Newsletter–February 1, 2010

February 1, 2010

Thoughts about Thailand

There is no baseball in Thailand, and there is no social safety net either.

Well, that’s not entirely true, I did see the movie Bull Durham on TV the other day, and Pa tells me that when one reaches the age of 60, the government does provide a monthly allowance of 500 Baht.

500 Baht, that’s about US$15 at current exchange rates, enough to buy four roasted chickens in the marketplace or 6 modest restaurant meals. The most frugal Thai might be able to manage to stretch that out to provide a week’s worth of meals at home. But food here is among the cheapest of things one requires to live. Rent on a basic apartment will cost many thousands of baht, a used motorbike will cost upwards of 12,000, and a gallon of gasoline (petrol) costs about 120 baht.

Medical and dental care here are cheap by western standards but everyone must pay for it; there are no government supported programs like Medicare or Medicaid. Everyone here is, by necessity, an entrepreneur, even if that means selling a few trinkets on the street. Tourism and transfer payments from people in western countries support a very large portion of the economy, especially in the cities.

While most Thais struggle to make it, Westerners find living here to be very cheap because we continue to enjoy favorable currency exchange rates (the reasons for that make for a long story). A small pension that may be inadequate for living in the United States can and does provide a comfortable lifestyle in Thailand. Chiang Mai is a good location. It’s a fair sized city and has lots of good features–reasonably priced guest houses and apartments, good food, interesting attractions, lively markets, and a number of good used bookstores. I recently had some dental work–two fillings and my teeth cleaned (by the dentist himself, not an assistant) for the equivalent of $50 total. My very comfortable lodging, complete with A/C, cable TV and Wi-Fi internet costs less than $400 a month, and decent accommodations can be found here for much less than that depending on location and amenities. Longer term rentals are even cheaper. There is no need to have a car unless one wants to take excursions outside the city. Songtaos and tuk tuks provide frequent and cheap transport anywhere in or around the city.

Thailand is the land of mega-Wats. Wat means “temple” and there are plenty of them. I thought I had become jaded to them, but recently I’ve seen a few that inspire awe. One of these is the “white temple” up near Chiang Rai, and the other day Pa showed me two others very close to my place that are truly amazing. The ornate detail and extent of the hammered aluminum artwork in these latter two is suggestive of the level of ecclesiastical devotion that prevailed during the European gothic period.

Activities

When the living is easy, one can get pretty lazy and complacent. I still spend a lot of my time working but at a more leisurely pace than last year, which was pretty intense with the book launch and speaking tour. Trying to keep up with email correspondence and responding to requests for advice and information constitute a major chore, but I’m trying to guide a few important projects that are moving ahead in various places. I’ve also been making frequent posts to my blogs. Recent additions to Beyondmoney.net include, Identification and Tracking in the Brave New World–RFID Chips and You, and, The Real Meaning of the Wizard of Oz.

The presentations I made in North America during the last part of 2009 are now mostly posted. The one I gave at the Economics of Peace Conference in California is available in four parts at http://vimeo.com/channels/theeconomicsofpeace/page:4.

Fortunately, a volunteer has come forward with an offer to translate my presentations into Spanish. Translations of two presentations have already been completed and others are in process. These are being posted at http://beyondmoney.net/ under the sidebar heading, En español.

My other blog, Tom’s News and Views (https://tomazgreco.wordpress.com/) features a new item on the hazards of cell phone radiation and another by Col. Bob Bowman on free speech and popular government.

Since my work involves a lot of reading, I don’t normally read for recreation, but when I’m traveling I’m sometimes inclined to pick up a novel. Most guesthouses have a small library of books that have been left behind by guests. On this trip I’ve discovered a couple popular British fiction writers. While staying in Bangkok I picked up Black and Blue, one of the Inspector Rebus mysteries by Ian Rankin, which I enjoyed immensely. That induced me to read still another of that series, the name of which I’ve now forgotten. The other author is Bernard Cornwell, whose book, Sharpe’s Tiger provides some interesting historical perspective on late eighteenth century India.

In addition, Axel Aylwen’s, The Falcon of Siam, is a rather engaging story that provides a glimpse into what Thailand was like more than 300 years ago when the various European powers were competing for dominance and seeking to exploit the treasures of Asia.

More Blatant Bank Abuses

With the contraction of bank lending to the private sector and the consequent reduction in their interest earnings on mortgages and business loans, the members of the banking cartel have found other ways to exploit the public. Overdraft fees, late payment fees, penalties, and interest rate hikes on credit card debt are among the most celebrated abuses that have even stirred Congress to investigate (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/20/AR2009092002879.html).

I use a credit card as a matter of convenience but I typically pay in full the balance due each month to avoid paying interest and other bank charges, but last November, I made an exception and paid only a portion of the statement balance. I expected to pay interest the following month on the remaining amount, which I did. The next month I paid the full balance thinking that there would be no further interest charges, but when I got my January bill there was a charge for interest on new purchases made in the subsequent period. To make matter worse, there was also a charge for a “foreign transaction fee.” I disputed both charges, first by phone then by email, all to no avail. My telephone complaint was answered by a man with a heavy Indian accent. I could just image him sitting in some crowded call center in Bangalore or Mumbai, or more likely some low rent backwater in rural India. His English was reasonably comprehensible but I still could not understand the reasons for these charges. I thought perhaps it might be because of deficiencies in his vocabulary, but the written relies to my later emails did not make much sense to me either.

The foreign transaction fee I’m told was associated with the purchase of my airline ticket from San Francisco to Asia on EVA Air, a Taiwanese air carrier. This still puzzles me. I had booked the flight online while I was still in the US and I paid for the ticket (I thought) in US dollars. I’ve made similar purchases in the past on “foreign” airlines like British Airways, Air France, and Malaysia Airlines and never been charged such a fee. Does that mean that henceforth any purchase made from a foreign company will incur a “foreign transaction fee?” Apparently it does. Buyers beware!

The Thai banks are no better. When I was here last year, it cost, at most, 20 baht to use an ATM to draw cash from my account at home, and at a couple banks it was free. This year they all are charging the same outrageous 150 baht ($5) for each withdrawal. By way of adjustment I’ve had to start drawing larger amounts of cash each time to keep from being raped.

Another change I’ve noted since last year is a further increase in the already excessive number of massage studios. This includes a proliferation of fish spas. I had seen a couple of these in Malaysia but none in Chiang Mai. Now they seem to have cropped up all over town like mushrooms after the rain. A fish spa is a place where you can immerse your feet (or hands) in a tank of water and have a school of small fish nibble away the dead skin.

If you’re interested, you can see more of my pictures from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Jum, and other parts of Thailand at my online Photo Gallery, http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg.

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BTW, I’ve joined Twitter and will be using it to alert my followers to new posts on my blogs and websites. My twitter name is tomazgreco. To follow me go to twitter and sign up.

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