Saturday, September 20, 2008

Out of Sight ... Out of Mind

I'm pleased to say that for the better part of the next two months, I shall be performing on board cruise ships sailing outside of most satellite footprints! That means limited (or no ) TV reception.

Therefore, I won't be subjected to 24/7 news cycles on Cable News Channels until November 5th - the day after if the US Election!!

I won't obsess over the Dow, S&P & NASDAQ every time it moves up or down.

Pakistan, Iraq, Georgia, North Korea, Bolivia, Venezuela & Russia will only be geographical points of reference and not powderkegs.

I won't be able to track Cape Verde low pressure systems awaiting updates every four hours.

Britney can do whatever she's going to do without me knowing about it.

And best of all....

I'll have absolutely no idea if OJ is guilty!!

News stressing you out too? Take a cruise!!!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

All Fall Down

Back on June 2oth, I posted a blog about the upcoming financial crisis that was looming.

Here's the article I referenced.

RBS issues global stock and credit crash alert
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor Last Updated: 2:50pm BST 18/06/2008

The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks."

A very nasty period is soon to be upon us - be prepared," said Bob Janjuah, the bank's credit strategist.

At the time I said,

"If there ever was a time to seriously pay attention to the markets, that time is now.
For the time being, I'm keeping my money under the mattress!!"

Today financial analysts from Bloomberg to CNBC are all saying "Cash is King". I'm not a financial expert, but I have to believe they are right.

The Russian Stock Market abruptly suspended trade yesterday. AIG gets a multi Billion dollar Government bailout, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Dow dips below 11,000 get the idea.

Personally, I don't have any money in the market ... and for that I'm very thankful.

With global inflation, financial uncertainty, natural disasters (Ie: Hurricane Ivan) and the geo-political instability from North Korea to Georgia, things haven't looked this dire in a long, long time.

I've already paid all my major bills (Rent, Insurance, Wifi, Cable, Utilities etc.) through the end of 2009, stocked up on non-perishable food and eliminated all credit card debt.

In other words, I'm hoping for the best ... but preparing for the worst.

The answer was... Terry Tapes!!

It was 30 years ago, 1978, when I attended my first Banjo Convention.

Hosted by Horis Ward, the Southland Banjorama held at Stone Mountain, Ga, was an eye opening affair. I had recently bought a tenor banjo in a pawn shop for $35 and struggled mightily to teach myself the basics of the instrument.

In Charleston SC, where I lived, there were no banjo teachers and so everything I knew about the instrument came from Mel Bay Instruction books.

I was encouraged to attend by Pat Terry Jr. & Randy Morris, two of the best banjoists at Walt Disney World. The three day event was both inspiring and intimidating.

I never took my banjo out of it's case. I did, however listen & learn.

There were banjo players there of all ages and playing abilities. Some were brilliant soloists such as Tim Allen while others were retirees who happily chunked chords in banjo bands.

Despite the fact I only knew three chords, I was hooked. I knew I would eventually play banjo...and play it professionally!

What followed were years of agonizing practice (not for me but definitely for my neighbors!) and, thankfully the encouragement of banjo players such as Eddie Erickson, Pat Terry, Randy Morris etc.

Pat Terry had just released a series of cassette tapes that taught basic tenor banjo. They were called Terry Tapes. His idea was that people learn an instrument quicker if they can see & hear their progress from the beginning.

From the very first tape, you learned to play a "real" arrangement of a popular song. Most learning systems emphasized scales and obscure songs that you'd never play except as finger exercises. With Pat's system, you'd were playing "Yes Sir, That My Baby", from the very first day.

I won't kid you and say it was easy. It wasn't. The tapes did keep me interested and the fact I could "almost" recognize what I was attempting to play, gave me the motivation to keep trying.

Would I have still become a banjoist without Terry Tapes? We'll never know, but they were definitely a great help in my career.

Pat is still playing banjo at Disney World. He still sells "Terry Tapes" - although they now include CD's & Video Tapes.

You can learn more about Pat & his teaching method at

Friday, September 12, 2008

(Very) Low Season in Thailand

Thai Tourism Services reports that the recent political turmoil has already affected tourism both in the short - and medium-term, with the number of international arrivals having fallen by 70 per cent.

That is truly a shame.

While news reports play up the conflict, there is very little evidence on the street of any strife beyond the confines of Government House (Bangkok) where protesters have been having a sit-in for several weeks.

My friends in Bangkok say life goes on pretty much as normal and, for those of us living on the eastern seaboard there is little evidence (other than the lack of tourists) that anything is amiss.

I hope this avoidance of Thailand is short-lived. There are few places more enchanting than my adopted home.

When travelling, it is always prudent to be aware of your surroundings and pay heed local warnings. That being said, few places are safer for tourists than Thailand.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Another Year in Paradise

As an Ex-Pat living in Thailand, I am required to renew my Non Immigrant - O "Retirement" Visa every year before Dec 8th.

It's a relatively simple process, I go to my Bank and get a letter confirming my current account balance (it must be in excess of 800,000 Baht), bring two passport size photos, fill out a one page form, pay the processing fees and it's pretty much a "rubber stamp" process.

Thailand allows Visa holders to renew up to three months early, so I opted to renew on my first eligible day.

While many Ex-Pats will go stand in line at Immigration and "Do it Yourself", I recommend using a reputable Visa Service (I use Key Visa) to handle the whole process. I simply dropped by passport & paperwork off at their office at 11am and came back at 4pm to retrieve my documents.

So now I'm welcome in the Land of Smiles until Dec 2009!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Remembering Michael Fultz

Michael Roe Fultz
05/27/46 - 08/18/08
Mike Fultz was a long time friend, fellow Thailand Ex-Pat and Banjo Player. He passed away in August after a long battle with heart disease.

Making his home in Bangkok, Thailand for more than 20 years, his "Land of Smiles" as he always liked to say, and working for Airborn Freight, Mike left this world on Aug 18th after suffering a heart attack on Jan. 25th.

Mike loved Thailand. He spoke Thai fluently and loved sharing his adopted homeland with friends and family. When I first moved to Thailand, Mike was there with helpful advice and took the time to introduce me to other ex-pats in the area.

Mike knew he was living on borrowed time as he had previous bouts with heart disease. He spoke freely about his desire to be cremated at a local Wat (Temple) and have his ashes remain in Thailand.

Although he loved life, he was at peace with his fate. A very Thai virtue.

Many in the banjo world were not familiar with Mike due to the fact he left the United States two decades ago. He was a very skilled Plectrum Banjoist.

Farewell Mike, you will be missed.

Bangkok Dangerous

No, not a comment on current news reports.

Bangkok Dangerous is the new Nicolas Cage film released this weekend.

This action film about a hitman who's in Bangkok to pull off a series of jobs, falls for a local woman and bonds with his errand boy is actually a remake of a 1999 asian film by the same directors (the Pang Brothers).

I saw it Saturday night in Pattaya after reading less than stellar reviews in the newspapers. While certainly not a great film, Bangkok Dangerous is not awful. If I had paid $12 in NYC to see it instead of $2.50 in Thailand, I might not be so charitable.

The film is loud, violent ( I lost track of how many bodies) and relies on one of the oldest plots in the book - the Hit Man who finds love and wants to "quit after one more job".

I like seeing movies filmed in locations I know well ( Interview With the Vampire was fun for me mainly because of the New Orleans locations). The film uses both the typical "seedy" locales such as Patpong as well as some of the more beautiful places around Bangkok.

I wouldn't rush out to see it, no doubt it will be rushed to DVD fairly quickly.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Georgia On Their Mind?

Two weeks ago I was on board the cruise ship SUN PRINCESS sailing on a 75 day Pan Pacific cruise.

On of our stops was supposed to be Petropavlovsk, Russia.

We arrived on time ( 5am) but hours later, almost half of the ship's passenger's had not been processed by Immigration Officials.

As a result, many of our guests never saw Russia.

As this was during the height of the Russian - NATO tensions over Georgia, many of us thought this might be "retribution" by the authorities.

Upon returning home, I found this news article on the web...

[Sydney Morning Herald]

About 1600 Australian cruise ship passengers were forced to wait in a Russian port for five hours today, as local authorities took hours to make a series of passport inspections.

The Sun Princess, which left Sydney on July 14 carrying 2000 passengers - mostly Australians - was held in the port of Petropavlovsk on Russia's east coast as the Russian navy checked and re-checked every passport.

Fairfax Media understands the cruise ship was blocked from leaving the port by two naval frigates.

"We were meant to leave at 4.30pm, but they didn't let us go until 9.30," one passenger, Ellie Fitz-Gerald from Sydney said.

"It was very frustrating. They came on to collect the passports at 5.30am - all they had to do was stamp them. But they took forever to process them. Some people couldn't even get off the boat because the authorities wouldn't give their passports back. They were just stuck on the boat. Then they insisted on checking them all again. The captain was furious."

Local authorities did not explain why they had kept the boat so long.

However, the port of Petropavlovsk has played a role in the stoush between Russia and NATO over the decision of the former to send troops in Georgia.

News website reported on August 19 that Russia had refused to allow a US warship into Petropavlovsk as part of the NATO-led Open Spirit 2008 naval exercise, because of the body's support for Georgia.

Australia has close ties with NATO and has spoken against the invasion of Georgia.

Personally, I never saw any kind of "blockade" and never heard about it until I read the article.

Was this a slap in the face directed by the Kremlin or simply an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a port not accustomed to clearing 1600 passports in a timely manner, I cannot say.

I've seen Immigration Authorities derail cruise passenger plans in countries around the world without any explanation much to the dismay of the Ships' Captain & Staff without an international incident in the mix.

While very unfortunate (although from everyone I spoke with who got ashore, those stuck on board didn't miss much!), the fact is that whenever you enter ANY country you are there only with their permission - and it can de denied or withdrawn at any time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Thailand Unrest???

As many people know from watching the news, there is a lot of politcal turmoil in Thailand these days.

I've received numerous emails from concerned friends regarding my safety. Rest assured, I'm fine.

While the politcal theater plays out on the streets of Bangkok, here in Jomtien Beach life goes on pretty much as normal.

There are no tanks in the street (nor were they here during the coup in 2006), restrictions, check points etc. All in all, pretty much a non -event.

Tourism will no doubt take a turn for the worse as news media fans the flames. That is indeed unfortunate. Thailand is one of the safest countries in the world - that's why when violence occurs it's big news, I guess.

As we've learned in the US, democracy ain't pretty and politics is worse.

Dollar Up Baht Down

For an ex-pat living abroad ( a redundent phrase, I know), watching the currency market is a daily exercise.

For the past two years, it's not been pleasant for Americans. When I first came to Thailand in 2006, one US Dollar bought 40 Baht. As recent as two months ago , one US Dollar bought ony 32 Baht.

That's a 20% decline in spending power.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. The US Dollar is rebounding and now buys 34.5 baht.

Will the days of 40 Baht = 1 US$ return? Hard to say, there are so many factors both internally & internationally at play.

With worldwide inflation at a decade high, I'll happily take what ever improvement comes along.