Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"The Rounds," May 8, 2009

The Latest Internet Sensation

It's Wednesday night, May 6th, as I start this latest outing. Sitting at home with not much to do, so thought I'd turn my attention here a bit.

Since all of you, obviously, computer-literate, I have to mention the Susan Boyle sensation; it's a really feel-good story, which is damned sure something just about all of us can use right now.

Susan Boyle: a 47- or 48- year old single gal from Scotland who made her way to one of Britain's top television shows -- it draws 12,000,000 to 14,000,000 viewers per episode, a show called "Britain's Got Talent," a show similar to "American Idol," for those of you familiar with that. Both feature the sharp-tongued but enormously successful producer, British Simon Cowell, as one of the judges in this talent show.

Boyle appeared in front of the show's three judges [about which more a bit later], each of whom has a rather commanding television presence.

Boyle, au naturale does not have that presence. She has accurately, if not very kindly, described by such words as "frumpy." She appeared in a nondescript smock, her frizzy hair in a . . . well, frizzy style. And while she's not going to scare little kids in the dark, neither is she going to make the Adonises of the male species swoon with lust.

When Boyle walked out onto the stage -- in front of a studio audience of about 2,000, by the way -- it was painfully embarrassing. The audience was snickering, as were the judges. Here's Miss Plain Jane par excellence on TV??? However on earth did she make it past the screeners? [And more about *that* part too a bit later on.]

Cowell was relatively light on her as he asked her a couple of basic questions before signalling her to perform. One question was whom she would like to be like, professionally. Improbably, she said Elaine Paige (sp?). Another was what song she wanted to sing; she answered, "I Dream The Dream," at which he raised steeply arched eyebrows; the song is challenging.

Once Cowell signaled Boyle to begin, she gathered herself up as the music opened, then started singing.

It was simply stunning, as Piers, another judge, later put it. Jaws dropped, eyeb rows shot up, and the audience was on their feet in seconds, offering a loud standing ovation. Well before the end, two of the three judges were on their feet as well; Cowell was too mesmerized to stand.

That was the evening of April 11th in Britain. As of this afternoon, on alone there had been north of 52 million views. A video tracking service that follows about 150 sites was reporting at the same time two salient points: on the sites they monitor, there had been 186,000,000 views -- making the clip the 5th-most-viewed in history.

Not bad for several days shy of a month. Especially when you add in various bloggers and webmasters who've embedded the clip but whose sites/blogs aren't tracked. Finally, there are the gazillion people who've lit up e-mails to send the link to others. I wouldn't be surprised to learn, if such were possible, that the clip has been viewed north of half a billion times.

Yet Boyle -- and the show -- are controversial. In her case, I wonder why. In the case of the show . . . well, the jury's out.

I've read a number of really nasty reviews of Boyle's performance. Some criticize her for having a singing coach. Others criticize her for having been singing at a local pub in Scotland for many years (thereby getting some practice). Finally, some have said she doesn't "look" the part.

So doggone what if she has a voice coach? Don't people take classes or training when they aspire to something? So doggone what if she's been singing in the local pub a quarter of a century; that's what people who love to sing may choose to do. Or in the shower or backyard or out in the meadow . . . wherever. The third criticism is especially cruel: does one have to look like a winner to be a winner?

Simon Cowell, the producer and one of the judges, apparently doesn't think so; he has first right of refusal on signing a contract with her. In any case, even if Boyle doesn't win the finals -- which offer a rather nice prize of 100,000 pounds plus performing for the Royal Family -- reports say music producers are lining up around the block to talk to her.

Be your own judge:

I mentioned the judges and that I would have a bit more to say about them. Despite a number of hours of research, I've not been able to find out just what, if anything, they themselves know about contestants -- or, as their website calls them, "auditionees" -- before the auditionees walk out onto the stage. The judges have
been accused of faking their reactions. If they did, they sure did a most excellent job of coming across as genuine. (The hopeful have to go through a screening processing, to which I alluded earlier.)

The nice thing to take away from this story, whatever the details may be, is that Boyle has become, virtually overnight, Everywoman, in the most positive, hopeful sense of the term -- or maybe I should say "Everyperson." She could be your neighbor; certainly her friends up in Scotland say they've long known she can sing beautifully, though of course they've been taken by surprise at the onslaught of interest.

Heck, Susan could be you or me. . . .

Switching Gears to Thailand

As you all know, the political conflict continues here. But it appears that maybe, just maybe, tensions are easing. Besides the yellow-shirt group that's anti-Thaksin and the red-shirt group that's pro-Thaksin, other groups have emerged, simultaneously with the public at large beginning to make their displeasure with the ongoing strife loudly evident. It appears the yellow shirts and red shirts may be paying some heed -- though that's not certain yet.

I mention this because it's possible, just possible, that the coming weeks (months?) may be the best time for foreign tourists to come here since the 2006 coup. People are losing their jobs. I mean Thai people, and some of them are friends or relatives of people in the warring camps; their job loss must be influencing at least some in those camps. Just two nights ago I saw "The Flower Guy" who goes around this area selling flowers, a guy whose day job has been as a mechanic for one of the foreign car dealerships ever since I first met him, nearly 15 years ago: he's been laid off. Yes, there are other factors, especially the general global economic meltdown, but the political stuff sure hasn't helped, I gather. And he's got a wife and a daughter, his daughter getting close to entering university. Or that was her plan, anyway.

Back to the paying heed. Someone organized a peaceful march upcountry calling on the opponents to stand down, and much to everyone's amazement, several hundred red shirts showed up. (Don't know about the other groups.)

Not that all's sweetness and light, mind you. Some time back, the government closed down a pro-Thaksin radio station. And in the aftermath of the fiasco of the aborted ASEAN summit last month, from which several heads of state had to be airlifted out by helicopter, two senior police officials were transferred. And just today comes the news that the governor of Chonburi Province (in which Pattaya is located) has been transferred to a smaller province nearby, also for failing to control the red-shirt demonstrators who stormed the ASEAN venue and forced the summit's cancellation.

(Certainly, life around Washington Square/Queen's Park Plaza flows serenely along, if with business off some, partly, presumably, because this is the low season and partly, equally presumably, because of the strife. If I never looked at television or read the papers, I wouldn't have a clue there IS any problem. And that's widely true, except for anyone who happens to stumble into the midst of some civil disorder.)

I'm gonna irk foreign ministries of other countries should any of their staff read this next observation, but I've come to take their announcements with a rather large grain of salt. Much of the advice is common sense; how many of us really need to be told to avoid areas with large crowds that are potentially violent, for example? Further, in my 15 years here, not once has anyone from the embassy ever contacted me by phone, as I understood would be the case should something really heavy come up, I understood when I first registered. I didn't even get a call after the coup (though I did get group e-mails, to be fair). I didn't even get a call when there were bombings and shootings less than three blocks from my home, events of which I was, happily, oblivious while they were occurring. Yes, there's a strong argument for saying my safety is my responsibility. There's also a strong argument for saying an embassy should not tell its nationals they're going to keep said nationals in the know when they in fact do not. Not in a very timely way, anyway. An e-mail many hours after a bombing isn't very helpful, is it? Not, I hasten to add, that I was ever in even the slightest danger.

And that's something hard to communicate to people who haven't either lived here or spent a considerable amount of time here. That is, all sorts of things can be going on that don't involve foreigners -- and they don't.

Anyway, you likely will be just as well served, and arguably far better so, by following Internet discussion threads, where people on the ground, people sometimes with an inside track on breaking events, offer information. One site that enjoys widespread popularity is, which has thousands of members and all sorts of discussion, discussions about just about every conceivable topic under the sun. There are others, and my mentioning this one isn't meant to take away from those; nose around your favorite search engine a bit if you're interested.

Another "Bright Spark" Move to Attract Tourists

We do have to wonder sometimes; here's a headline from the Bangkok Post dated May 5th -- though it wasn't online as late as early on the 6th: "Drinkers to pay more ."

I'm assuming the price increase for libations of 1.75 to about 5 baht is a per drink increase, not per bottle, an assumption reinforced by a later reference to "[t]he rising prices are due to the cabinet's decision to raise the alcohol excise tax ranging from 7 to 9%." A further comment says the price for brandy is up 19 baht. Again, I assume that's per drink.

This apparently went into effect at midnight Tuesday night. I went out awhile tonight to the Square, and prices had not increased in either of the two places I visited -- but just hold on; no doubt they will, if this story is correct.

The money, the story says, should amount to about 70 billion baht per year (around US$ 2 billion) and will be used for the government's stimulus package.

While this is an across-the-board increase, not one somehow targeting only foreign tourists, it sure seems to be a move scarcely calculated to draw foreign tourists nor to encourage domestic spending. I read on some discussion thread that the government has lowered the foreign price for admission into places such as government national parks, substantially lowered them -- but I wonder how much of the prdeicted 70 billion baht will be left once the loss from admission-price reductions are calculated into the equation.

Maybe things are getting back to normal. . . . normal according to "the Asian way," that is.

For the great majority of the time I've been out here East of Suez, when business has dropped, the usual reaction has been to jack up prices. And this isn't unique to Thailand: I've seen it in several countries around the region. For instance, one winter in Beijing back in the 1980's I happened to be chatting with the GM of a western hotel downtown, and he was moaning that the hotel had just over a 60% occupancy rate, which was right at the edge of the hotel's break-even point, or so he said. A few days later I saw in the paper that his solution was to jack mid-winter rates from US$60/night to US$90/night!!! Occupancy went through the floor, and he had to lower rates again. And he was a western manager, not a Chinese one. (We get afflicted with all sorts of odd conditions staying Out Here, including ones to do with logic!)

Getting back to increasing the prices on alcoholic beverages, I don't suppose it will have *that* much of an impact -- but whatever impact it might have sure isn't likely to be positive, not from the point of view of people in affected sectors.

Update, Friday, May 8, 2009. 10:20P.M.: Last night I saw a news report on TV's TAN Network (Thai ASEAN News Network, a.k.a. ASTV, the station affiliated with the yellow shirts) saying the increases are going to be even greater than the earlier report indicated. For instance, a large bottle of Leo Beer, a local brew, wil go up from 35 baht to 43 baht (in shops, not bars and restaurants). That's a price hike of a bit over 22.8% -- a pretty whopping one.

Free Tourist Visas Remain Available Awhile Longer

As I understand it -- though I haven't verified this -- you can still get a free tourist visa that's good for 60 days with a one-time renewal of up to 30 days available in-country at the nearest Immigration Police office, though the extension may still cost you 1,900 baht, the usual fee. That works out to roughly US$55.00 at current exchange rates. This is a good move, and it does go some way to offsetting the increase in booze tax -- though the latter will be permanent (count on it), while the former is set to run into the first few days of June. Or that was the time frame I heard in the first place, anyway.

Maybe we're seeing another instance of various sectors working at cross purposes, some wanting to make Thailand more attractive to potential foreign tourists, others wanting said tourists to come, but to fork out more money than before.

Anyway, if you plan to come by, say, early August, it's worth contacting the nearest Thai embassy or consulate to ask about the fee for a tourist visa, as you have some leeway before you actually have to check into the Kingdom. If you wait until the free-visa period expires, well, then, you're just out of luck and will have to pay whatever the charge is in your country.

Meanwhile, the rule limiting validity of so-called "visas on arrival" remains at 15 days -- counting the day you're stamped in -- when you arrive by any form of surface means, though you do still get 30 days if you fly in from any foreign country. Well, I better qualify that; some nationalities get shorter periods, and some aren't eligible at all, but I think everyone likely to be reading this is eligible.

Incidentally, though I've never heard of anyone being asked how much money he has upon entering (nor myself been asked), technically you are supposed to have, let's see, I think -- pretty sure -- a minimum of 20,000 baht (about US$570.00) with you upon entry. But if you want to be extra careful, keep that in mind.

Washington Square News

As has been the case for quite some time now, it remains fairly quiet in these parts.

There is some bad news, another death. Rick Menard, who was George Pipas' unofficial "Son" passed away recently in the U.S. He died in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 16th. I'm not sure how old Rick was, but he wasn't all that that old. He first came to this part of the world in the early 1960's, to Vietnam. He eventually ended up here in Bangkok and had a bar in Patpong.

I wanted to reprint the obituary I received, but I got as an Adobe Acrobat file, and here in Google's blog service, I can't get it to copy-and-paste into place, nor can I insert it as a file. But the above information is the main info the piece contained. R.I.P., Rick. . . .

"Big" Ken from London was here a few days last week, and was, as always, welcome. (Did I report that already? -- well, never mind!). Deano from Australia is in town a few days on his flight layover; his shcedule as a pilot on this route has changed a bit, so he has three full days here this time around. "Whirlybird" Dave has been around some, often in the company of some of the other regulars; not sure when he's off to Libya again. Charlie Brown was up recently from down Pattaya way, and is doing well. He writes quite a few newsletters to the Bangkok Post, usually under the pseudonym "Farang Observer." Ted has been up from Jomtien, taking a break from looking after affairs at the Moonshine -- but it hasn't exactly been a holiday for him, as he's been tending matters at the Silver Dollar. "Crane" Joe is, I suppose, happily parked back in Tuscon, where he owns a home, though I expect he'll be back before all that long. "English" Paul of Texas Lone Staar fame was doing just fine when I last saw him a couple days ago. Taffy's fine; he had a bit of a visa story today. He went with his paperwork, including his marriage licenses -- plural because he and his wife married both here and in Scotland -- to renew his retirement visa, only to learn that *all* the coduments now have to be officially translated into Thai, if they weren't written in the local lingo in the first place. He didn't mind that -- but they gave him a 60-day extension instead of telling him to come back in a few days, and he wants to get it taken care of! Vic, the GM of Regency Park Hotel has been able to hang out at the Square a bit more than usual in recent weeks -- saw him earlier tonight, in fact. (I broke for awhile to go eat.) Haven't seen Nigel lately, but he may be away on business. Burt Nestle was in the other day and called me, but I passed on going to the Square for then. There's a Bangkok VFW meeting this coming Saturday, so I'll see him around the Square after that breaks up.
Unsurprisingly, tourists are exceptional around the Square these days; heck, they are even in high season. Never have quite understood why some of the travel heavyweights completely ignore Washington Square-Queen's Park Plaza. However, not all Squaronians object to being off the radar, not at all. . . .
By the way, today (it's now Friday evening) is Visakha Puja Day, often called in English, simply, "Buddha Day."
This is a biggie. Celebrated on the date of the full Moon in May, it is said to be the date of the Lord Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death all three. This is a religious day that sees the number of devotees visiting wats (Buddhist temples) soar.
The day is one that many places close, either voluntarily (devout Buddhists), police order, or on the principle of a banking holiday. I made a quick foray to the Square, and virtually every place was closed.
For your information, here's a list of Thai holidays for the rest of the year that I got from the Internet:
July 1 (Wednesday) – Mid-year Closing (Bank Holiday but not a public holiday)July 7 (Tuesday) – Asahna Bucha Day
August 12 (Wednesday) – H.M. Queen’s Birthday
October 23 (Friday) – Chulalongkorn Day (Rama V Day)
December 7 (Monday) – Substitution day for H.M. King’s Birthday (which is on Saturday, December 5)December 10 (Thursday) – Constitution Day
December 31 (Thursday) – New Year’s Eve
* * * * * * * * * *
Enough for now . . .
Mekhong Kurt


RICK said...

Hi Kurt, your praising the unworthy. The show you should be blogging about is American Idol. The Elvis of the 21st century is about to be crowned. He's a phenomenon! Adam will be by far the best rock and roll star ever. This fat, old, ugly woman has no commercial worth at all and will fizzle and die out soon.Other than that it's 42 degrees here in India!Have fun!!

Mike said...

Kurt: you provide the best information to be had about Washington Square. Thanks for your work.

Changnoi said...

Thanks Kurt for the public holiday dates, they come in handy when planning trips to the Kingdom. Sometimes gets a bit boring if in BKK and the powers to be decide to close the bars.