Stickman's Weekly Column April 17th, 2011

The New York Of South-East Asia


In 1990 I spent 6 months travelling, jumping across the USA and roaming around Western Europe. I visited a number of great cities, met many interesting people and experienced fascinating cultures. Many places left a strong impression, but nowhere had quite the same impact on me as New York.

There was something about New York that resonated with me, something I still find it hard to put my finger on today.

Was it the pace of the city and the feeling that you were swimming in a city awash with serious money? The capitalist in me adored it!

Was it the huge variety of food and the many different languages you would hear when waking down the street and the city's cosmopolitan nature?

Was it the fantastic, vast book shops staffed by knowledgeable and helpful booklovers, or any shops for that matter – and the feeling that whatever it was you were looking for could be found?

I loved the way that if you wanted a slice of pizza, you could get it from a stand on the street for, as I remember, about $1.50, yet if you wanted a high-end Italian meal you could find it in a setting that would be every bit as good as anything in Rome or Milan. You could get by on a budget or you could live it up like a King. It was all there.

The city was huge and there were endless neighbourhoods to explore, each with their own flavour, but all unmistakably New York. And unlike my hometown, Auckland, it was a 24 hour a day city.

If you love big cities, I reckon New York is about as good as it gets. Even when compared with the romance of Paris or the rich history and traditions of London, there's still something special about New York.

But as much as I like New York, I haven't been back. That's because it's just plain awkward to get to – both in time and expense – from the places I have lived.

When I think back to the Bangkok I first arrived at in the late ‘90s, I remember a dark city, where there were fewer street lights – and where they often weren't even turned on! There were less neon lights and the city had a grey, brown hue wherever you looked. Everything was more Oriental and more traditional – Thai traditional meaning basic, Spartan, sometimes even rustic.

The city itself was filthy. There'd be piles of rubbish overrun with rats and rodents and the general condition of buildings, particularly shophouses was often one of abandonment – yet when you looked closely you saw that people actually lived there!

There were signs in English, but they tended to be mainly in the areas tourists gravitated towards – central Bangkok and popular tourist attractions. And when you approached a Thai most anywhere, they had the look of a deer in the headlights! Outside of tourist areas and away from those who had studied abroad, English was much worse than it is today.

Authentic foreign food, particularly Western favourites, wasn't easy to find – and no, McDonald's doesn't count! Hunger pains for a real burger meant a trip across town – and that trip was made in a taxi, or God forbid, on a bus. The skytrain and underground had yet to open.

Garfair boran, that thick almost chewy blend of brown something that is strained through grandpa's old socks at many a streetside vendor doesn't satisfy even the most tolerant coffee lover. 5-star hotels aside, getting a decent, real coffee was a problem.

Bestsellers would eventually make the bookshops, but by the time they arrived in Bangkok they were available at a discount in the West. Ditto at the cinema where blockbusters would screen in Bangkok months after their Hollywood release. And if it wasn't mainstream, it probably never made it here.

When it came to nightlife, Bangkok was all about satisfying the naughty boys. You couldn't say it was one-dimensional, but then neither could you say that it was international.

But that was the Bangkok of the last millennium and the Bangkok of today is a very different place.

You wouldn't call the Bangkok of today the world's cleanest city, nor the world's most aesthetically pleasing, but it looks so much better, and is much cleaner than it used to be. The opening of Chuwit Park and Benjagit Park downtown has helped. A greater effort is made to keep the city clean and there seem to be more city cleaners who are better equipped. Parts of Bangkok aren't the tip they used to be.

Getting around central parts of the city is easy with the skytrain and the underground, both of which are graffiti-free. Plans to extend the skytrain and the addition of new lines will open up the city further. There are more expressways and there's now the super highway that loops the city, all of which makes getting around so much easier than it was. Nightmare stories of 4-hour trips from Sukhumvit to the airport only to find your flight had left and knowing that you would have to return to Sukhumvit and do it all over again the next day are a distant memory.

You couldn't call Bangkok sophisticated but getting a good cup of coffee is a breeze and there are now many great restaurants to be found all over the city. There has been an explosion of mid-range and high-end restaurants in the last decade, and Bangkok is truly a foodie's paradise.

There are a number of high-end rooftop bars and many hotels feature superb restaurants, often on the top floor, giving glorious views of the city. The bars and restaurants atop State Tower and the Banyan Tree Hotel wouldn't be out of place in New York, although in fairness you'd receive vastly superior service in the Big Apple.

Bangkok is not just a magnet for Thais from all around the country, but for those from all over the region, both expatriates and locals. Those with money in their pockets in neighbouring Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam fly to Bangkok not just for medical treatment, to get high end items serviced or repaired, and to do their shopping.

Of course, as the city has grown up, so prices have moved. Bangkok isn't the bargain it once was and to enjoy the best that the city has to offer it helps to have a bulging wallet. But just like the New York of 1990 I so loved, you can do some things on the cheap.

Ironically, it's the New York Steakhouse in the JW Marriott Hotel that reminds us that New York quality is available in Bangkok – at New York prices (or more!). When a steak – and we're only talking the piece of meat here; vegetables or other sides will cost you considerably more – sets you back 3,000 baht, or exactly $100, you know that Bangkok is doing its best to imitate one of the great cities of the world.

Real estate bargains, where high end condos could be had for 50,000 baht a square metre, are a thing of the past. The highest of high-end condos in Bangkok can run to a staggering 400,000 baht, or $13,000+ per square metre – genuine New York prices where friends tell me a decent 100 square metre apartment starts at a million greenbacks.

But you needn't pay silly prices. Reasonable condos in ok areas can be had for 80,000 baht a square metre and a good steak can be had for 600 – 700 baht, if you know where to go.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes of all is that as Bangkok has grown up and become a more attractive place to live (and work), the quality of the city's foreign residents has improved. There's a much more diverse range of people living here, and their reasons for living in Bangkok are increasingly diverse.

Bangkok isn't New York and never will be. But Bangkok has grown up hugely over the past decade and the Bangkok of today is much more livable, for demanding Westerners, than it ever was. There is still be much to legitimately complain about but the frequent criticisms of foreign residents should be seen for what they are, comments by those who really do care, and would like to see nothing more than the city improve for everyone.

Prices of most everything are going up and smiles might be harder to come by, but these aren't unique to Thailand and are very much a worldwide trend. There can be no denying that Bangkok has grown up and while remaining unmistakably Thai, it is now truly an international city.

For tourists the city can be frustrating and many problems of the past still exist today, which is something of an embarrassment. But in terms of a place for expatriates to live, it's hard to argue against Bangkok being much more livable now than it was in the 90s. It's no longer a joke to put Bangkok and New York in the same sentence.

Last week's photo

Where was this photo taken?


Last week's photo was taken at the Patpong market, late afternoon, as the night market was being set up. The first person to email me with the correct location of the photo wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British fish and chips restaurant. The second person to get it correct wins a 500 baht gift certificate from one of the best farang food venues in Bangkok, and the home of Bangkok's best burger, in my humble opinion, Duke's Express. Duke's is conveniently located in the Emporium shopping centre in central Bangkok. For readers in Phuket, Bliss Lounge on Bangla Road is offering a 500 baht drink credit and with some great imported beers from Belgium, Germany and Holland, unique for a venue on Bangla Road.

Terms and conditions: The Duke's Express voucher MUST be redeemed by June, 2012. The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. The Bliss Lounge prize must be claimed within 3 months. Prizes are only available to readers in Thailand at the time of entering and are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per week! If you wish to claim a prize, you must state a preference for the prize you prefer, or list the prizes you would like in order of preference – failure to do so results in the prize going to the next person to get the photo right.

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 – Not questionable at all!

An email said anyone who left the West to live in Thailand must be "questionable". I do not know what countries he may be referring to, but I left the UK a few years short of retirement age to live in Thailand after selling up in my native Scotland, with my teeruk. I have just completed 3 years as a teacher. I have no degree but did a TEFL course in Bangkok. I did not come to Thailand to be a teacher. I have enough money to see me through to retirement, but after attending a summer camp, it was suggested I should try and get qualified to teach English. I am working class in the UK, so I came to Thailand for much the same reason as probably most expats, mainly because it is cheap to live in. I was never a whoremonger and my teeruk, now my wife, was never a bargirl. All my life I have never drank alcohol or smoked. I came to live in Thailand not because I am questionable. The UK is a land of very high taxes, like the TV licence, astronomical costs to run a car, council tax etc. It is hard to think of anything that is not taxed. If I paid every amount of tax the UK said I should, I would never have been able to come and live in Thailand. In fact I would be living from week to week trying to make ends meet, and remember, I don't drink or smoke! The UK is to be despised, and I'm glad I came to live in Thailand! Yes, Thailand has its problems and scams but I have a great life and marriage here, and I would recommend any British citizen who is unhappy living in the UK to think about moving to Thailand. But only come if you are financially secure and have a regular income.

No, not everyone is available

When I walk by a bar with my girlfriend, the ladies in the bar generally don't do their "handsome man" routines but instead ask my girlfriend in Thai to come in for a drink / massage / whatever. If I go into a bar with hostesses when I am with her, they leave us alone and serve us when we ask for drinks etc. No-one bothers us and it's respectful. On the other hand, the number of times I have caught farangs trying to pass numbers or sit there staring at her trying to catch her eye to wink at her is frustrating for us both. Especially when some of them are twice my age and gut size! I have been with her 3 years – so it's not a game being played or her imagination. I only know when she's gone quiet and I turn around to see the perpetrator in action. I have also seen when guys go to the toilet, other farangs step over and give telephone numbers to the girls sitting there. Then when the guy returns and spends the next hour or so grinning like someone who has won something at someone else's expense! Guys, there are enough girls in Bangkok who will go with anyone! Be respectful! Find a "single" girl – as in one who has no customer / partner with her. It's no wonder the Thais think we have fidelity issues. We don't care who we step on for a one-hour shift in bed, apparently.

The long innings continues.

Congratulations on getting 10 runs up on a dodgy batting wicket. It has seamed and swung over the years. It has reared up and sometimes shot along the ground. It has deflected spin and dispatched the close in fielders towards the boundary. You have let the dangerous deliveries go through to the wicketkeeper and importantly, you have kept the turnstiles clicking. Keep the innings going, despite the machinations of the opposition and the jeering of the partisan crowd.


ThaiFriendly is an Asian Dating Site like no others!

The bar industry through lucid eyes.

Count me as one who skips the nightlife section of your column. I have nothing against sex or prostitution. It's not that. It's just that hanging around the bars, even in sleepy Hua Hin, damages us somehow. I don't really think it's paying for sex that does it. On my two or three 'nights out' a year, sanctioned by my girlfriend, I go to Thai places. The difference, I guess, is that it's more honest. I have that urge to have sex with an attractive young woman who is not my girlfriend. I could not care less if she loves me, thinks I'm handsome or anything else. I want a service. That may sound very cold, but I don't feel cold about the girls at all. I am always friendly and polite, even when the service is not up to par. But I don't want her mind or heart, and she doesn't want all my money, just her normal fee. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is the illusion and the lies in the 'bar industry' that damage people. The girls have to live a lie and it damages them. The men have to suspend disbelief (this slim, beautiful 20 year old loves a 60 year old, 100 kg, bald guy that she can't talk to) and it damages them, too. Once they have suspended disbelief to that point, they are ready to be victims, and we both know how often that happens.

Try to learn from those who have walked the path before you.

I travelled to Thailand in 1987, the year of the smiles. The smiles fade once your money dwindles. I soon became one of many Westerners enthralled with all Thailand had to offer. I returned 20+ times over the next 15 years. A lot happened over that time and I became aware of my surroundings. Hence beware. Beware of the second floor bars at Patpong. You walk up, sit down and have a drink. You ask for your bill only to find out there is a hefty cover charge posted behind the door you just walked through. If you refuse to pay, 5 Thais will gladly encourage you. After I paid I walked down the stairs and informed a couple of guys not to venture further. A big mistake and I was lucky I was not beaten up. I stayed away for a month. I eventually married a Thai woman. I wish I had listened to my friend when he said, "If you marry a Thai woman, do not take her out of the country." It didn't take long to realise I had made a big mistake. Mai pen rai. There are many things in Thailand to beware of, but unfortunately many are learned through practical experience, no matter how smart you think you are. Beware and learn from others' mistakes. Chok dee!

You CAN live in the country and be healthy.

After marrying and moving to Surin, I began to let myself go. My afternoons were spent in the company of other farangs in the farang-friendly pubs in Surin and soon I was drinking 4 or 5 beers in the afternoon. I began to notice that my pants were getting more difficult to button and that the heat and humidity was affecting me more. Enough of that! I had always stayed fit through diet and exercise when I lived in the US so there was no reason not to do the same here in Surin. Lucky for me, in Surin they built a park with a walking / jogging / bicycle path along with various exercise stations about 4 km from my home. I started getting up at 6:30 AM and riding my scooter to the park, walking twice around the park, about 2.5 miles, and finishing up with 30 minutes on the exercise machines. When I got back to the house I stayed outside and did my garden work before the sun got too hot. I began to eat better foods, not so much rice or fried foods and I limited myself to two small beers in the afternoons. Within 2 months I had lost the weight I had gained, lost 2 inches from my waistline and felt a whole lot better. The heat and humidity were not so much a bother and my wife even commented that I seem a lot more lively and friendly. No way was I going to look like that severely overweight farang in the photo in this week's column. That was just plain gross but it seems to becoming more common in places like Pattaya and Bangkok.

It is some years since the iconic Nana Plaza bar Woodstock left the plaza and relocated to Thonglor. As much as I liked Woodstock and their great burgers, I never followed the bar to its new location. And I bet I was not the only one. I heard that while they picked up some new customers at that new location, many who used to frequent Woodstock at its original location sought a new sanctuary in the Nana area. It seems that after a good few years away Woodstock will return to the Nana area. The neon sign out front of Nana Square shopping centre which is on the northwest corner of the Nana intersection states that Woodstock bar and grill is coming soon. Great!

Black Pagoda, the bar in the bridge that hovers above Patpong soi 2, will be hosting a special party, next Friday, that is April 29. Management is really excited about the event which will kick off with a ceremonial event at 8 PM. There will be free drinks from 10 PM until midnight, special shows, prize giveaways and what they are calling shows from heaven. This could be the reason you have been waiting for to finally check out Black Pagoda.

The much anticipated White Lioness bar in Sukhumvit soi 12 isn't ready to open its doors just yet and the grand opening looks like it will be another week or two away. Apparently earlier this week there was a minivan full of what one observer thought appeared to be Japanese Yakuza, replete with full-sleeve tattoos visible under their long sleeve shirts. They were given a tour from what appears to be the Russian contingent. I really am intrigued to see this venue when it opens!

In last week's column I mentioned that I was surprised that Shark A Gogo in Soi Cowboy had opened the top floor for dancing. Apparently, the management's reasoning is that they were fed up with many girls strolling in to the bar at the latest possible start time for an evening's work, which happens to be a ridiculously late 9:30 PM. Have you ever noticed how at happy hour, which runs through until 8:30, there are precious few girls up on stage? Now you know why! With the upstairs area open, late starters have to dance upstairs, which ultimately means less barfines. A number of the most popular hotties were none too pleased at being sent upstairs and now make a point to arrive earlier to avoid it. I guess that means the new policy has been effective. Um, why doesn't management just do what other bars do and install a time card system where the girls have to clock in and impose an earlier start time?

If you are craving good farang grub – and what I believe is the best pub food in Bangkok – get down to Durty Nelly's, the excellent Irish pub on Ekamai. With a foreign chef in the kitchen, the Western grub tastes just as it does at home – and is made with high quality ingredients. And to convince you to visit, they have a wonderful lunch special. Running from 11 AM until 4 PM daily, you can choose one course from the appetizers, salads and soups, and one from the mains all for a total of 275 baht. I went for the Caesar salad with grilled chicken and the cheese and bacon burger. Wow, what a meal! Generous portions and excellent quality! They also have a decent special on Tuesdays on the better beers including Leffe and Hoegaarden – buy one pint at the regular price and each subsequent pint is just 150 baht.

A mate mentioned to me this week that a new lady he had been seeing had cursed him. When I asked him what she said, he replied that she had said he had the same character as a Thai guy. That was kinda unusual so I asked for more detail. It was an online he had met for coffee and they had ended up back at his place. One thing led to another and she ended up staying the night. The next morning she wanted to lounge around and be slothful in his nice pad but he had other ideas. She complained that there was no Thai TV to watch and no Thai food in the house. She moaned away and he told her to stop complaining. He said they could go out and get a nice breakfast, and also reminded her that if that didn't appeal to her, she was free to leave at any time. It was when she realised that he was no pushover and would not give in to her game playing and manipulation, she said he had the character of a Thai guy. I pointed out to him that in this instance her comments were in fact a compliment – even if she had not intended them to be! Western men in Thailand like to talk trash about Thai guys, but Thai guys have it all over Westerners when it comes to women. They refuse to let a woman walk all over them and draw a line in the sand very quickly. Many Western men are weak and allow themselves to be walked over, perhaps the biggest mistake you can make with Thai women. Of course after that girl had showed her true colours, that should have been the last time he saw her!

Songkran finished in Bangkok and I have to say that it wasn't so bad this year. I had an excellent novel to get through, the latest in Chris Moore's Calvino series, "9 Gold Bullets". Chris is the granddaddy of Bangkok fiction and if you like expat fiction, novels set in Bangkok, private eye stories or all of the above, check it out!

Movies are a good way to escape the Songkran heat – not that it has been that hot this year – so I decided to check out the latest King Naresuan movie to kill a few hours this week. Like all of these period epics produced in Thailand, it was very well done. But there was one scene that kind of irked me. One character is following another and they end up in a 16th century brothel / opium den. Now to set the scene, this was a Thai movie, full of Thai characters, with only small bit parts for a couple of foreigners. But when they get into the brothel, you can guess what many of the customers are. White men! The Thais REALLY do think that we are a depraved bunch!

English Paul operates a business under the trading name JP Enterprises offering Western style food in Bangkok delivered to your door. The menu is extensive and covers a wide range of pies, sausages, meats and various other food items we foreigners like. The minimum order within Bangkok is 1,000 baht and outside of Bangkok is 4,000 baht. Orders outside the capital also incur a 420 baht delivery charge. I haven't tried any of it myself, but a certain rather portly foreign bar manager recently placed a 4,000 baht order for pies, claiming they were the best he has had in Thailand. To contact Paul for more details, or to make an order, call 089-0501667.

Following the German version of Private Dancer, Steve Leather has just put the French version of the top selling bargirl genre novel on Kindle.

I'm generally not a great fan of ribs, but if you are, give the ribs at Duke's Express a go. They are great! Lots of meat – much more than you typically get with ribs – and the sauce goes really well with them.

Terminal 21, the shopping centre under construction on the north-west corner of Sukhumvit 21 and Sukhumvit Road, otherwise known as the Asoke intersection, looks like it is coming along very nicely indeed. Each of the floors has been decorated in the style of a famous city, like Paris or Rome, and it looks like it is going to be very impressive when it opens. Its location puts it right beside both the skytrain and the underground, and given that there are many big hotels in the area, to say nothing of condos and office buildings, there's every reason to think that Terminal 21 is going to quickly become one of the most popular shopping centres in Bangkok.

When wireless Internet connections started popping up around Bangkok a few years back, the connections were often unprotected and a password wasn't required to log in. Things are slowly changing and connections tend to be password protected these days. But what is amusing is that many Thais use their mobile phone number as their password. So if you know someone's mobile phone number and they have a password-protected wireless connection, try the mobile number and see what happens. If my experience is anything to go by, there's about a 50% chance it will work! With many people using the same password for everything, maybe their mobile phone number is also their password for other accounts too, like Facebook, email accounts etc? Oooh, Stick, you're naughty thinking like that!

I have both seen and been told about many restaurants in Bangkok increasing their food prices. Where in the past you could expect to see food prices increase by 10% or so, some venues are increasing the price of some dishes by as much as 35%! Normally I would jump on top of any venue pushing up prices so much but when you look at things a little closer, this is hardly a Bangkok thing. The cost of raw food products around the world is soaring and many things, like wheat for example, have doubled in price in record time. Expect to see more venues increase food prices and, as much as I hate to say it, the first waves of the inflation tsunami that has been talked about for a while looks like they are arriving.

Quote of the week comes from popular writer Dean Barrett, "Life is good as long as you have enough money for the three Bs, babes, beers and books!"

Reader's story of the week comes from City Paul and is the final part of his trilogy, 7 Years Of Madness.

Jeremy Vine of the BBC hosted a radio show about South-East Asian brides this week.

Top local farang journalist Andrew Drummond published an interesting piece this week, Dogs of the Internet part 1.

The Bangkok Post reports that dodgy passport gangs are trying new tactics.

The Asia Times had an interesting perspective on Thailand's political situation.

From CCNGo, how to deal with Bangkok's dodgy financial advisors.

A crazy Thai went on a killing spree in Bangkok this week before the cops shot him dead.

Ask Sunbelt Legal

Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.

Question 1: I don't take drugs because I don't have an interest in them. I don't mind if people about me do it; for me it's a personal choice so I am fine with whatever people do. However, I have noticed a lot of my friends here use cocaine. I also notice how they tend to have it on them on nights out. Since I often get in to taxis with them and have been stopped myself about 4 or 5 times over the last year for random drug checks / searches, I worry what would happen if a taxi was stopped by the police with my friends and I in it. Even though I wouldn't have anything on me, I am 100% sure they would. What would be the situation for me if we got stopped? I know they could potentially pay their way out but what if they couldn't and what's my legal situation being with someone who is in possession? I really don't want to get in taxis with them if it means I could be in serious problems. It sounds pretty lame and such for me to worry about sharing a cab with them but I know how serious this situation might get.

Sunbelt Legal responds: The police may determine that since you are travelling with a person in possession of illegal drugs that you are also involved and may consider you either an accomplice or a suspect. How the police treat you would depend on the officer in question, your criminal record and how much of the drugs were involved. Either way, it would be up to you to somehow prove your innocence and that could be problematic. A better solution would be to take separate taxis with people you know are in possession of drugs.

It's a somewhat shorter column than usual this week which I guess is kind of typical for this time of year when many of us stay inside, avoid the water fights and avoid the chaos outside. When I am not out and about I don't know what is going on. It's not just the water fights many of us avoid, it's the inane drunkenness, especially on the third day – and it is just as bad with foreigners as it is with Thais. Those of us who are not fans of Songkran get some grief from those who are, so I asked a Thai female friend what she thought of Songkran in Bangkok.

"I think Thai people in BKK teach foreigner in the wrong thing. This festival should play only in the day time because it is very hot and should play in the polite way and respect to each other when people don't want to be wet shouldn't splash the water to them."

What a refreshing response! While some Thais like it, there seem to be, at least with those I spoke to, many who are against the way it has developed into a sort of water fight carnage that bears little resemblance to the traditional way of celebrating Songkran.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick