The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Bangkok protests dealing massive financial blow to tourism businesses in Thailand

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 21•14

Happy protestors watch the big screen while shutting down the Asok intersection in Bangkok

Although the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee) protests that have blocked major intersections in Bangkok is only ten days old, it has cost Thai businesses millions of dollars in tourist revenue. And it started being felt in early January.

Talk to any business, like we here at WoWasis did, and you’ll hear a similar tale from them all. Two antique shop owners at Bangkok’s River City told us that business was down conservatively 50% in January. When we walked into their shops today, a Tuesday at 1 pm, we were told that we were the first customers that had visited either shop all day. At the Nana Plaza go-go emporium, Rainbow 4, a club that usually has 100 or so dancers on stage at all times, was down to seven. There were perhaps twenty customers in a club that easily seats 200. Rainbow 4 is a club known to cater heavily to the Japanese customer. We didn’t see a Japanese customer all night, at any club, when we were there. A veteran Nana manager explained that with so few customers, girls weren’t bothering to come to work.

The unhappy face of the Bangkok tourism business

The unhappy face of the Bangkok tourism business

The Bangkok Post reported today that major global investors have pulled their funds away from Thailand because of its instability. Wells Fargo was one of them. Singer Frankie Valli pulled his concert from Bangkok and refunded tickets, citing “safety and security.”

There are some ugly economic rumors, too. One has Agoda, the well-known hotel booking platform, having half a million Thai hotel cancellations in Bangkok alone.

The Thais protesting in the streets all think this is great fun, blocking intersections, blowing whistles, and singing songs. The fact is, though, that lost tourist revenue never returns, once it’s been spent elsewhere. International investors don’t return to countries where civil disobedience and coups seem to be the order of the day.

Regardless of the relative merits of each side during the protest, it remains an indisputable fact that Thailand’s economy and prestige have suffered tremendously due to the protests. Many are hoping for cooler heads to prevail and reach a compromise. But veteran Thailand watchers aren’t holding their breaths, and instead are having that sinking feeling that the situation will become far worse before it gets better.

Why rice is fueling the latest Bangkok protest

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 21•14

RiceBag1cRegarding the series of beefs the 100,000 street protestors occupying Bangkok are voicing today, perhaps the most difficult for westerners to grasp is the rice pledging fiasco.  Here are the salient issues simplified, from a WoWasis perspective.

Traditionally, Thailand has been a major world exporter of rice. Wanting to raise the price by lowering the availability of Thai rice, Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party in 2011 came up with an idea to pay rice farmers to pledge their crops to the Thai government, rather than to sell it on the open market. The Thai government would then release only what it deemed necessary to give its availability low and its price high.

Then two problems occurred. There was a glut in the world rice market, with players such as India, Vietnam, and the United States contributing significantly to what was available in the market. And te glut, inevitably, lowered prices. The world wasn’t buying expensive Thai rice. And so Thai rice sat unsold.  And with the lack of rice revenue from its warehouses, the executor of the funds, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) couldn’t pay this year’s pledges. Thousands of Thai rice farmers are begging for pledge money that the government doesn’t have, funds the farmers desperately need for seed rice and fertilizer. As a solution to this mess, the Finance Ministry has just raised more than 32 billion baht by selling bonds to repay rice farmers, which many are saying violates an election law which states that caretaker governments (such as Yingluck’s) cannot create debt that will become the responsibility of the succeeding government.

The caretaker government refuses to divulge exactly how much rice it has currently stored, but some estimate that it would take two to three years to sell off what’s in storage, once the pledging program is stopped. If it ever is.  In addition, Yingluck may end up facing charges that she acted negligently as chairwoman of the National Rice Policy Committee, which oversees the program.

That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of the rice matter, along with the standard allegations of corruption part and parcel to virtually every Thai governmental program. The folks protesting on the streets want the rice pledging program to end because it’s been a failure, economically. The caretaker Pheu Thai government wants to maintain it, saying it will pay for itself in the longer term.

Two lethal bombs have been thrown into crowds of Bangkok protesters within the past three days. The Thai army is waiting in the wings for a compelling event to cause them to free the streets (the protest is now in its eight day of blocking several of Bangkok’s biggest intersections).  There are a number of issues feeding the flames of discontent with Yingluck’s caretaker government, and the rice debacle is a major ember in the tinderbox. With the elections looming closer, Thais and expats alike are wondering if and when hot tempers and burning ambitions will turn the whole thing into an urban bonfire.

WoWasis Bangkok jazz review: the Sunday jam session at CheckInn99 on Sukhumvit

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 18•14

CheckInn99JamSession1dQuite a few jazz musicians live in Bangkok, both Thai and expat. Without a doubt, Bangkok’s best jazz bargain is when many of them jam together every Sunday afternoon from 2-6 at Bangkok’s notable speakeasy, CheckInn99. You need three things to have a great jazz venue: good musicians, earthy ambiance, and inexpensive drinks. CheckInn99 has all of that, and there’s no cover charge, either.

The session is led by veteran LA-Fresno altoist William Wait (jazz in Fresno?!), who’s got chops reminiscent at times of Sonny Criss. Wait weaves in various musicians as they arrive. Young vocalist Gabriel Lynch and Clifford Brown-inspired trumpeter Warren Fryar were just two of the stellar musicians we encountered.

CheckInn99 itself is legendary, dating back to the Vietnam war era, with a history wall that you’ll see as you enter the club. Read it, and you’ll feel like you’re entering a time zone. Proprietor Chris Catto-Smith essentially saved this exceptional venue from the wrecking ball, and aims to keep the ambient veneer that blankets every square foot of the club.

The Sunday afternoon jam session at CheckInn99 is one of Bangkok’s best kept secrets, but probably won’t be for long. We here at WoWasis encourage you to come on down while you can still easily get a seat.

CheckInn99sign1cCheckInn99
Sukhumvit Road between Sois 5 and 7, across from Landmark Hotel
BTS Nana station, exit 1

Touring Bangkok’s Klong Toey slums: an experience you can’t afford to miss

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 17•14

KlongToeyBumperAnimals1dBook the Explore! Klong Toey Slums of Bangkok tour here. 

Bangkok is a city of 13 million people, and a significant part of her labor pool lives in the slum neighborhood of Klong Toey.  In the West, we tend to see the word “slum” in pejorative terms, but here, its encoded into the Thai language (pronounce it “sal-UM”).  Klong Toey began its life as a squatter settlement lived in by laborers building Bangkok’s port. It wasn’t officially part of Bangkok’s municipal government. Today, it has a reputation for crime and poverty, but tour it, and one quickly sees that there’s far more underlying its surface. It’s not easy to tour it, though, especially as a westerner. Until now.

Klong Toey kindergarteners learning English at the Duang Prateep Foundation

Klong Toey kindergarteners learning English at the Duang Prateep Foundation

The “Explore! Klong Toey Slums of Bangkok” tour takes half a day, and is probably the only way that most visitors will be able to get inside the tiny communities that lie behind the main streets. Westerners proceeding on their own though the back streets may be viewed as drug-seekers, fodder for robbery, or, at best, perhaps one of those occasional farang that actually lives there, in violation of the time allotment of their visas, living an underground existence. Such individuals typically have a Thai partner and perhaps a child, and are hosted on a permanent basis by the girlfriend’s family.

Western visitors taking the Klong Toey Slums tour are led by a known local, who will guide them safely in and out of the community. Philosophically, the tour is really two sides of a societal coin. It begins with an investigation into the solution to squatter settlement needs, and continues into the community itself. It’s the most fascinating tour we’ve ever taken in Bangkok.

The tour begins at the Duang Pradeep Foundation, an amazing non-religious, non-governmental organization, begun in 1978, that has educated thousands of Klong Toey school kids from kindergarten through high school (today, there are 210 kindergarteners at school all day, learning educational and hygienic basics and having a healthy lunch while their parents are at work).

Alley cuisine in the back streets of Bangkok's Klong Toey district

Alley cuisine in the back streets of Bangkok’s Klong Toey district

After meeting the workers and children at Duang Prateep, the visitor walks a few blocks, makes a turn down an alley (called a “lock”), and enters the community. Here are tiny houses built of found materials, colored by paint and posters, and festooned with ribbons made out of cut-up magazine ads. Living is close, and there’s no space wasted; here are three coin operated washing machines chained together, allowing just enough space for a pedestrian to squeeze by someone doing the laundry; further on, a busy food stall grows out of someone’s living room. Everywhere is color, the entire community consisting of a riot of hues, shapes, and patterns provided by design or accident.

Upon leaving, the visitor may be faced with a number of conflicting thoughts regarding the conception of poverty. Newspapers are full of tales leading back to crimes taking place in Klong Toey. To those who haven’t been there, the slum community might seem to represent a dark urban cave into which one descends, rather than walks, to find a Casbah-like warren of alleys that allows easy entrance, but a more problematic return.   

The Explore! Klong Toey Slums Of Bangkok tour unveils instead a fantastic, colorful world with its own set of truths, and falsities, a vibrant, yet still developing community adjacent to, yet completely hidden from “tourist Bangkok.” This is, in the opinion of those of us here at WoWasis, the one tour you can’t afford to miss. Book the Explore! Klong Toey Slums of Bangkok tour here. 

WoWasis tours Unknown Bangkok and the Thonburi Klongs

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 16•14

Demons at Wat Arun

Demons at Wat Arun

If you’re like us, you just get those days where you want to see a half day of great stuff, get on the water a bit, then spend the rest of the afternoon having a beer and beating the heat. We just finished taking a tour in Bangkok that gave us just that. The Unknown Bangkok and Thonburi  Klongs (klongs are Thai canals) tour packs a lot of varied and great material into half a day. The activities began at the Chinatown flower market, where wholesalers and individuals alike buy flowers for Buddha, for lovers, for congratulations, and for the dead. The colors are extraordinary, the sellers — like seemingly all vendors in Bangkok — colorful and picturesque in themselves. Anyone’s greatest photo essay ever could be done here in one hour.

Traditional houses line the banks of the Thonburi klongs

Traditional houses line the banks of the Thonburi klongs

The next stop was just a short tuk-tuk ride away to the fruit and vegetable market, which leads the way to the ferry that crosses the Chao Phraya to Wat Arun.

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) has long been our favorite in Bangkok, with its multiple tiers featuring colorful demons, hanuman monkey people, and warriors. Their highlights are crafted out of colorful ceramic, and you’ll want to time your visit for the morning or late afternoon to catch the sun at the right angle, and which will cause the colors to explode in a riot of color. The Wat Arun Ubisot, adjacent to the north, is a magnificent structure itself in which ordinations are held. You’ll need to go inside to see the murals, among the most intricate in Bangkok. It’s worth taking a half-hour or so to look them over, but be advised that the Ubisot is closed on weekends. 

We wanted the magnificence of Wat Arun and the Ubisot to stay with us for a while, so the 40 minute ride through the klongs at Thonburi  came at a perfect time. The long-tailed boat took us through the Mon and Chak Phra canals, past old Bangkok homes with laundry hanging from their railings, numerous other buildings, and in sight of one monstrously large komodo dragon lizard. Every visitor in Bangkok should experience this riverine world, and seeing it from a long-tailed boat is in many ways much more enjoyable and relaxing that dealing with the bustle inherent in Klong San Sap canal taxis. This boat ride takes you past the site of the weekend floating market, and ends up at the Royal Barges Museum, closed for renovation now, but due to be reopened soon.

This half day tour seemed to have a bit of everything: flower and vegetable markets, an amazing temple, and a fascinating forty minute glimpse of Bangkok’s canal life, complete with mini-dinosaur. And it left the afternoon open for several choices: grab a beer, meander through a crafts market, get a massage at Wat Pho, or take a siesta before a night on the town. Book a tour to see Unknown Bangkok and Thonburi Klongs.

WoWasis visits Bangkok’s Calypso Cabaret ladyboy show

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 14•14

CalypsoFloorShow1dBangkok’s famous Calypso Cabaret has just passed its 25th anniversary, and is now located at the Asiatique complex on the Chao Phraya river, having moved from its longtime theatre located in the Asia Hotel at BTS Ratchatewi. The new neighborhood is decidedly more commercial, as is the show, which is suited for all ages. There were many children in the audience at the show we attended, and sure enough, there were no risque jokes told, sexual innuendos made, nor breasts bared.  

CalypsogirlYellow1cWhat Calypso offers is a tightly paced and well-choreographed revue. The costume changes work like clockwork, and they’d better, as we counted fourteen vignettes in the 90 minute show. Our favorite piece was a slow Japanese ballad sung against a lovely but simple backdrop, and we swore the singer actually sang it, rather than lip-synching. Unfortunately, no one at the exit spoke English, so there was no confirmation or denial.

The show is ideally suited for those who’ve never seen a ladyboy performance. Bangkok’s ladyboys  are legendary in many ways, and those who have seen performers such as Boston’s Sylvia Sydney or San Francisco’s Charles Pierce will probably want something stronger in terms of humor that what they’ll get at Calypso.  Calypso is most decidedly a show, rather than a nightclub act. Several of its performance components are operatic in their conception and costume changes. This is an entertaining show that will appeal to just about everyone and will never get busted for nudism or lewd behavior , and it’s held at the benign Asiatique on the river. For those wanting a more personal ladyboy experience that gets away from showbiz, we recommend going to a ladyboy bar at Nana Plaza on Sukhumvit.  For fun, great choreography, and a touch of vaudeville, we recommend Calypso. After the show, the girls line up for pictures, and tips are appreciated. Book your Calypso Cabaret show seats here.

WoWasis book review: John Cadet’s ‘Occidental Adam, Oriental Eve’

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 12•14

CadetOrientaladam_coverIf you’re fortunate enough to find one of John M. Cadet’s old books in a used bookstore, you’re in for a treat. His fiction, mostly centered in Thailand, is clearly about another time, although not necessarily a less innocent one. Occidental Adam, Oriental Eve (1981) is, like Venusberg Revisited (which WoWasis reviewed a while back), a collection of short stories, published by Cadet’s Charles Browne Publications.  This book consists of ten short stories, displaying Cadet’s taste for irony, humor, and insight.

There’s a lot to like in the book.  ‘Traveller’s Tale,’ for instance, is a wonderful take on the thought process of someone who can’t tell a simple story of a travel experience, and instead must run on. And on. And on (everyone has met one, and we live in constant dread that occasionally we might cross that line as well).  Cadet, who wrote for Bangkok World and taught literature, is best when exploring the psychology of his characters, whether they’re stealing black lace panties, stiffing a buddy on travel expenses, or in the act of dying of a shark attack. Of the latter situation, as skillfully described in ‘Mr. Pandu’s Quarter Hour,’ Cadet sets the mentality of the fated protagonist early on:

He was the central and controlling force in the office, no doubt about that.  His eyes — those round buttons that always seemed to slide downwards, sideways under pressure — never failed to take in the significant detail around him: the state of the messenger’s shoes,  the length of a teller’s hair, another badge in Mr. Sombat’s lapel. Because these were facts, details, details, items of information he could accumulate and use, whereas friendship, confidences, any attempts at human contact were things he had no time for and was quick to discourage.  Let anyone come to him expecting to be helped and Mr. Pandu would lower his eyes, swivel them from side to side, smile most amiably and allow the moment to bleed itself of living significance.

ThailandPromoBannerIt seems that Cadet wrote only three books, these two collections of short stories and The Ramakien, his discussion of the Ramayana classic mythological tale. We would love to encounter more, if there are any, and will continue hitting those used bookstore in hope that one day something else will turn up. His short stories are a treat, located in a Thailand that in some ways has changed significantly in the thirty years since they were written, and in other ways, somehow not so much at all.

Bangkok to be shut down Monday: another coup coming?

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 09•14

Courtesy Jeff Jarvis

Courtesy Jeff Jarvis

Although the major media appears reluctant to discuss it, Thailand may be in store for yet another government coup d’etat within days. All the signs seem to be leading to it, and it’s understandable that the media would be reluctant to fan the flames of revolt. Nevertheless, the situation could be ripe as events march forward to a citywide shutdown of Bangkok on Monday, January 12. As always in the Land of Smiles, it’s challenging sorting through rumor and innuendo, so we’ll just give you the WoWasis analysis, as simple as we can make it, given the complexity of the matter and the personalities involved. Here’s a précis as culled from major media:

1)      The “Caretaker government” is led by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck. A national election is scheduled for February 2nd. One possible outcome is that Yingluck could be returned to power. Her allies, to a great extent, consist of those from the lower economic classes, many of whom are from northeastern Thailand.

2)      The opposition group, the PDRC (People’s Democratic reform Committee), intends on Monday, January 12,  to shut down as many major thoroughfares in Bangkok as possible, including Asok-Sukhumvit, Lumpini, Ratchaprasong, and many others. The shut down is a protest against the upcoming elections. Protest leaders, including former Deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, insist instead that Yingluck resign. The power base of the PDRC includes many middle and upper class Thais.

3)      Caretaker Deputy Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa, as was stated in the Bangkok Post of January 9, “seemed reluctant to rule out the possibility of a military coup.” The Post goes on to report that General Yuthasak will be meeting with army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha on the Monday of the protest.

ThailandPromoBannerWhat could push the Caretaker government over the edge? Among other things, if the protest turned violent or lasted more than a couple of days. As either event might bring the city to its knees economically, an excuse for a coup would be readily available. Might it be a case of Bangkok’s Reichstag aflame?

Bangkok’s transportation infrastructure will be tested on Monday. The Klong San Sap canal boats are expected to increase the number of passengers from  60,000 to 100,000, twenty round trips are being added daily to the Chao Phraya river taxis, and the Transport Ministry is opening up 18,000 parking spots, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how anyone will be able to get to them.       

They key, from our perspective, is whether the protests turn violent. If they do, one underlying question may soon surface, namely whether, or to what degree, agents provocateurs were involved in creating the events that led to Thailand’s latest coup.

WoWasis book review: ‘I-Boat Captain,’ by Zenji Orita with Joseph Harrington

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 05•14

i-BoatCaptainWe first became aware of Japanese submariner Zenji Orita  in author Joseph D. Harrington’s book Yankee Samurai: the Secret Role of Nisei in America’s Pacific Victory (1979), which sent us scurrying to find Orita’s book I-Boat Captain: How Japanese Submarines Almost Defeated the U.S. Navy in the Pacific (1976). The book is alternately chilling and fascinating, as it points out that will a little more planning and strategic awareness, Japan could have inflicted greater losses on allied naval craft. Instead, as Orita discusses, submarines were eventually mostly used to transport troops and supplies, and were increasingly sunk by U.S. destroyers as their shipping lanes became more predictable.

Orita’s story of rising through the ranks provides a wonderful glimpse into the Japanese navy, but it’s hard to root for him. He was gung-ho on the Japanese war effort, beginning with his belief that the conquest of Manchuria was justified, likening it to U.S. manifest destiny. He relates the fate of the Chinese to that of the Native American, giving no regard to the privations at Nanking, as documented by Iris Chang, among others.

AsiaPromoBannerThat said, however, the book’s a good read. Orita attacked the U.S. mainland, and his description of that event is memorable. The minutiae of submarine life is well-documented including the fact that olfactory senses were challenged by facts such as showers were allowed only every three days and underwear washed every five. Submariners were under constant threat of having electrical and fuel systems damaged by depth charges, which could potentially suffocate their crews by exposure to diesel fumes. Of particular interest are the passages relating to suicidal kaiten pilots, who rode one-man submarines to their deaths, inflicting serious damage to U.S. ships in the process. Orita masterfully provides descriptions of these vessels as well as sobering tributes to the men that piloted them.

Overall, the reader is left with a terrific analysis of Japanese thinking and practice as it relates to submarine warfare in the second World War, and perhaps an improved appreciation for the value of sonar as a critical asset to the allied powers in the Pacific theatre of operations.

WoWasis book review: Ron McMillan’s ‘Bangkok Cowboy’

Written By: herbrunbridge - Dec• 23•13

bangkok-cowboy_160x255Today’s review is guest-written by Iain Millar.

I first met Ron McMillan in the bar at Aberdeen airport too many years ago when we were both en route to an assignment in further-north waters. Within minutes the pints were pulled, the pool balls were racked up and the tales were being spun. And if that sounds anything like the intro to a book then it might explain why, in the years since, this guy has turned his hand to writing, among other things, a couple of high-octane, hard-boiled, crime thrillers, the latest of which, Bangkok Cowboy, is good enough to have made me miss my stop on the train home three times in the last week.The plotting is hot, the characters now feel like people I know and the descriptions of the Thai capital – the noise, the streets, the food and, of course, the lowlife – are as good as a virtual immersion can be. It would a great screaming spoiler to give away the relationship and the personal details of the two principles, Mason and Dixie, save to say that they’re an odd couple in the absolutely unexpected, best sense of that epithet.

As it says on the tin – or, rather, in the blurb: “Two days after private eye Mason sees a drunken Australian kicked to death in Bangkok’s notorious Soi Cowboy, he is approached by one of the men involved. Mobster Raymond Long owns nightclubs on the seedy sex strip and wants Mason to find his American accountant, who has disappeared, taking with her a computer hard drive. Mason is about to turn him down, when he realizes the missing accountant is his friend, Nathalie…”

Why Nathalie was even working for a bottom-feeder like Long is, of course, part of the mystery, along with what is on the missing hard drive. The motivations of Long, Mason – and Nathalie – seem clear cut at first glance but the twists keep coming at a pace to keep the crime aficionados alert and on their toes.

That Mason and Dixie have their lethal moments is expected and McMillan dishes out the violence with skill, thrills and the right amount of restraint – i.e. not much – but never without good reason (it’s not for shrinking violets but they’re probably not reading this anyway). Full disclosure requires me to declare the author as a friend, so my loyalty is (mostly!) unqualified. But my professional respect has shot up a fair few notches. More Mason and Dixie books soon, please, Ron. The first one is highly recommended.

Iain Millar is a London-based freelance journalist who has written for The Independent on Sunday, Bloomberg and The Art Newspaper among many others.

Bangkok Cowboy is available in electronic form only, and can be downloaded from any Amazon site worldwide. You can buy it here from Amazon right now. For those who do not own a Kindle, Amazon offers a free ‘Kindle Reader’ app for Apple, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets. The free Kindle Reader App can be downloaded here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000493771