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

September 2003

1.) Should I stay or should I go?
2.) So I go
3.) Blowing up Thailand
4.) Butterfly Man

5.) Movies and movie etiquette
6.) New LP Thailand is out
7.) Flashback of the month
8.) Website of the month
9.) Perspective


Should I stay or should I go?

Many expats living in Thailand have felt a bit under fire since Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai government took power with a nationalist/populist platform. There have been new and stricter regulations on foreign-owned businesses and investment, a substantial increase in visa and work permit fees, and stricter visa requirements with the latest change doubling the necessary monthly income and minimum level of cash kept in a Thai bank for foreigners seeking one-year visas because they are married to a Thai citizen. Most expats would agree that the rules governing business, investment, residency, etc have always been stacked against foreigners and these new regulations only raise that stack higher.

Sure, this is Thailand and the Thais can do whatever they feel is in their best interests for their people and their country, which also assumes then, that you believe government decisions are always made with the best interests of their people and country in mind. But that's a topic for another day.

There are, however, some relevant arguments spawned from these changes. There is first, the matter of whether we foreigners are guests in Thailand or not, at what point if ever, do we stop being guests? And just what exactly our are rights to criticize Thai governmental decisions that affect us? And in the long run, are stricter requirements placed upon foreigners living in Thailand a good thing or not? And finally, if to some foreigners, Thailand does well and truly become an unpalatable place to live, are there other regional alternatives?

Are we guests? In most cases we are not. But before I go further, let me point out that under no circumstances does anything I say in opposition to this "guest" mentality stand as an excuse to be a rude, ignorant, offensive jerk. No matter what "status" one assumes for foreigners in Thailand, it is imperative at all times that we are aware of how Thai culture and society functions, how we fit ourselves into that society, to know what things are most important to Thais and to show the proper respect and deference to these things, and so on. It is their country and we have to respect the society and culture they have created and adapt ourselves to it and not vice versa. However, this doesn't mean we have to be doormats either.

Anyway, back to this guest thing. Let's start at the beginning, with tourists. Chances are somewhere you read or heard that Thailand was a great place to visit. So you come and you spend lots of money. Sounds to me like you're not a guest but a customer and the product you purchased is tourism. Tourism is a multi-billion baht business in Thailand and the country has made considerable and successful effort to market themselves to the world as an international tourist destination. So how is this different from any other industry which promotes its product? They sell it, we buy it. Granted, there are still differences from say purchasing a pair of shoes in the local department store and of course one should be a good customer and respect Thai culture and society while visiting, but when you boil it all down, tourists are customers. If Thailand did not actively promote itself as a viable tourist destination and say, took the approach of Bhutan, then perhaps the guest argument would be a little stronger.

The next group of people are those who have decided that maybe Thailand would be a good place to settle for awhile, but haven't really made up their mind. Or perhaps they'll take a job here for a year or three but no more. Of all possible categories of foreigners this is possibly the one group that falls most easily into the guest category. Unlike tourists, these individuals haven't made the tourism purchase and unlike longtime expatriates, they haven't really invested anything in the country or shown any other reason why they should deserve any privilege other than a 90-day visa.

But perhaps at some point you decide to make the investment and set up a business here bringing in a few million baht, and perhaps later you marry a Thai woman, settle into a home, raise children who could very well be the next generation of film, television, and music stars, and you pay taxes, and you raise your children as Thais. At this point what kind of rights should you have? I say at this point you deserve equal status under the law and you are most certainly anything but a guest. Period. From a societal point of view no foreigner will ever be accepted as Thai and I think most if not all foreigners who make Thailand their permanent or near permanent home are okay with this, but legal status is something different.

It's a treacherous road to travel to compare Thailand to our native countries, but I always like a little risk now and then. I'm an American and my country is admittedly not an easy one for Thais to receive a visa for unless they have a lot of money, which in some respects mirrors the direction Thailand is moving as they make their country more restrictive. Fair enough. However, as difficult as it may be to get one's foot into America, once the footprint is set, one is afforded rights that are in most cases equivalent to those set aside for citizens and certainly far more equal than one presently receives in Thailand. A Thai national will find few barriers to home ownership, business startup, financial investment, marriage, banking regulations, driving licenses, etc. And the present Thai government certainly knows this as about half of the present cabinet is made up of American-educated Thais and there are many wealthy Thais, including members of this government, who have taken full advantage of liberal western business and property law and maintain businesses and residences, which they own outright with full legal protection, in western countries.

The Thaksin government says they are seeking "quality foreigners", which I think means "rich foreigners". The new requirements to obtain a visa for spousal support is an income of at least 40,000 baht a month (presently just under $1000 US) and a Thai bank account with at least 400,000 baht in it. I think a lot of foreigners can comply with this law, but as we are talking families here and let's face it, more Thais than not live on less than 40,000 baht a month and have less than 400,000 in the bank, there's a major inequality here. And if there are some longtime residents here who have been law-abiding members of their community and are unable to comply to this law, does this raise the possibility of breaking up families?

Still, having tougher requirements isn't necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps Thailand is seeing itself as a more developed country, which it is, and is taking measures to behave more like one and one of these ways is to tighten up its visa and residency requirements. Fair enough. However, tightening the requirements to get the visa in the first place is one thing, changing the rules when you are already here is another. In the name of basic fairness, shouldn't we see a relaxation of employment, business, and property regulations for those foreigners who can otherwise comply with the more rigid minimums and in all other ways prove to be functional humans contributing to the country? If foreigners must make 40,000 baht a month, shouldn't then the foreigners already married to a Thai citizen and trying to raise and support a family be given a few more opportunities to comply with this through relaxed business and employment laws?

I think one thing that makes a lot of foreigners nervous about Thailand is that we can invest large sums of cash, raise a family, have a home, but at any day at any time, the government can pass a law and we lose everything. They want our money but they don't want to give us any rights. Yes the superficial response is "Hey, buddy, you didn't have to come here, stop complaining." Well, give me a break and don't be so reactive. You're right, we didn't have to come. But we did and they allowed us to come and they accepted our money, we married one of their daughters and are now raising their children and raising them more as Thai than anything else (look at all the film stars!).

We're not asking to take over the country. We're asking for the security of knowing that once we've made the commitment to live here as law-abiding residents respecting Thai society and culture and doing our best to be decent neighbors, that we can own the homes we live in with the security that no law can be passed that takes those homes away because of our nationality, that we can live here with the security that our status as residents won't be rescinded on the whim of a nationalist governmental official, that we can start, run, and own outright an honest business on equal legal footing with Thais. We our husbands and fathers of Thais, businessmen investing money in Thailand, taxpayers contributing to the Thai public coffers, and the like. I don't think having legal equality and protection is too much to ask.

So I go

The latest round of legislation regarding foreigners has more than a few residents wondering if maybe it's time to pack up and leave. And if so where? By and large the neighborhood isn't too attractive, but there is one country I'm well familiar with that for some, may be well worth a look. That country is Cambodia.

I've been surprised how little many Thailand-based expats know about Cambodia. Some have only made visa runs never passing the border area, a few more have made the odd trip to Siem Reap and/or Phnom Penh, and some have never been there at all. But I think many have considered Cambodia as little more than a backward corrupt country with a lot of old temples, some really strange expatriates, and a seedy atmosphere.

Well, it's not so backward and not nearly as corrupt as many people think. The seediness, well, they're working on that one. And while it does have more than it's share of oddball expats, Cambodia also has plenty of intelligent, functioning individuals as well. But yes, they/we, yes we, Cambodia is where I actually make my money and spend half of my time, are generally a bit odd, but it does make life more interesting. And before passing judgment on the expatriate population in Cambodia, have a look at all the expat mafia don wannabes living in Pattaya!

Cambodia, though still a very poor country, is progressing at a very encouraging rate. In four years (1998-2002) per capita GDP in Cambodia has increased from $700 a year to $1500 (world rank 186/231) with a real growth rate of 5.2% ranking Cambodia an impressive 30th out of 213. For comparisons sake Thailand's per capita GDP has grown from $6100 a year to $6900 (world rank 99/231) a year in the same period. Cambodia's industrial production growth rate, estimated at 16%, is the third-fastest expansion rate in the world. Thailand ranks 88th at 3.00%.

Advantages of Cambodia:

Government. The CPP government is not nearly as corrupt as the news media makes it out to be. While imperfections and corruption do exist, a majority of the corruption problems in Cambodia have stemmed not from CPP ministries but from Funcinpec ministries. However, the Funcinpec party is becoming less and less of a presence with each passing election and will have very little influence in the next government which will be forming, we hope, in the next month or two. And before passing any judgment over the honesty, perceived or real, of the CPP government, consider what exists in Thailand or anywhere else for that matter. Furthermore, while a lot of questions have been raised as to the fairness of Cambodian elections, consider democracy in Thailand... how long ago was the last military coup...?

Business climate. The CPP government is quite open to foreign investment and overall the climate is quite favorable. Any honest, law-abiding foreign-owned business is welcome in Cambodia. Though property ownership restrictions exist, in many fields, it is possible for a foreigner to own their businesses outright 100%. I have to admit I'm not well versed on the legalities of setting up a major corporation, but in respect to a small business (i.e. guesthouse, bar, bookstore, etc.) it's a very straightforward and painless process. Fill out a few forms, obtain a few licenses, pay a little bit of money, you're good to go. I've heard few small business owners complain about the process. Taxation is also reasonable. Small businesses are supposed to pay taxes and the rate is fairly negotiable. Basically what happens is the taxman turns up at your place of business, sees what you sell, enters it all into a formula based on your product, if it's a restaurant - number of tables, bar stools, etc, if it's a guesthouse or hotel - number of rooms, size, quality, etc. and then factoring in such variables like what kind of mood he's in, did you serve him a nice drink, what did the fortune teller say to him yesterday, how's the weather, etc, he'll come up with a figure which you then negotiate down a little. And no one I know complains about the final agreed upon rate. Taxes in Cambodia are fair. And what about working? Yes, unlike Thailand you can work your own business in Cambodia. Of course you'll want to hire local staff, but if the staff is busy and you want to pour a customer a drink, you can legally do it. There are very few restrictions on foreigners working the businesses they own.

Corruption/mafia. Not a problem. Run a bar? Forget it, there is no liquor mafia. No one will come around and shake you down for payments each month. No one will force you into using a certain distributor. These things simply don't happen here. You open your business. You pay your taxes. You run it honestly and don't piss anyone off and you will be left alone. Shakedowns make a nice story and fit in well with the image many people have (or want to have) about Cambodia but it's not the reality anymore. Doing business in Cambodia is by and large as much of a professional and normal activity as it is anywhere else. Yes, business owners have problems, staff revolts, a revenge attack because someone got upset with them, employee theft, yes, these things happen but these are situations hardly unique to Cambodia.

Opportunity. Cambodia is booming. Right now the bulk of the attention is on tourism but as the country prospers numerous other opportunities are sure to develop. I can't name them all but if you have experience in some sort of industry or manufacturing you may find opportunities here, but you're going to have to find them on your own and not through me, it's not my field of expertise. And while the country is booming the usual rules apply, if you couldn't run a business in your home country there's no reason to think you can do it here. But if you have the skills and know-how and are looking for new pastures, I would strongly recommend you see if your skills don't have a place in Cambodia.

Disadvantages of Cambodia:

Labor pool. Plentiful and cheap but not well educated. Many Cambodians are eager for a job opportunity and will do their best to do a decent job. Problem is they don't always know how. Education was one of the biggest losses of the Khmer Rouge and civil war era and the country has not progressed as well as it should in this area. There are business colleges in Phnom Penh cranking out skilled workers, sure, but if you thought sometimes Thai staff could have, shall we say, a curious way of getting a job done, you ain't seen nothing until you get to Cambodia. As for honesty, Cambodians are no more or less honest than anyone anywhere else. If anything, probably a little more honest, but leave an open opportunity to steal from you and someone will take that opportunity, same as anywhere else. I think the most frustrating thing some foreign employers have experienced is shortsightedness. I know of employers paying generous salaries well in excess of $100 a month and even $200 a month (in Cambodia these are generous salaries) catching staff stealing as little as 50 cents from the till. While foreigners complain of shortsightedness in Thailand it is much more pronounced in Cambodia and of course much of that stems from a decade or so of not knowing whether or not you'd be alive tomorrow let alone if you'd have any money to buy a bowl of rice if you were alive.

Infrastructure. Getting better but still well behind Thailand. Electricity works most of the time but is quite expensive. Water, you can't drink it, but there are municipal supplies that work. Roads are a disaster and while improvements are being made it's a slow process and the highway system won't be reasonably sorted out until the latter half of this decade. High-speed internet is here but it's expensive. Landline internet is slower than molasses. The mobile system is comprehensive but the network is not as reliable as Thailand. Landline phones are limited to Phnom Penh and provincial capitals and are also expensive. There is no BTS. No highways. No comprehensive public bus system, local or inter-provincial..

Cost of living. Higher in Cambodia. Cambodia produces very little so most products, even basic household items, are imported, mostly from Thailand, but Vietnam as well. Food is also expensive. While Thailand has one of the world's finest international cuisines, Cambodia's local cuisine is the finest local cuisine in, well, Cambodia. You'll find yourself eating out a lot here and paying about double what you'd pay in Thailand. Also a lot of local produce is of poor quality and there are issues with dangerous pesticides indiscriminately sprayed on fruits and vegetables often by people who have no idea what it is they are spraying. See http://www.ejfoundation.org/reports.html for more information on pesticide use in Cambodia. Electricity is more expensive. Gasoline is about 50-75% more expensive. Rents are a little higher as well.

Availability of consumer goods. You can get almost anything in Thailand. You can get almost anything in Cambodia, too, but you usually have to ask some expat doing a supply run to Bangkok to get it for you. Basic household and electronic goods are available, but you won't find much above the basics. Obscure parts for any machinery or electrical goods will inevitably come from Thailand or farther, like Japan. On the other hand, we are seeing an increase in the number of businesses employing individuals able to make sophisticated repairs to thing like cameras, computers, etc.

Healthcare. This is one of the biggest minuses for Cambodia. It just isn't here. I can't stress enough the importance of having medical insurance that will include evacuation to Bangkok and a stay at Bumrungrad or BNH. Basic illnesses and injuries can be reasonably well sorted out in Cambodia, but you just don't want a major problem here.

Education. If you have kids you probably don't want to bring them here. There are some okay private schools, but overall the standards still lag well behind the offerings in Thailand.

Safety. I'm not sure that Cambodia is overall any more unsafe than Thailand in respect to muggings, etc. Security has improved tremendously in the past three years. Highway banditry has largely disappeared and while armed robbery in Phnom Penh still occurs it's a less likely event now. The biggest concern is road accidents as the driving habits of Cambodians are absolutely atrocious, even in comparison to Thailand.

The wildcard: Things of a personal nature which can't necessarily be judged an advantage or a disadvantage.

Entertainment/lifestyle. By and large, life in Cambodia is a laid-back existence. There's not nearly as much to do here. There are a couple of movie theaters in Phnom Penh but they show only local films. The first shopping mall opened in Phnom Penh this year and has little to interest foreign tastes. The adult entertainment scene is, on the surface, sleazier than in Thailand, though below the surface I'd argue it's basically all the same. Simply put, there's a lot less to do in Cambodia than in Thailand, which for some, can be a good thing. On the other hand, several major hotels have fitness centers which expats can join. If you can ride a motorbike there are numerous off-road riding opportunities and Cambodia still has some areas largely unexplored.

Culture and society. Quite similar in many respects but we're not supposed to talk about the Khmer influences on Thai culture. However, culture goes both ways and while much of Khmer culture, derived from Indian/Hindu/Balinese sources found its way to Thailand, in more recent centuries we've seen a reversal of culture flow. This is especially prevalent now and one only has to watch the selection of programming on Cambodian television to see it. In any event, these are still two different countries. Cambodians are much more open to foreign influences. Unlike Thailand, Cambodia had a long French occupation and a more recent NGO occupation for as no sooner did the Vietnamese leave, that the Cambodians found their country overrun with foreigners, so between the ninety-year French protectorate as well as the current NGO protectorate, the Cambodians seem quite used to having foreigners around doing things and doing things for them. You're still a foreigner, yes, but in time you will find yourself treated much less like a guest here. Also, unlike Thailand where Thais seemed shocked to find any foreigner speaking their language no matter how long you've been in the country, Cambodians as a whole do expect foreign residents to speak at least basic Khmer and they seem, I think rightly so, insulted when you can't (this of course does not apply to tourists or recent arrivals). Cambodia society is more conservative and seemingly more backward than Thailand and this is especially true where women and relationships with women are concerned. Do not expect to socialize with Khmer women with anywhere near the same ease as can be done in Thailand. This of course, does not include girls hanging out in bars. One last point, Thais and Khmers don't really like each other. If you have a Thai significant other, this could be a major barrier to resettlement. While there is a considerable and close-knit Thai community in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap comprised mostly of business owners who seem to manage in Cambodia quite well, with a few exceptions, January 29th not withstanding... tee rak may quickly tire of what she'll see as a country with lousy food, crude people, a dirty environment, and probably a few other things we Westerners wouldn't see as important. Do consider this.

Ultimately, most Thailand-based expats won't leave, but if the thought is present, do not dismiss Cambodia outright. It's a country that's rapidly changing for the better. Cambodia is not for everyone, but at the same time, to wave your hand and say it's a country full of dodgy expats and an incompetent corrupt government is simply wrong. The Cambodia of 2003 has well progressed beyond Pol Pot, UNTAC, Off the Rails, and so forth.

Blowing up Thailand

Well, not yet and hopefully never, but Hambali thought about it. Hambali is the man accused of being one of the masterminds of last October's Bali bombing as well as serving as a vital link between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asia based terror group.

On October 20-22 Bangkok is host to the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum and apparently Hambali was preparing to blow a few things up in Bangkok during this time. Hambali was arrested in Ayutthaya several weeks ago for planning these attacks. Both US president George Bush and Australian PM John Howard are also expected to attend this forum.

Hambali's targets included western embassies, Khao San Road, Nana Plaza, and Lower Sukhumvit Road. In the two years since terrorism was brought to the forefront of the world's attention, Southeast Asia has frequently been mentioned as a possible target, and Hambali's arrest seems only to confirm that. Personally, I'm of the opinion that given the randomness of terrorism, altering my lifestyle for fear of an attack is something I will not do. If I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, so be it. However, this does not mean precautions should not be taken to reduce the risks of attack or at least minimize the damage in the event of an attack.

Consider this scenario. A van turns down Sukhumvit Soi 4, pausing in front of the Nana Plaza entrance, the driver turns a sharp left. Facing the entrance to Nana Plaza the driver guns the accelerator running over a dozen pedestrians before anyone can even register a thought as to what's going down. He crashes into a motorbike or two, plows into a beer garden and then detonates a bomb that brings down the entire Nana Plaza and 1,000 or more people with it. If someone wants to blow up Nana Plaza there's only so much that can be done to prevent it, but how difficult would it be to put up a few barriers in the entrance that would at least prevent a vehicle from driving full throttle into its center? And at what inconvenience would this come? None, really. Vehicles don't drive in during the evening anyway. And as someone else once suggested to me, what about motorbikes? Imagine if you will a terrorist in the guise of a Pizza Hut delivery person with that big box on the back of the bike, only the box doesn't contain pizzas.

And what about Khao San Road, home to thousands of backpackers and dozens, hundreds of businesses to serve them? At night, when it's particularly crowded, the road is predominantly pedestrian traffic, anyway. A few vehicles, often hopeful taxis and tuk-tuks, try with difficulty to make their way from one end of the road to the other, but that's about it. Khao San Road is not a major thoroughfare and no one needs this road to get from one place to another. Again, barriers at each end would go a long way and would come at very minimal inconvenience.

In either case, the barriers can be set up in such a way to allow delivery vehicles access during the day, they could even be removed as by day there's not a whole lot going on in Nana Plaza, anyway, and Khao San Road is a little quieter as well.

As I said, I won't live in fear of terrorism, but when both Nana Plaza and Khao San Road have been positively identified as terrorist targets I do think a few precautions are in order.

Butterfly Man

"Butterfly Man" is the latest movie dropping a naive foreigner into Thailand with all sorts of trouble following his arrival. I'm a little surprised, or maybe I shouldn't be, that this film has received so little attention. Perhaps it's because the last time such a movie was made it was "The Beach", a movie many of us are wishing an epidemic of amnesia would erase from our collective memories.

"Butterfly Man" is the story of a young Brit, Adam (Stuart Laing), who arrives in Bangkok heading straight to Khao San Road and a quick breakup with his girlfriend. That done, the now single man heads south to Koh Samui where he meets Em (Napakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasitte), a local masseuse from Isaan. He falls in love in an instant yet still manages to mix it up for one night with a local bargirl, Noi (Wasa Watcharayon). Along the way he's befriended by a local expat, Joey (Francis Magee) and between his encounters with Em, Noi, and Joey all sorts of problems befall Adam. The movie was written and directed by Kaprice Kea, produced by Tom Waller, and filmed in Thailand.

But is it any good? Well, sort of. It's certainly better than "The Beach", no doubt about that, but memorable it's not. Let's cover three things: story, characters, and theme.

Story: The story line is weak. Based on the title of the film I was anticipating a story of a man who gets into all sorts of trouble for indiscriminately shagging a number of girls. Well, he doesn't. And in fact, his one foray with a bargirl, despite his already professed affection for Em, ultimately has little if anything to do with his troubles later. As one finds out, all Adam suffers from is a lot of bad luck in that he meets all the wrong people at all the wrong, or as the case may be, the right times. Sex has nothing to do with it. The story line which at first gives one the idea that they're going to see a movie that examines our inner selves, our demons as we balance promiscuous sexual desire with monogamous love and so forth is suddenly slam-shifted into a thriller. The story is entertaining enough to keep your attention but there are a lot of holes and inconsistencies in the plot which you'd do best just to ignore.

Characters: Overall, the characters, three of them, anyway, are a more likable lot than say, the bunch of ragamuffins in "The Beach" where I found myself hoping a dengue outbreak would wipe out the entire cast or barring that, at least a few more shark attacks as that would have been more interesting to watch than a bunch of self-righteous backpackers succumbing to illness. And seeing Leonardo get chomped by a Great White would have fit perfectly with the ending of "Titanic", but I digress. In "Butterfly Man" I did find I actually cared what happened to Adam and Em, but I think by having been in Thailand for six years, the characters were more meaningful to me. Had I been watching a movie filmed in say, Argentina, I might be less interested in their fates and curiously, I did read a review originating in the UK where the reviewer basically found himself completely disinterested in the ultimate fate of the characters and probably for that very reason.

Adam, the main character, comes across as a naive, albeit well-meaning and decent sort of guy. Which is what he's supposed to be. He handles some of his situations rather poorly, but I don't think there are many people of his age, fresh in Thailand and with little international travel experience that would handle the situations any better. But in the end, and with a little help from some others, Adam manages to sort things out. I wasn't sure whether it was the filmmaker's intent to make Adam's problems the result of his own actions or not, because by and large they are not, except maybe in a karmic sort of way, which with a hint from an early scene where Adam is given some seemingly basic advice from an old Thai man he shares some whisky with, that might well have been the filmmaker's intent. For the most part, Adam is nothing more than a victim of bad luck. His character is mostly believable and like most backpackers his initial reaction is to shun the bargirl scene and when he gets drunk and takes the plunge he feels guilty for it, though Noi has good words of wisdom in an effort to set him straight.

Em is an Isaan girl relocated to Koh Samui to make a few bucks to send back home to her mother and little sister, who no doubt live in that proverbial Isaan village we call Nakorn Nowhere. Em is a clever girl, caught in a bind between the forces of poverty and her own values. Her character is played by Napakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasitte who, like Stuart Laing, does a competent job with the role she is given. This is apparently her first English-speaking role and I have no idea what her actual level of competence is in English but there were a couple of instances where the dialogue didn't quite fit what seemed to be her character's level of knowledge nor was her comprehension of Adam's speech always consistent, sometimes she seemed to understand more than she should have been able to, though that may have been more a case of the screenwriting than the actress. There is however, one scene near the end of the movie where Adam offers a long monologue which no one of Em's intended level of language competence could have ever understood. As the monologue was nearing conclusion I was silently hoping that the filmmaker wouldn't have Em respond with any sort of comprehension. Well kudos to the filmmaker for as Adam finishes a monologue, obviously spoken for the benefit of the audience and to convey the writer/director's message, Em looks at him blankly and offers no indication whether she understood or not and rather tells him what she wanted to say and does for him what she wanted to do. I would also add that I saw this film with my Thai girlfriend who thought a few of Em's lines were not appropriate to the situation.

Noi is a bargirl Adam has an encounter with and as the film developed, she became my favorite character. My girlfriend, most definitely not nor ever a bargirl, quite liked the character as well and appreciated the human face she puts on the industry. Noi is a smart practical and likable bargirl that's quite matter-of-fact about who she is and what she does. I think any man who has spent some time getting to know bargirls on a greater level than just a quick business encounter knows a girl like Noi and will appreciate this character.

Themes. The movie seeks to address prostitution, poverty, western/Thai relationships, and the effects of tourism. To the filmmaker's credit, with characters like Noi, we are shown a very human side to the prostitution industry. But the dark side of trafficking is also brought to light, though given the time constraints and entertainment purposes of film in general, it was addressed in a rather superficial way. Poverty and the difficult choices it creates is seen clearly through both Em and Noi and also when Adam visits Em's Isaan village. The dynamic of the western/Thai relationships is, like trafficking, treated superficially and fails to draw any conclusions nor provoke this viewer to form any conclusions. I think part of the failing was that we have a movie that begins seemingly with the intent to address these matters, suddenly segued rather ungracefully into a thriller. You can read the full text of the Director's Vision here.

This is not a memorable film and less so as I don't expect it to be around for long and so far it has not generated anywhere near the kind of discussion as "The Beach" did. "Butterfly Man" opened on the 12th of September. We saw it Saturday night the 13th at the SFX Emporium and there were barely two dozen people in attendance. So if you're going to see it, see it now. But I wouldn't call this a bad movie and it's certainly better than "The Beach". In its defense, "Butterfly Man" is a low budget film made by a relatively young and inexperienced crew (at least reading the bios on the official website gives me that impression) and in all fairness that bears consideration and should serve more to their credit than denigration. Most of the director's stated objectives are met though not as smoothly and seamlessly as he may have hoped. The plot, though not the most consistent story line ever depicted, is entertaining enough to stay awake for, and really, how many movies have consistent and realistic story lines? Not many. Writer/director Kaprice Kea does have a clue about Thailand and while the film is not perfect in its portrayal of Thailand and its people and how westerners fit in, it's not bogged down with character and culture flaws, either. It's more a matter that whatever element it is that makes a good character into a great character, whatever element separates a movie with a theme delivered with a thud and a theme delivered in such a way you talk about the movie for days on end, it's those X factors that are missing. Still, the crew are young and this is an early effort. Whether Kaprice Kea will find that X factor later, time will only tell, but this movie could have been a lot worse. And perhaps most importantly, I didn't consider the 280 baht spent on a pair of tickets to have been wasted and I would pay, if anything, out of simple curiosity, money to see his next cinematic effort.

Movies and movie etiquette

Okay, as we're talking about movies, let's talk about seeing movies in Bangkok. First of all, we have excellent movie theaters here. The main players are Major Cineplex, SF Cinema City, and EGV, all of which offer comfortable seating, sometimes of the stadium variety, state-of-the-art sound systems, and large screens. United Artists had two multiplexes but sold them off last year. Ticket prices have been inching up with 120-140 baht (about $2.95 - $3.45) fairly normal now, up from 80-100 baht (about $1.95 - $2.45) when I arrived in 1997.

In my first two years here, there were, I don't think even five movies made, but now the Thai movie industry is cranking out a couple of dozen flicks a year, which, if there's a downside, it means we're getting less western movies than in the past. Historically I'd say about one-third to one-half of the major American releases made it to Thailand (though I could be off with that estimation).

Seeing a movie here. Most of the major theaters will show the original soundtrack with Thai subtitles, but it doesn't hurt to be sure. Just ask for "soundtrack". Some, but certainly not all, Thai movies will have English subtitles, but you'll want to check this before you put your money down. However, while subtitles help, I've seen a few movies where twenty seconds of dialogue is translated as "Yes, we go now."

Every theater I've ever been to in Bangkok has reserved seating. When you buy a ticket you're shown a seating chart and you choose your seats. Now, this is directed at tourists of course. When you select a seat - sit in that seat!!!!! I once watched two guys in their early 20s, obviously tourists, turn up for a flick. As they walked past me one commented as to where were the seats which the other responded something along the lines of "it doesn't matter let's just sit here". So they did. And thirty seconds later two Thais walked up to near where the foreigners were and paused. The foreigners were in their seats. Did the two Thais, a young couple, ask them to move? Of course not, they paused and stammered, appeared confused for a few moments and then chose two different seats. Maybe they spoke no English, maybe they didn't want confrontation, who knows, but they chose two other seats. No big deal? Well, guess what! Two more Thais turned up for the seats these two Thais just took! And did they ask the two to move? Of course not! They stood for a few seconds whispering to each other and acting tentative about the whole thing and then decided to sit somewhere else. Did it end there? No! Two more Thais turned up for the seats the previous two had just taken and again, avoiding confrontation, the two stood confused and tentative for a few seconds before taking two different seats yet again. Now it ended there, finally. And I'll agree, it's a minor thing, but aside from the humor value of watching all of this, two foreigners indifference to a local system did cause a bit of confusion for six Thais. So if you come to see a movie, sit in your assigned seats, okay? Oh, and stand up for the King's Anthem!

New LP Thailand is out

The new Lonely Planet Thailand is out. As my previous edition was two editions back (1999) I decided to grab a new copy for reference's sake. I don't have any great words of wisdom here and am not going to take the time to exhaustively review the book, but briefly, there is evidence that some sections have been newly upgraded while others still show information unchanged since the mid 1990s. Generally speaking, I do think Lonely Planet is one of the better guidebook publishers, but one feature I'd like to see in all guidebooks, not just Lonely Planet, is to make notations as to when individual sections are updated and not just when the entire book is published. It's quite easy to slap a new cover on a book, update the publication date and tell the world "Newly Updated!!!" But it's another thing to actually update the book in such a way that the purchaser can truly trust that what is contained between the covers really is fresh from end to end.

The book is a little thinner and as others have pointed out before me, it makes one wonder if whether by thinning out some of the sections it might encourage people to purchase any (or all!) of the regional Thailand guides, i.e., the Northern Thailand guide, the Islands and Beaches guide, or the Bangkok guide. Perhaps the main Thailand guide will run the course of the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide - short cursory write-ups of the countries' main features and if you need more information, you can buy individual country books. Now we're encouraged to buy the more detailed Thailand regional guides. Good points of this strategy: more comprehensive guidebooks and as they deal with smaller areas, they should in theory, be more accurate and up to date (though as my experience has been with LP's Southwest China book this is not always the case). Bad points of this strategy: You spend more money and carry around more books.

Flashback of the month

I remember back in 1997 when I wasn't long in Bangkok, being awoken at six in the morning by a blaring loudspeaker emanating from a pickup truck filled with fruit. I didn't know much Thai then but I could only assume he was selling the stuff and at six in the morning felt that the world needed to be aware of this. I considered that a few months prior I was living in an apartment in Philadelphia, USA, a city not known for its good manners or non-confrontational conflict avoidance. Back in my old neighborhood this guy would have gotten away with about fifteen seconds of "watermelon, 25 cents a pound" before someone would have come out of their home, walked up to the guy, ripped the microphone out of his hand, punched him in the mouth, and then shoved the microphone where the sun don't shine. Really. And if the guy, now missing two teeth, should file a police report he'd probably be told by the police that he got what he deserved. The police would then tell the assailant that if Mr. Loudspeaker returns, next time don't leave any visible marks when you give him the deserved pummeling.

But this is Thailand and few would even dream of assaulting someone that disturbed their peaceful slumber, if they even were woken up by it. In fact some folks trot themselves out to the mobile fruit vendor as it saves a trip to the market later, never mind it encourages him to come back the next day and wake everyone up all over again. Six years later, I too, have solved the problem. I don't rent apartments that overlook streets where fruit vendors announce their produce at six in the morning. And I haven't had to punch anyone, either. Something to be said for conflict avoidance.

The tolerance for noise, not just in Thailand, but throughout Asia boggles the western mind sometimes. Will I ever grow used to it? I would tell you no, no I won't. But in fact I probably have grown more tolerant of it without even realizing it. But people tell me I'm half-deaf anyway.

Website of the month


This month's featured website is the Golden Triangle Rider. If you like riding motorbikes, as I do, and ever thought about a trip through northern Thailand, which provides some of the best riding experiences in Southeast Asia, than this is the site to begin planning your trip from. The site, created by David Unkovich, is a comprehensive guide to riding motorbikes in northern Thailand as well as offering general information for purchasing or importing a bike anywhere in the country. There are sections covering road conditions, driving habits, rules, biking routes for day trips as well as longer journeys, and much much more. Do not take a two-wheeled holiday in Thailand without first consulting this site.


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 onward ticket piece:

I fly from Minneapolis USA / Bangkok on Northwest yearly and only last year was I asked. In fact, I was absolutely refused boarding until I bought a return within the 30 days (I was off to Burma in only a couple weeks and got my Thai visa in Yangon for the duration of my stay). So beware on NWA.


Just for the record. I have been coming to Thailand regularly during the last 12 years using the services of PIA, Aeroflot, AF, TG and finally SAS. And I have not EVER been asked by the airline nor at immigration if I had an onward ticket, which I by the way never did have.

And again:

A friend and his Thai friend travelled to Brussels by Gulf Air. The trip was Bangkok - Emirates (I think Abu Dhabi ) - Paris. His friend had a genuine shengen visa, meaning he could travel between all shengen countries - of which France is also a member. Well...in the Emirates his friend was forbidden to fly to Paris because the place of residence during his Europe tour would be Belgium. Back to Bangkok! And nothing was refunded by Gulf Air - despite the travel agent in Bangkok had assured that there would be no problem at all.

Recent experiences with Thai people show that there is no problem at all coming through a German or Dutch airport with destination another shengen country. But the message remains: avoid France.

And one last one:

You wanted to know how different airlines treat travellers that have either a one way ticket to BKK or a return leg that ends there. Last October I had a real wake up call with KLM. I checked in at Barcelona airport for my return trip. At this time I didn't have a work permit yet. I only planned to stay in BKK for a few days before making an overland trip down to Singapore and obtaining a tourist visa there. Suddenly the check-in agent demands to see a visa that I don't have. She tells me the system shows her I need to have A TICKET BACK TO EUROPE! What about an onward ticket I ask, although all I have to show is a train ticket to Hat Yai (I was going to catch the bus from there). She and a coworker examine my train ticket but are not impressed. She tells me if I get rejected by Thai immigration SHE WILL PERSONALLY BE FINED BY KLM! I try to convince her that everything will be fine, that I have entered Thailand more than 20 times without a problem. She asks me if I want to buy a ticket on the spot (some sky high fare that would have been) and I tell her no, I'm going to the US after Thailand (wasn't true). Time starts crawling, the people behind me in the business class check-in line get restless, my ears start turning red. Eventually, I can appease her and she lets me get on the flight. Now imagine if she or one of her coworkers had had to actually pay a fine in the past. I would have been in deep shit (and I was a Northwest Gold Elite member then). I also have experience with return flights from Singapore on Indian Airlines and Finnair. They would like to see an onward ticket out of Thailand if you don't have a work permit and/or one year visa.


In closing

This column has run a bit long. I don't normally put together columns in excess of 8,000 words, preferring to maintain a size of 4,000 to 6,000 words, but I got a little long-winded this month, so if you've made it this far, congratulations or something.

The end of August we took a trip to Prachuap Khiri Khan. This inspired me to write brief page on Prachuap Khiri Khan, Hua Hin, and the surrounding area. It's nothing special, but if you want to have a look, here it is.

This past weekend, aside from seeing "Butterfly Man", we visited Bangkok's snake farm and I'll put together a page on that before the month is out. And I'm sure there will be a weekend trip in a month or so, maybe Kanchanaburi, hmm, is that Tiger Temple still open? Might be a story in there... But whatever and whenever we do, another destination page on this site will come from it. With this column up, I'll be back in Cambodia until the end of the month, earning the rent, checking out Rock at Angkor Wat and so forth before returning to Bangkok for the first half of October and continuing an endless cycle of balancing a life grounded in two neighboring countries.

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
September 15, 2003

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