Stickman's Weekly Column December 28th, 2008

2008, A Year To Forget


Oil was at $147 and the so-called experts said it was only a matter of time before it would hit $200. One pound Sterling would get you 67 baht and the Aussie dollar was worth more than 32. Samak Sundaravej was Prime minister. Is that really how things were in Thailand just 6 months ago? Yes!

2008 has been a year of much drama and for many, a year to forget. External factors, principally the global economic crisis, are having a real impact on Westerners resident in Thailand as well as regular visitors to the country. But Thailand cannot blame the country's woes on external factors alone. This has been a crazy 12 months for Thailand with 4 different prime ministers and major domestic issues, from political uncertainty to the closure of the international airport putting a massive dent in confidence in the country.

2008 saw more dry days than ever before as bars were forced to close for days on end, often at peak periods. There have been changes to visa rules that make absolutely no sense and even the most ardent Thailand fans are scratching their heads.

Who could honestly say that 2008 has been a good year?

The Thais and Thailand in General

Many Thais admit that the events of 2008 has resulted in them being less proud to be Thai and a few have told me that they don't like the uncertainty that the country currently faces, something which would be imprudent to talk about, if you know what I mean…

Chris Moore described Bangkok as a city of vanishing smiles in his recent novel “Paying Back Jack” and it is hard to disagree. Where once the locals seemed to be constantly joking and laughing, these days the smiles are harder to find – and can change to something altogether different in a flash. The Thai middle class is worried. The effects the economic crisis will have on them and specifically, whether their job is secure. They're worried about the image of the country and they're also worried about the future. The joie de vivre that Thais are so well-known for has taken a holiday.

Many talk of Vietnam and other countries in the region overtaking Thailand. A trip to Laos a few months back had me amazed at how a country that felt so backwards and so closed just a decade ago could develop so fast. In many ways Thailand seems to be standing still…and this will catch up with it eventually. But with a new government and a bright young leader, maybe, just maybe, things can be turned around. Beyond the inevitable job losses and an increase in social problems that everyone knows is coming, it is impossible to predict what 2009 will bring. Exciting times for observers. Nervous times for Thai nationals…

Farangdom

You could never say that Westerners' love affair with Thailand is over. First time visitors get the bug as hardened old timers become jaded. Disillusionment is not the order of the day, but the trickle has started and more than a few long term Western residents are turning their back on the country. It's not an exodus but when you get long-termers with much investment in Thailand, be it financial and / or emotional, when they start leaving you can't help but take notice.

Inflation in Sukhumvit and other farang areas is running well into double figures and a country many of us chose to visit partly because things were so cheap has become, in some ways, rather expensive, especially if you wish to replicate a Western lifestyle. It has got so bad that in some farang eateries you really need to look at the prices before you order lest you have a fright when the bill comes. Bargains remain easy to find but the spread of prices has increased and many British pubs, for example, charge considerably more for Western fare than you would pay at home. How many pubs in the UK charge 400 baht (£8) for a cheeseburger and fries? Such prices are not uncommon in Bangkok!

I can't help but feel that Farangdom has become even more fractured, in Bangkok at least. The many different factions of the expat population are not just wary of others, but view them with mistrust or even disdain. Professionals laugh at English teachers. Teachers mock tourists and tourists wonder what all the fuss is about. Outside Bangkok a sense of community prevails. Even in Pattaya, which doesn't always have the best reputation, there's a real sense of a farang community. You don't get that in Bangkok, or at least it only exists in small pockets and social or work groups.

As a good mate from Kiwiland who visited earlier this year said, "I have never seen so many bitter white men in all my life!" Let's face it, we could never call ourselves the best of the West – and I don't see that changing any time soon.

The Bar Industry

I have been told by reliable sources that for many bars on Sukhumvit, business is down 30 – 40% year on year. These numbers are probably similar in the major bar areas across the country. Some big name bars have done better but they are the exception. Few venues could honestly say that business grew in 2008.

We are already seeing some big name bars in trouble, owners running up debts and staff waiting to be paid…and waiting…and waiting. It's hard to see anything other than 2009 being a total disaster for the industry. This will be the end of many. While they may not be openly advertising, many owners would be open to offers on their bar.

Bangkok's Soi Cowboy is probably the only major bar area that saw price increases this past year and some bars, namely those owned by the Arab plus Baccarra bar are as expensive as anywhere. Only Nana Plaza's Angelwitch has the ignominy of higher drinks prices.

If there's one good thing that has come out of the economic crisis and the subsequent drop off in tourists it is that the descent of the industry towards total mediocrity has been arrested. Stories of fatties, dreadful attitudes, appalling service and devious tricks have plagued this column throughout the year. Now as more bars fight for fewer customers there will surely be a correction. Any bar increasing its prices without adding value will surely suffer a backlash. There's no doubt that venues with happy hours are seeing more bums on seats – although some bar owners argue that they just don't want the hassle of cheap customers who don't buy lady drinks, pay a barfine or tip the service staff.

You'd think the number of girls working in the industry would increase as modestly educated Thais lose their factory jobs by the thousands every week. In fact the very opposite has happened and bars report that it is more difficult than ever to recruit with many bars taking on girls that they would never have hired a year or two ago. Some chrome pole palaces show ample evidence that the ravages of Western fast food have marred many rural sweeties.

Personally, I have become bored with the bar industry in Bangkok. Most Nana Plaza bars are a waste of time and Patpong does little for me. Cowboy can be fun but 2008 saw many bars put their prices up, service standards slip and there is little doubt in my mind that within 2 – 3 years Cowboy will be much like Nana is now. The current emphasis in Cowboy seems to be more about making bars look good from the outside…

That leaves Pattaya. You can still have a good night out in Pattaya. Or a good week! Prices are reasonable, service standards are much better and in terms of Western-oriented nightlife, Pattaya shits all over Bangkok. If I want a good night out or two, I go straight to Pattaya. For me, going out in Bangkok is all about catching up with mates and gathering news for the column. I envy those of you who enjoy a night out in Bangkok because I find that increasingly hard, in the naughty venues at least. I much prefer a night out in one of the English or Irish pubs.

I'm not going to give any bar of the year awards this year because really, I cannot think of any venues that stand out. Tilac in Cowboy had the award for best bar in the bag until a couple of months ago when things started going horribly wrong. All I will say is that if you find yourself in Catz, Secrets or Misty's in Pattaya, or The Londoner, Bradman's Bistro, Sunrise Tacos or Molly Malone's in Bangkok, I may well be there too…

The Internet

Many of the better Thailand websites have called it a day. L'Enfant Terrible, Chonburi Pee and Whorelord have all moved on. Even my pal Dave the Rave no longer produces a weekly column, reverting to tit bits about life in the Kingdom and links to news articles.

There are still plenty of Bangkok based sites out there, but the big names are dropping like flies. Running a website, or producing a regular blog or column, is a time consuming and energy-sapping affair. It can also be thankless. Advertising revenue is harder to come by and the busy lives we all lead mean that something has to give.

To make matters worse I've become totally disillusioned with the Bangkok forums. Over moderation, under moderation, noise and the rose-tinted glasses brigade mean that there are few venues online for accurate, insightful and thought provoking comment and analysis on life in the Kingdom for Westerners. The amount of nonsense, misinformation, and nasty, spiteful posts on the Thailand English language forums is unreal. Is there anything worse than reading the thoughts of someone with thousands and thousands of posts who talks like he knows everything that's going on in Thailand despite only spending two weeks a year in country and cannot speak more than a few words of the language.

Funnily enough, just like the bar industry, Pattaya forums knock their Bangkok counterparts for six.

Old friends

I've talked about a number of characters in the column this year and I thought it might be a nice time to catch up with a few of them.

The Dirty Doctor listened to me and has stopped bothering the fake monks. That said, you don't see them around like you used to. Whether that is attributable to the doctor or not, who knows?

Remember the Tilac girl who tried to rip me off with a fake 1,000 baht note? She is still hugging the chrome pole…

Remember Gaem, the young lass from Isaan who lost her baby to her estranged boyfriend? All was not what it seemed and I received emails from two guys who seemed to know her rather well…

Remember Mr. Canada whose three decade-younger wife left him for her English boss, Marvin? Mr. Canada can frequently be seen drowning his sorrows during happy hour at Cowboy, scowling at all and sundry…

Will a pound get 67 baht again? Will Khun Apisit still be Prime Minister this time next year? Will Nana Plaza die a painful death? So many questions could be asked about what 2009 will bring. There's plenty of doom and gloom out there but let's hope that the experts got it wrong and that unlike 2008, 2009 is a year to remember.


Where was this picture taken?


Last week's pic was of the area outside Midnite Bar and I was very surprised that so few people got it right! The first person to email me with the correct location of the picture wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British Fish And Chips restaurant. The second person to get it right wins a free jug of margarita, valued at 840 baht from Charley Brown's, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant, offering authentic cuisine and delicious margaritas. Charley Brown's is located in the small sub-soi off Sukhumvit Soi 11. The third prize is offered by ThailandFriends.com, an online dating community that boasts over 50,000 members, hosts live events in and around Thailand and allows basic members to send 5 messages a day for free. The prize offered is 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 – The choices we make reflect how we see ourselves.

After reading your columns concerning Mr. Canada and last week's gentleman friend with the dragon lady wife, I wanted to offer my observation after 30 years of providing counseling for various issues relating to this human condition. Our relationships are basically a reflection of how we see ourselves. If we choose what most people would consider destructive relationships, especially if there is a pattern with this choice, then there is a problem of self image. For the woman who seems to end up in abusive relationships, for anyone marrying yet another alcoholic, for someone being exploited financially – something is going on in their psyche that prompts these choices. Until they are willing to step back and examine the dynamics behind these choices, the choices will largely remain unconscious and they will resist helpful advice, sometimes with tragic consequences. If the self image issues are resolved, then positive choices become natural and the self destructive tendencies are seen for what they are and stop.

Do you really want a tattoo?

When I was a young man and departing my home to enlist in the U.S. Army my dear other (since departed this world) asked me to promise her one thing. That promise was not to return home from the Army "all marked up with old tattoos". That seemed like a promise I could possibly keep. Now if she had asked me to never get mixed up with the "ladies of the night" or to "avoid that demon rum" then that would have been a promise breaker. About 5 weeks into my training I was a designated driver for the Company Commander. I was driving him to a rifle range a few days prior to our (the basic trainees) first off-post pass of the training cycle. He asked me what I had planned if we were allowed into the nearby town for an evening off. I came out with some goody-goody answer like a visit to the cinema or some such nonsense. He asked if I planned on getting a tattoo while in town as it was a very popular thing for the recruits to do. Of course I told him of my promise to my mother. I will never forget what he told me. He said the minute you get a tattoo in the Army you have limited yourself in many ways. You preclude yourself from many possible missions (i.e. highly secretive intelligence assignments etc). He told me when I next wrote to my mother I should tell her she would have been a hell of a good Commander in the Army. Over the next twenty years of Army service I never forgot the promise to my mom or the advice of the Captain. Much to the amazement of my peers I was always given top assignments for my entire twenty year career. I always tried to discourage young soldiers from getting inked up. Today when I see young people with some of the damnedest tattoos I've ever seen I want to ask the question…who was looking out for him or her?

Check what the ATM machine spits out!

About 3 weeks ago I was given a 100 baht note as change at my local office coffee shop. It didn't look right and was missing the metallic strip running down the side – so I gave it back. This week I was reading about the 1000 baht notes circulating that were fake and all the markings that were missing. Yesterday I was at MBK and withdrew 10,000 from an ATM. When I got home I was putting the money on the counter when I realized I was given a fake. I started to wonder how the obvious fake got in the bank machine – then thinking that this is Thailand, maybe it was an inside job from a bank employee. What better way to get the fake notes in circulation and pull out the genuine notes to put in your pocket. Maybe you could print a reference to this and for all of us to be on the lookout – even from bank machines.

Saving on severance pay, Thai style.

A lot of people are working for a reduced salary or losing their job these days due to the global financial crisis. Please be aware of this little, unfortunately legal trick. My boss of 4 years told me that I was a key employee but due to the crisis he kindly asked me to reduce my salary for the next 6 month by 20%. He had already fired 8 other staff and I didn't want my name on that list so I agreed to the reduction and signed the contract. However 3 weeks later when I got my first reduced salary I also got a notice that due to reduced workload my position was being made redundant and I was fired with, by labour law, 7 months compensation. However, by law, the compensation is measured from the last payment day – meaning that my compensation was now 20% less that it otherwise would have been. When I signed the paper for a reduced salary I truly believed that I had secured my job – however it was just a tricky set-up for me and 19 other staff to save money for the compensation by my employer. So if you agree to reduce your salary, make sure that your employment is secured in writing for the given period or compensation in case of redundancy you are guaranteed the "full amount". This cost me a 6 digit number in Thai baht.

Maximising the gratuity.

There is a subject I have not seen in your column that is worth mentioning and that is the little tricks that some wait staff use to enhance the amount of their tip. Ironically, if you do not tip, this is not an issue. Recently a waitress brought my change to me, knowing I normally tip 20 baht per order. There was 40 baht on the tray, but I only saw 20 baht because there were two 10 baht coins under her thumb that I could not see. When she was confronted, she explained that she was worried the coins would slide off the tray. She could not explain why she did not bring two 20 baht bills. The other trick that I have caught is that they will carefully arrange the bills in order with the easy to read denomination facing down. Then they will swap the 50 and 20 so that the 20 is buried in the middle and the 50 is on the outside. In difficult lighting it is easy to make the mistake of leaving a 50 on the tray instead of a 20. I also think sometimes their timing is suspicious when they bring the change at a time that you are distracted. These infractions happened at the same place.

The gala dinner nonsense!

The famous "Compulsory Gala Dinner" is rife at this time of year. Who on earth wants to stay in their hotel on Christmas Day or New Year's Eve to sit and watch a substandard performance mainly performed by the hotel staff who just want their chance at stardom? I have been forced to pay for two and only attended one for about five minutes. It was utter bollocks. One question – Is it legal to force guests to pay for something they don want to buy? I think not. Well not in any other country but this is Thailand. Another thing, the food at these events is normally crap. 1,000 – 2,000 baht for a crap show and crap food. An obvious greedy rip off.

The new so-called Eden Club in Phuket which I mentioned in last week's column is a fake! Eden Club Marc, the very popular Frenchman who made the Eden Club what it is today contacted the owner of the unofficial Phuket branch of the bastion of dirty woman and gave him one week to take out any reference (name, logo, advertisement, business card and so on) to the original Eden Club which Marc owns the rights to. The guy behind the Phuket operation was using the name and logo without Marc's knowledge or permission. It should also be noted that Hell Club in Pattaya which is a copy of Eden is another venue which Marc has NO involvement with at all. 3 days after that particular venture opened Marc's friend and partner Francis died. The very next day Marc sold everything cheaper than what it had cost and the name was changed to Hell Club. There is only one Eden Club and it can be found in Sukhumvit Soi 7/1 – where it has always been. The name and logo of Eden Club were registered years ago and NOBODY can use it without Marc's express permission.

Starting on the first days of 2009, Electric Blue Patpong will be running a second happy from 1 AM until closing time. Buy one get one FREE. The barfine will be 400 baht.

In a sign of the times, a friend was talking to a dancer in G Spot in Nana last night. This time last year she was averaging thirty ‘offs' a month and was earning great money. Now in what is supposed to be the high season she has only been barfined fifteen times this month. And it is not just G Spot but all of Nana that is suffering. In Angelwitch at 11 PM last night, half the seats were empty! Half empty on a Saturday night! This time last year it was standing room only!

If you're not in Thailand and / or not following the local news, counterfeit banknotes have been large in the press and it is 1,000s that have been copied. As a result, many venues and vendors are nervous about receiving 1,000 baht notes so it pays to have some smaller stuff – and don't be surprised if your money is scrutinised and examined like never before! Whatever you do, don't let them take the 1,000 baht note out of your sight to check it. I have heard one story of a vendor taking it out the back and returning to say it was fake. The big question was, did she change it with a fake note she had already?!

The Dollhouse in Cowboy is getting a much needed overhaul. Was it the ignominy of the Arab having the best looking bars on the soi that prompted Dollhouse's American owner to finally let the workmen at it?

Bars and bar areas west of soi 4 on Sukhumvit Road have never done well, the excellent Bully's being the notable exception. So it is no surprise to see the multi-storey building that housed a dilapidated bar area at soi 1 that was known as Sukhumvit Plaza for a while is going the same way as Soi Zero / Buckskin Joes and being demolished.

It looks like there will be more bar closures this coming week in Bangkok and if the letter of the law is followed, you can expect the bars to be closed from 2 January (this coming Friday) 6 PM until midnight on January 4. There will be bar closures for sure the following week too, again, Bangkok only. The police have *indicated* that on the following days in January – 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 10th, 11th – the bars can open but not serve liquor. It may of course change between now and then…

The organisers of the beer gardens outside of Central World must have been disappointed with the turn out this year. I can't say I was there every day and I am sure it was busy at some point but on the occasions when I had drink or was merely passing by it was extremely quiet – as the photos here show. A real shame really as this year I thought they did a better job than ever with the set up and the entertainment. That said, a lot of people have complained that the prices were much dearer than ever before – and at a time when people are trying to watch their pennies that would not seem to have been a very clever pricing strategy.

Legendary expat Blackie, who I have written a number of stories about including blowing his last 500 baht on a lass who went through rather a lot of Listerine, never had good luck and always seemed to find himself the victim. After going back to Australia to save his leg, he has finally made it back to Thailand but you guessed it, he's come a cropper again! This time his el cheapo hotel room was cleared out and he lost $3500 cash as well as his new Nikon camera. I just hope he didn't have any shots in the memory card like those he used to take…

New Year's Eve is the most difficult night of the year to get a cab. Do note however that the skytrain runs until 2 AM that night.

Word from readers is that when ATM machines in Thailand are running low on cash they dispense a maximum of 2,500 baht per customer. This may explain why some foreigners had a problem withdrawing cash as mentioned in last week's column. Fortunately the solution would appear to be simple – visit another machine and your results may be better. If it's the end of the month, when people get paid and spend a good chunk of their salary, you might want to try and find an ATM machine in a less popular area.

One of my very favourite Italian restaurants in the entire Kingdom, Piccolo Roma in Udon Thani, is about to open a pizzeria in Soi Farang – that's the name I give to the lane with the Irish Clock and all of the other farang bars. Piccolo Roma does EXCELLENT pizza so will be worth a visit. When are you going to open a Bangkok branch, Vitorio?!

And Udon, like elsewhere in the Kingdom is hurting, and if the locals are to be believed, it is hurting even more than the more popular tourist spots. Even Udon Day and Night, the relocated bar area which has only been going since August, is horribly quiet most nights with many bars devoid of a single customer. The one venue doing decent trade is Irish Clock which is absolutely excellent with some of the best Western pub grub you could hope to find – and at low, low prices.

They really are a bunch of so and sos, those clowns running True Visions. There I was, looking forward to watching the match of the round, Arsenal vs. Liverpool. It's always a big match and it had been advertised in the True Visions guide. Now English football is extremely popular in Thailand so why oh why did they change it to some La Liga match featuring two no name teams? Italian football doesn't draw anything like the number of viewers a big premier league match does. Sometimes I really do wonder why the hell I subscribe…

Once again I find myself in that awful situation whereby I must report to the readers that a girl working in a Nana Plaza gogo bar is HIV positive and knowingly having unprotected sex with customers. It is a situation that should never happen but one that I have absolutely no doubt is more common than you think. Yes, she KNOWS she has HIV and she is quite willing to party without a party hat without divulging her condition to customers. Now Matt from Angelwitch will probably once again claim that I am on a personal crusade against Nana, which I most certainly am not. All I will say Matt, is that the girl is not one of yours.

With tourism in Thailand in 2009 looking a little bleak, to say the least, it seems that one of the old specials has returned. Some readers have reported the old Thai Airways deal has returned whereby if you buy a return ticket from your homeland to Thailand, you get one free return domestic flight from Bangkok to anywhere on Thai's network. In the old days this was not promoted much so it is worth asking your travel agent about.

In last week's column I asked readers to recommend a tattoo parlour and the one venue that was mentioned by two different readers can be found opposite the Amari hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 5. The fellow's name is Jimmy Wong and apparently he has tattooed many celebrities. I think he organises the Bangkok tattoo convention. He is not cheap even by western standards but his work is said to be excellent. Google Jimmy Wong for more info.

Profile of the week from one of the Thai dating sites. "Good hearted woman but now I really have problem with finance company want someone really can help me out from this problem I will pay you back when I can…"

I haven't had a chance to read much of it but I love the domain name, GrumpyExpat.com!

Maybe the Soi Cowboy girl is involved in this counterfeit banknote operation?

That world renowned rag, The Watford Observer, tells of a Brit who spent 3 days in a jail cell in Chiang Mai.

Last week I said Pattaya's soi 8 was nothing like it used to be and now a soi 8 bar owner does this!

A Dutch couple's Thai bank account mysteriously shrank!

Airport drama has no happy ending for Thailand tourism.

From Time magazine, Bangkok gets into the Christmas spirit.

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 have been married to an older Thai lady for many years – we split our time between Bangkok and the West. She is a wonderful wife in many ways, university educated, well traveled, good English skills, hard working, and I inherited (gladly) her two children who are now both university graduates. But she has one quality I just hate: she cries easily. Too easily if you ask me and many times it is not about us but about her (now adult) children. The problem is one is an air hostess and the son now works two good jobs in the business world. I think they are both great young adults (still living at home of course); normal in every way by Western and Thai standards according to me. What is worse is when she cries it leads to arguments because she says I am not understanding enough. In the words of your bright husband my reaction is usually, WTF! So my questions are do you think Thai men are raised to be more understanding when Thai women cry and do you think Thai women cry more often and easily than western women? It seems to happen a lot on the Thai commercials and soap operas I have seen. All I know is my dear wife has cried more than all the western girlfriends I have ever had combined. Maybe if I thought she had a good reason I would be more understanding. My wife also uses the terms old generation and new generation a lot when she explains why she cries. Your thoughts?

Mrs. Stick says: I don't know why your wife cries so much but I think this is not so normal. I don't think we cry more than Western woman. Does she cry only with you or does she cry with other people too? For Thai men they are taught that it is wrong to upset a woman. It doesn't matter if she cries or not, he should not make her feel bad and all Thai men know this. We think a man must do everything he can to protect a woman's feelings. For Thai soap operas I do not watch them because they are silly and too dramatic and the women scream and yell in an unreal way.

Question 2: I agree with your summary that the weekly column is getting a little more edgy than usual. The added spice makes it more exciting reading. So much so, that I was surprised to see you actually named a bar – Déjà Vu for not bringing back change. Well done for warning others. I guess my question is: are you ever worried that the manager / owner of such bars will come looking for you?

Mr. Stick says: This is a good question. I am reluctant to mention the names of bars or venues which are involved in nasty business or where dodgy practices are the norm. There are many reasons for this. The first is that the laws of defamation in Thailand are harsh so you do have to be careful what you say. But that is less of an issue compared with what a pissed off bar owner might do. Most won't respond "badly" but there are one or two who would. A few years ago one British bar owner threatened to kill me when I wrote that he had put his prices up and made a mockery of the pricing and what it would do for business! What I wrote was factually correct but he didn't like it. It's a fine line and I am not sure I am always on the right side of it!



A slightly lighter column than usual this week as it's Christmas and I have not been out and about to the Bangkok bar areas at all this week, preferring instead to do the family thing at home.

To everyone who has contributed to the site, emailed me or has simply read my weekly ravings this past year, thanks so much for your support. I'll do my best to keep you up to date with all that concerns Farangdom in the coming year. Here's wishing all readers a healthy and prosperous 2009.



Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick