Poor Circulation: Exploring the World on £20 per Day


In April of 2008, I called time on a career that never was, sold all my worldly goods and set out to travel the world on a motorcycle...

.................... then all of this just seemed to happen

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Post 408: Major Changes for ‘Tourists’ in Thailand

For five glorious years, I’ve avoided the ravages of winter by spending six months of the year in, and around, Thailand. By accident of birth, a British Passport has allowed me to access reasonably priced double-entry tourist visas with, thankfully, very few questions asked. However, as of November 2015, the Thai visa system has changed.

Previously, I’d arrive in Thailand as a tourist under the 30 Day Visa Waiver Programme, a programme that remains unchanged. As that initial 30 days began to expire, I’d venture north into Laos, and at the Thai Embassy in Vientiane, I’d apply for a double-entry 60 Day Tourist Visa. That particular visa cost $60 and for a further $60 it could be extended for an additional 30 Days on two separate occasions. Under that system, with the exception of two short trips to Laos or Cambodia, I could remain in Thailand for 210 Days.    

However, as of November 2015, the double entry tourist visa has been withdrawn. It has been replaced by a Multi-Entry 6 Month Tourist Visa, which initially sounded like very good news indeed. However, in the words of the original Night Owl ‘This is Thailand’, a Kingdom where things are never quite as straight forward as they seem. To obtain this new multiple-entry visa you must:
                                            
                 1: Apply in your home country
2: Provide six months of bank statements with a balance that never for one day dips below  
   $6,000 (Some early applicants are saying the minimum amount is actually $12,000)
3: Provide a letter from your employer guaranteeing your continued and future employment.

Unfortunately, for me, I fail on all three of the new criteria. So, when the 30 days on my initial visa waiver are about to expire, I’ll head to Laos and apply for a 60 Day Single-Entry Tourist Visa at the Royal Thai Embassy in Vientiane. Hopefully, I’ll be able to extend that 60 Day Visa for an additional 30 Days at my local Immigration Office here in Bangkok. That should allow me to remain in Thailand until February 2016, at which time I’ll have to once again leave the country. Hopefully between now and then, the new system will have settled into place and my options for extending my stay will have become clearer.

       

Post 407: The Thai Festival of Song Kran 2558 - [Posted April 18th 2015]

Between 13th & 16th of April, Thailand celebrates the arrival of New Year with the festival of Song Kran. Every April, millions of tourists flock to Thailand and join the now infamous water fights in the Silom and Khao San areas of Bangkok. However, in the Bangkok district of Lak Si, the place I call "home", far away from the commercial tourist traps of the city, in an area where tourists seldom tread, this is how Thais really celebrate ….

Post 406: Supporting The Dhamanurak Foundation – [Posted April 14th 2015]

Our association with the Dhamanurak Foundation began in 2013. That year, my partner Nongnoo decided to celebrate her birthday with a party, but, it would be a party with a difference.  Instead of the usual night of food, beer and birthday cake with a few close friends in Bangkok, she’d decided to host a party for a large group of underprivileged kids in the Province of Kanchanaburi. 
 Located just a few miles from one of Thailand’s major tourist attractions, but appearing nowhere on any map, the Dhamanurak Foundation is home, school and medical centre for approximately 120 kids. Ranging between 1 and 16 years of age, the kids are either orphans, or from homes where for various reasons, their parents are simply unable to care for them. Founded in 2001 by a Buddhist Nun named Jutiporn, who continues to run the centre on a daily basis, the Foundation survives on voluntary contributions from the public.
 Back in 2013, Nongnoo had spent a couple of days gathering supplies and raising money before heading off to Kanchanaburi with four or five close friends. Repeating the celebration in 2014, we’d raised more money and a few more volunteers had joined us, but in 2015, we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of others. Long before dawn on March 7th this year, fifty people in thirty fully-laden vehicles set out from their homes in various parts of Thailand to offer their support for the kids of the Dhamanurak Foundation.  
 In 2013 all efforts had been concentrated on the party, an opportunity to provide a few hours of fun and entertainment for the kids.  In 2014, the party had still been central to our efforts, but we’d also managed to provide additional support for the Foundation in terms of money, equipment, clothing etc. Another byproduct of our efforts has been an increase in public awareness, and that awareness appears to have kick-started an entirely new movement of independent supporters.
 This year, a group of university students had concentrated on hosting the party, which given the closer proximity of age and energy levels, was an amazing development for the kids. We’d still provided food and special treats for the event, but the student’s support has allowed us to concentrate our own efforts in other areas.
Without the support of volunteers, organisations like the Dhamanurak Foundation simply wouldn’t exist, but once established, money becomes their lifeblood. From our efforts, we do raise and give a certain amount of money to the Foundation, but this is Thailand and we’re silently aware that hard cash in any organization here can be the catalyst for corruption. It’s difficult to believe that anybody would steal money from these kids, but unfortunately, the world is what it is and not necessarily what we want it to be.    
 However, by providing the seemingly boring but costly everyday essentials; classroom equipment, cleaning materials, sewing machines, food, crockery etc., we help them to manage and release their own funds for various capital projects. The Dhamanurak Foundation’s list of needs is long, but with the help of some amazingly generous people, progress is being made. Recently, work has begun on replacing the temporary bamboo accommodation units with more modern low-maintenance permanent buildings, and at the same time, converting previously unused semi-derelict buildings into such things as mushroom growing houses, workshops and poultry enclosures.
If anybody following this would like to learn more, or to in some way help or become involved, then please drop me an email: GMail   geoffgthomas 

Post 405: Why Don’t You Believe in God? – [Posted April 11th 2015]

If there’s one lesson that travelling’s taught me, it’s never to offer my personal opinions on partners, politics or religion, especially when drinking. So, when the only other English speaker asked me why I didn’t believe in God, I’d fobbed him off with a generic answer and quickly changed the subject. But, his question had intrigued me.
For all of my adult life I’ve consider myself an atheist, but, I’ve never really investigated the root of my non-belief. My parents were certainly Christian, Methodists, and at an early age I attended Sunday school, and perhaps, that’s where my journey towards atheism really began.
Before I could walk, I was christened, and as soon as I could talk I would kneel at the side of my bed each night and recite this simple prayer: Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child, pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee. It’s safe to say that being christened wasn’t a personal choice, and the words of that first prayer had actually scared me. Why did I want ‘pity’, pity was for people who had worse lives than me, and why would I ever want to ‘suffer’ for anything?
Throughout my time at junior and secondary schools, I’d struggled with reading and writing - later diagnosed as dyslexia - but I’d known that I wasn’t an idiot and actively tried to prove that point by asking lots of relevant questions in class. In general my questions were welcomed by the teachers, but at Sunday school, well, the ministers weren’t quite so accommodating.
At school, my physics teacher had told me that the universe was almost fifteen billion years old and measurably expanding, and that planet earth had been around for at least four billion years. As I’d questioned his reasoning, he’d pointed me towards an entire section of scientific research material in the school library and encouraged me to investigate the evidence and to draw my own conclusions. In social studies, they’d introduced me to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and shown that recognisable humans had inhabited the earth, specifically Africa, for at least 200,000 years. If I wanted further evidence of evolution, I should visit the Natural History Museum in London and evaluate the evidence for myself. So, at the age of twelve, we spent our summer vacation traipsing around London on an amazing voyage of discovery: The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, The British Museum and the Planetarium. 
For my inquiring young mind, the school teachers’ responses to my questions were appropriate, but in church my questions had seemed neither reasonable, nor in most cases, answerable. I’d been told that God created the earth, and that five days later he created Adam before taking a day of rest. But, if Adam came two thousand years before Abraham, and Abraham lived two thousand years before Jesus, wouldn’t that make the earth, and therefore mankind, at the very most six thousand years old? When I’d innocently questioned the Sunday schools teachers’ timeline, they hadn’t pointed me towards scientific papers, to independent research or to physical evidence in various museums, they’d simply pointed me to their book, the Holy Bible.
The Bible wasn’t an easy read, but I’d struggled through a few random chapters and what I’d found had disturbed me far more than that early childhood prayer. At the time, many of the words had been beyond my comprehension, like ‘Apostasy’, but being told by a loving omnipotent God that if members of my own family ever cease believing in him, I should stone them to death, had seemed more than a little harsh. When it comes to wavering belief in God, I also discovered that the name Thomas had history, and I’d decided that it was time to stop asking questions, and, to stop attending a church that actively discouraged scrutiny.     

Post 404: Why Thailand? My Thailand - [Posted 7th January 2015]

 
When strangers ask “where do you live?”, and I reply “Thailand”, their reactions are often quite predictable. Most are too polite to tell me what they’re actually thinking, but their knowing smiles are the perfect windows to their thoughts - A rustic home on the beach, evenings on a bar stool, cold beer in hand and bikini clad maidens tending to his every desire ... The lucky bastard!

  The paradise beaches of Koh Phi Phi
I can understand why they think that, just as I can understand why many Thais, and probably quite a few Americans, firmly believe that every Englishman lives in Downton Abbey, but the truth, for me at least, is far removed from their perception. 2014 was probably an average year for me, and I spent just five evenings attached to various bar stools across Thailand. Three of those evenings were at a travellers meeting in Chiang Mai where I was speaking, and the other two were in Bangkok with a good friend; writer and adventurer, Dr Greg Frazier. In each of those bars I was seen, and probably photographed, with a cold beer in my hand, but to the best of my knowledge there were no bikini clad maidens tending to my every desire or anything else for that matter. Sure, I do have a Thai girlfriend, but if I ever asked her to tend to even the mildest of my actual desires, well, I’d become a eunuch and she’d be out of my life in a flash. As for living close to a beach, well, I’m at least 200 miles from any beach that any sane person would ever want to visit. I live in Bangkok, a little area called Lak Si. Ever heard of it? No, nor had I until I moved here four years ago. It’s certainly not a slum, but neither is it gentrified, but at £70 per month the rent on my studio apartment is slightly more attractive than the view from the balcony.
 
  The early morning haze of Lak Si
So, if I’m not here for the beaches, the booze or the bikini clad beauties, then what the hell am I doing in Thailand? Well, it basically comes down to a combination of economics and laziness, something that I’ll try to explain.
 
After riding around the world, settling back into my normal life was impossible. That's not just because my house had burned down while I'd been crossing Siberia, but because a year without working had become an impossible habit to break. What I really wanted was a gentle middle-class lifestyle, the UK definition of middle-class not the lower income American version, and I figured that the annual income of a teacher would be a really good starting point. In England, that would mean earning around £40,000 per year, which sounded like an awful lot of Monday morning feelings and a decent amount of hard work, but in places such as Thailand, a local teacher earns around £5,000 per year. I guessed that with my messy writing, and with a few additional irons in the financial fire, I could earn £5,000 a year without having to sacrifice too many hours of idleness. So, if I could do that while living in Thailand, and Thailand would allow me to stay there, then I’d be laughing.
 
The economics of teachers
Of course, I could have easily chosen Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos or even somewhere in Africa, but I didn’t. I already spoke a little Thai and, well, in the interest of full disclosure, I already had a few female friends here in the Land of Smiles. [Don’t shoot me, I’m only human and I thought you might appreciate the honesty]
 
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live life with a cold beer in my hand and the warm ocean lapping at my feet, and even to occupy more bar stools, but when you’re living on £5,000 a year, paradise looks nothing like the marketing material that brought you here in the first place.
 

POST 403: I’m hearing only bad news, on Radio .... [Posted 31st December 2014]

As 2014 draws to a close, unless you’re a purveyor of bullets, surgical masks or radical religion, then it’s safe to say that it's been a big year for bad news. I’m sure there’s been some good news scattered around somewhere, but in the main, 2014 has been a horrible year for humanity.
 
In Asia and the Middle East, aircraft mysteriously vanished or fell from the skies as Islamic State, Al Nusra Front, Taliban and Boko Haram all rose to new heights of depravity. Taking advantage of the media dead-zone created by the world’s concentration on atrocities carried out in the name of some twisted god of peace, Bashar Al-Assad continued to murder thousands of his own people in Syria while Israel decided to flatten any areas of Gaza that hadn’t already succumbed to their previous bombardments.
 
In Europe, political unrest in Ukraine was swiftly followed by the takeover of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by Russian backed separatists. Despite Vladimir Putin’s claim that it wasn’t a Russian bear shitting in the woods of Donetsk and Luhansk, the outside world disagreed, economic sanctions were imposed and the Russian Ruble collapsed in spectacular fashion.
 
Meanwhile, in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria and Guinea, the Ebola virus killed almost eight-thousand people, but when one poor individual died in America, it suddenly became Obama’s fault. T-Shirts with the slogan ‘EBOLA - Obama’s Gift to America‘ sold almost as quickly as Assault Rifles and in 2014, sixteen thousand more Americans lost their lives in home-grown gun related crimes.
 
Closer to home, my home, 2014 was certainly an interesting year for Thailand. 2013 had ended with the government in limbo and the country at risk of being physically divided into North and South. Civil War was calling and action had to be taken, so Thailand fell back on its own illustrious history and the Generals seized power in the countries 17th Military Coup. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of Thailand’s political shenanigans, simply the beginning ….

Post 405: Part 3: A Beginner’s Guide to Thailand: 5 Must Do Things in Bangkok

So, you’ve arrived safely in Bangkok, checked into your hotel and discovered the best ways of getting around this amazing city. The next question is: Where to go first? Well, I’ve lived here for quite some time and over the years I’ve visited most of the places that any tourist would ever want to see. Some of those places deliver a better experience than others, but if you’re only here for a few short days, then none of them will disappoint you. Here, I’ll scroll through what I feel are the absolute ’Must See’ attractions of the city, the venues that are guaranteed to leave a lasting and favourable impression. If however, you’re looking for more detail, then send me an email and I’ll help where I can.

1: The Grand Palace

Bangkok's Grand Palace
 
In the Phra Nakhon District of Bangkok, a gentle walk from Khao San Road, you’ll find Bangkok’s most famous landmark: The Grand Palace. It’ll be clearly marked on your map, right at the edge of the Chao Phraya River, and any taxi driver will know how to get you there. However, what most people think of as the Grand Palace, is actually Wat Phra Kaew, or The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Palace, and the Wat (Temple) are located in the same complex and the entry ticket, 500 Baht for foreigners and Free for Thais, gives access to both areas.
Wat Phra Kaew - Temple of the Emerald Buddha
 
Despite what the loitering Tuk-Tuk Drivers and Tourist Guides tell you, this complex is never closed to the public. It is open daily, but on normal days the latest time for entry is around 3pm in the afternoon. It is a Temple, so you’ll need to dress appropriately. The general rule is no bare shoulders and legs fully covered down to the ankles. But, if you’ve arrived wearing shorts, don’t worry because just inside the main gates they’ll happily provide you with a sarong, or a pair of long pants, for a reasonable fee. It’s a huge complex with much to see, so allow yourself a few hours to enjoy this place. It will be busy, but take your time to enjoy it. Don’t be afraid to enter the Temple, after removing your shoes of course, and the locals will be happy to guide you in the lighting of candles, the burning of incense sticks and the placement of ceremonial flowers. The entry price includes a small guidebook that will explain the basics of what you need to know about each room and structure, and small information plaques will fill in the blanks. If only have time to visit one site in Bangkok, then this is the one to head for.


2: Wat Saket
Wat Saket - Golden Mount
 
A fifteen minute walk from The Grand Palace and Khao San Road, Wat Saket is better known to tourists as Golden Mount. Just look upwards and you’ll see a huge hill crowned by a golden chedi, that‘s the top of Golden Mount. The hill isn’t a natural feature, it’s made entirely by man, but the guidebooks will give you all of the history you’ll need. Once again, it’s a temple, so you’ll need to dress appropriately. Grab a bottle of cold water, climb the steps towards the summit, ring the multitude of bells as you go and feel free to chat with any monks that you meet. I love this place, it’s always a lot quieter than Wat Phra Kaew, the views from the summit are stunning and the monks are some of the friendliest that you’ll ever meet. Don’t be afraid of them, they genuinely appreciate your interest and the opportunity to practice their English.
The Summit of Wat Saket
 
At the base of the golden chedi, the tall round pillar that is said to contain a relic of Lord Buddha, feel free to kneel down and pray. It really doesn’t matter what religion you follow, or if like me you have no religion at all, it’s just something that you’ve probably never done before, but something that might stay with you forever. Many tourists are nervous, but providing you’re respectful of your surroundings, people will be on hand to guide you.


3: Chat u Chak Weekend Market
Entrance to Chat u Chak Weekend Market
 
If you’re in Bangkok on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, then a trip to Chat u Chak Weekend Market is an absolute must. Chat u Chak is often spelled Jat u JaK, even on the official signs, but that’s just the start of the confusion. This is the worlds largest permanent market and as such, should be highly placed on everyone’s bucket list. A few short years ago, you’d come to Chat u Chak Market and Thai’s would outnumber Westerners 100 to 1, but Chat u Chak is now firmly on the tourist-trail and the numbers have certainly evened out. As a result, the authorities have cleaned the place up, the fake Rolex watches and caged animals have gone and the experience is all the better for it.

To get there, you simply take the BTS to Mo Chit Station and then follow the flow of people across the walkway and down the stairs. It’s hot, it’s crowded and it’s amazingly random, but it’s an experience that no tourist should miss.
Chat u Chak Map
 
The market is divided into two main sections, the inner and outer triangles on the map. These triangles are separated by an open Walking Street: Kamphaengphet Road. Start by walking left or right, it really doesn’t matter which direction you choose, and just keep on browsing until you return to your original starting point. Along the way you’ll find kiosks selling everything that anybody could ever possibly need, and all at reasonable prices. Along this walking street you’ll also find the food vendors and beer bars. Street food of every variety is cooked to order in front of you and if you need to rest your weary feet before attacking the inner triangle, then grab a stool and a cold beer or soda at any of the busy bars.

The inner triangle is a warren of tight alleys, hot sweaty and crowded. At busy times, which is just about anytime, the masses of people around you will dictate which direction you travel in. If you see anything that you’d like to buy, then buy it when you see it. Don’t make the mistake of making a mental note to return, because although every kiosk has an address written above the store, you’ll probably never find it again. You have the usual array of mass-produced goods; tee shirts, shoes, bags, crockery, army surplus, jeans, jewellery, phone accessories, trinkets etc., but you’ll also find stalls selling artistic one-off products that are generally reasonably priced and Thai artefacts that are generally not. The things that pique your interest may be genuine, but this is Thailand, so buyer beware.
Chat u Chak Outer Triangle
 
As the sun sets, the inner market begins to close down and the younger trendy Thai crowd migrate to the outer triangle at areas 3 through 6 on the map. This area is fashion heaven, but as a Westerner, if you’re anything larger than ’Average’ in size, then you might struggle to find anything suited to your frame. The exodus towards this trendy fashion street is usually my cue to leave the market, but if you’ve bought anything that you’d like to ship back to your home, then there are several outlets, DHL etc., who’ll help you with door-to-door shipping.

Chat u Chak Weekend Market can sometimes feel like a good work-out, but the investment of energy is worth it. It’s an experience that you’ll never forget and all future markets will seem tame by comparison. Well, almost all other markets.


4: Chat u Chak Green Weekend Night Market 
Entrance to Chat u Chak Green Weekend Night Market
 
Three years ago, this weekend market migrated from Lad Phrao to it’s new location behind Chat u Chak Park. Back then it was Bangkok’s best kept secret and my favourite place in Thailand. However, in the last twelve months things have changed quite dramatically. Young fashionable Thai’s have discovered this place and taken it to their hearts. It is without doubt the coolest market in all of Asia, perhaps the world, and while you’ll probably still be the only Westerner here, you’ll certainly never feel lonely.

To find Chat u Chak Green, come out of Chat u Chak Market, keep the market perimeter to your left and Chat u Chak Park to your right, and just keep walking down the road. The entrance to Chat u Chak Green Market will open up on your left, so just take a deep breath, take your partners hand in a firm grip, wander inside and enjoy the eclectic experience.

The market is divided into two distinctive parts, permanent stores at the rear and pop-up stalls to your right. I always start with the pop-ups, and if I need anything for the SuperCub C90; whitewall tyres, pimped-out 72 spoke rims or a replacement indicator cover, then this is where I‘ll find it. It’s part trendy Auto-Jumble, part Hollywood Memorabilia and part 70’s Kitsch. Everything you never really needed is here; movie props, old advertising signs the size of your house, iconic posters, vinyl records, 1920’s barbers chairs, vintage clothes and giant WWII search lights. If Chat u Chak Green doesn’t have what you were never looking for, then you’re probably walking around with your eyes closed. This is a ’Holy Shit’ kind of market, a place where you actually need nothing but want to buy everything. But, don’t expect to grab yourself the bargain of the century here. Sure, the clothes and trinkets are reasonably priced, but when it comes to genuine collectables, the Thai’s understand not only the price, but also the true value of everything. Chat u Chak Green Market isn’t cheap, but that’s not the reason that you’re going there.
Some of Chat u Chak Green's Eclectic Merchandise
 
After browsing the pop-ups, follow the sound of music and move towards the rear of the market. Here you’ll find trendy clothes, modern one-offs and genuine vintage, and a wide range of music bars and eateries. This place is more than alive, it’s positively buzzing with energy. And the people here, well, they’re just visually beautiful, it’s as if they‘ve been sprinkled with handsome-dust and released into the night. They must have Beauty Police on the entrance, and I somehow manage to sneak passed them without being noticed. This must be the liveliest open-air venue in Thailand. For Bangkok’s trendy hipsters it’s the place to be seen, and despite that, I absolutely love it. Do yourself a favour, sit down in a converted oil drum chair and listening to the live music. Grab yourself a cold beer and a genuine bowl of Pad Thai, and just watch the world walk by you.

5: Baiyoke Tower II    
Bangkok's Baiyoke Towe II
 
In the Ratchathewi district of Bangkok, close to Platinum Mall, you’ll find Thailand‘s tallest building. At 1,000 feet tall and with 85 floors, Baiyoke Tower II provides the most amazing viewing platform for Bangkok. It’ll cost 500 Baht to visit the rotating observation deck, but if you enjoy watching sunsets over amazing cityscapes, then this is certainly the place to do it.
View from the rotating Observation Platform
 
Arrive before sunset and remember to bring your camera, and if you have one, a tripod. Spend an hour or two slowly rotating high above Bangkok watching the cityscape transform as darkness descends. There’s a bar and restaurant close to the viewing platform, but there are certainly better roof-top dining venues in the city. No, don’t come here to eat or drink, just come to experience the amazing views. 500 Baht will buy a lot of food and beer in Bangkok, but a viewing experience like this is absolutely priceless.

.... Bangkok is a city of 14 million people, one of the most visited capital cities in the world, it has the richest of cultures and I’ve only mentioned five different attractions. Of course, there’s so much more to see and do here, but I’ve only listed the essentials. Provided you arrive here with an open outlook, then you can’t fail to enjoy yourself and create memories that will stay with you for life.

Post 404: Part 2: A Beginner’s Guide to Thailand: Getting Around in Bangkok

So, you’ve arrived safely at your accommodation, the room and hotel aren’t quite what you’d seen in the photographs, but let’s face it, you’re only paying £20 a night and have you seen what £100 a night will buy you in London or New York these days?

The first task, is to get a map of Bangkok and find out where you are in relation to what you want to see. Most maps of the city are free, they’ll give them away in reception, but you’ll have to work your way around the array of misleading adverts in order to pick out any of the details. You’re probably staying somewhere around the Silom or Sukhumvit Road areas, or if younger, then maybe even Khao San Road. Wherever you are, you’ll have lots of transport options available.

1: Taxi Bikes
For short trips, less than a mile, hop onto a Taxi Bike and you’ll get there quickly, and usually still in one piece. They’re actually quite safe, crashing is bad for business, but please, ask for the crash helmet and fasten the damned thing properly. Depending on the length of the journey, most trips will cost 20-40 Baht, or outside of the tourist districts, 10-20 Baht. Just look for a group of guys on a street corner wearing matching jackets, they’ll be more than happy to help you.

2: BTS Sky Train
Bangkok has a Sky Train, or ’BTS’ as they call it here. It’s like the Tube in London, except it’s above the ground and it actually works quite well. Check on your map and find a station close to where you want to visit. The BTS is easy to use and all of the announcements and signs rather helpfully employ both Thai and English. Arriving at your nearest station, change your 100 Baht note into 10 Baht coins at the glass window - just look for the queue of people and that’ll be the window you’re looking for. Then at the ticket machine - look for the other queue of people - identify the price for a ticket to your destination, press that number button, insert your coins and the ticket will magically appear. Then, just follow the signs to the platform, jump on the train and listen for the various announcements: ‘Suparni thor pai Ari - Next station Ari‘. If the BTS station is a mile from your final destination, then let a Taxi Bike take you the rest of the way. Or, be brave and walk there. If you get lost, everybody you pass will be willing to help you, in fact, they’ll see it as an honour to assist. The maximum one-way ticket price on BTS is currently, I think, is 50 Baht ($1.50).

Now, if you’re staying around the Khao San Road area, quite possibly the most ’unThai’ street in Thailand, then the second piece of bad news is that you’re miles away from the nearest BTS Station. However, you’re fairly close the Chao Phraya River. The river cuts through Bangkok and is dotted with ferry stations. To get to the nearest BTS station, just jump on a big ferry, 5 Baht, and jump off at Saphan Thaksin. From there, it’s about 100 yards to the BTS Station, appropriately named, Saphan Thaksin.

 
3: Meter Taxis
 


All around Bangkok you’ll see brightly coloured Toyota Corollas; pink, yellow, green etc. These taxis are very reasonably priced. However, make sure the driver uses the meter and understands exactly where you want to go. If a driver refuses to turn on the meter, then make sure that you agree a firm and fixed price before setting off. Taxi drivers will generally know the major destinations and landmarks but they’ll often struggle with small hotels and private addresses in distant districts. Unlike in London, taxi drivers here in Bangkok don’t study the ’knowledge’. So, if you’re going out drinking for the night, and you’re staying in an obscure place, then it’s advisable to carry a card from your hotel or guest house with you. Just hand it to the taxi driver and they’ll get you home safely.

4: River & Canal Boats
 
I mentioned the big Ferry Boats plying their trade on the Chao Phraya River, but Bangkok also has a million smaller canals, called ‘klongs’. Navigating the main river is relatively easy, and although journeys are slow, they’re cheap and show you parts of the city that you‘ll never see from the streets. On the klongs however, navigation is more difficult and even now, I tend to get horribly lost, usually by jumping on a boat that’s heading in the wrong direction. But, to be honest, getting lost in Bangkok is fun and at these prices, not too expensive.

5: Tuk Tuks
 

Tuk-Tuk’s, where to begin? I understand, you’re in Bangkok for the first time and the image of a tuk-tuk is so iconic that you simply have to ride in one. Actually, they are fun, but be warned, every tuk-tuk driver who’s willing to carry you anywhere is also looking for a payday. Flag one down, or find one at the side of the street, give the driver your destination and set a firm price. Whatever happens, don’t allow the driver to make a detour to a Gem Store, his brother’s Tailors Shop or any other place that you really don’t want to visit. The price you pay will be more than the price of a taxi, but provided the driver goes only where you’ve initially asked him to take you, the journey will also be more memorable. 

6: Local Buses
I’m assuming that you won’t be trying to drive yourself around Bangkok in a rental car, but if you are, then good luck with that, it ain’t easy. That leaves three other major forms of transport in the city; Baht Buses, Public Buses and Mini Vans. Baht Buses, or Songthaew, are little more than Isuzu pick-up trucks with benches in the back and a canopy above. You’ll probably never see them in the heart of Bangkok, and if you do you’ll have absolutely no idea where they’re going to take you. So for all but the most adventuous of tourists, they‘re probably best avoided. Public Buses, these are the Flintstonesque charabancs with loose wheels, open windows and belching black smoke form their exhausts. They’re cheap, and you'll see them in central areas of the city, but unless you can read and speak Thai, then you‘ll never know where the hell you‘re going. 
 
That just leaves the Mini Van, the silver or white 15-seat Toyota’s that fly along the road at twice the speed of sound. They’re cheap, and if you know where you’re going then they’re amazingly practical, but, they’re also ever so slightly dangerous. Thai’s use Mini Vans all the time, for both long and short journeys, but most Thai’s are Buddhist and have several future lives to look forward to. You on the other hand, probably only have this one life to enjoy. So, enjoy you’re time in Bangkok and please, avoid the Mini Van.

Post 403: Part 1: A Beginner's Guide to Thailand: Arrival

Recently, yesterday in fact, a friend sent me a text message. In January, he and his new wife would be travelling to Thailand on their honeymoon, with a limited budget, and could I possibly give them some advice?
I get a lot of requests like this, different circumstance and different countries, but when ‘Thailand’ and ‘Limited Budget’ are mentioned, I feel better qualified to respond. The posts that follow are not specifically designed for my friend, but more a ‘General’ overview of arriving, staying and then leaving Thailand, the must do and the must avoid in the amazing Land of Smiles.
There’s no delicate way to say this, so I’ll be blunt. If anybody reading this is considering coming to Thailand for a Sexcation, then go look at some other person’s blog, because you won’t find what you’re looking for here. On second thoughts, go look at Craig’s List and save yourself the cost of the airfare.

Now, for those who’re still reading, I’ll assume that you’ve never been to Thailand before and that you’ll be flying from your home country into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. If your from the USA, UK, European Union and several other countries, a list is available on your local Thai Embassy website, then on arrival in Thailand you’ll receive a 30-Day Visa Exemption stamp in your passport. If you intend to stay for longer than 30 days, or you’re from a country not on the Visa Exemption list, then you’ll need to obtain a visa before travelling here. However, in every case, at airline check-in you’ll need to show an onward or return ticket out of Thailand that shows you leaving the Kingdom prior to the end date of your official stay. If not, there’s a very high chance that the airline won’t let you board the flight.   

So far so good. On the final or only leg of your flight to Thailand, the cabin crew will provide you with, and ask you to complete, a basic immigration form, a TM6. Name, passport number, date of issue, address in Thailand etc. If you have a visa, then enter the visa number, but if you’re using Visa Exemption, just leave that box empty. 
 
It’s all basic stuff, and after landing you’ll take this form and your passport to the immigration arrivals hall which is well signposted. For smokers, on the walk - it's actually mostly horizontal escalator - between your arrival gate and the immigration hall, you’ll pass at least two small smoking rooms; important for some, not for others.

Immigration should be a breeze, smile, be polite and look into the camera when asked to do so. With your passport stamped, you’re now officially in Thailand and you’ll walk forward to the carousel and wait for your bags to arrive. If I need local currency, the Thai Baht, then this is where I first buy it. NEVER change your money at a British or American Airport, you’ll get a much better rate, +20%, if you change it on arrival in Thailand. However, if you’re bringing cash notes in $ or £, then make sure they’re in good condition, no tears of fading, otherwise most places in Thailand will refuse to accept them.
With your bags collected, wander through the correct customs channel and you’ll emerge in the arrivals area of one of the world’s finest airports. Taxi touts may be plying for your business, but please, for the love of all that is good, just smile and ignore them. Turn to your right following the overhead graphic sign for a Taxi and take the escalator down to ground level. At the end of the escalator, walk out of the closest exit on your left and then turn to your right. Before you will be the official taxi ranks and an assistant will ask for your destination. Hotel X Street Y. The assistant will give you a ticket and a taxi number. Walk to the appropriate taxi, load your bags and climb aboard. The driver will switch on the meter, which currently starts at 35 Baht ($1), and he’ll confirm your destination: Hotel X on Street Y? He’ll then ask if you want to use the ’Motorway?’. If he suggests it, then just say ’Yes’ and hand him 100 Baht ($3). Bangkok traffic can be horrendous and your driver spends his or her life circumnavigating the city, so go along with their judgement.
Now, I don’t want to worry you unduly, but when it comes to the world rankings of road deaths per capita, Thailand is second only to Namibia. I’ve never been to Namibia, but I’ve travelled thousands of miles across Thailand and along the way I’ve learned a few valuable lessons. If you feel that your Taxi is travelling too quickly for the conditions, then don’t be afraid to say something to the driver. But, be very careful how you say it. Don’t criticise their driving, because no matter how bad it actually is they’ll probably take offence and the results could be unpredictable. Instead, you might want to gently suggest that you’re enjoying the view of Bangkok’s skyline, it is beautiful especially at night, and that a lower speed would allow you to take in more of the details. He’ll slow down, because now he’s not being insulted but he’s doing his customers a great favour. If you haven’t been to Asia before, then this is your introduction to ‘Face’. Don’t worry, you’ll work it out.

Anyway, let’s assume that you’re staying in Central Bangkok and arrive safely at your intended destination. Motorway Tolls will be around 100 Baht ($3) and the price on the taxi’s metre will be less than 300 Baht ($10). That’s not bad for a 20 mile journey into the heart of a city where fuel and vehicles cost more than they do in New York. So, if your driver’s been polite, and safe, then give them a reasonable tip and say thank you… ’Kob Koon Kap’ (if you’re male), ‘Kob koon Ka‘ (If you‘re female). I usually tip 20%.

On arrival at your hotel or guest house, the receptionist will make a photocopy of the information page and entry stamp in your passport. Your passport will then be returned to you, so please keep it safe. If you’ve booked your room using a website; Expedia, Agoda or Asia Rooms etc., then having a printout of the reservation, or a photograph of the conformation on your phone, is always useful. Also, as you’re technically supposed to carry your passport with you at all times, but at certain times that might not be convenient, I generally ask the receptionist to make double copies of the pages, one set for them and one set for me to carry. Generally they’re happy to do this, but a genuine smile and a generous ‘thank you’ will usually get you everything you need here.

You’re now in Thailand…. Enjoy your stay.

Post 402: Thailand. Is the Land of Smiles losing its lustre? [Posted November 18, 2014]




For as long as I’ve been travelling, the holiday destination most likely to provide complete satisfaction, has been Thailand. Other places were generally good, but no matter what your nationality, age, sex or budget, when it came to providing complete satisfaction, and that’s not a metaphor, Thailand was always a nailed-on certainty. However, times and cultures are changing, other destinations are rising and Thailand, for many reasons, is losing some of its lustre. Tourism and Agriculture are mainstays of the Thai economy, but agriculture has faced recent challenges and the income from tourists is falling. Economically, Thailand is hurting.   
Shortly before leaving California, the Tourist Authority of Thailand embarked on a campaign designed to restore confidence in Thailand as a first-choice destination for travellers. I suspect that six months of political unrest, followed by the introduction of martial law and then a military takeover of government has done little to improve Thailand’s image. I can't remember the pithy strap-line that TAT employed in their latest campaign, but given other recent events in the famous Land of Smiles, the fall of a government and subsequent rise of the military was probably the least of their recent challenges.
 
For tourism in Thailand, 2014 hasn't been a good year. On the island of Koh Tao, the brutal murder of young British travellers Hannah Wetheridge and David Miller, and the subsequent investigation by the Royal Thai Police (RTP), has been well documented around the world. In the eight weeks since the horrific murder, there has been much speculation regarding the effectiveness of the investigation carried out by the RTP. I know nothing about detective work, and I certainly don’t watch CSI on the television, so unlike many others, I don't intend to play armchair detective here. But, I will point out a subtle but important difference between police investigations in Thailand and Great Britain. In the UK, the police are very selective when publically releasing information about on on-going investigation, but here in Thailand, the opposite is true. The more horrendous the crime, the greater the opportunity for officials to have their faces, and personal thoughts, aired on national television before 65 million people. Within hours of Hannah and David's bodies being discovered, a senior officer on the investigation announced that the assault had been so violent that it couldn’t possibly have been carried out by Thais. Thais it would seem, had been immediately eliminated from the investigation. As an observer, it also seems that here in Thailand, those officials tasked with investigating crimes develope an early theory on a solution to a case and then search for the evidence to support it.
Two undocumented migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar have now apparently confessed to murdering Hannah and David and are currently in police custody awaiting trial. If found guilty by the judge, Thailand does not have trial by jury, these two young men could be sentenced to death. I've seen no evidence, so I won't speculate on their innocence or guilt, but many observers seem to think that the two boys in custody are simply scapegoats, patsies taking the fall for a crime committed by others. Time, and further investigation, will hopefully reveal the truth and provide justice for all. 





(Hannah & David, RIP) 
On the 31st December 2013, I chose to welcome in the New Year with friends in the rural village of Ban Noen Kum. I was the only person waiting for 2014 to arrive, everybody else was Thai and they were waiting to welcome 2557. It's complicated, but you gradually get used to it when you live here. At the same time, a thousand kilometres to the south on the island of Koh Tao, Nick Pearson celebrated the New Year with his parents and elder brother. On the first morning of 2014, Nick’s parents woke to the horrific news that in the early hours of the morning, their 25 year old son had fallen 50ft down a cliff and drowned in the ocean below. The local police quickly concluded that Nick’s death had been a tragic accident, closed the case and the incident received little lasting coverage in the media. Nick’s parents were unconvinced by the handling of the case, the lack of investigation and the untested conclusion that the police had seemingly reached so quickly. But the police, and certain local interested parties, had apparently been insistent that Nick's death was nothing more than a tragic accident that his parents ought to accept.
On returning to their home in Derby, Nick’s parents spoke openly, and on the record, about the tragedy and declared their dissatisfaction with the local handling of the case on Koh Tao. It now seems that certain local parties and places mentioned by the Pearson family at that time, have also been mentioned in relation to the Hannah and David case. However, Koh Tao is a small island, and such coincidences may simply be that, coincidences. In December, an independent inquest into Nick’s tragic death will be opened in England. Once again, time I hope, will reveal the truth.
(Nick Pearson RIP)
August 20th 2014, on the island of Koh Samui, just a short hop from Koh Tao, 46 year old local bar owner Schwartges Volker was leaving a popular nightclub on Chaeweng Beach with his girlfriend. In the car park of the nightclub, a group of Thai youths were sitting on Schwartges motorcycle drinking beer. He asked them to move on, but they refused and an argument quickly transformed into a brutal attack. Schwartges Volker died from stab wounds received in the attack. Fortunately there were several witnesses to the attack, the incident had been captured on CCTV and the police quickly tracked down the suspects. The youths aged between 15 and 17, sons of local families, confessed to the murder and handed the murder weapon to investigators. Case solved? Apparently not.

Today, 18th November 2014, those same youths are due to be released from custody without charge. Apparently, due to the retraction of witness statements, it seems that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the youths for the crime to which they’d already confessed.

(Schweartges Volker RIP)  

In the early hours of 15h November 2014, a man identified only as Michael S, a 25 year old German language teacher, was sitting with two friends at the public park in Udon Thani. At the same time, three Thai youths who’d spent much of the night drinking beer, were roaming the area on their scooters. The young Thai’s had with them a garden hoe, a similar weapon to that used in the brutal murder of Hannah and David on Koh Tao. Without any provocation, the youths attacked the young man and his friends.
While the young man remains in critical condition on ICU, the police have found and arrested the three youths, aged between 17 and 18. According to the senior police spokesman, the youths had seen the German sitting in the park and simply ’dared each other to imitate the murders of the two British backpackers on the island of Koh Tao’. According to the Khao Sod English news agency, at the press conference the police colonel then stated that ’this action is a typical case of youth recklessness’.    

  "A typical case of youth recklesness". I’m not sure that the police colonel’s choice of words is appropriate, or perhaps it’s the translation that’s misleading, but Thailand is certainly becoming more violent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Thailand is any more violent than other places, it’s just that all places seem to becoming more violent these days.
 
(Two suspects in the Michael S. assault) 

When I first came to Thailand in 1987, I began reading the Nite Owl column in what is now the Bangkok Post. Nite Owl was, and hopfully still is, an American character by the name of Bernard Trink, a journalist who’d moved to Thailand in the early 1960’s. In Trink’s weekly multi-page articles, he often reported on the darker underbelly of Thai society; prostitution, pimps, drugs, organised crime, extortion, corruption, gangland feuds and random acts of violence. At the time, much of what Trink mentioned went unreported in the English speaking media, but those were pre-internet days, a time long before social media could send bad news viral in a matter of hours. Trink went on to become a legend here in Thailand, and while I disagreed with much of what he said at the time, his columns were often hilarious and I loved the way that he said it. Reading those same articles today, many of which are still available in the archives of the Bangkok Post, suggests that violence and crimes, particualrly those perpetrated against Westerners, is far from a new phenomena in Thailand. 
 
(The legend that is Nite Owl aka Bernard Trink) 
 
By choice, I now live part of each year here in Thailand, a volunteer with the ability to relocate at any time. Aside from some minor petty incidents with authority, and the odd local eccentric, my time here here has been positivie and trouble free. However, in recent times I’ve become much more aware of how my actions and words might be interpreted by others. I’m not saying that I’ve changed my ways because of an increasing fear of violence, I’m just more inclined to think for a few seconds before I speak, especially when something is angering me. In the past, an angry Thai might be inclined to punch my lights out, but today, he or she is just as likely to reach for a knife or a gun. That, unfortunately, is not perculiar to Thailand, but more a reflection of how this whole world is changing.





For anybody considering visting Thailand, I'd certainly encourage them to come and enjoy the experience. My only advice is to be sensible, to learn a little about the culture before you arrive, what to do and what not to do, to avoid confrontation and to smile and walk away from any situation that makes you feel uneasy. Sure, there are certain things that should be avoided here, like renting a Jest Ski on any beach or taking a Tuk-Tuk in Bangkok, but aside from that, just arrive, relax and enjoy your time here. Every year across the world, tourists and expatriates will be conned, be assaulted and in very rare cases murdered, but when it happens in a Kingdom as seemingly gentle as Thailand, the tragedies seem to be amplified.
To steal Nite Owl's now famous closing quotation:     TiT - This is Thailand.