Category Archives: Bangkok

Should You Ignore Beggars?

A family I came across, begging in the Nana district of Bangkok....

It kills me every time. Walking past beggars in Bangkok is harder than it is in most of the places I have lived around the world. There is something about the depth of desperation and despair that just feels more acute here.

You may see an amputee with no legs, dragging himself across the sidewalk amidst the storm of pedestrian traffic. Or it may be a mother with two tiny babies, holding up a soda cup on top of a foot bridge.  Or it could be the dad with his two kids (pictured), pleading for change outside 7-Eleven.  It’s hard to know how to respond.

I wrote a post – Should you give to beggars? – when I still lived in Northern California. At the time I lived in a college town with a large population of transient 20 somethings that begged for cash. The knowledge that there were relatively well-funded shelters nearby and the fact that the travelers looked to be in good physical shape made it easier to walk past. In Bangkok, the same is not true.

Here are the questions I struggle with in Bangkok.  I’d would really like to hear your ideas and reactions in the comments. Jammie and I really want to make a difference out here, however we can:

Does the fact that begging is professionally organized make it unwise to give? It’s no secret: begging in Bangkok is an extension of organized crime. Beggars are organized by bosses that function much the same way pimps do in prostitution rings. It is merciless and pure exploitation. There is no doubt the beggar is suffering. The problem with giving them cash is that the money goes back to the bosses and the beggars only get a pittance.  Google “beggar mafia Bangkok” to see what I mean.

Will my giving help? – If the bosses take the cash, how will my giving help? In an immediate sense, giving beggars food instead of cash will help meet needs like basic nutrition. But it does little to address their larger needs like shelter, security and healthcare.

Is it OK to simply help aid organizations? I used to think that the real answer was to give to charitable organizations that would in turn help the people. After spending half a decade in the world of professional fundraising though, I know that a lot of my cash will go to things I don’t support, like executive salaries that are often in the six figure range.

How much is enough? So I am caught in a quandary. I still give to organizations that I believe are ethical, not overly top-heavy and make a difference but between that and the occasional direct gift to someone in need, I think “how much is enough?”

What is the bigger picture? Most professional aid workers I talk to will talk about the big picture of poverty alleviation. Often politics come into play. The right will say that you “have to allow people to fail and learn to help themselves.” The left claims you “can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don’t have boots” and then tries to justify another government program as a solution. I am not convinced by either approach.

No response is going to be perfect (this is easy to see) but this cannot freeze me in undecided inaction. I’ve got to start somewhere.

As mentioned before, Jammie and I are currently working with an orphanage and with prison visitation. We want to expand our work to help homeless beggars. Help us think of an effective way to help beggars by leaving a comment with your thoughts and suggestions. We are all in this together.

Thanks in advance for your comments!




Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand

Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for Religion

In a replica of an old Thai church at Ancient Siam, near Bangkok....

It pissed me off. I just couldn’t handle it. It was as if you had to buy into Jesus before they would help you!” Annika set her coffee cup down hard on the table and looked across at me.

Jammie and I had been doing weekly orphanage and prison visits here in Bangkok as part of our service work. We’d caught wind of some interesting work being done to encourage entrepreneurship among young women in the Bangkok slums and, here I was, quizzing Annika, a Swedish expat, about it.

“I finally had to part ways with the Christians I was working with in the slums,” she said. “I am not a Christian, I just want to help. They, on the other hand seemed to think that it was only OK to help if they racked up a few conversions.”

I sympathized with Annika. I am a Christian and the quid pro quo she was complaining about bothered me too. It reminded me of the time I had done some research on homeless shelters on skid row in Los Angeles. The one I visited made you sit through Christian chapel before they would feed you. I admired the generosity of the shelter and their desire to help. But I couldn’t shake the sick feeling I had about their methods.

It all seemed wrong somehow. Here’s my reasoning. I would love to hear your ideas in the comment section:

1). You are exploiting weakness – All kinds of scandals are bred around aid organizations. When one party with ample resources is helping another that is desperate, power is often abused. When Christian (or other religious) aid organizations require Bible studies, religious services or outright conversion in return for food and shelter, that is exploitation, plain and simple, no matter how much the administrators believe they are “helping”.

2). Faith just doesn’t work that way – You can’t force faith. I find my faith to be the most meaningful thing in my life. But I’m willing to bet that I wouldn’t feel that way if it had been forced on me. There simply is no buy-in with coercion. As the Christian colonizers of old proved when they forced conquered peoples into baptism: faith, when forced, is only skin deep (the locals retained their ancient religious beliefs while putting on an outward religious “show” for their colonizers).

3). The “What’s in it for me?” factor – You can’t offer genuine, focused aid to someone if, all the while, you have an ulterior motive. If you are simply trying to fill pews at church, your “aid” efforts will come across as hollow and insincere. The aid is about the people being reached, not about the giver or his views.

4). Aid becomes a transaction – When people catch on and realize that they simply need to profess faith to receive aid, many will gladly do so. Faith becomes currency and the whole process is corrupted. Rather than help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient, this “faith for aid” transaction encourages dependency and dishonesty.

5). You cheapen religion – I am not against religion. I am actually hugely in favor of a sincere, compassionate, generous out-living of faith through the practice of religion. But trying to purchase believers through aid packages cheapens religion. It is completely shortsighted and makes a mockery of true religion.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with my reasoning. There are passionate defenders of charities and nonprofits that require at least some exposure to religion before they will help the disadvantaged. They argue that this is the best way to really help those that are suffering, that they are helping the “whole” person.

What do you think? Where is the line? What is the best way for religious charities and other organizations to offer help to those that need it? Tell me in the comments.



Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand

8 Things About Hot Thai Girls that Get With Ugly White Men

Soi Cowboy - one of Bangkok's main red light districts....

I grew up seeing it all the times in the Philippines. I even wrote a CultureMutt post about it a while ago: ugly old white guys with hot Filipina girls. Although it was surprising at first, you got used to seeing it. As soon as Jammie and I landed in Thailand we started to see the same thing here. Only it was even more prevalent. AND it felt like there was an even seedier undertone.

Everywhere you look in the touristy corners of Bangkok, white, middle-aged travelers have a hot Thai girl in tow. Jammie and I have asked our local friends about this and here are a few explanations we’ve been given for why Thai girls go for these men:

Worst Case Scenario – As depressing as it is, it needs to be said: prostitution is alive and well in Bangkok. Areas like Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy are teeming with sexpats and Asian prostitutes. For many, prostitution has become a form of modern-day slavery.

Jammie and I will be collaborating with a group that is working to prevent child prostitution later during our stay in Thailand. Key to solving the problem is presenting viable economic alternatives to families. Prostitution has often been seen as the most lucrative profession for young women with little education and other earning options. One of the best ways to fight prostitution is to present better ways to earn a living.

White Men are Seen As Affluent – A lot of older white men in Thailand are traveling on little more than their Social Security checks. Although this is not much to live on back home, this income puts them in a higher income category than most Thais. So the stereotype of the wealthy white foreigner is understandable. Just as rich guys in the West attract hot women, white men here are seen as wealthy and therefore attract hot Thai girls.

Better Living in Thailand – The dollar or euro stretches far in Thailand and the average old white guy looking for a hot Thai girl is going to live at a relatively high standard of living while they are in Thailand. Even if there is nothing else in the cards, this alone will motivate some Thai women to want to be with tourists.

A Way Out of Thailand – Here’s the bigger goal for many Thai women: go home with the tourist. As in all the way home and out of Thailand. And that’s how you get old white guys hobbling around with hot Thai girls back home. It looks crazy but when you understand why it happens, it starts to explain things.

They Actually Prefer White Guys – This part came as a bit of a surprise to me. And it’s good news for white dudes wanting to snag a hot Thai girl: she may actually prefer white guys. For reasons other than just finances. What are these reasons? Keep reading.

They Think White Men Will Be Better Husbands – It is a sad nonsecret in Thailand. Married Thai men often have mistresses. Now obviously marital unfaithfulness is not exactly rare in the US or Europe either. The difference comes in the degree of social acceptance of mistresses. It happens a lot in Thailand. Much more than it does in Western countries.

And Better Boyfriends Single Thai guys often have lots of different girls going at the same time. Again, I’m not saying that you don’t get a lot of players stateside but the idea of only having one girlfriend at a time is more of a cultural norm in the West.

Thai women know all this and therefore many of them prefer the farang (foreigner) because he is more likely to be faithful.

They Find White Guys Exotic – Here’s a crowd pleaser to end with. Whenever you are up against a numbers game and a certain kind of man is a rarity, the laws of supply and demand come into play. One trend that I have seen more and more of over the years in Asia is hot local girls with equally attractive foreigners. At least part of the reason for this is a much more “normal” one: opposites attract and because there aren’t a lot of foreigners around they are a bit of a catch.

Over to you: Are you in an interracial relationship in Thailand or Asia? Or do you know someone that is? How would you add to the above list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Happy Valentines from Bangkok!! And Bjorn Lying on a Bed of Nails.

Happy Valentines 2013 from Bangkok!!

Here’s a little break from the usual programming to share a little video adventure of our Valentine’s Day in Bangkok.  We’ve got clips from our Valentines adventure all over the city, including one of me lying on a bed of nails.  Enjoy!



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Hate the Bangkok Traffic? The Chao Praya River is Your Friend.

Chillin' on an Express Boat...

I love Bangkok.  It is one of the most amazing cities I have ever experienced.  But as with most great cities, traffic is a problem. One way to get around this is to get creative with your choice of Bangkok transportation. One of my favorites is the Express Boat on the Chao Praya River. It is fast, it is fun and there’s an amazing view of the city. Here’s a video I put together on the basics plus a few steps below on how to get from A to B using this form of Bangkok transportation:

1) Decide where you want to go.  Each of the stops are both numbered and named and there is a map of the river at each stop.  Express Boats go very regularly so there won’t be much of a wait (an average of 5-10 minutes)

This screen shot was captured on my phone while we were on the river...

2)  Board the Express Boat quickly when it arrives.  You have to be ready exactly when the boat arrives or you will be left behind.  As you can see from the video, the staff are loud and adamant about the fact that they are on a schedule.  Don’t mess with them.  Just board and move into the boat as quick as you can unless you want to get yelled at.

3)  Pay your fare.  Depending on where you are going you will pay 10 – 30 baht (the upper end is just over $1.00 USD).

4)  Enjoy the ride. The Express Boat has offered me the best panoramic views of Bangkok so far.  Even as pure sight seeing, this is a lot of fun (and cheaper than other more touristy tour options).

5)  Keep track of where you get off.  As you approach each stop, look out for the sign with the name of the stop and the number.  This way you won’t miss your stop.

6)  Hop off quickly.  As you can see from the video, hustle is key on the Express Boat.  Get with the program and make sure you don’t hold up the line…



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


60 Seconds of Bangkok – Khao San Road

If you’ve seen The Beach, you saw Leonardo DiCaprio drink snake blood on Khao San Road. If you saw The Hangover Part II, you saw Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis panic all over Bangkok but, interestingly, none of the scenes were shot on Khao San Road. This may have been because Khao San Road has so many foreigners it doesn’t look remotely scary in real life. At any rate, this 60 Seconds of Bangkok video gives you some live night footage featuring the backpacker haven of Bangkok, Khao San Road. Enjoy!



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand

How to get a tourist visa for Thailand

Here's what I gave the Thai embassy in Laos

The food, the smiles, the sun and endless adventure opportunities make Thailand one of the most hospitable countries on earth. Once you get to Thailand you often end up staying longer than you first intended. The problem that a lot of tourists come across is that they have not thought far enough ahead to get a 60-day tourist visa for Thailand at the Thai embassy before they left home for Thailand. Instead, they simply get the 30-day stamp at immigration when they land in Bangkok. When they realize they want to stay longer, they are in a mess.

Jammie and I freely admit that we belong to this latter group that did not seek a tourist visa for Thailand before leaving home. We had assumed that we would be given a 90-day stamp at the airport.  No such luck.  All you get in Thailand is 30 days.  So we had to leave Thailand on a “visa run” to the Thailand embassy in Laos. Luckily, it worked very smoothly. Here’s what you do:

1). Pick a visa run service. Don’t do a visa run on your own. It is technically possible but it takes longer and it is very messy. If you have an experienced agency working on your behalf you benefit from their experience and connections at the border. You are less likely to be ripped off and there will be less waiting around. We picked Meesuk Travel based on great reviews from friends and we highly recommend their services.

2). Pay up. All told we paid 6,500 baht each (about $220). This was an all-inclusive fee. All the steps that follow (with the exception of a few dollars spent on incidentals) were covered by this upfront fee.

3). Speed through the night. We met the group at a KFC at 7:00 in the evening. Fees were paid and papers processed by 9:00 PM and then we were off to get our tourist visa for Thailand. The trip up to the Laotian border was fast (about 9 hours), even with bathroom breaks every two hours.

At the border...

4.) Arrive at the Thai/Laotian border before dawn. We were at the border to Laos before dawn. There was an hour-long wait at the border before our papers were processed to enter communist Laos.

5). Let agents work immigration. As mentioned, trying to get your own tourist visa for Thailand on a border-hopping visa run, is a bad idea. Let the agents work their magic. I talked to enough people that assured me that the hookups that the agents bring to the table are worth their weight in gold.

lookin' crazy at the Thai embassy... I was barely awake...

6.) Breeze through the Thai embassy in 15 minutes. We were in and out of the Thai embassy in Laos in under 15 minutes. You have to be physically present to submit your application for a tourist visa to Thailand but as soon as you have done so, you can leave the rest to the embassy and your trusty agents.

7.) Crash at the hotel. We got to our hotel by about 10 AM and were exhausted. So after a buffet breakfast we collapsed in our hotel room until dinner.

Jammie loving the Patuxai victory monument in the heart of Vientiane

9.) Live large in Vientiane. But after dinner we were able to explore Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I’ll talk more about some of the attractions in Laos in an upcoming post but for now I’ll say that it was one of the most charming towns I’ve visited in Asia PLUS it offered great views of the Mekong River.

10). Agents pick up passports. The next day, agents pick up your passport and then it is time to cross the border back into Thailand. This was another hour-long wait but considering we now had our tourist visa for Thailand, we happily ambled around the duty free store, content that the hard part was done.

tired but happy back at the Thai border

11). Go home. It was great to re-enter Thailand! We slept much of the trip home but when we stumbled into our Bangkok apartment at about midnight we were very happy campers. Mission accomplished!

Anyone want to add their tips for getting a tourist visa for Thailand? Have any questions? Tell me in the comment section!



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand

Little Phop and why this round-the-world trip isn’t just a big vacation

Pop star Ricky Martin plays with orphans at a Thai Red Cross Children’s Home in Bangkok on Wednesday
As no pictures are allowed for regular visitors at the Thai Red Cross Children's Home, I poked around on Google Images until I found this pic of Ricky Martin visiting the home:)

You may have read my post about my first meeting with 3 year-old Phop, last week.  It was my first real volunteer opportunity since landing in Bangkok and I felt like I had really connected with Phop.  I had heard that the Thai Red Cross Children’s Home had been able to identify a family for him so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to see him again this week when I went to volunteer.  But he was there!

As much as I am delighted that he has a family that will take him in, I was very happy to see Phop.  This time around he was a lot more cooperative.  Last week I literally had to carry him for almost the entire 2-hour visit.  This time (thanks to my wife Jammie’s coaching), I got him to interact a bit more with the rest of the people in the play room.  He was really into his own version of kickball!

All went well until I left the play room to go to the bathroom.  Apparently he cried nonstop until I got back.  I felt special:)  It was one of those moments when I could more clearly see the deeper purpose behind our round-the-world trip.

When Jammie and I were still just thinking about taking a year to travel we had some really strong feelings about how we wanted the year to look. Yes, we wanted adventure. Yes, we wanted to experience life in other countries. And yes, we wanted to eat amazing food. But these things were not enough. We weren’t looking for just a big vacation.

We wanted the trip to actually mean something. And the way we wanted to find this meaning was through volunteering for good causes.  We were really intent on finding excellent volunteer opportunities.

Where to start?

The only problem was that we did not know where to start. Should we volunteer to tutor people in English? Feed the homeless at a shelter? Help care for endangered animals? Fight human trafficking? Each volunteer opportunity seemed worthy.

Shaking things up

We decided that instead of signing up with a volunteer organization before we arrived in the Bangkok (the first of the four cities we had selected to live in for three months each) we would check out volunteer opportunities after we arrived.

We had both done things the other way around before (signing on the dotted line with an organization before you arrive in a country for volunteer work) and for a number of reasons we wanted the freedom this time around to pick and choose after actually visiting the service locations.

That is what we have started to do in Bangkok. Because the Thai Red Cross Children’s home volunteer opportunity has been working so well, I have committed to going every Monday for starters. I may go more often if I decide to make this my main service project in Bangkok.

English tutoring.

English language teachers are in extremely high demand here. Both Jammie and I have been offered paid jobs. On our shoestring budget it’s a little tempting to take people up on the offers. But the point in this year was and is to travel and find international volunteer opportunities, not simply to find new full time jobs in Thailand. (For those that may be interested in full time teaching work in Thailand, I’ll have a future post about it and why it is a unique way to make and save money.)  For now we are holding off from the paid positions.

But just the fact that we weren’t looking for teaching jobs doesn’t mean that we couldn’t tutor people in English for free. Jammie has volunteered to tutor our apartment caretaker’s teenage daughter in English. She’s had one session so far and the language barrier was tough to deal with but she did really well and I am proud of her.

Thank you to everyone that is helping!

After hearing what this year is all about, so many people have stepped up to help us. I have lost count of how many times people have hooked us up by blog comments, emails and in-person conversations.  So far the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok, the Scandinavian Society, the Church of Sweden and Capitol Toastmasters have been very helpful in terms of finding us local connections.   Thanks everyone!!



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Photo Quiz Time! Bangkok, San Francisco, Los Angeles or London?

Siam Paragon, a mall in Bangkok

I haven’t yet said enough about the obscene amount of mall and brand shopping that is to be done in Bangkok.  Partly because we aren’t really doing much shopping (we can’t carry the shopping in our luggage and we don’t want to spend the money) and partly because it is hard to know where to start.  There is just so much.

But just in case you thought of Bangkok simply as temples, backpackers and go-go bar craziness a la Hangover 2, here is a little photo quiz that hopefully will illustrate a little bit about a side of Bangkok that cannot be ignored if you are here.

For each pic, guess where it was taken – options available are Bangkok, San Francisco , Los Angeles or London.  (Hint, 3 of the cities are represented in the pictures)

1)  OK, easy one to start with – where could you get Ronald McDonald posing like this next to Colonel Sanders?

2)  Alright, feeling confident?  Is this Guess store in LA, San Francisco, London or Bangkok?

3)  You already know I am way into IKEA.  Where is this IKEA?

4)  And where is this picture taken?

Chinese American woman storeowner in Chinatown San Fransisco, CA USA

5)  How about this one?

6)  One of these New Look Stores is in the UK, the other is in Bangkok, which is which?




7)  Anyone a Mrs. Field’s cookie fan?  Where is this picture taken?

OK, so this one is a little too obvious, too many Thais:)

8)  OK, Forever 21 devotees, where is this store located?

9)  This is my personal bias coming through here.  I couldn’t write this post without including my second home.  Where is this Starbucks?

10)  And finally, where is this mall entrance?

Think you got them right?  Here are the answers:

1) Bangkok

2)  Bangkok

3) Bangkok

4) San Francisco

5)  Bangkok

6)  a) London  b) Bangkok

7)  Bangkok

8)  Bangkok

9)  Bangkok

10)  Bangkok




Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand


Meet Phop, the coolest 3 year-old in Bangkok

Pictures inside the children's home were forbidden so this was the best I could get...

He was bawling his little lungs out when they handed him to me. I was on my first visit to the Thai Red Cross Children Home in Bangkok and when a staff member handed little Phop over to me, I was immediately nervous.

I carried him to the play room, following the other volunteers that had come with the Church of Sweden. Every one else had a quiet, obedient child in their arms. I had landed the vocal 3 year-old.

“Phop always cries,” explained Mimi, one of the other volunteers. I tried bouncing him up and down as I carried him around the play room. No luck, he was still screaming. I tried to distract him with a stuffed toy. Even worse. “I’m on to your tricks!” it seemed he was saying.

“It’s OK buddy,” I tried. “Here, how about this toy?” The action figure I held up drew a brief flicker of interest (he was wearing action figure PJs) and then it was back to bawling. Just as I started despairing that I would be the only volunteer who could not handle a kid, Phop, calmed down and stopped screaming. A miracle!

I tried putting him down. Maybe he wanted to play? Nope. He was clearly not interested. He just wanted to be carried around. So we walked around the play room looking at the other volunteers and toddlers, me talking to him and him content to have an adult all to himself.

And that’s how it went for two whole hours, with a break where he let me feed him chicken noodles and an obsession with standing on the windowsill for the last five minutes. Then it was all over, I handed Phop back to the staff, I saw him run over to his crib and jump in.

“It’s always hardest for us to say goodbye at the end,” offered another volunteer. Indeed it was. I hope to see you again, Phop.



Bjorn Karlman

Bangkok, Thailand