Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My iphone 3g review and thoughts

(disclaimer: I did post a similar version of this onto the apple applesauce forum)

Ok, my review of the iphone 3g (after one week I am now an expert).

Let me start by saying that I like it. The iphone is a good phone. I have not had any problems. It is easy to use. I did not need to read the manuals. I like it. I am happy. I am content (relatively, for the moment).

By way of background I have lusted after an iphone since S. Jobs announced the original 2 years ago. However, living in Australia, and with the original iphone not allowing apps (ok, it did allow web apps, but I mean real apps, (ok, it had jailbroken apps, but I wanted real apps)), I decided that the purchase was just not worth the trouble.

When the new model came out I decided that this was the way to go. The new model had a GPS, could handle the 3g network, and it had real apps. Cool. Since I travel a fair bit I decided that tying myself into an expensive Australian network was not the way to go. Via ebay, via a friend in Australia, I purchased an unlocked 16gb iphone and had it posted to me in Thailand (that was a story in itself, but lets not digress). I began using it immediately. For your edification here are my thoughts on the iphone 3g.

First off, I like it, it is a good phone (did I say that already?), however, it does have a number of short comings. Most of these are attributable to its 'newness' and Apple's desire to get everything 'just right' before releasing any improvement. As the MobileMe mess demonstrated, it is not easy to always get things right, all the time, first time.

Lets start by listing the things which are very annoying. At the top of this list is bluetooth. Totally sux. Bluetooth as it is today on the iphone can only be used to link the iphone to a wireless earpiece. Nothing else. That totally sux. On every other phone, which even comes close to being considered smart, bluetooth can perform a host of services: swapping files between computers and other phones, syncing data, keyboards, whatever. Lots of things. BUT not the iphone. I do not know why not, maybe Steve is waiting to spring the best ever set of bluetooth features on us in the next major operating system upgrade, but HURRY UP DUDE !—embarrassing.

Speaking of charging—battery life. I get about four hours plus of what I consider to 'normal' usage, along with about four to five hours of standby time. This is not too much, in fact, for me, not nearly enough. Now, admittedly, I do a lot with my iphone: wireless, surfing, reading, apps, but even so, a few hours is not enough. Come on Apple, better battery life! I will be buying soon the Mophie 'juice pack', which doubles the battery life, but Apple come on! Better battery, solar cells, cold fusion, whatever. I paid a $1000 for an iphone, I want to use it all, all the time, with no restrictions! --> interlude ---> a few days later --> ok, if you turn off the stuff you are not using, and be a little judicious in usage, you can get a few more hours out of the phone. It is difficult to state just how much time you can get from one charge, much depends on how it is used, but you may be able to get through a work day on one charge, if you are frugal.

Speaking of wireless, there seems to be a bug in version 2 of the iphone os which makes logging on to a wireless internet connection tricky. I say 'tricky' because sometimes it works just fine, with speed and dash, other times I cannot even get steady reception. After looking at a few forums it seems that I am not alone in this problem. Hopefully Apple will tackle this in the next os release, hopefully, soon. One bright spot of good news, it is easy to setup a wireless network from your Mac. So, if your Mac is on the net, with a few clicks of the mouse your iphone (most of the time) will be sharing your connection.

Lets talk about the camera. I have read many complaints about the iphone camera, the main complaint, in fact what may be the only complaint, is that the camera is 'only' 2gb (this produces a file ~500k in size). I am not happy with the iphone cam, however, my unhappiness does not stem from anything as minor as the image size, rather, from the lack of software controls and camera options. On my previous phone, a Samsung Z510, I had oodles of cam options. You can adjust brightness, image size, add borders to pics, colourise, enhance, do a fair number of things (most of which I never did). On the iphone—nada—, you turn the cam on, point and shot, the pic is saved to a roll, it can be synced to iphoto, and there is the option of emailing the pic. That is it. Come on Apple! Add a few bells and whistles, or at least encourage a few 3rd party types to come to the party. I want more control of my camera! As for the 'small' 2gb camera, this is not a concern for me. I am of a generation where 2gb was a lot. And, and I have no numbers here, but a tiny little phone lens is not going to produce a good image, no matter how many bytes are involved. 2gb is ok for a phone cam (that is until adaptive lens start to make their appearance). But Apple, add some features to your phone!

Lets turn to a few small things. First, get a screen protector asap for your iphone. Not so much for protection, but because the iphone screen (beautiful) shows finger smugs quickly and easily, as does the rest of the shiny case. Also (I do have long hands and fingers), I found the iphone all by itself hard to hold, hard to get a good grip. Without a case I could see myself easily dropping the phone—so buy a case or a 'grip' holder asap. I would be happy if the iphone screen was say, 1cm larger in height and length (though people with smaller hands/fingers might not agree). The 16gb storage limit is not really an issue, so far I am at only a few gbs. Some people, those for example who want to carry around Gbs of music or vids, will find this a limit, but not me. I can remember when 1gb was a lot of memory. I can remember when DOS fitted onto 1 disc, with room for a copy of word. I can remember ... I forget what I remember (of course, next week, when the 32gb model is released I will be selling this old piece of junk for a few dollars on ebay).

The os is ok, it is clearly non-multitasking, one app at a time. This can be a little annoying, but then the iphone is designated as a phone, not a comp. What the iphone does need is some sort of app manager. As it is now each app has its own icon, and a new 'page' is generated when the number of icons cannot fit onto the current number of pages (16 icons per screen). atm I have 4 pages of icons. The problem is that finding an app can be tricky. It is possible to rearrange icons, but some sort of search function and/or a better way to group apps would be good (e.g. user definable groups, like the palm had, would be good), or some other form of app management is needed. This need will only grow as does the number of available apps.

Speaking of apps, I have a few grievances. First, while I am inclined to say that the range of apps is good, I feel that the apps could be better. My impression is that a lot of the developers are looking at the iphone as a 'second job', not their 'day job', or maybe they are so 'happy' over writing iphone apps they are forgetting usability, or something else (I do note that game apps seem the best designed apps of all!). The apps could have more options, more functionality and so forth--this is just an impression I get. Keep in mind though that iphone app development is < 6 months old, so lets look again in another 6 months. The prices are good, many good qual apps are free, some are only a few dollars, the most expensive are in the $10s.

Lets turn to a few specific annoyances, the SMS app, which comes with the phone. It does the job, and in a stylish Apple way (looks a bit like ichat—which I have never used), but, like the cam, it is missing a few features. On my Samsung, for example, I can lock selected messages so that they are not deleted. This cannot be done on the iphone sms app. Like the cam it needs a few industry standard additions to make it a truly useful app (like, delete all messages, really useful once the messages start accruing). Similarly, the default map map app is severely limited. It does not display lat and long, it is a little clumsy, etc. I can add one other annoyance, on my Palm (now gathering dust on a shelf), merely clicking one easily accessible button on the side of the device would start a voice recording session, that was easy and quick. There are several competent voice recording apps for the iphone, but none of them (feel free to correct me) have such an easy interface. These apps require: opening the iphone case, sloowwwwly finding the app, clicking it on, wading through the options, and then, finally, turning on the record function. Seconds of time! Ok, enough bitching. You get the idea, the entire range of iphone apps/services/functionality seems half finished, unrefined.

Still on the subject of apps, but from a different direction—the itunes store. It is ok, but mediocre at doing its job. There are a number of annoyances, for example, the initial description of each app should be better. The problem is that each app is listed in a general category, for example 'lifestyle', but beyond that there is only the name of the app to indicate what it does, and as many of the names are rather vague you need to click on the app to see a detailed description. Since this takes several seconds for the app store page to load, searching the 1000s of apps in the store is near impossible. A one or two line summary would be a big help. Also more comprehensive reviews of the apps at the innumerable iphone websites would be nice. There are also no date or version numbers on the reviews—not a help when making a buying decision. Additionally, there is no try before buying option for apps. Overall, maybe, itunes (which now sells vids, apps, music, rentals, Cambodian orphans, podcasts, and maybe other things I cannot think of) might not have been the best way to go when it came to Apple distributing apps. Again, a better approach would be something like Palm, open up the sale process, but have your own website. Easy.

One minor annoyance is a difference between the osx contacts app, and the iphone contacts app. The osx app searches the entire database of names for any match, this is not the case on the iphone. This is inconvenient as, on the Mac, one can search for a street, suburb or even the contents of a note, while on the iphone one can merely search for the name of a person. In addition, many Thais (I am in Thailand) and other sea's (south east asians) use nicknames in preference to their long 'real' name: so you in osx can search for Noi or Ratchanwakoe, your choice, but not on the iphone.

The iphone os: it is good, but could be better. I find myself comparing the iphone interface to that of the Newtwon (sigh), and the Palm. Both were good machines. The handwriting recognition of the Newton was fantastic, it would be interesting to see something like that appear on the iphone (just never refer to the Newton by name, nis = not invented by Steve). The Palm had a number of better thought out little things going for it—see my comments about apps and grouping above. A little copying of good ideas would not hurt the iphone. With regard to the iphone itself and its finger gesturing, great idea. It works well, efficiently and smoothly, well executed, however... I would like to see more use of the gesturing. I say this as most apps, once you get to the info/settings/options screen(s) fail to implement gestures and instead rely on tapping buttons. Even the os itself falls in this regard. When I first started using the iphone I gestured my way across the screens. When I reached the last screen I kept gesturing forward, expecting to be looped back to the first screen. No. To return to the first screen you must gesture back, or tap the little dots at the base of the screen, each of which represents one screen. A more uniform approach would implement gestures across the entire interface, and implement gestures within apps. As it stands you gesture to reach an app, activate it, and then have to navigate via buttons to switch app screens. Uniformity (or at least optional conformity), would make for a better user experience.

I would also like to see a few improvements on the virtual keyboard, however, let me say that as it is it is good. My suggestions are small improvements. First, more keys on the main keyboard screen. All the characters are there, laid out in qwerty fashion, but no full stops, commas or other commonly used keys. To access these keys one must hit an option key which brings up a second keyboard. Now, I admit, there is little wasted space on the main keyboard, so the question does become, where? Two answers to that question, a.) not my problem, I make suggestions, I am not an engineer: b.) the space bar is big, the size of 5 keys. How about reducing it in size somewhat and sliding in a few more keys?

A few more thoughts: MobileMe, I have not tried it, not even on a free trial. It is a good idea, even with a small setup (one MacBook and one iphone), however, at us$100 per annum it is pricey. If Apple were to reduce the price, or even make it free, or added a few bells and whistles, I will reconsider.

Speaking of the screen, it is very good for reading ebooks, far better than the palm screen. I keep thinking of the kindle and its low power consumption. If this tech could be added to the iphone, it would go a long way to making the ebook go mainstream. Again, I would be ok with a larger iphone. Ebook reading is great, fantastic, really cool on an iphone (did I say that already?). Really, over the last 2 years or so (since Palm sunk under the weight of its own unbelievable level of incompetence—I mean, from being king of the handhelds to laughing stock in a few short years), I had lost interest in handheld ebooks, confining myself to reading from my trusty MacBook screen. Now, the iphone has restored my trust in technology. It is a great handheld ebook reader. The screen is good, there are several good ebook reader apps (ereader and Stanza are both good, and complimentary). My only annoyance is the convoluted manner in which you must move ebooks to your iphone, however, I expect (hope) that this will be fixed asap.

In conclusion, was it worth the $1000 price tag—YES. The phone itself is a good phone, it is quick and efficient. The web surfing is great, Safari on the iphone is good, well implemented and just about as good as surfing on a phone can be. The apps, even with the drawbacks listed above, are good. There are many fine apps which enhance one's life experience: gps (great for a traveller), ipod functionality, internet, email, notes, notes, lists, games... I do feel that if one's computing needs were light to moderate the iphone, with the 'cloud', could take over as one's main comp. Great for travellers, digital nomads, and cool people everywhere. The annoyance comes as they are not as good as they could be.

Here's to speedy development of the iphone, the iphone os and apps !

Monday, 8 September 2008

Thailand’s current political crisis—an understanding

The land of the Thai’s is a quiet, peaceful country whose presence is rarely manifest in journalistic circles, and only then for stories about its cuisine, tourism or sex. However, for the last few days, or the last few months, or even the last few years (depending on ‘when’ a ‘crisis’ begins) Thailand has been troubled by increasing levels of political dissent.

There is a background to all of this, and a full description is complex, and can be found below, however, I shall summarise the situation here. There are two major factions in Thai politics, the ‘old rich and powerful’ versus the ‘newly rich and want to be powerful’. That is to say, the ‘old guard’, the traditional aristocracy and high society, versus the newly wealthy capitalist class, who have engaged the help of the poorer elements of society. The interests of the two groups clash diametrically. The capitalists want economic reform ‘a free market’ and less restrictions, while the old guard want things just as they are or even as they were.

Interestingly enough, this situation can be found in many other historical periods—a social conflict resulting from a fundamental social change that challenges the axioms of society, however, one should take care when assigning causes to effects based upon historical examples. While there are seeming parallels in history, more often than not these similar outcomes are the result of different causes. Having said that, when fundamental change occurs society adapts, either peacefully or not. For example, in 19th century England the old ruling class gradually surrendered power to the new industrial capitalists, largely peacefully. A similar process occurred in ancient Athens, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC power gradually moved from the king and aristocracy, through ‘tyrants’ to a popular democracy. In Thailand now, we can observe a similar process, but without the full historical objectivity a century or two provides.

Moving on... The background to the situation is this, irrespective of the ostensible style of government (a democratic parliamentary monarchy), Thailand is managed and owned by and for the traditional aristocracy. The various governmental instrumentality's: the police, the military, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, are all run by members of the Thai elite. The same is true for the professions. Added to this the government has a sizeable say in the economy, there are many government corporations playing major roles in how things are done (including the media). There is also the omnipresent corruption found in Thailand. Essentially, salaries are low, and the large number of government employees are expected to supplement their income, for example, I have been told that police officers keep half of their ‘on the spot’ fines (and of course, the fine is doubled for a farang). A sizeable number of lower class people are employed at low wages by the government, these people do little real work (mainly paperwork), but are ‘loyal’ to the system because they get a small piece of it, including job security. This has the curious effect that, while this mass of people are employed by the government, the elected parliament has little real control over these people, these various ‘governmental’ organisations are largely independent. The military is an extreme case, regarded as being entirely independent from governmental control. It owns TV and radio stations in its own right and has ‘1,000 generals’, who are more ‘familiar with golf than their military duties’. In essence the people who run things in Thailand are loyal to their own class and collective self-interests.

Another consequence of this elitist society is the unwritten policy of keeping people in their place. Thai education, to use but one example, is poor. For most students, those not in elite schools, ‘education’ consists of learning how to be obedient and to memorise prepared lessons. There is also the concept of ‘pastoral bliss’, that is to say, keeping people on the farm. Thailand produces large quantities of silk and is the world’s largest rice exporter, part of this agricultural success (as does much of Thailand’s business success) relies on abundant supplies of cheap labour.

The result of this pyramid of power is an establishment happy with the way things are and resistant to the idea of change. Life is good, thank you very much—from the perspective of those at the top.

This autocratic regime has produced the usual static society, with the usual factions and disputes. Thailand’s politics in the 20th century have always been unstable, a succession of ‘strong’ men, intermixed with periods of democratic rule, followed by coups. Usually, these incidents were near bloodless, however, there have been a few massacres along the way.

To return to the recent, in 2006 a newcomer came into office. Prime Minister Thaksin. Mr T is a self-made (telecommunications) zillionaire, one of the richest men in Thailand. He was a popularist, spending government money and expanding resources (e.g. housing and medical care) in the poorer areas of Thailand, regions which have been largely ignored by the central government. Of greater note he also moved to privatise many government enterprises, open up (a little) the economy. He was also accused of being ‘corrupt’ and personally profiteering from his government. This was most likely true, however, it will not surprise anyone to know that he was not the first PM of Thailand to enrich himself at the public expense.

The true crime of Thaksin was to threaten the power elites who run Thailand. Thaksin represents a change in Thai society, even a generation ago it was still largely agricultural. Now this has changed, capitalistic business is muscling in, along with a newly emergent business and middle class. These people are coming into their own power, and want their say, and their needs clash with that of the traditional elites.

Opposing Thaksin and his government was the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). This was a group originally formed in 2006, and was composed of a diverse group of conservatives and ‘elite’ groups, elements of the police/military, high Bangkok society, and the old aristocracy. This group campaigned and protested against the Thaksin government, accusing it of corruption, inefficiency, and Lèse majesté (a serious crime in monarchical Thailand).

One point must be made here and now, the mis-named PAD has little interest in democracy, apart from earnestly desiring to limit and curtail the democratic component of Thai government. The desired goal of PAD is to have 70% of the Thai parliament composed of appointed members (previous 20th century Thai constitutions have had appointed members). Appointed by PAD, or rather the leaders of PAD.

In September 2006 a military led (bloodless) coup overthrow the Thaksin government (while Mr T was out of the country). Two days later PAD voluntarily dissolved—its job done. However, after a year and a half of incompetent (surprise) military government democratic elections were held and a Thaksin oriented new government came into office. The new 72 year old prime minister Mr Samak was considered to be no more than a puppet for Thaksin, and was also widely considered to be at best only semi-competent. His cabinet were equally poorly regarded, and with good reason. Mr Samak’s government failed to deal with the host of problems facing Thailand, earning the justified disdain that many Thais feel for his government.

This continued incompetence laid the ground work for the conservative opposition to oppose the Samak government and to lead the Thai people onto the streets of Bangkok to challenge the elected parliament. On one hand there are incompetent reformers, on the other an incompetent and reactionary opposition.

In all of this the real losers will be the ‘average’ Thai person, for whom I have great respect. Over the last few years life in Thailand has become harder for many: the rising price of necessities (rice, to give but one example), economic troubles, and a host of minor issues has made it harder to smile in the land of the smile. Now, just when statesmen are most needed the Thai people get this, a petty squabble. No winners, many losers.

I cannot see a speedy nor productive resolution to this mess. There is no Solon waiting in the wings to restore order and produce a moderate government. The most likely outcome to all of this will be continued political uncertainty, with weak governments, a stagnant economy, and no prospect for an early improvement. Think Philippines, think Burma.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Western men in Thailand ? —a few thoughts

This or this ?

Why do western men (farang—the local term for westerners) come to Thailand, and why do some of them stay in Thailand—is the attraction Thai women (ser-way mark mark = girls very beautiful) or something else?

The usual answer to this question is ‘Yes’ (to the former)! The common belief is that farang men come to Thailand for sex with Thai women (some come for sex with ladyboys, many Australian married men, so it seems—but that is a story for another day), however, I will put forward a counter view, that in fact most western men do not come to Thailand primarily for women, rather they come for the entire lifestyle experience—warm weather, low cost of living, a new environment, not being at home, away from their family and friends, an opportunity for greater personal freedom—and that the ‘Thai women’ are incidental.

Of course, I make all of these claims without any hard numbers, based solely on personal accounts, so I could be 100% wrong!

The western men I will discuss fall into two groups, the first are those who travel to places like Sukhumvit (the tourist/wealthy area of Bangkok), Pattaya, or Phuket (or any combination of those places). The standard belief is that these guys come in search of cheap and easy sex. This is true in many cases, however, far from all cases. My contention is that many men come to Thailand for a cheap holiday of a few weeks excepting a relaxed time, and that 8/10 of these men very quickly find a Thai girl friend. And many of these guys come back year after year and hook up again with the same girlfriend (maybe with a few ‘butterfly’ incidents along the way). Essentially, these guys will (or maybe not) visit a few bars and go-goes, maybe even bar fine a girl, but will then find a ‘real’ girlfriend with whom to spend a few weeks.

The idea I attempting to get across is that the stereotype of the man getting off the plane and then going directly to Nana (the famous nightlife area of Bangkok), or Pattaya for four weeks of bars, bordellos, and broads is not true.

On this topic lets turn to the most famous street of Pattaya (maybe the most famous street anywhere): ‘Walking Street’. If you were to walk along this street on most evenings of the year you will see many scantily clad enticing ladies inviting gentlemen into bars and go-goes. However, I strongly suspect that at least half of the men walking along Walking Street are simply looking, and would never contemplate entering one of these establishments. And, if one were to enter one of these establishments, you would find that at least half of the men present do no more than buy a few drinks and look, and never sample the merchandise. The percentage of men who ‘partake’ is relatively small.

sidebar: A common, minority occurrence is that of western lesbians coming to Thailand in search of sex, but no one seems to ever criticise this activity.

Lets turn now to another group of men and a different place in Thailand. Far removed from the busy lights of the big city, is the remote, poor, and rural land of Isan, in north eastern Thailand. Here you will find many western men who, find a Thai lady, marry a Thai lady, settle in a village or in a town, and lead a happy life (of course, you will find many farang men who did all of that, but are now unhappy as their wife ‘left’, but retained ownership of ‘their’ house—but that is another story for another time).

Many of these men did not originally come to Isan or even Thailand with this plan in mind. They come because of problems ‘back home’: the need for a long holiday, debts, unpleasant divorce (what other type is there?), no job, boredom, bankruptcy—problems. They come because they have heard that Thailand is cheap and easy, that the people are friendly, and it is a chance to rest and recuperate before moving on to the next stage of their lives. Then, while they are in R&R mode they will find themselves captivated by an attractive Thai lady, and one thing will lead to another.

Let me clarify a few things before I conclude this analytical analysis with my conclusion. I don’t have a problem with Thai women plying the oldest profession. There are many things which are far more destructive and exploitative, most of which are entirely socially acceptable—cigarettes and alcohol come to mind. As for exploitation has anyone seen the ‘girls’ working in the sweatshops—SORRY—‘factories’ in SEA, assembly gadgets and sewing expensive dresses for western women (the same women who then complain about the sexual exploitation)? Working in a bar is a far more attractive occupation than spending 12 hours a day assembling plasma TVs. I can also add that Thailand is not the only country in the world with sex-workers, even Australia have! (or so I am told)

After my extensive, but entirely subjective and anecdotal research, my conclusion is that the stereotype is wrong, and that the attraction of Thailand is not primarily its women folk, but the entire package: a pleasant social environment (friendly); a different social environment from that “back home”; cheap and easy living; low (most of the time) stress, and friendly, attractive local ladies (maybe not necessarily in that order).

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Savannakhet, Laos and a new Thai visa

My 5 days in Laos or ‘How to get a Thai visa in Savannakhet’

In need of a new Thai visa, and wanting to try something new, I decided to travel to the central Laos town of Savannakhet (hereafter referred to as 'S'). S is a smallish town immediately across the Mekong from the Thai town of Mukdahan (‘Mook-Dar-Harn’—hereafter referred to as 'M'). The attraction of S is the presence of the Thai embassy, which can issue Thai tourist visas. There are also a few interesting attractions which are worth a look.

I had originally planned to travel south from S to see the town of Pakse and the nearby temple of Champasak, but heavy rain in the area rendered the road impassable. I did not know how long this would last so I headed back to Thailand after a few days. Next time.

I arrived in M a day before my Thai visa was to expire. This gave me a day plus to sample the delights of M. My bus was delayed in reaching Surin (my starting point) and delayed in reaching M, by rain. M town had a reputation (imparted to me by the farang and Thai of Surin), as a 'very nice little town'.

I was also told, by the Surin ticket agent, who, admittedly, spoke little English, and who was aided by her ~12 year old daughter, who was far more interested in listening to music on the office computer than worrying about one lone farang, that the trip from Surin to M took 3 hours. In total the trip took 4 1/2 hours, we left at 17.30, not 16.30, so the bus arrived at the M bus station at 22.00, not 19.00 or 21.00, preventing me from sampling the local night life.

The trip and the bus were ok, but a pit stop along the way would have been nice. Thai people must have strong bladders, at one bus station I exited the bus, to the amusement of the stewardess.

Overnight in M I stayed at the Ploy Palace. This was a fairly pricey hotel, 1200b a night (I was told that there were no standard rooms available, ummmm, I had to take a deluxe), however, while pricey it was a good hotel. The view across the Mekong at night from the roof top restaurant was worth a lot all by itself. However, there were cheaper alternatives in town. If you arrive in M without a reservation hop on a tuk-tuk at the bus station and ask the driver to show you a few hotels, and see what takes your fancy.

sidenote: even though there were no standard rooms available, I was told when I went to have my ‘free’ breakfast that there were not enough guests to make a buffet necessary, ummmmmmm.

Around M: in short, not a great deal, there are a few small Wats, a few local sites (ferry terminal, gov offices, etc), and, last, but certainly not least the Ho Kaeo Mukdahan. This is a 65m tower built to commemorate the Thai King's 50 anniversary of his coronation. The structure contains a museum and display of Isan life, plus at lookout 50m high looking over town and the Mekong. Worth a visit. It is about 1km south of the town centre.

M is a quiet town, you can safely stand in the middle of a main street and take a pic. There is also a very nice ‘trendy’ cafe next to the Thai Immigration office near the river ‘Good Mook’. They also have a few souvenirs for sale (a few of which I bought for a few puy-ying in Surin). Outside of town is the Mukdahan National Park, small, but it has a few interesting ‘mushroom shaped’ rock formations, which I did not see. Maybe next time? If you are interested there is a local bus from the local bus station to the park.

After one day I had seen what I wanted to see in M, time for me to go to Laos! This involved me returning to the bus station and getting a ticket to Savannakhet (50b). Bus run fairly frequently (everyone in Muk told me hourly, but this is not quiet true). We drove to the bridge, about 10mins, got off on the Thai side, and had the usual immigration fiddle-faddle. Here the process was reversed, for 1500b I was granted a visa on arrival (which take a full page of one's passport—thanks guys), and then headed into S town, where we exited in the local bus station. This was fairly primitive, bumpy road to the station, bare sand, hot and dusty— very 3rd world. I got off and said the magic words "tuk tuk" and my new friend Mr Hong transported me to the HongTip hotel. Again, all the single rooms were gone, ummmmm! I got a 'double', two single beds, for 800b a night. Quality wise, the Hong was not the best, a bit musty, but it was entirely adequate.

I spent the remainder of the day in Sav looking at a few local sites. The Dinosaur museum is small and a bit pokey, and the info is in Laos or French, so not much help if you know neither! I did meet the curator, who was also one of the guys who dug the fossils out of the ground. He spoke good English. He told me that November–December was the best time to dig, as there was no rain. He also told me that some of the displays, meteorites, gold and copper came from Aust! An Australian company, mining in SEA, Oxiana, provides assistance to the diggers.

I also saw Wats. The largest (and best) in town is the Wat-sain-yaphum with many (dozens) of monks, mostly young. There was a small construction area manufacturing Buddhas, and the place seemed fairly busy. I took a few snaps and then was beset (politely) by these young monks who wanted to practise their English. I spent maybe 30mins at which time I decided to retreat to my waiting tuk-tuk.

I spent an hour or more in the evening walking along the Mekong foreshore. I had dinner at a great restaurant on the Mekong ‘Sun-wan-la-den’, with a fine view of Mukdahan. $8 for my meal. This seems to be were the S ‘high rollers’ go to eat, socialise and relax. Most of the traffic in S was either push-bikes or motorbikes, but parked outside this restaurant were flash looking cars.

At dusk the river side becomes alive with people out to socialise, eat, drink, there are dozens of people cooking food for sale on tiny open air stoves, seats are scattered along the river, young people (boys and girls hehe) ride past of bikes chatting to each other.

The main tourist attraction is That Ing Hang. This is a religious shrine about 15 mins (15kms) from S. To be frank, to my eye, not a fantastic site. It is about 9m high, four sided, with carvings. It looks worn and old. My lonelyplanet told me it was originally constructed in mid-16th century. There were only a handful of other tourists there, I think from Korea. Adjacent was a small monastery, with a few monks sitting, chanting and reading. The tourist shop was bolted shut on a weekday.

I visited this temple in conjunction with a visit to Dong Natad. DN is a forest community with trees, a lake and a village. A pleasant walk, though it can be a bit spooky if you do it by yourself (though of course, I was not spooked).

Thai Visa story
The Thai people reading this (I hope there are a few) will sympathise with what I am about to describe, I hope, while many farang will have experienced this personally— Getting A New Thai Visa. This is a two day process. First, in the morning go to the Thai embassy, take passport, 2x pics, pen, glue, 1000b, 1x copy of passport, wait in line, wait, get form, fill in form, glue pics to form, go back to counter, with passport, with two pictures, with 1000b, 1x copy of passport, get number, wait, wait, when number called hand over passport, paperwork. You are done! Rejoice! Come back tomorrow afternoon, with number, wait, when number called collect your passport and your new visa. Easy!

About 200 people a day use the Thai embassy in S. 95% Laotians. It is a busy place. There is always a certain ‘tenseness’ in the air at an embassy, people’s futures are riding on the decisions of a few faceless bureaucrats. S was no exception. Many of the Laotians were quiet and a little grim, others were talking animatedly. I will admit, as always, I was thinking, what if I cannot get a new visa, would I have to stay in Laos for a few months?

Fortunately, as it never has, this did not happen. The next day I came back at 2pm, waited about 15 mins, my number was called, and I was handed my passport with its new Thai tourist visa. Success!

After four days it was time to move on or to come back to Thailand. I decided to come back. The return trip across the Friendship bridge was easy (though I was ‘patted down’ and my bags x-rayed), and hour plus and I was back in M.

A few random thoughts from my week in Laos

a. Commies !
Amongst the Laotian people I have met there is a strong commercial sense. They bargain well for prices, start small businesses (hair salon, laundry, etc), and are clearly happy with capitalism. Bearing this in mind it surprises me that socialism/communism, as practised in this area in years past ever got a foot hold, and that the west, particularly the Americans, were dumb enough to believe that this was the preferred social system of Asians. The Vietnam war—if the west had had any sense it would have cultivated the capitalist tendencies, and not killed 5 million people in a pointless war.

b. the Media and reality
In the last few years there has been much talk about the 'booming' economy of SEA. There are statements about 'gleaming' towers, 'resurgence', etc. I am not sure exactly why there is this gap, but there is a gap between the reality and the image. No doubt the economies in the region are doing (relatively) well, but they do not seem to be doing as well as the image would indicate. I specifically refer to the Savannakhet region. There is supposed to be an 'economic corridor' from Thailand through Laos to Vietnam. I saw no such sign of a 'book. On my two trips across the bridge my bus was the only vehicle on the bridge!

c. Banks
Always, amongst the best looking buildings in the 3rd world (or at least the SEA section thereof) banks are always top quality. Look at a bank, it is solid, respectable, and expensive. Go inside, it is always airconditioned to chilliness, it is always immaculately clean, the staff wear good clothes, neat and tidy, respectable. Banks = money = respect.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

rabies update - good news, I am not dead

a few snaps of the event, some have asked for. Keep in mind, I did not pause to photo document every action as it occurred. I was busy doing other things. There is also a rule in Thai hospitals—no pictures, so I was not able to get a snap of me in the medical sections of the hospital, but not to worry. Here I am being brave in 2D.

Hi all,

One week after the attack I am ok. I still have more inoculations to take but these are low stress. The result of the full course of vacination will be continued immunity to rabies.

It was a revealing experience, the prospect of imminent death, one which should not be repeated unnecessarily, however, as with most things a rational approach produces the optimum outcome. The consolation of philosophy. I found myself thinking of how I should organise my affairs for a smooth transition.

I am also further convinced of the necessity of taking precautions. Over the last three years I have visited the Travellers Medical Centre in Perth on three occasions, and each time I ensured that all my medications and knowledge of the ills of the world were as good as I could find. I also asked the Drs if rabies vaccination was prudent, their reply: 'no', it is excessive, dog bites are uncommon, you can get innoculated then and there--if needed. So I did not take the, what seemed to me, the safe and cautious approach. In retrospect I should have insisted. If I had been in a more inaccessible area, where the travel time to the big city was longer, I could have been in serious trouble.

moral of the story: don't get bitten by a dog.

ps to those people who asked me how the dog is, don't know, did not go back to investigate as yet.


Saturday, 26 July 2008

Dogs -> rabies -> not fun times

Let me start by stating—I have never been a dog person. Now, they are on my hit list.
In the interests of keeping my blog 'real' I will tell the following story, as it happened.
A few hours ago I was walking out of a coffee shop in Surin, then a large, silent (i.e. non-barking) dog ran towards me and bit me on the leg! I did not see and did not hear the dog running towards me, but then it did start barking, and I had to fight the animal off!

I immediately washed the wound (not serious), and then started panicking about RABIES. This is a fun disease, which can be contracted by a DOG bite or even saliva from a DOG. I took myself off in a tuk-tuk to the public hospital, which everyone told me was really good. Let me add here that I know five Thai people in Surin well. I phoned each one, no one answered. They were all: busy, sleeping, or not answering. Let me also add that my morning was not the best. All in all it was shaping up to be one of those days :(.

I got to the hospital, minimal English. I pantomimed being bit and said a few times 'Maaaa jeb' while pointing at my leg. The idea got across. I heard some Thai with a few 'farangs' included and then I filled out a few forms and was finally led to a Dr. He did speak good English, asked me a few questions about my health and so forth, took my blood pressure—a bit high, I wonder why?—and then gave me a form which purchased my medicine: vaccine and antibiotics. GREAT, I just love inoculations!

I went back to the Dr, he handed me over to a guy in a white shirt, presumably a nurse. Who then made my day perfect by giving me two inoculations, one in each arm. GREAT!
By this time I was feeling sorry for myself. I finally managed to get one of my Thai friends who said she would come around 'as soon as the seminar is finished'. GREAT.

What really really annoys me about this is that in Perth, Australia, before each of my trips to the 3rd world over the last 3 years I have visited the Travellers Medical Centre, where I received a few boosters and things, and listened to the latest travel advice. Each time I have asked if I needed a rabies inoculation. Each time these comfortable Drs, sitting in their plush comfortable offices, said 'No, no need. Most dogs are ok, no problem, no need, relax, don't worry' etc. 

Anywho—three more injections over the next 10 days GREAT. You remember my planned trip to Laos and my needing a new visa? Guess what, trip is delayed, and I will have to go to the immigration office, 40 min mini-bus ride away, to request a visa extension. GREAT.

I will keep you all posted.

Moral of the story: don't get bitten by a dog. 

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Thai visa run

* I have added a few pics, but in the usual poor google blog fashion the pics are jumbled. They are of a visa run I made from Pattaya to Cambo. All fairly obvious. The bus, the people, the places. *


The Thai visa run

There is a necessary ritual in Thailand, which many farang have to endure. Like many rituals it could, potentially, be easily be avoided with forethought, or a modicum of good sense, but this is not the case. Let me explain.

If you (that is to say, a foreigner, a non-Thai) wish to visit Thailand for a holiday—no problems—get on the plane, land in Bangkok, and as you exit the airport you will receive a 30 day ‘visa’ ‘stamp’ in your passport. [Sidebar: even though people invariably refer to this ‘stamp’ as a ’30 day visa’ it is not a visa, rather it is a ‘tourist visa exemption’—the opposite of a visa.] People from most countries are eligible to receive this non-visa, visa, stamp. This fits the needs of most tourists. They come to Thailand for a few weeks, take some pics, ride an elephant, visit to a few places, do a few things, and then go home. However....

If you desire to stay longer in the Land of the Smiles you now face an increasingly bewildering plethora of options, choices and necessities. To begin: one can get a new 30 day stamp (exemption) by crossing the border into a neighbouring country, and immediately returning. The relevant countries are Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). The easiest option from northern Thailand is either Laos or Cambodia. The usual trip from Bangkok is to the Cambodian border. On any given day buses, cars, and mini-vans will be making the pilgrimage there and back. People staring wistfully into the middle distance wishing that they were back in Bangkok, with their Thai girlfriend, not on a bus to nowhere.

The principal disadvantage of this is the time involved. Essentially, one day a month is devoted to travelling, walking and waiting, to enjoy 29 days in Thailand (in must be said, not a bad deal). Another disadvantage is the cost, ~2000b (~au$70), though this can be minimised once you learn how to organise the trip yourself—take a local bus rather than a tourist mini-van, and so forth. However, there is a third and fundamentally more important difficulty. A visitor can only receive three 30 day stamps in a row, after which he (or she, though it is usually a he) is no longer eligible. What this means in practice is that you now have to leave Thailand, travel to another country, which has a Thai embassy, and, at the Thai embassy, apply for a tourist visa.

A tourist visa is a different type of animal than the 30 day ‘stamp’. It is in fact a real visa, not a 30 day exemption from the necessity of obtaining a visa. If, before you leave home, you know that you plan to stay in Thailand for a few months, the easiest option is to obtain this tourist visa in your home country. This will give you 60 days in Thailand, with the option to renew for an additional 30 days. Let me explain. The tourist visa is initially valid for 60 days, yet, if, before this expires you go to a Thai immigration office, wait in line, you can fill out a form, wait, hand over 1900b (~au$60), wait in line, wait in line, you can receive an extra 30 days. The form requires a reason for your desire to stay longer. Essentially, any reason will do, but try not to be flip: ‘helping a friend’ is always good. Why the tourist visa is not 90 days to begin with, rather than 60 days, which is then extended to 90 days, I do not know. If you do hear the term ’90 day visa’ it is a reference to this type of visa.

So, with the tourist visa you have graduated from the simple ‘tourist’, to the long termer, a ‘resident farang’, someone who enjoys life in the land of the smiles and will be here for a while. However, you are still at the lower end of the scale. To stay in Thailand indefinitely you will have to: start with three consecutive ‘visa runs’ to the Cambo border—90 days. Then you must hop on a bus or a bus/plane and travel to a nearby capital with a Thai embassy. This gives you a second 90 days. You now have a total of 180 days, at the end of which (with maybe a day or two layover to push you over that 90 days) you are eligible to start again with a second set of three, 30 day visa exemptions. The estimated annual cost of all this, including travel, accommodation, visa fees etc, is approximately 30,000b (~au$1000), plus. Not too expensive to stay in a pleasant country. Added to this is the ten to twelve days needed to, wait, travel, stand in line, and wait, while your paperwork is processed.

Let me describe the trip to Cambo from Bangkok. I have done this several times, it is not total fun, but it is not difficult. First, find a company that organises a visa run. This is easy, these advertise in newspapers, online, and in guest houses and hotels. If in any doubt ask another farang (or two). Next, book and pay, some allow over the phone bookings, some do not. Then, the fateful day. You must make your way to a pickup point at some early early hour in the morning, 7am or even 6am! Usually a landmark or a major hotel. Then 5 or so hours on the bus (200kms from Bangkok), there is invariably a pit stop for a snack and a stretch, plus one or two short breaks. At the end of this trip one reaches the border! Hooray! This is where it gets interesting. On the Thai/Cambo border are two adjoining towns. The Thai town is named Aranyapathet, while the Cambodian is Poipet.

Aranyapathet is little more than a large car park, many Thais for various reasons, and a major reason being gambling (more on this in a moment), cross into Cambo every day. There is also a sizeable flow of goods and services across the border. This makes for a busy environment. So, you exit your vehicle, and, if part of a ‘group’ are escorted across the border by your guide. It is an interesting experience, though not always pleasant (but never ever very unpleasant). Aranyapathet/Poipet is hot and dusty, the ‘streets’ little more than sand, and there is much walking. You start with Thai customs, you hand over your passport, get a stamp, are handed a piece of paper, you walk some more, and go to Cambo customs, get a stamp, fill out a piece of paper, hand paper to bored guys in uniforms, get more stamps, go somewhere else, get stamped, get more paper, etc (I maybe exaggerating this process—but then again I may not, it all fades into a blur after the first few visits). Then you are in Cambo. Most tour groups have a lunch organised at a casino.

Poipet is a dump, hot and sandy and dusty. It makes the rest of Cambo look not too unpleasant. However, lurking amidst the dust and dirt are towering edifices of marble and money—casinos. Thais love to gamble, and, in the usual foolish, short sighted government fashion, the Thai government has decided to combat this national passtime by banning casinos in Thailand. This of course has no effect on the amount of gambling in Thailand, but it has created a vast casino business along the Thai border. Both Cambo and Burma have casinos just across the border with Thailand. To make things easy for gamblers the casinos themselves are located ‘over’ the border in Cambo, so Thais can gamble legally, however, the Cambo border check points are located further inside the border. This means that Thais can pass through Thai customs on their side of the border and then go directly to the casino of their choice without needing to go through Cambodian customs. Easy!

In this way Thais can lose a week or even a months income in comfort.

There are a sizeable number of Cambo children begging for money or offering to share you with an umbrella while you walk. A difficult thing, if you give money to beggers more will appear, and more will ask you for money. Other children will offer to share you from the harsh sun with an umbrella as you walk from check point X to checkpoint Y—up to you. If you feel like donating some ‘small money’ to help those in need (never a bad idea) place some money in a donation box. There are always a few around. Still, one can only admire the capitalistic enthusiasm of these young entrepreneurs, citizens of a nominally communist, Buddhist country.

After lunch the above process is repeated. Lots of walking, stamping, forms and waiting in line, at the end of which you arrive back in Aranyapathet ready for another 5 hour bus ride to Bangkok. Total cost maybe au$75. Early morning to late afternoon.

As an example of waste and inefficiency you would have to look far (more on this later). And, lets not forget the green house gas generated by this continual back and forth locomotion! A far more efficient and effect means would be to charge resident farang a monthly fee? Something not extravagant, but a fair fee, a contribution if you will, to Thailand. Perhaps even recognise that these farang (99%, maybe 95%, at least 90%) make a contribution to Thai society, be it money or skills.

I have to add, that after seeing this process at first hand the pointlessness of border check points becomes all too obvious. It is easy, for someone desirous of such, to cross illegally the Thai/Cambo border at many points. In fact there are several religious ceremonies each year where Cambos cross into Thailand for the day in order to participate, without paperwork. I strongly suspect all other borders in the region are as porous. Open borders? Just think of all the people in uniform who would have to find a (useful) job?

Let me add one point which stay at home types may be concerned about. As annoying and frustrating as this experience can be (if you are unlucky, large numbers can be going through the border with you, expect a long wait in the sun, in line, in the dust), there is no danger. You may face a rip-off or two: e.g. be asked for 500b for a international vaccination card inspection, etc, but no one will hit you on the head or do anything serious or dangerous.

At this stage we have completed the list of ‘easy’ living in Thailand options, and, let me say, there are a goodly number of farangs who spend years in Thailand in this itinerant fashion, travelling back and forth to border towns and across borders in search of a visa externsion. If you find yourself in this situation rest assured that you will find yourself in interesting company. People from every background and nationality will be sitting next to you on your mini-bus heading to the next check point, and each with have their own ‘story’: the Korean woman married to an American citizen, both of whom now resided in Bangkok, but have different timed visa ‘runs’; the Manchester 20something illegally teaching English in a small town, rather then go ‘home’ to cold England; the retiree who is redoing his retirement visa, who has ‘seen it all’ in the far east, etc.

OK, we have covered the easy stuff, you can stay in Thailand indefinitely with these non visas, and a tourist visa, but what then, what if you wish to stay in Thailand on a more permanent basis? If this is your desire there are a number of choices. The most obvious is a retirement visa. To be eligible you need to be 50 years of age or over, plus have sufficient funds to support yourself. The first is easy (you either are or are not ), the second almost as easy. To satisfy the financial requirements you need to have a letter from your embassy stating that you have a monthly income of at least 60,000b a month (~au$2000) or have 800,000b (~au$25,000) in the bank. There is also the usual forms to complete and the standing in line to endure. Once completed you can enjoy a years residence in Thailand before having to renew your retirement visa. All good fun.

Another, though more drastic means is to acquire a ‘marriage’ visa. This gets complicated, and drastic (did I already say that?). A marriage visa is not referred to as a marriage visa, as such. In reality it is ‘non-immigrant visa’, with numerous categories for each and every different purpose and possibility. If you are working in Thailand, or married, or a student, or a foreign reporter, or a diplomat, a sportsperson, or an expert in your field. The application process is somewhat tortuous, however, this process has evolved its own solution. There are many many companies in Thailand, from lawyers to private individuals who will help you with the paperwork. These companies, for a fee, assist you with every step of the process, from simple visa extensions to finding a Thai language school which will supply you with a one year education visa.

One other option, if you have the cash and inclination, is a ‘Thailand Elite’ membership. This was a project begun a few years back under the now deposed but still active former Thai Prime Minister, Mr Thaksin. For the payment of 1.5 million baht (~au$50,000) you get a set of privileges, however, I have not been able to ascertain precisely what these privileges precisely are, and the program has not proved as popular as it originally thought to be, nor that well managed (surprise). However, from what I can tell, you get to stay in Thailand for 90 days at a time, and can renew this by a border visit.

In conclusion, I have simplified part of this story, it is already too long and difficult, just writing about it brings back memories. There are categories and sub-categories, multiple entry v. single entry, medical insurance or not, 500b overstay fines, different rules for different regions, friendly and unfriendly officials, changing rules, border disputes—you get the idea? Much fun. If you are in doubt or have questions, just ask the farang around you. Each has faced this question many times, and can offer advice on the best way to do something. There are also a few good websites to take a look at:



Have fun, and see you on the border ?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The etiquette of Tipping — in the Land of Smiles

In Australia tipping is a rarity. There is, in this globalized capitalistic world, still a simple Australian aphorism—which runs counter to the ethos of tipping—that a fair days work should be rewarded by a fair days salaryhas lead to the belief in Australia that one’s salary should provide a fair income, sufficient to fund one’s way in the world. In day’s gone past Australia even had the notion, applied via government regulation, that there was such a thing as a ‘basic wage’, but that is a story for another day.

The rare beast of Australian tipping is in turn rare in the external world. In the western world tipping is a common practice, and something travelers need to be aware of in order to avoid potential problems. In the 3rd world, such as Thailand, thing are even more complicated, where there is the added complication of the relative disparity in incomes and social expectations between the western guest and the local Thai.

To understand this important practice lets start with some background on Thailand. A reasonable salary for a Thai in Bangkok is 200 baht (200b/au$7) a day. This is not big money, rather it is a low salary, but it is enough to live on, sufficient to provide food and accommodation (by way of example, a room in Bangkok can be 3000–5000 baht a month). By Australian standards Thai living is inexpensive.

Another aspect of background is the expectation that a tip will be given. Many businesses pay their staff a low salary (e.g. 3000b a month) in the expectation that their staff will increment their salary via tips. Also, Thailand is a country with a strong aristocratic/feudal tradition, the rich are expected to give to the poor. The flip side to the feudal thing is that the rich are expected to say ‘No’.

My general approach to tipping is this, in venues where it is called for I give a tip of 20b (au60c) for competent service. If the total payment is small I may leave only a 10b tip. Usually, unless the purchase is exceptionally large, 20b is all I pay. Sometimes this means leaving only the loose change as a tip. To put this gratuity into perspective lets remember that 20b can represent the equivalent of 1/2–1 hour of salary (a young person’s starting salary is frequently 20b).

Hotels are an interesting question, how much, and who should receive your tip? I have reached what I think is an easy and effective solution to this puzzle. Each day I let my loose change accumulate (usually inside a spare glass) in my hotel room. If I am in need of ‘small money’ for any service I can quickly and easily find it without bother, however, its true worth comes into play at the end of my stay in the hotel. The accumulated and unspent small money becomes my tip to the staff. This is supplemented (or not) with additional funds if the situation warrants.

Another challenge for the new traveller is the local ‘Asian’ market. This is found in every city, town and village. Locals setup a stall, or simply place a blanket or sheet on the ground, and sell their wares. It is the pinnacle of the perfect capitalistic market. Here one’s negotiating skills are always called into play, however, let me stress, there is nothing mysterious or intrinsically difficult. A little bit of study, a little bit of thought, and you will be an effective participant in the ongoing game of monetary exchange—and have a little bit of fun.

At markets I have developed this approach. I negotiate what I think is a good price, and then when I pay the agreed upon price I include a tip, or even the originally asked price—if this is not excessive. For example, at a market in Surin, Thailand, I was offered a necklace for 300 baht. As part of my negotiating technique I have come to find that simply keeping one’s mouth shut is a wonderful tool. Remaining silent, after and while demonstrating interest, prompts the vendor to attempt to find a price, and the first person to cave is the person who tends to get the worst price.

At this particular market I found a necklace which I thought would be a suitable gift. After assessing the merits of this piece of jewelry and after being told the asking price I remained silent, staring at the necklace lying in my hand. After a few moments the offered price dropped to 250 baht. I then countered with an offer of 200 baht. After a few moments of humming and harring this offer was accepted. Then, after the goods had been packed and handed over, I gave 250 baht as the price of the necklace. This was met with joyous surprise, it prompted a big smile, and the conversational information that this was the first sale the woman had made that day.

In this way, by negotiating efficiently and achieving a good price, but also demonstrating a kindness to the vendor, someone from a considerably lower soci-economic background, one gets the goods at a low price, and generates a small amount of good will.

The flip-side to this is the farang idiot, who pays way too much for what they buy. Thai society is a bargaining society, people negotiate far more so than they do in Australia (however, to put the matter into perspective, bargaining and negotiating does go on in Australia, but more so at the business to business level. Private individuals do not negotiate over price a great deal—possibly to their detriment). In a bargaining society paying too much does not win respect, the opposite is true. By negotiating a good price you demonstrate competency and intelligence, by giving a fair and generous tip you demonstrate ‘jai-dee’—a good heart.

One thing not to do in Thailand (and in SE Asia, and, in fact, everywhere) is not too lose your temper. In Thailand ‘politeness’ is a primary virtue, instilled into the young at an early age. This ‘politeness’ is, in one sense, counterproductive and artificial, however, within the context of this discussion it is highly important. If asked a ridiculous price do not do what I have seen done, do not shout ‘TOO MUCH’ or something similar and walk away. Play the game. Smile, laugh, and reply ‘no, no, too much’, shake one’s head, cast your head down, and smile, and counter offer. Remember, it is not personal, the seller will try and get the best price they can, be it a farang, another Asian or a Thai. Caveat emptor is the watch word. Stay frosty.

A prime example of the Thai attitude towards money, bargaining, and the gullible is the Bangkok international airport. A ride into the city from the airport in a taxi is about 300b, give or take, however, a ‘new chum’, ‘fresh of the plane’, ‘first time in Thailand’, will be met with statement from a taxi driver ‘meter not work, 800b to Bangkok’. Let me advise you, the meter works, the driver is trying to make a few extra baht. Do your homework and do not over pay, however, do not get upset, do not scream and shout—smile back at the driver, even give a small chuckle and say ‘too much, too much’. If the driver refers to you as a friend, reply ‘we friends, we friends, too much, my friend’. Again, to put this question of taxi drivers and fares into context, the average taxi driver leases his car on a daily basis for something like 800b, plus he pays for his petrol and incidentals. To make a living he has to make the equivalent of three trips from the airport before he takes any money home. Many drivers work three or four days on, sleep in their taxi, wake when they have a fare, be it what ever time of day or night. So, after negotiating a fair fare for your taxi ride, or simply paying the metered price, give a tip. Do not be extravagant, do not be ‘a big man’ (i.e. idiot with too much money), but give a tip to thank a hard working person for their time and trouble.

One more piece of background information you should be aware off as you negotiate the labyrinth of a foreign culture is the Asian awareness of and importance of ‘face’—the respect one receives from those around them. This is an important aspect of Thai culture (and for that matter western and Australian culture, only westerners are less overt). In Thailand open insults, and name calling, are severely frowned upon, it is a lose of face for all concerned. This is a very annoying feature of Thai culture. In Australia, when there is a problem you expect an apology and a quick fix (but you do not always get it, try talking to Telstra if you do no believe me). In Thailand, if there is a problem or a mistake, to come out and openly admit that a company or an employer has made a mistake is a lose of face. If a farang persistently and loudly insists that a big mistake has been made is to provoke resistance, to continue to complain loudly and to INSIST on instant action is to court blunt refusal. To resolve this issue one should politely and quietly discuss the situation, and wait while the Thai staff sort things out. Usually, after a few back and forward responses a satisfactory resolution can be reached, usually.

To summarize my observations to date I have found there to be three categories of tippers. The first and worst are the big tippers. The guy with money throws it around. Giving waiters 1000b for bringing them their meal, that sort of thing. The waiters (and everyone else) will happily take your money, but they will perceive you to be a fool. The second category is the ‘backpacker’ (a species of traveller sometimes reviled by his more affluent peers, sometimes unjustly), who lives by the credo ‘I can get it cheaper than a local’! I do recall walking along a street in Penang and overhearing a backpacker arguing with a street food seller (and old lady, by the way) over the price of his meal (I believe it was in the au$0.50 price range). Come on! We are living the life in the 3rd world, no need to nickle and dime to that extent. The third category is the one in which I place myself—the smart and caring traveller. Always negotiate a fair price, but expect to pay a little more than a local. Give a noticeable, but foolishly large tip, and smile.

In conclusion, let me say that you stay in the Land of 1,000 Smiles can be enjoyable and rewarding, if you learn and play by a few simple rules. Relax, smile, stay cool, give generously, but not foolishly, and always remember—keep smiling!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Songkran Thailand—April 2008

Due to the clumsy way blogger.com handles images these pics of Songkran are poorly organised, however, they do tell the story of Songkran in Pattaya. 

As you can see, I had a good time, meeting locals, dancing, taking pre-emptive counterstrike action against hostiles (shooting girls with my water gun), and resting from my labours. There were girls dancing in the streets, an unwary cat sleeping through all of this, children playing around, farangs (just like me) getting into the spirit of things. All much fun.


Songkran in Thailand !

What is a ‘Songkran’ you may well ask? Indeed—it is a term not often heard in Australia, however, in Thailand it is a special and joyous occasion, one bound into the cultural and religious history of the country and region, and also an occasion which provides lots of fun and amusement.

Songkran (‘Song-kraaan’) is a celebration of the traditional Thai new year. In days gone by, before Thailand changed the start of its (official) year to January 1st, Songkran marked and ushered in the Thai new year. This date was set astronomically/astrologically and took place at the end of the hot season, around mid April.

The principal behind the festival is renewal. A new year brings a new beginning. It is a mix of ritual and activity. The defining action is the sprinkling of water on one’s head. ‘Sins’ are washed away by this water, thus you begin the new year afresh. The expectation is that this will bring good luck, even prosperity in the new year. The use of water also shows respect to the recipient. Traditionally younger people wash the hands of older people. Many younger people, who tend to live in the big cities, return home during Songkran, even if only for 1 or 2 days, to join with their families in the celebration. There are also a number of associated religious ceremonies, going to a Wat (temple), washing of images of Buddha, giving food to monks, carrying of sand, praying, etc.

This is the traditional, religious aspect of Songkran. What makes it of interest is the ‘game’, which it has become. This ‘sprinkling’ of water has been turned into a sport largely carried out by young Thais, and farlangs, who want to have fun.

During Songkran, on the streets of any city, town or village in Thailand, you will see hoards of people, armed with large water guns, looking for people to inundate with water. The time of Songkran varies somewhat in different regions of Thailand, however, in Pattaya it culminated on the 20th of April. In Pattaya, where I am now, the Beach Rd (which runs along the beach) was cordoned off to traffic and thousands of people walked along the street, from morning to late evening, shooting each other with water guns. Mothers, children, teenagers, all with smiles on their faces. Needless to say, keep your non-water resistant belongs at home or securely wrapped in plastic.

One annoying aspect is the use of ice water. Outside the numerous bars and clubs in Fun Town tubs of ice can be seen melting in large tubs of water. This icy water is then sucked into delivery devices and sprayed onto unsuspecting public. Ambient temperature water is fine, but this cold stuff is another matter. On a related note, bear in mind, if you every find yourself in Thailand during Songkran, that the water is often not of the highest quality. Try not to swallow when a bucket full of water hits your face.

One interesting sight is the rubbing of powder onto the faces of celebrants. This practice originated with Buddhist monks who used chalk to mark blessings. As you walk along the streets during Songkran people will come up to you and politely rub talcum powder mixed with water onto your face.

I spent and enjoyable several days playing Songkran. I bought several water guns, and joyously shot people with water. Farangs are always a good target. Many long-term expats do not like this festival. They do not like being unexpectedly sprayed with water. Many of these dull people leave Thailand for a week or so, or simply stay indoors. Boring as all get out! Get a life ! The farangs who walk around looking unhappy about Songkran are always good targets. hehe