I sought excitement, adventure and a change from a mundane lifestyle so I moved to Thailand thinking I would stay a year or two. One year became two, soon it was three and before long I had lost track of how many years it had been. My stay in Thailand has traversed 3 decades, the journey rather longer than I had planned. After so many years in Thailand you'd think I'd consider it home. You'd think I would, but I don't – and I'm not sure I ever did. Why have I never considered Thailand home?
I arrived in Bangkok, signed a one-year condo lease and secured a job within a few days. The country may have been in the doldrums economically but my future looked bright.
I lived in a modestly furnished studio condo with a few plants, posters, a small stereo and a TV. No computer, a very limited selection of international TV channels, no Internet and not even a mobile phone doesn't sound like a fun existence, but I was happy.
After 5 months I relented and dropped a month's salary on a low-spec desktop computer. Using the slow, shared connections in internet cafes was something I could no longer handle and I figured I would be around for another 18 months so buying a computer made sense. A net connection would provide another way to spend evenings, and I thought it might be fun to create a small website about my life in Bangkok.
The condo may have been Spartan but I had all I needed.
When I passed the two-year mark the condo was better decorated and felt more cozy. I had a girlfriend. A work permit and accompanying visa should have made me feel settled, but Bangkok still didn't feel like home.
The condo was a modest studio, comfortable if a little on the small side. I spent plenty of time there. Work was a Monday to Friday thing and weekends were all mine. I ate Thai food most meals and Western food was a once or twice a week treat. Saturday was my night out. Weeknights would be spent in the condo and I would often catch a movie on Sunday. My lifestyle was very much that of the Bangkok middle-class.
The real estate market was depressed and in 2001 a friend of a friend bought a 100-square-metre apartment in a Sathorn high-rise with views across the city for 2,000,000 baht, less than $50,000 at the time. Said unit would be worth about 5 times that today. I never considered buying because I wasn't sure I would stay much longer. I loved living in Bangkok, but I had this unshakeable feeling that Bangkok and I wouldn't be forever.
It's not like 2 million baht was a great amount of money and I had a good job. Getting a loan would have been easy. But I just could not rationalise such a purchase when I was never sure if I'd stay more than another year. Renting is so easy and so affordable in Bangkok.
And then there's that old chestnut old Asia hands love to repeat. "Never bring in, invest or keep more in Thailand than you're prepared to lose or walk away from." It's an oldie but a goodie and one I've always lived by. As someone who errs very much on the side of caution, I've never kept much in the country.
Some argue those who refrain from entering the real estate market never really commit to the place. I don't buy that. I've always thought home is less about property and what you own, more about family, people and the peace of mind that comes with feeling safe and secure. To me, that's what home is all about.
I would go on to get married, move to a bigger and better condo and buy a car. Purchasing a vehicle would be the largest financial commitment I would make in Thailand.
So there I was with a good job, a bad wife, a decent condo and a new car. Weekends were spent exploring the country with frequent trips to in-laws who made every effort to make me feel like part of the clan. I ate Thai food most of the time, watched the local news religiously and spoke Thai as often as not. I keenly followed the comings and goings in the country far beyond the gossip most Thais seem more concerned about. I was informed on the political situation – and probably had a better idea of what was going on in Thailand than many Thais did. But still I didn't feel like Thailand was home!
Raising this with friends and those who had been in-country longer than I had, some felt that the feeling of uncertainty was related to the visa situation and the way that every year we have to go to Immigration and ask for permission to stay another year. There was, they argued, always a chance – as small as it may be – that the next time you went to Immigration, or the next time you left the country, that your request to extend your visa or your effort to re-enter the country may be denied. Could it be that I never felt like Thailand was home because we never get more than a year's permission to stay? Nah, I don't think that was it. Genuine applicants seldom have visa problems.
There was something lingering in the back of my mind that made me feel that as long as I stayed in Thailand, irrespective of my lifestyle, whatever I may achieve and whoever I rubbed shoulders with, that Thailand would never be home.
The more I thought about it, the more it came back to one thing. Acceptance, or rather the lack of acceptance. It's the way so few foreigners are ever truly accepted as an equal member of Thai society, and critically, as being equal to Thais.
The place of foreigners in Thailand is just that, as foreigners. Foreigners will never be Thai. Foreigners will always be outsiders. The rare few who gain Thai citizenship, and the relatively small number who have PR (permanent residency) status, are still very much looked at as outsiders, as non-Thais.
Seemingly irrespective of language skills, of all the good deeds one may do, of exceptional commercial success or even devotion to Buddhism, I don't think foreigners are ever truly accepted in this country. Foreigners are outsiders – and how can someone who is forever looked at as an outsider truly call a place home?
When I look back at my time in this country, I realise that I long ago gave up any idea of really assimilating, or of ever being accepted. I abandoned any hope of being accepted and along with it any chance of calling Thailand home.
Accepting that you will forever be an outsider isn't great for your attitude. It can make you feel like you're on the fringe of society, like you're a second-class citizen. Knowing you will always be an outsider holds you back and you never really commit as you may have otherwise. You refrain from investing in the country and don't fully commit to relationships. You can develop a callous attitude knowing that if things don't work out – anything – you can always just leave. The sad part is that this means the Thais miss out too.
I used to always think it would be fun to have Thai friends, to speak Thai with them, to watch and enjoy Thai TV and movies and embrace all that is Thai. Speaking Thai is the only claim I can make. Thai TV doesn't interest me and I only catch the occasional Thai movie. I have zero Thai friends and abhor the idea of being the token farang who is wheeled out and told to speak so all their friends can squeal with joy when they realise that it speaks Thai. No, thanks! When I eventually acknowledged that I will only be accepted to a certain point, I started to lose interest in Thai ways.
It was, in retrospect, something of a relief, making me consider my roots, my upbringing and the environment I grew up in. I would come to better understand my homeland and appreciate many things I had long taken for granted and feel a great amount of pride in my country and what it stands for.
It's a great shame that so many foreigners who have done so much for the country – been pillars of industry, loyal servants of the education sector and even those who have long-term relationships with a Thai partner, built a home, had Thai children and perhaps even look after the extended Thai family of their spouse – aren't truly accepted.
Foreigners in Thailand can be liked, respected and even admired…but how many foreigners – particularly Caucasians – are ever genuinely accepted? Can the farang ever be more than an expat, by definition a foreigner here temporarily?
Or is this simply the nature of migration? Is it any different for, say, a Thai moving to Farangland?
Foreigners in Farangland may face discrimination and the odd snide comment but generally if they speak the local language and make an effort to assimilate they are accepted. Perhaps that's the problem farangs face in Thailand? Today many foreigners speak Thai but how many actually speak it well? And how many foreigners really assimilate? Most of us lead a very farang lifestyle in Thailand, cherry-picking from the local culture while living a lifestyle not indifferent to that we would lead at home.
Home isn't just where you feel safe and secure, surely it's where you're not just accepted, but accepted for who you are and for being yourself. Are you accepted in Thailand, farang?
For me, home is home and Thailand isn't.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken from the pedestrian bridge on busy Petchaburi Road, very close to Platinum Mall, facing east.
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 legend, G.
I only knew G in 2012 and 2013 and have not seen him since. Your article hit the nail on the head in so many ways, but the most glaring way was the very dichotomy of G. A few times I spent time with him, he was the crazy out of control bully who would put fear in the devil. Then other times, he was fun, laid back, gentle and calm / friendly. I had been hanging out in the Bangkok gogo scene with some other bar owners for about a year before ever meeting G. I had heard all of the stories but had not met him. The stories came from everyone, and the claims of his insanity were numerous. After hearing these things from everyone for a period of time, I was intimidated by the man even before meeting him. Finally, one night I was sitting in Spanky's with the owner having a laugh when in comes this brash guy with an entourage emerging through the crowd like the running of the bulls. The owner of Spanky's is smiling as the approaching man comes forward towards us and instead of the normal handshake, the man throws a punch at the wall above our heads and puts his fist right through the Plexiglas window covering the fire alarm, smashing it to pieces. I was stunned! Glass falls all over us. The Spanky's boss laughingly says, Do you know G? And that is when and how I met the legend, G.
G, the untold stories.
There are a couple of stories about G you forgot, both of which are widely known. These will reinforce your opinion of him as a bully. Remember when the owner of Pretty Lady upset G for some, probably imaginary, reason and G ordered one of his managers to sit in the outside bar and throw beer glasses through the open window in to the gogo bar? I wondered at the time if G had asked another of his managers who just happens to be a friend of yours what would his reaction have been. The second story, which I can't believe you forgot, was Songkran, 2013, when G shut Nana Plaza! Do you remember he ordered all his staff to the ground floor with huge water guns to prevent anyone who wanted to from entering the plaza! And it wasn't just water that was used. People were physically discouraged from passing and many were angry and upset.
G and Nana.
What an accurate article about G. Yes, a bully surrounded by yes men, the type who make everything about the nightlife scene in Bangkok so unpleasant with their dealings. It is very sad that he passed away at such a young age leaving behind his wife and young child but whilst he was personally involved in the bar scene in Nana Plaza and Nana Liquid, he bought friends with the cash he flashed, cash embezzled from innocent naive people and pensioners. Imagine if it were your parents who had been conned out of their pensions and savings? Nana certainly lost a lot of customers when he became involved in the bars, his attitude and swagger made socialising in Nana an unpleasant experience. You never knew when something would kick off due to G's unbalanced behaviour. Yes, everyone surrounding him was happy whilst he was flashing the cash but cross him and he would get his lieutenants to intimidate, harass and threaten you and probably give you a kicking. His continuous mouthing off in his bars made drinking in them a painful experience and on one occasion in Angelwitch I witnessed people walking out as they couldn't stand his arrogance and mouthing off. It remains to be seen what will happen to the bars in Nana now that G has gone. Nana has already lost a lot of customers and it will be hard to get them back. I doubt we will ever see the packed bars nightly like they were in the late 1990s. Investors may well cut their losses and disappear from the bar scene, move on to other countries or just retire from the business altogether. Only the Thai-run bars might remain. It is my and many others' opinions that since G and his mob got involved in the Bangkok bar scene things deteriorated to an all time low. Let's hope it does rejuvenate itself but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Dear bar bosses.
Dear Bangkok red-light bar owners, I used to have a great time in your places. Many's the night I would while away the time spending money in your establishments and barfining the occasional girl, or even two. Then you got greedy. Your bars are no longer good value for money; you've hiked your drink prices so much that I just drink in the British and Irish pubs now. You've hiked your barfines so high that I pick up only freelancers now. Your girls are no longer sweet and pretty; they are fat, ugly, mercenary, tattooed elephants who care only about making you finish in five minutes so they can ditch you right away. I walk in to your places and find myself dropping 1,000 or 2,000 baht in a short while and not having any fun. You have become the enemy, and I have no sympathy for your pathetic whinings about how bad business is. It's your own fault, and I hope you go out of business. It will serve you right and will make my day as I point and laugh at you with glee.
Every time you write about how things have changed it makes me glad my trips took place during a different time. As I age, I wish that I had gotten to spend more time there on each of my trips. My jet lag was so bad, and I burned the candle at both ends in such a way that I was in horrible shape while I was there, and a hot mess getting back on the plane to leave. I never felt very energetic while I was there. I have fun memories, of course, but it would have been so much more fulfilling to have been able to spend a couple of weeks at a time there, so my body could adjust and I could truly relax and enjoy everything. Having said that, I am grateful for the time I did have. For the most part, the ladies seemed to enjoy my company as we went out to dinner, and for some dancing. It always made me feel good when I'd ask the lady if she preferred to go "short time" or "long time". They seemed to enjoy hanging out for longer periods of time which made the evening much more enjoyable. Ah, the girlfriend experience….so rare now.
Cute, but don't take them home.
I note your comment on the older guys being attracted to younger, smallish women. In my experience, it's fun to have a cute 20-something sit on my lap while consuming cold beer, but my best "take home" has always been late 20's to 30's. Young girls are like kittens, they are cute, fun to play with but you don't always want to take them home.
Bye-bye Thailand, hello America!
I greatly enjoyed my visits to Thailand but I do not see a trip there in the near future. Living in Arizona now, we have topless clubs with $2 (66 baht) beers, $4 (132 baht) drinks and lap dances are $10. Cover is basically free (always free before 6 PM, monthly passes $9 – 10). Free burgers on Friday, $2 all other days (and it's real beef and fries). Another feature of living here is that it's a 5 – 6 hour drive to Las Vegas, an easy trip to a fun place. Lastly, once you get to know the girls a lot of things are available. I took a gal from a local club here to Vegas for two nights and did not even have to pay her. She just wanted to go, I took her shopping, paid for all food drinks and such. It was cheap entertainment.
Girl of the week
Soda, escort exclusive with NewBangkokEscort.com
But this is not actually the first black spot in the plaza. What was once known as Lone Star – the venue on the top floor, directly opposite Billboard – has been in darkness for more than 18 months since the cops carried out a high-profile raid with TV crews present and busted the bar for employing ladies not of legal age. Nothing happened for a year or so until construction started on the replacement bar, Jail Birdz which is loosely based on Alcatraz in Pattaya. But there has been no progress on Jail Birdz in weeks. Black spots are not a good look for a bar area and now Nana has two.
The operators of Underground had tinkered with the formula and nothing worked for them. It started as a ladyboy bar, then went coyote, then was a regular gogo and finally became a mix of coyotes and ladyboys. The ladyboys have been transferred across to Underground's sister bar, London Calling – and this is not going down well with the ladies there. For those who don't feel comfortable in bars with ladyboys, you can add London Calling to the list of bars to avoid.
One of the ladyboys who moved over to London Calling took a shining to Captain Hornbag and made some comments about how lovely he was. He was not impressed!
The departure of G has raised question marks over the Nana Group's remaining bars in the plaza. Who owns them? Who will run them? Just what is going to happen to these bars? The bars concerned are Angelwitch which does decent trade but nothing like it used to, Billboard which is a shadow of its former self, the very popular Suckers (the new name for Lollipop) and the uber popular ladyboy bars True Obsession and Charades (previous Cascade). They also have the tiny DC10. It should be noted that G had not had anything to do with the day to day running of these bars in some time and this week it was business as usual in these bars.
There is a new format at Cocktail Club in Soi Cowboy with coyote dancers and hostesses.
From down in Pattaya, Tiger on Soi Diamond has closed and Pepe on soi 16 in the old Catz location is gone. Those working in the industry in Sin City tell me they expect to see more bars go to the wall with business far from great. Still, I hear this all the time and bars seem to survive, somehow.
Lek's Classroom, the bar formally known as Classroom on soi 2 off Pattaya's Beach Road, finally closed its doors last week. All the girls have moved to Lek's Gogo on Second Road. Coyote A Gogo on Walking Street is another Pattaya bar to close its doors.
Secrets is the only bar in Walking Street offering Guinness draught so it should be a good spot to celebrate St Patrick's Day on Tuesday. There will be all the usual Secrets party razzamatazz with a free buffet and the Secrets girls.
Certain bars on Pattaya Soi 6 are allowing trysts on the premises again.
More than ever, I strongly believe that Bangkok has one major foreign red-light bar area too many. I'm not talking about the smaller bar lanes like soi 7/1, soi 22 and soi 33, but the 3 major bar areas – Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy. With the number of customers in decline and difficulty finding girls to work in the industry similarly, consolidating three bar areas in to two strikes me as a solution. If one area was to close, staff and customers would move to the remaining two bar areas which would see an increase in staff numbers and an increase in customers, which would make the bars more viable. More customers and more staff usually means a better vibe. The big question then is that if this were to happen, which would be the bar area to go? Patpong is the oldest bar area, has the most history and is spread out over the largest area. It is also an area in decay with many bars feeling a little decrepit. The area has long been considered a major tourist attraction and with rents so low, it's hard to see bars in that area closing. Nana Plaza has the largest number of bars if you include all the beer bars on Soi Nana, the highest number of employees and the sex bars support more mainstream businesses than the other bar areas do. And then there is Soi Cowboy, the prettiest bar area and the area most popular with tourists. It might also be the most viable in business terms with all the bars profitable, it is so pretty it is becoming a must visit location and everything is contained within a 100-metre strip, Crazy House aside. It should also be considered that Nana Plaza has a single owner whereas the spaces which make up the bars of Patpong and Cowboy sit on property with a number of owners. Much to think about, but if things don't turn around – and no-one thinks they will – consolidating three bar areas in to two is the way to go.
A common sight on Sukhumvit Road by day used to be Western men ambling along with a Thai lady in tow, their holiday girlfriend. You really don't see it much at all these days in Bangkok. Go back 10 years and barladies were barfined, on average, around 10 times a month or so. Not being barfined that often, the ladies would treat customers like gold in the hope that he would want to spend his entire holiday with her – meaning she would make more than if she was dancing in the bar hunting for a new customer each night. As the supply of ladies has dropped, the business model has changed and now it's all about multiple barfines a night – which suits the ladies well as they can go a couple of rounds, make a few thousand baht and return home to their local boyfriend / husband each night. The highest concentration of Western / Thai couples on the busy part of Sukhumvit Road these days – at least during daylight hours – is in Terminal 21 where most appear to be couples who met nowhere near a bar with chrome poles.
A few weeks ago a new BBQ joint on Suriwong Road opened called the Smokin' Pug. It is getting rave reviews. Everyone I know who has been there can't stop talking about it and two friends – both Americans – claim it is the best BBQ in Bangkok by a country mile and maybe the best BBQ they have had ever. So why haven't I been? I don't do pork. For those of you who like BBQ, the Smokin' Pug is on Suriwong Road, about 100 metres or so further down from Patpong soi 1, on the other side of the road.
It's easy to complain about rising prices in many downtown Bangkok restaurants, especially when there has been no corresponding increase in the price of many food items in supermarkets. There are other factors pushing restaurant prices up. A friend who is a restaurateur and looking to expand checked out available rental space in Sukhumvit soi 20. He thought the single shophouse he checked out would rent for around 90,000 – 100,000 baht per month. He almost fell over when he was told the asking rent was 400,000 baht per month – which is more even than prime space in the stretch between Nana and Asoke. Retail space rents in downtown Bangkok are soaring and that's one reason why eating downtown can cost the same as it does back in Farangland.
It's that time of year up north when locals complain about air quality as the region-wide agricultural burning which happens every year takes place. Friends up north tell me that air quality up there is horrid. One friend has had to make several trips to hospital to have oxygen administered and commented that he has been gasping like a fish out of water. The mountains are often completely hidden by haze. Apparently locals have been requested not to wear face masks as this could affect the image of the region…
The issue of tenure, of whether one can stay in Thailand forever, was touched on in today's opening piece. It only takes losing your job, getting divorced, your wife dying or running out of money and you may find it a whole lot more difficult to continue to legally reside in Thailand. And then there are the unexpected situations, those things that you hadn't considered, perhaps those things that you never even knew about. Things can and do happen. I was shocked when recently a close friend and long-term resident told me how a situation almost spiralled out of control, and how he feared that he might be deported and blacklisted. He owns a company which had inadvertently employed someone who it so happened had an expired visa and as such they were in the country illegally. When the authorities found out they started to look closely at everything and when they discovered that the company was in the name of a foreigner, they got excited. What really was a small issue had the potential to destroy his world and change his life forever. Fortunately sanity prevailed and it was all worked out.
Do you try and see things through the eyes of a Thai? Do you really try to understand any given situation from their perspective? It's not always easy because Thais and foreigners can look at the same situation and have very different ideas. A news article recently highlighted how the Nurses Association of Thailand has made a complaint to the authorities over the use of sexy Thai ladies in nurse uniforms to promote a bar. The Nurses Association claimed this was damaging to the reputation of all Thai nurses and a complaint was made to police. The police accepted the complaint and word is that the case will soon be handed over to prosecutors. When I heard about this I dropped a note to a farang bar manager whose venue is known for themed parties. I mentioned that he might want to consider shelving any parties that had anything to do with nurses, as well as anything else risqué such as schoolgirls, university students etc. I commented that things have changed in Thailand and while this might seem like a storm in a teacup to your average Westerner, this sort of thing is sometimes taken seriously by those who have the power to make people's lives difficult. The bar owner's response was logical and he outlined how this sort of promotion is common and accepted in the West. He was largely dismissive of my suggestion that he take care. He failed to look at it through local eyes and consider the Thai perspective. While probably 99% of foreigners would agree with his argument, at the end of the day he is operating a business in Thailand. At the same time he wants to follow the rules and accepted norms of the West. You can't always do that, and especially not where the law is concerned! You might not agree with it; you might even strongly disagree with it, but failing to consider the local perspective is unwise.
Quote of the week comes from a long-term reader, "In its prime, Nana was a place where love-struck doofuses from the English speaking world could explore the limits of their romantic delusions, indulge their hubris to its outer limits and plumb their stoopidity to its very depths."
Reader's story of the week comes from Steve Rosse for a record 4th week in a row, "Why Does He Do It?"
An American is arrested and held in Bangkok over a telephone sales scam.
An Aussie expat in Phuket is in big trouble after an incident escalated and he stabbed a nightclub security guard to death.
An American woman on the run from charges in the States dating back 6 years is caught and arrested on Ko Lanta.
A motorbike taxi rider in Pattaya knocks out a tourist who refuses to pay the agreed 200 baht fare.
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.
No questions were received for Sunbelt Legal Advisors this week
The many encouraging emails in recent weeks to stick with the column are gratefully received, but for those sending them, a reality check is in order. Sitting with a friend outside tables at Shadow Bar on Soi Cowboy this past cool season, he asked me where the best bars are these days. I answered honestly – I don't know! But you're supposed to know, he countered, you're the guy people tune in to for exactly that sort of info. I make the rounds looking for news and gossip, some of which I see with my own eyes and some of which I get from bar owners and managers I trust. I don't do this for fun, I said, I do it because I have to – and the truth is that I don't really know which are the best bars these days. You've turned in to Trink, he said, alluding to the way Bernard Trink went from making the rounds to gather news and gossip to not venturing out very often. My friend was right. I've been doing this longer than one should. For me, the bar industry is sort of like a favourite movie that you have watched one time too many. You used to enjoy it, but have become so familiar with it that you bore of it. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying thanks muchly for the encouragement but take a look at this week's column. I didn't make the rounds of the bars at all this week and, boy, did it feel good not to venture out in to that environment!
Your Bangkok commentator,