Stickman's Weekly Column January 19th, 2014

Bangkok Is Not Shut Down



Protesters calling for the resignation of the caretaker government, reform of the political system and delaying the general election scheduled for February 2nd escalated their actions late on Sunday of last week when the Bangkok Shutdown started. 8 protest sites were set up in the city, 6 downtown and 2 more at key intersections away from the city centre. This has caused disruptions, inconvenience and general nuisance for many and some businesses located near protest sites have seen a sharp downtown in trade. But for most of us life goes on. Many expat residents in Bangkok, even those who live, work and party downtown have not been unduly affected or inconvenienced. The Bangkok Shutdown has not lived up to its name.





Bangkok

Democracy Monument this week.

The central protest site and home of the protest movement for 2 months was Democracy Monument. That protest has been dismantled and protesters have relocated to new protest sites.



Bangkok

The Democracy Monument protest site wasn't taken down completely and some of it was moved a few hundred metres towards Rachadamnoen Nok Road. Protesters and a small protest village now occupy the area around Saphan Panfa where the Saen Saeb Canal boat terminates near Rachadamnoen Nok Road. There is not much going on there and it does not seem to be counted as an official protest site, yet a significant number of people are there, perhaps a couple of thousand or so with hundreds of tents for protesters to sleep in, along with the infrastructure you find at all the protest sites like mobile toilets and kitchens.



Bangkok Lumpini Park

Tents are seen both inside and out of Lumpini Park with the Silom commercial district in the background.

The protest sites in downtown Bangkok have been transformed in to tent villages with thousands of tents set up as temporary sleeping quarters for the protesters, many of whom are from out of town.

Protesters at Lumpini Park got the best deal with many tents set up right next to the lake in the park.



Bangkok

The crowd is rapturous at Victory Monument.

Each protest site has its own unique vibe and atmosphere.

At times the Lumpini Park protest site feels like a street party or a carnival. Folk songs popular for generations are played and there is singing, dancing and some protesters dressed for a party. Such is the revelry you could be mistaken for thinking that Thailand was had just won the FIFA World Cup.



Bangkok

Contrast that with the Victory Monument site where some of the guards look like the bad guys in a 1980s Charles Bronson movie – scrawny, unsmiling, bad teeth, tatty jeans and just plain hard.

On multiple visits to the Victory Monument site I have heard some particularly harsh words said by the speakers on the stage. The rhetoric has bordered on extremism.



Bangkok shutdown

And then there are the office girls, often elegantly dressed, intently listening to the speakers like the diligent spectacled girl in the front row of a university lecture, studiously taking notes and totally focused on the speaker. This crowd seems to gravitate towards the protest site at Asoke.



Bangkok

And then there are the characters. In Thailand you have to have at least one ladyman present!



Victory Monument, Bangkok

Placards in English are everywhere, some original and some using classic quotes from history. Those that are original don't strike me as likely to be copied and used by others hundreds of years from now.

Election hoardings have been going up around the city in preparation for what appears to be an ill-fated general election scheduled for February 2nd. I have yet to see an advertising hoarding for the Peua Thai Party where leader Yingluck's face hasn't been defaced or comments written. Some outline special skills and qualities indicating she might be a potential employee for Som's Haven or Lolita's should she be ousted from power.



Bangkok

A guard stands tall on Rajadamri Road, at the Lumpini Park protest site.

With so many protest sites set up in a relatively small area, you'd think the inconvenience to commuters and residents downtown would be massive. But many have reported little or no convenience. Some even say that getting around the city is easier than usual due to light traffic.

Protester guards patrol checkpoints and only allow certain vehicles to pass. There's no clear policy as to who can pass and who cannot. At times a lane at occupied intersections may be open to traffic and at other times it may be closed. It is all at the discretion of the protesters. Fortifications have been set up at some intersections, although nothing like the red shirts erected 4 years ago.

At the protest sites guards may search the bags of those passing gates and the odd character may find themselves asked to be patted down, an indignity to some of the well-to-do Thais who are not shy to get their sharp tongues working. They are, they protest, all on the same side.



Bangkok

Foreign visitors are frequently seen traipsing around closed roads and blocked intersections carrying luggage and looking lost.

Some of the better hotels have set up signs at the edge of the protest area where staff await arrivals and will guide guests through the rabble to the hotel.

The question I have been asked most this week has not been whether one should visit or not, but what is the best way to reach their hotel.



Bangkok

Soi Cowboy this week, long after the last happy hour had finished.

The bar industry has been hit hard by the protests and Bangkok bar owners have put on a brave face.

Those who have made it out have found bars light on girls with many staying home, the protests used as an excuse not to go to work. They know there will be fewer customers and many don't wish to dance all night and compete for a small number of customers.

In Soi Cowboy this week a high percentage of the customers were clearly expats. Soi Cowboy had to be the worst affected of the bar areas – no surprise as it sits right next to the Asoke protest site which is busy every night.

Bar staff have been tight-lipped this week, but on Sukhumvit bar takes had to be down at least 50% on Monday and Tuesday, but things did improve at the weekend.



Bangkok Shutdown

There is an ebb and flow throughout the day at the protest sites, some of which have a large number of permanent residents i.e. those who remain there 24/7 and sleep in the area.

Some areas are quiet by day but numbers swell from late afternoon onwards as they attract office staff after work.

The Asoke intersection protest site is quiet in the morning and through the afternoon but once the sun goes down it becomes a crush of people.

It's hard to say what is happening to protester numbers generally, but the infrastructure at the various sites has certainly increased suggesting numbers may be increasing.



Bangkok Shutdown

The situation is fluid. Roads can be empty and some readers have reported getting from the door of their downtown hotel to the airport in less than 30 minutes. An hour later it might not have been possible for a cab to reach their hotel. Roadblocks are set up and taken down and long marches take place every day. Roads open and close without warning. New protest sites are set up and roads that were never previously mentioned are suddenly closed. Overhead pedestrian walkways and skybridges near protest sites are controlled by protesters.



Bangkok Shutdown

About 500 metres north of the Asoke intersection.

How long will the protests continue? I have no idea. There are many factors that will determine their duration from the government's response to the people of Bangkok's patience to the protesters' staying power to the finances of those backing everything. There are too many variables to be able to accurately predict what might happen and how long it will last.

On the one hand, when you see fortifications being built, it looks like the protesters are digging their heels in. On the other, many of the protesters are Bangkokians who only attend the protests and rallies after work or at the weekend and I wonder about their staying power. Many have relatively comfortable lives and I wonder how much time they're willing to dedicate to the protests when they could be out shopping or eating in fancy restaurants. I get the feeling that when some have been to a rally site, snapped a few selfies and posted them to Facebook that that will be the extent of their involvement.






Bangkok shutdown

Sukhumvit Road, just east of the Asoke intersection, outside Exchange Tower.

Every expat is affected differently. It depends where you live, where you work and what your routines are.

For me personally there has been almost no effect. If anything, my life has been made easier as intersections near where I live are frequently closed and some streets in downtown Bangkok are turned in to car free zones which makes walking around a breeze.





Bangkok shutdown

Stickman file photo from May 15, 2010.

So should you travel to Bangkok at this time?

If you've never visited Bangkok before, I'd say save it for when the city is at its best – and that's certainly not now.

If you have visited before, are familiar with the city and know your way around then why not? Things are not (yet) nearly as bad as we thought they would be. And it's not like 2010 when we had soldiers on the streets and military men posted on Silom and Sukhumvit. With that said, there have been explosions at some protest sites with dozens of people injured and at least one person killed.





MBK

The airports are open and protest leaders have reiterated that they will not be targeted.

Getting to and from hotels and the airports is generally not a problem, although there are some properties that are within protest areas where taxis cannot reach. They can get you close, but not to the door. In a worst case scenario you might have to drag your bags a kilometre or more to get to your hotel.

As far as shopping malls are concerned, all are open. Malls review the situation every day and may close early.

All tourist attractions such as fun parks, temples and other historical sites remain open.

All bar areas remain open.






Bangkok Shutdown

If you do travel to Bangkok at this time and visit any of the protest sites, it would be prudent to refrain from wearing red, the colour of the group which supports the caretaker government. Odds are that even if you did wear red you wouldn't have any problem but it's best not to tempt fate.

I wouldn't wear any of the protest gear. Tourists might like to buy it as a souvenir – but wear it when you get home, not here.

I wouldn't debate any of the issues with Thais you don't know as some are very sensitive about what's going on.

Be aware that the vibe at each of the protest sites is different. In the heart of the farang ghetto, Asoke is easy to get to and is dominated by female office workers. That's a safe bet. Victory Monument can feel like 1960's Mississippi with the speakers on stage ranting like men dressed in white sheets.

Be careful at night.






Bangkok Shutdown

The concern amongst many of us is that if there is no progress towards resolution – and it is very, very hard to see that happening – then sooner or later things could escalate in to something even more serious. There were various troubles this week including protest leaders' homes being attacked and explosives thrown at marching protesters. At times it can feel like one big party, but it can all change in the blink of a moment.






Victory Monument Bangkok

In much of Bangkok you wouldn't know there is a so-called shutdown. Khao San Road, the river, the temples – the best part of the city for visitors – is totally unaffected.

Many expats and visitors report no inconvenience whatsoever.

Some businesses are hurting, especially those whose target market is tourists as well as those located near protest sites.

If the protests continue for some time the inconvenience will likely become greater and more businesses will be affected. The situation may or may not escalate in to something nasty. Some people have suffered major inconvenience and some businesses are hurting, but most expats talk of nothing more than mild inconvenience. Bangkok may not quite be its usual self but neither has it been shut down.





Where was this photo taken?

Bangkok

Last week's photo was taken of the Golden Gate Bridge replica in Terminal 21. There are two prizes each week, a 500 baht voucher to use at Bully's, on Sukhumvit Road between sois 2 and 4 and a 300 baht voucher to use at Sunrise Tacos, Bangkok's original Mexican grill with several branches in Bangkok.

Terms and conditions: The 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 and ONLY the first answer emailed counts! You MUST specify which prize you would prefer and failure to specify a prize will disqualify you from being eligible to claim one.


Sunrise Tacos


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 – Sukhumvit pleasure.

Nearly all the stalls that usually set up along the lower Sukhumvit footpaths were shut yesterday. The pavements were actually a joy to walk along. I say nearly all because there were certain stalls that did open. Yes, the ones that openly sell sex toys were all open last night. You can shut our airports, you can shut our shopping malls, but you will never shut down our vibrating dildos!

Vietnamese priorities.

In Vietnam many years ago I went to the floating hotel disco where me and a friend were asked to leave not because we were smoking dope at the bar but because he was wearing sandals! You could smoke dope anywhere in those days.

Thoughts on Vietnam.

Vietnam is not so confusing. The Vietnamese are a very tactile society. They have no inhibitions about touching a perfect stranger. That's what threw me after being in other countries where physical contact was strenuously avoided. Young men will walk arm in arm but are not gay and they will walk up to you and grab you or touch you and it is not considered rude. You just have to put those attitudes away while you are there and go with it. They might have settled down some as they learned that white folks don't like the touching all that much. The ladies of the evening are much more mercenary. It is all about the money and they detach themselves much more than their Thai sisters. That said I think Saigon is a great change. It invigorates you for the return to Bangkok.

Vietnam, no thanks.

13 weeks in Vietnam is all I could stomach. Saigon District 1 first month, District 7 second month, Da Nang third month. The Vietnamese are busy, noisy people. They smoke everywhere – on the street, in the car, in restaurants and hotel lobbies. While I was in Da Nang, the hotel would be overrun by noisy people from Hanoi. Enough of a reason to not even consider going there. Hoi An was nice, but it's a tourist trap. A few hours and you're done. Too many times I've seen them serve uneaten food from one table to another. They touch the food, the money, and the food again. It's unclean everywhere. I lost my appetite so many times. They eat with their mouths open and make a high-pitched sound when they chew. It's unnerving. I've never been inundated with so much unpleasantness. They are not blatantly rude except when they push their way through the line for no other reason than they don't give a shit about anyone but themselves – at the supermarket, at the airport, at a concert. It all added up to the biggest blast of culture shock I've suffered on this South-East Asian outing. Pragmatic cultures are often like that I'm finding. So where am I now? Sihanoukville. Yes, it's a bit dusty, but the food is better than Thailand, and the people are more genuine and nicer than Thais. It's better all around. Food can be marginally pricey for the uninitiated, but I'm learning. Like Koh Chang there is a wide gap between low cost and high cost accommodations. Difficult to find anything in-between.



A good time can still be had despite the protests.

I just thought I'd say thank you for including in your column what I consider to be a very insightful and informative perspective on the political troubles in Thailand. I am just back from what is my third visit and had a fantastic time despite the troubles. I will be honest and say my concerns were raised on Tuesday when one report I read (not from your column) suggested air traffic control might be targeted. However, on Thursday when I flew home the only hint of trouble was the helpline notifications in the departure lounge. One thing is without doubt though, the protests have badly hit the bar industry this week and a number of bars were closed on Soi Cowboy, mainly those owned by the Arab who quite sensibly appeared to be pooling his staff to run 3 or bars as opposed to the 6 or 7 that he normally has. I had a few girls suggest that I head to Pattaya on Sunday and a couple offered their services as tour guides, albeit not for free, at very agreeable rates, however I resisted the temptation and remained in Bangkok.

The changing Russians.

For the last 2 weeks, others have noted their individual experience with Russian visitors. One thing to note is that as an Aussie expat I have never met another Russian expat. I see heaps of drunk, rude and idiotic Russian tourists but never any who live or work here. I know of two at my condo who work for their Russian-owned real estate company but I never see them anywhere. Not at 7/11 or the overtly Russian themed restaurants. While the number of Russian families has definitely dropped this year the number of your "honeymoon couples" and groups of 2 – 4 guys have surged. I personally know an ex-Moscow policeman who visits every year. He is polite, considerate and a total gentleman and even he is totally disgusted by the antics of his fellow countrymen. I used to see signs at gogo bars that refused entry to those from Arab countries. This last week I saw a beer bar and an outdoor Thai restaurant requesting no Russians. Times are a changing for the better.

A girl nose no limits.

I was sitting at my local having just finished the crossword when 2 young Brits walked in with their 3 week girlfriends. At first I paid no attention until I noticed that the waitress could not understand what the Asian lady wanted to order. My Thai better half helped and ordered two hot teas. I thought how, hard can that be? I soon saw that both girlfriends had flesh colored surgical masking tape over their noses and upper lips and deep bruising under their eyes. It seems as if the ante has been raised. Not only is a trip to Samui expected but also a nose job! Neither girl looked happy being paraded in front of all and sundry. While both guys were happy for me to take a happy snap, both girls grunted a definite no. One guy explained that his lady's nose job had cost 4,200 more because she had a mole on the side of her nose.

ThaiSpy


With the backdrop of ongoing political protests around Bangkok causing many visitors to postpone or cancel their trips, or choose an alternative destination in the country, the bar industry has been very quiet this week. It's the peak of the high season but for bar owners it feels like a rainy night in September. Just as naughty boys are choosing Pattaya over Bangkok, many girls are using the protests as an excuse not to go in to work. They knew there would be fewer guys and they cannot be bothered going to work when they have the option to get online and try their luck on Facebook and the dating sites. The bars may be quiet but the ratio of guys to girls remains about the same as usual so for those who venture out a good time can still be had. The worst hit bar area seems to be Soi Cowboy, the least affected Patpong.

A Nana Plaza girl quoted a customer 5,000 baht for short-time, 2,000 baht above her usual rate. It's Thai economics coming to the fore – increase your price to make up for reduced profits when business is down.

How are bars handling the situation of girls not going to work? It was really bad on Monday night with some gogo bars reporting just a handful of dancers showing up – making a long night for the girls who did make it. Some bars had a little forethought and held meetings at the weekend before the shutdown started. Girls were told they had no reason not to come in as the skytrain and underground would operate as usual. One big name bar implemented a penalty of 1,000 baht per night for girls who failed to show for work.

I notice that progress on what was G Spot in Nana continues at a snail's pace. The new owners had hoped that the new venue, more of a lounge-style bar than a pure gogo venue, would open mid-January. That date has been missed and with high season this year destined to be the worst in memory, the urgency to catch the peak season crowds has gone. With that said, with rents in Nana Plaza at astronomical levels you'd think the new owner would want to start generating some income as he is hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of baht in rent every month.

Have you wondered what happened to the vendors, beggars and watch sellers on Soi Cowboy, the latter of which particularly had become a real nuisance? A deal was struck to keep them off the soi between 8 PM and 1 AM. As soon as the clock chimes one there is a mad rush as they all descend on the soi.



Tuesday was the last day of the open air food court on Sukhumvit soi 7. It has closed and will be leveled as the soi is redeveloped. I haven't eaten in that food court for many years and while I know it will be missed by many, don't count me amongst them. On the few occasions I ate there I can honestly say I did not have a single good meal – that's why you almost never read about it in this column.

Other premises near the mouth of Sukhumvit soi 7 are slowly being dismantled. The New Wave bar remains open at this time. It will move directly across soi to a new location spread over 2 floors.

Bourbon Street is taking reservations for the Superbowl XLVIII which will take place early on the morning of February 3rd. Get in quick because traditionally there have only been a small number of venues that show the Superbowl live including Bourbon Street, Bully's and the main branch of Sunrise Tacos at Sukhumvit soi 12.

It's known that if you should come to the attention of the authorities there is often a way to work things out. With that said, there are exceptions to the rule and there are certain situations where resolution might not be so easy. Anything to do with drugs is difficult. You don't want to get caught up with that for you could face decades behind bars. Gambling is another vice the Thais take very seriously and again, resolution might be difficult to come by if you are caught red-handed. Entering or exiting the country away from a border point is also a big deal, as is smuggling. Get involved in any of these and you're asking for trouble.

One of the city's best known and most popular tailor's stores has changed name. Boss Apparels, below the National Stadium BTS station, has changed name to Mac by Boss Apparels. This is the only tailor's store in Bangkok I recommend. It's not the cheapest in town, but the owner is committed to quality garments and customer service. Whenever I need a new shirt or trousers, it's where I go. Take the skytrain to National Stadium and the store is below the station.



Some years ago a friend was going around a few bars, having a bit of a night out, as you do. He met a girl in a bar and there was a spark between them. He wanted to drag her back to his place but he had a desire to continue his night. He said to her he would try and get back to the bar before the end of the night and he would grab her then. He never did get back to the bar that night and he promptly forgot about her. Some years later he is in a bar and a lady approached him. He didn't recognise her at first but then he realised that she was the one who got away. She went about telling him that her life had turned to shit and it was all my friend's fault! Apparently she had waited for my pal to return but he never did so just as the bar was closing she accepted an offer from another guy and off she went with him. She ended up marrying that guy, moving to his country and they had a baby together. Apparently the guy mistreated her and before long she came running back to Thailand. If he had returned to the bar and taken her then her European nightmare never would have happened. You gotta love these girls' logic!

Time away from Thailand always helps to give me perspective on life in the country. One of the things I found myself thinking about while away from Bangkok recently was how truly dysfunctional so many relationships between Western guys and Thai women in Thailand are. In many of these relationships, one or both partners is abusive. Sometimes even dysfunctional seems not a strong enough word. I have a theory as to why this is – and feel that a major contributing factor is the visa laws. With few exceptions, most of us foreigners resident in Thailand have to extend our visa each year. This can contribute to a feeling of impermanence, and such impermanence can manifest itself in the way people behave and go about their life. As they don't feel like they are permanent residents in Thailand, and as they cannot be sure that they will be able to stay in Thailand forever, they behave accordingly, doing things that perhaps they wouldn't do otherwise. It's the same with the female partner. She knows that the future is not certain and as such she might not necessarily see the future of the relationship as certain. This can cause each partner to be almost ruthless in going about getting what they want from the relationship. It can mean less willingness to compromise, and less consideration of the other person's needs and wants. There's a whole column in this, but I need to consider it all more and let it percolate for a while.


The Strip Gogo Bar Bangkok


Quote of the week comes from a friend, "Never in living memory has the Asoke intersection during evenings hosted so many Thai office girls who wouldn't normally be caught dead near Soi Cowboy after dark."

Reader's story of the week comes from Starky, "We Have No-one To Blame But Ourselves".

A Scottish DJ is knocked off his moped and killed by a reckless taxi driver in Phuket.

A Thai woman is killed execution-style with 3 bullets to the head on Pattaya's Beach Road.

The UK's Telegraph reports that bookings to Thailand are up despite the protests.

Thailand's protests should provoke a harsh rebuke from the US says the Washington Post.


Thai cooking class, Bangkok



There were no questions for Sunbelt Asia Legal this week.







Victory Monument Bangkok

Victory Monument is surrounded by protesters and their tents.


"If we die, you die!", a bar boss said to me this week, most displeased at my refusal to write a flowery report about the protest situation in Bangkok. At the same time only 30% of his girls had turned up for work that night and the bar had the vibe of a tomb. What followed was a diatribe about how if the bar business dies, this site would die. I can't remember the last time I laughed so loud. Covering the political protests has attracted massive reader numbers that far exceed the site's usual traffic numbers. The net effect of covering the protests has been exactly the same as when I covered the red shirt protests in 2010 – traffic has soared. At this time the protests are the only story in town.



Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick


Firehouse