Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Thai Tourism? - Shot in the Foot!

White Sands, Koh Chang less than two years ago.

Bamboo huts - a travellers' paradise lost.

And today... recognise the far tree from the first picture?

Room for a sexagenarian to swing his hammock.

The same spot last year, the huts all gone.

My coconut trees encased in concrete.

KC Grande resort from above. Nicely done but far too big.

Well padded holiday makers from another world.

We’ve just got back to our Surin village after a short holiday on the island of Koh Chang which gives me the chance to go on a bit about the current state of Thai tourism.

The village is a good place to avoid Christmas so we’re home again after a nine hour drive. The worst bit about leaving the island was saying goodbye to my daughter Anna and son-in-law Will who’d met up with us there for a short winter holiday.

They’ve visited us many times in Thailand but this time it wasn’t exactly easy for them. First of all it proved almost impossible to book a hotel from London as the Koh Chang resorts repeatedly told the booking agencies they were full and had no rooms. Finally they ended up staying at the new 160 room KC Grande Resort on White Sands Beach which proved to be almost empty of visitors.

The holiday was a cliff hanger too and they nearly cancelled when a mob of political demonstrators invaded and closed Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport a few weeks before. Then at the last moment the protests came to an end and they were finally able to fly.

Thai tourism now looks pretty sick after this and it desperately needs a shot in the arm. With recession engulfing the world, long haul travel is an unnecessary luxury, added to which the strong baht now makes holidays here much more expensive. While I’ve been used to around 70 baht to the pound in the last few years, Thomas Cook in Petersfield gave Anna and Will only fourty four baht to the pound. Our pizzas on White Sands Beach were excellent but they now cost no less than in Europe.

Instead of getting a shot in the arm though, Thai tourism has been repeatedly shot in the foot. The Thai military which controls airport security allowed ‘The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy’, a well organized anti-democratic rent-a-mob to take over the airport which was closed for many days, trapping 350,000 foreign tourists in Thailand and causing many more inward cancellations.

Nothing could be worse for the reputation of Thai tourism than this debacle. While the tsunami was far more catastrophic in human terms, it only affected one small part of the country.

As if these disasters are not enough!

One of the great advantages of visiting Thailand is the visa waiver that many nationals enjoy on arrival…you get an immediate thirty day stamp at immigration which is a big incentive to easy travel. But now they’ve changed the rules yet again. If you arrive overland you’ll now only be given a fifteen day stay.

Bang, bang, the message is clear. We don’t want so many travelers here… go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos instead. They’re far more welcoming.

Koh Chang profited after the tsunami as it’s safe from risk within the Gulf of Thailand. It also welcomed many backpackers, being well placed on the overland route to Cambodia, but in the last few years I’ve seen the character of White Sands Beach change from a sleepy traveller’s town to a resort attracting older tourists for short holidays in the sun.

When Ben the protagonist of my novel, “Thai Girl” stayed on this beach in 2001 he predicted an ecological disaster and he was dead right. Bang, bang, they’ve turned the west side of the island into the usual grubby shambles of tacky stalls and huts spread out for mile after mile in headlong pursuit of the tourist dollar. Thailand is incapable of controlling informal development even here on the fringes of a national park and they’ve destroyed much of the natural environment that is the chief attraction for many visitors. The sea and mountains are still there but much has been lost in a short time even as boom turns to bust.

A few years ago the Thaksin government proposed reserving Koh Chang for up market tourism, a good idea so long as the rest of the island isn’t ruined by low grade developments. In that light the recent expansion of Anna and Will’s KC Grande resort could be justified but I’m sad at what’s been lost in the process.

In my recent book, “My Thai Girl and I”, I describe how we stayed in one of the old bamboo huts at KC Grande for my sixtieth birthday and I’m still not yet sixty two. The next time we visited Koh Chang the huts had all gone and construction of the new resort was well under way. Now it’s open for business though some of the bar areas are still not quite complete. Thai-Chinese owned and partly financed by Swedish interests promoting package tourism, I’m told, it has been planned and finished to a very high standard indeed.

I wish them well and hope that their enterprise brings employment and benefit to ordinary people here, but I also wish the resort wasn’t so big and that it hadn’t replaced my bamboo huts with steel and concrete and the brutal sea wall that now blights the beach front. The coconut trees from which I used to sling my hammock have either been chopped down or embedded in concrete.

The resort has opened at a terrible time. Christmas and New Year season will be busy but who knows what will happen after that. Thai tourism really doesn’t need any more shocks.

I’m unable to verify the story but this is what I’ve just been told by a usually reliable source. In Thailand the foreshore is vested in the Crown and is controlled by the military for strategic reasons. On Koh Chang the generals have been rattling sabres saying that the beach resort developments are illegal and that they must all be closed and cleared away. Meetings are now being held and heavy negotiations are in progress.

So does this mean, bang bang, that tourism on Koh Chang will be decimated or that all resorts will be moved back from the beach?

Well, no actually… this is Thailand, where nothing is ever what it seems.

In Buddhist terms all of human striving is illusory, impermanent and unsatisfactory. Three prime ministers in three months isn’t bad going but the new cabinet ministers are wearing impressive white uniforms and keep smiling benignly. Next year the visa rules will change again and the beaches on Koh Chang will look much the same as they do today. The pace of development will slow a little because of recession but we’ll never know what was resolved with the military, though we may well speculate.

The losers from the tourist recession will as always be the little people… the ones selling tee shirts from a tiny stall on the street, the cooks and cleaners who’ll lose their jobs, but’s that’s just how it always is.

Koh Chang is still wonderful though. After we’ve done what we have to do here in the village, we’re planning to head back there for the New Year. A round trip’s only fifteen hours driving after all and as an added bonus the ferry service is the best in the world.

Where else do they charge only a few dollars a head while the car goes on for free?

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog December 2008

Friday, 12 December 2008

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Scouts and Guides day at our village school.

The teachers seem dedicated to the welfare of the children.

The classes are small and there's a great atmosphere.

Presenting the school with books and a climbing frame.

The kids are angelic, at least when I'm around.

They just love parties and performances.

The kung fu routine was amazingly good.

The lady who cooks the lunches.

The communal hall where they eat their lunch.

The lunches we've been providing for them.

What would I really like for Christmas? It's hard to say as I have all I need.

That can't be said of all the kids in our village though as many of the families are really very poor. It's not poverty exactly because this is a rich and supportive community but they are desperately short of money. In particular, sending your children to school, feeding and clothing them is a constant drain.

The village school is a delightful place simply because of the teachers and children that are there. The buildings are just about falling down and budgets are extremely tight so I and a very generous Japanese friend have been trying to help out.

All our efforts are described on which so far has provided books, playground equipment and most importantly lunches.

A high proportion of the children are below the correct weight stipulated by the Thai Ministry so we have been providing them with good lunches of meat, vegetable and fruit, food of a proper standard that Cat told me they will never have had before. How can they do their school work if they are hungry and poorly nourished?

But now we've run out of money and there will be no more lunches.

For the 95 children in the school it costs about a thousand baht a day to feed them and we have 3,000 baht in the bank account. We had ambitions to raise money in Japan but times are not good and it just hasn't happened. Every single baht is used to pay for the food as there are absolutely no overheads.

So this Christmas I can think of no present I'd like more than to see our lunch programme continue and the children to have the proper lunch they need at school every day.

(I can be contacted on Having just got back from the book launch in Bangkok a few days ago and today packing up to go and meet my daughter and son-in-law who are flying out for a holiday, I meant to write a much longer piece than this. I'm taking my laptop and might yet manage to post more info about it from an internet cafe.)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Naked Launch!

Legs on the Skytrain.

Boom... the one that made it in time.

And bust... fallout from the crisis of 1997.

Wat Arun in the evening.

Life goes on as usual in the side streets.

The tiger that didn't get away.

Temporary buildings are cleared away after the Royal cremation.

Khao San Road busy if not exactly humming.

I arrived back in the village from my book launch in Bangkok at 3.00 am this morning and with Cat at college for the day the house seems pretty quiet, especially after the excitement of the last few days.

I’m relieved and happy to say that the book launch at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand of MY THAI GIRL AND I went pretty well. The room was full, they laughed at my readings and jokes and my wrist became sore from signing books. And I can even say that I enjoyed it.

I’m always nervous before a thing like this as presenting one’s creative efforts to a discerning audience takes a lot of nerve. It was especially so this time as I’ve done what I never before thought I’d do and that’s to write about myself; about Cat and me. I’d exposed myself publicly to personal scrutiny and I felt naked and vulnerable standing there before so large an audience as I began my talk.

It’s one thing to know that copies of the book are being dissected by critics in the Solomons and The British Virgin Island, as I know there to be. It’s quite another to face up to my readers in the flesh and to have to deal with their sometimes searching questions.

Anyway I bluffed my way through the evening and I think got away with it. I read them my local version of the Little Red Hen story (page 133) in which the little red hen ends up in a bar in Pattaya and then one of my more cynical chapters called, “You Can Score on Route 24”, and it all seemed to go down pretty well. What with the excellent food and service at the FCCT, I think the evening was enjoyed by everyone.

My being in Bangkok also gave me the chance to survey the state of the nation as I took a trip the next day around some of my favourite city sights. Sukhumvit had already struck me as being unusually quiet with bars and restaurants unusually empty for the beginning of high season but would I see any other fallout from the recent political and economic turmoil that has recently hit Bangkok?

From The Atlanta on soi 2, I took the Skytrain down to the river where I was strongly reminded of the Asian financial crisis of 1997 on seeing the derelict condominium development just downstream of Saphan Thaksin station. Its construction came to a halt when the Thai economy went into free fall and it still stands uncompleted, a gaunt skeleton starkly reminding of the fragility of commercial affairs in a place such as this. Could the current world financial crisis again have a similar devastating impact on the Thai economy?

I then boarded a river boat headed upstream to the Grand Palace and all the major royal and government compounds. Predictably the boat was almost empty which made it easier for me to move around and to take pictures of the brash condo tower that was successfully completed just before the firestorm hit in 1997 and of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, dramatically back lit in the early evening.

When I landed, the amulet markets on the street seemed quite busy, but then life has to go on… the pavements were crowded with ordinary Thais and monks going about their usual daily business. Perhaps these difficult times stimulate a demand for lucky charms, though the scraps of what appear to be animal skin displayed for sale suggests that the tiger very definitely ran out of luck.

I then walked to Sanam Luang, the scene of recent demonstrations and saw nothing to suggest the political turmoil that engulfed this part of Bangkok only a few days ago. In the centre of this huge open space I saw the remains of the elaborate temporary pavilions set up for the cremation last week of Her Royal Highness, Princess Galyani, the King’s older sister. These are now being demolished and they look very sad, occupied only by old men asleep, rolled up in mats against the cool of the evening.

My last stop was to visit Khao San Road, the vibrant backpacker area which is usually full of young travelers and serves as an entry point where first time visitors get over culture shock with a foot in two worlds and buy bandaids at Boots.

Since Emma and Ben, the characters in my novel, THAI GIRL, first started their holiday in Khao San Road seven years ago, the street has been substantially cleaned up and is now a twenty four hour multi-cultural festival that few younger tourists would want to miss. While the political upheavals and closure of the airport have clearly affected business, the street was still busy, though not humming in quite the way it usually is.

So I happily conclude that Bangkok is still there, is safe and welcoming and will bounce back from the recent traumas. Memories are short and after the first rash of cancellations tourism will soon take off strongly again.

I have a particular reason to be thankful that the airport has reopened so quickly as my daughter, Anna and son-in-law, Will arrive here in a few days for a precious break from the English winter. So I’ll be taking a short holiday from blogging as I’ll soon be joining them on my favourite island of Koh Chang.

Then again I’ve managed to blog pretty extensively about Koh Chang on previous trips and I’ll be taking my laptop with me!

Can blogging become an obsessive/compulsive disorder? Maybe it can.

The “Thai Girl” Blog 9th December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Sex, Thais and Videotape!




It’s the stuff of cliché to say that Thailand is a place of extremes, contrasts and confusions, though often it’s true.

Take for example ‘Thai girls’!

Is a typical Thai woman the seductive vamp of international notoriety? Or is she a nice, traditional girl looking for the one man in her life, who knows little or nothing about sex?

All generalisations are dangerous but it might come as a surprise how often she’s much closer to the second of these stereotypes than to the first.

My own personal knowledge on this topic is limited though and my ‘research’ is confined to reading the English language media in Thailand. Take for example a recent article in the Bangkok Post entitled, “The Naked Truth” (13 November 2008). About pornography in Thailand, it comments that just as prostitution is illegal here, the distribution of ‘pornography’ also has stiff penalties. Legal enforcement has become stricter in recent years because pornography is widely seen as the cause of rape and other sexual offences.

The article is based on research by an aptly named professor Chalidaporn who says, ‘Pornography exists because sex is condemned in society. Thai society has this notion that sex is something that should not be disclosed. There is no way of learning about sex, so most people learn through direct experience with pornography…”

Articles in the media often suggest a surprisingly prudish attitude towards sex. There is for example a wide spread ambivalence about sex education for the young and as sex is unmentionable, it should be kept under the table.

This strict attitude is hard to square though with the apparently exuberant attitude towards sex of many Thais but could in part be explained by the varied nature of Thai society. Thais of Chinese origin for instance, many of whom are well educated opinion formers, may have a more repressive attitude than the ethnic Thais.

Opinions in Thailand about sexual delinquency are thus sometimes expressed with a vehemence that is almost Victorian in tone. In my recent book, “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, I quoted a certain Professor Sukhum who had researched readers’ attitudes to newspaper reports on sexual matters.

“The headlines for stories on rape cases were found to capture readers’ attention the most,” he said, “followed by those on sexual violence, domestic violence and abortion stories… The respondents thought womens’ revealing outfits are the major cause of rape, pornographic media is the cause of sexual violence, mental disorder the cause of homosexuality and immorality the cause of child dumping or abortion.”

Would it were so simple!

Sex is often seen as dangerous and a headline in the same paper caught my eye… ‘Women lured into sex by aphrodisiac coffee and juice’ (7 April 2008). A leading womens’ foundation had warned that packets of instant coffee and juice are on sale containing a powerful aphrodisiac that women are unable to resist. “It leaves women excessively aroused,” according to the spokeswoman and “triggers an uncontrollable urge to have sex with the men who set out to take advantage of them”.

This shocking matter came to light when the complainant, a student named Bee, went to have dinner at the house of a man she’d met on the internet. The man then gave her a cup of coffee which he said was a new formula health drink. She drank the coffee and immediately felt a surge of arousal and an instant desire for sex which in the event was soon satisfied.

A similar complaint came from a bar hostess, of all people, who accepted a coffee from a patron of the bar. “About ten minutes after drinking it, she became dazed and felt a sudden unstoppable sexual excitement which drove her to have sex with the customer.” Well, that’s her story and she’s sticking to it!

Anyway, the womens’ foundation got hold of some samples of the coffee and sent them for testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

In the strict interests of research, I too have been thinking of buying some of this sexual elixir but so far haven’t found any. As my Thai is limited, when asking for it in a shop I can only explain the effect it has by using sign language. Buying toilet paper or condoms using sign language is difficult enough, but my “Harry Met Sally” fake orgasms at the check-out could get me arrested me pretty damned quick.

This wide-eyed innocence from a womens’ organization is hard to credit, though at the other extreme Thailand can also be wild. With its nightlife having a steamy reputation, modesty and decorum is hardly the order of the night.

The low status of women in Thailand could of course explain the glaring double standards in this particular human zoo. Thailand has a long tradition of concubinage and the men have always done pretty much what they want. A married man can always take a mia noi, though God help him if he’s indiscreet and causes his wife to lose face. Even worse if he spends money on the mia noi that should have been spent on her. Meanwhile married women are expected to behave impeccably and the sweet virgin daughter mustn’t get caught as it’ll diminish her sinsod, the nice big bride price Mama’s expecting to get when she marries her off.

The newspapers have also mentioned a new development in the sexual arena arising from the widespread availability of cheap video cameras and camera phones. The police are getting an increasing number of complaints from women who say that on dumping their boyfriend, he took revenge by posting nude videotapes of her on the internet or used them to extort money.

Even more insidious has been a rash of cases in which celebrities staying in hotels have been secretly videoed taking a shower. This has caused considerable embarrassment and clips on the internet of well-known starlets have been widely viewed.

Having just passed the Loy Kratong festival, I’m reminded too that at this time and on Valentine’s Day the young and very young are reported by the press to be at it like rabbits. As I mention in my book, the short time ‘love hotels’ are all booked out by these romantic young things and certain other places are often used for ‘promiscuous behaviour or even premature sex’. The Bangkok Post reports that, “Teens were found to have got carried away in the provincial sports stadium, particularly the area at the back of the basket ball field… and in isolated corners in department stores.”

Surging hormones thus need to be restrained and a secretary to the Ministry of Education on matters of sex has been quoted as saying that, “low-waist trousers and tight shirts are a risqué fashion trend which arouses sexual desire and possibly leads to sex crimes”. (The Nation, 15 February 2005). That particular official was called Tossaporn.

So to conclude, how can one characterize the typical ‘Thai girl’? ‘Is she seductive, scheming and available? Or is the Thai girl modest, sweet and innocent… is it she who is the victim?’

The topic is complex and nuanced and it’s hard to get beyond the platitudes, but I do have one final thought.

Fiction can convey ideas that can never be definitively stated so perhaps the best medium for this particular topic is a romantic novel!

Shall we call it, “Thai Girl”?

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog November 2008

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tonight's the Night!

Don't miss my book launch tonight at the FCCT in Bangkok. See below.

Don't miss it!

Choke dee,


Friday Post Script: Just to say thank you to everyone who came to the book launch. The Foreign Correspondents' Club was full, the audience looked interested and laughed at most of my jokes and asked some good and searching questions. Asia Books was there in force with no fewer than five staff members and my wrist was sore from signing books.

J.K. Rowling, eat your heart out!