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!