it difficult for such people to remain in Thailand, especially if they are under 50 and not married to a local. There could be an opportunity here for Thailand to promote long-stay to foreigners who bring in xx,xxx baht each month and as I say, an opportunity for foreigners to see out the recession in an inexpensive country. As many become more frugal – and my prediction is that it will become more and more uncool to blow money, such as spending several dollars on a cup of coffee. As people begin to eschew luxuries and extravagances, Bangkok's appeal will broaden. I wonder if the Thais will seize the opportunity and promote long stays in the country?



Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick