Some of what happens in Thailand can make you scratch your head, and some of the explanations for why things are the way they are can be awfully confusing. To make matters worse, often what is printed in guidebooks along with what locals tell us can be very different to what we see with our own eyes. Thailand is full of contrasts and contradictions, a confusing place where so much is not what it seems. The longer you stay in Thailand, the more you get to know it…but not necessarily the more you really come to understand it.
Thailand is a developing country where the average monthly salary is less than $500*, yet it's not that long since Thailand boasted the second highest number of Mercedes Benz cars on its roads, only Germany having more. And with the average age of cars on Thailand's roads less than that of many developed countries, Thailand can seem to the first time visitor to be wealthier than it really is.
While many drive new cars and apparently someone doesn't have a new IPhone, many cities have armies of homeless. The sight of the fabulously rich seen side by side those worrying about when their next meal will be is hardly uncommon.
It often feels like Thais have a similar income to those in the West. Put it down to many living on credit, and putting all their effort (and money) in to appearing to be wealthier than they are. It's all about face, after all.
* Source: World Bank
Is the overused Land of Smiles nickname warranted?
At the airport a huge sign wishes arrivals a warm "Welcome to the Land Of Smiles". At the same time officials processing arrivals could not be more unsmiling if they tried. The country loves to promote the notion of a smiling populace while many people today, especially Bangkokians and those in official uniform, are not known for their smiles.
The funny thing about all the smiling in Thailand is who's doing it. More often than not when I see someone with a genuine, beaming smile, it's a foreigner!
At streetside eateries food is left out in the open. It's prepared alongside grid-locked streets with buses belching out black fumes while those slinging rice in to the work often have questionable personal hygiene. So why do so few people eating street food in Thailand get sick!
Food is prepared and cooked on streets all over Thailand. The end product smells good, tastes great and won't break anyone's budget. It's unnerving seeing meat and seafood laid out on ice for much of the day or evening. The streets are filthy, full of rodents, insects, rubbish and worse. Plates and cutlery often aren't properly washed nor stored in a clean place, yet food poisoning from eating on the street isn't something you hear much about.
The fact that you can eat on the street in Thailand and should be ok and not get ill just doesn't make sense. A Western food and health inspector would die seeing food prepared on Bangkok's streets.
The fines for many offences in Thailand are almost nothing, yet prison sentences for the very same offences are extremely harsh.
Get caught doing twice the speed limit and you'll get a 400 or 500 baht fine. Get caught stealing the car that you broke the speed limit in and you're going to be doing a good few years in the monkey house.
That fines are generally low and prison sentences so long is a contradiction with a simple explanation. When many laws were written a couple of thousand baht was a lot of money, a liveable monthly salary. As Thailand has prospered, fines have not been adjusted and seem low in today's money. Prison time on the other hand is incredibly harsh and to be avoided.
Why are so many of the things that happen in a country with more Buddhists that any other so, for want of a better word, "unBuddhist"?
Thais love to call themselves Buddhist and evidence of their worship can be found everywhere. Yet so much that happens in Thailand would seem to go against the 5 basic precepts of Buddhism.
Many of the traditions that the Thais believe are Buddhist actually come from Brahmanism and other religions and aren't Buddhist at all. The local version of Buddhism is just that, the local version.
Guide books talk of how Thailand is a conservative land where displays of public affection are frowned upon and where chaperoned dating is the norm.
Most foreign visitors must wonder what the writers of such guide books were on after seeing the complete opposite with their own eyes. Commercial sex is widely available with visitors encouraged to partake. From the moment you leave the airport, the taxi driver, the hotel bell boy to the girl standing outside McDonald's, frequent offers are made to partake of the country's infamous commercial sex industry. And where much of the industry was once hidden away, today it is more out in the open. Who would have thought a sign would be allowed boasting of the world's largest adult playground!
The explanation is easy. Thais see personal relationships and the commercial sex industry as two very different things, while foreigners visiting Thailand seem to have trouble separating them – which may later cause them problems.
And in a country rightly known for so many beautiful women, why is it that many working girls are so unattractive, and so unrepresentative of the average woman?
Thailand is truly a land of beautiful women, but the hottest don't do that. They don't need to.
Why are so many young Western guys seeing or using the services of older, unattractive women?
In a country where the local women are so easy to meet, and where Western men are still something of a novelty, why do so many young Western guys end up with older women? Educated and employed urban Thai women in their 20s and 30s are baffled at the ever so common sight of a handsome and / or youngish Caucasian in the company of a woman who is older than him and whose company costs.
Some shrewd local women play on newbies' ignorance and are successful in passing themselves off as much younger than they are.
The huge Emporium 2 construction site next to the Phrom Pong skytrain station sees workers several floors up walking along narrow planks without safety gear as seasonal rain falls down.
An engineer assists workers, many floors above ground. The engineer is perilously balanced on a narrow beam, stretching out, without any safety harness. At the same time signs around the construction site proudly state in both Thai and English, "Safety First"!
"Risk aversion" and "Thais" just don't go in the same sentence. Is it a lack of awareness, or perhaps a what will be will be attitude? The sign is more about face and reputation than anything. Does that mean face and reputation trump safety?
You see policemen all over Thailand, from the moment you arrive in the country – Immigration is a department of the Royal Thai Police, to traffic control boxes to policemen stopping farangs on Sukhumvit. Cops are everywhere, but what if you need their help?
In Farangland a few months back, the other half mentioned after a few days that she had yet to see a policeman. Don't worry, I said, if anything happens or we need help from the police, they will be here in no time. "Oh, that's the complete opposite of Thailand", she said. "You see them all the time, but if you need their help….good luck!"
In Thailand, so much isn't as it seems…
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of an archer on Mahatun Plaza which can be seen from the Ploenchit skytrain station.
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 realtor frustration.
With regards to real estate for sale or rent, Bangkok is a throwback to another century. Like the days when they still used a stage coach. If one walks into a building looking to rent or to buy, there may or may not be anyone in that building who actually knows if something is available or not. I have seen people turned away by the front desk because they did not like the agent; when there actually were available units. It is almost all by word of mouth and if the building manager thinks she will not get a commission then she may not tell you if there is anything available. I went through this 10 years ago and it was very unpleasant. I have seen prices jump when a Thai 'friend' tells me about a condo only to find out that they expect a commission for just telling me. Two long-time farang friends had their Thai lover get in to real estate and they tried very hard to dupe me, and nearly succeeded but luckily I smelled a rat and did not take the bait. About a year ago a small real estate office opened across the street. I see the owner sitting outside smoking frequently and he does not have one single listing posted in his window! Just completely clueless and no idea at all. I can definitely relate to your frustration with realtors.
Good agents are out there.
I had to deal with real estate agents a year ago. I was (I thought) reasonably specific in what I wanted : a 2-bedroom with both bedrooms around the same size (2 male friends sharing a flat), close to the BTS (no more than 15-minute walk), western style kitchen, with a gym in the building. The first 2 estate agents I used had no idea and took me to completely wrong buildings. Wasted 2 days showing me stuff that I would never take and would not listen when I told them why. The next 2 I used where fantastic and I could not recommend either of them highly enough. One had been educated in Melbourne and the other (who I ended up taking the apartment from) was friends with my girlfriend. There are good Thai estate agents, but I agree that a lot of them are just young pretty girls who think they can show you anything they want and just smile and flirt and close the sale.
Foreign agents understand foreign customers.
When we listed and sold our house in Hua Hin there was a Thai real estate lady who worked off a website who had previously sold a house in our area to a Thai. She brought many Thai prospects to see our property but my wife, after talking to her, would tell me that the people she brought were not really interested in our house for various reasons. The Thai prospects did not want to spend as much as our property was listed for and the thought of having to pay a maintenance fee was almost foreign to them. All of the other agents were farangs and the people they brought by were usually much more interested and understood what maintenance fees were about.
How to make a Bangkok expat green with envy.
I live in Chiang Mai in one of the more upmarket moobaans. My double-gated moobaan has a very large swimming pool and a well-equipped gym. My house is a 2-storey, 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom, with air-conditioning throughout, a modern western kitchen, a large garden and a detached cabana for entertaining. If my house was in Sydney I would pay close to $1,000 per week – no doubt. I only rent here but my landlord, a Singaporean, is a realist and charges me what the market dictates. Some of the comparative houses in the moobaan are for sale for 6 million baht, or for rent at 50,000 baht per month. They have been unsold and empty for a very long time. One thing I have learnt is that the price a Thai wants seldom reflects the true market value. For every seller there must of course be a buyer. There are some tremendous deals around, but as Stick says you have to have to pound the pavement to find them. I could have quite easily settled for the house across the road for 50,000 baht per month, but I am perfectly happy where I am in a beautiful house for just 17,000 baht per month.
Farang realtor not surprised at Thai realtors.
I was interested to read about Thai real estate agents because that was my work here for about 10 years. Not one word you stated came as any surprise because Thai real estate agents, in the main, especially females, haven't a clue. Very frequently they show places that were above the client's declared budget in the forlorn hope the client could go up and the owner would come down; thus they would make more commission. I could go on and on regarding their ineptitude.
Does sorry mean anything?
This response of the real estate agent saying "What's wrong with you" is so typical. Instead of looking at herself as having failed to properly pre-inspect and vet these properties in advance; she blames you and you are the cause of the problem. None of them realise that they are completely incompetent. If one spends enough time in Thailand, they will experience this sort of behaviour on a regular basis as the norm rather than the exception. And when you say they apologised what does that mean? Did they say 'SORRY'? Well in my book the word 'SORRY' to a Thai means absolutely nothing. Just as when a hooker has sex with a customer it means absolutely nothing to her either. If one is truly sorry and they intend to learn from and change their future behaviour then that is another matter; however to a Thai the word sorry is just something to say and unfortunately has no real meaning to them.
Thais in Tokyo.
Just wanted to let your readers know that there are now at least 4 Thai hostess bars in the Ueno Nakamachi area of Tokyo. They all have the same system : 5,000 yen (about 1,500 baht) for 60 minutes of as much house whisky as you can drink and conversation only with 2 girls not of your choice (unless you pay more for that privilege). You are not required to buy lady drinks. These bars are very popular with Japanese salarymen, many who have come back from spells working for their companies in the Kingdom. Farangs are also welcome. The girls all have legal family visas, which often means their Thai mothers are divorced from Japanese men and they are "halfs". They are not the naughty girls one is accustomed to in Bangkok but like any single girl, are looking for true love and marriage and are happy to dole out their cellphone number and Facebook account. One interesting thing I found out is that when a Thai woman divorces a Japanese man, it is not unusual for her to remarry a Thai man who has his own children, making them all eligible for a Japanese visa. Many like me are hoping this trend continues! Meanwhile, the streets of Tokyo are full of the sound of khop khun ka and the TV channels still churning out documentaries of how Thai tourists spend their time and money in Japan.
Girl of the week
New, Babydolls, Pattaya.
She may wear the #39 badge, but in kg the diminutive New weighs even less!
Nana Disco reopened this week on the ground floor of the Nana Hotel. Nana Disco went in to decline when the former owner* introduced a door charge while at the same time new venues opened up on Sukhumvit and competition increased. The disco changed ownership and was rebranded Nana Liquid but never really took off under that name. The current owner, The Nana Group, has gone back to the formula that made it so popular – a spacious disco with a decent sound system and good music.
* Let me interrupt this week's news to recount a story about the old Nana Disco owner, someone I upset more than any other. Said fellow was livid when some 10 years ago I wrote that Nana Disco was introducing a door fee. I made the point that most high-end bars did not charge such a fee and I thought it was a cheek with the venue already highly profitable. I predicted that the entry fee could become its downfall. I was proven right but that is not the point of this story. Said owner was EXTREMELY angry at what I wrote, notwithstanding that the comments were really quite innocuous and others were saying the same. He called me and made some nasty threats, ranting like a mad man. He went to see a bar manager friend of mine in Nana Plaza with a photo that he thought was of me. He showed it to this bar owner friend of mine (important note: this guy no longer works in Nana Plaza) and asked if the person in the photo was me. The owner said, yep, that's Stick when in fact it wasn't. Said fellow in the photo – and neither I nor my bar owner friend have any idea who it was – was to be visited by this fellow and some very undesirable folks!
Across the road from Nana Disco, a police raid took place on Wednesday night in Nana Plaza. A sting operation was conducted in Lone Star and the bar is currently closed.
Fantasia in Nana Plaza hasn't been on any must visit list for years, but if you haven't stuck your head in recently do consider taking a look. A couple of months back a new mamasan was taken on and she brought an entire troop with her. The DJ plays upbeat music and with a fun crew Fantasia is better than it has been in years, and worth visiting.
Due to renovations, Playskool is having an end of term party on Saturday, August 3rd. All drinks are 80 baht all night except lady drinks. This offer will continue throughout the month of renovations in the outside bar which will remain open.
On Tuesday night a Caucasian was bottled outside Foodland in Patpong soi 2 by a young Thai guy, a little after midnight. It's unclear what happened before the incident but what is clear is that the foreign victim was badly messed up.
Lolita's in Pattaya closed down months ago after owner Tom passed away. There is talk that Lolita's Pattaya might make a comeback in nearby Soi Chaiyapoon. It would be Lolita's in name only for Tom did an incredible job fitting out and decorating the former venue which wouldn't be easily replicated and besides, most of the former staff are no doubt putting the skills they developed at Lolita's to good use elsewhere.
Cluttered Soi Cowboy should take a cue from Nana Plaza which has cleaned up its act. Gone are the days when piles of rubbish were littered throughout the plaza and crap strewn haphazardly in every nook and cranny. The new landlords not only ordered the place to be cleaned up, they also expelled the food vendors who operated within the plaza, effectively widening the walkways and making it easier and more comfortable to walk around, making it just that little bit more pleasant. Rather than copy Nana Plaza – currently Bangkok's most popular naughty bar area – Soi Cowboy has done the complete opposite. It has instead copied Khao San Road and allowed more vendors to set up and sell in the soi. And just like Khao San Road which has become an obstacle course to negotiate after dark, so too has Soi Cowboy. The worst spot is between Cowboy 2 Bar and Lighthouse which can be a squeeze. With more street vendors selling their crap, there are parts of the soi where two people can barely squeeze past each other. These vendors add little to the soi while making it cramped and difficult to walk along. They detract from the overall experience. Why can't they operate around the corner on soi 23?
With the start of the new English Premier League season just 3 weeks away, some fans may not be able to view the start of the season live from the comfort of home. To recap, up until the end of last season True Visions had the rights to show all matches live. They lost the rights which were picked up by CTH. Who, you ask? CTH, or Cable Thai Holdings, is a local cable TV provider offering 100+ channels at 899 baht per month including the EPL. One friend upcountry keen to get CTH hooked up before the season starts was told that the company is so busy that they would not be able to get the hardware installed at his house until the end of the year! Good luck getting signed up before the season starts.
Don't worry too much about bargirls stealing your possessions. Yes, it does happen from time to time, but so long as you exercise commonsense and store belongings in a safe you should be ok. There are remarkably few reports of Thai hookers pilfering items from customers in Bangkok. It is the bargirls themselves who need to be aware of thievery. One bar boss told me this week that in his bar at least a couple of girls have their mobile phone nicked by other girls in the bar each month. I guess that's one reason why you see girls clinging to their mobile phone while dancing, or with it stuffed in their bra.
Speaking of the dangers of involvement with these girls, talking to another bar owner I have known since the turn of the century about the prevalence of STDs and AIDS, he reckons he has seen in excess of 2,000 girls tested over the years in all of the bars that he has owned and run. And the number who have tested positive in all that time for HIV? One.
Don't litter within the confines of Nana Plaza! Signs have been erected – only in Thai at this stage although the image should make the message clear – warning of a 1,000 baht fine for anyone who litters. It specifically says the fine will be levied on anyone throwing cigarette butts or pieces of food on to the roofing that covers the bars on the ground floor.
The Asoke intersection cop stops continue. A reader was in a cab which was stopped at 2 AM at the Asoke intersection early Sunday morning by two cops. He was told to get out and was searched immediately without being asked, without giving consent and without being given a chance to refuse. He felt he got a good going over by the two cops. A lengthy pause took place when they come across the 6,000 baht he had on him. Said reader describes himself as mid 30's and clean cut. It seems on Asoke at least, long gone are the days when well-presented, clean-cut foreigners aren't given a second look.
Tenderloins Sports Bar & Steakhouse on Sukhumvit soi 33 is one venue in that lane worth visiting – and at lunch time they have a great deal. The Tenderloins lunch menu is available every day – weekends included – with a choice of appetiser and main followed by coffee for just 300 baht. The choices are extensive and include steaks, stew, ribs, fish & chips and salads.
Speaking of good deals, The Londoner doesn't appear to be promoting its 40% discount off all food on Mondays and Tuesday. The discount appears on the bill but I can't find mention of it anywhere.
Quote of the week comes from Larry, former Secrets manager, "I moved to Pattaya to die but the plan backfired!"
Reader's story of the week is "Bangkok Apartment Hunting – Oh The Irony" from Bokbefok.
Phuket gets a hammering in Melbourne's The Age newspaper.
An American promoting tours to Thailand and the Philippines is convicted of promoting prostitution.
A Brit who has been in a coma after being attacked in Pattaya more than a year ago is about to go home.
A crocodile snaps its jaws closed on a trainer's head at the Samut Prakan crocdile farm.
From CNN, more concerns are being raised about road safety in Thailand.
An engineer has scathing comments about the construction of tour buses in Thailand and how unsafe they are.
Phuket is becoming the armpit of tourism in Thailand with some Aussie Sheilas the latest jet ski scam victims.
From the Wall Street Journal, a mega store opens for Thai monks.Ask Sunbelt Asia 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: My fiancée's father acted as guarantor on a car loan for a friend. The loan was not from a mainstream bank. I'm not sure if it was someone like Easy Buy or Easy Cash. In order to qualify as guarantor he had to put up the title deeds to a piece of land the family owns. The friend defaulted on the loan and disappeared without telling anyone and the car was repossessed and sold. The finance company says the sale was insufficient to clear the debt so they retained the land. The father went to see the finance people to settle the outstanding debt in cash, but they have told him to keep his cash – they want the land! It is prime land in Korat City that the family wants to either retire on, or sell at a profit and retire nearby. Can the finance company do this? What action can we take? Is it advisable to take any action? My fiancée's family, who are mid-level government employees, seem to have accepted this as fact and are unwilling to challenge it. My fiancée explains it's dangerous. We're talking about Korat city and not out in the sticks. Surely something can be done without stirring up trouble.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: Our first assumption based on your description is that this finance company is not a regular finance company since usually a guarantor will be in the form of an individual (without using any mortgage). You may have to review the loan agreement, trying to identify the role and responsibility of the guarantor in the case the borrower breaches the loan agreement. In the worse case scenarios, if the loan (for purchasing a car) stipulated that the property is to be used as collateral, it (the property) would be forced to be auctioned (via a prosecutor). The money derived from the auction will be used to pay off the outstanding loan. Should there be any remaining funds, this would be returned to the land owner.
Another point that you would need to take in to consideration is that of the guarantor's role and responsibility which is that he shall not be liable for the debt as if he was the actual borrower, then he would have the option to avoid the repayment, then the lender would have to appoint the prosecutor to seize other assets of the borrower and not the guarantor.
If you can bring the loan agreement (and any other related to documents), we at Sunbelt Asia would be happy to consult with you to discuss the legal ramifications.
Question 2: I have been reading articles in the press about nominee companies set up so a foreign owner has full voting rights and can make decisions in the company he owns. Apparently such companies are illegal. Forgive my ignorance, but how could they be illegal? If they were set up legally, has there been a law change? I am asking because I have long planned to move to Bangkok and set up a company providing various computer and networking services to foreign-owned small businesses. I guess my question is can I do this legally while retaining full control of my own company myself? I don't want to stuff around with minimum numbers of staff but may have 1, possibly 2 staff. That's all. I am not married and while I may marry in the future, I have no plans to put my business in anyone else's name!
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: If you have Thai investors who would be willing to co-invest in your venture, then these investors are not nominees so long as they have sufficient funds to acquire the shares. But since you do not want or have a Thai investor that could invest in over 51% of your shares, you may want to consider another form of juristic entity and you might want to consider opening an Amity company under the Thai-US Amity Treaty. This treaty allows Americans (individual or juristic entity) to own the majority of the shares in the company. Other recognizable Free Trade Agreements that Thailand has entered into, with Japan and Australia, does permit both nationalities to own / hold a certain percentage within the established organisation depending on the objective of that company.
Alternatively, you may want review your option with the Board of Investment. BOI has established their list of eligible activities which allow foreigners to apply (if the desired business objective meets with the eligible activities list and their terms and conditions). Other benefits and incentives are granted to the approved applicant such as tax incentives, ability to own land, extensive number of work permit within the organisation. You would need an Alien Business License issued by the Department of Business Development and your business would have to be involved in approved activities to gain one.
If you have a corporation abroad, you may want to consider setting up a representative here in Thailand which can be fully owned by the parent corporation. However it is important to note that representative offices are prohibited from generating income. All funding for the company would need to come from cash injections by the parent company. Another part of the consideration for the approval would be technology transfer.
How do you read this column? I know every reader has a slightly different area of interest. Some readers care only for mentions of the nightlife. Some readers have zero interest in the nightlife. This much I know. What I am more interested in, however, is the order you read the column and the sections of column that most interest you, those which least interest you and those which you may not even look at. As I review the way I put this column together, I have a few ideas for changes and I suspect there are one or two sections that could go, and be replaced with new sections that may have a wider appeal. I always welcome your feedback so please don't be shy to let me know what works and what doesn't.
Your Bangkok commentator,