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Aggro Veg

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

The vegetation around here is the most aggressive I have yet experienced. I’m being dive-bombed by giant leaves and hard fruit. OK, the latter may be aided by birds or squirrels, but it’s only a question of time until a coconut falls on my head…

“Tuk-Tuk only 30 baht!”

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

In Bangkok, a lot of people want to talk to you. They may be genuinely interested in where you come from, whether you support Manchester United (or Everton) and what you think about Thailand. They may want to practice their English or are simply proud of their country and want to point out the sights on your map.

Infamous Bangkok Tuktuk

However chances are that the person you are talking to is not a nurse or teacher as they claim, but a scammer.

You can pretty much tell from the moment they start drawing circles on your map, but if they continue to outline the route and make claims such as “Grand Palace close until afternoon” or “white temple open today only. One day, one year. Close at eleven, so hurry!”—all meant to throw you off your track—you’re about to fall for the infamous tuk-tuk scam.

Let’s be clear here: a tuk-tuk ride never costs less than around 50 baht and one tuk-tuk driver who was not actually interested in scamming me (he was waiting outside an upmarket hotel) said that metered taxis are cheaper. There is no government-subsidised scheme for tuk-tuk drivers to show tourists around on the cheap, and government-licenced drivers are in on the scam.

I knew all that, but what I didn’t know is that the operation has expanded considerably and that the tactics have changed. Back on my first visit, it was just the tuk-tuk drivers yelling their ridiculously cheap fares at me. Now it’s the guy who talked to us on the street corner, his friend the English teacher, the nurse from Chiang Mai who invited us inside a temple and talked about her weekend visit to Bangkok, and the tuk-tuk drivers. It’s put me off talking to people.

That’s a real shame because we have met a number of genuinely nice people who really were on a weekend visit to Bangkok or worked at the National Museum and wanted to recommend Thailand’s cultural treasures to us.

Here is what I don’t get. If the person drawing the itinerary onto a fresh copy of my tourist map had said: “hire tuk-tuk half day. Only 300 baht”, I would probably have taken them up on it because 300 baht is just enough for me to think that the offer is genuine. Not only would they get the money, they’d still have an opportunity to scam us at the end!

We have arrived…

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

…as you can tell from the picture. No sooner did we get here that the heavens opened.
Streetsellers Seeking Shelter
When I’m travelling with John, I don’t write as much (particularly when I’m in a non-smoking internet café with a dodgy keyboard) so expect updates to be a little sparse. If I get less lazy, I’ll compose proper updates on my Asus.

On Monday we’re off to Kho Tao for beaches, bars and bubbles!

Almost Time!

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Traffic Chaos

But if this weather continues, we may yet be stranded here 🙁

In the meantime, this is an excellent resource if you have questions about Thailand. I’ve remembered correctly: Thai sockets will take both US and standard European (mainland) plugs. Yeah!


Friday, December 18th, 2009

I’m looking forward to this trip because I missed Thailand the first time around.

Not ‘missed’ as in passing it by on a tour of SE Asia, but missed as in driving straight through it, with an unscheduled monsoon chasing me from one place to the next until I arrived in Malaysia (and the sun came out).

Now the skies look clear. And for the past week or so, John has immersed himself in preparations for diving instead of his work. He can hardly wait either 😉

Travel Money: Cash Is King!

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Three Kinds of Dollars

Traveller cheques carry favourable rates, but they are usually subject to duty and commission as well as lengthy verification. They are being replaced by ATM cards in the wallets of most travellers because ATM cards are (almost) as good as cash, aren’t they?

Well, no.

Following on from yesterday’s post about caveats associated with taking plastic—and also from my on-going frustrations when dealing with card purchases or withdrawals both online and abroad—I’ve taken some time to consider taking cold, hard cash instead.

Taking currency along carries the most risk, but it may be well worth it from an economic point of view. Exchange rates are often better in the country of travel.

The exchange rates for the Thai Baht on 16/12/2009 were 53.452 to GBP, 32.893 to USD and 48.023 to EUR (you may have to scroll for the date). The weighted average interbank exchange rate was 33.134 Baht to the US Dollar, and online converters gave 54.38 Baht to the Pound and 48.360 to the Euro. For both the USD and EUR, the Bank of Thailand rate was about 0.7% below the interbank rate, but for Pound Sterling it was 1.7%. The Pound appears more variable than either Euro or Dollars. So, I figured that it pays to shop around.

Here are some numbers (for 16/12/2009):

The Bank of Ayudhya offered 53.110 Baht for GBP, 32.74 (exchanges of 50-100) for USD, and 47.660 for EUR,
The Siam Commercial Bank offered 52.998 GBP, 32.79 (50-100) USD, and 47.600 EUR.
Kasikorn offered 52.787 GBP, 32.79 (50-100) USD, and 47.611 EUR
There isn’t much between them: 0.6% in case of Sterling. Maybe worth it for large transactions.

(Of course, now that I’ve chased the numbers, I found the comparison table 😉 There doesn’t seem to be any more variability between the Sterling rates than between USD/EUR. It depends on the bank.)

My card provider states that they have a fixed exchange rate at 2.5% below the interbank rate, but I’ll have to take this with a pinch of salt because it isn’t at all clear what they mean by ‘interbank rate’, which may apply only to USD and EUR. And here is how much worse the figures are for the UK (where my card provider is based):

On 16/12/09, the UK exchange rates for the Thai Baht were 50.931 (ICE), 50.746 (Fair FX), and 50.608 (Post Office)—the difference was only about 0.6%, despite the considerable variation between these providers when it comes to Euros and Dollars. Fair FX is rated as the best travel card provider in terms of exchange rates, and its rate differs from the conversion rate (which I take is be based on the interbank rate) by a whopping 5.8% and from the official Bank of Thailand rate by 5%.

Five per cent! That doesn’t just pay for dinner, that pays for a couple of dives!

So, if the ATM offers me an exchange rate in the region of 52 Baht to the Pound, I should go with it, and not the rate offered by my provider. Many sites and forums advise not to buy Baht outside Thailand, and if I accept my provider’s rates, I effectively buy Baht outside Thailand.

Of course, when it comes to timing, changing money is always a bit of a gamble. I’ve watched the fluctuations of Euros, Dollars and Sterling for the past year, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a good time when to buy or sell. Overall, I do not expect sudden fluctuations in these major currencies, but it is possible that either of them may slump or that the Baht will be radically devalued (there are rumours). Here, cash has another advantage where no commission is payable: change little and often. This philosophy may be reflected in the different exchange rates offered by Thai banks for smaller amounts of US Dollars (1, 5-20, and 50-100), which can differ by around 2.5% between highest and lowest.

[EDIT: The (Caxton) cash card may just be king after all, if I have not misunderstood the statement. By my calculations, they offered an exchange rate of 54.292 on 04/01/2010, against the Siam City Bank’s 52.61. Just bear in mind the 150 baht ATM tax. There are no other fees payable.]

Travel Money: Fees, Commission, And Hidden Costs >:(

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Travel Money

After jumping through many hoops (because we’re not on the polling database yet—I had no idea that registration is linked to credit rating, but it is now), we’re finally about to receive our travel currency cards. Caxton FX have a reasonable, commission-free service (although the exchange rates may not be the most favourable) and do not charge ATM fees when used abroad.

But no sooner did I rejoice than I found out that the Thai government is imposing a whooping 150 Baht (3 quid) fee on all foreign card ATM withdrawals.

From what I’m reading right now, the Government Savings Bank may impose a lower fee, but there are many hidden costs in addition to that. So when it comes to travel money, it pays to pay attention. Here’s a list of what to look out for when shopping for a travel card:

Is there an application/card fee? A lot of operators charge, usually in the region of 10 quid. Look out for free promotions.

Is there a fee for topping up? Incredible though it sounds, there often is. The Post Office deserves special mention for charging commission on loading the card with sterling because it’s managed by the Bank of Ireland, which uses Euros.

Is there a monthly fee? This quickly went out of fashion when comparison sites became prominent, but some operators still charge for cards that haven’t been used in a while.

Is there an ATM withdrawal fee? There usually is. Here’s where Caxton FX wins out over Fair FX, and their exchange rate is still better than that of many banks.

Is there a commission? This can be as high as 2.75%!

What is the exchange rate? See above. The Post Office is pretty dismal. As if this isn’t bad enough, there is a new ruse called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC), in which you will be offered to pay in sterling rather than the local currency. The exchange rate will then be ramped up by the local bank/retailer. If you want to take advantage of the favourable exchange rate provided by your card operator, always pay in the local currency. [EDIT: these days customers are often asked whether they want to accept a given exchange rate instead. Always decline!]
[EDIT: revise this and reserve judgement: exchange rates for Thai Baht quoted in the UK are typically 5% lower than those quoted in Thailand! See next post]

A good overview can be found here.

In summary: in addition to card application/management fees, a 100-quid-equivalent ATM withdrawal can cost you:

  • A couple of quid on a bad exchange rate*,
  • £2.75 commission
  • £1.50 bank ATM charge
  • £ 3.00 (ca.) government charge
    *(There is some confusion here. Caxton says their rates are fixed at 2.5% Interbank rate, but there is a listed foreign exchange fee of 2.5% on some sites. Does this apply to the exchange rate @ 2.5% below Interbank or is this an additional fee?)

—In short, enough to pay for a room, perhaps with dinner thrown in.

The 150 baht would still buy dinner for two, though >:(

Tickets booked (again)!

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

But this time I’m not going alone!

Black Marlin

We leave for Bangkok on Christmas Eve, with Thai Airways (yay!). Back January 20th, which should give John time to sort out his interviews.

Now I have to sort out the diving…

On Yer Bike!

Sunday, December 6th, 2009


Since the cat has gone, there is an absence in the house. Neither of us wanted to stay, so we threw some stuff together and went to visit my sister in Wales.

John has been felled by the flu, so the bikes had to stay in the garage. For the past two evenings we’ve been sitting by the fire, watching motorcycle DVDs while the wind howled outside and the rain lashed against the windows. I think my sis and her husband are gearing up for the big one. I mean, that Scotland trip in the summer, an up-coming trip to Spain and two successive evenings of watching DVDs about planning a bike trip around the world?

The time for it has never been better. Bikers are now where backpackers were twenty years ago, yet they have all the resources at hand and there is plenty of precedent. But go now. Don’t delay until the movement gets so big that hordes of bikers swarm down every dirt road, shattering the peace. Even the challenging routes are getting old. Imagine having to queue to get through the Darièn Gap. I’ve seen it happen with diving.

That’s not the worst. Whereas insurers have relaxed about diving and gap year travel, they are likely to harden their stance when it comes to biking. Nobody in their right mind would offer standard cover for this kind of travel once it becomes common, given the high percentage of riders who need repatriation after having accidents (and taking it for granted!). It’s already hard for somebody of my age to find insurance. If I want a reputable company to cover me for longer than 90 days, I have to shop around carefully (there are plenty of companies who are happy to take my money but leave me high and dry when it matters!). Add biking to the equation and within a few years from now—if not sooner—you can forget it, even if you’re prepared to pay ten times the premium.

So go now. Don’t delay.

Don’t Do Anything Hasty

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Like booking a three months trip to Thailand just before depression strikes.

What was I thinking?