Monday, June 30, 2008

Thailand on a shoe-string budget

Zalina Mohd Som (story and pictures)

RM1,000. Eight days by road from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It was definitely a challenge in more ways than one. With so little money and so much shopping to do, how did ZALINA MOHD SOM fare?

Tuk-tuk ride.
Tuk-tuk ride.
Shopping for hand-made tribal garment at Chiang Rai night bazaar.
Shopping for hand-made tribal garment at Chiang Rai night bazaar.
mainpix

TRAVELLING in Thailand has been described as “living off a tenner a day for the experience of a lifetime”.

The Land of Smiles has long been described as one of the coolest places on earth for those travelling on a tight budget.

It’s such a cheap and good value destination that many travellers from all around the globe – mostly backpackers and independent travellers — extend their stay from their initial plans.

Most backpackers make their way to Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road, known worldwide as an independent traveller’s ghetto for those with an adventurous, unrestricted travelling style.

However, adventurous women with a penchant for a little indulgence and comfort may prefer Her Own Way, a women-only tourism campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The Challenge

After a successful backpacking trip to Hongkong last year, my two girlfriends and I took on the challenge of eight days in Thailand, on a budget of RM1,000 each.

What we had on hand were confirmed flight tickets, booked six months ahead to allow us time to plan the itinerary between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. With our budget in mind, we would only stay a night in each town, in hotels where rooms cost no more than RM100 per night. We would also use the cheapest transportation available and at every possible opportunity, divide the costs equally among us.

Planning The Trip

We started our planning with the help of the Internet and consulting a Thai friend for ideas on possible stopovers. Then, with a tentative itinerary laid out, we went to the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s KL office in Menara Citibank to check if our plans and budget would work.

One of the staff told us: “RM1,000 may be a little bit tight as transportation will take the big bulk of your budget.” But we were adamant. We would stick to our initial plan and see how far we could go. From Bangkok, we would go to Chiang Rai and cover the north-eastern towns of Mae Sai, Mae Hong Son, Pai and finally, Chiang Mai.

One Night In Bangkok

Bangkok was easy to get around, so easy that it failed to leave much of an impression. The only things we remembered fondly were the Suk 11 Hostel where we spent 1,100 baht (RM110) on a triple-sharing room and the efficient public transport systems which included the BTS Skytrain, MRT Subway and the metered taxi.

We didn’t shop in Bangkok as we wanted to save our money for better shopping in Chiang Mai. However, we spent a lot of time in the Pratunam shopping area, covering the floors of Platinum Plaza and Pratunam Centre, both wholesale garment centres.

By the time we finished window shopping, our legs threatened to give way. We sighed with relief when we saw some massage outlets nearby where we spent 120 baht (RM12) each for 45 mins of foot reflexology.

Shocking Pink Bus

We woke up early the second day to catch a 7am bus to Chiang Rai at the Mo Chit Bus Terminal, about 40 minutes from our hotel. Since the journey would take 10 hours, we wanted the most comfortable bus but sadly, there were only two direct services to Chiang Rai with two departure times – morning and evening.

The premier class coach (950 baht) was full, so we had no choice but to take the first class coach (650 baht). It turned out to be nothing more than a typical executive bus – a double-decker with reclining seats and toilets. The interior was a shock, covered in bright, shocking pink from the seats to floor, and drapes to ceiling!

Not knowing what to expect on the journey, we bought some tidbits and bottled drinks the night before. But as soon as the bus started, the attendant, an impeccably-dressed woman, served us fruit juice and muffins. Four hours later, it made a lunch stop at an R&R area (we couldn’t tell the exact location as signboards were in Thai language) but there was nothing halal for us.

Luckily, we still had our rations! The highway (minus the tolls) was wide. Most of the vehicles we passed were trucks, express coaches and occasionally, 4X4 vehicles.

Chiang Rai, Day and Night

Luckily, we arrived in Chiang Rai before sunset. This allowed us, backpacks and all, to roam the town confidently in search of a suitable hotel. We settled on Starbright Hotel, a city hotel with a spa and restaurant, for a “special” rate of only 1,000 baht (RM100) for a triple-sharing room.

It was already dark when we finished dinner in a small Muslim restaurant, so we headed for the night bazaar near the bus terminal. We had arrived in Chiang Rai in the quiet of day but at night, the town came alive with brightly coloured lights and revellers who flocked to the night bazaar.

The bazaar was a maze of lanes between blocks of shops. There was, however, a stage in front of an al fresco dining area for cultural and cabaret performances. On sale were tribal crafts, bags, headgear, clothing, house deco items, souvenirs and hand-made items, cottage industry products and Chiang Rai printed T-shirts. Caught up in the frenzy of the night bazaar, we forgot to check out the rate for foot reflexology here.

The Golden Triangle

We were excited about our next destination, Sop Ruak, the gateway that borders three countries – Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – that formed the Golden Triangle. We would take the local bus to Chiang Saen, followed by a one-hour boat ride to Sop Ruak before catching a songthaew (open-sided mini van that seat passengers on two benches) to Mae Sai.

The non-air-conditioned bus wove nonchalantly through the countryside (the bus attendant even stopped in his village to send home groceries!) and reached Chiang Saen in an hour. Unlike Chiang Rai, this was a small, quiet town. The main road was wide, with most of the action happening on the roadside.

Not sure of our whereabouts, we approached a tuk-tuk driver for a ride to the pier. He quoted a fare of 180 baht but after much bargaining, agreed to half the price. Our euphoria at our newly-acquired bargaining skills disappeared when, just barely five minutes later, the taxi rolled to a stop.

We could have just walked! The pier was just at the end of the main road where it joined a road that ran parallel with the Mekong River. Across the river was the Republic Of Laos. Our egos bruised, we bargained hard for the boat ride to Sop Ruak. But the boat operator wouldn’t budge on the ticket price of 600 baht.

The one-hour ride in a small, motorised sampan along the murky Mekong River stopped mid-way on the Laos side before it went on to Sop Ruak. Don Soa Island in Laos was a small L-shaped village with a restaurant, shops selling local crafts and rest areas by the river.

There was nothing much to do here but shop and watch the scenery. It took another 30 minutes to reach Sop Ruak, on the bank of the Mekong and overlooking the confluence of two rivers – Mekong and Ruak — and the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Thanks to the notorious opium legends of the Golden Triangle which continued until the 1980s, Sop Ruak has its share of tourists.

However, the only opium you would find was in the Opium Museum here. Our destination was Mae Sai, near the Thai-Myanmar border, about 40 minutes’ drive from Sop Ruak. We could go by songthaew or chartered taxi. A local advised us to take the taxi (600 baht) which was more reliable. Mae Sai was bigger and busier than Chiang Rai.

Cars and trucks were double parked along the road leading to the Immigration Complex separating Mae Sai and Myanmar’s Taichilek. There weren’t many hotels and we stayed at Top North Hotel. At 1,500 baht, it not only cost more than the earlier places but was slightly inferior in terms of facilities.

Its only plus point was that it was just 200 metres to the Immigration Complex. Besides the cheap foot massage, it was shopping for us at Mae Sai. The China Market which snaked along the back lanes off the main road offered interesting local products as well as China-made ready-to-wear, electrical items and bags.

Irresistible Chiang Mai

The express coach to Chiang Mai was a pleasant surprise — in many ways. No shocking pink interior here. Instead, the jade green hues made the bus look spacious and helped us feel more relaxed. Checked-in luggage was tagged with labels similar to those used by airlines. The coach passed at least three checkpoints for inspection by both the Thai Police and Immigration officers.

Just as we were feeling restless, the bus rolled into Chiang Mai at 2pm.

With all our bags, walking far was out of the question, so we checked-in at the nearby Arcade Inn. We took two double rooms at 500 baht each as it did not offer triple-sharing rooms or extra beds.

When shown our rooms, we came to the conclusion that the hotel had probably never been refurbished since the day it opened for business.

We couldn’t wait to get out. For 120 baht, we took a songthaew to the heart of town where the daily night bazaar was located. By the time we had finished lunch, the bazaar vendors were starting to set up their stalls. This gave us the chance to get “first-customer” special price. In Thailand, the first customer of the day is considered good luck for business and shopkeepers willingly lower prices for their first customer.

Chiang Mai’s night bazaar, located on the pavements along a three-block stretch of Chan Klan Road, is legendary and definitely one of the best places for shopping.

Halfway through, we treated our feet to a much-needed one-hour foot massage for 100 baht. Revived, we continued to shop till midnight.

With only 4,000 baht for the next four days, we had to abort plans to go to Mae Hong Son and Pai as the transportation would have been too costly.

But frankly, we couldn’t get enough of Chiang Mai. As we were staying on, we knew we should get a better hotel, one in the area between the night bazaar and the famous Sunday Market inside the old city.

The Blue Parrot Guest House in Soi 3, Loi Kroh, was located halfway between the two markets. It looked new but service was good. Our room was spacious and best of all, we only paid 700 baht a night.

During our extended stay in Chiang Mai, we walked and shopped — from noon to late evening. Not content with the two markets, we headed for the modern Airport Plaza for more shopping.

It was only on the last two days that we booked a taxi to visit the elephant sanctuary, the tribal village at Mae Sa Valley and the three ancient temples in the old Chiang Mai. We rode a horse cart at the ancient village of Wiang Kum Kam (a mini version of Sukhotai) and shopped at the many showroom-factory outlets in San Kamphaeng Road a.k.a Handicraft Highway.

Did we regret not going to the two smaller towns? No. We still feel we didn’t get enough of Chiang Mai.

And the big question: Was RM1,000 enough for the trip?

Ermm… No. I ended up spending RM1,500, including buying souvenirs for the family, the daily massages and the unrestricted food and coffee.

But it was all worth it!

Signs of Thai slowdown abound

After two years of disappointing economic growth weighed down by domestic political tensions, many had hopes that 2008 would be different.

Thailand returned to democracy with a clear victory by the People's Power Party in late December, raising hopes that new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej could push forward with needed infrastructure investments and policy initiatives required to open up economic growth.

The year started off well enough, with Mr Samak and his finance minister, physician Surapong Suebwonglee, taking steps to reinforce the message that Thailand welcomed foreign investment, such as the scrapping of capital controls on foreign inflows and issuing clear statements that the Foreign Business Act would not be tightened.

The infrastructure megaprojects, first floated by the Thaksin Shinawatra government earlier in the decade, were dusted off and given new life by the Samak government.

Overall, the economy posted relatively strong 6% growth in the first quarter, with private investment and consumption both picking up well from the sluggishness of the year before and exports continuing to perform strongly.

Private consumption grew 2.6% in the first quarter, up from 1.5% average growth in 2007. Private investment meanwhile rose 6.5% year-on-year in the first quarter, compared with average growth of 0.5% in 2007.

But sentiment turned abruptly starting in April, as the government engendered widespread public distrust and apprehension with its clumsy moves to amend the 2007 constitution.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, the protest group that helped bring down the Thaksin Shinawatra government through widespread protests in Bangkok in mid-2006, immediately accused Mr Samak and the PPP of seeking to whitewash the corruption investigations against Mr Thaksin over the past two years.

The political bickering could not have come at a more inopportune time, as the global economic environment turned decidedly negative due to soaring oil, food and commodity prices. Inflation jumped to a 10-year high at 7.6% year-on-year in May, putting pressure on consumers and businesses alike.

Investor sentiment has now turned decidedly bearish, as a result of higher production prices, uncertain economic trends and political uncertainties. Consumer confidence has fallen as disposable household income drops from higher living costs.

Government growth targets of 6% for 2008 now look overly optimistic, as the Thai economy increasingly looks to be headed for another year of self-inflicted, lost opportunities.

Policymakers have been scrambling to ease the pain of higher living costs through added spending for community development programmes, a new debt-suspension scheme for small-scale farmers and tax breaks for individuals and listed companies.

The March tax plan raises tax waivers by half to the first 150,000 baht in income. Companies with paid-up capital of under five million baht will also receive tax waivers for the first 150,000 baht in profits. Additional profits will now be subject to a three-step ladder of 15%, 25% and 30%, a clear benefit compared with the former 30% flat corporate tax.

Small community enterprises with revenues of less than 1.2 million baht per year will also be given tax waivers for three years, while the property sector received a boost through lower asset-transfer and mortgage-registration taxes.

The Finance Ministry even announced it was considering a new social welfare programme to help ease pressure on the poor, involving the distribution of food coupons exchangeable for basic foodstuffs and consumer products.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the measures are sufficient to help the economy navigate the current storm when oil prices have doubled since last year at about $140 per barrel by June.

The baht, which appreciated strongly throughout 2007, has since reversed course, due in part to capital outflows and the current account becoming a deficit because of oil prices.

Thai exports, initially targeted at 12.5% growth for the year, have continued to rise impressively, albeit at a pace behind import growth. But questions about the US economy will remain a risk factor.

Thai policymakers will have a difficult course to manoeuvre over the next several months by balancing the need to assist a public coping with higher prices while maintaining fiscal prudence, transparency and efficient implementation.

Efficient fiscal spending will be crucial, particularly once the 2009 budget begins in October. Delays in implementation and disbursals were major impediments for the economy in 2007.

Given Thailand's relatively healthy public finances, investment under the 2009 budget should be increased to help match higher material costs. Resources also need to be set aside to help low-income groups _ while farm price increases have benefited rural communities, the cost of key inputs, such as fertiliser and oil, have similarly increased.

An expanded, well-targeted 2009 fiscal budget and clear progress in the megaproject programme could go a long way toward restoring business and consumer confidence. With monetary policy now needing to be tightened to help keep inflation in check, fiscal spending will be crucial to help ease the pain of higher prices and to maintain growth.

Energy prices, meanwhile, show few signs of declining, raising the importance for the country to improve the efficiency of energy usage and conservation. Economists also point to the need to raise the competitiveness of the industrial sector and labour force for sustainable growth.

Jasmine to focus on broadband in Thailand

SRISAMORN PHOOSUPHANUSORN

Jasmine International Plc has identified broadband as its flagship business after undertaking a major overhaul of its state-like organisational structure. The communications provider is also changing to a flat management structure with flexible working practices.CEO Pete Bodharamik said Jasmine was preparing to introduce new facets of broadband service and application platforms.

The company has earmarked almost two billion baht to expand broadband coverage and WiFi hotspots nationwide this year. It also plans to jump into WiMax once the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) grants licences.

''We aim to become the number one broadband service provider in Thailand by 2010, with one million subscribers out of an expected total of three million customers,'' said Mr Pete.

He said the company expected to increase the proportion of broadband revenue to 80% of total earnings over the next two years, compared with 30% currently.

Revenue is expected to top 10 billion baht in 2010, up from four billion in 2007.

Jasmine now has 300,000 broadband subscribers and the figure is expected to reach 400,000 by the end of this year.

Mr Pete said the company was also looking for new businesses to replace existing concession-based businesses, which are scheduled to expire in 2011.

Given that Thailand has 18 million households while the number of broadband users as little as one million, he said broadband had huge room to grow.

Mr Pete said Jasmine was ramping up marketing to promote high-speed broadband service, with the aim to increase revenue to seven billion baht this year.

Thai energy businesses told to get licences

YUTHANA PRAIWAN

The new Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), which began work yesterday, is preparing to demand that energy business operators seek legitimate licences by the end of this year.

The regulator has authority under the new Energy Business Act to govern the power business including generation, transmission, distribution and onshore gas pipeline operators, according to the commission's chairman, Direk Lavansiri.

The Act required power operators to obtain licences to operate their businesses, he said. The law came into effect in December and businesses are being given some time to adjust to the requirements.

Some operators hold invalid licences granted by local state agencies while other operators have no licences at all.

''It is time now for all related operators to ask the ERC to provide details and start to make things right,'' he said.

The ERC held a public hearing yesterday in Bangkok to prepare a draft regulation for licences stipulating the types of business, the term, the licence extension application and fees. The effective date would be in next six months.

Dr Direk said gas pipeline business licences would be awarded to firms including PTT Plc and Trans Thai Malaysia Co, and related businesses.

Nuclear power plants and liquefied natural gas facility operators, which supply power generators, would also require licence approval.

Rights over land appropriation for power transmission, distribution and gas pipelines would be automatically transferred to the ERC from the current state utilities and PTT Plc.

Environmental impact assessment report permits would remain mandatory under the the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.

Chinese premier pledges to enhance co-op with Thailand

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (R) shakes hands with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej at the welcome ceremony held in Beijing, capital of China, June 30, 2008. (Xinhua Photo)
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BEIJING, June 30 (Xinhua) -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday said he hoped China and Thailand would promote friendly exchanges and pragmatic cooperation.

During talks with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who is on a four-day official visit to China, Wen said China and Thailand had always supported each other and safeguarded their common interests since forging diplomatic ties 33 years ago.

The assistance offered by Thailand to the Chinese people after the May 12 earthquake indicated the friendship between the two nations, Wen said.

China was ready to work with Thailand to jointly deal with challenges, Wen said.

He hoped the two nations would keep the momentum of high level visits to cement and expand mutual political trust, lift cooperation in economy, trade, investment, infrastructure, culture, education, health, agriculture and defense, and promote exchanges in youth and technical training.

Wen also hoped China and Thailand would work together to push forward the China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) strategic partnership and safeguard the stable development of east Asia cooperation.

Samak said the two nations had witnessed smooth cooperation in the past 33 years.

Samak said Thailand would work with China to increase cooperation in economy, trade, education, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure construction, water resources application and defense areas, to push forward bilateral strategic cooperation.

He said Thailand would keep close contact with China to contribute to the development of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership and east Asia cooperation.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Now's the time to sell condos in Thailand

Oversupply could push prices downward


NINA SUEBSUKCHAROEN

Anyone thinking of selling a condominium should do so soon because prices are likely to drop in six to 12 months due to political uncertainty and oversupply, says Ian Soo, managing director of Hamptons Property.

Prices have already stabilised and as more units come on the market, they may be pushed down.

"I think there is an oversupply of units in central Bangkok and I think if you combine that with some sort of political uncertainty then what you will find is less demand," said Mr Soo. "This is effectively going to put pressure on prices."

He said that the downward price pressure was unlikely to be very pronounced in the 1-3 million baht condominium or townhouse segment. "I think the high end of the market will have some stock that will be harder to sell now, so it's more likely to affect the luxury end of the market."

As a lot of the property that was launched a few years ago is now coming on the market, developers will watch how sales pan out over the next six to 12 months. They are in a difficult position because of rising costs, but that does not mean they are going to be able to pass these on to the buyers.

"They can do that when the economy is strong and there is easy credit but not when the economy is stagnant," said Mr Soo.

While this raises fears that lower-quality buildings might be built, Mr Soo does not expect established companies to cut corners but will have to absorb some or all of the costs.

Whether lower prices could turn into a buying opportunity depends on what sorts of units come on the market, in Mr Soo's vie.w

And while sellers would get higher prices if they sell today, he said those who have money to spare are always going to be looking for investments, and property with rental yields of around 6% is not a bad place to park money. "But I think people are being a little bit cautious in this type of environment."

Some expatriate buyers too are holding back, though he says those who have money to invest are still active in the market.

The bright spot is in the rental market, which is unlikely to be affected by the anticipated price drop. But greater choice could lead to better-value units becoming available.

Demand right now is mostly for high-quality one- to two-bedroom units, even though the space is smaller. "There will always be people who will want 300 to 400 square metres, perhaps in an older building further away from the skytrain, but the majority of working professionals living here ... prefer smaller, more modern units."

Hamptons' clients, he says, prefer Sukhumvit as far as Ekamai, plus Silom and Sathon, and these are expected see both rental and buying demand.

Mr Soo said the real estate slowdown was widespread right now, but has not been as serious as in the UK and US because there are more cash buyers in Thailand, which has insulated the country from the credit crisis.

While many think it is good to buy during turbulent times, he said that a lot of people should keep their assets in cash if they are not sure what the situation will be like in a few months.

Although those who bought property during the 1997 meltdown did earn a big profit, this is seems easy in hindsight. "The economic crash of 1997 was huge, very sudden. This economic slowdown is not as dramatic."

Mr Soo urged the government to allow foreigners to get mortgages in Thailand. "They represent a very important part of the property market and expecting them to pay cash or not giving them financial support, something that they should do, is a mistake I think. Not all foreigners are really so rich that they can buy in cash."

High costs could affect Phuket

CHATRUDEE THEPARAT

Tourism prospects in the approaching high season in Phuket and Phangnga may not be as brisk as anticipated earlier, as continued rising oil prices are expected to deter some travellers.

Maitree Narukatpichai, president of Phuket Tourist Association, forecast that average hotel occupancy in Phuket in the coming high season from November to April would be 70% this compared with 75% in the 2006-07 high season.

Phuket has a total of 50,000 hotel rooms, up from 40,000 three years ago when many properties were still rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami.

The association projected tourism revenue in Phuket this year would amount to between 94 billion and 95 billion baht.

The hotel occupancy rate in May and June, the trough of the low season, was only 10-15% compared with 50% in the same period last year. The low rate was attributed mainly to high oil prices and the resulting surge in airfares.

Air tickets normally account for about 60-70% of the total expense of visitors.

Phuket has long been popular with Europeans, who are now facing fuel surcharges in the hundreds of dollars on top of the cost of their long-haul air tickets.

However, Mr Maitree said it would be too early to project the precise hotel occupancy rate in the high season, as most of the bookings would be concluded in August.

Should bookings decline, he said local hoteliers may need to design special tourism package to attract the visitors.

Chittiporn Suthipibul, deputy managing director of Khao Lak Resort in Phangnga province, said hotel occupancy in Khao Lak from May to October was estimated at only 15%, up from 10% in the same period last year. However, the occupancy rate during the high season was expected to rise up to 85% compared with 70% a year earlier.

Khao Lak currently has 5,000 hotel rooms, about 80% fewer than before the tsunami.

Last year, Khao Lak attracted 1.8 million visitors, up from 1.1 million in 2006. The figure was expected to top 2.3 million this year. The industry generated about six billion baht in revenue to the area in 2007, with revenue expected to grow to 7-8 billion baht this year.

Oil shock 'worse than 1997 crisis'

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG

Thai businesses are being hit harder by the current oil crisis than the financial crisis in 1997 as global oil prices have hit all-time highs while consumer purchasing power is dropping sharply, according to the Saha Group, the country's biggest consumer goods conglomerate.

"Compared to the crisis 12 years ago, what we are facing now is tougher because oil prices were not this high," said Vathit Chokwatana, executive director of Saha Pathanapibul Plc. "Both manufacturing and distribution activities have been seriously affected by high oil prices. Some raw materials, especially for detergents, are extremely expensive but we have to buy them in order to keep the plants running."

Even though some consumers have received salary or cost-of-living increases, the amount isn't enough to offset the rising cost of living. Initially, high oil prices psychologically force consumers to cut their spending, Mr Vathit said.

In the area of logistics, manufacturers have to shoulder the high cost for transporting goods from factories. Some are in distant provinces and goods must go to distribution centres before reaching wholesalers and shops, said Mr Vathit.

To cope with skyrocketing prices, Mr Vathit said Saha is working with some other large businesses including Charoen Pokphand (CP), Siam Cement Group (SCG), and the sugar group Mitr Phol on logistics improvements to cut costs.

The oil shock is affecting travel as well, according to Maiyarat Pheerayahouses, president of the Association of Domestic Travel. The number of Thais travelling within the country dropped by more than half during the first half of this year due to the sharp rise of oil prices and political uncertainties.

Travel costs have surged. For example, the fuel surcharge for a Bangkok-Phuket flight on Thai Airways International has jumped from 400 baht in 2007 to 1,700 baht by mid-2008, she said.

Meanwhile, consumers have concerns about the political and economic outlook, so they are not in the mood for travel, added Ms Maiyarat.

Atip Bijanonda, chairman of the Thai Condominium Association, called on the government to offer tax incentives to homebuyers for using energy-saving materials. So far, energy-saving houses have not been popular among consumers despite high energy expenses. Government incentives could help stimulate demand.

Mr Atip said incentives would help bring down housing prices and drive the demand for energy-saving homes.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Thailand's diesel subsidy to continue

The diesel price subsidy programme for motorists, set to expire in July, is likely to be extended as the Energy Ministry is trying to deal with the record price.

Energy Minister Poonpirom Liptapanlop said she was considering whether the reduction of 90 satang per litre on the retail diesel price, funded by the state Oil Fund and the Energy Conservation Fund, should be extended or even increased.

''Worse still, the diesel price has reached a record high at above 42 baht a litre. We don't think it is a good idea to let motorists struggle with diesel prices jumping right now,'' she said yesterday.

The National Energy Policy Council (NEPC) would be responsible for extending or raising the existing subsidy rate. The subsidy was initiated in March, with 50 satang per litre contributed from the Energy Conservation Fund, 10 satang from the Oil Fund and another 30 satang absorbed by the premium petrol levy collection to the Oil Fund.

An employee at an LPG station on Kalapapruek Road posts a sign saying "out of fuel" yesterday. Demand for LPG has soared as diesel and petrol prices continue to rise with global oil prices. — PHONGTHAI WATTANAVANITVUT

Apart from diesel, Lt Gen Poonpirom has been criticised for a subsidy programme for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), whereby retail prices would be split in July.

The retail price for the transport and industrial sectors would be partly floated to near global market levels, while the price for households using LPG for cooking gas would continue to be subsidised.

The partial floating of LPG is aimed to help PTT Plc, which is the sole LPG importer, to curb their $580 per tonne import burden.

The government fixed the retail price of LPG at $320 per tonne, far below the $900 global market price.

The Energy Ministry yesterday also announced soft loans designed for households to change to efficient appliances. Initially, a one-billion-baht-per-year budget would be provided by the Energy Conservation Fund.

Loans would be processed by five banks, with a limit of 10,000 baht for each appliance and 30,000 baht for an air-conditioner. Each bank would receive 200 million baht interest-free from the fund. The banks are Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank, Ayudhya Bank, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives and the Government Savings Bank.

The minister expects 75,000 households to apply for the one-year soft loan from the banks, with the programme running from next week to October 2009. ''The ministry hopes to see households use only energy-efficient appliances, and we are ready to provide compact fluorescent lightbulbs, electric fans, ovens and air-conditioners,'' she said.

Thai hospitals lure rising number of patients from Middle East

By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Elizabeth Gibson

Agence France Press

BANGKOK: The conversation buzzing over Fatima Rashid Al-Hemaidi sounds like a meeting of ambassadors - her daughter speaking Arabic, the doctor Thai and English, and the translator a mix of all three. Beneath it all, Hemaidi is smiling patiently from a nest of blankets in a blue hospital gown and black headscarf.

"OK mama," the doctor says to her in English as she pulls away the stethoscope.

On her third trip from Qatar to Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital Hemaidi is familiar with the routine, just as hospitals here are becoming more familiar with clients who, like her, come from the Middle East for medical treatment.

The number of Middle Eastern visitors to Thailand has been rising steadily in recent years, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US when Arab tourists found the West less than welcoming.

Last year Thailand received 453,000 visitors from the Middle East, up nearly 12 percent from 2006, with a significant number coming not for beach holidays but for the hospitals.

Bumrungrad alone treated 90,000 patients from the Middle East, up nine-fold compared to the year 2000, making them a fast-growing segment in the hospital's lucrative international practice.

"This is a win-win situation," said Tares Krassanairawiwong, an official from the Thai Public Health Ministry. "People [from the Middle East] can have good quality care and we can gain more revenue."

Thailand markets its hospitals as offering lower prices for their services than in the US, but of a higher quality than countries such as India.

A hip replacement operation, for example, would cost about $35,000 in the United States and $6,500 in India, according to the Health Ministry here, which says the same procedure costs $12,000 in Thailand.

The Thai government has trained 50 of its hospitals to deal with Middle Eastern insurance policies and cultural demands, said Tares. Bumrungrad stands at the forefront of Thailand's international medical services, setting an example for others to emulate.

Borihan Suwandee, a Thai Muslim who attended medical school in Egypt, oversees everything in the hospital that caters specifically for Arab patients - halal meals, Arab coffee, 40 Arabic translators, a resident imam prayer leader, and a large prayer room built last year.

"We have to look after them medically and socially," Borihan said of the Arab patients.

Hemaidi, who has 10 children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, broke her back in a fall last September. "She went to the private hospital from doctor to doctor until she could not move at all," her daughter Lolwa said.

"They said she was an old woman so it wasn't worth the operation. When we came here the doctors told us something very different. It was her last hope." Hemaidi arrived in Bangkok on a stretcher and checked into a hospital suite paid for by Qatar's universal health care.

It was the first time she had left her country.

Her operation took four hours and doctors said there was a 70 percent chance of success. Now she can move on her own and even walk short distances.

"There was so much pain I couldn't recognize the people who came to visit. I told the doctor just to cut my back off," Hemaidi said.

"Now I feel like I want to treat every pain here."

Hemaidi has made two follow-up trips and this time decided to have an operation to reduce pressure in her abdomen and says she is also considering knee surgery.

After three visits, the only Bangkok sites she has seen are hospital wards and the lobby cafe but says she'd like to buy a holiday home in Thailand.

"Now if anyone feels pain," Hemaidi's daughter said, "my mum always says you have to go to Bangkok."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

NAPC bags two iron ore mining projects in Thailand

Chennai-based National Asphalt Products and Construction Company (NAPC) has bagged two iron ore mining projects in Thailand. The contract value of the projects estimated to be around $110 million and for a period of 10 years. Both projects will be executed with a joint venture partner. The company is also planning to invest Rs 1,400 crore in the next two to three years on various infrastructure related projects.

Speaking to reporters in Chennai Varun Manian, director, NAPC,said that the company has also signed a manganese ore mine project in Laos, Cambodia. The project worth is about Rs 60 crore. "Initially we are expecting Rs 110 crore revenue every year from the iron ore project in Thailand and Rs 30 crore from manganese ore project in Cambodia."

In Thailand, the two mines are located in Wang Pong and Pa Tong spread over 5000 acres and 2000 acres respectively. When the project starts it will create 1000 jobs for the local Thai population, besides providing off shore works to around 80 NAPC engineers, said Manian.

GE looking to invest soon in Thailand

US-based General Electric (GE) is considering Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries for its planned $20 billion worth of investment to expand its global energy portfolio from 2008-10.

GE Infrastructure, with expected revenues of $70 billion in 2008, has set up an office in Singapore to explore business opportunities across Southeast Asia. Its businesses include energy, aviation, transport and water-related technology.

In Asean, the infrastructure business represents 40% of GE's total revenue.

''Apart from China and India, we recognise Thailand and other Asean nations as very important markets,'' said John Rice, GE vice-chairman and chief executive of GE Infrastructure. ''We are making sure that we pay attention to every market where opportunities arise.''

Mr Rice made the remarks at a luncheon held yesterday by the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand (Amcham).

He said that Asean still needed key infrastructure such as power generation, oil and gas, aviation and financial services.

''For countries like Thailand, there is a strong need for infrastructure. We are looking for investment opportunities, for example companies we can acquire or those who can be our partners,'' said Mr Rice.

''There are a number of projects around Thailand we are looking at. The country is going to expand power generation capacity to serve energy demand over the next ten years.''

Asked how much of the global targeted investment was allocated to Southeast Asia, Mr Rice said it depended on the business opportunities.

''We have been growing [the investment] portfolio by 30% for three years to help us meet soaring energy demand by the end of 2010,'' he said, adding that targeted projects are pipelines, power generation, and renewable energy.

In the transport field, GE has been in close contact with the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) and the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) for mass transit schemes.

From GE Infrastructure's total revenue of $57.9 billion in 2007, close to $5 billion was generated from the Asia-Pacific region.

The group expects the revenue to increase 15-20% this year, Mr Rice said.

Asia-Pacific is the fastest growing market for GE Infrastructure with all areas growing at double digits, he added.

GE Infrastructure accounted for about 40% of the parent company's earnings in 2007. Equipment orders have grown nearly 40% annually for the last three years.

The group operates in 125 countries worldwide, Mr Rice said

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

6% growth achievable, says Thailand's FPO

Economic growth of 6% remains possible for 2008, thanks to strong exports, according to the Fiscal Policy Office.

The FPO, a unit under the Finance Ministry, yesterday maintained its base economic forecast of 5.6% this year unchanged, but cut estimates for consumption and investment growth.

Inflation projections were sharply increased to 7.2% for 2008 from a forecast of 4.5% in March. The FPO also raised its assumptions for Dubai oil prices to an average of $116 per barrel this year from $93 at the last forecast. Policy interest rates are now projected to increase by a full percentage point to 4.25% by the end of the year.

Exports would be the main engine for the Thai economy this year, with the FPO raising its growth forecasts to 8% in volume terms for 2008 from last year, up from 6.9% forecast in March.

The trade account, previously expected to post a deficit this year, is now expected to show a surplus of $1.7 billion, with the current account showing a surplus of $4 billion.

Pannee Sathavarodom, the FPO director-general, said exports in volume terms were projected to rise 8% this year, higher than 7% in 2007. In US dollar terms, export growth was projected to reach 20.3% in 2008 _ well above previous estimates of 13.5%.

Demand from Thailand's key trading partners remained strong, Mrs Pannee said, particularly from Asia and the Middle East.

The depreciation of the baht this year as well as moves to diversity markets would also benefit exports.

''Thailand's exports have decoupled from the major economies of the US, Europe and Japan,'' Mrs Pannee said.

Stronger exports would support overall economic growth even as domestic consumption and investment slowed from earlier estimates due to rising inflation and political uncertainty.

Inflation, led by higher food and energy prices, remained a major risk for the economy, Mrs Pannee said.

But even though private consumption was projected to rise just 3.5% in real terms, this still outpaced the 1.4% growth posted in 2007, she added.

High farm commodities prices, while pushing up inflation, have also lifted rural household incomes, as up to 40% of the labour force is in agriculture.

A 10% increase in minimum wages and cost-of-living increases for employees would also help consumption.

In any case, Kanit Sangsubhan, director of the Finance Ministry's Policy Research Institute, said it was difficult to forecast whether inflation would rise to double digits this year.

''It depends on oil prices, which remain quite volatile. If crude oil prices rise to say $165 per barrel, then the chance of seeing double-digit inflation in Thailand is quite high,'' he said.

Rising inflation in turn would lead the central bank to raise its one-day repurchase rate. The FPO now estimates policy rates to rise to 4.25% by the end of the year, compared with a March forecast of year-end rates of 3%. The central bank's Monetary Policy Committee next meets on July 16.

Chiang Mai experiencing room glut

Room occupancy in Chiang Mai has averaged less than 50 percent the past three years due to over supply, according to Chiang Mai Tourism Association.

Association Vice President Vorapong Muchaotai said while tourist arrivals rose an average seven percent annually during 2005-07, hotel rooms saw double-digit increase during the same period.

According to the Tourism and Sports Ministry, the total number of hotel rooms in Chiang Mai in 2005 stood at 16,673, rising 12 percent to 18,820 in 2006, and 10.6 percent to 20,816 in 2007.

He said the number of hotel rooms available in Chiang Mai could cater to 60,000 visitors a day or 18 million a year, but the sad fact is that only 4.1 million people visited the province annually.

As a result room occupancy during 2005-2007 was less than half the total capacity that is available. The occupancy was 46.9% in 2005, 47.9% in 2006 and 48% in 2007.

The association has urged the government to help promote Chiang Mai, especially during the low season, as a meeting, incentive, convention and exhibition (Mice) destination.

It has also sought a budget of five million baht from the government to study tourist behaviour in order to find the right products and services to improve Chiang Mai's appeal to tourists.

Improving Bangkok's BMTA - by renting 6,000 buses

For millions of people whose place of residence has not yet been connected to the mass transit system, public buses remain a necessary evil. Our bus system is known to have failed completely in terms of service quality, safety standards and human convenience.

After all, public buses have been one consistent partner in road accidents, many of them fatal.

Under the circumstances, the government's move to rent 6,000 air-conditioned NGV buses to replace and add to the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority's fleet should be good news.

The project was, however, suspended by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej last week for want of more detailed study. Not only does the deal raise questions such as why rent the buses for 10 years instead of buying them, it has also been criticised for seeking only one private lessee for the contract worth up to 110 billion baht.

Deputy Transport Minister Songsak Thongsri, who supervises the BMTA, contends that the project is urgently needed as part of a plan to turn the BMTA around from a debt-ridden agency to one that can sustain itself.

At present, the BMTA operates a fleet of 3,800 buses, half of them non-air-conditioned. It earns 500 million baht per month but has an expenditure of 900 million baht. Its accumulated debt stands at 70 billion baht at the moment. This is projected to increase to 160 billion baht in 10 years if the agency continues like this.

Inefficiency is the biggest problem, according to Mr Songsak. More people are employed than there are jobs for them to do. The ratio of employees to each bus is 5:1. He wants it to go down to 2.4 to 1. That means the current number of employees must be reduced from 17,919 to 7,980 - more than 9,000 people will have to go through such management schemes as early retirement.

The new fleet of buses will be helpful, too, as they will use an e-ticket system so there will be no need for a bus conductor.

Banyong Amporntrakul, chairman of the private bus operators club, has questioned whether the rental deal is financially sound. The same kind of bus could be lease-purchased for half the price the minister has quoted and it would belong to the BMTA after four years, he says.

With the lease-purchase option, not only would the BMTA pay less, even including insurance and maintenance costs, but it would also own the buses after four years. It could resell them and earn some money back, Mr Banyong says.

Renting the buses instead of buying them would close a loophole whereby money is believed to be leaking out of the BMTA's coffers. Mr Songsak said that maintenance and repairs was one department where corruption could occur - bills for repair jobs that do not take place, smuggling and trading of spare parts or cheating on the amount of gasoline used.

Outsourcing all these activities - as well as the insurance, the need to find a depot and at least 22 gas stations - to a private partner would tackle the problem of corruption, according to Mr Songsak.

"This is a rent-to-operate scheme. The lessee must ensure that 6,000 buses are in operation all the time. They have to take responsibility for finding replacements if some of the buses break down. We calculate that we will have a net profit of 1,400 baht per vehicle per day [or 8.4 million baht per day for the whole fleet]. It's worth it," the deputy minister said.

An initial estimate to find a mean price for the bid states that the rent per day should be 5,100 baht. That is 30.60 million baht per day for the 6,000 buses. The BMTA expects each new bus to generate about 10,000 baht in revenue per day, or 60 million baht for the whole fleet. With the expected profit of 1,400 baht per bus per day, the new fleet is expected to generate a profit of about 3 billion baht per year, or up to 30 billion baht during the 10-year contract.

Mr Songsak reasoned that the math might not add up at the end of the day, considering the many obstacles out there, but he would still be happy even if the project did not generate any profit at all. It would still be better than the 400 million baht loss the agency is facing today.

Why does the BMTA need as many as 6,000 new buses when its current fleet is fewer than 4,000?

Mr Songsak said the BMTA aims to cover the new routes designed to go along with the electric train network and city's expansion so as to entice people to leave their cars at home and use the public buses for transit. It also wants to increase its share of service from 24% to 50% to cope with a possible strike by private bus operators.

He is of the view that it would be more convenient for the BMTA to have only one lessee to handle the project - no blame game will take place. This aspect of the terms of reference has been criticised as being prone to specifications being manipulated to fit a particular operator.

Another question raised by a BMTA board member regarding the NGV bus project is why must the government serve as the guarantor for the private partner? Would this go against the government's regulations?

A former BMTA board member said that while the bundling up of the rent with repair/maintenance and insurance sounded sensible, to package it with the procurement of an e-ticketing system, GPS navigation system, CCTV and real estate development in the form of bus depots and 22 gas stations make this a gigantic project.

These requirements would thus be met only by a big conglomerate, which could also accrue some benefit by acting as a front company while sub-contracting different parts of the project to smaller partners.

Mr Songsak said he was open to comments and advice from every side so as to close all loopholes in the project being proposed. He says, however, that the rental option is the best one at present.

Thailand CDMA suppliers throw weight behind CAT

A consortium of leading code division multiple access (CDMA) suppliers is seeking a role in third-generation (3G) CDMA mobile broadband in Thailand, now that CAT Telecom is moving to promote its nationwide commercial service.

The state enterprise's nationwide CDMA service represented a strong endorsement of CDMA growth in Thailand, said James Person, chief operating officer of the CDMA Development Group (CDG). The alliance includes Qualcomm, the US company that developed the CDMA standard, along with Motorola, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and ZTE.

Mr Person said 286 operators in 109 countries now used CDMA 2000, with 451 million subscribers. Asia is the largest CDMA market with 50% of the global total. It posted 38% growth in 2007, driven by India, China and Indonesia.

''The number of CDMA subscribers globally is projected to surpass 500 million over the next 12 months,'' Mr Person said yesterday in Bangkok, one of the stops on the group's two-week roadshow in Asia.

He said the target customers for CDMA had been shifted from developed countries to developing and emerging markets.

CAT Telecom is using CDMA 1xEV-DO Revision A, the first 3G mobile broadband technology. It offers data rates up to 3.1 Megabits per second (Mbps) from the network to the user device, and up to 1.8 Mbps at peak rates from the user to the network or another user device.

Venkat Narayanaiah, director for business development of Alcatel-Lucent, said CDMA devices had declined significantly in cost, with handsets now as little as US$20, down from $120 a unit in 2004.

Jirayut Rungsrithong, senior executive vice-president of CAT Telecom, said CAT was developing a business plan for its 3G CDMA nationwide service and planned to focus on areas with strong network coverage.

He said CAT would provide services in 10 major provinces with high population density, such as Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Chon Buri, Phuket, Surat Thani, Nakhon Sawan and Maha Sarakham.

Mr Jirayut acknowledged that it would be difficult for CAT to compete with its three much larger rivals, Advanced Info Service, DTAC and True Move. They use the GSM standard and have a combined customer base of 54 million.

The Hutch CDMA service in which CAT is a partner has about 800,000 users.

But he said CAT still had an advantage in terms of high-speed network quality. It expects to have a total of 180,000 subscribers to its new CDMA service by the end of this year, up from 50,000 currently.

US helps Thailand rub out fake passports

By Richard Ehrlich

BANGKOK - United States and Thai security officials spent much of June probing Bangkok-linked international gangs, after police seized thousands of counterfeit and genuine American and foreign passports and pages, including passports smuggled to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Investigators enjoyed a morale boost in mid-June when US Attorney General Michael Mukasey visited Bangkok, but no breakthrough was announced in the counterfeit passport cases. "Organized criminals seek to exploit the openness of our borders for profit and power," Mukasey told reporters in Bangkok on June 11.

"The government of Thailand has joined the United States in taking a strong stand against these criminals, and sending a message that we will work together, across borders and regardless of borders, to stop them."

Thailand has long been notorious as a hub for producing fake passports and other documents, and US officials have previously assisted in breaking criminal counterfeit rings in Thailand, which some fear had done business with al-Qaeda and other transnational terror groups. But the counterfeiters' halcyon days may soon be over in Thailand.

According to Ed Kelly, an attorney and partner at Bangkok's Tilleke and Gibbins law firm, in 2007 Thailand adopted the Penal Code Amendment Act regarding offenses related to passports. The act was promulgated in response to the threat of terrorism and international criminal networks and imposes a maximum imprisonment term of 20 years for convicted offenses, he said.

Still, US officials were concerned after police uncovered more than 200 real US passports - legally issued to Americans by the US State Department - hidden among boxes of fake US and foreign passports. When Thai police displayed stacks of seized passports to journalists after a raid on April 27, several US and British passports bore photographs, names, birthdays and birthplaces of people who apparently legally owned the passports.


For example, US passport number 074242761, identified its owner as a bespectacled, smiling woman named Joan, born on August 17, 1934, in Indiana. Her surname was hidden by a rubber band which police wrapped around the stack, but her identification page revealed her passport was issued in Seattle on July 15, 1996, and expired on July 14, 2006.

Atop another stack, an American passport's photo portrayed a bearded man named Charles, born April 9, 1943 in North Carolina, wearing a dark suit jacket and light tie, though his passport expired on August 23, 2005. Another US passport, issued in San Francisco with a July 16, 2005 expiration date, appeared to belong to Andrew, born in California on December 30, 1976.

They may have lost their US passports, or had them stolen, police said. Others may have illegally sold their genuine passports for quick cash. Even though those passports had expired, forgers could alter the dates and photographs, enabling criminals to use otherwise genuine documents for travel to countries where immigration officials might not notice the changes.

Such destinations include countries where American or European passport holders do not need to apply for visas in advance, and are allowed entry on arrival. An illegal user would memorize the real person's biographical details, and invent a trip to match any entry and exit dates already stamped inside the passport, while hoping the owner has not yet reported it missing.

Other seized passports in Thailand were from Canada, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Peru, Malta, Britain and other European countries. In a separate case, police arrested 12 gang members from Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia on May 11 in Bangkok, and seized hundreds of additional counterfeit US, European and Asian passports.

American and Thai officials insisted no raids had ever uncovered newer US passports with high-tech electronic components, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, antennas or readers. "Preliminary findings by [US] Embassy officers, and Thai authorities, have not identified American e-passports, or any parts of American e-passports, among the items confiscated by Thai authorities," a US State Department official in Bangkok said on April 30, responding to e-mailed questions about RFID tags.

"Officials also found no evidence that the fraud ring was reproducing US [RFID] chips, or e-passports," she said. America recently began allowing US passport covers, containing electronic security chips, to be made at a factory in Ayutthaya, 60 kilometers north of Bangkok, where they are fitted with a wire RFID antenna.

The US Government Printing Office (GPO), which is the congressional agency producing new passports, said the US passport production facility in Ayutthaya's Hi-Tech Industrial Estate is secure, and that the State Department checked the security of Thailand's plant, the Washington Times recently reported.

Congressional investigators criticized the GPO for using European-made integrated circuits, intended as a security device in the passport, and assembling the booklet covers in Thailand, because blank passports could be stolen during transit. Smartrac, the Amsterdam-based Dutch company that makes the passport covers in Thailand, was targeted by Chinese economic espionage in the past, according to a court filing in the Netherlands.

In April, a group of House Republicans introduced legislation that would require the State Department to use US-made components for new electronic passports, and assemble the booklets in America, to help prevent theft or counterfeiting. But people illegally using real or fake US passports lacking RFID components could still enter and exit countries that have not upgraded to the new system, Lieutenant Colonel Sophon Sarapat, of the Thai police's special operations department, said in an interview.

He was part of the same Thai police team which arrested a purported Bangladeshi national, Mohammed Karim, during an April 27 raid on his Bangkok home. In that raid, police reportedly seized 577 counterfeit passports of various countries, and more than 200 real American passports, police said. They also discovered 1,680 fake passport photo identification pages - mostly for insertion into US and European passports - plus 680 fake visas for several countries, police said.

Police also found a computer, forged rubber visa stamps, and a laser printer. "If you want to make a counterfeit passport, you first make a blank passport," Sophon said. "The blank passport is made by an offset printer. Then the criminal uses rubber stamps, and a computer and laser printer, to put the details in the blank passports."

Karim's home allegedly included boxes of real and fake passports, including US passports. "The American Embassy proved that these are the real passports, 200 or 300 American" passports, Sophon said. "Maybe these passports are used for smuggling, and for many other things. Maybe by terrorists, I am not sure."

Karim's passports were allegedly being sold illegally at the rate of 100 or more a month, for about $100 to $300 each, police said. Sophon has worked for 15 years investigating crime in Bangkok, initially in the Crime Suppression Department, then at the immigration desk at Bangkok's international airport, before joining Special Operations police more than a year ago.

In 2005, he attended a Counterfeit Detection Seminar in Washington arranged by the US Department of Homeland Security and US Secret Service. Though police arrested the Bangladeshi, they were not immediately able to find out who created the blank counterfeit passport pages on an offset printer. "You can print, in one day or one week, many passports," Sophon said.

"Then you stop printing, and move the offset printer," which is a portable, common machine. The Bangladeshi "told me that he sent passports to Pakistan and Bangladesh", Sophon said. "He didn't know where the passports" ultimately ended up.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

(Copyright 2008 Richard S Ehrlich.)

Thailand jails Thaksin lawyers in "snack box" case

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BANGKOK: Thailand's Supreme Court jailed a lawyer and two legal advisers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Wednesday after an apparent attempt to bribe court officials with $60,000 (30,400 pounds) hidden in a paper grocery bag.

Pichit Chuenban and two associates representing Thaksin and his wife in a pending land-deal case were responsible for the 2 million baht left in the bag at the Supreme Court compound earlier this month, the court ruled.

The bag was found on the day that Thaksin, ousted in a coup in 2006, and his wife were due to appear on charges of violating graft laws that prevent serving politicians and their spouses from striking deals with state agencies.

The three lawyers denied the charge of misbehaviour in a court, but Judge Mongkol Tabthieng was unimpressed.

"The action of the three accused was a blatant offence committed in the compound of the Supreme Court. Given the fact that they are in the legal profession, their joint action has tarnished the court's image," he said in his verdict.

Pichit's associate, Thana Tansiri, had already admitted to the court that the money belonged to him but said it had not been intended for use as a bribe.

Instead, he said his driver had mistakenly picked up the bag with the money instead of an identical one that contained chocolates he had meant to give to court officials.

(Reporting by Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; writing by Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Ed Cropley and Sanjeev Miglani)

Thai energy firm signs major gas deal with Myanmar, says official

BANGKOK (AFP) — A Thai energy firm has signed a major deal to drill for natural gas in military-ruled Myanmar, an official with the company said Wednesday.

The agreement -- to develop the M9 block in the Gulf of Martaban -- was signed by PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) with Myanmar's junta in the country's remote capital Naypyidaw on Monday, the official told AFP.

The official declined to reveal the value of the deal, but Thailand's The Nation newspaper reported it would entail an investment of about two billion dollars.

Under the deal, PTTEP will work with the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise to develop the field, the Thai firm's CEO Anon Sirisaengtaksin said in a statement to the stock exchange.

The field is expected to produce 300 million cubic feet of gas per day, with 80 percent exported to Thailand and the rest supplying Myanmar, the statement said.

Thai energy minister Poonpirom Liptapanlop said in a statement that the deal "is very important and beneficial for Thailand to obtain natural gas to supply its rising energy needs, and to enhance the country's long-term energy security."

Energy-hungry Thailand imports about 20 percent of its gas from Myanmar and is vying for a bigger share of its vast natural resources.

State media in Myanmar previously estimated the M9 block contained 8.0 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations, is under a series of US and European economic sanctions imposed over the junta's human rights abuses and its crackdown last year on pro-democracy protests.

But the impact of the sanctions has been weakened as neighbours such as China, India and Thailand spend billions of dollars for a share of Myanmar's energy resources to solve energy problems at home.

According to 2006 official figures, 13 foreign oil companies are working on 33 projects in the country.

Boom, bane or bluster? Regional blocs in question

If you're Asian, chances are your country is a member of one of many acronyms: ASEAN, APEC, BIMSTEC, BIMP-EAGA, IMT-GT, SASEC, SAARC, SESCA, CAREC, SCO. Your president or prime minister attends any one of these annual meetings or sends the appropriate minister to discuss issues that affect your country and the rest of Asia, whether these be tourism, trade, finance, or cross-border health.

They are regional blocs mobilised in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis. Plus the IT revolution, integrated production networks, and the rise of China and India as potentially very large markets provide the logic for bringing Asian economies closer together.

Free trade agreements (FTAs) have proliferated throughout the region and it's easy to get lost in the ''Asian noodle bowl'' of inter-country relationships.

But what are these truly worth beyond the front-page photo-ops of heads of state, arms linked and dressed uniformly in the host country's national dress?

Two regional integration programmes funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) seem worthy of closer scrutiny: the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Programme.

Under the aegis of the GMS, the East-West Corridor, once completed, will connect Vietnam all across to Burma thereby linking Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma to facilitate the movement of goods and services among them.

Once-upon-a-time sleepy Savannakhet in central Laos is poised to become an economic hotbed as Thai and Vietnamese goods and products pass over the Savannakhet-Mukdahan bridge.

Under the Central Asia Regional Economic Program (CAREC), an ambitious infrastructural grid will restore, rebuild and revive the ancient Silk Road.

Plus additional investments for airports, railways and ports will create a transport route linking Europe and Asia.

The total bill: a whopping US$18 billion.

The optimist's argument to membership in a regional body is an upbeat message of deliverance: by setting up favourable trading policies and adopting market-based reforms, the Promised Land of economic growth will surely be arrived at.

Further, member countries can leverage their strengths to overcome domestic bottlenecks.

Regional cooperation and integration bring otherwise isolated communities into the fold of economic activity.

In tandem with working markets are positive social spillovers: peace and stability, social inclusion, shared norms and values, community-building.

A good script thus far, so reads the ADB regional newsletters.

But decades-long animosities brought on by conflict among countries are proving difficult to erase.

Despite the so-called ''peace dividend'' _ ADB's mantra that serves as a default response to queries about GMS social stability _ negative perceptions persist, and provide fodder for continuing fear and mistrust among supposedly chummy neighbours.

Not too long ago, a falsified rumour about a statement by a Thai actress on the historical ownership of the Angkor Wat closed down the borders and suspended flights between Thailand and Cambodia.

Or the current spat-in-the-making, once again, between the two countries over the Preah Vihear temple issue that has now gotten Unesco potentially involved.

And what to do about the intransigent Burmese generals who continue to plague the ADB, which officially does not support the regime yet manages to ''smuggle'' support to the country vis-a-vis the GMS programme _ a sore point raised by a coalition of Burmese Civil Society and Movement Support Organisations?

Further north in the region is Tajikistan's recent civil war _ a recent historical baggage worthy of continuing concern within the country.

There are ongoing tensions among all countries on the control and distribution of water resources _ an agenda item that is perpetually off the table during bi-annual discussions among senior officials in Central Asia.

So much for ADB's ''Good Neighbours, Good Partners, Good Prospects'' banner slogan.

For both regions, economic inequities are pervasive.

In the GMS, the average regional income in 2002 was approximately US$4,000. An average Thai will have an income almost four times more than their Laotian, Cambodian or Burmese counterpart.

In Central Asia, oil-rich Kazakhstan enjoys a per capita income five times higher and has a land mass more than twice the size of all the Central Asian republics combined.

Human capital indicators are hardly promising.

Life expectancies in Laos, Burma, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are among the lowest in the world, averaging between 60-65 years, almost at par with their African counterparts.

Governance practices remain a challenge. Not surprisingly, a number of countries in both regions score very low in the Governance and Stability Indicators as well as in the Corruption Perception Index.

All these suggest that for all the hype over regional cooperation, these countries suffer from internal fragmentation. This begs the question of whether countries facing domestic fracture can cooperate amongst each other to deliver the promised cargo.

The ADB certainly has a lot more thinking to do when it mulls over the next self-congratulatory regional newsletter, even while the request for proposals for consultants to the next big infrastructure loan project has already been issued.

Tess Cruz-del Rosario is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and former ADB consultant on capacity development for the GMS and CAREC programmes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thai PTTEP says Arthit field output above forecast

Fri Jun 20, 2008 4:37am BST

BANGKOK, June 20 (Reuters) - Thailand's PTT Exploration and Production PCL PTTE.BK said on Friday its main Arthit natural gas field in the Gulf of Thailand was producing 370 million cubic feet per day, above a previous forecast of 330 million cfd.

The Arthit field, which started up in March, also produced 19,800 barrels per day of condensate, an ultra-light oil, above a forecast of 11,000 bpd, the company said in a statement.

PTTEP is operator of the field and owns an 80 percent stake. Chevron Corp.'s Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production holds 16 percent and Moeco (Thailand), a Thai unit of Mitsui Oil Exploration Co , has the remaining 4 percent.

The Arthit field is a key earnings growth driver for PTTEP as its output should help the company to achieve its 2008 petroleum sales volume target of 223,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, analysts said.

At 0324 GMT, PTTEP shares were up 1.18 percent at 171 baht, while the main Thai index .SETI was up 0.82 percent. (Reporting by Khettiya Jittapong; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)

SOCO to start pumping 16,000 bpd of oil in Thailand

Soco FY profit up, sees two key fields on stream in coming months UPDATE
03.26.08, 5:45 AM ET

LONDON (Thomson Financial) - Soco International PLC reported increased profits in 2007 and announced that two of its key oil fields are on track to be stream in the next few months.

Pretax profit rose to 57.1 mln usd in 2007 from 48.1 mln previously, while net profit grew to 32.3 mln usd from 29.1 mln. Revenue increased to 98.4 mln usd from 76.5 mln on higher oil prices which offset the impact of a fall in production to 6,316 barrels per day from 6,766 barrels.

Ed Story, the chief executive, gave an upbeat view of the future, with two of the group's main projects expected to start production in the next few months.

The CNV field in Vietnam will be on stream in the middle of 2008, while first oil from the Bualuang field in Thailand is expected in the second quarter.

'With near term production from the CNV field in Vietnam and the Bualuang field in Thailand, medium-term development and exploration upside in Vietnam and long-term exploration potential in West Africa, we are very optimistic about Soco's future growth prospects,' he said.

Story told Thomson Financial News in a phone interview CNV is capable of producing around 20,000-25,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, while Bualuang could pump around 16,000 barrels of oil a day. Soco holds a 25 pct stake in CNV and a 40 pct interest in Bualuang.

Oil from Bualuang will be supplied to domestic refineries, while output from CNV will be exported to Japan. These projects would 'far more than replace the production we will lose from the sale of the assets in Yemen,' Story said. Soco gets its existing production from the East Shabwa field in Yemen, in which it partly owns. Last month, the group agreed to sell its operations in Yemen in China's Sinochem Petroleum Ltd for 465 mln usd in cash. The deal is expected to be completed next month.

Proceeds from the disposal will fund the group's aggressive exploration and development projects, including the TGT field on Block 16-1 in Vietnam. Soco said it is confident TGT will be declared ready for commercial development before the end of the first half.

Story said the consortium developing TGT, in which Soco is a 30 pct shareholder, will be embarking on a 'fast-track' programme aimed bringing the field on stream by 2010.

TGT is expected to initially pump around 50,000 barrels a day, which could go up to 150,000 barrel, Story added.

For 2008, Soco is allocating 180 mln usd to fund its ongoing projects, the same amount it spent in 2007, he said. The group's capital spending rose to 179 mln usd in 2007 from 114 mln usd last time.

monicca.egoy@thomson.com