Welcome to the debut edition of Thailand Update. After two years of offering a monthly Cambodia column on the first of each month I've now decided to add a mid-month column that focuses on Thailand. The Cambodia columns will continue as always but as I spend as much time in Thailand as I do in Cambodia it seems only natural to offer some observations on this country as well.
Regular readers may or may not be aware that my Southeast Asia life actually began in Bangkok in 1997 where I worked as an English teacher at a vocational college. I remained at that post until March 2001 when I left to devote all my energies to eking out a full-time living in Cambodia. I still maintain an apartment in Bangkok and most of the material produced for this website is written from the quiet seclusion of that small flat in the Suanphlu neighborhood just a few hundred meters from the Immigration Department. In many respects I live two lives - the life of a quiet, domesticated Bangkok expat and the noisier more public life of whatever it is I'm classified as in Cambodia. It's a tough balance sometimes.
There are other expat-written internet columns already, the Stickman Weekly and Bangkok Phil's Monthly are two which I'm familiar with and apparently there are others along with the usual assortment of blogs, none of which I have the time nor inclination to bother with, which would probably raise issue as to why anyone should bother with this one. I won't hazard a guess. And it is not my intention to copy materially or thematically other columns but to produce something which will mimic my Cambodia columns in that I will offer a combination of news items and opinions of interest to both tourists and expats. No doubt as this column evolves, items such as what appears this month, may some day find their way into a permanent spot on this site, just as both the Cambodia Overland and the Cambodia FAQ sections were spawned by the Cambodia Update. Thailand Update will be published on or about the 15th of each month.
Thailand is far and away the most popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia and few travelers to the region will bypass it, in many cases using Thailand to base travels to the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent, Vietnam. None of the three neighboring nations mentioned receives more than a million foreign visitors a year while Thailand can claim in excess of ten million. Of course, these numbers can be debated. As one who crosses regularly between Thailand and Cambodia as well as entering and exiting from other nations I will receive about fifteen entry stamps this year, each time in the form of a 30-day free entry that citizens of certain western nations receive. So am I one visitor or fifteen? Still, however the numbers work out, Thailand is well ahead of its neighbors.
As a result of these numbers and that Thailand is a more developed country overall - I do not accept some people's assertions that Thailand is a third world country and I will address that in a future column - traveling in Thailand is a different experience from what one finds in its neighbors. Here, the infrastructure is better and the locals are more accustomed to dealing with foreigners and have figured out more effectively how to squeeze more dollars out of tourists - just look at Khao San Road the ground zero for the cheapskate tourists of the world and look how much cash the Thai economy sucks out of that strip every day!
Thailand, being the center of Southeast Asian tourism, also receives the most rookie tourists, the ones who are most likely to be ripped off, as well as the most likely to improperly handle situations and make incorrect assumptions about the country, the people, and the culture - local and expat, which they observe. These gaffes and premature conclusions, as well as the rip-offs, are things I will address each month here in hopes of doing, in some small part, a little good in reducing their incidence.
Thailand exists today in some respects as Europe did a generation or two ago. A rite of passage, and still a rite, is for the upper-middle class college student to spend a few months traveling around Europe. That hasn't changed, but in the past decade, Southeast Asia, and specifically Thailand have become a viable option, not just for the American and Canadian student, but for many young Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, and well, everyone else as well. Gap year? Welcome to Thailand.
Southeast Asia is seen as a more exotic alternative than Europe and a visit here would carry better bragging rights back home (if that is something important to you). However, the Thailand that people think exists and the Thailand that does exist, are, like so many places in the world, not always one and the same. For some who have never been here, Thailand is seen solely as a sexual playground for degenerate middle-aged losers. For others, it might be an exotic nation of pure culture untouched by evil western influences, where women with long fingers contorted into impossible positions dance circles around you leaving you in a trance broken only by the chanting of a learned monk whose incantations lead you onto a spiritual plain which you'll never come down from.
Did I mention that today I had lunch at McDonald's on Silom Road - the one directly across the street from Patpong... Anyway, I digress...
Two months ago I was sitting with two other western tourists at one infamous budget guesthouse in Peshawar, Pakistan when one, a, I think Bulgarian, student of anthropology, who had not been to Southeast Asia commented that it was his dream to visit Thailand and what a desire he had to explore this vastly different culture, further commenting on his own anthropological studies and his expectations of finding, well, that mythological place of pure indigenous culture which ceased to exist in Thailand decades ago. For myself and the other man, an Australian who had been to Southeast Asia, we sort of looked at each other, telepathically sharing images of Khao San Road, Full Moon Parties, and minibuses of backpackers en route to Chiang Mai, and I commented to our Bulgarian companion, "you'll be disappointed." A puzzled look was my reward so I went on to explain, "You will have a great time in Thailand. Almost everybody does. It's popular and popular for a reason. It's cheap. It's fun. It's easy. The people are great, the beaches are great, the north, aside from its beauty, has scores of outdoor activities to avail yourself of, and getting around is a cinch. But the place gets ten million tourists a year and there's hardly an inch of a ground they haven't covered." Though it is possible to get off the beaten track and as I went on to explain, to stimulate his anthropological yearnings he could still certainly find some very interesting tribes that don't see too many tourists, but he would really have to get out and look for it. It won't find him.
The fact is, once you get here you soon find that as great of a travel destination Thailand is, the exoticism is not what it's cracked up to be. There are no paths to blaze. But almost everyone enjoys treading the paths already lain.
The stereotype. While stereotypes are gross generalizations, they didn't develop in a vacuum and no matter how hard we try to dismiss these categorizations of people someone always comes along wearing the uniform in a perfect fit. That stereotype is the young tourist on Khao San Road who's already been here for maybe three weeks, visited the north (took a tourist minibus and signed up for a trek with nine other tourists), visited the south (Koh Pha-Ngan, Full Moon Party, Khao San Road bus for transport), and now sits at a cafe on Khao San Road slinging a Beer Chang with an utterly nauseating air of superiority for having "done" Thailand. This is a stereotype and I realize many young visitors do not carry that pompous attitude, but enough do that it doesn't go unnoticed. It's an unfortunate element of travel that I can't make go away with an internet column, but can implore any would-be Asian travelers not to adopt this attitude and simply enjoy what you do while you're here and share your experiences not because you can one-up anybody, but because whatever it is you experienced, someone can learn from it. If you want to go to a Full Moon Party, then by all means, do so. But don't brag about the cultural purity of your Koh Pha-Ngan experience. You didn't have one. But you had fun, right? So there you go. Leave it at that.
Thailand must be one of the easiest countries in Asia to travel around. Domestic flights reach about two dozen provinces all in about an hour, an excellent train service connects Bangkok with Chiang Mai in the north, Nong Khai and Ubon Ratchathani in the northeast, and to Surat Thani and to the Malaysian border and beyond in the south. And finally, there are government-contracted buses that reach literally every last corner of the country departing from three major bus terminals in Bangkok.
Still, travel agencies on Khao San Road do a brisk business selling tickets on private "VIP" (very impressionable passengers) buses and minibuses to the more popular destinations such as Chiang Mai, Surat Thani (with boat connections to Samui and Pha-Ngan), Siem Reap in Cambodia, and more. And reports of problems with the Khao San Road-based transport are all too common events.
The northern route. Stuffed into a minibus, you and fifteen other similarly-minded tourists with similarly oversized backpacks are Chiang Mai bound. Mountains, villages, trekking await. But while you will make Chiang Mai, it won't be in the minibus. That cheap price you paid (I recently heard a report of 50 baht bus tickets) is subsidized by Chiang Mai guesthouses and trekking agencies all of which do a marvelous job picking at your carcasses, yes, I know you're still alive but in their vulturous eyes you are dead meat and they're having a feast. You'll be forced into one of these guesthouses because the van never actually makes it to Chiang Mai, but stops on the edge of town forcing you to go with one of these touts. So whether you know it or not, when you buy your bus ticket you also buy your guesthouse and trek at the same time. So much for shopping around and exploring your options, huh? Are you aware that there are numerous comfortable public buses departing every evening from Morchit Bus Terminal that will deposit you at dawn at Chiang Mai's bus station leaving you the option of sorting out where you want to stay and who you want to trek with?
The southern route. This is worse than the northern route. You're off to Koh Pha-Ngan and the Full Moon Party. A big "VIP" bus is parked at the end of Khao San Road for all of you to board. You arrive ten hours later to be transferred to the ferry to the island. Wait, didn't I have a camera in my bag? Where's my CD Walkman? Where's my money belt? While you were sleeping, you were robbed. The incidents of theft on this route are legion. Usually it's a matter of someone rifling through the bags stowed in the luggage hold, though there are cases where sleeping passengers were relieved of their valuables as well. Best way to avoid this is to head off to the southern bus terminal in Pinklao (on the opposite side of the river and not all that far from Khao San Road, really) and buy a ticket to wherever you want to go. Robberies of this nature are almost unheard of on government buses.
Thailand has an excellent inter-provincial public bus system. Use it. And don't you find it curious that these private Khao San Road-based "VIP" buses have no Thai passengers? Why is that?
The Siem Reap-bound tourist bus. Cheap and, well, maybe not so cheap. Starting at 50 baht for passage to Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat and a few hundred other old temples, this seems like a cheap option for a lot of tourists and in some respects is easier than traveling on your own as you don't have to sort out your own transportation on the Cambodia side, an activity which has a history of being an expensive undertaking for many tourists. Still, this Khao San Road tourist bus option is not the deal it seems, though it can be beat. There are three ways this ticket is subsidized: one, drastically overcharging you for your visa, two, kickbacks from the several restaurants you'll stop at along the way, and three, selling you to a Siem Reap guesthouse for $6, and that's their money, not yours. If you decide to buy this ticket you can beat the scams two ways. One, get your own visa, either in advance or at the border. They still may try charging you visa fees or lying to you as to why they must get the visa for you, so show a little backbone and ignore them. Two, don't feel pressured to stay at the guesthouse you're sold to, you're welcome to of course, but feel free not to and be welcome for that as well. You have every right to keep your options open. For more information on this trip see my Cambodia Overland section and specifically this page about the Khao San Road bus and this page about traveling this route on your own.
Malaria, should you be worried? Seems almost every first-time visitor to the region worries about malaria and what kind of medication to take. Ultimately, that is something for you to sort out with a doctor. Problem is, many western doctors aren't all that familiar with the various strains of malaria and what is and isn't an effective medication as some malaria strains have become resistant to some types of medication. I'm not a doctor so I'm not going to tell you what to do but I will offer this bit of anecdotal information:
Hardly anyone gets malaria here. Malaria meds are not something you can take indefinitely and no expat does. And none of us catches malaria. None. Zero. Is there a malaria risk? Yes, albeit very small. Should you take meds? Talk to your doctor and learn about the side effects and decide for yourself if the risk of a bad reaction to the meds is worth the risk of catching malaria. Me? I don't take meds. Never. I haven't had malaria. I've been here six years. No one I know has had malaria, well, no that's not true, there's one old Kiwi in Cambodia but he was in the jungle for a few years. I have, however, had dengue fever.
Everyone worries about malaria and hardly anyone catches it. Far less people worry about dengue yet many more catch it especially in Cambodia and especially among the expat population there. In Thailand dengue is less of a threat but tourists do catch it and certainly far far far more than malaria. Dengue, unfortunately has neither a vaccine nor a cure. Fortunately a majority of first-time dengue cases are nothing more than a bad flu that passes in one to two weeks followed by a six-week to three-month recovery period (lethargy, depression).
As you should worry more about dengue than malaria, and the former is an illness you can do nothing about, you need then, to concern yourself with the best defense of all - don't get bitten in the first place. Cover your body with light clothing - a good idea anyway, Thais really don't want to see your skin, trust me - and if you so desire, apply poisonous chemicals like deet which will keep away mosquitoes as well as classifying yourself as a biohazard. Better yet, be extra careful early in the morning and around dusk when mozzies are most active. They're also most likely to be active near the floor. And keep in mind that dengue mozzies bite by day, malaria mozzies bite by night. They got you coming and going.
A mozzie net helps in some instances but most people who bring them find they never use them. If your accommodation has either a ceiling fan, a strong side fan, and is reasonably well sealed - i.e. good screens on the windows, you'll find a mozzie net is not necessary.
Planet Thorntree discussion board has frequent threads on malaria
prevention and bite prevention on both the Southeast Asia and Thailand
branches as well as the Health branch. Do a thorough search of previous
topics before posting a question as most regulars to the forum are well
tired of having the same malaria questions asked every other day.
Raka is Thai for the word "price" and dual-pricing in Thailand is fairly rampant in certain sectors. It's applied at all national parks - price of 200 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for locals, and some other tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew. Some private attractions have also jumped on the bandwagon. In Pattaya there is the newly opened Underwater World, modeled on Singapore's Sentosa Island facility, and charging 360 baht for foreign adults and 180 baht for Thais. Try shopping in any market, whether it be for souvenirs, knockoff Ralph Lauren shirts, toys and games (but not food! Food is most definitely NOT bargained for here), what have you, and the seller will extract a higher price from you then from a Thai. Of course in some cases, it's by default because not a lot of Thais are shopping in a market targeted for tourists in the first place. Dual pricing does not exist on any public form of transportation (bus - local and long distance, train, plane, metered taxi, etc.) but is often applied privately by tuk-tuk and motorcycle taxi drivers. Never mind non-metered taxis in Bangkok, you're a fool if you use one.
If I was asked to offer a definitive for or against two-tiered pricing based on nationality I would oppose it without question. However, truth is rarely black-and-white and my opposition of two-tiered pricing ebbs and flows with the situation at hand.
1.) National parks. This one I have a problem with. If it was 50 baht and 20 baht, okay, I could live with that, but we're talking a price increase of 1000% percent to see what could be a spectacular national park or just as likely a crappy three-meter high waterfall. The proponents of this would have you believe that this pricing scheme is because Thais can't afford 200 baht. Well, that may often be true, but tell me that when I see a $70,000 Mercedes Benz pulling in ahead of me. 200 baht would be unreasonable for Thais, yes, but it's also unreasonable for foreigners and it's not just applied to tourists it's applied to foreign residents, many of whom are on local, albeit reasonable local, salaries but these wages still hardly put them in the rich foreigner bracket *and* they pay taxes, same as the Thais. I can understand a small price differential for foreign tourists such as 50/20 baht as there is some tax subsidization, but in any case, a foreigner living and working in Thailand should automatically be charged the local price.
There is some good news. While these are official prices you can bargain your way down to the local price. However, to do this it's pretty much necessary that you speak some Thai and can convince the ticket seller that you well and truly live here. The people working the entrances generally agree that the 200/20 baht pricing scheme is rather silly and can be helpful to this end. Be polite, smile a lot, and try to use whatever Thai language skills you can. You have nothing to lose. Of course if you see nothing wrong with paying ten times what the locals pay for no other reason than you came from somewhere else, well, go right ahead. It's your dosh.
2.) Buddhist temples. This I have mixed feelings about. Most temples do not charge entrance fees, the exceptions being the most popular ones, particularly Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho). Aside from being tourist attractions these are also places of worship for Buddhists and as such, Thais are not charged entrance fees. Of course, part of any temple visitation for worship purposes will include leaving a cash donation. Me and my still not a wife but a nice proper Thai girl, visit many a temple in our travels around the country and always leave donations behind. Tourists, on the other hand, are not usually visiting for religious purposes but for tourist purposes and extracting an admission fee is not entirely unreasonable. The question is, if I'm a foreigner and visiting for religious purposes, which I often do, should I have to pay a tourist admission fee? My answer is no. I haven't tried this at either Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Phra Chetuphon, but this past weekend, being Buddhist Lent we visited Wat Traimit which charges tourists 20 baht. I walked right past the ticket booth and straight to where one picks up the incense and lotus flowers and plopped down my 20 baht there, as all the Thais were doing. No one questioned me. We then added another 60 baht to various collection boxes.
Some would say that's being stingy, but I disagree. A temple is a religious building first and people coming for that purpose should not be forced to pay a specified sum of money, it's not in the spirit of the religion. Making a donation from the heart is in the spirit and any visitor coming to wai phra (respect the Buddha) or tamboon (make merit) will do so, often in amounts well in excess of the entry fee (on my birthday my donation to Wat Kalayanimit was 500 baht). And if one professes to be arriving for religious purposes, jumps the admission fee, and then doesn't leave a donation, well, there are ways that situation will eventually be handled and I think most Thais would be satisfied with that arrangement.
3.) Private businesses with fixed prices. This one I have a real big problem with. When the opening of Pattaya's new Underwater World was announced with it's dual pricing scheme, I, and a number of expats spoke out strongly against this. There's no way the investors would have ever built this facility if they didn't think the local population paying 180 baht couldn't profitably support the enterprise. Charging foreigners 360 baht under these conditions is plain and simple price gouging and should be condemned in the strongest sense of the world. I will never visit this facility and urge all foreigners to do the same. There are no subsidizing taxes, religious issues, cultural issues, or anything else for that matter that might justify separate prices. This is not about charging Thais less, it's about charging foreigners more. It's disgusting, really.
4.) Private businesses without fixed prices, i.e. shopping in the markets. This is open. No fixed price means the seller can try to charge whatever he or she likes and you can pay whatever you're comfortable with. If an agreement is reached then a sale is made and there should be no further complaints. If you hear later that such and such an item could have been bought for less you can always try bargaining harder on your next purchase. If you think a Thai could score you a lower price you can always try sending a friend. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
5.) Tuk-tuk drivers. This kind of pricing goes beyond just foreigner/local as even locals might not necessarily pay the same price for the same ride. Rich couple in designer clothing flagging down a tuk-tuk whilst the wife yammers away on her mobile phone or old lady in a sarong with four bags of fruit from Klong Toey market? Nope, they won't pay the same, either. As a tourist, you're in a situation much like #4 above. The tuk-tuk driver will expect more money from you and will probably get it. Personally, I don't think this is an issue to get too concerned about. The ride is worth what the ride is worth. There are no institutionalized fixed prices for foreigners, it's whatever the driver can get. You pay it, you got it. So long as you're promptly taken to your destination then you have nothing to complain about. If you feel you paid too much, then try bargaining a lower price the next time and see if you get it. Live and learn.
One feature of the Cambodia Update is that I publish e-mails from readers either on something directly written in the column, or really, anything of interest people want to get off their chest. If you have something to say about this column or about Thailand, please send it my way.
And of course, the regular advertising plug - if you are interested in advertising your business anywhere on this website, e-mail me for more details. I won't start putting adverts in this column until it's been running for a couple of months and I see what kind of hits it gets, but if you think it might be of interest to you to do so... let me know.
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