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

November 2003

1.) Stupid is as stupid does
2.) Loy Krathong
3.) Cheap airfares
4.) Getting around Bangkok

5.) Language fun
6.) Website of the month
7.) Perspective


Stupid is as stupid does

2003 is the year for Thailand's war on drugs. In February, PM Thaksin Shinawatra announced a three-month anti-drug campaign with the promise that his government would eradicate Thailand of all illegal drugs. In the ensuing three months an estimated 2200 people wound up dead in this war. While protests were made from Amnesty International and other human rights groups about the deaths, the government denied the killings were extra-judicial saying they were in fact simply rival drug gangs bumping each other off so as to prevent informants from talking. Whatever the truth is, the reality is that the average Thai didn't think too hard about these deaths and didn't seem to care too much who did the killing. 2200 dead drug dealers meant 2200 less drug dealers and most Thais were satisfied with that.

Well, not surprisingly, at the campaign's conclusion drugs were still available in Thailand. While suspected drug dealers aren't being found lying dead on the side of the road these days, the government is still taking a very dim view to drugs and the police are arresting people at every opportunity. Raids on popular nightspots continue to be a weekly event, with patrons, Thai and foreign, forced to pee into a cup for on-the-spot testing.

The main drug of concern here is ya ba (methamphetamine or 'speed' as we call it in the west), though heroin and ecstasy are high on the list of no-nos as well. Ganja seems to be less of a concern, but I don't think there's a single man in brown who'd let a bag of weed go unnoticed should such an opportunity present itself.

The drug climate here today is simple: don't do drugs, period. While the penalties for drug use and drug trafficking are quite different, even a simple possession charge could make for an expensive and unfortunate end to a vacation. You won't get life but you won't exactly get let off with a slap on the wrist, either. A few years ago if one asked about the risks of say, smoking a joint at the beach, I'd say not a problem, In 2003, I'd say go smoke it in Cambodia. And that is my warning to any would-be traveler to Thailand for the foreseeable future: Don't do drugs. Any drugs. Dry yourself out for three weeks, whatever. But not here, not now.

Now, as I titled this piece 'Stupid is as stupid does" let's look at two very recent acts of utter stupidity (as if no one knew how serious the Thai government is about drugs these days):

First, a 19-year-old Brit, Michael Connell, got caught at Don Muang airport trying to bring in 3,400 ecstasy pills hidden in tubes of Tesco body lotion. He claims he didn't know anything about it - has no idea how the pills got in there. His father back in England, is wondering how his broke son could have even afforded to fly to Thailand. Gee, thanks dad. That helps the case.

A few days later, an Aussie, 27-year-old Peter Allan, was charged with possession of a large amount of heroin. He was arrested in a Bangkok hotel preparing to pack the heroin into 231 condoms which he would swallow and smuggle out of the country and back to Sydney. Hmm, I mean really, this is Thailand, he couldn't have found a better use for 231 condoms?

Whatever the claims of the accused, both of these guys are looking at a long long time at Bang Kwang Prison, aka the Bangkok Hilton, the local maximum security prison which is home to hundreds of foreigners doing hard time mostly on drug charges.

A few websites detailing life in one form or another at the Bangkok Hilton are as follows:



http://www.farangonline.com/list_articles.asp?sub_cat=4&origin=Letter%20from%20the%20inside (monthly stories from an inmate)

And I highly recommend reading the following books:

4000 Days: My Life & Survival in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows, Griffin Trade Paperback (April 2000)

Forget You Had a Daughter: Doing Time in the 'Bangkok Hilton' - Sandra Gregory's Story by Sandra Gregory, et al, Vision Paperbacks (October 2003)

There's no question that Thailand's War on Drugs raises legitimate questions on civil rights and due process, but lest we forget the definition of these terms are not necessarily agreed upon between Asians and westerners. And here, it's only the Thai definition that counts. And by and large the Thai definition of civil rights and due process could be summarized as: "We don't want drugs. So there." Make your civil rights argument when you write your book from your prison cell.

Loy Krathong

The full moon of November (the first if ever there are two) brings the annual Loy Krathong festival. Loy = to float, Krathong = a leaf cup. The ritual of this event is that on the evening of the full moon one goes down to the nearest river, or suitable aquatic substitute, with a float constructed usually from banana leaves and other things that float (one year the Bangkok governor suggested everyone use styrofoam...hmm), containing flowers, a candle, three sticks of incense, and a coin or two. One lights the candle and incense, makes a wish, then lays the krathong in the water and watches as the float disappears into a sea of bobbing lights, all making their way downstream, carrying with them wishes and hopefully returning good luck. Fireworks displays are also part of the celebration, as are crowds. But fireworks and crowds not withstanding, everything else I've described seems regrettably to be less of a reality and more of an ideal of the festival.

This year the celebration took place on November 8. The misses and I went to the Si Phraya boat pier between the Royal Orchid Sheraton and River Place (along with 25,000 other people). We chose an especially nice krathong, pushed our way to the riverfront, lit the candles and incense, dropped in a coin, held the krathong aloft, made our wish, and then placed the float carefully, gently, in the Chao Phraya River. It traveled for five seconds and ten feet before some fourteen-year-old delinquent in an inner tube grabbed the thing, shook out the coin, and threw the krathong into a basket with dozens of others they had robbed. They would then try to resell the krathongs. Now I know why citizens can't carry handguns here.

This is not a new phenomenon but it's not one I'd like to see continue. And we certainly weren't the only ones angered by the actions of these degenerate teenagers, a number of Thais were also complaining. In general it wasn't so much that the krathongs were pulled from the river, the city scoops them up the next day, anyway, but the speed in which the kids swiped these things. My girlfriend was particularly vocal and found a lot of support from anyone who cared to listen.

Not surprisingly the Chao Phraya River, at least in this part of Bangkok, had very few krathongs on it, which was a real shame. I can recall my first festival, in 1997, spending it in the Thewet neighborhood in a riverside bar, drinking beer and watching dozens of candlelit krathongs make their way down the Chao Phraya, but not so in 2003, there was hardly a one. Yes, the spirit of the holiday is in the wish and placing the krathong in the water; that some derelict scoops it up ten seconds later isn't suppose to matter, but it does matter. Once a year everyone in Thailand should be rewarded with the sight of thousands of krathongs bobbing their way down rivers and canals rather than the ugly sight of a few teenage boys on inner tunes stealing them all. I never expected our krathong to make it to the Gulf of Thailand, but a hundred meters and not three would have been nice. It really was a pitiful sight. But at the end of the evening, my girlfriend, ever the Buddhist, pointed out that the actions of these young vandals will surely be punished in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.

Click here to read about the first Loy Krathong festival.

Cheap airfares

New air carriers with cut-rate airfares coming soon to Thailand? Maybe. There are reports of two budget airlines starting operations in the next few months. One is called AirAsia and PM Thaksin Shinawatra's family business, Shin Corp, has dumped 250 million baht into this project. Thaksin is a longtime critic of the national carrier Thai Airways, he says "they suck". The other supposed carrier is called One-Two-Go and is a project of Orient Thai Airlines (which I have never heard of, let alone flown). The former plans to takeoff early next year with fares to northern Thailand under 1000 baht ($25) each way. One-Two-Go says it will launch next month with a 999-baht introductory fare to Chiang Mai.

Needless to say if either one of these proposed airlines actually puts a plane into the air at these prices it's going to have a bit of an impact on the transportation industry in Thailand. As it is now, a VIP-24 bus to Chiang Mai (the best service available) costs about 600 baht for the nine to ten-hour ride and a train ride in a comfortable sleeper is about double that. These fares are also about half of what the national carrier, Thai Airways charges.

Personally, while I'd welcome the cheap fares and the competition a new carrier or two would bring, I can't help but to be a little skeptical of any airline that gets too no-frills with its service. What kind of aircraft are we talking about? Maintenance? Service standards? It's one thing to fly me to Chiang Mai for little more than the cost of a bus ride but if I can't get on the plane I'd say the bus is still a faster way to go.

And other than a few news reports, good luck finding any other information about these proposed services. Tickets, schedules, websites, reservations, forget it. Like I said... we have only the reports.

Getting around Bangkok

It amazes me sometimes to hear people complain about scams and problems with Bangkok taxis. For whatever reason I almost never have a problem with a metered taxi in Bangkok. They turn on the meter, take me where I want to go using the most direct route, and give me the proper change without games. Yet tourists complain of difficulties in getting a taxi in Bangkok to use the meter. Why is that? I don't know, but what I can offer are a few tips on getting a taxi in Bangkok that should diminish the likelihood of having to contend with any nonsense.

1.) Except in established taxi ranks, for example at Don Muang Airport or Morchit Bus Terminal, never use a taxi that's waiting, always flag down a moving taxi. This is especially true of taxis that sit in front of hotels which should be avoided at all costs.
2.) Don't wave your arms around like you're trying to stop a locomotive, casually stick your arm out, palm down and wiggle your fingers a little. The more subtle the better. Bangkok cabbies can spot moving fingers from a kilometer away.
3.) Never ask the driver "how much?"
4.) Know where you're going and say your destination like you've been there a thousand times.
5.) Umm, how are you dressed? Wearing the Khao San Road uniform? Be quiet, you know who you are and you know if you're fitting the stereotype, whether you care to admit it or not. If you're in the KSR uniform, then nobody can help you. Ever thought about putting on a respectable clean pair of pants that aren't three sizes too big and wearing a decent shirt? You might find wearing a "polite" (as the Thais would say) set of clothes in Bangkok would save you all sorts of money. Oh, I know, it's your thing, right? Well, stop complaining about the Thais ripping you off all the time, then. Dress respectable or be quiet.
6.) Taxi still won't use the meter? Get out and find another one. It's a buyers' market.

While you may have never ridden in a taxi in Bangkok before, you have, may I assume, ridden in a metered taxi somewhere in the world? It's the same thing. Same rules. Don't tolerate nonsense you wouldn't tolerate at home.

Language Fun

I was recently walking in the vicinity of Sukhumvit Soi 5. Here a number of women prowl the streets with cages housing small birds. The idea is you pay a little money for the privilege of setting the bird free from its cage (yet they always have full cages... how is that?), thus earning yourself a little bit of merit, karma points if you will. One woman approached me with the offer of "Open bird, open bird". I considered the implications of that request and decided what she said and what she had in mind were probably two different things, though I did wonder what her reaction would have been had I taken her up on offer - literally.

Website of the month

Thailandlife.com - Life of a Teenager in Thailand in Pictures and Words


The introduction to this interesting and introspective sight on Thailand is:
"I am a Thai teenager who wants to show you about Thailand. Really this is a weekly web magazine, updated every Friday. Here you can find a lot of information about Thailand such as Thai customs, culture, festivals etc. seen through the eyes of a Thai teenager. Check out everything I have experienced and what I think about life around me. Come to learn about what life is like in Thailand and compare it with life in your country. I am sharing my life with you because I want you to know and understand Thailand better. You won't be sorry to check my site (I hope!). In fact, I think you might be surprised that some things are the same!!!

"Let's see, you can go with me to meet my family and see where and how I live. I also have photo stories of daily life at home as well as pictures of the contents of my refrigerator and pocket! Come and visit my old schools and see what subjects I studied and the uniforms I wore. See what I like to do at the weekend and the holidays I have been on around Thailand. By the way, if you are interested in Buddhism, you can see what I do when I visit my local temple and read about when I was a novice monk. There are lots of things, maybe everything, you will want to know about Thailand here as my website has over 500 pages and 3000 pictures. Make sure you check out all of the pages and find what you want or interested in. But still you can't find the information you are looking for, please feel free to post your questions on the forums. I am gonna do my best to answer the questions for you!"

And with an introduction like that, what more do you need to know? Get clicking.


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.

More on the return ticket thing I wrote about in August:

I am writing regarding my experiences at the Don Muang airport. I go to Thailand 6 times a year: one month there, one month in Canada. For 5 of my trips, I go to BKK from Vancouver with the return portion of my round trip ticket BKK to Vancouver to BKK. I have never been asked by EVA (Evergreen Airlines) of Taiwan for proof that I had a pre-purchased flight home.

Because it is 25% cheaper to purchase a ticket in BKK vs Canada, I do the following. First, I buy a one year open round trip ticket (Vancouver to BKK to Vancouver), only I do not use the return portion (BKK to Vancouver) until the latest possible time, which is about one year later. Once in BKK, I purchase a round trip ticket BKK to Vancouver to BKK (for about 25% less). I do this 5 times, then on the sixth trip, I use the return portion of my Vancouver to BKK to Vancouver ticket that was purchased one year early. This way, I save 25% x 5 trips (more than one free ticket).

So, for 5 of my yearly trips, I fly to BKK on the return portion of my ticket, but have never been asked by EVA to show that I have a ticket bringing me out of BKK.

PS: I went to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for the first time this past September (03) and agree with you on your comments from your “Should I stay or go” article

Renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai:

On our last day in Chiang Mai we hired a moped to visit Doi Suthep. We got about 10 minutes out of town when the rear started wobbling quite violently; a puncture. Managing to wobble to the side of the road without dying, we started flagging down vehicles. Eventually a mini-bus stopped and an English speaking Thai agreed to phone the hire shop. We had been told to contact them with any problems so they could sort us out so imagine our surprise when their "help" was to tell us to flag down a taxi, load up the bike and bring it back to the shop! About 20 minutes later we got back to the shop and then began a most amusing lengthy negotiation. Firstly they said they would give us another bike. Not likely we said, thank you very much, we'll have a refund. (We were a little shaken and slightly burnt from the exhaust.) OK they said. All was going well until they then motioned at the taxi driver and said, you pay the taxi. Woah... And even more interestingly, the taxi fare turned out to be exactly the amount of the bike rental. So, I obviously refused and then began a three-way "discussion" with the shop assistant and her boss (via the phone). Round and round we went until I snapped and asked them to ring the tourist police. I couldn't believe that they expected us to pay to transport their broken bike back to their office. We waited 15 minutes, then had another 15 minutes with the policeman and eventually settled for splitting the taxi bill.

I mention this story for two reasons; one, that according to the policeman all companies expect the customer to bear all costs for returning the damaged bike, and two, to congratulate the tourist police (yup!) of Chiang Mai who was helpful and a reasonable, balanced negotiator.


In closing

It does look like I'll finally be visiting Laos, a short trip to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Veintiane from November 29 to December 7, and yes, I know it's the well-trodden tourist path but I have to start somewhere. Tips and advice welcome. Full details of the nine-day journey will be on the site, hopefully by mid-December. And these travel dates mean the December Cambodia monthly will be up early. I'll probably have it on-line on the 28th.

Thailand specific, my tentative New Year's plans see a repeat of last year's theme - renting a 400cc motorbike and touring Northern Thailand, but as we have a full nine days available (December 28 to January 4), we're thinking of heading up to Chiang Rai then down through Nan and Phrae before returning to Chiang Mai. I guess that means January's Cambodia monthly will also be early. And again, tips and advice welcome.

Lastly, yours truly is the photographer for the front cover photo of the November issue of Farang magazine. The photo was taken while trekking in the hills around Kalaw, Myanmar in May 2000.

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

Gordon Sharpless
Bangkok, Thailand
November 15, 2003

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