After weeks, months, of preparation the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum comes to Bangkok for the week of October 14 to 21. Dignitaries of all manners of repute will descend upon Bangkok to discuss whatever it is APEC forum attendees will discuss. I suppose I could sit down and do some thorough research and hammer out a thousand words about the importance of this forum, its implications for the future, the relevancy to each of our lives, and a whole host of other things receiving plenty of coverage already in the usual outlets and if you really care, you can find them for yourself.
I will therefore limit my coverage of the APEC forum by quoting Thailand PM Thaksin Shinawatra who has promised that "...APEC will never be the same after Bangkok." And you may interpret this anyway you like. No word if a visit to Nana Plaza is part of the itinerary.
The effect on all the regular folks - that would be the ten million or thereabouts residents of Bangkok who are not directly involved in APEC - will hopefully be minimal, however we've already seen an all-out effort to clean up Bangkok in an APEC-friendly way that will display a nice image for the world. This has included the temporary removal of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of stray dogs, hundreds of beggars, hundreds of visa violators, a crackdown on nightlife, and a new paint job for a number of buildings in the area around Ratchadamnoen Avenue and beyond. And I suppose we are then to assume that the various dignitaries and other sundry foreign visitors will look around the sanitized version of Bangkok shown to them and remark, "My, what a clean city, no dogs, no beggars, none of that sordid nightlife we heard so much about (and were hoping to visit), oh, and lovely paint..." Phnom Penh tried this approach for the 2002 ASEAN summit and it didn't work.
Other measures taken, in the name of security, include the predictable closure of certain streets (sections of Sukhumvit, Asoke, etc). They also plan to search vehicles entering the elevated tollways being on the lookout for anyone that might be fixing to stand on the highway near the airport with an RPG launcher ready to take out one of the attendee's airplanes. We are told they will be extra vigilant to this end.
A number of Thais I've spoken with actually like the cosmetic cleanup that the city has received and I can't say I disagree. It is indeed nice not to have to step around six mangy dogs every time I want to get a bowl of noodles, but the concern here is that all of these measures are for the sole benefit of APEC and once the dignitaries are gone, the dogs, the beggars, the dirt and grime, will be allowed to return. We shall see... I've addressed some of these issues individually below.
The APEC countries are: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, and Vietnam.
In conjunction with the APEC forum will be the thirteenth running under the reign of HM the King Bhumibol Adulyadej of the Royal Barge Procession on October 20. This is quite a spectacle (I watched the last running on television in December 1999) as fifty of these masterfully crafted barges wind their way down the Chao Phraya River with HM the King's barge, Suphannahongsa, a magnificent 92-year-old, 46-meter long boat, the centerpiece. What makes this year's ceremony particularly noteworthy is for the first time, it will be held at night. A couple of days ago they did a trial run and I caught bits of it on television and it is indeed, quite a sight.
One of the measures taken to make Bangkok more APEC-friendly was the removal of many of the stray dogs that roam the streets of Bangkok. Estimations place the stray dog population as high as 300,000 which is, I would say, beyond ridiculous. The source of these stray dogs can be traced to two main causes. One, the Thais will not euthanize any of these animals, and two, Thais don't eat dog.
In some Asian countries, China and Vietnam in particular, the fact that many a dog will end up on the dinner plate does tend to keep the population of strays down. Witness how many dogs roam the streets of Saigon or Hanoi or Guangzhou, or even Phnom Penh, where a Khmer friend of mine once commented when asked why there were so few dogs on the street, “Vietnamese, every time a Vietnamese family moves in, one more dog disappears.”
I worked in an animal shelter in Virginia in the early 1990s so I do know something about the problems of stray dog populations. I am also a supporter of euthanasia and I am familiar with the humane techniques for doing so. The dogs roaming the sois of Bangkok are some of the sickliest animals I have ever seen. In some cases mange has eaten away most of their hair, even leaving open sores. It is quite common to see dogs with tumors the size of softballs growing from legs, bellies, testicles, everywhere. Many dogs walk with permanent limps and many more show evidence of medium to serious injury as the result of dog fights. It's the Buddhist way the Thais will say, not to euthanize an animal, and I suppose there's something to be said for that, though I fail to see what compassion motivates the continuation of the life on an animal with no body hair, open sores, tumors, and a bum leg. And I don't think I'd be the first to wonder why this same concern for the lives of thousands of stray dogs isn't applied equally to the lives of our fellow humans, but that's just another one of those Asian paradoxes you get used to after awhile. But then I watched a CNN news report showing the removal of some of these dogs and I was shocked at the inhumane treatment these dogs received in their capture. The tactic was to ambush a dog, drag it by a hind leg, then lift it in the air by this leg (something a dog's body is most certainly not designed for), hold it upside down and then toss it into a bag. As I said, I am familiar with modern euthanasia techniques and the treatment these animals receive as they are sent to the other side of the rainbow bridge is far better than the treatment these soi dogs are receiving while remaining on this side of it.
Apparently, these dogs have been taken to some holding area where they have been tagged and will be released back onto their original sois once the conference has concluded. Shame really, as I think a lot of folks, Thai and expatriate, would be happy not to see these dogs again. While I don't think many Thais would advocate mass euthanasia, the disappearance without explanation of 50,000 of them would probably go without comment. If the government can suppress information on the deaths of thousands of people during this year's "War on drugs" campaign, I think they could put the dogs away quietly as well. Or is the message here that a soi dog's life is worth more than a human's?
Of course there are further paradoxes to the euthanasia issue. Consider that in the west we euthanize dogs and cats that are unable to be reunited with their owners and are subsequently unable to find a new home. Fair enough, but once done, the bodies are incinerated and the ashes dumped in a landfill. In countries like China and Vietnam the dogs are eaten and they might say we are wasteful for burning and destroying a perfectly good dinner. And in Thailand they would say we are wasteful for needlessly ending a life and who are we to pass judgment on the quality of another life? Even if that life is a soi dog?
I've stated my position, though I well accept that it's not one that's going to be adopted in Thailand anytime in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, consider getting a rabies shot.
Another aspect of the big APEC cleanup was removing many of the beggars from the streets of Bangkok, a number of which were illegal Cambodians. The beggars were predictably deported, sent back to Phnom Penh on a cargo plane after arrangements had been made with Cambodian PM Hun Sen for their return. No word on what the payoff was but I would be surprised if the deportation was free. Well, then again maybe not... there was that little anti-Thai riot in Phnom Penh last January.
There are, umm, were, a lot of Cambodian beggars on the streets of Bangkok and I have in the past surprised a few by blurting out something to them in Khmer language. In comparison to Phnom Penh, Bangkok doesn't have very many beggars so I suppose that's some incentive to sneak into Thailand, as the competition is considerably thinner. While I'm pro-immigration, and that applies to immigration from any given country on the planet to another, I'm certainly not going to promote immigration for the purposes of begging. Hence, I would say that the deportation of beggars, and I hope this would include the occasional westerner one sees on the streets of Bangkok with a cup in hand, is a positive step so long as the policy is maintained beyond APEC.
Speaking of deportations, there's been a crackdown on dodgy visa services and for better or for worse, the patrons of these services. Thailand, for the time being, allows foreigners to stay (but not work!) indefinitely under a variety of visa programs some of which require the visa holder to make regular trips out and back into the country, visa runs they are called. Some people manage to get one-year multiple-entry visas that require leaving and returning every 90 days for no other reason but to leave and return, while others, at least those who hail from certain privileged nations, simply come and go on 30-day visa free entry stamps, and it's perfectly legal to do this as many times as is needed. However, the legal requirement is that both human and passport make a trip to the border, any border, exit the country, and turn around and come back in. There's certainly some talk that the requirement to leave every 90 days is nothing more than a silly bureaucratic requirement bearing no foundation in logic and there are equal numbers that cite the unlimited availability of 30-day visa-free entry stamps as a loophole that ought to be closed. Regardless, it's a system that's been in place for years and it's all perfectly legal, and for the time being, even the existence of dozens and dozens of 30-day entry stamps in one's passport is not likely to raise any eyebrows at the border so as long as the computer shows the immigration officer no reason not to let you back in for the 129th time.
Running off to the border every 30 or 90 days certainly grew tiring for some and not surprisingly, visa service operations arrived on the scene. For a nominal fee, these businesses would take your passport to the border, get a legal exit and entry stamp and return your passport to you in a day or three. Although this was technically illegal, as human and passport are supposed to travel together, the law turned a blind eye to these services and it wasn't long before they were operating quite openly, large signs in the windows, advertisements in the mainstream magazines and newspapers, etc. As legal stamps were issued, once it came time for you to exit the country yourself, everything in the immigration computer was proper and the authorities sent you on your way having no idea that it was only your passport that left the country the previous three times.
But recently, one visa services business got lazy and stupid. Rather than sending the passports to the border to be processed and correctly logged into the immigration department's computers, they decided to make their own counterfeit stamps, with the Sadao entry/exit points (southern border with Malaysia) as their chosen chop. It didn't take long for the authorities to catch on to this. As there was no record in the computer to match the stamps, as soon as the unknowing individual tried to leave the country for real, they were busted.
The holders of these bogus stamps were tossed into the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), which is a very unpleasant place and a place that Amnesty International has been complaining about for years. Unfortunately, a number of these people were not aware that they had committed any crime. With such wide open advertising of these visa services who can blame a tourist or short-term resident for assuming that what they were being offered was a legal service? Granted, the authorities did shut down these visa service operations, but a number of foreigners have been tossed into IDC, fined, and deported.
That said, at this juncture NO ONE should use any visa service in Thailand for an extension, visa run, whatever. If you have business with Immigration, go down to Soi Suanphlu and do it yourself. If you have to do a visa run, DO NOT send out your passport, but send yourself out with your passport!
Probably the fastest and easiest visa run destination would be Poipet, Cambodia. Four and a half hours from Bangkok by public bus (164 baht for a first class bus from Morchit). The Cambodia visa will cost you 1000 baht (though the legal price is $20, presently 800 baht) and you'll be illegally charged a 100 baht fee for using Cambodia immigration to do your visa run. Essentially what they do is charge anyone who enters and exits on the same day this 100 baht fee. There is a SARS screening desk but you should be able to ignore it without any hassle. You may also ask yourself why they've maintained a SARS screening desk months after the region was declared SARS-free? Well, Cambodia does tend to lag behind international trends, and two, it's a chance for the border officials to take in another 50 to 100 baht in "fees". You are under no obligation to pay this money so don't.
Heading to Koh Kong is a more expensive option, though it's a better place to spend the night if you're going to make a trip out of it. From Bangkok you're looking at five hours and 189 baht to Trat. Another hour and 100 baht to the border and more hassles with Cambodia immigration. Here they'll try to get 1100 baht for the visa and usually charge 300 baht for the turnaround and sometimes even 400 baht, though you ought to be able to avoid this by spending the night in Koh Kong, but I wouldn't put it past the Koh Kong officials to still try to extort some cash. The Koh Kong officials are for more corrupt than their counterparts in Poipet. Koh Kong is also using the SARS screening to revitalize the old immunization card scam that died off a couple of years ago. That'll cost you another 50 to 100 baht if you get caught in it. If saving money is of any importance to you, do your visa runs at Poipet. It's faster and cheaper.
There is a rumor flying around that there will be a restriction placed on the number of concurrent entries one can make with 30-day visa-free entry stamps. Some rumors say a new regulation will put a fixed limit per year, other rumors say the limit will be dependent on how much time the passport holder spends outside of the country between entries, and additional rumors say a restriction will not be made on the issuance of the visa-free stamps, but on the number of days one can stay in Thailand per year under these stamps, with 180 days the most often cited number. This is a particularly hot topic and while it might clear out some undesirable elements inhabiting Thailand, it will also have the undesirable effect of creating enormous problems for a number of people who work in neighboring countries and by nature of their work and that three of Thailand's neighbors are considerably less developed than Thailand, find it necessary to make regular visits, sometimes dozens in a year, to purchase supplies, to use professional services (repair shops, pro photo labs, graphic design, the list is endless) not available in these other countries. But whatever the reason, these visits involve bringing in and spending sometimes considerable sums of cash that was earned outside of the country. I do hope, that if a limit is ever placed on visa-free entries, these legitimate (and profitable for Thailand) forms of entry will be addressed and accounted for.
I've noticed a slew of old shophouse buildings throughout the Ratchadamnoen Avenue area have been hit with a new coat of paint. Yellow. A rather bright yellow. This is almost precisely what Phnom Penh tried in April 2001 as there is one difference. The shade of yellow is uniform here, while in Phnom Penh all sorts of shades of white, cream, yellow, etc were tried as no one quite nailed down just exactly what color was meant to be used. Well, Bangkok is tackling this same experiment and although they got all the buildings painted and painted the same shade of yellow, I have to say the paint jobs are sloppy and the chosen shade of yellow is not at all attractive. Why is it that it seems every city wants to emulate Singapore's rigid social engineering but won't mimic Singapore's colorful and attractive paint schemes?
Nostalgia. It sells. If done properly, it's an enjoyable ride down memory lane. Overdone, it's a nauseating experience. "Fan Chan" is a recent cinematic effort brought to us by six, that's right, six writer/directors, all now in their late twenties who take us back to their own childhood as it was in 1985. Now first of all, this is a Thai movie (English subtitles) and it's Thai nostalgia not western that we are presented with. Still, while the ability to identify with the endless procession of 1985 Thai pop hits that fill the background may be somewhat inhibited to a western viewer, the significance of this musical score remains apparent.
The story is of two neighbors, Noi Nah and Jaeb. Noi Nah (Focus Jirakul), is a girl of 11, Jaeb (Charlie Trairattana) a boy of 10. They are the best of friends, a situation made possible by proximity and predicament. They live two doors apart, their fathers are both barbers, and Jaeb is forbidden by his mother to cross the busy road that intersects their Petchburi province town, thus alienating Jaeb from the in-crowd of boys. The relationship between Jaeb and Noi Nah is genuine and any viewer able to recall their own experiences with prepubescent puppy love can identify with them. But Jaeb needs more than Noi Nah and certainly more than being forever the male character in the make-believe games of Noi Nah and her friends. The in-crowd of boys is led by Jack, a position he assumes by virtue of his size and age, something one tends to gain an advantage with when they fail the same grade two times. Under Jack is the reticent Manote, the fat Dtee, Boy, the son of the richest woman in town, and Prik. Jaeb is at first shunned by this crowd, but an accidental encounter on the football field gives him the way in. But ultimately, acceptance by the boys forces Jaeb into the unenviable position of having to make a choice between the boys or Noi Nah.
The plot of "Fan Chan" is thin, but who cares? The movie is highly enjoyable. It's certainly not the kind of movie that sends one's mind to elevated planes of thought and discourse. I remember back in 1997 when I saw "Contact" the group of expats I saw it with subsequently spent hours over some beers discussing concepts of extraterrestrial life, God, creationism, science, and so forth. And another of my favorite flicks, "Field of Dreams" had my mind racing over all the clever twists and possibilities that the movie presented, "if you build it..." But with "Fan Chan" it's ten minutes of "Yeah, I remember when..." and then onto another topic, like APEC or something.
"Fan Chan" is cute and there's no denying that the nostalgia is laid on thick, but it manages to avoid crossing the fuzzy line between endearing and nauseating and that I suppose, is a testament to the filmmakers' ability to hit the audience in just the right spot at just the right times so that no matter how soppy one might find certain parts of this flick, anyone with even the slightest bit of sensitivity can't help but to like this movie. No, scratch that, love this movie. It's candy. It's sugar. But hey, don't so many of us have a sweet tooth?. Do see this film. Just check your intellectualism at the door.
I'm giving this site a plug due to its relevancy to what is at the forefront of so many expats mind's - their visa status. Thaivisa.com offers a lot of information on the legal issues of entering and remaining in Thailand as well as a number of articles giving additional expat information in respect to living and doing business here, with new articles appearing regularly. There's a fairly good links page and a constantly updated section of links to current news stories relevant to the expat population. There is also a discussion forum that's quite active - certainly active enough to generate 400+ responses and over 30,000 views to the issue of whether foreigners are welcome in Thailand or not.
While I certainly consider this website useful, if I could a voice a criticism or two, it's that there are some inconsistencies in the articles. Clicking on some articles will bring a wealth of information, while others offer nothing more than a few sentences apparently cut and pasted from Thai immigration law that fail to explain to the reader in any useful sense what the law means or how one satisfies it. It's apparent that the articles on thaivisa.com are sourced from a variety of places and some do not credit their origin. Still, I would venture to guess that the site's creators are probably aware of at least some of these inconsistencies (hey, this site has them, too!) and will deal with them when they can. In looking at the section of the site's future plans, they are no doubt ambitious and seem to have visions of pulling off the ultimate Thailand expatriate website. Great news if they can do it. In the meantime, criticisms aside, this is a useful site and worth checking out if you have any concerns over visas, residency, etc.
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.
A few e-mails on last months lead story about the recent worries of the expat community in Thailand:
Bad choice of words, maybe? I don't know. It wasn't my point to say that Cambodians are thieves as I clearly stated in the story that they are not, but rather I was pointing to the shortsightedness that exists in Cambodia and the Cambodians most certainly do suffer from quite a bit of that, and I explained my reasons.
And one more from another in the long line of expatriates beating a path into Cambodia:
As last month's column went outrageously long at nearly 8,500 words, I've felt no guilt in cutting this one down to the lower end of my preferred range. There are about 4,600 words this month including the ones I'm wasting in this paragraph.
As promised last month I've put a short blurb up on the Bangkok Snake Farm. Hardly the most exciting prose I've ever put to paper but I like some of the cobra shots. Other than this column each month, there won't be any new Thailand material on this site for at least two, if not three more months, as I have a bit of Cambodia work to do and hopefully Laos will be entering into the picture as well, but that's still not confirmed - and thanks to those who offered a few Laos suggestions. I'll be back in Cambodia by the time most of you read this likely to miss the Royal Barge Procession I promoted up top - but do try to check it out if you can, though admittedly viewing areas will be limited, but I guess there is always your television set.
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.
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