Stickman's Weekly Column March 1st, 2020

The Coronavirus Conundrum



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

The coronavirus is sweeping across the globe. Tens of thousands have contracted the virus and thousands have died. In China, factories are closed and entire cities are in lockdown. In parts of New Zealand, the United States and other developed countries, panic buying has seen supermarket shelves emptied. Markets are in freefall. But on the ground in Bangkok you wouldn’t know, some expat friends claim. It’s life as normal, they try their hardest to convince me. So if it’s life and business as usual in Bangkok, why have I postponed my upcoming trip?

Just a few weeks ago I said I wasn’t worried about the coronavirus. And I genuinely wasn’t. But as things just seem to get worse and the virus spreads further around the world, I have changed my mind about the idea of visiting Bangkok at this time.

 

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Times Square, Bangkok. There are notices about coronavirus everywhere. Photo credit: Jack.

 

To be clear, it’s not my health I am worried about. We’ve been bombarded with info, and apparently the virus is most severe in those aged over 70, those in poor health and those with underlying health conditions. That’s not me. So why postpone?

The worry for me is more about my travel plans being disrupted, and the possibility that your whole life could be put on hold. An outbreak could see you being told to self-isolate or worse still, forced in to some sort of quarantine camp.

This has already happened in New Zealand. Upon arrival back in New Zealand, Kiwis who had been in China were bussed en masse to an army camp where for 14 days they were effectively prisoners. Only after 14 days in the army’s care and then testing negative for the virus could they finally return home and get on with their life.

To put this in perspective, in Kiwiland you’d have to commit a fairly serious crime to be locked up for 14 days. The punishment for visiting the wrong place at the wrong time is not all that dis-similar to imprisonment.

OK, so I know why they do it, but I also know that I would go stir-crazy if I had to spend 14 days in quarantine.

Another worry in the back of my mind is the possibility of contracting the virus and passing it on to my ageing parents when I visit them. All because I visited Thailand. That would be mortifying.

And then there’s travel insurance. No-one is sure whether travel insurance policies will cover anything to do with the virus. Ok, so in a lifetime of travels I have never made a travel insurance claim – but I like to think that I’m covered, just in case.

Things are changing quickly with travel bans and restrictions popping up everywhere. A week ago, who would have thought that countries would issue a travel advisory against visiting Italy for all but essential reasons. Which countries might have travel advisories against visiting them this time next week?

Of course, this might just be a great time to visit Thailand. No queues at the airport. Fewer people in the shopping malls, restaurants and bars. Popular tourist attractions like the Grand Palace quieter than they have been for many years. And for naughty boys, the bars aren’t busy and the girls must be getting hungry.

To be clear, I am not saying that *you* shouldn’t travel to Thailand at this time. Rather, I am saying that I have changed my mind. I was keen – and remain keen – to get back to Bangkok, but I just don’t think now is the right time. I understand the arguments for and against and for me, the potential pitfalls are just too great, hence I postponed the trip.

I travel to enjoy myself. I don’t want any worries. I don’t want to think that there might be problems. That would lessen my overall enjoyment of the trip, and that alone is reason enough to postpone.

I have corresponded with a few regular readers who I knew were planning to visit soon. About 2/3 have delayed their trip. 1/3 are still planning to visit. One issue raised by a couple is travel restrictions imposed by their employer. Thailand might have a relatively small number of confirmed coronavirus cases but try convincing HR of that.

 

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More coronavirus reminders, this time on the BTS. Photo credit: Dirty Doctor.

 

It’s hard to see things settling down quickly and I don’t see us getting clarity on where it’s all going any time soon. With Songkran not that far away and April the hottest – and for my money, the most unpleasant – month of the year weather-wise, odds are I won’t be back in Thailand until late April / early May at the earliest.

But anything could happen. Here I am assuming that when things settle down, numbers plateau or are in steady decline, I can lock in new travel dates, get on a plane and head to Thailand. These assumptions might all be fanciful. Perhaps, for example, winter in the southern hemisphere sees us get hit hard with the flu, coronavirus cases spike at the same time and suddenly travellers from Australia and New Zealand find themselves unwelcome in Thailand unless they self-isolate in a third country for 14 days first. It’s not out of the question!

If the shit hits the fan, I’d rather be at home in New Zealand than stranded in Thailand.

The possibility of disrupted travel plans, being told to self-isolate or forced in to prison quarantine were the main reasons I have postponed my trip to Thailand. Not cancel, just postpone. It’s a shame that this time next week I won’t be in Thailand, but at the same time I know that if I did travel it would be worrying and not nearly as much fun as usual. Thailand can wait.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken of Phra Ratchawang police station on Maha Rat Road, a stone’s throw from the old flower market. Only 5 people got it right.


Nana Plaza

 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.

Why a Mamasan Fan Club doesn’t exist.

Spot on about some of the mamasans in Bangkok gogo bars. I’ve found some to be the rudest, most obnoxious Thais I have come across. Brazenly on the take, trying to force you to buy lady drinks after 30 seconds of entering the bar, scowling even when they leave 4 x 10 baht coins on the tray and you only leave 20 after 1 drink that cost an extortionate amount. And quite frankly, anyone who pays that 4,000 baht or 3,750 baht for short-time deserves all the crap they get. Far better value to be had elsewhere. I’m glad you brought this up and I hope bar owners take note.

Mamasans clipping the ticket have ruined the bars.

“Clipping” has ruined the bars. I know about ten expats who have simply stopped spending in bars. That fat-assed mamadragon at a premier Bangkok gogo bar you often trumpet is the worst of the lot. She’s cloned her type and really taken the life out of what used to be a unique and fun environment. When she was fired her from a popular Soi Cowboy bar six years ago for bullying, extorting and stealing, she just bounced over to Nana.

Young men get old.

I came to Thailand in my mid 40’s with investments in the stock market. 20 years later those untouched investments have grown considerably, with dividends constantly reinvested. I also have 3 foreign pensions about to start paying out. Until a couple of years ago I had had a variety of jobs in Thailand, paying salaries from 35K to 90K baht / month. I live a comfortable life, but nothing overboard. All the money I earned in Thailand has been spent. I could have reduced my expenses and saved perhaps 10K baht / month, but that would have been the limit, reaching possibly 2,500,000 baht over 20 years. I have observed the lives of a few guys I met 15 to 20 years ago, at the time in their mid 20’s to 30’s. Some are now married with kids, some live the single life. They are all approaching or have already hit 50. I’m talking dive instructors & dive shop managers, English teachers and bar owners, each with potentially another 40 years left to live. But none of them has much of a financial plan, nor assets. The “live for today, tomorrow will take care of itself” mentality is coming to a crunch. So here’s a message from an old git to you younger guys. You will also, far quicker than you think, become an old git. Don’t succumb to the YouTube “live it now, you can work later and have it all” mentality. No, you bloody well can’t! Get a career and build up assets in the West whilst you have the opportunity. Tomorrow relentlessly comes day after day, and there are, with luck, 25 years’ worth or 9,125 of them after you hit 65. And every single one has to be financed by you! What’s your plan?

Where to see the real Patpong.

On Friday I had an early hour to kill so I stopped in the Patpong Museum. It was terrific! Much better than I thought it would be. I hope they make it work. On the other hand, it’s sad that one has to go to a museum to see the real Patpong. I immediately went across to Madrid for old times sake, where I still have a bottle of Jack Daniels with my name on it.

Travel bargains in the wake of the virus crisis.

I notice that Air Asia has reduced the cost of the return flight from Singapore to Bangkok to 50 SGD (1,116 THB), probably because of the coronavirus. The Dynasty Inn is 1,480 per night, so the cost for a weekend getaway to Bangkok is next to nothing. It puts in to perspective the crazy prices in the bars these days – I could get 5 or 6 flights for the price of one long-time! Maybe I’ll skip the barfines and take a few more weekend breaks.

Postcard from Patong Beach, Phuket.

Here at Patong, there are still lots of Europeans and Russians. From what I can tell, and also according to the hotel receptionist, the Russians aren’t big spenders. I never see them eating in even moderately upmarket restaurants or drinking in bars or nightclubs. Practically all the Italians are regulars. I remember there used to be more of them, especially younger ones, pre-GFC. Word is that the European high season will soon come to an end. There is an area past the Baanzan Market that I call the Latin Quarter where French, Italian and some Germans domicile, in guesthouses mainly. Chinese numbers are miniscule and they are shunned. The guesthouse across the lane from my hotel refuses to take in Pakistanis due to the country’s proximity to China. If not for the virus, Phuket would be packing them in like sardines.


Demonia Bangkok
 

Business was mixed along Sukhumvit this week with reports generally more positive and upbeat than the previous week. Some bars were said to be doing reasonable trade. I am told plenty of bars still have a decent atmosphere, even if it is quieter than you’d expect for the time of year. Most salaries were paid this past week so that might partially explain why trade was ok.

Prior to getting on stage, dancers at King’s Castle in Patpong soi 1 are lined up in a row and one of the mamasans uses a temperature gauge on each girl. Presumably if she is running a fever she is sent home. Will this happen in other bars? And for that matter, which bar will be the first to put face masks on dancers?

At 700 odd rooms, The Ambassador on Sukhumvit soi 11 is amongst the biggest hotels in Bangkok. But don’t think it has the most customers. According to a member of staff, earlier this week the hotel had the grand total of just 40 room taken. Yeah, it really is bad.

In Nana Plaza, Londons Calling is a bar I never hear much about and a bar I don’t think I have mentioned in the column in more than a year. On Friday night its shutters were down. Not sure what that’s about.

What is going on at the Arab’s bars in Soi Cowboy? They were all closed on Monday this past week, just as they were all closed on Monday the previous week too. If I could ask The Arab what is going on I would, but I can’t. The Arab is not an open book and it’s not a simple case of asking him what is going on like it is with other bar owners. Yes, I have his email address but no, he doesn’t reply. Anyone have a clue what’s going on? Not conspiracy theories, but word from the inside?

Bangkok’s 3 main gogo bar areas are host to 3 different sets of customers these days – expats, sex tourists and mainstream visitors would perhaps be the 3 main groups of visitors. Each bar area goes through periods of popularity. There may be a period when a bar area appeals to expats, while another area may be more popular with sex tourists. These days, you’d say that Soi Cowboy has the mainstream visitor market sewn up and it’s where more non sex tourist visitors keen for a gander to see what the bar scene is all about. It makes sense – it’s the best area for selfies and no doubt some still remember it from Hangover 2. Nana Plaza is the firm favourite for genuine naughty boys which makes sense because there are more bars with large numbers of dancers than the other areas. As far as expats go, no area stands out and it seems to be an individual thing; each expat seems to have their own favourite bar area these days.

 

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Cricket is hardly the most popular sport in expat circles and women’s cricket even less so, but the women’s T20 cricket world cup has generated interest – primarily because Thailand is represented. The Old English Pub on Soi Thonglor has embraced the national women’s cricket team and is showing all the matches live.

If you’re visiting the main Bangkok Immigration office out at the Government Complex at Chaeng Wattana, a temperature check is carried out upon entering the building. After they screen you, they say “No fever” and put a yellow sticker on you. I wonder what happens if your temperature is high. Would you be merely turned away, or would they insist that you go for tests? Enquiring minds want to know!

Speaking of visiting Immigration at Chaeng Wattana, earlier this week a reader went out there to extend his tourist visa. He duly received 30 days more permission to stay….the extension taking 7 hours of his time. He observed that it seemed like half of China was out there….presumably they are also extending their visa as they’re in no hurry to go home. I wonder if he asked the Immigration officer if he / she could tack on another 7 hours in lieu of the time it took for the visa extension to be processed?

When talking about the coronavirus, why do Thais say covid-nineteen i.e. they say nineteen in English and not the Thai words for 19, sip-gao?

There are really mixed messages coming from friends and readers on the ground in Bangkok. The consensus is that fewer people are wearing a mask than a week or two ago, while at the same time some popular areas are much less busy than they normally are, think shopping malls etc.

 

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A reader was a passenger in a car that was stopped at a police checkpoint not far out of Cha Am (a seaside city about 2 hours from Bangkok that is popular with Thais). Said reader estimates there were in excess of 30 policemen at the checkpoint so it was almost certainly a legit / authorised police checkpoint. Two questions were asked. “Where is farang from? Does he smoke?” The cops went to open the passenger side door and the reader cleverly pointed to the sleeping baby in the backseat. That was the end of it and the car was allowed to proceed. Officers at these checkpoints are usually on the search for drugs and they get excited when they see a farang who – if he fits their profile of a drug user – is forced to provide a urine sample, roadside. Questions are being asked from some quarters about what would happen if you were stopped roadside and found to have traces of drugs in your urine – and the drugs were legitimately consumed outside of Thailand? What about if the person can show a marijuana medical certificate / card. Has anyone been caught in Thailand with traces of drugs in their urine and produced a marijuana medical card / cert to the police? Curious minds would like to know.

Reader Kevin has been visiting the bars since the ’90s and sent in the business card below from Cleopatra Bar in Patpong. I wonder how many readers can remember it? Not me, it was well before my time.

 

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Cleopatra Bar business card from the mid 1980s, kindly provided by Kevin.

 

You’d think that coronavirus worries and fewer people flying would mean airfare bargains, but that’s not necessarily the case. In particular, Aussies and Kiwis might have trouble finding decent priced tickets to Thailand in the short-term. With these two countries putting a travel ban in place on anyone who has been in China in the past 14 days, Chinese students studying in Oz and NZ are exploiting loopholes to get back to their school / university. These enterprising Chinese students are flying to a third country that will allow them entry – namely Thailand – where they spend 14 days, before traveling on to Australia or New Zealand to resume their studies. The problem for Aussies and Kiwis is not getting to Bangkok, it’s the flights back. On many dates, flights from Bangkok to Australia and New Zealand are close to full …. with Thai students.

In the past year or so I have become aware of a few Thai women in the other half’s extended circle of friends who have claimed to be suffering from depression. In each case they were solved in exactly the same way. The first of the bunch who said she was depressed went to see a mental health doctor. The combined consultation fee and cost of the prescribed drugs was 6,000 baht. She was told to return for a second appointment 2 weeks later but never went back. Miraculously, she was cured almost instantly. Other girls within the same group have posted on social media about how they are depressed, one of whom even went so far as to say said she wanted to die. In each case someone else in the circle of friends responded that they should go and see such and such a doctor at such and such a hospital. And by the way, it’ll set you back more than a regular doc visit and you’re looking at 6,000 baht. When the price was mentioned, each made an immediate and miraculous recovery and hasn’t shown any signs since that things aren’t right. I know mental health is big in the West these days, and I also notice that some in Thailand seem to mimic that they are suffering from mental health issues too. Whether it’s all for real or not – and whether it’s possibly attention-seeking or not – who knows.


 

Reader’s story of the week comes from Bangkok Byron, “Bangkok Don Juan Part 1“.

Quote of the week comes from a friend, Thailand has far too many police officers, soldiers, and security guards.

Coronavirus is expected to cause disruptions to Thailand’s tourism industry for 6 months.

Thailand has reported its first death from coronavirus.

A Thai minister convicted of smuggling heroin in to Australia faces censure back home.

Thailand could be looking at a 20% drop in international visitors this year compared to 2019.

An American living in Thailand pleads guilty to using a forged Canadian passport.

An American man and his Hungarian starlet are arrested in Bangkok for making porn.

The British boyfriend of a Thai beer bar owner is attacked by owners of rival bars.

Hundreds of Chinese tourists on vacation in Bali are scrambling to avoid going home.

 

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On the streets of Kiwiland this week. I’m stuck here for a while.

I didn’t want to write about the coronavirus this week but in the end I felt that I just couldn’t avoid it. I am hopeful that in a month or so there will be some clarity on where things are going and with a bit of luck, infection rates might have plateaued or better still, be in decline. Has the coronavirus caused you to change your plans? I’d love to hear where your thinking is at and whether you plan to visit any time soon, or not.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]