One of the memories from that first trip to Thailand is of the bookshelves at airport bookstore. Hunting for some Bangkok fiction to take home, the choice was Chris Moore, Chris Moore or Chris Moore. His domination of that curious genre of expat fiction was total. More than a decade later the shelves are still dominated by the works of Christopher Moore. Just how does he do it? This week I had the pleasure of Chris's company and we enjoyed good conversation over the excellent food at The Dubliner. What follows is a chunk of our conversation featuring Chris's views on life in Thailand and what it's like being the region's most well-known expat novelist.
Some 20 odd years after publishing your first Bangkok novel you're still the most well-known and most successful Bangkok novelist. Why do you think that is?
I think success is always a relative term and one of the things I have learnt is if you have perseverance, persistence and resilience and at least a thimble worth of talent, you'll probably have a chance to meet success. Now whether success embraces you is entirely a different question. It's said that to be a professional, whether it's painting, football, making the All Blacks or whatever, you have to put in about 10,000 hours. After that 10,000 hours of concentrated effort either you'll be a professional or you'll know you don't have what it takes and you go on to do something else.
It's a lot. If you figure that you have a full time job and you can devote two hours a day to your fiction and you can do that about 300 days a year, it will take about 16 years.
That's a hell of a long time!
That's the entrance fee to any highly competitive professional activity! There are obviously exceptions. I mean Mozart was doing concertos when he was 4. So there are obvious exceptions to this.
I have been doing it for 23 years. My first book came out in 1985 so I figure I have put in the hours long ago and probably have had over 2 million words published.
How many novels and other works related to Thailand and the region have you written?
I think it would be about 17 novels. There would be three others that are not related to the region.
When you first moved here, what were your plans? I mean, I bet you didn't plan on being a novelist full-time. At what point did you make the decision that writing was going to be your primary work and when did you first start to think of Bangkok as home?
I first came to Thailand in 1983 and had a look around and concluded this would be an excellent place to set a novel. I have no illusions that that was a unique or original idea.
In 1988 I left New York where I had been living for 4 years with the intention of realising that 1983 promise to myself, to return and gather material for a book. I think when you come to a place for the first time everything you see is new and different and unique from the place that you grew up in or lived in. And so it is almost over stimulation and when I came in 1988, Thailand was much different to how it is now. There was no internet, there was no cable TV, there was no Western news. It was a much more cohesive expat group of people who knew each other, socialised together, drank together, played together. And so that expat culture which I found in 1988 was one that I was able to use for the first books.
My first visa was a 3 month visa to come and do research for a book. 3 months started to come to an end and I did that curious thing called a visa run, the overnight train to Penang. And so I came back with another visa and after that 3 months we did it again and that became a pattern for the next 10 years.
Some people said we remember when you arrived in 1988 and you were on a 3 month visa. That was 10 years ago and you're still here. I said, I didn't say when the 3 months started! So the first couple of years I wrote "A Killing Smile", "A Bewitching Smile", "Spirit House" and "Heart Talk", all in a very intense period of a couple of years. It is the whole environment of all of those initial impressions, ideas and stimulation that can only happen at the beginning of a long-term stay.
I know what you mean and really do agree with that.
After you have been here for 20 years the things that are weird at the beginning become absolutely normal and you stop yourself and watch tourists taking photos of a motorcycle taxi and say what is that about.
So when did you start to think of Bangkok as home?
Probably in the early '90s. Thinking that yes, I have been here long enough that it does seem like home but like a lot of expats during that period, still doing the visa run created a kind of transitory space in which to live. By leaving every 3 months it's always a little bit non-committal because you are asking yourself if you want to renew the relationship, like a marriage. The question came up every three months whether I was renewing the relationship or not. When you think of the place as a place where you want to belong and live long-term then that is the equivalent of a commitment much like a marriage.
Many long-termers know you for "A Killing Smile" which is a cult classic, a must read for those new to Bangkok with an interest in the famed nightlife. Is "A Killing Smile" still popular today?
It is still popular today. It continues to sell well and it's actually being translated into Turkish of all languages. It has been translated into Thai and I think part of the reason for the continued popularity of that book is that it captured some fundamental ethos of the times and it was the lead off for the Land of Smiles trilogy, really tracking the lives of expat residents during what was a fairly traumatic period of time in history, particularly the 1992 problems and troubles.
You did a special edition of it. Tell me about that.
The special edition of "A Killing Smile" was inspired in the mid 1990s when the old Thermae on Sukhumvit Road was being demolished and the site redeveloped. If you go to that part of Sukhumvit, about soi 15, you will see steel and chrome and high rise buildings on the site of the old Thermae. Perhaps one day archaeologists will dig into that site and unearth some of the old booths that were at the old Thermae! I mention booths specifically because at the time of the demolition I happened to be going past the site and saw the booths. If these booths could talk, they would be the equivalent of the Library of Congress in the stories of people's lives over 25 years. The Thermae was a meeting place for all kinds of characters, gun runners, diplomats, journalists, con men and tourists. A fair amount of Killing Smile was set in the old Thermae and with a friend, as the site was being demolished, we went in and harvested naga hide from several of the booths paying the Khmer workers on the site for the harvesting rights – which of course they claimed they possessed exclusively! So each of the special editions which were in leather had a large piece of the naga hide from the Thermae booth stitched inside. A little bit like the seashell idea, you can put your ear to it and hear the sounds of the old days. There were 275 signed and numbered copies of that edition. And indeed some still remain unsold.
How much are your works, and particularly the Calvino novels, a reflection of your own life? You and I first met in the Thermae many, many years ago and your earlier works featured the Thermae a lot. I seldom make it to the Thermae these days and I bet you seldom do either – and the Thermae hasn't featured in the last two Calvinos if my memory is correct.
I think when it comes to fiction it's very hard for an author not to confess that it represents his or her preoccupations, desires, dreams and passions. Ultimately novels are about an emotional terrain. The things we fear, things we desire, what makes us angry, what makes us depressed. All of those kinds of emotions are ones which the novelist must find language to capture and must find characters that are credible and authentic for their time and their place.
Do you make it to the Thermae at all these days?
I would say these days I would probably go in to the Thermae once a month, on average. It is a bit of a nostalgic trip for me. All of the old waiters greet me like a long lost brother and it's interesting to see the evolution of the place. The Thermae is not static in time. It has evolved. I think most of the clientele these days would be Japanese and from now, who knows who will be the clientele? < We both laugh loudly at this point, referring to something we had discussed earlier before the interview proper commenced, about the Japanese canceling their Thailand holidays en masse over the Bangkok airport closure> It probably will evolve further would be my guess.
I can't help but feel that the world of Bangkok authors is like the English football Premier League. There are many outfits but people are really only concerned about "the big 4". In the Bangkok novelists' world, that would be you, Jake Needham, Dean Barrett and Steve Leather. I know Jerry Hopkins has written as many books as you all put together but I don't include him in the big 4 as funnily enough he is not that well-known by the average Joe on the street. Why is it that you 4 are still the most well-known and successful despite the fact that bookshop shelves are lined with so many "local novels" these days.
One interesting aspect of Bangkok publishing life is that there is a fairly vibrant local English language publishing scene. I guess it would be like if people were writing novels in New York in Latin or Latvian or some other language which most people don't speak. There seems to be some market for I guess what we could call "expat fiction". I can genuinely see the sentiment behind a lot of these books. It's a sentiment that I think most people share is that when you go to a new place you want to record your experiences. This kind of goes back to what I was saying before. You record your experiences so that it is one thing you can go back to, preservation of memory. That is a legitimate thing to do. To share not only with your friends and family but hopefully with others as well. And writing provides that kind of emotional release. There's a difference between doing something on a professional basis and doing it for other reasons. There are a lot of people who paint or play golf and they do it for the satisfaction that it brings to them. They do not have an expectation that they will be teeing off with Tiger Woods or having an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. Writing is about scaling expectation. It is highly competitive and as Darwinian as any activity that man can ever hope to engage in.
Do you read the works of other Bangkok novelists?
It's hard to talk about the work of people you consider friends. Everyone has in their profession other people who are working professionally as well. The tent is big enough for more than one writer, or half a dozen writers in any city. If you think of the number of people who are writing fiction who live in New York or London, Paris, Toronto, it is huge. I would say that if anything, Bangkok is short of writers. If you look at the material that is out there, there are fewer writers here than you would expect. I would also add to your list Colin Cottrell and Timothy Hallinan.
He has a couple of books out with a New York publisher. He writes about here. And John Burdett. His name is recognised, certainly in the United States.
I maintain that much of my success with this site here is due to my relative fluency with the Thai language. I know that of all of the Bangkok novelists your Thai language skills are in a league of their own. How important is that in understanding Thailand, Thai culture and the Thai people – and how does it influence your writing?
I write about Thai culture and Thai people and without understanding the language it would be impossible to write authentically and meaningfully. As I said before, novels are about emotion. Emotion we associate with the heart and the architecture of the heart, you look to the blueprint of language. You look to build the emotional terrain. You build that from the language and understanding that language and find a way to translate that into English. It is not enough to say that things are different, strange or weird. Indeed they may be from a Western point of view. That is just one point of view. You need to understand that other language and other cultures and history are an alternative point of view and sometimes they clash! And when they clash it is like one of those particle colliders. You have got a mega billion volts of emotion that flies into your private universe!
What I perhaps like most about your novels are that they could only be set in Bangkok. For some, perhaps even most Bangkok novelists, you could simply replace Bangkok with Auckland or Vancouver and the story would work and be quite plausible. But for your novels that's not the case. They could only be set in Thailand. This shows a superior understanding of Thailand, Thai culture and how farangs fit into the mix. After 20 odd years here, do you still find yourself learning new things about Thailand and Thais now, or has most of it been learned already?
I think one of the essential attributes for a writer is curiosity and never being satisfied that you know what lies around the corner. You have to get out of your chair and walk around the corner.
Bangkok is a hugely complex city. It is over 500 square kilometres! It's not possible for any one writer to know the entirety of Bangkok. There are many Bangkoks. What I try to do is, from book to book, discover a new Bangkok that I did not know before. Or new ways of seeing the old Bangkok. That's an important challenge. You have to challenge yourself writing. If you don't you fall back on cliché and you fall back to the easy, low hanging fruit. The longer you are in the place, the higher up the tree you have to climb to get that inaccessible fruit, bring it down and once it is down you find there are parts of the story that open up for the first time. And the part that opens up is just the climb up that tree. That takes exertion, takes some skill and ability to reassess your own preconceived notions about Thai culture, history and people. I had a director friend once say to me "always keep the agenda open". There's always something else that can go on that agenda that can make the meeting, or in this case the book, a more rewarding experience.
While not a romance writer, many of your works feature Western guy / Thai girl relationships. What do you make of the phenomenon of Western guys flocking to Thailand in ever increasing numbers to find a Thai wife? I maintain that while finding a good Thai woman is doable and if you get a good one, she'll be an absolute gem, the fact remains that many end up with a dud. Why do you think that is?
I think relationships require skills like anything else. People underestimate the complexity and the difficulty in forming a long term committed relationship. Again it is a little bit of the low hanging fruit syndrome. What is the most accessible and easy is not always the most durable and productive for your long term life goals. One sees people here who come from a high level of education, professionals with incredible skills and suddenly they become 14 years old again with the same amount of awareness and objectivity. We understand that a 14 year old's judgment is likely to be impaired with youthful, wishful thinking and exuberance and that can only lead to an emotional meltdown which rivals what's happening financially in places like New York.
So my advice is to harness that 14 year old inside of yourself and if you're looking seriously for a wife, go into the same kind of inquiry and questioning that you would do at home. Just because you have left home doesn't mean that there are no rules and no standards or no objective way to judge. By throwing all of that out, inevitably you are going to make a mistake.
I remember you once saying a few years ago that this was the golden era for foreigners living in Thailand. You have made some succinct observations in your most recent novel, "Paying Back Jack", with comments such as "the smiles are vanishing from Thailand". Would you agree with me that Thailand is struggling to cope with the massive changes taking place in the world and the slow path towards a single world culture?
When you have lived in a place a long time a couple of things happen. You can be overly optimistic or sentimental about the place that it can do no wrong. Or you can take the other point of view that it is a place that's terrible, that is has no real hope and you're filled with negative feelings. People who have lived here a long time know both extremes. I think with Paying Back Jack you attempt to find a balance between the extremes. Bangkok, like any other major city in the world, is undergoing enormous change. Change for many people is disruptive, is frightening and it causes them to be reactive and fearful. From a novelist's point of view, one looks to see how people you know in this society are reacting to those changes on both the Thai side and the expat side.
So your future is in Bangkok? No plans to return to Canada?
Having just returned from New York and 24 Fahrenheit, the winter there reminded me how cold it can get. It is a little bit like being thrown into a freezer and someone putting a fan on!
So you were recently in New York. What was that all about?
I was in New York for a number of reasons. The central reason was to attend the National Book Awards ceremony where a friend and mentor of mine, Barney Rossett, was receiving a special lifetime award. Barney founded Grove Press 50 years ago. He is a major literary icon in the United States. He has published writers who have, in 5 cases, gone on to win a Nobel Prize in literature. He was a major force in publishing. He's 86 years old. I have had 2 mentors in life. One was Barney who with his contrarian anti-everything attitude had a love and passion for people who were outside the system, people like Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. He published so many. The other was Stirling Silliphant who was an Oscar winner for In The Heat Of The Night who has written or produced over 200 feature films in Hollywood.
What advice would you give to the budding Bangkok novelist?
Separate hope from expectation. If you expect to make a living at writing that may not be an entirely reasonable expectation given a whole variety of changes that are ongoing. The role of the Internet and other media in terms of its impact on publishing, the financial collapse is having a substantial impact on publishing and lastly new technology allows for self-publishing so there are literally hundreds of thousands of titles every year that come out outside the normal publishing template. It is a different publishing world to the one I started with in 1985.
What does the future hold for CG Moore?
I am finishing number 11 in the Calvino series and that will be the immediate future. The next 6 months will be redrafting and going through that book. It will come out in Thailand probably October or November of 2009 and elsewhere in the world at the
end of 2010. Meanwhile I continue to think, read and write and that is a life that I have a passion for. There has been no falling off in my desire to continue with that passion.
If you have trouble finding a copy of Paying Back Jack at your favourite bookstore in Bangkok, you can order directly from the publisher by emailing Noo and delivery inside Bangkok is free. If you are outside of Thailand and want to order a copy, then go here. Moore's website and blog can found at: www.cgmoore.com.
Where was this picture taken?
Last week's picture was taken from inside a cab on Sukhumvit, looking east at the Asoke intersection. Only few people got it right. This week's pic is pretty difficult. Hopefully you lot will not get it right and I can claim all the prizes myself. In fact what I should really do is negotiate with Lolita's to supply a prize every week. Then I'd make the picture super difficult and claim the prize myself…! What a GREAT IDEA! 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 a 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 – Look before you cross the road.
Where do I start? For someone receiving a truckload of email, I was really taken aback by your response over Khun Canuck. I've said it before and I'll say it again – if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck probably there's a good chance it is a duck. Okay we haven't met, so on this piece you are coming across as a really genuine, sincere guy who's going out of his way to help a fellow expat in his hour of need, and I commend you for such a response. Against that you must be one of the most informed residents to know, that if you see a Thai crossing the road that doesn't mean he's headed for the other side. Next up this is one of your fortes, a sideline to which you have admitted that you like because of the buzz it can give you sometimes. Personally I wouldn't have even got passed the word Go on this board game. A 30 year difference might be acceptable if the woman is 30 or above, but when you are dealing with young kids it just has all the hall marks of a sham. I'm talking from experience here, as there is a 20 year age cap between my lady and myself, and I really seriously doubt whether a 30 year gap would have worked. Why? Because anybody in their late teens or early twenties has no idea who they are, where they are coming from, what they hell they are looking in life, or remotely what they want in a mate at that age. From the sound of this these Thais would have already honed in on him as his plane crossed over the Burmese border, his fate was sealed before he even embarked on this emigration flight. My sympathy immediately runs out when I hear that he has come to retire in a foreign country without enough to fill a piss pot. Over extending one's finances that didn't exist in the first place, and what better way to deposit them in a property on your wife's family land?! Going over the Niagara Falls would have given this Canadian better odds. Of course she's going to elope for a handsome young man that at least can provide for himself let alone her, than an old fart that seems to have gone out of his way of writing himself off. But it gets better, as if rubbing his nose in it wasn't enough, his wife's family have come down and performed a classical Isaan production that is surely worthy of an Oscar! I hope he remembered to tip them after the manicure! You talk about what options he has left, and what kind of redress he can salvage. Initially I couldn't think of any, but on re-reading your piece it came to me. Outside of suicide, he should turn to the monks and the temple. Seriously this guy is not safe in walking the streets alone. In the years to come an out of date passport, no visa, no financial funds, yes he'd be lucky if the monks took him in. As for Marvin, maybe the first thing he knew about all of this was your initial phone call? Thais lie through their teeth and then some. If you walk directly out onto the road without looking who do you blame, the deceased victim lying on the road or the driver? But the sad thing of course is that Khun Canuck would have always looked before he crossed the road back home.
Soi Cowboy unsafe after 3 AM?
Regarding why they don't put an ATM on Cowboy, here's what I believe the reason to be. Banks only want to rent out space where ATMs will be safe 24/7. Yes, it would be fine everyday until 3 AM, but Soi Cowboy after that time is a dark and unsafe area to be keeping a lot of money. I doubt the banks are worried about people being able to break in and steal the money. Rather, while trying to break in, they end up breaking a XX,XXX baht machine, which the bank has to replace. This is the reason why 7 Elevens and Family Marts are popular spaces for banks to rent out. They are always well lit and open 24/7.
The beef scam.
I suspect that most of us have experienced this before in Thailand but it is starting to get on my nerves. The beef scam. Many European restaurants around the country have imported steaks on their menus, usually from the US, Australia and New Zealand and sometimes from Japan. The very expensive steaks from Japan simply melt in the mouth and the ones from Australia and NZ are not far behind. You know from the first bite if it's the real thing. However on numerous occasions I knew damn well I was being scammed with a local steak. The last occasion was at a steakhouse in Central Plaza on Rattanatibet Road. You would have thought it would be the real thing in such an establishment. As a treat I ordered a sirloin steak from NZ for the Mrs. The most disappointing dish was served and it took her about one minute to cut the first portion off (with a steak knife). Clearly not from New Zealand. More like the last slab of meat left at Klong Toey market. I didn't complain as there would be no point. It is the scam created by the owner, not the staff. We will just never return to that restaurant and will advise others to stay away. The Mrs. used to work in a European restaurant in Korat and it is common practice to buy cheap local steaks and sell them at the higher imported prices. This practice goes on in a number of European restaurants in the city and for sure is widespread throughout the country. One way of improving the local steak is to 'massage' it. This is done by feeding it through a small mangle, similar to the type used in markets to get the juice out of sugar cane. The point to note here is that most of these scams are being performed by the farangs who own the European restaurants. It makes you wonder what other sub-standard and low quality crap is being dished out in European restaurants around the country. I'm sticking to the reputable pubs and restaurants from now on.
The 90 day reporting issue.
This is something I didn’t know and surprisingly seems to be something many expats don’t know. But since I went to the trouble of pinning down the actual procedure I thought I’d share it. Every person here on a yearly visa, whether it be a retirement or marriage or even work permit deal, needs to “verify their address” at Immigration every 90 days. This is done by filling out a simple form, waiting in line at your local immigration office, and receiving the bottom portion of the form back with your next “verify on” date. The way this has worked for me the last three years (but not this time) was to report my address three times (3 x 90 days) and on the fourth visit renew my annual visa. I assumed that because I was submitting all the forms, my address, bank statements, and photographs when renewing the annual visa that this would take the place of the 90 day address verification. Actually, this is the way I’ve done it the last three years and the immigration officer told me it was okay to do it this way. Imagine my surprise when reporting 90 days later to learn that the address verification people told me I hadn’t reported my address in six months! No amount of explaining how it worked in the past, or what the immigration officer told me worked. They wanted a 2,000 baht fine and that was that. Confused about the rules, I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told to go upstairs. Upstairs I was told renewing the visa DOES NOT count for a 90 day address verification check. If you go in / out of the country on an entry stamp then the 90 days would start over from your time of entry but nothing else but this replaces the 90 day address verification. I was fined baht 2,000 and made to sign a form from the Thai Police stating that I confessed to my crime and was now convicted of a visa violation. My first police record. Perhaps I should get a tattoo…
The Bangkok Airport Closure
The closure of Bangkok’s airports by the misleadingly named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has caused chaos for hundreds of thousands of air travellers and put the Thai capital into a state of siege.
The authorities’ ongoing failure to resolve the problem is causing massive mounting problems. Thailand’s reputation has been shattered and the world is collectively wondering how a country can first lose control of such critical infrastructure and then how it is seemingly unable to regain control of it.
To recap the events of this week, on Tuesday night Bangkok’s Suwannaphum Airport was stormed by thousands of PAD protesters who took control and effectively closed it. The motley sect of urbanites, royalists, business people and the disenchanted was armed with little more than golf clubs and baseball bats yet they successfully gained control of the $4 billion airport.
The very next day the city's so-called old international airport, Don Meuang, was stormed by members of the same group where again almost no resistance was made. In each case there appears to have been no effort made to defend the facility.
The PAD has stated that they will remain at each of the airports until the current government, which they claim has been illegitimately elected and is little more than a proxy for the former Prime Minster Thaksin, resigns.
Shortly after taking control, negotiations between the PAD and the government began but broke down resulting in the Prime Minister declaring a state of emergency at each of the airports, allowing him to order the armed forces to assist in dispersing the protesters. The army chief has essentially refused to get involved and two attempts by the boys in brown to regain control of Suwannaphum saw them repelled by the makeshift rebels who appear armed with little more than golf clubs, sticks and stones!
As things now stand, each of the two major Bangkok airports are controlled by the PAD. Both domestic and international flights into Bangkok have been postponed or cancelled and tens of thousands of foreign tourists have found themselves stranded in the country.
Bangkok’s Suwannaphum Airport is the country’s main port of entry and exit for foreign tourists. 700 flights depart the airport daily making it the 18th busiest airport in the world.
The question most are asking is just how such critical infrastructure could be taken over by a band of admittedly well organised, but essentially unarmed citizens.
Targeting airports as part of a political protest is hardly something new in Thailand. Just a few months ago, as highlighted in this column, major airports in the south were taken over by this very same group causing major disruptions for thousands of travellers and businesspeople. That Suwannaphum would be targeted was obvious so why security wasn’t upped is a question that needs to be asked.
Many in the PAD have said they will occupy the airport until the present government stands down. Any attempts to remove them would see them fight to the death if necessary, meaning an attack would result in a blood bath that would make headline news around the world and damage the country’s reputation even further.
The authorities appear to have ruled out regaining control of the airport by force. With an estimated 10,000 protesters having set up camp in the airport, it would need a military-like operation to get them out with the potential for massive casualties and serious damage to the facility, possibly rendering it unusable for months.
The PAD has reportedly made threats of other disturbances including seizing control of seaports as well as 50 major intersections in the capital.
To complicate matters, there is another faction, the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the "red shirts", a pro government and by default, pro Thaksin group. From the government's northern and north-eastern strongholds, they vehemently oppose the actions of the PAD and have been involved in skirmishes on the ground with the yellow-shirted PAD that threaten to blow up into something much more serious.
Bangkok has been awash with rumours of police raids on the airports or the red shirts mounting a campaign to dislodge them. Some pessimists are saying the airport will be closed for months, something I simply cannot see happening. Whatever the case, it has fast become a no win situation.
While the PAD ought to be congratulated for the passion they have shown for the cause and the obvious love they have for their country, that is where the platitudes must end. Many members of the PAD are there because they are paid to be! Freedom of speech and the right to protest must be preserved but their highly questionable choice of action will spell disaster for Thailand’s economy, the effects of which will almost certainly be felt for years to come.
I have received numerous heated reports from friends as well as readers of the site for whom this act of terrorism – can you call it anything else? – has caused anything from an inconvenience to a major concern to in at least one case, heartbreak.
An Australian friend must fly back to Australia next week to sign at the Social Welfare office to continue his disability pension. Failure to do so results in a 6 month stand down period. His health is not good enough to be able to overland it to Chiang Mai, or Phuket and fly out from there.
The following heart-breaking email was received from a long-term reader.
Like many, I was sitting safe in my home country, smugly amused by the latest fiasco the Thais were perpetrating upon themselves. Then we got an unexpected call – my Thai wife's ailing mother-in-law is in a coma, and she's not expected to live more than a few days. Suddenly the closed airports are not the least bit amusing. Because of the PAD's selfish acts, my wife will be unable to see her mother in her final moments. I wonder how many others are in similar, or worse, situations.
You could fill up books with stories of the effects this is having on both individuals and corporate entities, many of whom have become dreadfully disenchanted with Thailand this past week.
So what is the prognosis for short term visitors in country caught up in this mess?
For those in Thailand who wish to get out, you have a number of options. Efforts are being made to get tourists out via Utapao Airport which is located some 30 minutes east of Pattaya, or about 2½ – 3 hours by road from the capital. It is being used by some international airlines to help repatriate tourists desperate to leave Thailand. However, Utapao is a Vietnam era airport and part of a military base and doesn’t have anything like the capacity of Suwannaphum.
The number of foreign visitors wanting out is swelling. It has long passed the point of mere inconvenience. Many foreign travellers report feeling that they are essentially hostages in Thailand.
One could try and exit the country by air from Chiang Mai, Phuket or Hat Yai, all of which have international airports. Be warned, flights are filing up fast and many routes are said to be full through until Christmas, New Year and beyond. You could overland all the way to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, both of which are major hubs and get a flight out. Again, there could be great difficulty simply getting a seat. The situation is dire and Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister, Olarn Chaipravat, has said that it could take a month to clear the backlog!
Who would want to be working the customer services counter for Thai Airways at a time like this?! Reports have it that many airlines' customer services' departments are facing an unprecedented number of inquiries. Don't even think about calling. In fact the general consensus if you wish to use the telephone is to call Thai Airways customer services in Singapore – but apparently even their switchboard is jammed now too. Of course, you could visit the local office but expect a scrum that would have even the All Blacks front row nervous. It has got so bad that at least one Thai Airways office was forced to call in police in an attempt to maintain order. Hours waiting in long queues which run outside the office for the chance to speak with stressed customer service staff who can do nothing more than inform you that the next available flight is not for days isn't winning any friends.
It goes without saying that the airport closure is a worst case scenario for the tourism industry, unthinkable in that it is a hijacking from within. The outlook doesn't bear thinking about. Tourist numbers will plummet, especially amongst Asians who make up the biggest tourist numbers. China, Korea and Japan, the three largest markets, will be hit extremely hard, particularly the Japanese who are ultra sensitive to any troubles abroad.
Your typical Stickman reader, a Western male, possibly single, who has visited Thailand a number of times or is resident here, will probably be confident enough not to let this affect his plans. The problem is, even if he wants to visit despite the troubles he might not be able to get in if the airports remain closed. For the many other types of travellers, cancellations will be rife. European families, the so-called more wholesome visitors that the TAT has been trying to target in recent times, will cancel en masse.
And it’s not just Thailand that will bear the brunt but the entire region. Bangkok’s airports are the major hub for visitors travelling on to Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia and its closure will have an similarly serious impact on neighbouring countries.
The export industry is also going to take a great hit, particularly those products that need to be sent by air, such as flowers, seafood and other perishables.
Falling export receipts and little in the way of incoming foreign currency from new arrivals mean that the Thai baht has got to fall.
Thais have many qualities and often show great tolerance and patience but conflict resolution has never been a strong point. There is little confidence that the situation will be resolved speedily. Many are talking of the airport being closed for weeks, or longer. I personally am not so sure. With HM The King's birthday this coming Friday I would have thought it was in everyone's interest to get things cleared up before then. December 5th is a huge holiday in Thailand and this political uncertainty on this most auspicious day would be hugely upsetting for the nation as a whole.
Thailand's tourism industry has battled through many disasters and much negative publicity in recent years. There was SARS, the bird flu, the tsunami, the social order crusade, the 2006 coup d'état, soaring fuel prices resulting in double digit inflation in tourist / expat areas, negative publicity through dubious practices such as double pricing and ongoing scams, all of which has caused damage to the tourism industry and resulted in a reduction in tourist numbers. But the damage from all of these combined may very well pale in comparison with the long-term fall out of what is going on now, particularly if it not resolved very soon.
That a bunch of thugs in yellow shirts brandishing baseball bats and golf clubs can bring a country to its knees is almost unfathomable. The effects will be felt for years to come. It should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. That such critical infrastructure can be taken so easy and control fail to be regained is a slight on Thailand’s image that the country may never be able to rid itself of.
The bar industry is being DECIMATED by the airport closure. On Friday night business in the capital was noticeably down. Saturday night was much worse. At 9:15 PM last night, Angelwitch in Bangkok had the grand total of 3 customers. But hey, they were doing better than G Spot which had a single, lone punter, and a lot of very, very bored looking girls. Mandarin was doing a roaring trade with precisely 4 customers on the premises…
The new venue above Bully's sounds as though it is going to be rather flash. The pool tables they have imported are Brunswick Competition Gold Crown V, considered the finest competition table having been used in Pool Tours since 1961. They have arrived and yes, they have received delivery. Yes, in Thailand, that is altogether two different things. The new pool lounge at Bully's will open in the first quarter of 2009 with an investment in excess of 12 million baht. Boss Hogg and ET are the only shareholders. Sensibly, no shares will be offered to the public.
That well-established Thai practice of erecting Christmas trees and playing Christmas music from late November is no different this year with some shopping malls having put up their Christmas decorations and commenced the Christmas carols already. Even Soi Cowboy is in on the act with Dundee the first bar to put up an Xmas tree. I'm not religious but it just doesn't feel right.
A number of Thai coppers were up and down Soi Cowboy on Friday night, numbering perhaps 30 or more. They weren't the big boys and not one appeared to be carrying a gun. It looked as though they were doing one of their routine ID checks. No-one seemed too concerned and no doubt the bars had been tipped off well before their arrival… It was humorous watching as for every copper performing an ID check, about 5 or 6 were peering over his shoulder in such a way that you thought they didn't know what the hell they had to do.
A run through two popular freelancer venues this week revealed that not all freelancer venues attract the same crowds. Soi 7's Biergarten was full of riff raff, both boys and girls, and in many ways it reminded me of Pattaya's Beach Road – it was pretty much the bottom of the barrel. The Thermae on the other hand was really quite pleasant to spend a few hours. As has been mentioned recently in this column, the Thermae is as much a venue for Asian men now as the Biergarten is the domain of Caucasians. The girls in the Thermae, on average, are much prettier than those found in the Biergarten and an attempt to negotiate a deal for a friend confirmed that they have a preference for Yen. 2K ST, 4K LT were the requested fees with not a single baht discounted for the fact that my friend happened to be in shape, aged under 30 and very well-dressed. The 2008 vintage Thermae maidens come in three varieties – those exclusive to Asian customers, those happy to go with anyone and the final group, those the Asian guys consider much too rough and for whom farangs are the only option. The first group, those who will only go with Asian men (and yes, they will refuse farang but for a sky high offer) are fairer-skinned, more likely to be better dressed in a skirt or a dress and generally are prettier and more feminine. A number of them really do have a day job. The next group, those who are both Asian and farang friendly, generally have something about them that the Asian men like, be it a Japanese style haircut or "cutesy makeup". Those who the Asians won't touch, and who by default are exclusive to farangs, typically wear the uniform – jeans and a tight top. They tend to be much darker and have a typical Isaan look. I don't care what anyone says. Far and away the prettiest girls are exclusive to the Asian men.
The owner of Angelwitch thinks I am on some sort of personal crusade against Nana Plaza. No, I am just telling it how it is. In fact I get grief by many who believe I am too easy on Nana!
Andrew Hicks will host the launch of his newest book, "My Thai Girl And I", at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand) on December 4 at 8:00 PM. The FCC is located on the penthouse floor of Maneeya Centre which is connected to the Chidlom skytrain station. This book launch and chance to meet the author is open to all and there is no entry charge. The book tells of life with his wife’s family in a small village in Isaan, including his observations on all things Thai. Andrew really seems to enjoy his life in rural Surin so "My Thai Girl And I" is ideal for readers looking for a snapshot of perhaps a less than typical slice of expat life, in the Thai countryside. The book is available now at all good bookshops throughout Thailand.
It's not that long ago that music in the bars was for the most part limited to top 40, classic rock and pop as well as the odd Thai piece. Now the music has become a bigger part of the entertainment and house and techno, both of which make me cringe, are becoming more popular. These more modern styles of music can change the atmosphere and the feeling to something more akin to a club than a gogo bar. There's this notion that house and techno are found in flasher, typically more expensive venues and with some gogo bars playing that style of music more and more, is it any coincidence that they have also changed the prices? Because club music is possibly subliminally associated with spending more money, there seems to be less resistance to the higher prices of drinks that are the norm these days. The girls may have a harder time dancing to faster songs above 128 beats per minute, but it is what it is. Dave the Rave tried this when he was head honcho of Hollywood in early 2005 and it changed the atmosphere in no time. The girls off stage were dancing with each other and customers too. Unfortunately that only lasted a few days before Johnny shot it down. Is this the cusp of next generation gogo bars in Thailand? Even the bars in the Déjà Vu group are shooting for this. The club style bar makeovers in the newest venues in Cowboy and the music match the trend.
I am amazed that so many guys speak so highly of the mamasans. Frankly, many are the spawn of the devil. There is a big difference between mamasans, that you get in all of the gogo bars and other large bars like Secrets, FLB etc and the papasans that you get in the likes of fish-bowl massage parlours. Sure, the mamasans can assist customers but they are really there to help the girls get customers, get lady drinks and make as much money for the bar and the girls. Some mamasans give the impression that they are there for the customers when really, that is very much secondary to what they do. Contrast that with the papasans whose responsibilities are more about ensuring the customer is happy. I can't help but wonder if gogo bars would be better off with a mamasan AND a papasan system? The mamasan remains with the girls, sort of like their manager, but there is a papasan, a guy, who helps with negotiations? While many guys claim that the mamasan is their friend – and in some cases she is, when push comes to shove, she is there to help the girls hence their fierce loyalty to this mother figure.
Quote of the week comes from a friend about a bar in Cowboy I choose not to name. "The bar now has absolutely NO atmosphere apart from, perhaps, that which you would expect to find in a funeral parlour."
Scams against tourists get worse as Thai tour bus staff robs foreign passengers and leaves them!
An argument over 200 baht led to an Aussie perishing in a Pattaya hotel room.
Britain's Daily Telegraph lists Thailand as one of the world's 20 most dangerous places.
For those not sure where to put their hard-earned, chaos hits Thailand's investment image.
Here's information on the hellish route to Utapao Airport from Bangkok.
On being one of 100,000+ people Stranded in Thailand.
The Economist has commented on the Bangkok Airport mob.
Here's what the square-faced one has to say about the events in Thailand.
Melbourne's Age reports on a defiant face in the land of smiles.
The Wall Street Journal comments on the airport closure with quotes from such illustrious local characters as Sunrise Tacos' Greg Lange!
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 local office of a large international airline made a mistake (4 months ago) which caused me great inconvenience and some financial cost. After persistently contacting them, the local office has today stated that they had contacted their head office (overseas) regarding my request for compensation but the head office had apparently refused. They apologised but said the matter was closed. However once I told them that I would contact the head office myself, I got a phone call from the girl who made the mistake, begging for forgiveness and telling me that I could have compensation but it would come out of her salary. I understand that it may be common practice in this country to deduct from salaries but I find it completely unfair and hard to believe that an international company would act in this manner. I would like to bring this practice to the attention of the head office as I feel the supervisors are at fault. Although this will ultimately cause the individual some distress, which I feel a little uncomfortable about, she did after all make a costly mistake (and I strongly believe she and her supervisors tried to cheat me). I believe the supervisors probably didn’t want to contact head office as this would have reflected badly on them. If this happened to you, what action would you take? Am I being cruel?
Mrs. Stick says: You know, some Thai companies have no concept of customer service but if this is an airline I am surprised. When you complain you must always be polite and please do not be rude to anyone. You can tell them everything they do wrong and tell them all the bad points but you must not curse them or abuse them or raise your voice loud or threaten. I think it's a good idea to ask to talk with the manager. I don't know why the officer must pay from her own salary. If it was me and it was my money then I would complain and I would demand to get my money back or some compensation.
Question 2: I must relocate for my job next year. I have met a wonderful Thai lady in which we are trying to start a relationship. If Thailand is not an option for me I was wondering which countries are easier for Thai nationals to obtain visas. We would not be living together, as she has a well paying job in Pathum Thani. However, I want her to visit me as often as possible. I think my job options would be in Indonesia, Singapore, Korea or Japan.
Mrs. Stick says: I have been to Indonesia and Singapore and did not need a visa. I think we don't need a visa for Korea or Japan either.
Mr. Stick says: You need to have a tighter plan than this. Choosing a country to live in because it is easy to get a visa for your Thai girlfriend is probably not the best way to plan for the future. I think another country in Asia is not a good option for a Thai unless it is Singapore. Pretty much everywhere else you will find them persistently longing for Thailand, even in Singapore…
Question 3: I heard something from a friend of mine who was involved in a minor fender bender recently. It was clearly not his fault, but of course he was to pay for repairs to the offender’s motorbike and hospital bill (about 20,000 baht). When he tried to reason with the officials, they explained to him that is his fault that the accident even happened, for if he had not been here (in Thailand) the accident would have never happened.
Mr. Stick says: Legend has it that in the past this was the customary response from the men in tight brown uniforms when a foreigner was involved in a car accident, irrespective of whose fault it was. But for sure, this is not what happens these days. I must admit that I get somewhat confused when I hear reports like this. The law of the land is that every vehicle and every motorbike must have insurance and assuming you do have insurance, you call them immediately and they dispatch an agent who does all the negotiating. Assuming your insurance is valid, you should not have to pay *anything*!
Like many foreigners with close ties and a personal investment in the country, I want the best for Thailand. I want the country to develop and prosper and I want the best for the Thai people. What is happening now pains me. The fall out from this could be disastrous.
Your Bangkok commentator,