Manic, crowded, filthy and hardly one of the highlights of the country I was told, just what had possessed me to go to Kolkata? India, yes, they said, but why Kolkata? When a well-travelled friend told me that Kolkata was his favourite city in India I took notice. When he said that it was the closest major Indian city to Thailand, and just a 2-hour / 6,000 baht flight away, I sat up and took notice. And when he said that the best time to visit is between early October and late February, I rushed out and bought a ticket!
As excited as I was to be visiting India for the first time, I had a few concerns. There were the countless stories of hordes of limbless beggars crowding either side of a taxi, pressing their stumps against the window in the hope of a few rupees. In any poor country there are always concerns about one's general safety. But more than anything I worried about the dreaded Delhi belly. The last thing I wanted was to fall ill in a third world country.
First impressions are of a modern, spacious airport that wouldn't be out of place in the West. It all changes the moment you step outside where the taxis aren't just old, they're ancient! The journey in to town along pot-holed roles without lane markings passes slums with armies of homeless sleeping on the roadside. Welcome to the third world.
25 kilometres later you reach downtown which must have been impressive in its day but today is full of unoccupied, decaying buildings from the colonial period. The messages are mixed; Kolkata is confusing for the first time visitor.
Park Street is the heart of downtown Kolkata, the one place in the city where you'll find a cluster of Western brand names. Walk a block or two in any direction and that's the last you'll see of Colonel Sanders, Rolex, Vodafone and co.
For the first time visitor, it is the icon of Indian cities that strikes you first, the yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxi. With a design from the middle of last century, they are the most seen vehicle on Kolkata's roads and stand out a mile away for exactly the same reason cabs do in New York – they're bright yellow!
Where the Ambassador is an icon of Indian cities, the hand-pulled rickshaw is an icon of Kolkata. The two-wheeled contraptions are dragged along busy streets where they squeeze between taxis, tuktuks, buses and cows. Passengers run the full gamut from businessmen in suits to mothers picking up their kids after school.
The common way to compare the relative development of countries in the region seems to be to track where they are on their respective development paths. You might say, for example, that Vietnam is 20 years behind Thailand, or Malaysia is a few years ahead. But that doesn't work when talking about a continent-sized country where mere numbers don't tell the whole story. Is it because the total number of India's homeless exceeds that of the entire population of Thailand? Or is it simply that Thailand has never experienced poverty of the sort you see in modern day India. You could make the argument that 2014 India is poorer than Thailand was 100 years ago. Such comparisons aren't valid but the contrasts seen every day in India can be so extreme they make Thailand look egalitarian in comparison.
In what could be a scene from post World War II Europe, Ambassadors cruise streets with tram lines flanked by crumbling buildings. Looking like Soviet-era Eastern Europe after decades of neglect, entire neighbourhoods are in complete disrepair.
The capital of India until 1911, back when it was called Calcutta, the city is full of history. But despite being India's 4th largest city, Kolkata is not what you'd call attraction-rich.
The Victoria Memorial Building is Kolkata's most popular attraction, with many of the other places of interest being buildings of a similar, or older vintage.
Perhaps my favourite attraction was the flower market. Unlike the Victoria Building which hardly felt Indian at all, this local market was full of the colours, sounds, smells and crowds that I've always associated with India. Nestled in between railway tracks, the river, the Howrah Bridge and backing on to slums, it was fun to be the only white face in the area, wandering around, exploring alleyways, taking photos all while being made to feel very welcome by the vendors.
At the flower market a vendor covers her head from the sun. During the hot season Kolkata gets a good few degrees warmer than Bangkok but at this time of year the weather was perfect with overnight lows around 16 or 17 and daily highs under 30.
The Howrah Bridge is the world's busiest with more foot traffic than any other. Photography both of and on the bridge is apparently strictly prohibited, something I was to discover while walking across. Having already banged off a few dozen shots, an indignant policeman approached me to inform me that photography was not allowed, pointing to an old sign mounted way up on the bridge, small, obscurely placed and impossible to see unless you were looking for it.
The Howrah Station on the west bank of the river, just a couple of minutes walk from the Howrah Bridge, is Kolkata's main railway station. The volume of people on foot and the sheer volume of traffic is manic. But that's nothing when compared to the smell – think the worst public toilet you've ever had the misfortune to use – which is overwhelming. With so many homeless and such a volume of people, parts of the city smell like a toilet…because people use them as a toilet. I lost count of the number of people I saw going about their business in full view of all.
At the Babu Ghat, alongside Eden Gardens, India's largest cricket stadium, it's time to bathe. I imagine they are homeless, washing in the only place available to them. I spend time by the river, wondering if my presence is unwelcome, but no-one bats an eye lid. As I walk back up towards the stadium, many of the men are getting changed. Minutes earlier they were in rags, but now they are in office attire – a crisp white shirt, black trousers and a tie. Homeless they are not, but middle-class office workers. They bathe in the river not because they have nowhere else to, but because of the importance of the river to them and their religion.
The poverty in Kolkata is desperate and after an hour of banging off enough photos of the homeless to fill a book, I start to feel awkward. Photographing the homeless in India starts to feel like seedy voyeurism.
The abject poverty in Kolkata is at a level I have never before seen. There are city-sized slums that extend as far as the eye can see and beyond, where desperate eyes stare at you. No wonder guidebooks encourage volunteer work. Thai beggars are invisible to me – no-one need go hungry in Thailand. In Kolkata it's at a whole different level and you can't help but put your hand in your pocket. Soon I'm all out of 10 rupee notes, and lament the difficulty getting larger notes broken.
Early morning, a kindly lady walks along a line of homeless, places a small chapatti in to each of their hands and spoons some dal. It's devoured immediately.
Familiar with the routine, dogs wait for the kindly lady to leave before approaching the homeless and a chance to lick their fingers and get a few calories of sustenance.
It's hard to know what to make of the homeless. Some are in rags and filthy, yet many retain a certain dignity and refuse to put out their hand, even when they see you've been passing out 10 rupee notes to their friends.
Some of the homeless appear to have lost their mind and indulge in an animated conversation with themselves. "I am a priest", he said, over and over. "100 rupees for me. I am a priest, I am a priest." Some say religion is about hope, and in India that is all many people have; it's easy to see why so many Indians are religious and many religions started in India.
With homeless sleeping throughout the city, in slum communities, in doorways, inside derelict buildings and armies crammed up against each other like sardines below underpasses, there has to be some infrastructure in place to support them. Hand pumps can be found throughout the city giving the homeless access to water. In the main commercial district where crumbling buildings with very English names mirror the crumbling British Empire, the homeless wash themselves in small, tiled bays as businessmen resplendent in custom tailored suits walk past. The contrasts on Kolkata's streets are far beyond anything commonly seen in Thailand.
There's no other way to describe it, driving standards in Kolkata are appalling! Drivers weave all over the road and push their way in to the smallest gap. They beep their horn incessantly, do not yield to pedestrians and not once did I see an indicator used. And on my first morning in Kolkata, the cab I was in crashed!
The taxi was turning left and attempted a crazy manoevure, trying to squeeze in between another car turning left and the curb. The other car, driven by a well-to-do looking Sikh, was side-swiped by the cab. I guess each vehicle was doing about 30 km/h and both came to a stop. There were scrapes along the side of each vehicle, nothing structural. The Sikh drove on about 20 metres from the corner and the taxi pulled up alongside him where the cab driver wound down the passenger side window and let loose with a tirade of abuse, and then just drove off! No-one got out to inspect the damage. Names weren't traded. Licence plates weren't taken and the insurance company wasn't called!
If the driving gets too much – and it really is bad – you can always take the tram.
Like transplants out of the former East Germany, Kolkata's trams look more like armoured vehicles than public transport. They crawl along at a snail's pace which makes for a relaxing way to see the city when your legs are screaming for a rest.
In interactions many Indians subtly wobble their head left and right as if drawing a figure 8 on its side. Just like the Thai wai, head wobbling has many different meanings. As best as I can work out, the meaning ranges from neutral – such as acknowledgment, to positive. In some cases the wobble has the same meaning as a smile, a real smile. I wonder whether foreigners living in India inadvertently adopt head wobbling.
Foreign visitors have little interaction with Indian females and it's quite possible you might not say a single word to an Indian female your whole time in the country. From your first human contact in country with Immigration officers to hotel reception staff to taxi drivers to waiters to guides and shop attendants, 99% are men.
In the grounds of the Victoria Memorial Building, many young Indian couples were getting in to it, some to such an extent that they really ought to have been behind the tree and not beside it.
When you do see women working it's often in roles you'd typically expect men to perform. Here, women in colourful saris smash rocks by hand to make up the base for a road widening project.
Even in the wet markets, most of the vendors are men. The market doubles as an abattoir where chickens, goats and other beasts are slaughtered right in the aisles. There are pools of blood and a network of reservoir channels drain it away. Barbaric perhaps, but it's the freshest meat you could hope to buy – unless you have the stomach to do it yourself.
One US dollar gets more than 60 rupees making Kolkata an inexpensive destination. Taxi rides start at 25 rupees which includes the first two kilometres. A meal on the street runs 20 – 30 rupees, often less. A very good restaurant meal runs the equivalent of a few dollars. Hotel rooms, however, are much more expensive than in Thailand.
There is the odd instance of dual pricing for tourists, but it is not done in secret like it is in Thailand where the price for foreigners is posted in English and the price for locals in the Thai script. Not once did I feel I was charged a higher price by vendors because of the colour of my skin. If anything I was treated better, frequently offered free snacks and given extra orange juice from the orange juice stand man. Vendors make you feel like they are honoured that you, one of the few foreigners visiting the city, is giving them business – and show their appreciation.
India is cricket crazy and it was ironic to be in India – the current cricket world champions – on the day that they played my homeland in a match which my country, relative minnows in world cricket, won. That day I enjoyed good-natured banter with locals about the match. If you like cricket and enjoy talking about it, the Indians will really warm to you. And if you can actually play cricket and are keen to join them in a game on the streets, you're in for a great time!
I watched the final hour of the match between New Zealand and India on TV and followed the live commentary on Cricinfo.com, the world's biggest cricket website. What was strange was that the online commentary was about 30 minutes behind the TV. The TV reported that New Zealand had won while the Cricinfo website talked of a nail-biting finish in a match that could go either way. The internet connection was fast but there was a strange lag in the data from some websites, like you're reading yesterday's news today. Emails sent to family arrived in a different order to what they were sent. How can it be explained?! Are some websites monitored in India, perhaps cached locally before they are served to local users?
I cannot say enough about the friendliness and hospitality of the locals. People are super friendly and you are often approached in the street by people keen to chat, to learn about you, to find out where you are from and how you feel about their city. The level of English means conversation is not limited to trading pleasantries.
But it's much more than their mere command of the language that makes the Indians fun to chat with, it's the way they embrace concepts such as agreeing to disagree, something completely lost on Thais who often sulk if someone doesn't agree with them. And no, in the case of strangers approaching you in the street there was not a hint of a scam or anything untoward, just friendly people being friendly.
Walking around with a camera slung over each shoulder I was often stopped and asked to take people's photos. Indians love to have their photos taken. They'd be delighted to see themselves on the camera's screen, like a child at Christmas. A quick chit chat and they'd be off with a smile on their face and happy for the experience.
The friendliness, engaging manner, hospitality and goodwill to strangers of the Indian people exceeded my expectations. They are true gentlemen – and that is not being sexist, for almost all of one's interaction is with men.
Part of the appeal about India is the mystique. Wherever you go you're surrounded by things you've never seen before and that you don't understand, all of which adds to the allure.
The food in India is terrific. I'll stick my neck out and say that the food in Kolkata might be about the best I've had anywhere, although my preference for curry over chilli and vegetables over meat is obviously a factor.
Western food can be found – and most (Indian) restaurants also serve Chinese, but that aside, there's nothing like the variety of cuisine you find in Bangkok. Such ethnic eateries do exist in Kolkata, but I never did see, say, an Italian or a French restaurant.
But Kolkata is not without its issues. The city is filthy in parts and there are piles of rubbish everywhere. That attracts rodents and those rodents in turn attract crows. Not cows, as I was expecting – I didn't see one, by the way – but crows.
The Chinese are known for spitting, but I was shocked to see that spitting seems to be a populous country thing. Indians are big spitters and it's unbecoming to see businessmen spit in the street.
The bureaucracy can get painful, the officiousness of the authorities a hangover from the colonial past. Upon entering the country, an Immigration officer thoroughly inspects the banknotes that the visa is paid for with – apparently counterfeit currency is a big problem in India – and then records the serial number of each and every banknote.
Flying out of India is a test of your patience. Queuing in the departure lounge to board the plane, your boarding pass is checked by two separate airline representatives while you stand in the queue, before it is scanned at the computer by a third person. Next a policeman checks your boarding pass and passport before you get on the air bridge proper. After that another representative of the airline tears off the butt of the boarding pass and before you get on the plane, a 6th – yes sixth person, another airline representative, checks your boarding pass. If you were to include entering the airport, the compulsory scan of your luggage before check-in, check in itself, being stamped out at Immigration and passing through Security Control, *at least* 11 different people check your passport and / or boarding pass from arriving at the airport to getting on the plane. I'm all for security in the interests of improved safety, but this was bureaucracy out of control.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Kolkata and will definitely return, but with that said, it's not a place I'd unreservedly recommend. It's safe, the food is great and there are great photo opportunities – which ticks all the boxes for me personally. Like so much of Asia life is on the ground and it's a city best explored on foot. That means a lot of walking. Taxis may be ridiculously cheap, but it's what's between the attractions that is often more interesting than the attractions themselves.
I didn't see a single limbless beggar, I ate on the street without any issues and no-one offered to make me a suit.
Kolkata is a place you feel, where you soak up the vibe on long walks punctuated by impromptu conversations with locals and pit stops in coffee shops and teahouses with the same menu today as when the British were still in charge. Kolkata is fascinating without being one of those places you just have to visit. But more than anything, it has whet my appetite to explore India further. I'm hankering to go back!
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of Phyathai Road and the bridge over the Saen Saeb Canal. With this week's photo I am looking for a specific location, not a general location.
The general location is Patpong…you need to tell me the rest! 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.
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 – Changing girls, changing customers.
While the fact that you were basically defending, even encouraging, the higher prices charged by working girls in Bangkok may not endear you to many of your more stingy readers, I think your comments were spot on. As you correctly pointed out, a 5,000 – 6,000 fee for a pretty girl to spend a night with you is still exceptionally cheap compared to what you pay in any other major city in the world – Angeles City and Phnom Penh are not major cities. It's basic economics of supply and demand, and right now demand may be exceeding supply, which puts the girls in charge. There are major changes in the client base. Rather than a mix of budget sex tourists and retirees on modest pensions, you now see more young professional expats in Bangkok on nice salary packages with lots of discretionary income. And there are now many Japanese and Koreans who are used to spending huge sums of money in hostess bars / karaoke joints back home. Heck, even 12,000 – 15,000 baht long time is chump change for these guys. Years ago, most Thai bar girls had little knowledge of the world outside Thailand and knew nothing of designer clothes, purses, perfume. Now, with the Internet and all the upscale malls like Emporium, Paragon, Central etc., these girls want nice things. In the past they would be happy if you bought them some cheap clothes or fake cosmetics.
Underpriced Thai bargirls.
The cost of true or deluded romance is vastly under-priced in Thailand. A quick trawl through what's on offer in the Asian escort scene in UK and Ireland demonstrates the vast gulf on pay scales of Asian ladies separated by an 11-hour flight. 30 minutes in-call (at her place) 6,000 baht. 60 minute in-call 10,000 baht. 60 minute out-call (3 star plus hotel only acceptable) 12,500 baht. 2 hours in-call 18,000 baht, out-call 23,000 baht and so on in similar increments, finishing at overnight for 50,000 – 55,000 baht. It should be noted the low prices attract the low-lifes of the UK and the EU. I have had some experience of this group, better described as men with the intelligence and maturity of a 14-year old still living in the schoolyard and have only abuse and violence to anything that might remind them of their bottom of the pile status. These men have a similar view as the Taliban to the female gender slowly degrade any good standing farangs may have had with Thais who must be appalled with their antics. For this reason alone I would hope parity for the working girls of Thailand comes soon. I heard a guy on route to Bangkok last year convincing his companions for one hundred quid you can rent a bird all week and they're up for anything! The sooner these clowns are priced out of the market, the better!
On basic economics.
Back in the glory days, people 'learned' about the nightlife in Thailand from either being based there militarily, being forced to work there (remember, nobody knew how nice it was) or some guy who knew told some other guy he knew. Out of telling 20 guys, maybe one went for a look. Numbers were low. With the internet and budget airlines, anyone with a keyboard is braying about the Thai paradise where women will service for $30. We have dodgy sensationalistic press making much of the place on television. It has impacted the consciousness of the entire West, and men want a piece of the action. So with planes doing holding patterns filled with horny sex tourists, is it any wonder the economics have adjusted from the good old days?
The good old days.
After the Asian crash of 1997 the baht went from 25 to 50 to the USD but the prices for girls stayed the same for a long time. I took a nice girl from a Patpong bar and after a good night out I paid her 2,000 baht in the morning. Feeling generous because everything was now half price I gave her a 500 baht tip. She said that's ok and gave me back the 500 baht saying 2,000 baht was enough. Those were the days!
The new places to shop.
Eastern Europe is now coming into the fray and that's where I am headed this summer. Fares to Poland are a 1/4 of a Thai flight, the gals are friendly and don't have much spending power so are very friendly for a farang buddy to better themselves. So long as you're presentable and not a slob there's lots of scope with these stunning gals. Young Russian gals are also very friendly and that's also a good option as the country opens up for tourists. I am amazed how friendly young Russian tourist gals in London are, never standoffish or aloof even though they are drop dead gorgeous. They're easy to bonk too after a drink or 2. So it's Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Russia on the menu.
Bangkok hotel pricing explained.
Isn't it wonderful how guys who probably have never managed a hotel in their lives know perfectly well how to handle pricing for Bangkok hotels during this crisis and, just because the hotel managers may (or may not be) Thai, the assumption is that they are complete idiots for failing to reduce prices. I happen to know a number of managers and owners of some of the top hotels in Bangkok, and have asked them about their pricing strategy during this crisis. They feel that dropping prices would be counterproductive. A significant portion of their business is from businessmen who will come regardless of the price. If prices are dropped the businessman will still come, but would pay less. So the hotel loses. The people that are cancelling are primarily from countries such as China and Hong Kong, who are cancelling for fears of personal safety. Price is not the issue. No-one who is afraid to come to Bangkok will now say "Oh, I can save 1000 baht / night, the hell with the protests!" There is a keen lack of respect for Thai businessmen among certain readers. I suspect this is because the only Thais they know are from the bar scene. There are Thai businessmen who are graduates of the top business schools in the world, who have taken more business classes than many readers have had hot breakfasts, and are very happy in their Mercedes driving to their second home in Hua Hin.
Thai Airways no longer the first choice.
I couldn't agree more with your comments about the Thai Airways website. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to make a booking or access information and there has been a problem. When those problems also extend to accessing their frequent flyer programme used by their most important customers you have to wonder how the company stays in business. If any other company ran their website as Thai do they wouldn't last long. They must lose a massive amount of business. And as a perfect indicator of how unappealing the airline is, I am flying to Dubai this week. Thai has one daily flight and Emirates six, with two using the double-decker A380. If that isn't a sign of people preferring to use another airline if they have a choice, I don't know what is.
Why airline websites crash.
I read your comment about the Thai Airways website crashing when going to make a payment. I had this problem in October last year as I desperately needed a flight home. I went to a travel agent and explained the problem. She said that it is at the stage when payment is being made if a seat is unavailable then that is what will happen, as it is against the law to take payment for a seat if one is not available. I thought what a load of rubbish. She logged into the Thai Airways site for me and showed me that the flight was fully booked which it was! As we were speaking a light flashed on her screen indicating that a seat had just become available and asked if I would like it – 34,800 baht one way to Brisbane. I had little alternative so I booked it. So the problem seems to be that the crashing occurs when the Thai flight is fully booked. I wouldn't have believed it myself except that I saw this myself!
Girl of the week
On, 31, from Buriram, gogo dancer, The Strip, Patpong soi 2.
On is not typical of many gogo bar dancers and used to be a school teacher.
When barfined, guys typically take her not just for one day, but for many.
She is friendly, sweet and while not the most attractive lady in the bar,
she knows how to treat a man and is said to be very easy to fall for….
With this past Friday a public holiday bar owners were hoping that Thursday night would be a good one. It wasn't to be and this past Thursday was quieter than a stormy night in the middle of the monsoon season. Trade in the bars remains in the doldrums as visitors are still avoiding Bangkok because of the ongoing political protests.
With fewer visitors, some gogo bars are opening later than usual. Where some bars used to have a complement of dancers on stage as early as 7:00 PM, it's just not worth their while opening at that hour at this time. Girls in the affected bars are happy because it means they can go in an hour later, which probably means an extra hour's sleep!
Popular bar manager Captain Hornbag returns to Bangkok this coming week and will take over management duties at Playskool. The owners felt a full-time manager is needed to push Playskool to the next level. They did a great job on the refit, they have some lovely ladies and now they've gone after an experienced manager. Captain Hornbag probably has the best manner with the girls of any bar manager I have seen and his appointment can only be a good thing. Old friends are encouraged to pop by and welcome him back to Bangkok after his stint across the border.
The old Big Mango Bar will reopen in the next week as M Bar, a sister bar of The M Pub at the Ascott Hotel in Sathorn Road. It will be operated by the same owner of The Pintsman in Silom, formerly the Duke of Wellington. Major renovations have taken place and upstairs is now open with windows and natural light. That's how it should have been all along and not the dark den it was. It's not a girlie bar so there will be no hookers – at least none working or based on the premises and no drink quotas. That means customers won't be hassled for drinks. The new owners promise good food, live sport on TV and free pool.
Angelwitch 2 on the ground floor opened a few months back with good music, interesting shows and, it has to be said, some of the least attractive girls Nana Plaza has ever seen! At last that situation has been rectified and the dance floor features some hot coyote dancers from the same agency which supplies Wild Things, on Nana's top floor.
For visitors to Bangkok staying on Sukhumvit Road, The Strip in Patpong soi 2 still has the special deal to entice you across town. That makes it sound like quite a trek when in fact it's not. From Nana to Patpong by Cowboy is only a few kilometres, and usually not more than 15 minutes or so in a cab. The deal is buy one drink and your next 2 drinks are free. This special is available to visitors to Bangkok who can show they are currently staying at a hotel room on Sukhumvit Road – more details can be found on the main page of The Strip's website.
Dollhouse in Soi Cowboy will have its second party of the month on Tuesday of next week when popular Welshman Marc hits the half century. Marc's 50th birthday extravaganza will take place on Tuesday, February 25th, and he promises licentious debauchery at its best. All welcome!
If you want to spice up your sex life in Bangkok, you could always try a ladyboy. If however that sounds like a bridge too far, you could head to Patpong and check out Bar Bar, Patpong's fetish house. And what better time to check it out than next week when it celebrates its 8th anniversary on February 27th and 28th. Bar Bar is on Patpong soi 2, right next door to The Strip.
The Nana Group is stepping up efforts to offload the 3-shophouse bar on the right-hand side of the top floor of the plaza that was previously known as Lone Star and before that, Carnival. Billboard aside, girly bars on Nana's top floor haven't done well for some time which makes me think that anyone looking to get in to that spot might want to try something different, perhaps another ladyboy bar – they are amongst the most successful bars in the plaza. The bar closed about 6 months ago and has been gutted so a new owner can walk in and build a new venue from scratch. If interested, email : [email protected]
AEON ATMs have been the choice of expats and retirees as they were the only bank in Thailand which didn't charge a fee for withdrawals made from foreign bank accounts. This is no longer the case. AEON has joined the ranks of other banks and its ATM machines now charge 150 baht per withdrawal from a foreign account. And if you thought you could minimise money changing fees by using traveller's cheques, be quick because from March 1st the standard fee for cashing travellers cheques will jump 5 times from the current 30 baht fee for each cheque plus 3 baht stamp duty, to 150 baht per traveller's cheque plus stamp duty. That means *each* traveller's cheque will cost a total of 153 baht to cash. If you're changing money in Thailand and want to get the best rates possible, bring wads of cash and change it at one of the private currency exchangers. They offer the best rates and there are no fees. Many expats swear by Vasu at the mouth of Sukhumvit soi 7/1, directly opposite the small branch of Subway sandwiches, and underneath the Nana skytrain station. And remember that if you are changing US dollars, you get a better rate for 50s and 100s.
There is not necessarily a correct way to spell Thai words in English; writing a word from one language in to the script of another language which uses a different character set is called transliteration and the word tends to be written phonetically – there is no right and no wrong. There are, however, many Thai words that have a commonly accepted spelling when written in English. One such word is that for the currency of Thailand, which is typically spelled b-a-h-t. But it might just be the most mis-spelled word too, often written in English as "bath", which usually elicits a laugh.
Popular readers' submissions writer, Mega, has just published a new book under the pen name of Mark Jones. "Revenge Season" is the sequel to his acclaimed "Fear and Loathing in Pattaya" and is available now at Amazon.com.
Why do so many foreigners in Thailand have their finger in so many pies? No, I don't mean that sort of pie, I mean different types of businesses. It's something that seems more prevalent today with many foreigners trying their hand at a range of businesses, often types of business they have no experience nor expertise in. Without experience or expertise, the business can take up so much time, effort and money that it puts pressure on their primary business. Entrepreneurship is a great thing, but Thailand is not the easiest country for foreigners to do business in, especially those who have their fingers in a lot of different pies. There are a myriad of regulations and let's not forget that the locals are adept at replicating successful businesses. Why do people do it? It seems to me some are desperate to create multiple income streams when at the end of the day you really don't need that much money to have a nice life here. By all means try your hand at running a business in Thailand, but unless you've got a lot of time on your hands, a lot of patience, running multiple businesses across different industries in a country where you speak but a few words of the language and where the rules and regulations aren't always clear may be wishful thinking.
Thais love to take day trips and will often invite foreign friends to join them. However, I personally always decline such invitations. I find that what the Thais enjoy doing on a day out and what many foreigners enjoy – and certainly what I enjoy – are often two very different things. The Thai idea of a good time is often about being together with extended family, lots of eating, and spectating rather than participating. So you spend all day going to some interesting place, stop along the way multiple times to eat, and when you finally reach your destination, you eat again. There you will take photos and then turn around and go home. It's the togetherness of being with family and the comfort of eating together which many crave. Contrast that with foreigners who often actually what to do something like swim at the beach or walk in the mountains or whatever. Even after all of these years, I find the way many Thais like to enjoy a day out is very different to the way I like to enjoy it.
There is much I'd like to say in this column but I choose not to. It's not that I can't say it – I could write whatever I want – but there would be consequences if certain things were said. A not infrequent criticism from readers is that I don't go far enough on some issues, and that I sometimes stop short of making the sort of statements that some would like to see. The latest world press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders ranks Thailand at a lowly #130 is hopefully an indicator of why I deliberately self-censor.
Quote of the week comes from Larry who owned Phuket's Rock Hard A Gogo, "Never put a whore in charge of a whore bar!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Pan, "Why Do Men Bareback With Thai Prostitutes?"
The Thai police get bad raps after an allegedly drunk police officer answers the phone
and doesn't take a call seriously.
Visa runners get stranded at the border after their driver nicks all their money and does a runner himself!
Time Magazine says that Thailand is not the land of smiles, regardless of what guidebooks may say.
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: I'm looking at importing a protein supplement into Thailand. What is the process for getting a supplement approved and then to sell it via a website here? What kind of company is required?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: First you will need to set up a Thai Limited Company with the majority of shares owned by Thai partners. If you are American you can set up an Amity Treaty company which would allow you to have majority ownership; Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors has extensive experience in setting up both kinds of companies and can assist you in this process.
Once the company is set up you will need a few different licenses. You will need an import / export card to import your products and an FDA certificate for each different kind of product you plan on selling. This is a fairly complicated procedure and can take some time to accomplish. Again, Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors has extensive experience in obtaining FDA approval so we are happy to work with you on this.
Finally, you will need an e-commerce license to operate this kind of website. This is fairly straightforward and, like the FDA approval would be done after the company is set up.
With 4 Thai employees and 2 million baht in registered capital, (1 million if married to a Thai national and 3 million if setting up an Amity company), you will be able to obtain one work permit through your company.
Please contact Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors for a free initial consultation to discuss your options and go over the process.
It feels like interest in the Bangkok Shutdown is fading with crowd numbers dwindling amid growing resentment from the general public over the disruption to their lives and livelihoods. It all started off with a hiss and a roar, impressive numbers and a real intensity at the protest sites. But now, a little over a month since it all kicked off, the intensity has gone. Protester fatigue has set in as the extremist element tries desperately to maintain interest amongst the masses. While the grenade attacks and gun battle at Lak Si are still fresh in our minds, downtown Bangkok feels noticeably less tense. I for one had concerns that things would escalate and that they would be a lot worse than they have. I'm now of the opinion that so long as you're prepared for the odd minor inconvenience, and don't get too upset at the unexpected, there's no real reason to put off travel to Bangkok. Avoid the protest areas – I'd recommend booking a hotel at least a few hundred metres away from any protest site – and you should be fine. I am hopeful that the worst is behind us.
Your Bangkok commentator,