The red shirts' continued protests in downtown Bangkok plunged the Thai capital into a deeper crisis this week. The protestors, who control Bangkok's main shopping district, increased in number, spread out further and now occupy more of the city's prime real estate. And with the red shirts allegedly behind the bombing of the Sala Daeng skytrain station, they proved that they are prepared to be indiscriminate in pursuit of their goal of forcing the government to dissolve parliament.
Thousands of soldiers and police in riot gear have been patrolling the Silom area for the last week, ever since the red shirts threatened to storm the main commercial / financial district, a plan which was aborted when they realised what they were up against – armed soldiers with real bullets.
To summarise how things stand today, the red shirts' occupation has spread out and reaches Petchaburi Road to the north, the Patumwan intersection (Mahboonkrong) to the west, Soi Lung Suan (Central Chidlom) to the east and runs all the way south on Rajadamri Road past luxury condominium buildings, 5-star hotels and Lumpini Park, all the way to Rama 4 Road where the reds' infamous fortress-like barricades have been erected.
So what does all of this mean if you find yourself in Bangkok? What has changed? Is it dangerous? Is Bangkok even worth visiting at this point in time?
Around the main occupation area in the heart of the city's upmarket shopping district, all of the best shopping malls are closed. That means Siam Paragon, Central World Plaza, Gaysorn, in fact all of the shopping malls east of MBK on Rama 1 Road until you reach Central Chidlom, which remains open. North of the area remains largely unaffected and the cave on contraband, Panthip Plaza, remains open. As far as shoppers go, Bangkok is, for the time being at least, hardly a worthwhile destination. Perhaps this is not of great concern to the average Stickman reader, but for tourists from the likes of Taiwan, South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong, shopping is an important part of their holiday – and these countries account for a lot of visitors to Thailand. The only genuinely upmarket mall still open is Emporium which has been doing a roaring trade for weeks.
Many hotels in the area have either shut their doors or are not accepting new guests, amongst them some of the finest properties in the city. The Grand Hyatt Erawan and The Regent, as well as a heap of others, are inside the red shirt occupied area meaning access to them would be difficult, to say nothing of simply being in the area potentially being a very scary experience.
It has been reported that the forced closure of shopping malls, hotels and offices due to the Rajaprasong intersection occupation has resulted in a whopping 65,000 employees being unable to go to work!
Getting around the city has become a nightmare at times. Parts of Rama 1 Road and Ploenchit Road are closed. Rajadamri Road is closed. Rama 4 Road in the vicinity of Silom looks like a war zone and many tuktuks, motorcyclists and taxis refuse to go that way for fear of getting caught up in the troubles. Many bus routes have changed. The skytrain and the underground have at times suspended their services, changed their services or even completely shut down. And to really screw things up, it is incredibly difficult to find out just what is going on. Phones aren't answered, websites aren't updated and even staff at the offices of the various transport companies don't know what is going on!
To illustrate just how bad things are, a friend was on the underground this week, attempting to get to Sukhumvit, at lunch time. He didn't know that the underground was only operating from Bang Sue to Praram 9, the train then going back the way it had come. He was on the train heading towards Sukhumvit when, at Praram 9, most people alighted. He had no idea then that the trains were up the pole. There had been a loudspeaker announcement in Thai but nothing was said in English. He asked another passenger what was going on and was told that he had to cross the platform (as all the others had done earlier) and get a train heading back to where he had come from! The train that was there at that point departed just before he could reach it and then it was a long 20 minutes before another one came with, by then, hundreds of people waiting in the poorly ventilated lower level! Needless to say he was not amused.
Despite being the transport of choice for many foreign residents and visitors, and despite everything at the point of sale being in English, when something goes wrong don't expect much assistance in English. Unfortunately that can be applied to many businesses, even those firmly in the tourist sector. Even as a Thai speaker, I find it is just about impossible to find out what is going on. In the case of the skytrain, often even the staff don't know what's happening!
When the skytrain and / or underground go down, the central parts of Bangkok – where most foreigners live and / or work – become a nightmare to get around. Available taxis are hard to find and many drivers seize the chance to ask for – and get – outrageous fares. When the bombs went off at the Sala Daeng skytrain station on Thursday night, much of the skytrain and underground networks were shut down and cabs were ferrying passengers around with the available sign clearly lit up – a sure sign that the passengers had been forced to negotiate the fare.
Perhaps the biggest concern for foreigners is that the violence which had taken place previously was well away from downtown area but has now made its way to the heart of the city – areas where foreigners live, work and play. Silom Road is a busy area and the Sala Daeng station is one of the busiest on the network. It is no surprise that foreigners were amongst the injured.
Known as a whore zone, Patpong now resembles a war zone. For the past week Bangkok's most infamous lane has seen a massive influx of military causing the night market to be closed, prompting comment that at least one good thing has come out of this!
The many expat pubs in the Silom area like O'Reilly's, Molly Malone's, The Duke of Wellington and Roadhouse remain open. Most of the naughty bars in Patpong have reopened too.
In other parts of the city, not nearly as many people are venturing out, and shopping malls, restaurants and bars are much quieter than you would expect. It has got so bad that many Thais are only leaving home when absolutely necessary – going to and from work and out to buy essentials – and that's it. In the Silom area there is almost a siege mentality.
The red shirts haven't brought Bangkok to its knees, but they have succeeded in seriously upsetting the Bangkokians' way of life and causing great anxiety across the city. This has resulted in a major backlash with increasing numbers of anti-red shirts protesters organising rallies against the red shirts and in favour of the government. The fear is that if these two groups should meet there could be a blood bath.
You would think that all of the madness we have seen in Bangkok in the last week would have put visitors off – and I am sure it has put many off, but foreign visitors are flocking to the area where the action is. One of the memories I will take away is that of foreigner after foreigner trampling over each other, jockeying to get the best spot to take photos of the troops, of the razor wire laid throughout the business district as well as all of the military vehicles. Rather than shy away from the area, it has in fact become a magnet for foreign visitors, a tourist attraction in itself.
The police and the military aren't doing anything to stop anyone visiting the area or taking photos, irrespective of what may be going on around them. I have not seen one policeman or soldier shy away from having their photo taken, nor make any attempt to prevent anyone from photographing anything. Even the police forensic team had to battle foreign visitors as they were working the area where damage from Thursday night's bombs had occurred. Seemingly everyone has carte blanche freedom to wander and explore as they please. That also means that you, and solely you, are responsible for yourself. Don't go bleating if you get caught up in something you can't handle!
Images of Fortress Dang, the red shirts encampment at the bottom of Rajadamri Road, with just Rama 4 Road separating it from Silom Road, is, like the red shirts themselves, a public relations disaster. That an Ayuthaya-period like fortress front can be built in downtown Bangkok from which rocket propelled grenades can be launched into the heart of the commercial district is appalling.
Foreigners are not just found on the outside of Fortress Dang. There are some things I will never understand in this life. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many different opinions and perspectives I seek and no matter how much computer processing power is thrown at it, I just cannot understand how some Westerners are taking a stance in this conflict, as per the guy in the photo below. There are some real extremists on each side and a Westerner getting involved is giving that extremism their approval, their vote of confidence. Seriously bad form.
The fortress fronts that the red shirts have built mirror themselves. They're a public relations disaster. The red shirts don't always come across that well, especially to outsiders – and they're fully aware of it. Listening to some of their rhetoric, they often talk about how outsiders find them scary, and they are at pains trying to explain that there is no need to be scared because they go about things the right / correct way. I can't help but think that the image they're creating, intentional or otherwise, is one of warrior extremists who will fight to the death. It may be noble to fight for what you truly believe in and hold dear to your heart but when you factor in that allegedly some of their number are being paid to be there and you start to wonder how much of what is being said is propaganda.
There are serious problems and divisions in Thailand and within Thai society. About that there is no question. This has gone way beyond mere political debate and ideology. I don't however think that there will be a backlash against outsiders. This is very much a Thai problem and both sides are conscious that the world is watching closely. Of course there is a very real chance that foreigners could end up in the crossfire but I think that would be more by accident – or their own stupidity, a wrong place at the wrong time situation.
Much of the tourism experience in Thailand is a facade, an image of Thailand presented that makes both the host country and the visitor happy, the tourist pleased to have visited a fun-loving country with a rich history and virtuous populace and the hosts themselves thrilled that this perception has been swallowed. The curtain has been well and truly pulled back and neither the hosts like what the visitors see nor do the visitors like what's really going on. It's taken a long time to build up an illusion which has started to unravel.
With images of reporters donning body armour and protestors inside a medieval fort armed with sharpened bamboo sticks the size of spears all being not that dissimilar to the sort of thing we see on TV broadcast out of the Middle East and other hot spots, I can only imagine what the world is thinking. This whole debacle is a disaster of an enormous magnitude to Thailand's reputation and every day it goes on, the damage becomes greater and greater.
In fairness, if you avoid the most popular shopping area – meaning all shopping malls between MBK and Central Chidlom and you avoid the Silom area as well as the main commercial / financial district plus Lumpini Park, you probably wouldn't know that anything was up. You can still see the temples, the river and the best nightlife, both Western and Thai. The airport is safe, as is Khao San Road, both of which are some distance from the hot spots.
Whether Bangkok should be on your list of places to visit at this point in time is very much a personal question. If adventure tourism is your thing, then by all means come. If it is not, it might be prudent to wait a bit and see what happens next…
Last week's photo
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the Starbucks branch on Suriwong Road, NOT the branch on Silom, a different branch altogether! Some readers became rather indignant when I said that Silom was wrong! 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! The third person to get the photo correct wins a 500 baht voucher from one of the very best farang food venues in Bangkok, and the home of Bangkok's best burger, in my humble opinion, Duke's Express. Duke's is very conveniently located in the Emporium shopping centre in central Bangkok.
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 – Clueless foreigners.
I'm noticing a growing and consistent correlation between expats who don't "get" this colour revolution and pretentious pricks who "wore the band and got the T-shirt" but never READ the fxxxing BOOKS (all of them banned) and it's WAY more complex than pretending to have an investment here that's being affected, or that one's values are somehow genetically positioned alongside those of the elites or simply slapping on their colour to imply you have a dog in their fight and taking a free ride on the pedigree bus. I am disdainful of those in this ill-informed mongrel pack of expats who think it's that easy!
The mentality to survive in perilous times?
I hate to sound patronizing, but isn't it time to get the hell out of Bangkok? A couple of years ago I sent in a submission comparing the underlying currents in Thailand to Cambodia just before the Khmer Rouge takeover. Granted, Thailand has not been bombed to pieces by pro-government American bombers like Cambodia had been, but I am growing increasingly uneasy about what the Thais are up to. Like the frog that is slowly boiled to death, so it never notices the rising water temperature, foreigners actually residing in Thailand may miss the extent to which Thai attitudes have changed and hardened. I know it was a complete shock to me when I returned to Bangkok after a few years' absence. At the very least, I expect a repeat of the scenes from Killing Fields and Miss Saigon, where foreigners are banging on their embassies' gates to get them the hell out of there, with a seething mob in the background. I would even not be surprised if a few years from now, perhaps with open hostilities between the West and Asia, whites were marched off to internment camps along the River Kwai. All I am saying is that it pays to be a bit paranoid in a world where anything can happen. The renowned Hungarian-American physicist John von Neumann famously kept a packed emergency suitcase under his bed well into old age, in case he had to relocate at a moment's notice. Being a US government advisor for nuclear strategy (he invented game theory, a useful tool in strategic planning), a newspaper wanted to interview him on the second day of the Cuban missile crisis, but found he was already in Switzerland! That is the kind of mentality one needs to survive these perilous times.
The things that bug some…!
I enjoy living in Thailand but I get annoyed by the frequency with which Thais refer to themselves and others in the third person e.g. a Thai girl named Lek having dinner with friends will say "Lek ow khao pad," instead of saying "Chan ow khao pad." Likewise, a Thai girl will ask her boyfriend if he would like a glass of water by saying "Fan ow nam mai ja?" or "Poo chai ow nam mai ja?" instead of simply asking "Khun ow nam mai ja?" I don't know why, but this idiosyncrasy of the Thai language really bugs me. Perhaps it's because I think of how ridiculous it would sound for an English-speaking woman named, say, Sally to say "Sally wants fried rice" or for her to ask her mate, "Would my boyfriend like some water?" It sounds infantile.
There's always a fee with freebies.
Be careful of bargirls who don't ask for money. My experience has shown that if you continue to see them you end up paying more for it in the end. Believe me! They do have agendas and often not paying on that first occasion is part of the web they are weaving. If your intention is only to see her that one time, fine, but I have found that the temptation to continue seeing them because of the freebie is so strong we fall into their trap which I guarantee will eventually be a huge financial commitment. These girls are extremely poor and often set men up for commitment rather than one offs because it's much more financially lucrative and worth sacrificing one night's payment for. Don't get caught and don't see her again. That's my advice. I have been through it with many Thai girls. Always remember there are no free lunches with these girls. Some just end up being more expensive with more lunches!
Is there still money to be made in the bar industry?
I wonder what idiot would invest in a bar in Thailand now. I understand people in the industry going back years, but investing now? It's finished in 10 years time! There will always be a demand to some extent, but it's a seriously declining industry. Everything is stacked against it – future regulatory infringements will be there, younger people are not really into it, the girls are not into it either and of all things, costs are going north! One thing I have noticed, young people, aged under 22 say, have a vastly different view of things than older people. They have tremendous personal expectations and aspirations even though this is often not possible, often living in a dream but sticking by this dream no matter what. Huge changes are coming.
An option for a peaceful and dry Songkran.
I have lived in Bangkok for more than 3 years and I can't stand the Songkran madness here. So I went to Phnom Penh in Cambodia for 5 days. I was thinking that it would be a little more civilised. What a relief to learn that splashing water in the street at vehicles or motos is prohibited and there are no water guns. I walked many places and I saw only 4 people gently putting white powder on people's faces. Tuktuk drivers, beggars and children selling fake books smile and wish you a Happy New Year. Even at the temple Wat Phnom, I did not see a single drop of water. At night people dance in the street and play some games. This is my fifth time in Cambodia and I am sure that I will return every Songkran.
Double pricing isn't always enforced.
Double pricing isn't always a bad thing! I went with my 11-year-old daughter to Ripley's Believe It Or Not in Pattaya. We wanted to do the 4D Moving Theatre which does great virtual reality rides. There was a price list showing one ride for 300 baht and two rides for 500 baht. I spoke to the cashier in English about which rides they were showing that day, and while we were talking she asked my daughter if she spoke Thai. She does – her mum is Thai – and then I said we would do two rides each and gave her 1,000 baht. When she gave me 400 baht change, I thought she had misunderstood and charged me just for one ride each. She smiled, leant forward and whispered 'No, I've charged you the Thai price.' She pointed at the price list and sure enough, in Thai but in smaller writing, were the prices – 200 baht for one ride and 300 baht for two! We went into the wax museum next door (great fun!) and this time asked for the Thai price, and we were both allowed in as Thais with a smile. Brilliant!
Patpong was thrust into darkness this week. When all hell threatened to break loose in the Silom area and the troops moved in, the unthinkable happened and the Patpong night market was forced to close. For a couple of nights most of the bars in Patpong were closed, but as the days crept by, most bars reopened. It's far from business as usual in the area and for sure, April 2010 will see losses made in many Patpong bars.
With planet earth still blowing its load in Iceland and the ensuing air travel troubles combined with the red shirts protests in Bangkok, less Westerners are blowing their load in Thailand. The word from bars in both Bangkok and Pattaya is, as you would expect, that trade is down markedly.
It might come as something of a surprise that Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy are two of the most politically correct places in town at the moment. You won't find any shirts of any colour in either location.
Despite the economy in Thailand struggling, and despite there still being much doom and gloom about, the bars are really struggling to get girls with many bars at an all time low in terms of both quantity and quality.
On top of that we're also starting to see the bargirl drought season as some head home. For the most part it will be over with the start of the new Thai school year in the middle of May when they start to come back.
The man with the reflective dome will celebrate his birthday this week. Yes, you guessed correctly – it's Dave The Rave's birthday! Drop by Angelwitch in Nana Plaza, this Friday, April 30th to celebrate with Dave. All are welcome.
There was much anxiety in Bangkok's bars on Monday night as the girls anticipated all hell breaking loose on Tuesday with the reds threatening to storm the commercial district of Bangkok. If by any chance that happened to have been your first night in Bangkok's bars you might have wondered what all the fuss was about.
Shibari is the art of Japanese bondage and on April 29 and 30 you will have a chance to experience exceptional Shibari shows which are being organised by Demonia, the popular fetish bar on Sukhumvit 33. If you crave something a little different, this could be just what you're looking for.
Due to many girls going home over the Songkran period, the dance contest at Spanky's scheduled for the 16th didn't take place. Instead it has been rescheduled for Thursday, May 13. Girls seldom take off on a Friday or Saturday due to the penalties they suffer – often a 1,000 baht deduction from their salary – so the bar's main shareholder thought Thursday would be the best night to hold a contest. Girls participating will come from a number of different bars and they have a chance to bring their own music or choose from what Spanky's 3 has. The first prize is 6,000 baht, second prize 3,000 and third prize 1000. Please note that the contest will be held at Spanky's 3 in Patpong soi 2.
On May 5, Charley Brown's, the Mexican venue on a sub soi off Sukhumvit soi 11, will hold a Cinco de Mayo party. There'll be all-you-can-eat fajitas, buy 2 Coronas get one free and 50% off Jose Cuervo Tequila. Here's a link to the Facebook page promoting the event.
While some of their colleagues were on the front lines at Rama 4 Road, not a dissimilar feeling to being on the Russian front I imagine, other members of the local constabulary were checking the licences of certain Soi Cowboy venues on Thursday night.
These girls really do take to the industry quickly. Apart from the disgusting tramp stamps on her back, Tilac's #58 is a little doll and one of my mates was supposedly her first customer just a month ago. This week I was in Tilac and caught sight of her and had a bit of a chin wag. This lass really has caught on quickly, the 20,000 odd baht that she raised for the Blackberry she now proudly sports being ample evidence. Or maybe some sucker bought it for her? For what it's worth, buying mobile phones for these girls is much the same as giving them gold. The moment you're out of sight she is usually off to the pawn shop where she will get about 50 satang in the baht for it. But hey, if it makes you happy to buy her a phone, go ahead!
The second largest embassy in the world, the US embassy in Bangkok, will hold a Town Hall meeting on Monday, April 26 at 2 PM at the JW Marriott Hotel on Sukhumvit soi 2 and all Americans are invited to attend. Ambassador Eric G. John along with other officials from the embassy will be present to discuss the current situation in Bangkok. This meeting is for American citizens only. Bring your passport or other form of US citizenship to be allowed inside. A US passport, US birth certificate plus photo identification, consular report of birth abroad plus photo identification, or naturalisation certificate are all acceptable. This is an off-the-record meeting intended to inform American citizens about the latest developments in Bangkok. The American Citizen Services Unit of the US embassy can be reached at 02-2054049 or by email at [email protected]
Many girls working in Soi Cowboy live above the bars. It's cheap – they usually pay several hundred baht each, being a contribution to the power and water and they don't have to battle Bangkok traffic to get to work. There is, however, a major downside. The bars seem to consider that the girls are their property and impose a 24-hour barfine on them which is strictly enforced. This means that even if you wanted to take a girl out for a pizza at lunch time – and nothing else – all of which may be during hours that the bar may not even be open, it is expected that a barfine will be paid for her! And if you do not pay that barfine then it will be deducted from her salary at the end of the month. Can you say slavery or bondage? Bar owners who enforce this nonsense really are the worst of the worst.
There are some good deals at the Landmark Hotel, you know, the big hotel between the Nana BTS station and Nana Plaza with the verandah out front where you can watch the sweeties and the ladyboys strut along Sukhumvit on their way to work at Soi Nana early evening. Anyway, it's 2 for 1 drinks for hours and hours every night. If my memory serves me right the deal runs until midnight at the streetside bar and even in The Huntsman, the British pub in the basement, it's 2 for 1 drinks from 3 – 9 PM. Damned good deals.
Next to the Green Parrot in Sukhumvit soi 33, a new hostess bar will open, appropriately called Hookers. I have to say that it seems awfully optimistic to open a new bar in soi 33 at the start of the low season in a bar area that really is not doing much business at all.
At Witch's Tavern on Soi Thonglor they are advertising breakfast at the sort of prices you usually only see in Pattaya – 99 baht. I haven't tried it myself.
The Irish pub in Ekamai I mentioned that I drove past last week is called Dirty Nelly's. I hear that amongst the many reasons to visit they offer very decent, reasonably priced Western food. Dirty Nelly's can be found a few hundred metres up Ekamai Road from the main Sukhumvit Road on the right-hand side. I'll make the effort to swing by soon.
More than ever I am convinced there is a massive rort perpetuated by errant taxi drivers and the use of dodgy meters is a recent and potentially widespread problem in Bangkok. Again this week I struck a cab with a dodgy meter. The distance kept going up, even when we were stationary – it went up 500 metes in about one minute while sitting at the lights. Of course I pointed this out to the driver who played dumb. Keep an eye on that meter!
For coffee lovers, I notice more and more streetside coffee vendors are setting up on the streets of Bangkok, particularly in areas where there are office buildings and office workers. It seems that the Thais are developing more of a coffee culture and I have to say that some of these vendors make a decent, inexpensive coffee.
For Aussie fans of Beer Lao, you can get South-East Asia's finest brew in Kangarooland now. Send an email to: [email protected] or visit and join their Facebook page 'Beer Lao Australia' which will have a list of places stocking Beer Lao in Australia posted shortly.
If you have been one of those unfortunate to have been caught up in Bangkok due to cancelled flights because of the Iceland volcano, if on the odd chance you had inadvertently overstayed your visa, show proof that you had a ticket to fly out before your visa expired and Thai Immigration will NOT fine you.
They say that we're through the worst of the recession and that things are improving but it seems to me that the stream of redundancies continues. A number of people I know have been made redundant in Thailand, Thais for the most part but a fair number of foreigners too. And more than a few are finding, through no fault of their own, that their contract is not being renewed. Foreigners laid off may stay on in Thailand or may return home but in the case of Thais, it seems that sooner or later they return to the family home, often in some far flung corner of the country. What I wonder is just how all of these girls manage to survive back home after leading a modern lifestyle in Bangkok, having been earning a decent salary, often 20 – 25K baht a month? I know a fair few who have left and have not returned and I bet they are hurting.
I really get bothered by the Thais' overuse and misuse of the English word "I" when they should otherwise be using "me", "my" or "mine". It really bothers me. I always tell Thais to either talk to me in English or talk to me in Thai. If they want to form a sentence mixing the two languages together they can go and talk to the buffalo for as far as I am concerned that is just daft and it drives me crazy. This always gets a reaction – lower class folk can't deal with it and sulk whereas more well to do folks usually agree that it is indeed daft to mix the two languages together unnecessarily.
Quote of the week, "Pattaya is Patong's role model, and it's going hell for leather to catch up."
Reader's story of the week comes from Los Visitor and is called "Another Agency Tale".
CNN answers the questions of just what the whole Bangkok protest is about.
For the Americans, could changes to taxes force Americans abroad to give up their citizenship?
Time magazine reports on the devastation faced by Thailand's tourism industry.
An insightful opinion piece appeared in the Bangkok Post on the whole protest issue.
A Chinaman sets fire to a Pattaya hotel after reception refuses to allow him to take three ladies to his room!
From The Age in Melbourne, it's a nightmare for travellers stranded in Asia.
Some swanky Bangkok hotels are forced to send tourists packing.
The New York Times ran a piece on Taksin this week.
Ask Mrs. Stick is on hold for the time being.
Readers whose main interest in this column is to learn what I have discovered when out on pussy patrol might find themselves disappointed with recent epistles. My visits to the naughty bars have been much less frequent, often but a flying visit. With everything else going on in Bangkok at the moment holding more interest, I just have not spent much time in the bars at all – and frankly I really don't miss them. And did you know I have yet to make it to Pattaya this year? When the red shirts situation settles down, there'll probably be more nightlife coverage.
Your Bangkok commentator,