Friday, 26 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to one and all!

I'll leave you with a cool Thai Christmas tree which I snapped myself in the mean streets of Bangkok (aka the shopping district). Made from recycled CDs it's a striking sight that fuses the traditional with the contemporary, like many things in Bangkok/Thailand.

(The click through link is broken so to see a large version of the pic click here)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Customer service, Thai style

Last week, whilst in a rush to get to my bus on time, I left the house without any cash in my wallet. No problem, headed to the cash point with my card...


Crap, next nearest cash machine is 15 minutes away and my bus is due any minute, they come every 30 mins...I'm in trouble!

I headed over to the ubuquity that is SevenEleven, surely I can get cash-back here?


Crap, I'm going to clock in late...again...not good.

But wait...what's this?

The young chap behind the till is offering to give me a lift to the other cash point and back?

My lucky stars.

He was my lifesaver, I never forget to flash him a big smile when I see him around. I'm sure many other farangs (foreigners) have experienced situations like this in which Thais have gone out of there way to help Jonny Foreigner. Thanks to all of you!

Somehow I can't see this scenario playing out in London, where everyone keeps their heads down and their iPods loud on the tube. It's a cultural thing, Bangkok is a big city yet it doesn't live by the same rules.

New Year's resolution 

I: be friendly friendlier in the morning and exchange smiles and pleasantries like my fellow commuters

II: learn Thai morning pleasantries and work on that smile

Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Economist...again

Hot on the heels of its recent insight into the Thai monarchy, this week's issue has a concise overview of the current political situation here in Thailand.

Recommended reading for any latercomers looking to get up to speed.

It's available here online.

No reports of the issue being banned.

New foreign minister supported aiport closures

Closing off a week which saw new Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva appointed was the announcement that former diplomat Kasit Piromya would be his foreign minister.

Although on paper Kasit fits the bill as a distinguished diplomat with experience in Germany, USA and Japan, he publically endorsed the PAD's airport closures which saw an estimated 240,000 tourists stuck in Thailand, the country's tourist reputation suffer damage (named as one of the world's 30 most dangerous places), imports and exports severly restricted and the population fiercely divided.

As foreign minister Kasit will play a big part in restoring overseas confidence in Thailand's to remedy the effects the closures had tourism, trade and investment and imports/exports. These are crucial to the well-being of Thailand's economy is tipped to struggle next year.

But how can those overseas trust a man who came out in praise of the PAD's protest and chaos despite the effects on foreign nations and investors?

I can't be alone in thinking his recent history brings conflicting bagagge to the table.

UPDATE: other blogs (Bangkok Pundit and Thailand Jumped the Shark) reporting Kasit called PAD airport closures "a lot of fun"

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Christmas in Thailand

I've frequently needed to remind myself that we are in Christmas time. It's all very different in Thailand. The fact that I am not going to be at 'home' (in England) is also a major reason seasonal festivities are at the back of my mind.

I hear and read the antics of people at home at Xmas parties, and their plans for New Year, yet the good weather here (akin to the English summer), lack of Christmas marketing drive and (thankfully) my lack of English radio at work have left me in a relatively Christmas free zone.

You can find evidence of Christmas (Kissmass in Thai), like the elephants absurdly sporting Santa hats, but there is no public holiday and few exchange presents. In one class I teach just one kid out of forty had a tree at home. Instead Thailand celebrates the New Year, which is a little confusing as it has its own New Year which falls in April and is a major landmark.

Don't get me wrong, I do miss British Christmas and I wish I was visiting my family and friends with The Good Lady and The Little One as originally planned, but I have a job at a Thai school, flights are so expensive and I am yet to start on the bureaucratic joys to enable my son to hold a British passport.

It's not all bad here...

- Christmas shopping is done, posted and delivered
- weather set to be good (28-31 degrees over next 5 days)
- food here is good as ever
- there is a public holiday over New Year
- Xmas day falls on a Thursday, which is my day off
- family and few friends are set to visit here in 2009

What ever happens this year will beat last year when I spent most of Christmas week in bed with a fever. Ho ho ho.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

New Thai PM appointed

After months of tension a new PM has been appointed, but the unrest looks set to continue.

UK-born, Eton/Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, of the Democrat party, won a tightly fought contest 235 to 198 (votes from the parliamentary house not an open democratic vote).

His appointment is a massive victory for the middle-classes and PAD protesters who had feared the further influence of Thaksin Shinawatra. Although in exile Shinawatra sent a pre-recorded message to a pre-election PPP party (rivals to the Democrats) rally. Part of the message included a plea for the PM vote to be made by elected officials with no outside influence, such as the army who was responsible for ousting Shinawatra in a coup in 2006.

In reaction to the appointment of Abhisit red shirted PPP/Thaksin supporters took to the streets of Bangkok in protest, with violence and casualties reported.

Politics in Thailand is entering a new era, the new appointment will considerably more stability. However it remains to be seen whether the Red (pro-Thaksin) and Yellow (PAD, anti-Thaksin) rivalry will cool into a political one, as situation voiced in last week's banned Economist article.

Given the growing hatred, the issues at stake and the aggressive/extreme tactics adopted by the PAD, it seems unlikely that the Red corner will take this set-back lying down.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The saga of The Economist

[More than little slow to the punch here but...] Last week's edition of The Economist was banned in Thailand after it lead with a story entitled 'Right Royal Mess'.

The article looks at the Thai royal family's role in politics, laying a significant proportion of blame for the country's current malaise with King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The article gives insight into the king's uneasy relationship with ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the uncertain future of the monarchy beyond Bhumibol's reign, the current 'red vs yellow' political split and media censorship - criticism of the monarchy is forbidden, so the press is effectively self-regulated on the issue.

Despite rumours of an outright ban, The Economist did not circulate the issue "out of consideration" to its local distributor which would have"risked breaching Thai laws" (see article).

The irony writing about press-restrictions, and then being governed by said restrictions is not lost on me. I'd like to think that The Economist did all it could to distribute the issue, out or principle, but the reality looks to be down to money and the negative effects of distributing.

The article is well worth a read and can be done so in full, online here.

Just to clarify, normal service has resumed and the print publication is available again, including a letter from Thailand's Foreign Minister.

However the storm following the article is still raging with a number of newspapers, particularly The Nation, responding to issues raised , with expat bloggers taking these articles to task.

This is Thailand and life goes on the same regardless of The Economist or the valid issues raised.

As they say here mai pen rai (it doesn't matter).

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Germans start new temple trend shocker

Ayutthaya, Thailand - Two German tourists were caught in the act and fined Bt500 (S$21) each for having sex inside an ancient temple in this central province Monday.

The couple were found by an official of National Historical Park of Ayutthaya having sex on a wall of the Srisanphet Temple at 12:30 pm.

They stopped when the park official, Phaithoon Puengthong, blew his whistle while running toward them.

The couple were handed over to police and were fined Bt500 (S$21) each before being released.

Source AsianOne Travel

That's right, no hoax, although I am sad to report the story hasn't received the widespread coverage it undoubtedly deserves.

My thoughts...

Firstly, I'm pleased to read that "they stopped when the park official, Phaithoon Puengthong, blew his whistle while running toward them" but assumed that was a given (and therefore not worthy of reporting) in the circumstances.

Secondly, many are talking about the fine of 500 bhat each, a little over £15 in total, as it is hardly a deterrent and almost advertises the potential for sex in a temple at a fixed price.

Recent news suggested that 1,200 Germans had cancelled Thai holidays (see article in Bangkok Post): can you picture the additional reporting?

Temples across Thailand are praying (honk) new flights can be laid on as they seek to claim a slice of the 1,200,000 baht (est £18,000) that is expected to be generated from temple-sex fines from the holidaymakers.

In a country where salaries and cost of living is far lower than Europe, European money is worth more and, most importantly, tourists are less reluctant to spend. I suspect that there are some temples in Thailand would be glad of the money in return for Farang misdemeanours.

Technology Comes Home To Roost

At last the geek within me is whole again.

I'm not one for spending vast sums of money, on account of my thrifty blood, but the recent (and much needed) purchase of a laptop was met with more than my usual sense of hereditary post-purchase guilt.

The guilt was typically unnecessary as I genuinely need the means to work on the go (get me) so (in freelance terms) a laptop means more time spent on work which produces better quality of work and in turn more theory, at least. Having a child has increased the, already sizeable, weight of analysis behind my spending, not even a chocolate bar can escape my meticulous and often unreasonable scrutiny.

Despite my thrift, one technology purchase bred another and we got a wireless router. This Thai household is entering technology's 21st century, albeit after a very protracted installation process from yours truly - is anything more frustrating to set-up?

So, at last, internet access in the garden with the glorious weather...not rubbing it in too much, London.

For the record the laptop is an Acer Aspire 2930Z as pictured above.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Phone You've Been Waiting For?

It's pay as you go (PAYG), only available on one network (O2) and will set you back a cool £342.50 for the basic (8GB) handset or £391.45 for the top of the range (16GB) model.

Apparently it's the phone we've all been waiting for.

Yes folks, Apple's iPhone is now available on a pay as you go tariff, and it includes the surprisingly generous offer of unlimited web browsing and Wi-Fi for 12 months (subject to fair usage).

I'm impressed but the data offer but the handset cost is outrageous considering the UK market offer subsidised handsets (with contracts), many of which do a good job of surfing the web, playing music, with a better camera and physical screen (jury is still out as to whether a touch-screen is preferred by Joe Public).

Click here for the Apple store page, and here for O2 T&C.

The Ambiguity Of Surveying

Moneysupermarket has claimed that less than 25% of British consumers with an internet-enabled handset "actually make(s) use of mobile internet services".

What an incredibly ambigous survey!

How do you define whether someone is actually making use a service, it's 100% contextual and based upon the person finding it useful. For someone that might mean access to Facebook (which can be done easily on most handsets), for others usage of mapping software (good user experience dependent on handset & network) or simply getting football scores (easy for everyone, even just WAP).

- Yes, the ownership of smartphones and feature-rich phone is rising.
- Yes, the average consumer is yet to realise the full potential of their handset.
- Yes, there is a problem with the transparency of billing as customers have difficulty quantifing mobile internet services, particularly compared to calls/texts.

- BUT, this survey is misleading to say that people are struggling to use new services despite all the hype and investment. In fact, I would say the opposite is true and people are finding new ways to use their phones everyday. Innovative new phones, more marketing than ever before and increased interest in technology in the media are behind the increase (alas I have no stats to back me up here).

They say you can prove anything with stats but I do wonder where they got the data for this one.

Faking It In Myanmar

This BBC story on fake goods today made me smile fresh from returning from a adminstrative trip to Burma, aka Myanmar, for my work permit. Bear with me whilst I explain...

Once you pass through the border check-point to the other side (of the road) you are greeted with the standard fanfare of taxi drivers, tour guides and generally dodgey folk that frequent red hot tourist areas.

After brushing off the tour guides ("I'm here an hour purely for visa administration purposes and they have my passport so no temple trip please") we headed down to the market, me in anticipation of some authentic Burmese culture and the missus complaining about the potential for authentic Burmese culture (the two countries aren't exactly too pally, but more on that later).

The market was quite frankly an incredibly depressing place. The fact that it was visited by tourists who are killing time in between updating their visa makes the place somewhat souless, like a pub that exists within a train station but on a whole new level. The markets were literally crammed with beggars and fake goods: phones, watches, games consoles, cigerettes, clothes, bags, anything you can imagine.

Being a bit of a geek I couldn't resits perusing the 'Sumsung' devices, and tested a fake Omnia and an incredibly fake iPhone. My favourite item was most definitely the Super Poly 64 Station billed "The Amazing Game Machine", so already setting pretty high expectations.

So how does the market fare in relation to the sound advice on fake goods issued from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)?

- "Buy from a reputable or regulated site"

Definitely a failure on this count, no Ian Beale style market inspector present

- "If purchasing from outside the UK or a new website research the site, check all the facts before you buy"

Not entirely sure how you can 'check all the facts' as many shopkeeps no speaky English, and I doubt they have all the facts to hand for the Super Poly 64 Station, alas.

- "When a deal looks to good to be true it often is"

When are items are blindingly fake they often go from being acutely undesireable to incredibly collectable. I'd love to have bought a 'Sumsung' but I frankly doubt it would work properly and didn't want to waste my money.

Fake goods in the UK are almost as easy to spot as those at Myanmar market so I have little sympathy for those who purchase them and keep the industry going.

And they may even fund Terrorism (note the capitalisation for addition emphasis)...that's final nail in the coffin then and is sure to make Mummy think twice about buying Little Johnny that fake DS, it's ok that might be faulty, combustable and dangerous but if it funds terrorism then it's definitely off the Xmas list.
Do we need to use terrorism as scaremongery for everything in life? I'd like to see the statistics that link the two together...not likely as they have only said it "could" fund terrorism.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Now that's an awful lotta people

This article from The Nation today...

"Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said the number of stranded tourists have risen to 240,000."

In true Match Of The Day (MOTD) style, that's 240,000 (two hundred and forty thousand).

UPDATE: it's been confirmed that the PAD has ceased its occupation of Government House in Bangkok, it is believed to be mobilising all supporters to concerntrate on its efforts to gather at either Don Muang or Suvarnabhumi airports.

Full story

Thailand: world's top 20 most dangerous places?

The Telegraph has included Thailand in an article on "20 places which are among the most dangerous places to visit on Earth" [what a poorly written phrase], full entry for Thailand below.

Major political demonstrations and a temporary state of emergency have affected both of Bangkok’s airports. The area around Government House and nearby Ratchadamnoen “Nok” Road, including the area around Metropolitan Police headquarters and Parliament should be avoided. Fighting also broke out last month on the Cambodian border at Preah Vihear and tensions remain high. Civil unrest and frequent attacks continue in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla – the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to these areas.

So Thailand apparently enjoys a peer group which includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, The Congo, Zimbabwe, Lebanon...I could go on...

Thailand is no where near comparable to these places, the article is incredibly misleading. I am fully against the PAD but there is no immediate danger to tourists, assuming none try to tackle the situation directly. The problem, read 'danger', lies in the uncertainty behind the airport closes - it could be open tomorrow, or could stay closed for 2008...nobody knows.

The situation is now a stalemate between the Prime Minister, who cannot be seen to give in to the demands of the mob, and a (minority) mob that truly has nothing to lose and is hell-bent one thing alone - forcing the PM to resign.

With my Western hat on it seems impossible that this will go on any longer, but I'm quickly learning that Thailand is a law unto itself. Stranded tourists are finding ways to get out and get home but in defusing the situation it may become sustainable and longterm, causing Thailand to suffer massively (BoT has predicted a 40% drop in tourism should the airports now open until next year).

With the armed forces and police refusing to move in (the protestors are made up of families, with many women and children - see here for more) the immediate future is unclear but the damage to Thailand's tourism reputation continues to show no sign of abating.

Hat tip to The BANGKOK BUGLE for the article and taking the obvious headline.