Thoughts From The Frontlines, Part 1
For the next few weeks the column opener will be in a trip report style with my thoughts and observations of what I see and what I do while in Bangkok.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the Thai Airways Dreamliner was looking a bit “tired”. These planes are on the go all the time, but Thai Airways has only had Dreamliners in service for less than 2 years. When I first got on board I thought they’d switched to an old 777. Closer inspection and yeah, it really was a Dreamliner…but that new plane smell had well and truly gone.
Flying is not something I enjoy. That said, even after all of these years there’s something special about getting on the plane and knowing Bangkok is just 11 hours away. The flight wasn’t much more than half full and I managed to get 3 seats to myself. Score! It’s no great surprise it was half full with the fares Thai charges these days. A flight on QANTAS is hundreds of dollars cheaper. I chose Thai because they had a 20% off sale at just the right time and it still cost more than QANTAS – but it’s a direct flight so it’s worth paying a bit more.
With so many Indians on board – and most connecting to flights on to India – there weren’t that many of us at all at the baggage carousel. Thai Airways would appear to offer the cheapest fares between New Zealand and India, hence Thai is very well supported by the expat Indian community. It seems Thailand is marketing a lot towards their Indian neighbours these days.
Readers know I enjoy the company of Indians, but at the same time I have to admit that I am starting to understand why some are not so fond of them. Indians sitting near me on the flight were just plain rude to the crew. Complaining about the taste of the food and going on and on about it was just silly. What was the poor air crew supposed to do, rustle them up a fresh curry on the spot?! You could see the crew trying their hardest to remain professional while fielding the most ridiculous complaints. I can just imagine what the banter amongst the crew was all about in the galley on that flight…
Noise-canceling headphones are the best purchase I have made in ages and I have to ask why I waited so long to pick up a set. This was the first time I had used them on a flight and they were great, making time in the air a little less uncomfortable. I’d previously checked out ways to deal with jet lag and noise-cancelling headphones were suggested so I grabbed a set. Whether it was the placebo effect or not, who knows, but I did feel better on arrival than I have on previous trips.
A friend has long been complaining about Thai Airways international flights stopping on the tarmac as opposed to right at the terminal, with passengers bussed from the tarmac to the terminal proper. It’s a slap in the face to fly an inter-continental flight on the national carrier to its main hub only to be dumped on the tarmac at what felt like the farthest point of the apron and then suffer a loooong bus ride back to the terminal. It was a preview of downtown Bangkok with a traffic jam on the tarmac. From the moment the plane touched down to taxiing for so long I thought the pilot was going to deliver us to our hotel, to disembarking, to waiting for buses to ferry us to the terminal in the pouring monsoon rain took 35 minutes. From touch down to reaching the terminal, 35 minutes is just too long. On a budget carrier I can understand it but on a full service carrier? Not good enough.
Thai Immigration officers don’t always give the warmest welcome and are usually all business, no smiles. The Immigration officer who processed me did something new – she smelled my passport. I’ve never experienced that before. She almost made a show of picking up my passport, fanning through the pages and taking a good long sniff of it. No idea what that was about..
There’s much comment on the queues at Immigration but there were none when I passed through. There was, however, a major bottleneck passing Customs on the way out in to the arrivals hall as Customs officers in crisp white uniforms stopped those of a particular profile and scanned their luggage. Their target was Asian women (predominately Thai, at a guess) in their early 20s to perhaps mid 40s, middle-class – not overly wealthy but certainly not poor. If reports in the press are anything to go, brand name items like high-end European handbags bought abroad to be sold in Thailand are what they’re looking for.
My first impressions of how things are in Bangkok was that it was reasonably busy. I’ll take that back. Having been here a week or so now, I’d say it’s actually fairly quiet. There are fewer Chinese than my previous trip, a lot more Indians, plenty of couples and Western females. There aren’t that many single Western males about.
It hasn’t helped that it has rained early evening most nights as is the norm at this time of year. That’s never good for business.
An ongoing theme in this column is how Thailand is becoming expensive. Bar and restaurant prices have been moving up and I think we’re seeing a backlash as some customers say enough is enough. Two restaurateurs on Sukhumvit revealed to me that trade is down over the last 6 months – one by 25%, the other by 30%. A third says his sales have remained about the same.
A wander around Foodland revealed that when it comes to supermarket shopping, New Zealand is so much cheaper than Thailand that it is ridiculous. I could rattle off product after product but the price differences are huge and some are inexplicable. Same item, same brand, exactly the same packaging and the price can be 2 or even 3 x as much in Thailand. It’s inexplicable that the Thai made rice bran oil I buy in New Zealand is cheaper there than here.
And while I am ranting about prices, I tried the Sunday roast buffet at the Landmark, yet another example of how costly things have got. At 1,050 baht ++, or in real money, around $NZ 63 all in, it’s no bargain. I had actually hoped to go to the Sunday seafood buffet brunch at the Landmark but that is now priced at 2,900 baht per head – but I’m just not willing to pay that much. A touch below US $100 per head, or around $ NZ 150 for lunch, that’s really pricey. I’m sorry, but unless you’re living like a Thai of limited means, Thailand just isn’t cheap any more.
I discussed this with some Bangkok restaurateurs and it’s a real touchy subject. They all said much the same, that rents are high, salaries are much higher than they used to be – all fair points but at the end of the day, if it’s more expensive than home and not as good, why bother? Some might have to face the reality that in their current location and with a predominately foreigner customer base, the business may not be viable.
The angst over the TM30 was what many expats wanted to talk about it. It’s causing huge headaches and genuinely is causing some people to leave and others who really don’t want to leave feel like they are forced to weigh up other options. The life of downtrodden Thailand expats is not what it was.
I have been getting my daily exercise at my usual spot, Benjakit Park, which will close for improvements in February. Closing is one thing but the length of time, 450 days, suggests it’s going to undergo a major redevelopment. Will it be the same when it reopens? I guess I will have to enjoy it while it lasts.
Back on to something more positive, Chinatown has really come along. It was busier than I ever remember it and there were heaps of new vendors offering all sorts of interesting treats. But, again, even in Chinatown prices are really moving up. Plenty of outlets have menu items that remind me of Phuket – seriously expensive seafood like 1,500 baht lobsters that really didn’t look that big. And then there were the gorgeous Canadian cherries – but at 1,500 baht / kg, I think I’ll give them a miss.
One of the best things I did this week was take a trip to Aw Daw Gaw. It’s a long-running market known for very high / export quality fruit and vegetables. It’s largely off the tourist circuit and attracts Thais with money. The prices are higher than elsewhere, but we’re talking high quality produce – and for me that’s worth paying for.
I enjoy engaging with the vendors at Aw Daw Gaw who are much more polite and helpful than in a typical neighbourhood fresh market. Show an interest in their produce and tell them what you plan to do with it and they will give you tips about cooking Thai food, such as why you should use certain types of chillis or certain types of garlic in a particular dish, but not another. Very interesting and even better than using a cook book.
Just how high do the prices get at Aw Daw Gaw? Durian lovers pay up to 5,000 baht / kg for the tropical delight. I like durian, but not that much! But fear not, you can get it much cheaper….but not cheap per se.
The other highlight of the week was a long walk on Thursday through the old part of the city. Bangkok is changing – some would say has changed – but the old part remains unmistakably Thailand. Sukhumvit is very international and while that has its benefits, it’s not what I come to Thailand for. I like stopping by old Thai restaurants that have been run by the same family for generations, where the recipes have barely changed and where the other half delights in telling me how it feels exactly the same as when she first visited 30+ years. In some places she even points out a member of staff who she remembers from all those years ago. And the old part of town hasn’t seen anything like the inflation of Sukhumvit so prices remain reasonable. Best of all, the old part of the city is easier to get to now, with the underground extension.
Generally speaking, there just aren’t that many white guys about. The white man is a minority on Sukhumvit everywhere, perhaps Soi Nana the one exception. I spent half an hour at Bark Klong Dalat (the old flower market down between Little India and Wat Po) and did not see one white face there in that time. It’s a real tourist attraction and normally there are many whiteys but I did not see one in half an hour!
In the bars, there are many groups of Indian males around, sometimes in big groups of half a dozen or more. They get chastised by some who claim they enter a bar and order just one drink and share it. I didn’t see any evidence of that and the few wait staff I asked about it hadn’t seen nor heard of that either so I hardly think it’s common and more likely a cheap shot at our Indian friends. Could it be simply that most Indians aren’t big drinkers? Certainly I can’t say I have known Indians to routinely go out and drink frequently as some nationalities do. Could it simply be that our Indian friends like watching bikini-clad ladies dance but aren’t especially in to drinking?
In terms of the nightlife, yeah, of course I made it out to the bars and spent time in all three major Bangkok bar areas. It was generally quiet although Nana Plaza was faring better than elsewhere. It’s the same old story in Nana – Billboard, Butterflies and Spanky’s all doing well while most other bars generally not that busy.
The roof at Nana Plaza makes a big difference – and it’s not just about keeping the rain out. It keeps a lot of the sound in the plaza, adding to the atmosphere and making it feel busy and creating a bit of a buzz which can only be a good thing.
There’s not a lot about the nightlife in the opener, not because I didn’t hit the bars – I did – but rather the bar news appears in its usual section down below the emails of the week.
The bar owners and bar managers all had the same message – it’s quiet and there’s not a lot going on. The one positive I take from that is that when I’m in New Zealand I’m not missing much in terms of gathering news. I’d like to say that things in the industry are generally flat, but even the word flat seems unreasonably positive…
More on my time in Bangkok next week.
Last week’s photo was taken of an intersection near the Democracy Monument. A lot of people thought it was Victory Monument, a few kilometres away. This week’s photo is somewhere in central Bangkok. The one clue I’ll give is that it hasn’t been there very long – perhaps less than a year.
Back in the day.
A note about the location of this week’s mystery photo. Back in the early / mid 90’s right in that area was taken was one of the very first ATMs in Bangkok that accepted foreign cards. Back in the day it paid to know where these ATMs were. There were lots of ATMs but very few that would take a foreign card. When I was a young backpacker staying around Khao San Road I used to walk down there to get a couple of thousand baht, which in those days went a long way. It was either that or break out a travellers check. Maybe you remember those? I used to stay in that area and race back on buses in the early hours from nights out on Patpong or Sukhumvit. When I say racing back on buses I do mean racing. Many times I would end up on a bus doing battle with another to get ahead, especially if it was a bus with the same number, blasting through the relatively quiet streets as fast as they could go to be first back to the depot. At times bus stops seemed like a great inconvenience if someone wanted to get on or off. Ticket sellers hanging out of the doors taunting the opposition if they managed to overtake was all part of the game. Roaring engines, crunching gears, shouts from the driver and his mate, wind rushing in through the open windows filled with black exhaust fumes. Usually I would be sitting on the bench seat at the back, holding on next to an open door. Looking back, it was insane. It was all new to me. At the time, having had a few beers, it was so exciting. Willing the driver to get ahead, silently cursing anyone who wanted to stop the bus and get off allowing the other bus to race past with the ticket guy shaking his money box out of the door as they went. I often felt bad about having to stop the bus myself, especially if it meant the other bus could overtake. More often than not I would jump from a moving bus as they slowed rather than stopped. No thought for the health and safety of passengers, other road users or themselves. But, of course, the longer you spend in Thailand the more you realize that health and safety is not at the forefront of most Thais’ minds.
The bargirl marriage thing.
You touched on the subject of a farang marrying a Thai bargirl. I’ve got words of advice to anyone thinking of going down this extremely bumpy road. Don’t do it. Think with the big head and not the little head. Most of these situations – and I emphasise most – end in failure, heartache and an empty bank account. These bargirls are master manipulators. Yeah sure, there may be 1 or 2 or 3 who are nice and genuinely looking for a farang guy, but in my experience the bulk of them are cunning opportunists who prey on the gullible. It’s all about the money, end of. That’s what drives them. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “You pay”, be it directed at me or some other punter nearby, I’d be a rich man. You pay alright and pay and pay and pay… <I plan to revisit this topic as a column opener in the not too distant future – Stick>
Thais and consideration.
Have you ever noticed that Thais are never taught about consideration for others? There are only rules of politeness that they are instructed on from birth. You can meet the most polite people in the world here who are also the most inconsiderate. This is why they cut queues, play loud music, noise pollution, park their car blocking you, and my favorite, driving down the wrong side of the road. To them, this is normal and the reason why no one cares except the offended farang who will get in their face with the Thai who is absolutely clueless about what he / she did wrong and why the foreigner is angry. At a meal, don’t consider I just might not like that boiled kidney or monkey balls you ordered for me. If you can understand why they are the way they are, it saves you getting upset all the time like I used to. Simply put, more often than not, they are not trying to piss you off. It all stems from their extreme lack of consideration of others, including each other, which they are never taught in school. You still need to be careful though about getting in their face because they will almost always wonder why you don’t understand…as if you’re supposed to. Can’t have anyone losing face now, can we? Kick in the mai pen rai attitude and sabai sabai and no one will complain about the noisy barking dogs across the street, or the idiot who insist on yapping as loud as he can on the Ted Nugent village speakers that are strategically placed on each corner, at 6 AM on a Sunday morning to make sure the entire village knows about Somchai’s sale on dragon fruit down the road…or a reminder to get to the temple and donate more money. Oh well.
Credit card surcharge.
I was in Country Road on Soi Cowboy and had a good time listening to the music etc. When I came to pay the bill (which was a few thousand baht), I asked if I could pay by credit card. They said yes but with a 10% surcharge which they apply at weekends. It got me thinking, is this legal? How many customers do they turn off like that when they insist on such stupidity. I seem to remember Hillary 4 asking for a surcharge but maybe only 3%. I wonder if other customers have experienced this and if so, what they think. They still have a sign up that says if you break the glass you pay 170 baht or something like that. Still, they are full most nights!
Steakhouse Co in Patpong soi 2 was previously Club Electric Blue. A fantastic job was done decking out the restaurant and most people said the food was good…but it never caught on and the restaurant will close on September 28th. Look for the location to return to its roots and chrome poles to make a comeback. The name Hookers Bangkok has been mooted.
Speaking of comebacks, Voodoo returned to Nana Plaza not long ago in the same location and using the same signage and logo design from the original Voodoo. The new Voodoo was a ladyboy bar and in a turn up for the books, it didn’t last. I don’t know what happened nor quite when it happened but Voodoo has gone and is now Twister.
Kazy Kozy in Soi Cowboy is pushing boundaries with shows right at the edge of what is acceptable. And Kazy Kozy still has the amazing promotion of 2 drinks for the price of 1 – every night, all night long. It’s an amazing (yes, I hate the word but in this instance it feels like it’s genuinely warranted) promotion in a gogo bar and I cannot imagine that it will last forever so if you find yourself in Cowboy, check Kazy Kozy out.
I am told Spanky’s was the first bar in Nana Plaza with menus in Mandarin. Will other bars follow? (Methinks other bars would be foolish not to.)
At the end of Sukhumvit soi 7/1, the new Pickled Liver is coming along very, very slowly. Word is that the construction team is working multiple projects simultaneously, including the construction of a gym, hence the project is taking longer to complete than originally planned.
And a bit further down the road in Soi Cowboy, the British pub under construction in the space that was previously Sahara is expected to open before Christmas.
Large fans were installed in the Nana Beer Garden a couple of weeks ago and are said to have made a big difference with punters staying longer. The Nana Beer Garden is a nice spot to watch the world go by, but it’s very much a goldfish bowl and sitting there you can be seen from almost every last corner in the plaza – so make sure you’re on your best behaviour.
Billboard might be acknowledged as the best bar of its type in Bangkok, but it has a challenger in Butterflies, its sister bar. Butterflies is larger, has more dancers and more of a party vibe. Some regulars say it’s even better than Billboard. Splitting hairs I reckon, they’re both fantastic.
And speaking of Billboard, a reminder that the gogo bar party of the year will take place this coming Saturday at Billboard on the top floor of Nana Plaza. There will be a free buffet with 100 pizzas cooked in a real pizza oven imported from Italy, 150 kg of chicken wings and 100 kg of potato wedges. If it’s anything like previous Billboard parties, it will be a night to remember.
The owners of Billboard have once again shown how to deal with a crisis. In last week’s column I mentioned that Billboard had closed early the previous Thursday night due to a technical issue. It turns out that Somchai had cooked the sound system. It had been farting along and then it went bang and that was the end of that. Kudos to the owners who comped all of the open bills in the bar. I can’t imagine that would happen in any other bar, save Butterflies….which is owned by the same people.
The owners of Billboard have invested a lot of money in to the bar over the past month. 18 brand-new air-conditioning units have been installed. The whole sound system has been upgraded, as has all of the lighting. There’s a fabulous bright sign installed outside and a whole heap of other changes under the hood so to speak which might not be obvious to punters but which make the whole experience even better.
In last week’s column I wrote that Soi Cowboy felt flat when I stopped by, especially when compared with Nana Plaza. I’ve been back to both bar areas this past week and I stand by those comments. Something has happened at Soi Cowboy and to be frank, it feels like the magic has gone. Cowboy reminds me a little of Patpong 10 odd years ago, back when many of us felt that it had lost its way. Nana Plaza in comparison is vibrant and has real atmosphere. The roof over Nana Plaza may have been installed to keep the rain out, but it also helps the vibe as sound is trapped in the plaza and bounces around, making it feel like there are more people there than there actually are. Nana mightn’t be that busy but it feels busy – and that’s key. As an expat friend who some used to refer to as the Mayor of Soi Cowboy said to me this week, “The only thing Soi Cowboy has going for it now is the happy hours.”
In an only in Thailand story, a mamasan from a popular farang-owned Soi Cowboy gogo bar has management shaking their respective heads as she consistently turns up late for work. Hardly unusual given how punctuality isn’t important to most Thais. The thing is, it’s not like she has a long way to travel to work – she lives above the bar!
If you find yourself down in Pattaya this week, you could do a lot worse than stop by Dollhouse on Saturday night which will celebrate 20 years of Nanapong with a Nanapong dance contest featuring girls from 4 Pattaya gogo bars.
IOUs are quite common in farang-owned bars and allow staff to receive part of their salary in advance if things are tight that month. From a farang-owned chrome pole bar on Soi Cowboy comes yet another piece of evidence that the bar industry is in trouble with a bar that used to happily advance money to girls and place an IOU against their salary now refusing IOUs altogether. Times really are tough for some.
In a recent column I mentioned that the bar staff in a popular farang gogo bar were upset that tips had dropped away to almost nothing. It would seem this might be something of a trend after the boss of a restaurant popular with foreigners – and particularly popular with Americans – said he had seen the same and tips in the restaurant have fallen off a cliff. This restaurant, which does not force a service charge on customers, pools all tips and divvies them up amongst staff. It has calculated that tips come in at less than 2% of total sales. Obviously there are some who don’t tip much or hardly tip at all like the Japanese , but even large groups of Americans have been observed not tipping. Whether it’s related to perceptions of service, increased prices or simply customers feeling like they have less baht in their pockets, I do not know.
A run through Asia Books this week made me think time had stood still. In the Thailand books section it seems that pretty much every title on the shelves has been around forever and was first published many years ago. Despite more expats living in Thailand than ever, there is little in the way of new expat fiction novels or books about Thailand for expats.
There have been various reports online from foreigners who have had problems adding credit to their stored value skytrain card. They were told they had to present their passport and register their skytrain card if they wished to add credit. Having heard this, I went along prepared with my passport and asked to put some money on to the card. No problem. Do I need to show my passport? No, why would we ask you for that? Has there been a change in policy?
One expat told me he is now choosing to stay in AirBnB properties when he travels around the country so as to avoid the dreaded TM30 reporting requirements. Most AirBnB operators do not register their guests with the Immigration department which means the Immigration department isn’t informed and thus doesn’t know that they had been away from home – and that circumvents any problems with the TM30 form. What is amusing is that in cases like this AirBnB is technically illegal (rentals on AirBnB are only legal if the stay is for 30 days or longer) so the enforcement of one law is causing expats to break another law. The TM30 and visa issues generally are still a big talking point amongst expats.
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Quote of the week comes from the marketing department of a Thai hotel chain, “Welcome to Thailand, the land for those who believe in equality.”
The government has decided to delay plans to collect a tourism levy from foreign visitors.
It’s not a great surprise that Bangkok is declared the world’s most visited city by MasterCard but did you know that Pattaya is the world’s 15th most visited city?
The Sydney Morning Herald looks at the dubious past of a Thai politician.
Said Thai politician threatens to sue Aussie newspaper who revealed his dubious past.
The chairman of the Bangkok joint chambers of commerce was interviewed about the TM30 mess.
Bloomberg looks at how the strong baht is giving Thailand an economic headache.
A Canadian was arrested for stealing luggage at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
A freak accident sees a Brit die in Thailand after tripping in his hotel room, falling, smashing a glass window and a shard of glass piercing his stomach.
A special report in today’s Bangkok Post says Bangkok is losing its gloss.
An Omani man refuses to pay a 53K baht bill after ringing the bell 20 times!
A Pattaya massage shop owner files a defamation complaint against a foreign blogger.
Times are tough and bar owners are even more sensitive than usual. That’s the reason why I haven’t named some bars in this week’s column which have seen business go bad or have had staffing or other problems. Not naming the bar is not such a big deal because often it is what has happened that is interesting, as opposed to exactly where it happened. Naming bars when reporting about certain things going on can get owners angry – even when what is said is exactly what happened. Not naming the bar can be a necessary evil. That’s why sometimes I don’t name specific bars. I hope you understand.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org