The Road Home Part 1
I've long wondered how I'd feel when I left Thailand. Would there be regret? Would there be sadness? Would there be reminiscing? Now I know. As I walked the never-ending passageways at Suwannaphum I had zero emotion. I felt nothing, not a single thing. No sadness, no euphoria, just nothing. If anything, I felt excitement. I was excited because I was going not just somewhere I wanted to go, but somewhere I wanted to be.
This week I have been reacquainting myself with New Zealand, travelling around the country, visiting old haunts and checking out new ones. I was hoping to get a little clarity about what life has in store for me.
Auckland may not be my city of birth but I consider it my hometown. It's where family is and where my best friends are. It's the economic powerhouse of Kiwiland, the biggest most cosmopolitan city and the place I know best after Bangkok.
But there is a problem with Auckland, a big problem. The housing market. Since the late '90s New Zealand has become a very desirable destination for migrants from both developing and developed countries and successive governments have used record migration numbers to ensure the economy kept purring along. Housing supply has not kept up with demand and with more than half of all migrants moving to Auckland, the city now has one of the most ridiculously overpriced property markets in the world. Apparently only Norway has housing less affordable than Auckland. It's not that Auckland property is that expensive, the high prices are compounded by the fact that salaries in New Zealand aren't that high. So, while the likes of Sydney, New York and London all have higher priced housing – as you would expect – they are matched with higher salaries which makes housing in those cities more affordable.
So I set off from Auckland for a break away, and to check out housing around the country. Is there anywhere else I could see myself settling?
A typical road trip starting in Auckland would take in the centre of Maoridom, Rotorua and the gorgeous lakeside town, Taupo. This trip I preferred to check out some new places so rather than drive south through the middle of the island, I would go down the west coast of the North Island, passing postcard-perfect gently rolling hills of green dotted with sheep and cows. 300 km south of Auckland the most common vehicle on the roads are large tankers with the distinctive blue and green logo of Fonterra, the world's largest dairy export company.
New Plymouth is New Zealand's 7th largest city with a population of around 70,000 people. I was impressed and it struck me as a place I could live. It seemed well set up for a healthy lifestyle, with a lengthy coastal walkway and various other walkways through the city. There was a real buzz for a city of such a modest size. With that said, any city without a university will have its brightest sucked away and many will probably never return.
As much as I liked it, New Plymouth is not a place I would consider living. The absence of an international airport would made me feel awfully isolated, as if the country is not isolated enough already.
Mt Egmont, as seen from Stratford.
I wouldn't spend the night in New Plymouth. Instead I elected for the small town of Stratford, one of those places you really need a reason to visit. Unless you're a farmer from the surrounding area which Stratford supports, there's really not a lot there. But for me, there was something there, or rather, someone. It was a chance to catch up with popular Kiwi Thailand expat fiction author, John Daysh. John moved back to Kiwiland a few years ago and has set about building a nice life for his family.
Something I would soon discover – well, I knew it anyway, but it was simply reinforced, was that wi-fi sucks in New Zealand and the cost of a net connection is much higher than in Thailand. Those hotels and cafes with free wireless offer enough data to check and send a couple of emails and read the day's newspaper before you get the message that is every bit as dreaded as the blue screen of death – your data allowance is finished!
I made my way to the bottom of the North Island to the nation's capital, Wellington.
Wellington has a certain sophistication that Auckland may match in wealth, but not in sophistication. Aucklanders strike me as a little showy and you don't have to spend that long floating around the countryside to realise there just might be something in the JAFA nickname that the rest of the country refers to Aucklanders as. JAFA? Just Another Fxxxen Aucklander!
Shades of the view from Victoria Peak looking out across Hong Kong? Not quite!
Where in Auckland you're falling over real estate agencies and where property values dominate many conversations, in Wellington it was hard to even find a realtor. Every mall and seemingly every small stretch of shops in Auckland has at least one real estate agency. That's not the case in Wellington. House prices in Wellington are markedly lower and what's more, unlike Auckland where most houses look like a shoebox, unimaginative squares that may be functional but lack character, homes in Wellington city are often older villas that ooze personality.
As soon as you hit the South Island the scenery just gets better. From the valleys of vineyards in Marlborough, to the plains of Canterbury, to the rugged West Coast, to the incredible beauty of Central Otago, the South Island is as breathtaking as it is beautiful.
One of the things I like most about travelling around New Zealand compared to travelling around Thailand is the sense of freedom. In New Zealand the police are there, but you don't see them and they certainly don't hassle you. There's none of the BS registration requirements when you check in to a hotel and no-one really cares what you're doing or where you're going. Mind your own business and other people mind theirs. If there's one thing I have learned about myself in Thailand, it's the importance of freedom. Being hassled unnecessarily and being asked to account for or explain yourself is a major affront to personal freedom that happens all the time in Thailand.
Next stop was Kaikoura, a couple of hundred clicks down the road from the top of the south Island. It's known for nature, and there are all sorts of things to do like whale watching, swimming with the dolphins, sea bird watching and whatnot.
Seals are adorably cute and the young ones are awfully playful – you get the feeling that playing around is something they love. At the same time, they love to sleep and are reckless, walking across roads in front of cars. Cute, playful, lazy and reckless, who does that sound like?!
This is what I have missed, outstanding food!
In New Zealand little importance is placed on dressing things up – and this includes food. Fine food is not limited to white table cloths and menus where you need to speak French to know what a particular dish is.
In a modest seafood eatery in Kaikoura I pig out on a seafood meal with two skewers of shellfish, a pile of chips, salad and a huge piece of blue cod (top of the picture, half-eaten). It sets me back the equivalent of about 500 baht. It's divine and even though I am stuffed, I momentarily consider getting another helping. Yeah, it really was that good!
I'm impressed with Kaikoura. Why has it taken me so long to visit? It's so easy to see why it attracts people from all over the world – so much so that some visitors fall in love with the place and become residents. The fish and chip shop is run by an American. An Italian pizzeria is run by an Aussie, and the hotel I stay at is run by a Thai. The fish and chip shop was world-class, the pizzeria looked good and the Thai-owned hotel? It was a shithole.
Reminiscent of so many hotels in Thailand, you'd need to write in small print on a large piece of paper to list all the issues. The heater rattled like the legs of a bed in a Bangkok short-time hotel. A couple of the windows could not be fastened – one could not even be closed – rendering the unit insecure and allowing a draft to whistle through the room. The carpet wasn't stained – it was a case of finding a square foot that wasn't stained. The TV was broken, everything was in disrepair and just like in Thailand, maintenance was non-existent.
But even a shitty room couldn't ruin the stay. Kaikoura is a stunning destination and a place I'll definitely revisit.
Less than 200 km south of Kaikoura is Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island and a city which will still be being rebuilt after the extensive damage from the February 2011 earthquake for years to come. I wanted to stay and make some sort of small contribution but let's be frank here, in the city of Christchurch what is there to do? It's a pretty enough place – but then so is pretty much everywhere in New Zealand. Traffic seemed worse than Auckland and getting around was a nightmare – road closures, building sites and even the GPS got confused. After catching up with a mate for a couple of hours, that was enough of Christchurch. A couple of hours was enough.
Next stop was Otago and some of the most beautiful views in the country.
Walking in the mountains, breathing the fresh air and feeling free – that's New Zealand at its best.
The area around Lake Tekapo is said to have the cleanest air and the clearest skies in the world. Atop the adjacent Mt John is an observatory with the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere. There are also some curious shaped buildings that we can thank the Americans for – it used to be a US spy base.
In Otago, on the shores of Lake Tekapo, or more precisely on the side of a mountain overlooking a lake, I felt like all of the clutter that was congesting my mind started to dissipate. The phone was turned off, I was checking email just once a day. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
This trip is as much a holiday as a way to reacclimatize myself with the country. It is also a chance to see where might be a place to live. Friends in Bangkok have told me to rent in New Zealand, not buy. Some say I will be back in weeks, others say it's just a matter of months. My closest Bangkok friends agree that I have to give New Zealand at least a year.
Next week the Kiwi adventure continues in to Queenstown and deep in to Otago. Who knows where I will end up?
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken from a food vendor across the road from the Hualumpong Railway Station.
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Same same.
You ran a piece recently about how the Thais will never treat farangs as true friends. Agreed, but after 20 years experience I suggest they treat us much the same as they treat each other!
Is Thailand so cheap after all?
It is rather amazing how the prices in Thailand and our homelands have kind of evened out over the years. I can find Asian food and especially quality western food for the same price or better than in Thailand. And as you mention, the quality is usually so much better, not to mention customer service and warranties you can count on.
You mentioned the FIFO worker who was hassled by Immigration. I work in Asia 4 or 5 months a year, staying from 2 weeks to 6 weeks per trip. When I am in Asia, Bangkok is my home base and I fly in and out every week. You can imagine how many Thailand visa stamps are in my passport. Last week when I flew in to Bangkok from Shanghai, the Immigration officer called over a second officer to look at my passport and they commented on the number of Thailand entry stamps. They only asked me one question: Why do I come to Thailand? Is there something changing about the number of times you can come to Thailand? I never stay more than 2 weeks before I leave for another business trip. Should I be thinking about changing my Asia base? I would hate to be denied entry.
Those marks on the girls' shoulder are keloid scars, an overgrowth of collagen which can form at the site of any trauma like a vaccination or surgery. Dark-skinned people are more susceptible than lighter-skinned people. Nowadays they can be treated by external beam radiotherapy, but the ladies from Isaan probably can't afford it or don't know of it.
An armchair doc's diagnosis.
Almost certainly Miss Awkward had a grand-mal seizure which was likely due to the strobe-light / flashing lights in the establishment which could have triggered it. I have a friend in Pattaya who has epilepsy. She's on 30 mg of Phenobarbital a day (issued only from the hospital and taken just before sleep) but whilst this works effectively, I'm a bit nervous about performing certain escapades with her. This kind of thing (seizure) is best dealt with by putting the victim into the recovery position, making sure they don't swallow their tongue or hit their head on anything. Pointless attempting to wrestle; better to let it run its course. Flashing strobes blinking at 12 times per second synchronize with the central nervous system, causing some people to go into seizure. Police tasers such as the X-7 (not the novelty ones you buy in Thailand) also pulse at the same frequency so such equipment is not only very painful, it's also designed to interrupt the CNS. Interestingly, every year there are incidences of head-ons on straight, seemingly safe sections of country road with trees on the side, usually in the late afternoon in winter when the sun is low and the sky very clear (in Australia, for example). What happens is the sun and shadows 'flicker' at a frequency close to the magic twelve-per-second and the driver will become hypnotized or freeze at the wheel, causing them to drift across or off the road. Finally, this phenomena was intensively researched by the Ruskies during the cold war who were researching possible combat and other non-lethal techniques.
A new direction.
Good to read you're going to carry on. Expats and returnees need your take on things now more than in the distant past when they were actually welcomed. I gather from your previous columns you're not a happy camper when confined to making rounds of the usual venues, rounding up the usual suspects. I expect to read news about places your readers, well, a lot of your readers, have a hankering to learn more about. What type of places? CheckInn99, for example. Pubs, eateries and jazz clubs where we can find hospitable staff, good food and drink without being ripped off or treated like immigrants arriving off the Italian coast. People trust you, Stick. They also understand you have to exercise a certain amount of gamesmanship in how you go about your task. I believe your new tack may disappoint a small number of die-hard naughty boys but appeal to a more diverse group that encompasses newer expats and many at the opposite end of the spectrum who, like yourself, have become disillusioned with the old scene.
I think you're making the right decision (if you're not pulling our leg!) to stay in Thailand. Apart from the adjustment issues going back to the west, Asia and Thailand have developed enormously over the last 10 years in to a huge diversified economy with opportunities for everyone. You may have become used to things, but I really think the future is in Asia. Maybe the recent thoughts you have had have been refreshing and if you decide to stay, good luck!
How many are really interested in the bar news?
I have to say that I, like many (I think), have only a marginal (if any real) interest in the bar scene and certainly no interest in the week to week variations in beer prices or special offers / promotions or ownership of particular bars. But by writing well you make it worthwhile to hang-on-in-there for the really interesting stuff that your column contains. "Ms Awkward" was a jewel in terms of the really interesting stuff. But what is also true is that a focus on the on-going bar scene is important because it does exist and continues to be a reason why many visit and will continue to be so. To write about Thailand without mention of the bar scene would be to sanitize Modern Siam. But what about a Stickman on Tour Series, bar scenes in provincial towns. I'm grateful that the column is continuing but as I don't consider myself to be a bad person I don't like to think of someone having to report on the bar scene weekly.
A voice of reason.
It would be awesome if you kept writing the weekly. Really, mate, you have no idea how many thousands of guys enjoy your column and look forward to reading it every Sunday. You are a real voice of reason in an otherwise hectic city. I personally feel better just hearing there's a good chance you'll continue. Most people spend their careers pushing paper around or staring at a computer whereas you, my friend, have helped thousands.
This coming Friday, May 1st, sees the return of Club Electric Blue to Pattaya, in the spot that was Private Dancer. That's the same soi off Walking Street as Angelwitch and Babydolls. It should be a great night with the crew from Bangkok coming to town to help get the new bar off to a good start.
I am told last night might just have been the slowest night of the year in Soi Cowboy with many girls who headed upcountry for Songkran still away, some indicating they won't return to work until the end of this week. With that in mind, expect this coming Friday to be a big night as hungry girls look to fill up their empty wallet.
Dollhouse brought in several coyote dancers to make up numbers as like many bars, many of their girls remain up country.
Rumour has it that Oasis on Soi Buakhao may have been looked at by the Happy Group. Are they thinking about taking it over? Let me state clearly this is a *rumour*.
The Irish Rover, a popular sports bar on Soi LK Metro, has been sold to one of the partners. Word has it that one of the first orders of business is that the 99 baht breakfast will become the 129 baht breakfast. This stroke of pure genius should make the new boss another 30%. I am laughing loud as I type this because I can just see the look on the face of some of the hardcore who turn up only to discover their morning fry up has increased in price by 30 baht. Seriously, this sort of thing does NOT go down well with a lot of the Pattaya crowd, many of whom are ultra price sensitive. As I write this week's column in a part of the world where you'd be lucky get a cooked breakfast for less than about 350 baht, 30 baht seems like nothing – and certainly not something worth getting worked up over. Hell, I've been paying 100 baht an hour for parking this past week!
Bangkok nightlife veteran Dave The Rave will celebrate his birthday at Spellbound in Nana Plaza on Thursday, April 30th. Dave's efforts have helped turn Spellbound around and he tells me the bar has a number of hot babes. Say the magic words 'Gogo Guru' and you will get a free Spellbound shot.
After a long period of nothing, it finally looks like the space that housed what was once known as Washington Square will see new construction. The transformation of the area from a dingy, second tier bar area to high-end shopping mall is about to begin. Assorted bits and pieces have been assembled and a small crane has found its way on to the site. It looks like ground breaking is just days away.
So what happened to the old Washington Square punters and the girls – and yeah, use of the word old was deliberate. Washington Square just had to have the oldest working girls and the oldest punters of all of Bangkok's expat bar areas. First of all, the girls – where did they go? Honestly, I just don't know. Maybe some made it over to Queen's Park Plaza but I bet many probably just dropped out of the industry. As for the customers, I am sure some cliques have found a new favourite drinking hole but as for the Washington Square all moving en masse to another bar area, no, I don't think it happened. The death of the area saw the dispersion of the Squaronians, it seems.
What happened to the other sharks? No, not the sharks at Shark Bar in Soi Cowboy, but at bar no-one can work out on Sukhumvit soi12, The Den. The single remaining shark in the shark tank must be getting lonely in that monstrosity of a fish tank. I am told that you shouldn't put sharks in a hard-cornered (90-degree angle) fish tank as sharks can't stop swimming, unless they're in a tank with rounded corners. They bump their noses in the corners, get fungal infections and die, so I am told.
Things are different in the bars these days. Many naughty boys have finally acknowledged that economic advancement means they are not the handsome men they once really thought they were. The girls working in the industry today are in it not to survive – there is plenty of work out there for any Thai who wants it. Today's working girls do what they do to make the big money. That's just one reason the industry has become more commercialised. Fun can still be had today, of course, but the golden age in the bars is in the distant past. In fact region-wide there's a pretty good argument that the fun is not with the pay-for-play girls but with the girls who aren't in it for money. That leads me to wonder whether in coming years we will look back on this time – that is now – as the golden age for meeting middle class, educated Thai women. As salaries in Thailand edge higher and the profile of foreigners in Thailand isn't getting any better, where is it all going? This combined with increasing xenophobia means that in years to come, the less impressive white guys who do elegantly well with a stream of beautiful Thai women these days might find things aren't as easy as they are now. So the question then becomes where is the new promised land? I'd guess that the fun will be in the more populous countries which aren't doing so well economically. Off the beaten track in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Like I say, the fun these days is not with the pay-for-play girls but the mainstream girls. One ought to be mindful that attitudes region-wide to casual sex may not be the same as they are in Thailand. In Vietnam, for example, it is my understanding that while no strings fun can be had, one has to be careful about making false promises and fooling around as many take the idea of sleeping with a guy seriously, and expect commitment in return. They can become unpredictable if they feel a guy made false promises to get his bit and then fly away.
I don't know why, but I get kind of annoyed when I have the odd heated discussion with a reader who doesn't believe me that few ladies actually want to work in a bar. Yeah, when I hear some guys go on and on about how good they as customers are for the girls, it rubs me up the wrong way. Sure, some ladies do come to like the lifestyle and there is no doubt that to a certain personality type the combination of much attention and money can be intoxicating. But don't make the mistake of thinking they want to do it. Hardly any do.
The new mall across from the Emporium has been open for a month or so. If the width of the isles is any indicator of the cost of the goods on sale, your wallet ought to be as fat as possible before you enter.
A number of Thai language schools, some of which are BIG players in the industry, know that their business is not about language tuition, but about visa acquisition. They cannot admit it publicly, however. Now a number of these visa mills language schools school offer an option where the student customer doesn't have to go to the Immigration Department for their visa extension in person; rather it's handled by an agent – for a fee, of course. What that means is that there is no queuing and waiting at the Immigration Department and most importantly no language test – basically no obstacles at all. What there is though is an administration fee tacked on to the 1,900 baht extension fee. Circumventing the system designed to check that the white buffalo really is studying was always going to happen. The sad part is not the blatant way some schools and their students brag about beating the system, but those who are actually behind it and those whose initiative it is…
A few weeks ago I included a warning in this column about a German masquerading as an Austrian who works with the police to set up foreigners who may be doing something illegal and to shake them down. He contacts foreigners in Thailand advertising on Craigslist who may be involved in something illegal (usually, but not limited to offering services without a work permit). He arranges to buy whatever it is they're selling or utilise their services and when they have enough evidence cops jump out of the shadows. Before he knows it, the unsuspecting foreigner is frantically embroiled in a negotiation to make it all go away. If he doesn't pay (the usual fee is 100,000 baht), he finds himself charged and facing a court appearance. It's is a win : win for the authorities. They either get an off the books pay-off, or plaudits for catching a foreigner working illegally. The German is himself a crook and used to be involved with boiler rooms. Ironically, what he is doing could be considered working illegally. I wonder if he was caught doing something illegal himself and was turned. Despite a number of warnings in this column over the years, foreigners still get sucked in. Today I recount the latest con I heard about after another foreigner advertising his services on Craigslist was contacted by a Swiss guy calling himself "Mario". Arrangements were made to meet at a restaurant in Jomtien. When the foreigner arrived, "Mario" put 5,000 baht in his hand which was half of the agreed fee and they walked in to the restaurant. It was early in the day and there were a few customers chatting and eating snacks but little did the foreigner know, these weren't customers, they were all part of the sting. Business was discussed and the foreigner was introduced to the owner of the restaurant. The owner invited him to the bar where he produced a folder with copies of the 5 x 1,000 baht notes the fellow had accepted. He revealed that he was a cop and announced that what the foreigner was doing was illegal. The fellow was taken to the offices of the authorities just around the corner from the restaurant where it was explained it could all be worked out for 100K baht. He called his girlfriend in Bangkok who rushed to his rescue. She was able to negotiate the settlement down. As it happens, the restaurant is said to be owned by someone who wears a uniform. The Swiss guy is in fact German. He claims to work as a translator for the courts and speaks very good Thai. He has all sorts of scams on the go. One scam he perpetrates is conning foreigners in Thailand with a public online profile – it could be a user on a discussion forum, a Facebook user or a website owner. He is very clever, emailing them in a foreign language, often Russian. If the recipient uses, for example, the translation facility in Gmail, they get a series of threatening emails where the fellow slowly drip-feeds more information about them and makes nasty threats from physical harm to dobbing them in to the authorities. He is obviously very good at what he is does and people get sucked in and pay up to make it all go away. He is currently operating in Jomtien and Pattaya but will go wherever the money is.
Quote of the week comes from a reader, "Bangkok is a funny place, it drives you nuts when you're there and even more so when you can't be there!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Mr. Anonymous, "Not All Bargirls Are the Same".
Thailand's blocked website page was hacked and all blocked sites diverted to a site selling sex toys!
A sexy Russian bird has her bag snatched in Pattaya, which I guess is better than having her snatch bagged.
A fascinating piece ran on copyright ambiguity in Thailand in today's Post.
A Thai woman with Kiwi citizenship is sentenced to 27 months in prison for recruiting Thais to work in NZ's sex industry.
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.
There were no questions for Sunbelt Legal this week.
So you're wondering what's going on, right? A year ago I gave notice that I would be leaving Thailand in March 2015, and with that the column would die. We went into a countdown that got down to the last couple of weeks….and then it all changed! Did I have a change of heart? No, I didn't. As I said a few weeks ago, the phone rang – and that conversation would be a major curve ball to my plans. Clearly this week's opener shows I am not in Bangkok this week. So what does the future hold? I am working through a few bits and pieces – perhaps negotiating would be a better word – and as soon as things are worked out I will make an announcement. Please understand that I am not deliberately being coy. At the same time I don't want to say anything until the time is right. Let's just say that there are changes coming – much needed changes – but the column will continue. I guess me and the column are like a bad marriage, one from which you cannot find a way out of, let along get a divorce from.
Your Bangkok commentator who refuses to go away,