I was surfing the internet at the weekend and happened upon one of those lists of ‘ten things that drive you crazy about living in Bangkok'. We've all read these articles before. No Thailand expat discussion forum is complete without someone getting things off their chest. After all, these lists can be wonderful self-therapy for any writer.
You usually have a good idea though - even before you start reading - as to what the ten situations are going to be.
I hate waitresses who stand and hover as soon as they give me the menu. It makes my blood boil when people try to get in an elevator before I've had chance to get out and just end up blocking the door. Why don't motorists stop at zebra crossings? Sound familiar? Of course they do.
But whereas most lists contain the same old tired topics, this particular writer had come at things from a different angle. He'd really put his thinking cap on. My own personal favorite among his ten Bangkok ‘hates' was ‘the unofficial bus-stop'. You probably know how it works. The Bangkok bus company erects a shiny new bus-stop at the side of the road. However, the vast majority of Thai passengers have decided that they can't be arsed to walk to it. Perhaps the bus-stop is too far from the pedestrian bridge. Maybe it's positioned in direct sunlight. Whatever the reason, it's not a bus-stop the Thais want to use. So they don't. They form little straggly groups of pedestrians at a place that's far more convenient. The only person who stands at the officially designated bus-stop is YOU. And the only reason you do it is because you've been raised by your parents to follow rules and regulations. But it comes as little comfort when the bus driver goes speeding past and comes to a screeching halt at the unofficial bus-stop fifty meters down the road. And as Thai passengers scramble aboard and head for home, you're left standing there with your thumb up your arse.
Whatever - it made me laugh out loud and got me thinking. Here's a list of my own things that drive me crazy about living in Bangkok. Hopefully some of them you've never even thought about.
Unofficial food testers
Weekends often find me at the Tesco Lotus Superstore on Sri Nakarin Road. I didn't realize it until my wife pointed it out but shoppers will often stand at the fruit displays and ‘test' the merchandise. On Sunday I stood a few meters from a fine display of imported black grapes and watched mouth agape as a band of Tesco's loyal customers shoveled grapes down them without a care in the world. Look in any dictionary and you'll see there's a word for this kind of activity - and the word is ‘stealing'.
I immediately thought of an old friend of mine in England - Jewish Mickey. Mickey had a market stall and sold a bit of fruit and veg. He was also quite big in women's underwear. Heaven forbid the customer who helped themselves to free samples at Mickey's market stall. He usually dealt with the situation by reaching for a machete-like object from behind the counter and telling the customer that if he caught them doing it again, he would cut their f***ing hands off. Never one to mince his words was Mickey.
"I'm sorry he not here"
There seems to be an enormous amount of shame in admitting that someone has resigned from a company. Those of you who call Bangkok businesses on a regular basis will know instantly what I'm driving at.
"Could I speak to Khun Arun please?"
"I'm sorry he not here"
You then have to go through a process of elimination. Is he coming back? Will he be back today? Is he in the toilet? Has he nipped out for a cigarette? Tell me - the last time you saw him - was he carrying a large suitcase?
Thais will do anything to avoid telling you that the person you want to speak to has in fact left the company. The person on the other end of the phone knows full well that Khun Arun has joined a rival firm for an extra 500 baht a month. What's more he had a blazing row with the managing director on Friday afternoon and told him to stick the job where a monkey stuffs its nuts. She knows because she was there.
You need to go to your home branch
The next moan is aimed squarely at Bangkok's banks. And why not? - banks are always fair game.
Many moons ago, I opened a bank account with one of Bangkok's larger banks. As is often the case, the company I was working for at the time ‘forced' me to open a savings account with a particular bank and branch purely for their own convenience. I won't mention the name of the bank in question but the staff all walk around proudly wearing oversized lapel badges that say "Please Be My Customer".
Time has moved on. I left that particular job a long while back and I now live thirty miles from downtown Bangkok. But that branch where I opened the account still remains the centre of my banking universe.
What makes the situation so annoying is that the bank has a large and well-staffed branch literally five minutes walk from my home. But go in there for the most trivial and simplest of transactions or requests and their response is always the same - "you need to go to your home branch - the one where you opened the account. The one that's thirty miles away"
Almost every time, it ends up with me returning home, calling the bank's head office and speaking to a nice gentleman who informs me quite clearly that any branch can handle my request. He then contacts the local branch on my behalf and paves the way for me to go in and get the job done second time around.
Halt. Who goes there?
It's a sign of the times of course, but security has been considerably beefed up at Bangkok's office buildings over the past few years. In some buildings, the security system is first-class, in others it's appalling. I loathe getting stopped by the ‘security guard wannabe' who asks me which company I'm visiting - just because he can. There is nearly always the following exchange.
I tell the uniform which company I'm going to and on which floor. He then produces a dog-eared piece of paper which lists the names of all the companies in that building. That's not entirely accurate - it's a list of all the companies that were located in the building on the day it opened three years ago. Since then, numerous companies have gone bust or relocated and numerous companies have taken their place. The list hasn't been updated but come now - let's not concern ourselves with trivialities. What does it matter if the company I'm visiting isn't on the list and I then need to phone my contact and make the poor bugger come down from the 38th floor to fetch me?
Can you send us a fax?
What is it with Thailand's love affair with the fax machine? I remember when my mother was a full-time office worker. She came home one evening singing the praises of this wonderful machine that had arrived in the office - a machine that could send hard-copy messages and just moments later, the recipient could read the same message at his warehouse in The North Pole. The fax machine was revolutionary. But the fax machine also had its day. 1981 I think it was. It's amazing that there is still many a Thai company who simply couldn't function without its fax machine. All hail to the mighty fax! When I tell someone on the phone that I don't possess a fax machine, there's always an uncomfortable silence. It's similar to the silence I get when Thais ask why I don't have children and I respond with "because I don't like them". I'm never sure whether the other person is going to quickly change the topic or just burst into tears.
I hate fax machines. When you feed a message into the machine (after six attempts to get it the right way up) that's just the beginning. It's the beginning of an arduous journey - one that's strewn with numerous obstacles. Your message comes out the other end in some dimly-lit, untidy admin room on the first floor. We then hope and pray that the person reading the fax knows enough English to get it to the right department eighteen floors above. You might think this sounds unlikely. And you'd be absolutely right.
Do you have the super premier customer discount card?
This is what checkout girls and sales staff ask me in supermarkets and department stores. My answer is always no. And the reason my answer is no is because foreigners are never offered these discount cards and schemes. We never get invited to the party.
Walk around any department store at the weekend and you'll see groups of excited Thais rummaging around for lucky draw tickets in large transparent plastic bins. You can only stand and watch - feeling about as welcome as a one-legged ginger stepchild - as Thai customers whoop with delight having won something large and expensive.
Banners hang from the ceiling announcing ‘Midnight Sale - 90% off everything in the store and free sex with the girls from the cosmetic department" and portraying images of a wholesome Thai family stuffing boxfuls of free goodies into the boot of the car.
But you're shit out of luck. No one's wants to explain the rules to you. You're a foreigner. No one can be bothered.
Embassy Opening Hours
I guess this point applies to embassies all over the world but it's just more obvious to me in Bangkok. Come on - admit it - you've also stood outside a deserted embassy with your visa application form and suddenly realized it's National Ploughing Day. How could you have missed the sign that says "Visa applications are handled for two hours on Monday mornings and pick-up is usually on Fridays unless we're all having lunch (except if it's a national holiday in Thailand, Malaysia, Tibet or any other country still under colonial rule)"
I realize that I'm on very shaky ground here but what are the staff doing when the embassy isn't open? It could be argued that they are getting stuck into piles of paperwork but to create piles of paperwork don't you need to be open long enough?
I particularly like the fact that embassy walls are often festooned with posters of tourist attractions in the country it represents. You might even get to see them if you can get the damn visa processed.
People with clipboards who stop me at Sky-train stations
It doesn't matter how much of a rush I'm in, I obviously have the look of a man who will say yes to anything. A lifetime membership to Greenpeace? Where do I sign? Discount membership to Fitness First? Oh boy look how out of breath I am. Need another credit card? What do you think this empty space in my wallet is for?
And yet when there are a couple of dolly birds giving out free samples of shampoo and sugar-free chewing gum, I suddenly become invisible. I mean who could be a more appropriate demographic for your vanilla hair conditioner than me. You gave one to her! What's she going to do with it? She's bald for pete's sake!