Counterfeit

 

 

In a city of knock-offs and fake designer gear, David Whitley discovers what the anti-counterfeiting operation is up to

 

A stroll down Thalan Silom and through the Patpong Night Bazaar reveals a cavalcade of blatantly obvious fakery. It’s a world of dodgy D&G belts, fraudulent Facebook flip-flops, blagged bags and rip-off replica kits. Obviously photocopied DVD covers sit in plastic, waiting for a recently burned blank disc to be slid inside; watches are Swiss in the Swiss Toni sense of the word and the Oakley sunglasses probably offer all the sun protection of rubbing lard all over your eyeballs. It’s even possible to buy an unlicensed 7-Eleven t-shirt, should you wish to show your allegiance to your favourite convenience store without being loyal enough to it to buy the genuine merchandise.

 

For connoisseurs of Ralph Laurain’t, Phooey Vuitton and Hello Shitty, this must be some kind of paradise. Personally, I don’t get it. If the point of being clad in Versace, Rolex and Jimmy Choo is the quality, then you’re not getting the quality. If the point is to walk around showing labels off to people, then getting faked versions of those labels will only serve to make you even more of a phenomenal arsehole.

 

Thais tend to have an enterprisingly liberal approach to intellectual property law. Counterfeiting is often seen as fair game, much to the disgust of multinational corporations that rather like making lots and lots of money from selling expensive things.

 

Elsewhere in Bangkok, it’s possible to get a glimpse into the fight against just about everything on the Patpong Night Bazaar.

 

In the south of the city lies the Supalai Grand office tower. It is the home to Tilleke and Gibbins, a law firm specialising in international property on the behalf of numerous corporate clients around the world. If you ask them nicely (it’s best to set up an appointment at least a day in advance), they’ll show you around their carefully acquired Museum of Counterfeit Goods.

 

There’s quite a collection, with some of it amusing and some of it deadly serious. The huge wall of T-shirts is the immediate attention-grabber. All are labelled with an F for fake or G for Genuine, and the two different approaches become immediately apparent. Some are attempts to pass off copies as the genuine article – such as the knock-off football kits – while others are trying to cash in on well-known brands. There is, for example, a shirt with a Ralph Lauren-esque crocodile on the front going under the world famous “Chemise Lizzard” brand.

 

Moving on, there are attempts to show how best to identify the fakes. In the shoes section, for example, the illegal imitations from Vietnam are obvious from the cheap glue used to stick them together.

 

Elsewhere, the fakes are hilariously poor. The ‘Tamborine’ version of Toblerone looks like it has been wrapped in coloured-in A4 paper. Others are perplexingly pointless. Why would anyone go to the bother of creating fake Staedtler pencils, for instance?

 

But the more serious side of things raises involuntary chills. One case is full of fake medicines – heaven only knows what’s inside them – and the cheap and nasty phone batteries could lead to some very unpleasant incidents.

 

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is how these counterfeits come to be in the museum. I’m told that the companies being ripped off ask Tilleke and Gibbins to keep an eye on the people infringing their copyrights. Thus, when the rip-offs are spotted, they’re bought as proof. The most reliable customers of these counterfeit goods, therefore, are the very companies who want to get rid of the counterfeits.

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. It’s a good option in the Silom area.

 

Private transport

 

 

When time is more important than money, David Whitley reckons private taxi transfers are worth looking at in Thailand 

 

Sometimes the cheap, authentic option is not the best option. Whilst putting the plan for our Thailand trip together, there was one major snag: How to get from place to place.

 


From Bangkok to Hua Hin, it seemed obvious – get the train. So we booked train tickets online. Unfortunately, the trains didn’t fit in all that well with our flights. So we had to get into Bangkok, stay a night, then get a taxi to Bangkok’s main station before getting a train at 1pm the next day. By the time we were in Hua Hin, it was dark and we’d effectively wasted a whole day.

 


Whilst in Hua Hin, of course, we saw numerous signs for transfers to Bangkok airport. We could have landed at Bangkok airport, been transferred from outside the terminal to our hotel in Hua Hin and arrived late on the evening of arrival. It would have been a two-and-a-half to three hour transfer, and would have cost less than £60.

 


If ever you need an example of why doing things the cheap, authentic way isn’t always best, this is it. Sure, the train fares didn’t cost much, but the taxi fares (from the airport to the Bangkok hotel, from the hotel to the train station and from Hua Hin station to the Hua Hin hotel) mounted up.

 


Sometimes it’s not about money, though – it’s about time. Sure, if you’re travelling around Thailand for a few months, then ruling a day out for getting between places is fine. But if you’re on holiday for a couple of weeks, the time becomes more precious than the cash.

 


By the time we were in Hua Hin, I’d learned my lesson. Getting to the next stop – Kanchanaburi – was always going to be a pain in the arse. Delving into the murky forums of the internet, it seemed a train, then changing to a bus, was the best option. Not much fun when you’re carrying two people’s bags and suitcases. Even less fun when you consider how absurdly unreliable the timetables are.

 


So I asked at the hotel how much a taxi transfer from door to door would be – and the answer was 2,500 baht. That’s just over £50, but without any of the faff.

 


Sure, doing it the long way would have worked out cheaper (probably around 1,000 baht with bus tickets, train tickets and taxis from the station thrown in), but it would have taken all day. We were there within three hours and had the afternoon available for exploring.

 


Read a guide book, however, and you wouldn’t know this option was available. The Lonely Planet Thailand guide brings out many of Lonely Planet’s worst tendencies – banging on about temple after temple yet ignoring anything that could possibly be deemed fun, giving scant details about day tour options – and omitting the taxi transfer options is hugely annoying. It’s just assuming that everyone will put money ahead of time.

 


Kanchanaburi to Ayutthaya would have been another two train, two taxi slog. We walked into a travel agent in Kanchanaburi, and booked one for 1,800 baht.  That’s just under £40 for a two-and-a-half hour door-to-door drive. Again, it’s an afternoon gained – well worth the extra £10ish each we would have saved going by public transport.

 

This option isn’t best for everyone, of course, but it’s worth knowing that it’s there for those who want to enjoy A and B rather than waste hours getting between them.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

Transport

 

 

From Bangkok cabbies to intercity buses – David Whitley presents a brief guide to transport in Thailand

 

Taxis from Bangkok Airport

Many cities in the world are relatively easy and pain-free to get around. Bangkok is not one of them. Jump in a cab from the airport, and you’ll soon discover why. An expressway takes you most of the way into the city, but the first two hurdles come as you’re on it. It’s a tollway, and the passenger is expected to pay the toll – not at the end of the ride when it’s all totted up, but directly as the taxi is going through the toll booth.  There are also two different toll booths. The first is for 25 baht (about 50p) and the second for 45 baht (90p). The two sums seem carefully calculated to be the ones you’re least likely to have the exact change for. This is the first instance of why, in Bangkok, you should forget any quibbles about soulless chain stores and make friends with the 7-Eleven. There are approximately seven billion of them in Bangkok, and they’re one of the few places where you can hand over 1,000 baht notes without all manner of gnashing and wailing. There’s one at arrivals in the airport – buying a bottle of water and breaking down the big note is probably going to save you an awful lot of pain. A taxi into the city will probably cost between 250 and 350 baht, depending on where you’re going. But the problems come once you’re off that expressway. Bangkok’s traffic is horrendous – it’s absolutely essential to have a good book with you before hailing a taxi, you’re probably going to be in there for some time.

Bangkok taxi drivers
It’s a good job they’re cheap – you’ll rarely pay more than 100 baht for any journey between the main areas – as they go incredibly slowly and the people driving them are often hopeless. Having the name and address of your hotel/ guesthouse written down in Thai is a good idea. That doesn’t mean they’ll know how to get you there. Bangkok taxi drivers don’t seem to consider A) buying a map or B) learning how to read one as a part of their task. To be fair, you’d probably struggle to read a Thai language map as well – they struggle to read an English language one in the same way. It’s a fine tradition that the first five minutes of the running meter are spent stationary, trying to work out where you’re going. Oh yes – and always make sure the meter is on.

Public transport in Bangkok
The alternative is public transport. There’s a direct train link from the airport that goes to two stations in town. There are also a Metro and two elevated ‘Skytrain’ lines. The first problem is that they rarely connect. Unless the place you want to go to is on your line, it’s a bit of a ballache – especially if switching from Metro to Skytrain and having to buy another ticket for the second leg of the journey. Fares tend to be about a third of the price of what a taxi would cost on the same journey. The real saving is on time not on money. The other massive problem, however, is that the train lines don’t cover the massive chunks of the city that visitors tend to want to go to. The riverside, Wat Phra Kaew, Dusit Park and the Khao San Road are a big hike away from the nearest Metro and Skytrain stations. So you’re back in the traffic in that taxi again…

Elsewhere in Thailand
If you’re going elsewhere in Thailand, it’s likely to be by bus or train. The trains are hardly Orient Express standard, but they’re decently comfortable and absurdly cheap by British standards. Sleeper services head to the corners of the country. The alternative is buses. Most are surprisingly good and ridiculously cheap – they feel more like coaches. The drawback is that the buses and trains usually depart from stations that are massively inconvenient to get to and from. They’re usually on the outskirts of town – far too far to walk. And, if you’re planning to connect from one to the other, the bus stations and train stations are rarely anywhere near each other. In this case (and for most intra-town transport), you’ll usually need to get a shared taxi that will pick up and drop off passengers en route to where you’re going. In most cases, these are essentially vans with long benches. 50 baht seems to be a suspiciously common fare in these babies.  The rule of thumb with transport in Thailand is it’ll be cheap, but you’ll have to sacrifice some time for the privilege. Nothing goes quickly – but don’t cram you’re schedule too much, and it’ll get you there in the end.

Opium

 



David Whitley learns the history of heroin in northern Thailand, but finds that you’re more likely to find tea than opium in the infamous Golden Triangle 

Once upon a time, the hillsides of northern Chiang Rai province were a happy blooming ground for a particularly troublesome flower. The region, reasonably remote and close to the borders with both Myanmar and Laos, was where opium poppies grew with scarcely concealed abandon.

The region became known as the Golden Triangle, and the name has stuck. So has the reputation, even though its one time role as the hub of the global heroin trade has long passed on to Afghanistan.

It might not be the best place to stash up on high grade smack (and resultingly find yourself facing a death sentence in a Thai jail) any more, but it is a fabulous place to learn about the global heroin trade.

There are a couple of attractions in Sop Ruak that are devoted to all things opium, but my education came from a surprising source. The Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre in Chiang Rai is aimed at educated visitors about the hill tribes that live in Northern Thailand. There are problems with language barriers, assimilation, lack of Thai citizenship and education but one of the major issues has been getting enough money to stay out of poverty. In the Golden Triangle’s boom years, a lot of that money came from growing opium poppies.

The history of opium is a colourful, bloody one. The poppy originates in what is now Iraq, and has spread throughout the world from there in the hands of people who realised how nice and woozy the sap from it made them feel. Britain and China fought wars over opium, with Britain being utterly aggrieved that the Chinese wouldn’t let its India-based front company make obscene amounts of money by flooding China with the stuff. China lost those wars – and Britain got Hong Kong as a result.

It all ratcheted up somewhat in 1895, when German pharmaceutical company Bayer had a play with the poppy juice in the chemistry lab. They came up with a version of diacetylmorphine, which they decided to market. Bingo, they thought – a non-addictive alternative to morphine that people could use to treat nasty coughs. Bayer lost the rights to the brand name after World War I – it was a name that may be familiar. Heroin, anyone?

It turned out that it wasn’t quite as non-addictive as first thought. In fact, it was so more-ish that as countries around the world banned it, a lucrative trade emerged in satiating the demand of addicts.

But soon it was the turn of the French and the Americans to take on the epic bastardry baton from the British. Despite being occupied during World War II, the French had enough time to worry about blocked trade routes. They didn’t want India and Persia to have a monopoly on opium production, so they encouraged the Hmong tribal people in the Golden Triangle to bump up production.

Then came the Vietnam War. The French and Americans needed all the allies they could get in the region. With Laos, Vietnam and China all a bit too Communist for their liking, they started forming alliances with tribes. And arming the drug lords who didn’t particularly like the anti-opium Red menaces around them either. Essentially operating under protection, these not entirely pleasant types ensured production boomed. A flood of heroin arrived in the West, gleefully lapped up by US in particular.

A lot of opium is still grown in Myanmar’s chunk of the Golden Triangle, but it has been mostly eradicated in Thailand – partially due to Thai government crackdowns on drug use. In 2003 alone, Thailand imprisoned 92,500 drug users and 43,000 dealers.

But it’s also partly due to eradication programmes. Laos and Thailand have both declared themselves officially poppy free (although not exactly every corner has been thoroughly inspected, and there’s still a steady trickle coming through the mountains in Myanmar).

So where does this leave the people of the area? Well, nowadays you’re more likely to sea tea plantations in these hillsides. Other substitution crops range from rice and coffee to peach trees and asparagus. And tourism plays a part too – the more people that go trekking around the hillsides of Chiang Rai province, stopping to buy food and drink in the villages, the less likely the villagers are to indulge in a spot of highly risky poppy-planting.

In Thailand’s sector of the Golden Triangle, at least, the heroin problem has been dramatically reduced. But it’s like pushing a dead mouse under the carpet to another part of the room. While the growth of opium poppies remains so lucrative – largely due to it being illegal – someone will grow them. We should look forward to trekking tours around the tea plantations of Helmand and Kandahar in about forty years’ time, while the opium-growing shifts to the world’s latest lawless basket case.

Chiang Rai

 

 

Just south of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, David Whitley finds a temple where Spiderman, Darth Vader and Harry Potter compete with Buddha

 

 

Ego is a wondrous concoction. It drives us all to do absurd things occasionally, whether it’s taking on a tequila stuntman, or invading Russia during World War II when up until that moment you were winning handsomely.

 

It may also drive you to pour all your time and resources into the construction of a ludicrously over-the-top-temple that features images of Kung Fu Panda and an Angry Bird. Now I’m not suggesting for a second that Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat is entirely driven by an ego the size of the rapidly expanding universe, but Wat Rong Khun is, ahem, somewhat expressive.

 

Known to most as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is astonishing project. Kicking off in 1997, Chalermchai has poured large amounts of his own money – and some cannily acquisitioned donations – into making a temple that doesn’t follow the usual rules.

 

The prolific dauber is building a modern day temple that’s as much a personal artistic expression as a place of worship. From a distance it looks like it’s made entirely of wedding case icing, decorated with the pernickety touch of someone who believes you can never have too many serifs in a font. It’s a departure from the usual gold-heavy colour riot of Buddhist temples – apparently Chalermchai believes that “gold is suitable to people who lust for evil deeds.”

 

This anti-gold thing doesn’t apply to the public toilets on the site. They are given pride of place, lavished with the sort of ostentation and blinginess usually reserved for the main attraction. It is designed to be the world’s most beautiful toilet*.

 

There are many buildings on the site – Chalermchai seems incapable of finishing one before starting another – but the main one is accessed via a bridge that crosses a pseudo-moat of grasping hands. Some are reaching up with bowls, others hold skulls. It looks suitably hellish.

 

Whilst crossing, you realise that the big wedding cake is actually made of whitewash and reflective glass. But such illusion-shattering doesn’t detract from the barmy majesty of the inner sanctum. It’s still being painted – the whole project is due to last 90 years and Chalermchai has roped in scores of disciples to help him finish it – but subdued it isn’t.

 

The overall theme is clear. There’s a giant, multi-tentacled devil on the back wall, while the side walls depict people floating away on clouds towards the multiple, and impressively stacked Buddhas at the front. But it’s the detail that is quite, quite wonderful. Seemingly at random, the artist has painted in all manner of pop culture references. There’s Spiderman, there’s Harry Potter, there’s Keanu Reeves in his Matrix get-up and there’s Michael Jackson moonwalking on a demon’s forked tongue. Elsewhere, Darth Vader, the Incredible Hulk and Jack Sparrow get a look in. The giant devil’s eyes, meanwhile, have George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden in the middle of them.

 

This may all seem brilliantly, gaudily ludicrous right now, but I’m not sure it is. It’s rare to see such a massive religious building being built contemporaneously. That’s why it seems silly to have contemporary references in it – they seem out of context. But look at the Pyramids, look at Angkor Wat and look at the sculptures and engravings in many cathedrals. They all tell stories – stories of what was either happening at the time or in the not too distant past. Chalermchai Kositpipat his just trying to do what people around the world with big ideas did hundreds of years ago. And when the silly and spectacular come in equal measures, he may just have got it right.

 

*Incidentally, it’s rather bland inside, despite the golden frippery hanging from the roof beams..