I was the ideal weight for someone of my height and frame when I first arrived in Thailand. A year later, I was 6 kg ligter and looking a little thin. Two years after that I had put on 15 kg and friends weren't shy to let me know that I had become a bit porky. It took meeting Mrs. Stick for me to make a concerted effort to get back into shape but since then my weight has bounced around. I have managed to fight back to what is pretty much my ideal weight again but it hasn't been easy. I have found it a real struggle to stay in shape in Thailand.
Let's face it, many Westerners resident in Thailand are in a dreadful state. Look around at your fellow expats, those resident in Bangkok. 10, 20, 30, 40 kg or more overweight in some cases. To say it's not a good look is something of an understatement.
When I look at the people I know, my friends, acquaintances, colleagues and those close to me, they're not the healthiest bunch. About a quarter are diabetic – that disease that some doctors will tell you is every bit as bad as HIV – but I bet it's actually more like 1/3. There has just got to be a few undiagnosed diabetics amongst them. A good few suffer hypertension and high blood pressure seems to just about be the norm. A few have heart problems. I don't doubt that this is all due to lifestyle. How many have liver issues I have no idea – but there'd be a fair few.
I really think it isn't that easy to stay healthy in Thailand. For sure, I have found it a real battle.
The biggest challenge is the food, and the local diet. Thai food might have a great reputation for variety and taste, but when it comes under the nutrition spotlight, just how does it stack up? Lots of rice and meat – often of a low quality – overuse of oil, sugar added in abundance and so many dishes fried or deep-fried all put me off eating too much Thai food. I shudder when newbies try to convince me that Thai food is healthy and I wonder just where they that idea from. Tasty? Sure! Healthy? I don't think so! I can only guess that such comments are based on what the locals look like – many are reasonably slim – but this may not necessarily be a reflection of the food. Sure, many are in shape, because they snack a lot which is, of course, a good eating habit. But many just don't have the money to eat much and many Thai women, especially urban women in their 20s, don't eat an evening meal which helps to keep them slim – and perpetuates the misconception that the local cuisine is healthy. I laugh when I see a pile of vegetables in a Thai kitchen, knowing that most end up on the plate as garnish. Who eats all of these vegetables you see in the markets?
The Thais often like rich foods bursting with flavour. With the quality of the local produce not always great, you have to scratch your head and wonder how they get such flavour. Sugar? MSG? And the diet and low fat options that are increasingly popular in the West still aren't that common here.
While I truly believe that it can be difficult for the average Westerner living in Thailand to stay healthy and in reasonable shape, I would suggest that many Thais face the same battle. While many appear to be in good shape – you don't see that many fatties about – high cholesterol and high blood sugar are big problems on the increase in Thailand. Even that slim, trim and oh so sexy office girl who looks like she belongs in the A team at Rainbow 4 may have dangerously high cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Thais love to snack and if you look at what goes into some of their favourite Thai-style snacks and treats, a mix of flour, sugar, some kind of favouring syrup and perhaps coconut milk, well, none of these ingredients is good for you.
Sadly, many Thais simply don't have the money to spend on nutritious food. A lot of the street vendors make tasty food – the Thais have absolutely mastered the art of using inexpensive ingredients to make dishes that taste great. In that respect they are world champions. Thai street food scores a 10 for taste. But for nutritional value? Hmm, I have my doubts.
Up until not that long ago, despite getting plenty of exercise, I was struggling to manage my weight and reckoned that I was about 7 kg above what I should be. It took a trip back home where I was eating heaps of red meat, heaps of dairy products and way more ice cream than one should…but still I dropped the entire 7 kg. How was that? I found it so much easier to exercise at home!
It's not easy to exercise in Bangkok. You have to really want to do it. I've always felt that when it comes to exercising, we stick with a form of exercise we genuinely enjoy. For me that means running, walking or playing sport. I'm not a gym guy which is a shame given that Bangkok has no shortage of really good, well-equipped gyms. Even most decent condos have a gym of sorts. If you're into working out in a gym, you'll be well served. But not being a gym guy, that just doesn't work for me.
I love pounding the pavement but the state of the streets makes running a challenge. Dreadfully uneven surfaces. motorbikes on the sidewalk, crazy traffic at intersections and that's before we even talk about the bloody soi dogs! Of course there is Lumpini Park which is excellent, really excellent for running with its 2.5 km track. 3 laps a day is ideal but as with any outdoor activity in Bangkok you battle Mother Nature, the heat as well as the pollution. For much of the year it's so hot that you really have to think carefully about when you run, early morning or evening being the only real options. And I hate to think about the shit in the air that we suck deep into our lungs as we gasp for air running in downtown Bangkok.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to keeping on top of your health in Thailand is the social scene, much of which revolves around drinking. I think it's fair to say that most expats don't seem to pursue their hobbies in Thailand. For the most part, free time seems to be spent in the bars which means drinking – frequently and often consuming a lot. There's nothing wrong with drinking of course and I sure don't wish to suggest that one shouldn't enjoy a drink, but drinking every night and in the volume that some do day after day after day won't do you any good. It's so hard to avoid because so much of the socialising is around drinking. It's the default position. Bars of the Bangkok variety can be pretty hard to enjoy without a few drinks. You need to be lubricated so that you don't see the environment for what it really is.
But it's not all bad here for your health. I've been asthmatic most of my life although I have only ever had a very, very mild and occasional issue. It has never prevented me from doing anything I wanted and most certainly has never been life threatening. In Thailand asthma is absent. Well, in Bangkok at least. Up country it can be a little different. It was explained to be my a local doc that there's so much crap in the air in Bangkok that all of the pollens that can trigger asthma are blocked. Ditto for allergies.
The warm weather can also help certain ailments. A moment of foolishness in my student days when I raced a friend across a slippery wet road on a rainy night that saw me go down and break a bone in my elbow is not something my body forgets in the middle of Winter. Some older expats report the heat is much easier on their bodies than the Farangland Winter.
Of course you can say bugger it, I'm going to enjoy my life here in Bangkok and avail myself of all that the city has to offer, enjoy the bars and all of the fine restaurants and just let yourself go but really, the benefits of staying in shape are huge. All things being equal you should live longer – and the quality of that life should be better. Just dropping several kilos I find I have more energy, I sweat less – a biggy here – and I just plain enjoy life more. And women look at you differently. A guy in shape can get more attention from the local women and there is no doubt in my mind that some of the really well to do women, especially the Chinese Thais who are not farang crazy, are loathe to date a guy who isn't in shape. Being farang counts against you. Being unhealthy, read fat, can kill the deal.
I have had to make a fair few changes in my life here to keep the kilos off. We used to eat in fancy restaurants all the time, often at the big hotel buffets which is now a twice yearly treat – and where much restraint is exercised. I have all but eliminated beer – and that has made a huge difference. Wine seems to be so much easier on the system. Even Beer Lao which I really do enjoy I barely touch. I gave up on Coke a long, long time ago and I pretty drink as much water as I can. I exercise every day and I feel great, better than I have at any time in my life.
When I was last back in my homeland in a bar with a couple of mates, I could not happen to notice that pretty much every guy in the bar was in good shape. When I look around bars in Thailand, many Western guys are a different shape – and it ain't pretty.
I have faith in Bangkok hospitals and Bangkok doctors but I sure don't want to end up there because of my own negligence as more than a few friends have. One has had a body part removed due to diabetes, another has had at least two heart operations and plenty are on medication for high blood pressure.
It's not easy but if you're honest with yourself and are prepared to make a few small changes then there's no reason why you can't enjoy all that Bangkok has to offer and be in shape at the same time.
Last week's photo
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of BNH Hospital on Convent Road, widely regarded as one of the best hospitals in Bangkok. The first person to email 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 correctly guess the photo wins a signed copy of Stephen Leather's superb Private Dancer, which many refer to as "the bible". It's widely regarded as the best novel set in Thailand's bar scene!
Terms and conditions: The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. To claim the book prize you must provide a postal address within Thailand now. Prizes are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per 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 way things work.
Over the last few years of doing business out here I have come to the conclusion that Thailand is a third world for a good reason – it wants to be and doesn't want to change. It's nothing to do with a lack of resources or even education because they have both – they want to fxxx up because this then causes a need for one group to compromise their position thus giving face to the other group. The other group then having received the face for not getting shit for fxxxing up now owes the first group somewhat which superficially warms up the relationship. This works well as Thais may exist at a superficial level. The other reason why they want to fxxx up anything they do, especially in a group, is so that some kind of meeting has to be arranged to sort out the fxxx up. Here, they can get stuck into the cake and have little bonding moments which again warm up the relationship but the real winner is that they then have to find some kind of consensus on the situation which is really where the whole relationship idea works for Thais. As a consequence, if everything is working as it should and as is expected then it denies them their inter-relationship bonding and strengthening opportunities!
Clowns on Khao San.
Last night I ended up on Khao San Road. To get there from Hualumpong, I took a motorbike that went through the demonstration site at Democracy Monument. That was a fun ride just for the sake of seeing the site! At around midnight though, I was sitting on Khao San with my friend and we heard the sound of clappers and whistles coming from one end of the street. As it got closer, we could see it was a good-sized group of red shirts. When the group passed by though, I could see they were all white kids! They had the shirts, the bandanas, the flags, everything. To me they looked like complete morons getting involved in a situation that they surely can't really get their heads around. Looked like an easy way to get into trouble
The Beach Road a geriatrics convention?
I agree with your comments concerning the geriatrics working in Pattaya. One night I saw one approach an elderly gent whilst he was eating at an outdoor eatery behind and across the road from Mike's Shopping Centre. Later she was on station along Beach Road with a multitude of others. These ladies appear to be there in numbers both day and night. I saw a number in some of the Pattaya beer bars that would have qualified in Oz for the pension card!
Beware of girls deliberately trying to infect you with HIV.
On a recent visit to Pattaya I got involved with a girl working at the Xxxxxxx bar. At first everything was good but then came the usual lies and bullshit. I am used to it now as I have been going to Pattaya for 10 years. Things went sour in the end. The lady phoned me 4 weeks ago and told me she had HIV! With me being stuck in Nongkhai with my in laws, how can I say in Thai "Take me to get a blood test as I've been shagging a lady with HIV!" Anyway, it took me some weeks to save the money to return to Pattaya for the blood test and all was ok. Thank God, or Buddha. I am not sure of the HIV law in Thailand but I am sure you can't work as a bargirl. Her name is Xxx and she works the Xxxxxx bar in Pattaya. She tells me that now she has got the HIV virus she thinks all farang are assholes. I want this to be a warning to all those who go there. The bar has a website with her picture so be careful. She tells me that the mamasan never asks for blood tests. Be careful. This bitch is a bad one.
Phuket, not the fashion centre of Thailand.
The fashion offences pictured by the CNN photographer are nothing to those committed daily in Patong Beach, here in Phuket. The usual one is open sandals and long black socks, sometimes supported by those awful sock suspenders, worn with shorts. The ranks of the great unwashed, as one politician called the hippies way back, have given way to the great un-shirted, a disgusting sight at night especially on, or more to the point not on, vast beer guts of middle-aged and old men. Maybe I could capture some pictures and forward them to you. I have no problem about people dressing down on holiday, but please guys, get a shirt on in public streets and bars after dark. Girls, feel free to disregard this request, provided you are aged under 40 and under a size 14.
Compulsory health insurance for expats?
Loved the story about the English guy on death's doorstep and the Dish (Thai girl) ran away with the spoon. Nothing quite beats a happy ending like this. But let's try and look at all of this from another prospective. Would his folks have really missed these funds? The hospital can easily do without them as their mark up is horrendous, and let's not forget the British Inland Revenue – if his wealth was over a certain limit they would have had their noses in the trough for 40% of it. Which brings to me on to the subject of health insurance in general. Expats, and certainly those whose companies aren't picking up the tabs on these very expensive premiums, have a crystal clear view on this matter. They either pay them or don't. Various thoughts cross my mind on this option. To require a long-term resident visa, should health insurance be compulsory – like it is in some countries? Thai Immigration used to request a medical certificate, but in practice this was only to stop the deceased from applying. If everybody contributed, would the theory turn into practice that the premiums might actually be decreased? BUPA / Blue Cross premiums went up by 12% right across the board on my last renewal. For my age group, under 60, with a 10% discount my premium comes in at 57,000 baht. In the event I do not make a claim in the same year I'm entitled to a 10% no claims discount. For sure this is a top of the line cover – 5 million baht's worth, overkill perhaps, but when I'm sick I don't want to have any thoughts of whether I can afford to be sick. Secondly, it's how I like to spend my money in lieu of alcohol for example. For most this expenditure of 1K a week on health cover could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back. So this begs the question that if such a regulation were enforced, even at half of these premium rates, would there again be a further exodus?
You've been in Thailand too long…
You know you've been in Thailand too long when you realise that your Thai wife's loyalties belong to: 1. Her parents. 2. Her brats from a previous marriage to a Thai scoundrel who deserted her. 3. Any remaining blood relatives. 4. The family buffalo. 5. The family's goldfish. 6. You!
Up until recently, Beer Lao had been very difficult to find at retail outlets in Thailand, as opposed to in bars. Despite it being in plentiful supply across the border, it has pretty much only been expat bars stocking it. This seems to be changing and you can now find what is arguably the finest South-East Asian drop available retail in branches of Makro in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. Yippee!
Several months back I ran an interview with Cigar Bob, as he is widely known, and the photographer from After Dark magazine which operates out of Pattaya. Bob was fronting the magazine and is someone I have known for years. From when he used to live in Bangkok, I have watched Bob negotiate the tightrope that is expat life in Thailand and enjoyed many beers and much fine conversation with him. Bob was probably my favourite guy in Pattaya and I enjoyed his company immensely. He was always the first person I contacted when I ventured to Sin City. Bob had built up a business selling cigars in Bangkok bars over the years and had also been working on After Dark magazine where he was the marketing man and the guy many people associated as the brains behind the magazine. Bob was a mid 50s American, a straight shooter. He loved his life here. After doing the Bangkok thing for many years, he eventually moved to Pattaya a few years back where both he and his business interests thrived. I doubt there were many around who were as well-connected as Bob and yet who managed to maintain such good relationships with so many movers and shakers in the bar business. Unfortunately Bob passed away this week. I last chatted with him a week or so back and this incredibly sad news caught me by surprise. He was supposed to come up to Bangkok last week and I had hoped we would catch up. It never happened. My friend, you will be missed by many.
Sexy Night in Nana Plaza has never really been on my radar so when a friend suggested we have one in there this week I yawned, but agreed. What a nice surprise. Good music, a bunch of very friendly girls – nothing to compete with the likes of Rainbow 4 but still all very pleasant.
A few owners have mentioned recently that punters seem to be going out later. It doesn't matter whether we're talking pubs, gogo bars, beer bars, freelancer joints or whatever, in Bangkok there seems to be a real trend that venues are quiet until around 10 PM or so before they start to pick up.
Another trend causing much frustration amongst punters is that the girls are becoming more mercenary, especially in Bangkok gogo bars where more and more girls are working without a salary. They drift in to the bars late and they are very picky about who they target. Needless to say, not pulling a salary their expectations can be rather high. There is one big name gogo in Nana where more than half the dancers don't get a salary but just come and go as they please. Expect rates of 2,500 for a quickie to 4,000 for all night.
The resemblance of Soi Cowboy to The Strip in Las Vegas appears NOT to be a coincidence. Following on from what I said last week about that loathed bar mogul, The Arab, ripping off the copyright of Las Vegas casino Sahara with the sign in his bar of the same name, it seems that he had done exactly the same with the sign in Rio, the new name for the bar that was previously known as Our Place. The sign doesn't just bear a passing resemblance to that at the Las Vegas hotel of the same name, it's EXACTLY the same. It's not just the lettering, but exactly the same red-yellow-green-blue colour shifting combination. What will be the next name for a bar on Soi Cowboy? The Sands? The Mirage?
There's potentially disastrous news for rugby and cricket-loving expats. The local cable TV provider, True Visions, has always based its programming around what the Thais like and as such carries almost no rugby and absolutely no cricket coverage. Fortunately many of the British / Aussie / Kiwi pubs have South African TV (Multichoice) which does a sterling job of covering these sports. We might not be able to watch the big matches at home but we always know that a raft of pubs will be screening matches live. The bad news is that strong rumour has it that the signal which is picked up in these parts will disappear by May 31. It has been said that the broadcaster has been told by FIFA to remove it from the global C-Band on Intelsat 10, and they are moving everything to Eutelsat W4 and W7, which apparently only covers the bottom half of Africa! To say that there's going to be a lot of pissed off rugby and cricket fans is something of an understatement. In fairness, the satellite footprint is so big that you could watch it in Hong Kong and even as far away as the east coast of the United States, so they've really been taking the piss with someone else's copyright. That leaves the Australia Network which some venues have which shows a little rugby union as well as some rugby league. Hopefully a solution will be found.
Cascade, the ladyboy bar on the top floor of Nana Plaza, has shows every night from 11 PM. The mind boggles at just what they might involve.
Why aren't there more themed gogo bars? Angelwitch's theme of hard rock music and hard girls, dressed up in mock leather has been a success for years. Super Baby in Pattaya with its teenage looking girls (who are of legal age but just *look* younger) is a favourite with many. Why do bar owners come up with names like Sheba's or Sahara, but fail to make the most of the theme? OK, so in the case of Sahara perhaps it is appropriate because it really is as deserted as a desert. It's all very nice erecting a huge Egyptian mummy outside a bar, but imagine dressing the girls up like Egyptian slaves and having similarly themed shows? That would be a real winner.
There was a news program on TV recently saying that the top cop in Thailand wants to clean up lower Sukhumvit, especially the drug dealers. About time!
It's the school holidays now, exams have finished and kids are running amok. Unfortunately this is the period when a lot of the young sisters of bar staff be they dancers, mamasans, wait staff or whatever, come down from the northeast and hang out in the bars. The naughty bars. Just why any bar manager, owner or even family member or friend would allow youngsters as young as 14 or 15 to hang around in such an environment is beyond me. Sadly, it's all rather common. If ever there was something they should crack down on then this is it. Kids on school holidays should not be allowed anywhere near such bars.
And speaking of youngsters, crackdowns are often conducted for reasons of face, but surely there ought to be something done about the youngsters selling flowers and other such knick knacks late at night? Seeing REALLY young kids walking around selling flowers or other junk late into the night is a problem that never seems to have been attacked and it seems worse these days than in the past. 4- and 5-year old kids out into the early hours of the morning being forced to sell flowers and other trinkets is criminal. If ever there was something that was worthy of the authorities' attention, surely this is it?
With the exception of the Aussies, I think most Westerners feel they are getting a bad deal when exchanging money in Thailand at the moment. The pound is at 47.xx, the dollar at 31.xx and even the once-strong Euro is down to 42.xx. It won't make a big difference but if you change your money at Vasu, the foreign exchange operator on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and soi 7/1, right below the Nana skytrain station, you will get a better rate. Vasu operates a very tight spread so whether you're buying or selling, you'll get a better rate than in any bank. With the big currencies like the US dollar, the rate will not be significantly better than in a bank – perhaps 1/2 – 3/4 of a percentage point better. But on the less widely exchanged currencies such as the New Zealand and Canadian dollars or the Scandinavian currencies, you can get a rate that is as much as 2.5 % better. Like I say, it won't make a big difference but hey, every little bit helps, right?
I wonder what first-time visitors to Thailand make of the barricades set up outside many shopping centres, funneling visitors into small entrances / exits where there is a cursory security check. It's all part of the security measures to prevent the red shirts from getting in but it's a pretty bad look, I reckon.
Bangkok may be getting more expensive but there are some really good deals out there to get you to Thailand if you hunt around. One Aussie reader reports that Expedia is offering flights to Bangkok on Thai Airways, the direct flight from Sydney to Bangkok, along with 23 nights at the Rembrandt Hotel on Sukhumvit with breakfast included, all for a very reasonable AUD $1,350. That's for both the airfare and hotel!
The skytrain is a much less pleasant way to travel these days than it used to be. At peak hour it has become so busy that it reminds me of how busy the buses were when I first arrived. Peak hour on the skytrain is to be avoided at all costs. Thank God that Thais don't have a body odour problem.
I notice more and more really young guys here with Thai girlfriends in tow. When I say young, I mean some of these guys look as though they're in their late teens – and the Thai girls just love them! Older guys often claim that Thai women are less concerned about age which may be true in the case of bargirls and those who have already been burned or had their heart broken, but I would suggest that all things being equal, a guy around their own age will be to their preference.
Police checkpoints around the Asoke area late at night where farang are given special attention are back. If you're in a taxi and pass through a checkpoint you'll notice the driver turns on the cab's interior light as he approaches. The police may order the vehicle to stop, ask the passenger to step out of the vehicle and search his person and anything he is carrying. A mate was stopped this week and happened to have in excess of 6 figures baht cash on him. They didn't even blink at that and when he offered to show them a copy of his passport they weren't interested in that either. It really sounds like they're looking for drugs.
The next big event at Bangkok Beat, Among The Stars, will be on April 24. Bottles of Red label and Gordon's will go for 1,600 baht with the first round of mixers free. Moving on to the good stuff, bottles of Jack Daniels and Black label will run 2,000 baht, with the first round of mixers also free. Popular local beers like Heineken, San Miguel, Tiger etc will run 120 baht per bottle.
How well do you retain a second language if you don't use it? How long does it take someone who doesn't use their second language to realise that their ability in that language has slipped? A mate who has lived here for many years and speaks very good Thai took off last year for a couple of months. He returned to Thailand and there was no apparent loss to his language skills. He felt like he hadn't even left. The same guy then spent another 4 months back in his homeland and upon returning to Thailand claims that it took a while to get back to where he was, language ability wise. In his estimation, the difference in being away from Thailand for 2 months versus 4 months was massive.
The new fast food chain Monster Ice has a bunch of branches in Bangkok and is doing very well indeed. It's a variant on the old Thai favourite of shaved ice with a sickly sweet syrup poured over it. The Monster ice product is much better, as light and fluffy as snow and is paired with much more interesting toppings, from fruits to chocolate to all sorts of weird things. I didn't think it would be my thing but it's delicious! It being hot season now's the time to try it.
There's a novel dish offered at Bradman's Bistro in soi 23. Called Cannonballs, it's a snack dish just about big enough to be a full meal. I really don't know how to describe them – my best description would be the farangified version of a larb dish made into meatballs. Sound weird? Yeah, well I guess it does, but it sure tastes good!
Security in some of the cheaper apartment buildings is really not that good. Often the guy out the front is largely disinterested in what happens and it's not at all unusual for building security to sleep throughout the night. One way to prevent him from sleeping AND win him over is to buy him a couple of bottles of Red Bull (Krateng Daeng in Thai) when you come in after a late night out. He will be ingratiated for you buying something for him and it will help to keep him awake. Given that a lot of the thefts in the lower end apartment buildings are inside jobs, winning the security guard over – they always know what is going on and as much as I hate to say it, are often involved – may just go some way to preventing you from being a victim. Call it a very small insurance policy.
Quote of the week, "This place may not be home but it feels like home much more than home does."
Reader's story of the week comes from Airmail and is a parody of things happening in Thailand right now, " All About Coloured Shirts".
CNN uncovers Bangkok's pretty industry.
The Retire-Asia site has some short, and not particularly sweet, info on retiring in Thailand.
I thought Thai bargirls were supposed to be good at pool. Watch the bird break in this cool video.
Australia's The Age had an interesting piece on the Thai political situation this week.
A Brit is caught with drugs in Pattaya.
From Mother Jones, should Spring breakers boycott Thailand?
The BBC has the latest from the red shirts.
The Daily Mail reports that a British union leader visited Playskool in Nana.
The Ask Mrs. Stick will be down for a few weeks as she takes a break from answering questions.
A poll on a local expat discussion forum asked users whether they preferred the red shirts, the yellow shirts or perhaps didn't like either. The results were interesting with the reds most popular at 38%, the yellows at 14% and almost half favouring neither. I was asked who I like and said that I was a lifelong reds fan, having supported Liverpool for as long as I can remember. But seriously, I am in the middle and favour neither. Each group seems to have some extreme views and whatever issue is being discussed, I very seldom find myself at either extreme end of the scale. The reds are still active in Bangkok but just as I wrote last week, don't let them spoil your holiday plans!
Your Bangkok commentator,