As you travel up the peninsula from Singapore, things get more chaotic, more exotic, more Asian. For sheer density of activity, Hong Kong represents the peak, with things getting a bit more orderly as you head north towards Korea and Japan. Orderly is, of course, relative by Asian standards; the chaos level of any of these places is several orders of magnitude over any U.S. city.
For mystery, though, you find your peak load in Bangkok. This was my tenth visit to Bangkok and I still had only a vague inkling of how the place worked. The chaos is there, but unlike Hong Kong, you can’t get a handle on it. Things are happening, but you don’t know what, and nobody stops to tell you.
With the temperature a balmy 85° F and the Thais all wearing sweaters to ward off the cold, I set out on foot down Ploenchit Road to find the stock exchange. Dozens of large construction projects were all packed in together, part of Bangkok’s expansion as the only real city in a country with the fastest growing economy in the world. For years, the growth in GNP had been averaging over 7 percent per year and from 1987 to 1990, GNP grew at an amazing 11 percent per year.
Each construction site was packed with a hundred or more laborers from the Isan northeast of Thailand, near the Laotian and Cambodian borders. Teenage boys and girls worked alongside a few older workers in their 20s or 30s. They would stay at the same site for weeks or even months, living in the building as it shot up. A dozen or so food stalls clustered around each site, with old ladies and young girls making Isan food such as the fiery som tam, a papaya and chili salad made with lime juice and fish sauce (and, in the more authentic versions of the dish, served with crickets or land crabs for that extra crunch). Other stalls had dried fish, sticky rice, or grilled chicken, with construction workers ambling from one to the other, poking at the food and trying to decide what to eat.
The morning rush hour was in full swing and I waited at the intersection with Wittayu Road, watching the police in their traffic booth act as DJs, interspersing jaunty music with inspirational speeches intended to motivate motorists and pedestrians to conduct their business with dispatch. Of course, everybody went their own way. This particular section of Ploenchit road had once been designated by the police chief as a “traffic law observance zone,” a title that did more to underscore the status of laws as suggestions than it did to convince anybody to change their driving habits.
Wittayu road is a wide, shaded boulevard, lined with embassies and a few fancy hotels. I walked past the Imperial Hotel, site of the annual Fourth of July festival that offers free vasectomies and hot dogs. This event is sponsored by a Thai non-profit family planning and rural development group I had worked with.
My appointment was at the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) with Dr. Surat Palalikit, a senior vice-president in charge of the MIS operation. I presented my business card to the security guard, announcing myself in Thai. He nodded and picked up the phone.
“A farang is here for Dr. Surat,” he said. Except for a few close friends, Thais always refer to me as “farang,” a foreigner, rather than by name. I occasionally bridled at being called “Mr. Foreigner,” but realized that my name was virtually unpronounceable in Thai. The closest people usually got was “Mah-Lah-Moo” which translates into Thai as “come hunt the pig.”
Dr. Surat was an energetic man, full of charm and speaking perfect English. Trained as a molecular chemist, he had been a professor at both Mahidon and Chulalongkorn Universities, two of the top Thai schools.
A lack of computers made it challenging to do much research in molecular chemistry, so Dr. Surat decided to moonlight. A friend of his ran Chase Manhattan’s computers in Thailand and asked Dr. Surat to supervise the creation of a general ledger system.
The system went in and worked. His friend was promoted to Hong Kong and Dr. Surat was given the job as EDP manager. After a couple of years doing that, he supervised the creation of an ATM network linking seven large banks. It was evident that, by now, molecular chemistry was a hobby and he had found his calling in the financial markets.
At that time, the Stock Exchange of Thailand was running a few PCs on a local area network. A committee was formed to go up to Taiwan and investigate their EDP system and Dr. Surat was invited along. The Taiwanese exchange was working well and it was evident that Thailand needed to engage in some form of expansion to support a rapidly growing stock market.
The choice was whether to make or buy a system. Dr. Surat presented the case for buying as much as possible, so strongly that they made him the EDP manager. That’s when Dr. Surat met Mary Jo Moccia, the person who had built the Midwest Stock Exchange system from the ground up and was porting her solution to stock exchanges all over the world.
I had met Mary Jo on my trip to Thailand the previous year. We had sat next to each other for six hours on a plane and spent the time talking about everything from DECnet bugs to the differences in CPU architectures and their implication for efficient database engines to the long-term financial viability of DEC.
Gruff, chain smoking, highly technical, everybody who worked with Mary Jo described her as one of the best MIS managers they had ever met. We had both been staying at the Regent Hotel, and all week I kept bumping into her. My consulting was done at the end of the week, and we had made tentative plans to get together Saturday morning for breakfast.
Saturday morning, I picked up the phone and asked the operator to connect me to Mary Jo’s room.
“I’m sorry, but she has passed away,” was the reply. Thinking this was some kind of bizarre translation problem, I went downstairs to investigate.
While I was trying to get a manager at the desk, one of her staff passed by and overheard my conversation. I found out that Mary Jo had gone to bed after her weekly get-together with her staff and died during the night.
Four very young, very shocked staff members stood around not knowing what to do. A U.S. embassy official took care of the details and got them booked on the next flight home, coincidentally the same flight I took.
I tried briefly to cheer them up, but there is really nothing you can say or do that will help in such a situation. I wrote an obituary for Computerworld, but the gesture felt empty and meaningless in the face of such a sudden and tragic loss.
Dr. Surat and I talked about Mary Jo Moccia and it was evident that in the year that had passed since her death the project had gotten back on track, but the loss still hurt.
SET had resisted the temptation to run their operation on a large IBM or a fault-tolerant platform like Stratus or Tandem. Instead, their system was based on distributed minicomputers and workstations, centered around a fairly small VAX Cluster.
The back-end matching system, which takes care of the mechanics of buying and selling, is a cluster of two VAX 6510s. Three VAX 3800 systems provide front-end processing to the network of 40 brokers. Each broker has a choice of an IBM AS 400, a Stratus, or DEC equipment.
All the SET VAXen share an Ethernet segment. The brokers connect to the front end VAXen using simple leased lines. Since no modems are involved (and leased lines are hard to hack), security is fairly straightforward.
In case the computer-to-computer links between the front-end systems and the brokers fail, each broker also has a terminal connecting to a terminal server on the SET Ethernet. The terminals function as a backup in case the fancier front-end system goes down.
The day before I visited, the SET had reached an all-time high volume of 8.585 billion baht (U.S. $343 million). The day I was there, as the Bangkok Post screamed out the next day, “the bull turned bionic,” reaching a total volume of 12.341 billion baht. The business section of the Post also went bionic, raving on about the “Super Bull” and the “Galloping Bull,” and generally carrying this metaphor so far that I felt like reaching for a shovel.
Despite the metaphors, things were pretty calm at the exchange offices. People drifted in and out of Dr. Surat’s office, sat and listened to our conversation for a while, and occasionally he would step out and talk with them for a few minutes.
The system seemed to work fine. One broker switched to the terminal server backup and a meeting was called with the MIS staff and the brokers just to make sure things were under controI. Even the broker’s offices, in a frenzy by Thai standards, seemed fairly calm to me.
While the bull was going bionic, Dr. Surat and I sipped our coffees and chatted about the other two pieces of his MIS operation. One was the price reporting system, designed to feed out status information to the ultra-modern, wall-sized displays on the walls of most brokerages, as well as VT terminals and PCs all over town.
The other big component was called the SET Information Management System. Under development, this system consisted of an IBM RISC processor running AIX and Ingres. Brokers and companies would use this system to enter and retrieve information such as financial statements, profiles, and other fairly static information about stocks traded on the exchange.
I asked how he planned to support generalized dial-in in an environment where security was an issue. We tossed around the idea of a PC with modems, isolated from the net. The PC would accept uploads from people. At the end of the day, simple virus checks and authentication would be run. Then, the modems would be turned off and a switch flipped to connect the PC to the AIX system. The semi-validated data would be loaded into the Ingres database, presumably with more stringent data checking.
Letting the public retrieve information without giving them access to the Ingres engine could be done in a similar fashion, caching standard reports to a PC and then disconnecting it from the net. The database engine could still be available to the brokers over the network, allowing them to retrieve more sophisticated reports.
Like a good consultant, I threw this scheme on the table, then left before the dangers of reality exposed any flaws. Having worked my two hours for the day, I headed up Sarasin road, passed a pushcart selling crab mousse in banana leaf, and stopped in front of the black chicken joint.
This shop specializes in chickens that have been bred to be black all the way through to the bone. The chicken is steeped in medicinal herbs and is considered to be good for all sorts of things like prosperity and virility (although I must admit, it tastes quite similar to your basic New England boiled chicken). I once brought a farang acquaintance in there and, needing one more dish to round out the meal, ordered “chicken leg in garlic sauce.” We were presented with a platter of steamed chicken feet in a sticky gel of garlic and agar.
I turned down Ratjadamri road and walked past the Lumpini Park, one of the few large parks in a city of 8 million people, and headed towards the Bangkok Post. I wrote myself into the visitor log and then reached over the receptionist’s desk and into the top drawer and grabbed a badge. If you execute this maneuver with enough confidence, you walk right in. Show the slightest hesitation, however, and the bored receptionist will confine you to a plastic couch to await an escort.
In the news room, I walked past desks all jammed together, several feet deep in old newspapers, press releases, books, and posters, and sat down at the empty desk of my friend Bob Halliday. Bob is officially a sub-editor, charged with turning copy for the Outlook section into a semblance of English.
He is better known, however, for his book and music reviews. He approaches legendary status in Bangkok for his restaurant reviews, written under a pen name which means Sea Toad in Thai.
Bob and I have an understanding. I bring him offerings of food and he introduces me to some of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. I call him periodically from the States and he briefs me in great detail on the latest saffron chicken joint or some obscure noodle pushcart that has a line of Mercedes a mile long waiting for food.
I dug into my dignified-looking black leather briefcase and pulled out a jar of pickled prunes and the last remaining packet of Astronaut Ice Cream. I also told him about the grisly fate of his salami, destroyed by the Australian meat police, a story so sad that it prompted Bob to wax poetic about a previous batch of sausages I brought over.
After a brief period of contemplation over the salami (Bob was sure that customs in Australia was at that moment gorging themselves on the links that were rightfully his), he began eyeing the ice cream. I insisted that this chalky, freeze-dried substance would have much better ice cream-like qualities if served cold, but I could tell that my arguments were having little weight.
While Bob struggled with this dilemma, I went over to the offices of United Press International to meet a friend who rents space in the back. Peter Jansen is a long-time Asia resident who now writes a report about doing business in Vietnam. Writing about doing business in Vietnam is kind of like writing artificial intelligence programs in Cobol, so I always make a point of looking Peter up to see how he is getting along.
Peter and I walked over to the Dusit Thani hotel and took the elevator up to the top floor. Instead of heading into the penthouse bar, we took a set of stairs marked only with a sign reading “members only” to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Sitting in this quiet bar, surrounded by pictures of wars and riots in Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, we drank a long string of Kloster beers. Most expatriate residents of Thailand prefer Kloster over the better-known Singha, Singha being rumored (probably unjustly) to contain formaldehyde as a preservative against heat.
That night, Bob had a column to write, so we met up with two other friends to do research. Peter Skilling is a noted scholar of Tibetan literature and Norman Bottorff spent years helping to coordinate ABC News coverage for Southeast Asia, including extended stints coordinating the coverage of hot spots like Tienamen Square and the Iran-Iraq war.
The four of us piled into a taxi and headed out to Soi Nana. Our taxi went skidding into a major road and we all groaned as we saw that it was backed up for at least an hour. We piled back out and walked over to Nasir Al-Masri, an Egyptian restaurant that, before the Kuwait war, would have been crawling with Arabs and prostitutes eyeing each other hungrily.
The war had drastically reduced the Arab tourist trade and the restaurant was filled instead with the world traveller set, sitting in pairs looking sophisticated (and bored). We sat down, making lots of noise, and Bob and Peter entered a long, complicated negotiation in Thai with the waiter. Norman and I flagged down another waiter and ordered beer.
First to arrive on our table was a wonderful dish of hummus, labeled on the menu as “creamy stuff of crains Conianing Sesame Paste.” We instantly devoured the first plate and sent the waiter back for more.
Soon, more and more plates arrived, filled with roast lamb, a fava bean salad soaked in garlic, stuffed vegetables, and more. Around us, the world travelers stopped eating and watched the parade of food to our table with growing awe. Mountains of bread disappeared in a flurry as we dipped into plates, stopping only to order yet more food or to hand empty plates to waiters as they passed by.
After 18 plates of food, I could see that we had made the diary of the backpacker sitting next to us. She was so impressed she forgot totally about her own dinner, her mouth opening wider and wider as we went for the world hummus-eating record.
We finished the last of the grilled pigeon and ordered Turkish coffee, served in thimble sized glasses and having the consistency of 40 weight motor oil. Our research done, we paid the bill of 1,500 baht (U.S. $60), quite high by Thai standards, and left.
Friday morning, I walked a block from my hotel to Chitlom Towers to meet Narong Intante, president of the Value Group. Like many Thai companies, this one seemed to have a million names. The lobby listing sent me to the Value Systems Co., Ltd. On the seventh floor, the signs read Value Component Co., and Value Data Co, Ltd.
I sat in the lobby of Value* and sipped my cup of freshly brewed Nescafe. The office was chilled to a level that signified a prosperous company and all the office girls wore heavy coats to ward off the cold.
I was ushered into Khun Narong’s office while he finished up a deal for a whole bunch of workstations to some multinational. The Value Group was the official distributor for Microsoft and I had come to discuss the issue of intellectual property protection. Khun Narong had started the company four years ago as a distributor and it had grown to over 120 people.
I wanted to know more about how you make a killing selling legal software in a country where piracy is not only rampant but almost legal. For 1,000 baht (U.S. $40) a pirate shop will sell you a complete Microsoft Windows, including disks and a photocopy of the manual. For 5,700 baht, you can buy a legitimate copy from Khun Narong.
Value Systems had recently introduced a version of Windows, localized with Thai fonts and a Thai manual for 4,700 baht. To protect their investment, Value was using a hard lock, a piece of hardware that must be present (usually on a serial port) for the software to run.
Selling the simple English version, Narong estimated he had provided only 2 percent of the copies on the market. With the Thai version, however, he was hoping that legal copies would make up 20 percent, or maybe even 30 percent, of the market share.
With no real copyright protection, Narong had to rely on things like support and service to lure in corporations. A few large Thai corporations were beginning to be concerned about image and would buy at least a couple of legal copies to put into their machine rooms. A few even decided that legal copies reduced the amount of internal support needed and were a sound business decision.
Increasingly though, it was a proliferation of viruses that was driving customers into Narong’s hands. Many large corporations had relied exclusively on pirate copies and some were paying the price. I heard from several sources, for example, that one of Thailand’s largest banks had used pirated software not only for PCs but for larger systems as well. My sources informed me that the bank had been hard hit by a particularly virulent strain of virus and had only just recovered.
Did the high price of software in Thailand have anything to do with piracy? One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of software piracy was that legal software was quite expensive, selling for several times the U.S. list price in a country with a much lower standard of living.
Narong saw this as a chicken-and-egg problem. As long as software had no protection, there was no incentive to localize for the Thai market. Lack of Thai language support kept the market low and the prices high.
This argument seemed to confirm an impression I had that most of the piracy was destined for the Thai market. Although I had certainly seen foreigners in the Patpong red light district bring in a laptop and say “fill ‛er up,” the vast majority of the copies made in Thailand were made as an incentive to sell hardware.
I left Narong’s office and went out to the head of the road where a half-dozen teenagers sat passing the time playing checkers with bottle caps on a board marked on the sidewalk in chalk. Every street had one of these groups, serving as a motorcycle ferry to houses located deep within the complex maze of side streets that spread out from each road. Every morning and evening, you could see office girls being shuttled on these bikes, riding sidesaddle in tight skirts and high heels, hanging on nonchalantly with one hand as their chauffeurs went scuttling between lanes and over sidewalks.
That afternoon, I was briefed by a gentleman who insisted that I identify him only as a “diplomat” from a “western embassy.” I reported to the guard post of the Western Embassy, went past two sets of metal detectors and incredible numbers of security guards, and entered the inner sanctum of foreign soil.
There, I learned some of the background on the intellectual property dispute between the U.S. and Thailand. The heart of the problem was the patent law, which had explicitly disallowed protection for pharmaceuticals, leading to a huge market in clones. Drugs can be a touchy trade negotiation issue, especially when a huge American multinational is pitted against a poor, sick Thai child.
With the coup on February 23,1991, a relatively honest government had been put into power, surprising the hell out of the military junta that had installed them to act as puppets. This new government had been diligently at work passing laws, and one that had almost gone into effect was a new patent law.
Likewise, trademark protection was finally going into place. While trademarks had been nominally protected, penalties were so lax that products ranging from perfume to watches to clothing were regularly manufactured and sold both internally and to a huge tourist market. Of course, the pirates don’t always get their copies exact—I remember one Gucci watch knockoff with a picture of Snoopy on the dial.
Copyright is a particularly sensitive issue in Thai politics. There was a 1979 law on the books, but the problem was that the Thai judiciary refused to enforce it, throwing cases out on technicalities. Software was not mentioned in the law at all and no cases had gone to court, so pirates had a virtual carte blanche to operate.
The government of General Prem, the first democratically elected government in Thailand, introduced a new copyright law. The legislation was perceived as a bow to foreign pressure in a country that prides itself on its independence. General Prem’s goverment fell over the issue.
Prem was followed by General Chatchai who had the honor of presiding over one of the most corrupt Thai governments ever. I remember sitting in Bahn Pitsanulok, the opulent former official state guest house and the offices of the Prime Minister’s personal staff. I was talking with one of the most senior members of the Prime Minster’s staff in an on-the-record interview and asked him what the current rate for bribes was on large government projects. He promptly let me know that the usual rate was 10 percent, but that this was, of course, negotiable. This same senior advisor cheerfully admitted that almost all the software in the offices was pirated.
This government was so venal that they were actually hurting business, an unpardonable sin. The military, itself a huge business, stepped in to protect their interests. Later, it came to light that several government ministers had managed to save so much on their meager salaries that in one case a minister increased his net worth by U.S. $50 million during only a few years in office.
The government of the Anand administration was run by a half-dozen technocrats who were busily trying to straighten out the mess of the previous few years. (He was later replaced by Suchinda, the junta leader.) Things were simmering on the diplomatic front and negotiations had gone from the noise and publicity of 301 actions to the back room workings of the diplomatic process. Progress was being made. but no firm results had been achieved.
Back at the hotel, I walked down the deserted hall of the hotel’s shopping arcade, each shop holding one or two very bored-looking attendants, shivering in the cold of the air conditioning. My room was located in a remote wing, absolutely deserted except for the elevator button pusher. This poor kid stood for twelve hours every day in an uncomfortable uniform, his only job being to push the up button if he saw somebody coming to save them any unnecessary wait.
In my room, I needed to recharge my notebook and I noticed that, while I had packed an appropriate two prong adapter, I didn’t have an adapter for the three-prong, grounded plugs. I called housekeeping and a uniformed engineer was sent up. I explained the problem and he nodded and smiled, clearly understanding my dilemma. He reached over and grabbed the ground plug and started to snap it off. I recoiled in horror.
“No, not good,” I protested, grabbing back all three of my prongs and moving to the other side of the room.
“Cut! Cut!” he repeated over and over, chasing after me. The music wafting in from the hall speakers was playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Saturday morning, I went out to the Pratunam area, where textile vendors crowd the sidewalks with bolts of cloth and silk, piled onto tables covered with umbrellas to provide some shade from the overpowering heat. Occasionally, an overloaded motorcycle would dart out of a shophouse and onto the sidewalk, somehow missing the milling crowds, and jump onto the street to go make a delivery.
At the edge of Pratunam is Pantip Plaza, a shopping center with a large number of computer dealers. My favorite copy shop, a little shophouse jammed with 6 PC ATs and 6 young women sitting in front of them keeping the floppies humming, had been torn down. These low-rent retail operations were getting harder to find in Bangkok and most of the businesses had moved into the big shopping centers favored by the Thais, huge air-conditioned atriums with three or four stories of balconies.
Pantip Plaza had its share of computer dealers, and even one or two copy shops, but this was pretty tame stuff compared to the Golden Shopping Center in Hong Kong. At Pantip, there were 20 or 30 shops, and a few had some halfhearted employees sitting around playing games. A few customers drifted by, but most had the slow, purposeless amble of the window shopper.
I snapped a few pictures of pirates in action, then gave up and went down to the S&P Bakery for a dish of rice cooked with shrimp roe and chilies. Roe, of course, being a Thai euphemism on English-language menus for the orange fat in the shrimp’s head.
Dinner that night was at an unassuming little restaurant, a brightly lit room with a few movie posters on the wall and lots of big, round tables, around which were seated large families, each with several generations present. Bottles of Mekong Whisky and soda water and buckets of ice were piled up on little carts next to each table.
We started with grilled pork, doused in a fiery salsa of lime juice, garlic, and chilies and a big bowl of sour soup. The specialty of the house was oysters and mussels, served half-cooked with egg and vegetables, and we consumed a half-dozen plates of this delicious seafood. Dessert was fried taro root, dusted in pistachio and sugar, leaving even Bob so full that we omitted our traditional postdinner search for the ultimate durian ice cream.
Sunday morning, I left the hotel for my usual breakfast of a bowl of noodles from a street stand. Returning to the hotel, I gathered a pile of notebooks, business cards, and photos and walked down to the business center. Two young attendants were seated at the desk, waiting for business. “I’d like to send these papers by Federal Express,” I said. “One hour,” an attendant replied. “Federal Express?” I repeated, with a puzzled look.
“One hour, must go to shop,” the other attendant insisted, reaching for my stack of papers. After repeating this little routine a few times I realized that they were referring to Photo Express, which, of course, didn’t really explain why they thought I wanted to have notebooks developed.
My flight wasn’t until evening, so I had time to have lunch with Bob. We went to an old hangout, the Italian restaurant Pan Pan. Normally, I try to stick to Asian food while in Asia, but Pan Pan is an exception. The Italian food is good and, more importantly, they have excellent durian ice cream.
Durian is one of those mysteries of the East. On the outside, it’s about twice the size of a pineapple, with very sharp spikes about a half-inch tall sticking out all over, making it advisable not to fall asleep under a durian tree at harvest time. Inside, there are a half dozen segments of creamy, pale flesh that looks sort of like a banana. The durian’s most famous feature, however, is its powerful, distinctive smell.
The taste is great, but the smell does tend to dissuade many westerners from taking an immediate liking to the “king of fruits.” I describe it as tasting something like a cross between a mushy banana and brie, but one Englishman I know refers to it as “a bit like eating strawberries and cream in a public lavatory.”
Well, I took an immediate liking to it. The first time I came to Bangkok, a mutual friend of ours, a freelancer who specialized in travel writing and auto magazines, had arranged for Bob to meet me at the airport.
We went straight to a night market where prostitutes, pimps, and the like grab their midnight lunch. I was introduced to a wide variety of tropical fruits, including mangosteens, rambutans, and durians.
On a subsequent trip to Bangkok, I achieved a very modest degree of fame by inventing the durian cheesecake. The creamy durian mixed perfectly with the eggs and cream cheese, and a coconut biscuit crust gave the cake a nice Asian twist. Of course, the cake did still smell like a durian, but for many people that was considered a feature and not a bug. The recipe was an immediate hit at the Post and Bob published it in his column the following week.