toa BLOG

Previous updates...

Welcome, Thailand tourism, getting around, diseases, foreigner pricing

August 2003

1.) It goes both ways
2.) TAT
3.) Visa fees going up
4.) That onward ticket thing
Truth and fairness
6.) Cambodia politics in Thailand
7.) Been here so long...
8.) Website of the month
9.) Perspective


It goes both ways

Scams and hassles - certainly one of the more popular topics of conversation among travelers throughout the world. Sometimes the accusations directed at a particular business are legit, sometimes they are nothing more than whingeing to hear oneself whinge - or at least to everyone forced to listen; to the person complaining you'd think they had been duped in a multi-million dollar property scam rather than simply overcharged by an opportunist exercising his right to carpe diem and to carpe a few other things as well.

The more one travels the more one becomes adept at spotting scams and other potential problems as well as finding it easier to take some of the hassles in stride. After all, the difference between a scam in your own country and a scam in a country you're traveling in is well, umm, one is in your own country and the the other is in a country you're traveling in. Right.

I'd like to think I do a fairly good job on this website of bringing attention to scams and also pointing out the difference between what is well and truly a hassle and what is nothing more than a time to shut up, stop complaining, and grin and bear the situation you're in. But what about us? Are there scams and hassles tourists put upon local businesses?

The following came courtesy of Jim Christie, whose wife operates several tourist-oriented business in Ban Phe. You might have seen this on another travel forum, but the author has also agreed to share the story here:

Here's a quick sampling of some of the b.s. "scams" pulled by baht-pinching backpackers that happened at our business just last week:

*theft: a few paperback books went missing. (Toilet paper, napkins, condiments regularly go missing.)
*int'l phone calls: arguing over when they hung up vs. the stopwatch. If it goes into the next minute by one split second, we pay. Also, saying there was no answer when an answering machine answered... that's a connection and it costs.
*minivan ticket lie: "I lost my minivan ticket back to KSR, so I need a new one." A quick call to the selling agent on KSR revealed that the person originally bought only a one-way ticket.
*guestroom shenanigans: someone actually took a dump in the trashcan. Someone stole a wall clock.
*Internet baht-pinching: we have hi-speed internet, aircon, legally bought windowsXP and other expensive software, a posted 1 baht per minute and 15-baht minimum, and it's WWIII trying to squeeze more than 10 baht out the whingers.
*Bitching about food/drink costs: "I can get this water for 6 baht at 7-11". Well, good. Go get it.

I could go on, but I'm just getting irritated writing this. And yes, we could "watch" our clientele more closely, but frankly I don't feel like being the untrusting prison guard.

I think for the most part, this speaks for itself and obviously I agree with Jim Christie or I wouldn't have published it here. But what else do tourists do that cause business owners to tear their hair out? Here's a couple of my own:

1.) Making unsecured hotel reservations with little intention of actually showing up. Ever wonder why some smaller establishments that don't take credit cards also don't take reservations? Because folks don't turn up and they get stuck with an empty room. Ever try to sell yesterday's empty room? I've heard more than a few travelers say they'll make a non-secured reservation somewhere only to guarantee they have a room just in case they can't find anything better. Might make sense to the traveler, but it really is quite selfish if you think about it.

2.) Using bar facilities without ordering anything. I once observed at a friend's bar four people arrive and begin playing pool without placing an order. It was a slow night so the owner let it go for about half an hour assuming they'd get around to ordering something soon enough. Realizing the futility of the situation he finally asked the four to buy something if they wanted to continue playing pool. They bought one beer. Between them. And stayed on for two more hours.

And of course there's the ever popular game of skipping out on one's tab and more than a few businesses have been burned in this way.

It seems like I'm stating the obvious but when you hear about this kind of behavior as well as some of the incessant complaining on the part of some tightwad tourists, it bears repeating: businesses are in business to make money, not cater to your desire to travel in Asia on less than $10 a day.

Oh, and that water thing? Contrary to advice you might have read somewhere, food and water are two commodities that are rarely ever bargained for over here. If you don't like a price, try another store. And if you can't find another store then maybe you just uncovered the deep secret as to why the price is twice what you think it should be.


Okay, let's go back to talking about scams on tourists. This one's the TAT scam. TAT stands for the Tourism Authority of Thailand and they are a government agency.

What the Tourism Authority of Thailand does:

TAT promotes tourism in Thailand to both the domestic and international markets. They publish literature, books, magazines, etc. They attend travel fairs. They bring the amazing wonders of travel in Thailand to the world. They license travel agencies and travel guides.

What the Tourism Authority of Thailand does not do:

The TAT does not operate travel agencies. They do not sponsor tours. They do not sell tickets - not for the bus, not for the train, not for an airplane, not for a concert, a cabaret show, nothing. They don't sell anything! They do not have agents wandering around bus and train stations to assist travelers.

And there lies the scam. Hualumphong is Bangkok's main rail terminal and if you're going to take a train somewhere it's here you need to buy your ticket. So what happens is you arrive at the depot, looking like a tourist (does any tourist ever consider how their experience in Thailand might change for the better if they wore long pants and a collared shirt? But I digress...). You spot the ticket windows and start walking in that direction when you are intercepted by a pleasant individual possibly displaying what is a bogus ID card saying they are with the TAT. They'll ask you where you are going, inform you that the route is sold out but what good luck for you they have a TAT travel agency across the street that can take care of you. So you head across the street, see the TAT license and assume you've been told the truth - that this is a TAT travel agency. But what you don't know is that TAT doesn't operate any travel agencies, only licenses them with the criteria being little more than the agencies ability to comply with a few bureaucratic requirements. Inside the agency, the pleasant people will sell you a bus ticket on a private "VIP" bus. And as most people who fall for this scam report, the VIP bus stands for Very Inferior Product, the trip was one hassle after another that would be a true comedy of errors if it wasn't all intentional and what kind of operation is this TAT running anyway?

So here's what you need to do. When you go to the train station to buy a ticket somewhere make sure you go straight to the ticket windows and ignore anybody that tries to prevent you from reaching those windows no matter what they may say. The only person that can tell you with any authority or veracity that a route is sold out is the person behind the window. If they have what you want, buy the ticket. If it really is sold out, then you need to buy a bus ticket. But you do not buy one across the street from one of these travel agencies. Ignore the people that tried to intercept you in the first place and leave the train station by whatever means you arrived and go to the proper bus terminal (southern or northern) and buy your bus ticket there on a government bus.

For more about government bus versus private "VIP" bus, see last month's column.

As national tourism authorities go, TAT is a pretty good one. They've done a marvelous job promoting Thailand and are certainly one factor, though hardly the only factor, in Thailand's surge in foreign visitor arrivals all the while conveniently ignoring one certain aspect of Thailand that brings in quite a lot of these visitors. While it's true sometimes the people of TAT don't quite grasp just what exactly foreigners want or need, as a national promotional organization they are pretty good at what they do. But they aren't a travel agency or tour company. So don't be fooled.

The TAT website is at: http://www.tourismthailand.org/index.php. Though is often the case, for truly useful travel information you'll find dozens of better sites, but this will at least give you an idea of what they are about.

As this is related to transport, two websites are:

For the government bus service, which I often rave about, or at least rave in comparison to the KSR tourist bus nonsense, see: http://www.transport.co.th. However the site is only in Thai and I suppose if they really want foreign tourists on their buses they might want to address this situation, but there's really not that much on the site anyway. And for the trains, try this: http://www.srt.or.th, which is a bilingual website and does include train schedules.

Visa fees going up

This is more of a concern for expats then tourists, but there is going to be an across the board rise in visa fees taking effect, we think - they've changed the date a couple of times - in a week or so. It's the first increase in anyone's memory so it's not surprising that we're seeing some fees double and even triple from their previous levels.

For tourists a single entry transit visa will be 800 baht, a single entry tourist visa will be 1000 baht. It's the non-immigrant visas and residence permits that are really going up. Another move by the nationalist Thaksin administration to make life more difficult for foreigners or a long overdue and hence, reasonable fee increase? Or a bit of both?

For all sorts of visa and expatriate information see http://www.thaivisa.com.

That onward ticket thing

Nationals of about forty nations can enter Thailand without a visa. One need only to turn up at the border or disembark the airplane and one receives a 30-day entry stamp, no questions asked. I suppose somewhere sometime some foul-smelling, sloppy backpacker might have been turned away, but no one I know can relate any accounts of this happening. Still, buried deep in the immigration laws of Thailand the regulation states that to be issued a 30-day stamp, one must show proof of onward transportation, which of course would be in the form of an airplane ticket. For someone who plans to exit Thailand by land, as tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of people do each year, having this ticket is not an option. In actual practice Thai immigration doesn't check for this ticket but the law still stands. And the law also states that someone delivered to the country that does not have this onward ticket and is refused entry to the country must be returned from where they came by the airline that brought them and that the airline can be fined for having brought the person in the first place.

And there lies the problem. We have an archaic law which Thailand really needs to rewrite to reflect the actual practice on the part of the immigration department, and we have airlines, some of which follow this law to the letter no matter how it's treated in the real world resulting sometimes in a lot of inconvenience for passengers.

My own experience the past two years has been with Singapore Air where I was returning to Bangkok on the second half of a round-trip ticket embarking in Newark, USA (that's New York's other international airport) and transiting through Amsterdam and Singapore. In neither case at any of three check-ins, the first time I broke the journey in Amsterdam for a couple of days, was my passport checked for a visa nor was I asked to show an onward ticket. So kudos to Singapore Air. But would it have been any different had I been traveling on a one-way ticket? I don't know.

The fact is, the airlines have been most capricious in how they treat the onward ticket requirement. Some are very strict, having their agents check regardless of what airport one embarks from, while with others it can come down to the individual check-in agent's mood that day. Anecdotal information tells me that Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways (who you think would be most aware of how their own country does things!), Air France, and British Airways are just four airlines that usually check. I'd like to start compiling lists that include people's personal experiences with this requirement. If you have something to offer, please e-mail me.

I'd like to think that most airlines would put customer service first, doing so with an understanding of how immigration procedures are handled in various countries around the world. If Thailand well and truly enforced the onward ticket requirement, then the airlines refusal to allow one to board without the ticket would make sense, but Thailand does not and has not in anyone's memory enforced this requirement.

If you're traveling to Thailand and don't plan to fly out, you can do one of three things:
1.) Get a visa in advance.
2.) Buy a fully refundable ticket to anywhere outside of Thailand.
3.) Find an airline that doesn't require the onward ticket (Singapore Air apparently is one) and reward their good sense with your business.

You could of course, check in advance with your airline, but the person answering the phone may just as likely tell you only what their information sheet says about the matter which may or may not have any bearing on what happens at check-in.

Truth and fairness

If there's one positive change six years living in Asia has made on me it's that I've come to see things as much less black and white than I once did. Defining the truth is often a subjective process based more upon how we perceive things than what the actual facts are. If I tell you the sky is green and I believe it, then in my mind it's a truth I don't need to prove, but rather it's for you to prove to me it's not, and proving a negative is never an easy nor even arguably productive task, which then leaves you to try convincing me positively that it's blue. Which, while easier done than proving that the sky isn't green this also assumes that you believe the sky is blue in the first place. And should you think the sky is purple, well, where does that leave us? Confusing isn't it?

Well, here's another story taken from the Lonely Planet Thorntree discussion forum. A few weeks ago someone posted a message alerting of an unpleasant incident that occurred at a Full Moon Party on Koh Chang's Lonely Beach. At one of the bars a staff member attacked a tourist with a meat cleaver. Apparently this was not an isolated incident for this area of Koh Chang, where attacks, even sexual assaults have occurred. The person relating the story said the police were of no help, insinuating that they were taking cash from the bars and guesthouses of Lonely Beach to turn a blind eye to the use of drugs as well as any ancillary events that might occur due to the combination of drugs and alcohol.

Someone with intimate knowledge jumped to the defense of the implicated bar - I'm not revealing the name of the bar in question, but am instead implicating the entire Lonely Beach area for reasons that will be made apparent shortly - that this was an isolated incident and people were unfair to be so harsh on the bar. Most respondents, dozens of them, really, didn't agree.

Here's what we know or at least everyone thinks they know which is the same then, as what we know:
- A man with behavioral problems (this was substantiated by the bar's lone defender) attacked a tourist. The degree of the behavioral problems is open to some dispute but by accounts were considerable enough that this incident did not come as a complete surprise.
- The bar was unhelpful.
- It's not the first time there's been a problem at Lonely Beach.
- A lot of young aimless Thai men are attracted to beach areas like Lonely Beach because they can and do shag a lot of foreign tourists (and the western girls criticize the western guys in Nana Plaza - go figure!).
- Mix in drugs and alcohol, aimless young men, police bribes, and the general nature of an isolated beach and there are going to be problems at some point.

While I don't think the bar's defender was entirely objective (but are any of us completely objective in situations like this?), she was by her own admission, in a "relationship" with one of the guys working at the bar, is it also fair to write off an establishment over a single incident?

As I see things under my green sky, a single incident does not make a trend, and in a general sense, my answer is no, it's not fair to bring down one establishment over one incident, so long as the establishment has taken precautions against foreseeable problems inherent in their chosen field of business as well making proper amends when an unpleasant situation arises. And while you can't predict a meat cleaver attack you can consider the implications of having staff with obvious behavioral problems in the kind of climate that exists at Lonely Beach.

But there are issues here that are bigger than this one bar and that's the overall atmosphere of Lonely Beach. Drugs and alcohol and bought-off police does not a good recipe make to promote tourism on Koh Chang. As it's apparent the locals can't take care of themselves the best course of action then is to avoid Lonely Beach altogether. On the other hand, if you've come to Thailand to lie drunk on a beach with a couple of ecstasy pills in your system, I'm certainly not going to stand in your way, but do be aware that you are on your own. Drugs are illegal in Thailand and people do have unfortunate incidents because of them - some end up in jail, some end up assaulted. Know before you go.

Cambodia politics in Thailand

Cambodia's recent election has not reached Thailand and the Thai government is making sure of it. If you want some more information on the recent elections in Cambodia you'll find all sorts of information on the Cambodia section of this website, but the relevancy to Thailand is this:

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is loudly contesting the election results, was recently refused entry to Thailand for the second time this year. He had been invited to speak on the election and on politics in Cambodia at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. It's unclear whether the order came from Prime Minister Thaksin's office or the Foreign Ministry.

Probably a good idea. Thailand and Cambodia are neighbors and given the troubles between the two earlier this year (again see the Cambodia section for links to my analysis of the Phnom Penh riots), I can certainly see why the Thai government would not want any involvement in any issue pertaining to the Cambodian elections or politics in Cambodia, especially where opposition is concerned. If that's the case.

The polemic raised is which constitutes a more neutral move? If you allow him to speak are you saying that any Cambodian politician is welcome in Thailand to speak on the politics of their country or could you instead be seen as showing favor to the opposition? If you don't allow Sam Rainsy to speak are you saying that talk of another nation's politics is not welcome in Thailand or are you showing favor to the ruling Cambodian People's Party?

It should be noted that Prime Minister Thaksin's family-owned telecommunications businesses have considerable interest in Cambodia. Still, while the refusal to allow Sam Rainsy entry to Thailand does raise legitimate questions of free speech and democracy, given recent troubles between the two nations and the potential stalemate that may develop as Cambodia tries to form its next government, I see, though with some reservations, that disallowing Sam Rainsy's entry is the more prudent decision. I think it's fair to say under my green sky that for the time being, Sam Rainsy will just have to find another outlet for his speeches. I hear certain US senators are quite receptive.

Been here so long...

The three stages of expat life:

Stage 1: Wow! This place is great! People are so friendly and smiling! The food is great! Living is cheap! The women are beautiful! How could anybody criticize this place?

Stage 2: What a bunch of thieves! All anybody does here is dream up new ways to rip-off foreigners! These smiles are empty and fake, the friendliness a fraud! I'm sick of the food! I'm broke! My girlfriend ran out on me but not before smashing my Frank Sinatra CDs and swiping a pile of cash! How could anybody like this place?

Stage 3: Mai bpen rai.

How one progresses through these stages varies for the individual and this is of course an exaggerated example meant for dramatic effect. But most expats do pass through in some degree these stages of enrapture, disillusionment, and finally acceptance. How hard one crashes in stage 2 is usually determined by how unrealistic ones expectations and observations were in stage 1 and as a result has significant bearing on whether one makes it to stage 3 or not.

I am well into stage 3 now (or I'd like to think I am) and had the sort of unique experience of going through it in two separate countries, Thailand and Cambodia, and one right after the other. Even looking back at my writings on Cambodia I can see a little bit of my stage 2 Cambodia experiences in some of my older monthlies.

The Cambodians like to say, "same same, but different" which is a nice little phrase as it well describes this region of the world. If you're traveling around here and you see something that doesn't look right, don't be too quick to complain or criticize but consider first how it is where you came from.

Are there not scam artists in your country? Dishonest politicians? Businesses offering shoddy service? Of course there are. It's okay to complain about these things in Thailand but complain about them on a per incident basis and do not indict the country for the dishonest actions of a few. There are thieves and idiots in every country. It's unfair to yourself to come here assuming everything will go off without a hitch and get resentful when it doesn't likewise it's unfair to blame an entire country for the actions of a few individuals.

No matter what you may believe, and if you only hang around Khao San Road and lower Sukhumvit Road you can end up believing all sorts of odd things, most people have better things to do with their lives than dream up ways to rip-off/overcharge foreigners. And they often dislike the same things about Thailand that we as foreign tourists and residents dislike, but they've learned to work within their system because it's their system and those of us that have been around awhile also have learned this system and know when to complain and when not to complain. And then we realize the obvious. Wherever you are, there you are. Same same, but different.

Website of the month


A well-constructed combination of 'news and views' useful and interesting to both tourists and expats alike. The site combines links to relevant news stories residing on other websites as well as having its own original material. The site's in-depth focus on the infamous Thai Gem Scam is especially noteworthy and laudable. One unique feature of the website is its thorough coverage of local transport infrastructure. I like this site. It's almost like being there.


This is the e-mail section. You write it, I print and comment on it. If you have something you'd like to say, send it here.

Here's some good news, seeing as my dengue immunity ends in 2004:

Just a minor correction to your July newsletter: "Dengue, unfortunately has neither a vaccine nor a cure."

Actually there is a vaccine for Dengue, it is in the final evaluation stages in Thailand and is scheduled to be released in 2004.

On two-tiered pricing, glad to throw out a little negative publicity:

You might add the Bangkok Radisson to your list. We stopped there as a birthday treat and saw the Thai/Foreigner Price list on the reception desk. I think it was marked-up about 50% for us non-residents.

Fun with tuk-tuks:

I never understood this. I've visited Thailand twice, once with a male friend when I was in my mid 20s around 2000, and again with my girlfriend the next year around 2001.

With my male friend we took tuk tuks and always promptly arrived at our destination for the price agreed without problems. We used them extensively and never ONCE had a problem.

The second time I visited with my girlfriend, out of all the tuk tuk rides we took (around 30 ?) only ONE took us directly to where we wanted to go (photo included, if anyone wants a good tuk tuk driver!). They would get lost (even though I handed them a map with a big X where we were and another big X where we wanted to go), take us to strange buildings telling us that was Pat pong, asking for night market ended up in a tailors, khao san road ended up in a seafood restaurant. You get the picture, it was always an ordeal.

photo: Paul Ross

I'm not sure if I was incredibly lucky the first time, and incredibly unlucky the second time. Or whether in that year year the tuk tuk drivers had descended into anarchy, or having my western girlfriend with me made them think I was easier to rip off ?

On malaria. It's still my contention that the likelihood of catching malaria is practically nil, but as this letter says, people can still catch it and it's not a pleasant experience:

If I had read your comments concerning malaria about six months ago, I would have agreed with you. However, earlier this year, a friend of mine contracted the disease whilst in Ko Tao, and the consequences were really quite frightening.

After a day of experiencing flu-type symptoms, he was taken to the nearest hospital in Ko Samui where his condition rapidly deteriorated. He lapsed into a coma and the doctors said that his only hope of survival was for his immediate air-evacuation to Bangkok. This was arranged, and he spent the next 10 days in the ICU of Bangkok General Hospital. His liver and kidneys failed, and his heart stopped three times. He was very close indeed to death. Fortunately, he recovered but still has some long-term effects. The total cost of his medical treatment, including air ambulance, was in excess of $50,000. He was not adequately insured, but his family undertook to pick up the bill. The strain of malaria that he contracted is endemic in parts of Africa, and it is a mystery how it appeared on Ko Tao. Since then, I have heard of a second, similar case on the island.

Now, as far as the question of malaria tablets goes, they wouldn't have prevented him being bitten in the first place, but they would certainly have reduced the severity of the effects. What preventative action you want to take remains up to the individual, but it is as well to be aware that it is quite possible to still find malaria in parts of Thailand.


In closing

This column is supposed to be published on the 15th of the month but came two days late this time as I had just returned from nearly three weeks in the States and had the usual 1,001 things to do as well as get over the jet lag created by an eleven-hour time difference. I avoided the big North American blackout but could not avoid sixteen straight days of rain. Weather in the mid-Atlantic USA was not all that different from rainy season weather here, except it was colder.

And of course, the regular advertising plug - if you are interested in advertising your business anywhere on this website, e-mail me for more details. I won't start putting adverts in this column until it's been running for a couple of months and I see what kind of hits it gets, but if you think it might be of interest to you to do so... let me know.

Gordon Sharpless
Bangkok, Thailand
August 17, 2003

back to Thailand

back to Home

All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.