The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Mahachai rural train: The best thirty cent tour of Bangkok money can buy

Written By: herbrunbridge - Dec• 07•14
An old station along the Mahachai train line

An old station along the Mahachai train line

OK, we here at WoWasis actually paid thirty-two cents. And it’s greater Bangkok we’re talking about. Nevertheless, the thirty cent tour of the countryside of Thailand aboard the train to the town of Mahachai takes you through scenery that’s hard to find in the city of Bangkok these days. The round-trip train ride takes about two hours, and it’s well worth it. Here’s how you do it.

The train leaves from the Wongwian Yai train station, just over the river, to the west of Bangkok. To get to the station, take the BTS skytrain to the Wongwian Yai stop. Go down to the street, then take a 20 baht motorcycle taxi to the Wongwian Yai train station. There, you’ll buy a one-way ticket from Bangkok to Mahachai. It’s an hour ride.

On the way to Mahachai, you’ll see beautiful old teak houses along waterways, colorful laundry hung out to dry, banana trees galore, and country towns and small neighborhoods. The train is diesel-powered, and the shifting gears cause the train to lurch unexpectedly over old tracks, stopping at quaint, tiny stations on outlying areas to accommodate students, grannies, and businesspeople. We here at WoWasis recommend sitting on opposite sides of the train on your round trip. The train has only one class, and it takes an hour to get to Mahachai. There, you’ll get off, buy a return ticket (if there is a round-trip ticket, we couldn’t figure out how to buy it), and get back on the train, which departs in ten minutes.

MahachaiTrain1cTrains leave Wongwian Yai station every hour at varying times. The first train leaves Wongwian Yai at 5:30 in the morning, the final train departs from Mahachai at 7:00 pm. Remember, in Mahachai, the train stops for ten minutes and then returns to Wongwian  Yai. Miss the return train? It will return an hour later. You can buy a beer at either station and enjoy your trip. Unbelievably, beers cost 35baht each, while the hour-long train ride costs 10 baht each way. One beer is more expensive than the entire round trip by train!

Writer Harold Stephens, in his book Return to Adventure: Southeast Asia, mentions this train:

From the slum area of Thonburi the train passes through a wall of clapboard shacks, so close that you can reach out and touch them… then enters open rice fields… stopping at villages no larger than a city block. As you pass through a village, you can look into the houses, into the very bedrooms. You are looking at rural Thailand close up.

It’s hard to beat this round-trip train ride for a fun, inexpensive, and easy excursion in the Bangkok area. There are rarely any farang on this train, so you’ll be sitting with the locals, who are very curious as to why a visitor is on the train. You’re there, of course, to see a world that is increasingly difficult to find in the backstreets of Bangkok. On this train ride, you get to see plenty of old Thailand in spades.ThailandPromoBanner

WoWasis travel advisory: scams are rampant in Patpong I in Bangkok

Written By: herbrunbridge - Dec• 05•14

BachBKKLKee1cWe here at WoWasis have just finished our annual review of adult entertainment zones and venues in Bangkok, the three best-known of which are Nana Plaza, Patpong II, and Soi Cowboy. Patpong I, which runs parallel to Patpong II, was also a candidate for inclusion. After spending part of an evening there, we concluded that it’s not just the worst adult entertainment experience in Bangkok, it’s the worst we’ve seen anywhere in the world. We recommend that you remove it from your bucket list. Here’s why.

The street itself represents an unwieldy walk, as pedestrians have to wind through a byzantine number of knick-knack stalls that have thrived, cancer-like They’ve taken over so much of the street that it’s impossible to see anything, high, low, or across the street, from anywhere. This claustrophobia is enhanced by the worst part of the Patpong I experience, the touts. These vermin (think we’re being hyperbolic? Go there yourself and come up with a better word) accost every traveler on the street, trying to cajole the individual into going into one bar or another. The visitor cannot stand in any one place for longer than one second without being set upon. Walk another few feet, there’s another idiot pestering you. Dozens ply Patpong I, assailing each and every visitor.

It goes without saying that the touts work on commission. Go to one of their bars and it’s a guarantee that your bill will be padded to pay for the commission. Think you can go to a bar on your own? Forget it. A tout will follow you and claim that he brought you in. Your bill gets padded anyway.

For years, Patpong I earned well-deserved reputation as a place in which bills are padded on a regular basis, either through the tout scam, or just by adding drinks the customer never got, much less ordered. It was a rip-off haven. Still is. Patpong I hasn’t changed. Along with the seven bars on Soi Cowboy owned by The Arab,” it represents a textbook case of fleecing visitors as if they were carnival marks.

Patpong I also sullies the reputation of Patpong II next door, which is a terrific place to spend an evening. So honestly, if you want your adult entertainment experience in Bangkok to be a memorable one, make sure those memories are good ones. Cross Patpong I off your list. We have.

Building scam in Bangkok: court orders 25 story hotel to be demolished

Written By: herbrunbridge - Dec• 02•14
Awaiting the wrecking ball?

Awaiting the wrecking ball?

Our favorite building scam story in Bangkok has taken a new twist, as the Supreme Administrative Court has ordered that the 25-story Aetas Hotel on Soi Ruamrudee be either completely demolished or brought down to a legal height of 7 or 8 stories. And it’s all supposed to happen within 60 days.

As first reported by WoWasis in 2012, this major monstrosity was erected illegally on a tiny street with a width of fewer than 10 meters. For reasons of safety and traffic control, an edict (the 1979 Building Control Act) states that any edifice built on such a street must not be higher than 23 meters, approximately 7 stories.

Against the complaints of neighbors, though, it was erected. And they’ve been complaining ever since, vociferously as well as through legal channels. Now the court has ruled in their favor, and the court says the building must come down or have its height reduced within 60 days.

Are there powerful “influential forces,” as they say in Thailand, behind the scene here? Such elements tend to make it a habit of thumbing their noses at laws by buying their own justice. If that’s the case, paying the authorities to look the other way while putting up the Aetas Hotel must have cost a pretty penny. (We’re not formally accusing anyone of accepting bribes, of course, but a Bangkok Post op-ed piece published On December 4, 2014, quoted the Supreme Administrative Court as listing former Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin and former Pathumwan district chief Surakiat Limcharoen as being “guilty of negligence of duty” in the affair).

As WoWasis has reported in the past, most construction scams in Thailand typically revolve around substandard building practices, ignoring codes, and paying off inspectors. Take a look at the bowels of any condominium structure where more than one unit is on the sales block, and you’ll see what we mean. Huge cracks in and around the base of a given structure are legendary and pervasive. And that’s just for starters.

If the Aetas was built with similar dodgy construction, it should, in theory, be easier to tear down. We’ll know within 60 days. Or will we? With “influential people” behind the scenes, there may be powerful forces on call, ready to subvert the Supreme Administrative Court’s decision.

If so, we’ll wager that these folks, in these times of major police corruption scandals being unearthed and made public, will hope to find some regulatory person or agency asleep at the switch. If they do, the amazing saga of the Aetas Hotel will continue. In the interim, everyone (lawyers, the hotel operator, the landlord, those who “possibly” have been bribed) gets rich, except for the neighbors.

Thai evening working ladies incensed about Bangkok hotels stealing their money

Written By: herbrunbridge - Dec• 01•14

BachBKKLKee1cThe scam involving Bangkok hotels and how they steal money from working girls has been going on for years. Here at WoWasis, to our knowledge, it’s a topic that’s never been reported. Like all scams, though, it should be reported as the first step in correcting it. But unlike most scams that affect other people, there’s something many people can and should do to stop this one. Here’s how it works…

The scam involves hotel desk personnel and the female entertainment providers that visit a male customer’s room for companionship services. Upon entering the hotel, these women must relinquish their Thai national identification cards or, if non-Thai citizens, their passports. The ladies then go to a given man’s room, provide companionship services, then leave. They usually leave the man’s room unaccompanied. When they arrive at the desk to reclaim their identification cards or passports, they are forced to pay 100 or 200 baht to the person at the desk, usually a member of hotel security. No pay, no ID. The lady has no one to complain to, so must pay this bribe to get her ID back. The security man would never do this in the presence of a hotel guest. It only occurs when she’s unaccompanied by a man. It happens at virtually every hotel in Bangkok. Probably yours is one of them.

This scam, incidentally often works in conjunction with “joiner fees,” charged to the desk for bringing a female guest up to his room.

Men who avail themselves of companionship services, therefore, can stop these women from being scammed and exploited simply by accompanying them from their rooms, back to the desk where their IDs are held, and making sure they get them returned, bribe free.

While researching this story, we found not a single man that knew this con existed or was prevalent. The women we interviewed, though all did, but were surprised that the men were not aware of it. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Thailand. it no longer has to, or should, be that way.

Walking on Patpong II’s wild side in Bangkok

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 30•14

StripFetish1cBangkok’s Patpong adult entertainment area is legendary. But if you haven’t been to Patpong II recently, be prepared for a shock. It’s clean, fun, moderately upscale, and diverse, in terms of the adult options available. And the street is uncluttered with street stalls, unlike Patpong I next door. Both streets are easily accessible from the BTS Sala Daeng stop, three or four walking minutes away.

Most visitors to adult venues in Bangkok are familiar with the Nana Entertainment Plaza and Soi Cowboy, but many ignore the Patpong area, which developed a seedy reputation some time ago, mostly based on the dodgy upstairs establishments on Patpong I. Patpong II has changed all that, and it’s now a terrific street with a wide array of entertainment. You can stay in one venue or bar hop along the street. Dancers in these bars are traditional “gogo” dancers and the pricier “coyote” dancers. The latter charge higher bar fines, and other services may vary, depending on the lady and the club. For newer folks, “bar fine” refers to the amount you pay the bar to take the lady out of the club. Any additional services requiring the lady’s time, and extra fees as well, should be discussed with your lady before you pay the bar fine. Always be sure to ask a friendly mamasan about the pricing structure and service level per lady, to be sure.

Here’s a quick tour of Patpong II, starting from Silom Road on Patpong II’s southern end.

BarBar: This venue calls itself a “safe, sane, and conceptual” fetish club, where people ranging from curiosity seekers to veteran fetishists can simply watch, or engage in fetish activities with the hostesses. BarBar manager Barbara, in an interview with WoWasis , notes that it’s easy to become involved, or just look and enjoy the small fetish shows that are constantly “on stage.” The entry price of 900 baht includes a free drink and as many shows as you’d like to watch. Additional services are available, just ask the mamasan!

Meet new friends at BarBar

Meet new friends at BarBar

Club Electric Blue: This pulsating gogo bar has a long stage which spans practically the entire club, yet retains a sense of intimacy. Sightlines are generous, mamasans extremely friendly, and there are always a number of expat locals in the crowd. Bar fines are 600 baht for ladies in skirts and 1000 baht for “coyote” dancers in hot pants.

Bada Bing: This friendly bar has a great DJ, and music that can be heard right on the street. It’s a larger club with terrific sightlines to the stage, and extremely friendly and engaging dancers, always ready with a smile and great eye contact with the audience. Gogo dancers wearing white shirts can be barfined for 600 baht, while coyotes are available for 1000.

Strip A GoGo: This small bar is the most intimate gogo venue on the street, where you’re never more than a few feet away from the nearest dancer. You can either sit at a booth on the left side of the bar as you enter, or turn right for stadium seating. Bar fines for gogo dancers are 800 baht, 1000 for coyotes, but there aren’t uniforms that distinguish them, so do ask the mamsan.

Cosmos Bar: This venerated drinking establishment is the place to go if you want to have a drink with a buddy. Or if you’re waiting for a buddy who hasn’t finished with his lady yet. Or if you don’t have a buddy and you don’t want to drink alone. A Patpong II institution.

Black Pagoda: This bar and “meeting” establishment defies description. It’s a gogo bar, an art venue (look at the walls!), and a party space. Its third-floor bridge runs right over Patpong II, providing the best and most exotic view of who and what’s happening on the street below.

BlackPagodaSign2cPink Panther: This bar sits on the corner of Patpong II and Surawong, and has perhaps the most interesting stage environment on the street. The ladies dance on one of eight small tables that cover the floor area. Each table can accommodate one or two dancers, and most of them have a bar top and chairs where customers can enjoy the interaction up close. Pink Panther actually has three levels of bar fines (600, 800, 1000 baht) which can be confusing, so again, do ask the mamasan. There may also be an additional fixed fee for any non-club services that your lady may offer, so doubly again, do ask the mamasan first before you make any commitment.
Other Patpong II options

In addition to the gogo, coyote, and fetish bars on this short but remarkable street, there are also two exceptional restaurants with great chefs (“G’s” German cuisine, hosted by Guido, and “La Bouchon,” French cuisine, hosted by Serge). For ladyboy enthusiasts, there’s King’s Corner II, and Target II, a pool hall for those who just want to ignore the whole business and play a game.

In summation, Patpong II offers a more varied experience than Bangkok’s other two major adult areas, Nana Entertainment Plaza, and Soi Cowboy. The quality of the dancers is equal to the other areas, the food is more international in scope, and at least one of the clubs (BarBar) is, for sure, kinkier. Even on a good night, Patpong II will be less crowded than the other venues, too.

If you haven’t been to Patpong II, it’s time for a look. And if you’re shaking your head, saying “there’s nothing on Patpong anymore,” time to come back. You won’t believe what you’ll see.

Death of an investigative journalist: Was Canadian Dave Walker slain over a non-governmental organization scam?

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 29•14

It been nine months since noted Canadian journalist and author Dave Walker’s body was found on the grounds of Cambodia’s Angkor Watt ample complex. His murderer s — one assumes that more than one did the killing and carted away the body — have yet to be identified, nor has a motive been determined. Walker had been working on a Khmer Rouge story, but conventional wisdom holds that he wasn’t killed as a result of looking into a tale as long in the tooth as that. The perpetrators, after all, are getting older or dead, and most of the potentially harmful data has already been aired anyway. So why was Walker killed?

Dave Walker

Dave Walker

There is a rumor, floating around the circle of expats that knew him, that he may have been investigating a scam involving Cambodian police and/or military officials and one or more non-governmental organization (NGO). The matter, described in a WoWasis story first introduced several years ago, involves a scam in which innocent western men are falsely accused of having sex with underage Cambodian youths of both sexes. These individuals are then shaken down by officials for an amount generally estimated to be in the $30,000 USD price range. If he refuses to pay, he is jailed and reported to his country’s embassy. Accusations are obtained through the false confessions of youths, their parents, or motorcycle taxi drivers, who are being paid directly by the perpetrators of the fraud, which would include be police, military, underworld figures and NGOs.

Walker was aware of this scam. If, in fact, he was working on this story, he wouldn’t be the first westerner to have disappeared while investigating it. A prominent hotelier in Sihanoukville, who had investigated the story several years earlier, was abruptly arrested by Cambodian authorities on a charge related to drug distribution, which may well have been concocted to facilitate his arrest. He fled the country through certain legal maneuvers and wound up in the Philippines, where he was reported to have died in 2013. His death has yet to be corroborated.

Dave Walker’s family, or those purporting to represent them, are saying little. They claim to know who the killer could be, but have been uncooperative with the media, perhaps because of general paranoia, imagined threats, or real ones.

It all remains an enigma wrapped inside a mystery, but more and more of Walker’s acquaintances are beginning to think along the lines of his being killed as a result of investigating the NGO- police-youth sex scam that remains one of Cambodia’s most dangerous, profitable, and best-kept secrets.

Travel warning Thailand: Bangkok police accelerate random visitor urine tests, searches, interrogations on western tourists and expats

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 28•14

RiotPolicesBKK1a-300x286 - CopyIn what appears to be a rapidly increasing policy of harassing western visitors and residents in Bangkok, such individuals are now regularly being stopped by Bangkok police, where they are interrogated, searched, and made to contribute urine samples. This policy has become infamous in the tourist areas controlled by the Thong Lor and Lupini district police. Westerners are routinely stopped at random on the street, in taxicabs, and when traveling on motorcycle taxis. The stops are held day and night. When stopped, the individual is asked for identification, to empty the contents of pockets and purses for inspection, and a urine sample may be demanded as well, to be given and analyzed on the spot. Those not having proper identification or papers may be taken to a nearby police station, where they are held temporarily until the issue is either resolved or remanded to the Thai court system.

How common is this situation? Over the past few months, it has happened to numerous westerners living in Thailand, and has become a popular, if unwelcome topic of conversation. At least one individual with whom we here at WoWasis spoke shared the experience of being shaken down for a 20,000 baht “fine” to avoid arrest. In the November 29, 2014 issue of the Bangkok Post, visitor Reese Walker described how she and her fiancé were stopped twice by police in two days, interrogated, searched, and urine-sampled. Their crime? Being in a taxi cab in the first case, and walking at the popular Asok intersection in the second. “This is our first and last visit to Thailand,” she says in her letter to the editor. “The harassment of tourists is unacceptable… [we] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Recommendations if you are arrested:

As a westerner, whether a tourist or an individual living in Bangkok, you may very well be stopped at random and subject to immediate arrest by Bangkok police. If you are stopped and harassed by Bangkok Police, especially common in the Thong Lor and Lumpini police district areas popular with tourists, here are some recommendations:

1) If you are taken to a police facility, do not sign anything. You will be verbally insulted and browbeaten (there is no anecdotal data that suggests you will be physically harmed). But refuse to sign. If you do sign, even an acknowledgement that you have been detained can be interpreted by Thai courts as an admission that you resisted arrest.

2) Demand that the police contact your embassy on your behalf. Again, sign nothing.

3) At least one person was able to get the police to release him by saying he needed to go to the hospital “to get my medicine.” Your dying while in police custody is a public relations snafu that the police would prefer to avoid.

4) Particularly on a weekend, you may be forced to spend a night in a Bangkok jail. Hang in there, sign nothing, and sit tight until your embassy representative can assist you.

AsiaPromoBannerTourism in Thailand is estimated to be down in 2014 by a factor of 20% from the year before. Harassment of western visitors is apparently a pastime determined to increase the number of international visitors that see Thailand, once considered a country friendly to visitors, as a country pushed further and further down the destination bucket list.

WoWasis product review: Thai language flashcards make learning the alphabet a snap

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 25•14

ThaiFlashcards1bBy western standards, the Thai alphabet isn’t easy. Actually, by anyone’s standards, it’s tough. We here at WoWasis found learning the Arabic alphabet comparatively easy. But not Thai, with its 44 consonants, and 32 vowels and vowel combinations. That’s why we love the “Learn Thai” flashcards made by Lanna Innovation Company, Ltd. You can buy them at virtually every Thai bookstore.

They come in two card decks, purchased separately. ‘44 Thai Consonant Cards’ come in a green pack, and ’43 Thai Vowel Cards’ is purchased in an orange pack. They’re terrific.

Each plasticized card is the size of a standard playing card has two sides. The “gau-gai” consonant card is a great example of how the system works. One side is in Thai, showing the written form of the letter, with arrows showing how to write it properly. “Gau” and “gai” are written in Thai script, along with a “break box” showing the movement of the tone, along with the graphic of the chicken, with the letter represents in the alphabet. On the reverse side of the card, “gau,” “gai,” and “chicken” are all written in English, as is the term ”mid-consonant,” indicating its tonal value. There are also two boxes showing proper tongue placement and tone production and aspiration.

Immediately into the consonant deck, we were rewarded with cards describing the five Thai consonants that correspond to the English “K” sound. Three were listed in the dictionary we use, Mike Simpson’s terrific “3-in-1” English-Thai dictionary. Two variations weren’t in the dictionary, though, and the tiny script in the dictionary makes it difficult to recognize the slight variation in the written form. So these cards are comprehensive.

ThailandPromoBannerThe cards are not sold on-line (don’t use the shopping cart on the website: it doesn’t work), so you have to buy this great card set in Thailand. Each pack is 250 baht, so 500 baht for the set, about $15 USD. So buy these in Thailand, take them home, and put them on your coffee table. They’re wonderful to shuffle through at random, and a great way to stay in touch with the Thai alphabet when you’re away from the country.

Pa Farang on hotel scams overseas

Written By: herbrunbridge - Nov• 18•14

pafaranghalo[1]The Good Manner: Advice on Thailand from WoWasis’ Pa Farang

This week’s scam unveiled: Why am I paying unadvertised hotel “fees”?

Dear Pa Farang,

Recently, I stayed at one of Bangkok’s better hotels. I headed out to dinner and a night on the town, came back around 1 pm with an acquaintance, and we were stopped by a secrity guard, who put her name on a list and tried to charge me an extra 200 baht for an overnight guest. I really had it out with the manager the next day. He said I should have booked a room for two. When I asked how much extra it was, he said is was the same price as a single… all that nonsense for nothing! Is this rubbish common in all large hotels?

– Bad Business

Dear BB,

You’re a victim of the “joiner fee” scam. Hotels that pull this stunt intend to harass both you and your acquaintance, and it’s essentially a “morality fee.” Invariably, doubles in these hotels cost the same as singles. Most hotels do not have this policy, as infuriating good guests isn’t the best way to run a business in the hospitality industry. You were right to voice your opinion of this practice, which constitutes a scam that is yet another way to fleece customers. As we say, vote with your feet, and find a better hotel that cares about the value of a repeat customer; there are plenty in this city, to be sure.

ThailandPromoBannerHere is another favorite hotel scam, generally run only in smaller hotels. You get charged a key deposit fee of say 200 baht. They conveniently forget to return the fee to you when you check out. This is endemic in Pattaya, and other outlying areas. Always refuse to pay key deposits, as it amounts to tipping the reception staff against your will.

Avoid all scams, show the Good Manner, and have a great time in Thailand,

Marayat dee,
– Pa Farang

Read Pa Farang’s other columns in WoWasis for more advice on relationships and cultural matters in Asia

WoWasis travel product review: never lose your bag again with suitcase handle grips that are durable, colorful, and essential

Written By: herbrunbridge - Sep• 13•14

NeopreneGrips_We here at WoWasis are constantly vexed by three suitcase handle problems that drive us nutty, but not any longer. We’ve found an inexpensive and great solution. Before we tell you what it is, do any of these three problems sound familiar?

1) You’ve got a great shoulder bag with a web strap that keeps —annoyingly — slipping off your shoulder.

2) You’ve got a great bag with a leather, rubber, or plastic handle that’s shredding. The bag is too good to get rid of, but the handle has seen better days.

3) Your bag looks like every other one coming off the baggage carousel at the airport and you wish you could identify it faster.

We’ve found the solution for all of these problems in one terrific product. It’s the Red Color Comfort Neoprene Handle Wraps/Grip/Identifier for Travel Bag Luggage Suitcase. This durable velcro-grip handle attaches to everything. We tested it, and it’s a gem. To wit:

1) Our shoulder bag no longer slips off our shoulder.
2) We’ve already been able to save one great bag with a crappy handle because the neoprene handle wrap slips over it.
3) We now identify our bag immediately off the carousel. We don’t have to carefully inspect every bag that looks like ours, and other travelers don’t mistake ours either.

This great gizmo comes in packs of three and sells for under $10 USD, easily the best value of any travel gadget that we’ve seen in the past several years. Buy it now from the WoWasis eStore.