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

January 2004

1.) Chicken Little and the falling sky
2.) Here come the fun police
3.) Nana Plaza
4.) Gamblers' express
5.) The check is in the mail, not
6.) That dual pricing thing again
7.) Secret language?
8.) Samui airport
9.) Thailand Elite Card again

10.) Bus reminder
11.) Website of the month


[My apologies for being so late this month, I've been experiencing some nasty computer problems - still not entirely solved - that have made updating this site rather difficult.]

Chicken Little and the falling sky

Here we go again. Last year it was SARS, now we have the news media going to town this week over this bird flu that killed a kid in Thailand and has infected a few dozen more folks here and in Vietnam and has half of Asia killing their chickens.

This is so frustrating.

I appreciate the need to maintain public health and the need to issue cautionary announcements, unfortunately however, the end result is not level-headed application of information to the situation at hand, but media-fed hysteria.

2003 was for many an economic disaster in Southeast Asia due to the media hype over some stupid virus that killed a whole lot less people than dozens and dozens of other diseases and situations which we encounter every day.

Yes, there is a flu here and some people have died and there will be more cases and more deaths, but such dangers as mosquitoes and traffic accidents are so far ahead of bird flu, SARS, etc that they don't even warrant comparison. And with 6+ billion people on the planet we have to expect to lose a few each day, right?

At present, the statistical odds of getting bird flu are probably somewhere between being struck thrice by lightning and being bitten on the buttocks by an Asiatic Pit Viper and somewhat less than catching the bubonic plague.

Is it asking too much to expect the news media organizations to show some comprehension of their own power and how a seemingly cautionary news story can and will be misinterpreted by the general public? Throughout the SARS scare, organizations such as the BBC and CNN broadcasted SARS cases like they were reading the latest stock quotes and football scores. The economic fallout of SARS was nothing short of disastrous and could have been at least partially avoided through responsible reportage by the news media that would have included more items that provided proper context for the *true* risk of catching these diseases as well as showing considerably more restraint from broadcasting every new case as if it were of the same magnitude as discovering evidence of a life form on Mars.

I don't understand something. Claims are made that it is right to make the incidence of these illnesses major news stories because we have either no defense against them or there is no cure, or even both.

Well then what about dengue fever?

There is no vaccination on the market yet* against dengue and there is no cure. Though most cases are fairly benign it can be a miserable illness to have and it does carry roughly a three percent mortality rate. Almost every expatriate I know based over in Cambodia (including myself) has had this disease. Most of us had a simple form of it that just made us quite sick for a couple of weeks, but a couple of people I know have nearly died. Last year hundreds of tourists came down with dengue in the southern Thai islands as there was an outbreak on Koh Pha-Ngan.

Yet there is virtually no news coverage of what is a statistically far greater risk to contract and would seem to pass the litmus test for hysteria in that it has neither a vaccine nor a cure. Perhaps when this year's rainy season brings another epidemic (Cambodia will be due for one as these things run in three-year cycles and 2001 was a particularly bad year there) let's see if the news media organizations report dengue with the same fervor as SARS and bird flu and maybe then we will FINALLY GET A FRIGGIN' VACCINE for this disease!!!!!*

Meanwhile, beware of chickens, well, the one's running in circles about falling skies, anyway.

*Folks at Mahidol University in Thailand have been working on a vaccine covering all four strains that's apparently in the late development stage, but it's not on the market yet.

Here come the fun police

For the past two years Thailand residents have watched with some measure of nervousness the government impose ever increasing restrictions on nightlife. The latest proposal brought forth is to limit entertainment venue opening hours to 6 pm to midnight. There have even been suggestions of closing hours as early as 10 pm!

Fortunately, as this new measure was set to be put in force, the Prime Minister himself of all people rejected it having come to the realization that this would cost the country a lot of money via lost jobs and lost tourism revenue.

Still, while this bullet missed its mark, the mere fact that this measure was even proposed has really left a lot of people in Thailand scratching their heads - again. Apparently, the government would like to think that tourists are all going to bed early so as to arise at the crack of dawn to go look at temples. It’s nice to think that but too bad that's not what the tourists are doing. Bangkok has a vibrant nightlife that appeals to a variety of tastes that is far from limited to the bargirl scene. Tourists go out at night. That’s what people do when they are on vacation. They have fun. That’s why it’s called a vacation.

Another interesting point was, in a typically Thai way, the lack of a specific definition of what exactly constitutes an entertainment venue. A bar? A bar with live music? A bar with dancers? A restaurant? A restaurant that’s also a bar? A bar that’s also a restaurant? A karaoke club? A disco? A disco karaoke restaurant bar club with dancers? A loosely defined term provides for fairly broad and capricious interpretation and enforcement and that seems to be how they like it.

In any event, there’s still drinking to two a.m., but for how long? And… next item.

Nana Plaza

Speaking of entertainment, I wandered into Nana Plaza about a month ago for the first time in distant memory. I imagine my next visit will put this one into even further distant memory. Granted, it was a Monday night, but we are in the tourist high season and we are talking about Nana Plaza and it was only eleven o’clock at night… but, most of the bars were empty, I mean, really empty.

The only notable exception was Angel Witch, perhaps for their show, I don't know. But as everything is fully clothed now, there's not a whole lot to these shows, anyway. I really couldn't be bothered. So my friend and I wandered into a few other places finding mostly empty bars and thoroughly bored staff, waitresses and dancers alike.

And the beer prices at Nana Plaza have reached an outrageous 125 baht, which is better than three bucks a bottle. No thanks, mates, you've driven me out of NEP for good. I'd just as well drink at Wong's, it’s close to home and the beer is only 50 baht and I only want beer and conversation, anyway. Bye bye NEP.

For another laugh, we left Nana around 1:30 am, deciding to have a look at the Thermae for the first time in well over a year. I don't know what I was expecting, not something from the old days sure, but this now rather well-lit place (relative to what it was) had maybe eight customers, a handful of weary staff, and maybe two girls who were chatting with the men. Perhaps we really are seeing some changes in Bangkok nightlife.

Gamblers' express

Gambling has also come under the wrath of the government. In this case though, it's not gambling in Thailand, but the flood of Thais that head for the casinos of Poipet, Cambodia each day. At around four a.m. each morning, gamblers' express buses depart Bangkok arriving in Poipet just after 8 a.m. unloading dozens, sometimes hundreds of Thais who pour into Poipet and gamble the day away.

One Saturday morning I witnessed the line of Thais leaving the kingdom as four wide and well out the door and down the street. I estimated the crowd at roughly 700 people. Of those 700, only seven were then seen passing through Cambodia immigration. Poipet casinos are conveniently placed before the Cambodian immigration booths so obtaining a Cambodia visa and immigration stamps is not necessary for Thais coming only to gamble.

Recently, the head of the Aranyaprathet immigration police was transferred from his job, due, ostensibly for allowing government employees to head to the Poipet casinos to gamble, but more likely it was a move made simply to do something to stem the flow of cash out of Thailand. It should be noted, however, that many of the casinos are joint ventures between Thais and Cambodians. Still, millions of baht are leaving the kingdom every day and the government would kind of like to stop this.

There has been discussion of bringing casino gambling to Thailand but nothing has come of it yet and I will concede that the Thai government does seem to be addressing this issue far more carefully then how they’ve handled the issue of night time entertainment.

The check is in the mail, not

Remember those anti-Thai riots in Cambodia last January that destroyed the Thai embassy and a number of Thai owned businesses, ultimately doing about 50 million USD in damage? Well, the embassy bill was paid for some time ago (by the casino owners so as to get the borders open again!) but the businesses aren't doing so well in collecting their cash.

The problem that the Thai-owned businesses have run into was when they made their claims what they asked for in losses and what the tax records revealed to be the stated value of the businesses were not one and the same. Oops. This is not to say the Thais are overstating their losses, but rather, like most businesses located in Cambodia, the taxes paid are shall we say, umm, rather small.

That dual pricing thing again

A few comments on racist pricing schemes, known more politely as two-tiered pricing or dual pricing, though I concede that in most cases, racist pricing is the more appropriate term. I encountered two instances of it when I was in northern Thailand a few weeks ago that I want to comment on.

The first was at a national park, Doi Phu Kha in Nan province. For some time now, national parks have charged Thais 20 baht and foreigners have been charged 200 baht. However, in a majority of cases the ability to speak some Thai was usually sufficient to get a foreigner in for the local price. Not anymore it would seem. At Doi Phu Kha I was told I would have to produce a residency card and I've heard others also report recent difficulties in getting the local price at national parks.

Without getting into whether the pricing scheme is good or bad, I think most readers know where I stand on that one, I would like to say that if proof of residency will get a foreigner in for the local price without exception at national parks, this is actually a step in the right direction as it gives some recognition to foreigners who live in Thailand and pay taxes there.

However, let's face it, dual pricing is a fairly controversial issue with tourists, mostly in a negative sense, and in a small way this places a negative image on the host country, which I would think would be particularly important in Asian countries where emphasis is often on style over substance.

At many places in Thailand that carry dual-pricing schemes, if you were to look around you'd find locals outnumbering foreigners sometimes by as many as 500 to 1. Let's do the math. 500 x 20 baht = 10,000 baht. 1 x 200 = 200 baht. Really now... is that extra 180 baht (especially when compared to the 10K the locals brought in) so important to the forestry department that it justifies a racist pricing policy that keeps many more foreigners out of the parks then it brings in? There are many foreigners who refuse to enter any national park that carries this 200/20 pricing scheme (which is almost all of them).

We also visited the Chiang Mai Zoo, which does not have racist pricing (neither does the zoo in Bangkok) however there are a pair of pandas on loan from China in a special exhibit to which locals are charged 50 baht and foreigners are charged 100 baht. And as usual, the Thai price is written in Thai only, numerals included (as if they have to be sneaky or something?), which I think does a marvelous job of sending the signal to one and all that it's perfectly okay to charge foreigners more money for no apparent reason.

I really did want to know why the pandas had racist pricing, so I asked the ticket seller, and I was speaking in Thai, why they had this pricing scheme. Her first response was to ignore me completely so I asked again a little more directly (and I was looking her in the eye with the money in my hand), this time receiving one of those smiles that could have meant any of a number of different things (though it wasn't hard to narrow it down to two or three) and if you live here you know exactly what I mean and if you don't live in this part of the world, you'd probably be completely flustered by it. I didn't pursue it any further, it was a smile that rather emphatically conveyed the fact that I wasn't going to get a single word out of her in any language. Still, I wanted to make some noise about it and I wanted the ticket seller to hear it - in her own language, and yes, I'm fully aware that she has absolutely nothing to do with the pricing. And again, I'd point out that Thais were outnumbering foreigners by a significant quantity, I'd say here it was by about 200 to 1.

Secret language?

In few countries do locals expect foreign tourists to speak the local language, but live somewhere for awhile and most people will, and rightly so, expect you to be at least able to have a simple conversation and handle life's more basic needs in the local lingo. In Cambodia, where I work, I have to admit that my language skills are extremely poor and barely meet those requirements. And while initial utterances in the language impress the listener, once they realize how many years I've been there, my inability to converse further in the Khmer language has insulted some people. As well as it should.

But for some reason, Thailand seems to be the exception. My Thai skills are considerably better than my Khmer skills. I meet the qualifications I state above, as well as have the ability to read Thai at a basic level, essentially I can handle restaurant menus, signs, things like that. But newspapers and books, forget it. Still, for someone who's been in and out of Thailand since 1997, I should do better. Yet, not once have I ever felt the same level of insult on the part of the locals that I have felt in Cambodia. Not once. I've even been told I know "too much'" and one long-time friend teases me regularly that I should "stop knowing so much!" Granted such comments are made in jest, I'm a believer that comments of that nature, as light as they may be intended, are grounded somewhere in truth. Such comments don't usually develop in a vacuum. I really do believe that while not something any Thai stays awake at night thinking about, there is some deep-rooted feeling of maintaining some kind of separation between Thais and foreigners via language and a foreigner that becomes too fluent in Thai may make some locals uncomfortable.

Samui airport

The airport on Koh Samui is a privately-owned airstrip operated by Bangkok Airways, which of course can maintain a monopoly over the flights there and in doing so charge as much as 7300 baht return for a ride. And even at that price they put up 15 to 20 flights a day.

The Thai government has decided it's time to build another airport on Samui so other carriers can fly there. Fair enough. I think it would be nice to see an alternative to Bangkok Airways monopolistic hold on the resort island, but... hmm... the Prime Minister's family business has a stake in Air Asia. That's convenient... get your government to build an airport and then fly in the family plane.

Thailand Elite card again

I wrote a bit about this last month. Well, no surprise, sales of this card have been an abysmal failure and very few people have jumped on the bandwagon for one of these silly things, proving that most consumers have considerably more intelligence than the geniuses who devised this thing.

Bus reminder

Here's the monthly reminder for those of you stumbling into this site for the first time: The only place in Thailand you should ever purchase a bus ticket is at the regular bus stations and only for a ride on a government-contracted bus. Never buy a bus ticket from any travel agency, especially one on Khao San Road and especially for some so-called "VIP'' bus service aka "Very Ignorant Passengers". The moment you step on the bus and see it full of backpackers with not one single local face in sight, all sorts of bells and alarms should start going off in your head. For more details on all the scams and rip-offs associated with these Khao San Road VIP buses do see the July 2003 Thailand Update. You have been warned.

Website of the month


Yeah, Trink's new site is getting a plug this month. Old Bernard, relieved from his long-standing position at the Bangkok Post, and relieved in a rather rude manner I might add, can now be read on-line. His first installment from January 9 can be read for free and he does address his dismissal from the Bangkok Post gig. To read his weekly column and movie reviews you're going to have to subscribe at $12 USD a year.

Personally, I won't be signing up. Like most folks, come Friday his column was one of the first items I'd turn to, but over time it became more a function of habit then a function of desire or need. He became more and more out of touch with the local scene, handing, albeit unintentionally, that role to a number of well-informed and regularly updated websites. His column became less and less relevant and more of a place to read a few old recycled jokes and snippets of wisdom.

His movie reviews I also found lacking (not that mine are necessarily any better) and just as the internet was one factor that made his column less relevant, far better movie reviews could be found on websites such as movieseer.com.

A casualty of age and of the internet (more so of the former) I believe, Bernard Trink is moving to cyberspace. Though as I said, I won't be signing up, but if this venture should prove fruitful, then more power to the man and best of luck.


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In closing

We did manage to knock out 1700 kms on a Honda CB400 from December 28 to January 3 heading north from Chiang Mai to Tha Ton and then to Chiang Rai with a diversion to Mae Sai with a quick jump over the border into Tachilek, Myanmar. A day around the Golden Triangle was followed by a jaunt down to Nan on the legendary route 1148. Bikers, it is indeed a fantastic ride... too bad I had a passenger and bags on the back. A two-night stay in Nan (buzzing little town with little western influence) that included one long day riding around Nan province with a spin on another fantastic biking road, route 1256. Then it was back to Chiang Mai by way of Phrae and Lampang.

Computer problems have put me a little behind on writing, but I'll have detailed travelogues and photos posted in their own sections soon enough. Seeing as a magazine will be paying me some money for an abbreviated version of the trip, and motorbiking in Thailand in general, I can say with some confidence that the stories will appear on this site faster than those still missing China items.

And again, apologies for my tardiness. Blame Microsoft.

And if you are interested in advertising your business anywhere on this website, e-mail me for more details.

Gordon Sharpless
Bangkok, Thailand
January 27, 2004

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