Stickman's Weekly Column February 2nd, 2020

The Coronavirus And Visiting Thailand



There are more reported cases of the coronavirus in Thailand than in any country, bar China. Chinese make up about 30% of all visitors to Thailand. The coronavirus has a mortality rate of around 2.5%. Should you be worried about visiting Thailand at this time?

A virus scare is nothing new in Thailand. In 2003 there was SARS. In 2009 there was H1N1 or “swine flu”. On each occasion some people were infected but the numbers were small. The sky didn’t fall. As I write this column, Thailand has just 19 reported cases of coronavirus, all but a couple of which were contracted in China.

While many Thais are freaking out, friends on the ground tell me most expats aren’t that concerned.

There haven’t been reports of Western visitors cancelling travel to Thailand, at least not in significant numbers. On the other hand, the number of Chinese visitors is expected to fall off a cliff as China forbids outbound tour groups. And there are already reports of a backlash against Chinese visitors in parts of Thailand who might find themselves less welcome than usual.

A long-term reader sent in this email, which mirrors what I have heard from friends:

I thought you may be interested in subjective observations from Chiang Mai on the corona virus as I experience here.

The first case in Chiang Mai has been confirmed at CMU hospital.
There are relatively few Chinese here now.
Most people are wearing masks including shop owners. Most at the mall yesterday were wearing them.
The general atmosphere is one of quiet nervousness.
Some Chinese are being refused service at massage shops as workers are afraid.
There is real anti-Chinese sentiment in the air among farangs, which makes me sick.
Chiang Mai is very quiet at the moment, unusually so for this time of year.

Chinese are by far the largest group of visitors to Thailand by nationality. That doesn’t mean they go to the same places as Western visitors. The Chinese have their favourite places for eating, shopping and sleeping, and many of the attractions they flock to are of little or even no interest to the average Western visitor. In other words, the odds of coming across large groups of Chinese tourists – Walking Street in Pattaya aside – is not that high.

Many Thais are making a point of avoiding Chinese visitors. Social media posts in the Thai language this week outlined places to stay away from in Bangkok, to avoid Chinese visitors and reduce the chance of contracting the coronavirus. The only place on the list Westerners might go to in any numbers is the Grand Palace. Pretty much all the other places are off the beaten track of your average Western visitor.

The reality is that the virus doesn’t appear to be that contagious. At the time of writing, there have been less than 20 reported cases of coronavirus in Thailand – and not a single death. Of course, some may be unaware they are carrying the virus and the actual number could be higher but for the time being there isn’t a sense that coronavirus is widespread in Thailand.

And how many people have died in Thailand from it? A big fat zero. The mortality rate is nothing like, say, Ebola.

But as reader Dave wrote in the email above, many are giving Chinese visitors in Thailand a wide berth all the same.

It’s not a nice thing to stay, but as the number of Chinese visitors dwindle, that won’t be hard to do. In a week or two, will there be many Chinese visitors in Thailand at all? One thinks not.

But I really think all this worry about coronavirus is a bit over the top. Few people have caught it. It’s not nearly as contagious as even the measles, and the mortality rate is relatively low.

You only have to look at the big picture for a little perspective. Coronavirus is way down the list of possible problems a visitor to Thailand is likely to face.

Take yesterday’s Bangkok Post online front page, as an example. Headlines included “Danish man dies during parachute jump” and “Russian woman drowns off Patong beach”. I didn’t see any headlines about Farang dying from health complications caused by a virus.

A few Westerners have been murdered in Thailand over the years and a number have fallen from hotel balconies to their death. Some have even fallen off cliffs or from the top of waterfalls as they were trying to take the ultimate selfie.

I’d be more worried about this sort of thing than I would of some silly virus – and those other things have never been a concern. If you’re going to worry about something, worry about being involved in a traffic accident – the odds are way higher than contracting coronavirus. And you don’t worry about having an accident in Thailand, do you? So why worry about coronavirus?!

Those who have succumbed to coronavirus are said to have been in poor health, had a weakened immune system and / or serious respiratory issues.

If I was in bad health, perhaps I’d avoid Thailand for the time-being. But I’m as fit as a fiddle so I’m not at all concerned. I’m in countdown mode to my next visit and have zero plans to delay or cancel.

Look on the bright side, this might actually be a great time to visit. There will almost certainly be fewer visitors. That means shorter queues at the airport, less crowded bars & restaurants and – with a bit of luck – hotel rates and even airfares might drop a bit.

Unless you are in poor health, have a compromised immune system or respiratory issues, there doesn’t seem to be much to worry about. Unless the situation changes markedly, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to visit Thailand at this time.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken on Soi Nana, outside the nice looking Asia Herb Massage outlet which is close to the intersection with soi 6. Where was this week’s taken?


Nana Plaza
 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails of the week.

Farang bar owners behind drink price increases.

Whilst there is no doubt that rents, overheads etc. have had an impact on the price of drinks, there is another factor and that is farang ownership of gogo bars. They know how much we pay in the UK and profiteer on that basis. It happened in Spain many years ago. Early Brit visitors paid Spanish prices and got free-flow measures of spirits unlike the UK where it’s regulated so we all get the same pour. Brits bought in to the bars in Spain and introduced British prices and regulations, sending the price of drinks sky-high over a few years. The same has happened in Bangkok. Local costs = UK prices. The result is a rip-off.

200 is too much.

200 baht drinks in gogo bars will be too much for me. Maybe in 10 years’ time 200 baht will be acceptable. I already laugh at the current prices and walk away.

Farang bars more expensive than similar Thai bars.

My take is the bar industry is self-serving and has dug a hole that it cannot get out of. As a result, bars are suffering the consequences and must screw tourists and expats in order to sustain itself. Their greed spilled into labor greed and landlord greed. I wonder what beers go for in the Thai gogo bar area in Saphan Kwai? I know you can get a large bottle in Tawan Daeng for 150 baht. The inflation rate in Thailand at one time was 4% but has come down on par with countries like the USA and hovers around 2% and lower.

If it was like 20 years ago…

I wouldn’t pay 200 baht for a standard drink in a gogo bar to watch a bunch of half-arsed, average-looking girls on their phones and then be hounded for lady drinks if they engage in a conversation with you. No, thanks. Having said that, if the attitudes of the girls were like 20 years ago I wouldn’t think twice about paying that amount.

Expats spending less time in the bars.

I was in Soi Cowboy for the first time in many months last night. I popped into Baccara as my first stop and immediately noticed the price of Singha was 190 baht, which gave me a jolt. Prices in Baccara were always a wee bit higher but I don’t recall ever paying more than 170 or maybe 180 baht before. Another 10 – 20 baht doesn’t sound like a lot but it was the psychological cost of staying for a second beer and moving on to the next venue. The price in Crazy House was 170 baht, which I think is the same as it has been for a while. I long ago stopped buying lady drinks, partly because of the insidious “2 lady drinks practice” in some bars and partly because I’m tired of the same old verbal exchange (one can hardly call it a conversation) with a woman who is much less charming than her predecessors were 15 years ago. I left after visiting two venues as it was touching 9 PM and I was already bored – which is probably the biggest reason why many expats like me don’t spend as much time in the gogo bars anymore.

The fallout from 200 baht drinks.

Apropos 200+ baht drinks, I can see it going one of the following ways:
1)  People will binge drink at home or on the street with alcohol bought from supermarkets or 7 Elevens, before staggering into bars half-cut.
2)  The regulars of today will disappear and be replaced by far fewer, but much wealthier clientele.
3)  The bars will gradually close down.

Pay Western prices, expect Western quality.

On my first trip to Thailand, drinks were 100 baht, and it was almost 50 baht to the Euro. That went to 150 baht drinks, and 40 baht to the Euro. Soon drinks will be 200 baht and it will be 30 baht to the Euro. On holiday, a few 200 baht drinks in Baccara makes for a nice evening. But 200 THB for a drink in an average gogo bar? With 100 baht drinks, you could peep in a bar, and if it looked OK you went in. At 200, you’re talking Western prices so if you see 5 – 10 average girls in bikini hardly moving, hear bad music and know there is crap seating, why bother? If the bars ask Western prices, they better offer a better product. On holiday it is not just the bars. At 50 baht to the Euro, you accept certain things. But at 33 baht to the Euro and rising prices in baht, Thailand has a serious problem in what it offers compared to other destinations.

The Slug vs The Mad Professor.

This evening I walked past The Slug pushing his dish of change along Sukhumvit. It occurred to me, what would happen if the Slug and the Mad Professor were working the same side of the street and their courses intersected?

Nanapong still a riot after all these years.

Oh my God, what a night! I have been coming to Thailand for over 20 years and thought I had seen it all but this Nanapong thing was on a different level! Don’t tell everyone or I won’t get a seat at the next one!

The other side of the tracks.

I was really saddened to hear what is happening in that street in Benjakit Park. I was surprised the first time I saw it and thought how cool. There is an old neighborhood on the other side of Petchaburi Road I pass on my way to Makkasan from Nana, as well as off soi 3 between the klong and Petchaburi. They are larger and well established (poorer) neighborhoods. It puts in perspective how a 3,000 baht short time is very attractive to impoverished people.


Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

The doom and gloom is setting in fast amongst bar owners and bar managers in the wake of the coronavirus. Already, some are predicting the worst for 2020.

Queens Park Plaza closed as planned on Friday night but there were a couple of hold-outs and on Saturday night 2 bars were still open. One had power and was able to show the night’s football matches. The other was lit with candles.

Work on the new British bar on Soi 13 will start before the end of the month and be open by March if the rumours are right.

Sexy Night, the oldest, smallest, pokiest but also most atmospheric bar in Nana Plaza, has put the price of standard drinks up to 170 baht.

This coming Saturday, February 8th, will be a fizzer in the bar areas. It’s Makabucha Day, a Buddhist holiday, which almost certainly means that the sale of alcohol will be prohibited. Of course there will still be the odd place serving alcohol and if the past is anything to go by, those who absolutely must have something to drink should head on over to Patpong.

Angelwitch and Lollipop in Nana Plaza will open at 5 PM on each of Friday and Sunday in response to Makabucha Day, giving punters a few more hours in the bars on the day before the Buddhist day, and the day after.

Also in lieu of being closed on Saturday, Billboard and Butterflies in Nana Plaza will open early on Friday, at 7 PM.

 

geisha-nana-plaza

The lights are out in Geisha in Nana Plaza as the crazy Korean is again behind on his bills.

 

The lights are out – again – at Geisha in Nana Plaza where the crazy Korean is unable to pay his bills. How long can this carry on before the plug is pulled for good?

When Dollhouse opened on Soi Cowboy some 18 years ago, it was the start of a round of bar renovations that took the soi from a sleepy backwater for expats and placed it firmly on the sex tourist map. In last week’s column I included the rumour that the best in the business – the team behind Billboard and Butterflies – were rumoured to be in talks to acquire Dollhouse. I waited for a denial this week. Nothing came. That’s not to say anyone confirmed there was any truth in this rumour, but it is interesting that no-one denied there is something in the rumours. One party asked about it responded with, “No comment”. Soi Cowboy is the most attractive bar area and the Instagrammers’ favourite, but for genuine punters, many of the bars on Cowboy are a little stale. Soi Cowboy needs a shakeup, specifically someone to do something which drives a new round of change which makes Soi Cowboy compete with Nana Plaza again. I really hope that there is truth in this rumour.

The new bar / restaurant area on Sukhumvit soi 11 mentioned in last week’s column is booming and has been described by one regular reader as an “ArtBox beater”, referring to the popular ArtBox at the Chuwit Gardens.

 

sukhumvit-soi7-bar-area

The new Sukhumvit soi 7 bar area, photographed from the Hyatt Regency lounge. Photo kindly provided by reader Nicky.

 

In last week’s column I wrote about 200 baht drinks coming in gogo bars and commented on the increasing expenses and mentioned labour costs had gone up. The salaries paid to service staff are much higher than they used to be as the struggle to find service staff is almost as difficult as finding girls to dance. Mamasan salaries are so much higher than they used to be as mamasans have worked out that they can negotiate a really high salary if they bring a team of girls with them to the bar. Likewise, cashier salaries are up and I wouldn’t be surprised if DJs are paid more too. But there is an exception when it comes to increasing salaries in gogo bars. Farang bar managers. There aren’t that many foreigners managing gogo bars so the sample is small, but in a few cases the salary paid to farang gogo bar managers has stayed about the same, and in some cases has gone down! 15 years ago the few foreign gogo bar managers received salaries around the 70,000 baht per month mark. One experienced Nana Plaza manager earned over 100,000 baht per month. Today? The salary range for farang gogo bar managers is in the range of 40,000 – 80,000 baht with around 60K baht common. I’m not sure what this says about farangs or farang bar managers – but whatever it is, it isn’t good!

From Pattaya comes the observation that while the Chinese are (or given the coronavirus, is that were) visiting in large numbers, it is the Indians – also visiting in significant numbers – who appear to be opening up new businesses in Pattaya. From a business owner standpoint, could Indians become the new farang in Pattaya?

Still in Pattaya, Retox Game On in Pattaya has been listed for sale. I hate to say it but I don’t think anyone will be surprised to see a lot of bars go up for sale this year.

The troubled but musical genius that is Sek Loso will perform in Hillary 2 on Soi Nana on March 5th. Loso had a bunch of hits in the ’90s and at that time his songs were played in popular bars in Nana Plaza. Songs like ซมซาน and อะไรก็ยอม would see the girls go wild and the atmosphere would be just fantastic! On this note, while I get it that most foreigners don’t care for Thai music in the bars, if there’s one Thai artist worth seeing live, it’s Sek Loso. And you can guarantee there will be a fantastic vibe when he performs.

 

sek-loso

 

Expat magazine The Big Chilli celebrated 20 years in the most recent edition which  included a bunch of snapshots from the society pages over the years. The expats photographed in the early issues can reasonably be described as “aged”, predominately male and not always the healthiest specimens. Compare that with the society pages in more recent issues where many featured are Thai, young and good-looking. And that expats featured are often similarly young and good-looking. It’s just more evidence of how Bangkok is changing.

Speaking of print media in Thailand, I’ve all but given up on the Bangkok Post. Some of the columnists are good but the general Thailand news section is a disappointment. If you feel the same way, try Khao Sod, a major Thailand newspaper in Thailand with an English version online with articles that are much better edited than what you get in the Post these days.

A friend who became fed up with Thailand left and moved on to the Philippines a few years back. We still trade emails from time to time and his comments – or is that complaints – about life in “the PI” as he calls it are pretty much exactly the same as what expats in Thailand moan about. Prices in places with a sizeable foreign contingent are going up fast. Locals are more interested in their phones than those around them. Girls in the bars are fewer in number, much bigger than they used to be and the price for a night of fun is up markedly. The message is clear: don’t make the mistake of thinking that getting on a plane fixes everything. You might find it’s just more of the same.

A shameless plug goes out to Mr Ken of Hua Hin who is a provider of fans, lights and garden lighting. I’ve heard nice things about Mr Ken so here’s a quick shout out to him. If you’re in the market for anything he is selling, check out his website here: FansLightsHuaHin.com

 

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benjakit-demolition

Demolition of the old neighbourhood in the soi north of Benjakit Park. Photo kindly provided by Derek.

 

Reader Derek kindly sent in the photo above of the demolition of the old Thai-style village in the lane at the north-east corner of Benjakit Park. That little neighbourhood has long been a reminder of the Bangkok of old, when it was arguably a more charming, more gentle and more friendly place.

The Thai police don’t always have the best reputation, amongst foreign residents and Thais themselves. And at times some of the concerns raised seem legitimate. From time to time you hear foreigners using derogatory terms about the Thai police like keystone cops, questioning their ability to get things done. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating the ability of the Thai police to solve major and complicated crimes when they want to. The recent case of the Lopburi gold shop robber who gunned down 3 victims is a good example of what the Thai Police are capable of. Generally, when they roll their sleeves up and do the hard yards, they do get their man. Sometimes it seems that perhaps they don’t really want to….and that is something I won’t be going in to.

What many expats had been wishing for is finally happening – the Thai baht is falling in value. Brits are now getting close to 41 for their hard-earned £ and Americans are now back over 31 to the dollar. The Thai baht has declined in value against the US dollar by more than 3% in recent weeks, and I would not be surprised to see it fall more, especially given that the odds for a rate cut must have gone up in the wake of the coronavirus scare and the impact on the economy.

 

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Quote of the week comes from a reader, “I am starting to wonder if the anticipation of going to Thailand is as much fun as the trip itself.

Reader’s story of the week comes from Bangkok Byron, “Angeles City: Same Same But Different Part 5“.

The death of a Hungarian in the cells at Suwannaphum Airport will be probed.

What sort of effect will China’s outbound tour ban have on the tourism industry in Thailand?

4,000 US soldiers will provide a welcome injection of funds in to the Pattaya economy as Cobra Gold takes place this year between February 24 and March 6.

British photographer Ben Davies has released Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face Of The City, which looks good for those who like the Bangkok of old.

In Phuket, 300 buses are parked up with no Chinese tour groups in sight.

A Thai man has confessed to ramming his car in to his neighbour, killing him.

A blind beggar is caught getting out of his fancy upmarket SUV.

Chinese tourists attack a Thai woman in a Pattaya restaurant after she complained about the noise they were making.


 

As I countdown to my next visit to Thailand, I’m keeping my eye on what is going on with the coronavirus. Like I wrote in the opener, I’m not worried about it – at least in terms of contracting it / falling ill. I do have a few worries about the fallout over this in terms of businesses and the effect on the economy. While most of the places I write about don’t have a lot of Chinese customers, some are leaning more on new markets like Chinese customers as their traditional customers, farang, don’t spend as freely as they once did. I really hope that the virus doesn’t spread further and that it is brought under control quickly and a sense of normality returns. If not, this really could be a bad year for businesses which rely on tourists – and that includes the bars and many restaurants frequently mentioned in this column.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]