Customer Service in Thailand (Aqua Filter Part 2)

The experience of customer service in Khrungthep vascilates between the obnoxious (see “Aqua Filter” previously) and surprising.  On Sunday I encountered the surprising, which was… in a word, surprising.


Our Electrolux coffee brewer, which we had purchased in January, crapped out on us shortly before my trip to the United States in March.  For weeks now we’ve made do with a single serving size French press brewer.  Coffee for two takes a long time and is quite involved. 


Replacing the brewer would run us at least 1500 baht (US$ 40) and that would get us the same thing we had before.  Nicer models were well north of that point.  I asked whether there were any places to repair small appliances.  Tawn suggested that we bring it back to Central, the department store where it was purchased, to see if they’d do anything for us.


Thailand is known for its friendly service, but not for its “the customer is always right” attitude.  From my experience travelling, the US really is home to the best customer service.  You can bring almost anything back any time and you’re likely to get a replacement or some compensation.  That is not the case here. 


But we decided to try.  So we brought the coffee maker into the store in a canvas tote bag and took it to the home electronics department.


After explaining to a supervisor that it wasn’t working (and noticing her shock that the carafe had not been washed out after our last attempt at making coffee – my mistake!) she went to plug it in and inspect it.  In an unprecedented (for Thailand) display of customer service, a few minutes later she brought out a new coffee brewer in the box and swapped its contents for our broken coffee brewer.


No further questions, no need for a receipt or other documentation.  The odd thing, though, was that she kept the box: we had to carry the new brewer home in the tote bag.


I’m glad the “buyer beware” mindset is changing, at least on this small scale.  I’ll have to be sure to share this story with Paul, Tawn’s cousin, who is a VP with Central’s retail group.  (Hmm… should have just pulled some strings, huh?)


 

Labor Day in Thailand

This is another three-day weekend in Thailand with today being Labor Day.  The Thai government informed the civil servants that they would not be getting today off work as they are not laborers.  That was either intended as a compliment in a very class status-conscious society, or as an exacting commentary on the efficiency of the Kingdom’s bureaucracy.


Somehow I’ve found the time to go to yoga twice this weekend.  This is a good thing and since I have two weeks off school beginning on the 5th I’ll make use of the 30-day unlimited pass I purchased from the yoga studio.  Lots of yoga makes for good exercise. 


Plus, I’m very pleased to publicly announce, this exercise combined with sensible (Thai style) eating continues to deliver some nice results.  Saturday morning I stepped on the bathroom scale and it reported that I’m at 205 pounds (93 kg).  When I moved here at the end of October 2005 I was at about 220 pounds (100 kg) and as recently as two years ago I was around 240 pounds (109 kg).  Over the same period my cholesterol count has dropped from twice normal risk to half normal risk and my blood pressure has returned from borderline to normal.


So among the weekend’s errands was a trip to the alterations shop at Central department store.  Three pairs of khakis and three pairs of dress slacks were taken in, both at the waist as well as a general tapering of the legs.  Buying relaxed fit was useful when my weight was higher, but looks downright clownish in a city where nearly skin-tight pants on skinny people is the norm.


I also walked to ProBike, the largest local bicycle and accessories shop, to see what it would take to get back on the road.  About US$ 500 for a good bike, replacement tubes, car bicycle rack, etc.  But I also need to find some local people to ride with.  The one brochure the store had for Thailand Cycling Club is all in Thai but has one cryptic line in English: “For English call Bob” with a local number.  So one of these days soon I’ll call Bob.


 


One of the wonders of the internet, besides its ability to help people stay in touch over thousands of miles, is its ability to connect people with others who share their opinions, tastes, or experiences.


Case in point: I’ve received yet another unsolicited email through my writings on Airliners.net.  This one is from Ken, a United employee from Chicago who is planning on moving to Thailand to live with his Thai partner of three years.  He writes to ask some questions and request some advice about moving to Thailand as an expat.


So I’m sitting down this morning with a blank sheet of paper and will try to capture the most critical information.  The timing is quite good: today is actually my six-month anniversary of living in Thailand.  Then there were the two weeks back for the holidays and another month for the film festival, but those don’t count against my time here, do they?


 

Three Day Solo

As he was heading on a three-day press junket to Seoul, I dropped Tawn off at Don Muang International Airport about 22:00 Monday evening.  Traffic was a mess once we pulled off the expressway and it was frustrating after an evening of rushing around to suddenly grind to a halt.  We made it to Terminal 1 soon enough and he jumped out, grabbed his bag, and went to meet the two journalists he would be escorting.


Edging the car back into the slow stream of traffic, I headed back to the expressway for the thirty-minute ride back into the city.  When driving around town, especially by myself, I’m always a bit fearful.  I’m not carrying my international driver’s license (should put it in the car, shouldn’t I?), it isn’t even officially stamped by the Thai DMV, and my name isn’t the same as the one on the car’s registration.  If I was pulled over, I don’t know if two hundred baht would be enough to get me out of the scrape.


Working from home has its plusses and minuses.  Not having a separate room to use as an office, I get a little stir crazy.  I work in the living/dining/kitchen room and after a while I need another point of view.  Sometimes I take Tawn’s laptop (smaller than mine and not hooked up to an external monitor) and go to Starbucks or somewhere, but so many of them don’t have any electrical outlets.  Plus, if you’re working by yourself and you have to go to the haang naam you have to shut everything down, go, and then return hoping your seat by the electrical outlet is still there.  A little less than convenient.


I’m also surprised by the waves of productive and nonproductive time.  Some afternoons I just can’t focus and don’t get a whole lot done.  Other afternoons I’m tearing through projects, the direction is really clear, and I suddenly look up to discover it is eight or nine in the evening.  Why is that?


Last night, after a productive afternoon, I met up with Tod at Siam Paragon (c’mon, it is halfway between our houses) for a 19:30 screening of 16 Blocks starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def, preceeded by a light bite of dinner downstairs in the food court.  The movie was pretty entertaining despite a few glaring holes in the plot.  Mos Def is a talented actor.


 

The Incredible Aqua Filter

I think it is safe to say that rainy season can arrive any time now and I’ll be perfectly happy.  The sun has been really hot around here.  This morning the grey clouds were piling up and by the time I reached school the evidence of a just-missed rain shower was all around me.  But a few hours later the sun was out and that evidence had evaporated back into the humid air.


 


Last night I drove Tawn to the airport for a business trip to Seoul.  He’ll be back on Thursday night and I suspect the time will fly quite quickly.  Between trying to get several projects done for work and trying to actually comprehend my Thai lessons, the time seems to get filled.


 


After class today I did meet Tod for a couple of bowls of kwuaytiaw – rice noodle soup – in the Soi Arii area.  That’s where he lives and I’ve told Tawn that I think it is an area we should consider buying in.  Much more Thai, many more food options, and it stays open later at night than our neighborhood. 


 


This is a picture of a so-called “aqua filter.”  It is an attachment that fits on the back of my Samsung washing machine, between the incoming water line and the machine itself. 


 


At one end is a fine mesh filter that traps the occasional stray particle that works its way into the Bangkok Metropolitan Water System.  At the other end is a chamber with a bunch of small, white spheres that I at first thought were some kind of water softener.  I’ve since struck that theory and have no subsequent ones to replace it.



 


So about two months ago, several weeks before I headed to the United States, this filter developed a hairline chip and when the machine was running, a thin but high-pressure stream of water would spray all over the machine.  So I removed the filter and embarked on a quest to find a replacement.



 


This is an abbreviated story of that quest:





  • First, I went to the source of all knowledge related to things hardware here in Khrungthep: Home Pro Plus.  This is kind of a Home Depot knock-off without the building supplies and with an abundance of helpful if not very knowledgeable employees waiting eagerly to assist you.  After a consultation between one of these helpful employees, four of his colleagues, and his manager, he pronounced that I needed to go to the Samsung Service Center, which was on Silom Road.  They all nodded in agreement.


  • So I went to the second source of all knowledge related to things Samsung: the Internet.  I visited the Samsung global website and then located the Thailand website.  Which, wouldn’t you know it, is in Thai.  And only Thai.  No English option.  Yes, I know that khon Thai phuut phasa Thai, but it seemed reasonable enough that there would be an English language version, too.  So I opened two windows, one with an English language website from the Australia and the first with the Thai language website.  And I tried to compare the two and navigate the Thailand website.


  • I determined that there were several different locations to choose from, one on Silom as mentioned and another at Siam Paragon.  Figuring that Paragon was closer, I headed off to the recently opened behemoth mall.  Sure enough, there is a Samsung center there.   But it is just a showroom for their latest products.  No parts or service available.  They, too, referred me to the Service Center on Silom Road.


  • So the next day I headed out to Silom and eventually, many blocks down the street from the SkyTrain station, found the Service Center.  Like the banks here, as you enter the waiting room there is a small machine that lists various reasons you might be there.  You push the button corresponding to the reason and you are assigned a number in one of several different queues.  I chose the “spare parts” button and received number 258.  “246” was flashing on the board behind the row of counters.


  • When my number was called, I went to the counter and proceeded to explain in half-Thai, and full English that I wanted a replacement for this particular part.  After several minutes of behind-the-scenes conferring, I was told that the part was called an “aqua filter” and it would have to be ordered.  Could I leave my number?  The part should be here in a week.


  • Having left Tawn’s name and number, a week went by with no call.  Then another.  And then it was time for me to leave for the US for the film festival.


  • When I returned at the beginning of April one of my first errands was down to the Samsung Service Center, where I repeated the process, was told it would take three days to get the part, and again left Tawn’s name and number.


  • Another two weeks went by.


  • So I finally headed down on Saturday, Tawn in tow and ready to play the unhappy Thai consumer (a contradiction in terms?).  After explaining that we had been there twice before, the agent went into the back office and returned a few minutes later with a new aqua filter.  It seems that perhaps they had actually ordered them and they had actually arrived!

All it took was five trips to a total of three places over the course of two months, plus 274 baht.  Amazing Thailand.


 


Call from Brad



Last week I received a call out of the blue from my cousin Brad.  Brad moved to Italy in January to be with his girlfriend, now wife, in a small town outside of Milano.  Before his move we had spoken a few times and I tried to answer his many questions about the expatriate experience.



 


So Brad was calling to say hi and to seek my advice on further matters.  And to tell me that he and Sylvia are thinking about coming here in July or August for a few weeks.  That would be wonderful.



 


All I need to do now is email Brad with some information about Bangkok and the rest of Thailand.  And start figuring out when Tawn and I are going to go to Milano!


 


Email from Aussie Craig



Finally, I’d like to acknowledge a very nice email I received from Craig, an Aussie who stumbled across my blog while reading my trip reports on airliners.net.  Craig writes:


 



“Just this January I left Bangkok and returned to Australia after living there for 2.5 years.  The coincidental thing is that I lived in Asoke Place for my first year, and by all accounts I understand that is where you guys live too.  I was on level 21 and had a view over Soi Asoke towards Sukhumvit. It was a great place and gave me my first taste of the characteristic placid, nonchalent manner of thais – played out perfectly by good old Khun Doi in the ‘Juristic Person’ office.  Reading your songkran entry, I also think I recognise the woman you photographed beside the phone box outside the framing shop.


In the months leading up to leaving Bkk, I really had enough of the place and couldn’t wait to get back to Australia….however now since being back in sterile, clean Australia, I’ve got a serious case of rue and regret wishing I was back there amongst it all.  



Anyhow, just a quick hi and a thanks for being so descriptive on your blog.  I love reading it and remembering.”


 


Isn’t the Internet pretty cool?  See, you can meet the most interesting people.  Well, many thanks to Craig for reading.  Yes, we’re here on the 25th floor of Asoke Place, enjoying that same southerly view.  Sadly, during this time of year the balconies aren’t getting any direct sunlight and my experiment at growing tomatoes is failing badly.  Perhaps during the winter when the balcony does get sun.


  

I’m sorry, the country you’ve reached is closed for a holiday…

So last week we had two days off for Songkran.  Actually, many people had three.  And then Monday of this week was still a holiday for many people, so traffic was still quite light.  And then Wednesday was election day for the Senate, which resulted in another day or half-day off for most people.


Add to that single day holidays on May 1st (Monday) and May 5th (Friday) plus two additional holidays in June to celebrate HM the King’s 60th anniversary on the throne, and we’ve just more holidays than you can shake a stick at.  Which would be considered a very rude thing to do, by the way.


The thing I always point out to my fellow students when they ask about my plans for whatever holiday we’re having this week, is that the US doesn’t observe those holidays so I get to spend my day working from home anyhow.  But maybe on one of the May holidays Tawn and I can take a three day weekend and go somewhere.  Luang Prabong (in Laos) or Myanmar (Burma) both are possibilities.


Sign Pollution


One of the most amazing things of this week was the proliferation of campaign signs leading up to the Senate elections on Wednesday.  I wish I had a clear picture that really captured the mess.  A little bit of scale: for the 18 Senate seats in the Bangkok metropolitan area there were something like at least 100 candidates. 


Their supporters would post placards with their candidate’s visage and number (names are too complex, I guess, so you just have to vote for the candidate by their number?) on bamboo stakes along the side of the road.  But the supporters didn’t have much restraint, so if there was a placard here, there had best be another one in the next fifteen feet or so.  The result, huge clusters of signs that in any given block would number in the hundreds. 


A thunderstorm and downpour in the early part of the week left many of the signs battered and bruised, but the very next day supporters were out to post new placards.


Thankfully, the night after the election the city came through with their own crews I trashed most of the signs, at least on the main roads.  So Thursday morning the walk to school was mostly clutter-free.


The election results?  Well, that’s another long story as the opposition parties claim that the Senate race should be voided as the lower house will likely be dissolved in the next few months after constitutional reforms are made.  But I’m not going to touch that with a ten foot bamboo pole.


 


Lunch with Paul and Nicha


In my summary of last weekend’s fun and excitement, I neglected to write anything about our lunch with Paul and Nicha.  Here’s a picture and then we can talk a bit about them.  This will require a bit of explanation, exposition and back-story so please bear with me.


One of Tawn’s many aunts (his father’s older sister) lives in Los Angeles and has for decades and decades.  For whatever reasons, possibly just because she lives outside Thailand, she is one of the more liberal members of the family.


While Tawn was living in the US (wow, I almost wrote “here” but it is “there” isn’t it?) he stayed in touch with his aunt pretty regularly and she invited us to come down and visit her family.  So when we took a trip to Los Angeles we made it a point to spend an afternoon and evening down in the Irvine area visiting Khun Ouraiwan and Dr. Surapol*, who have three sons (Peter, Paul, and Don) all of whom were born in the US.


*keep in mind that “Khun” is a general polite title for those older than you and, in keeping with Thai custom, people are addressed and refered to by their first name.


They were incredibly welcoming .  We had dinner at a great Chinese seafood restaurant, etc. etc.  Afterwards, Khun Ouraiwan insisted that if I was back down in LA even without Tawn, that I should give them a call and visit.


In fact, she would call Tawn from time to time on our home phone.  One time when I answered, she didn’t introduce herself and instead launched into the following dialogue:


Khun Ouraiwan: “Hello Chris… do you know who this is?”


Chris: “Um, I’m sorry, who is this?”


O: “I know you…  Don’t you remember me?”


This continued for several seconds and I got close to just hanging up when Khun Ouraiwan finally said, “It’s Tawn’s aunt!”


Anyhow, they are welcoming people and served as sort of a “buffer” for us in dealing with Tawn’s family.  Maybe buffer isn’t the best word.  But after our visit she called Tawn’s mother and I’m sure other members of the family and provided some positive PR for us, which I’m sure helped in the long upwards struggle to become integrated with that side of the family. 


So a few months after our visit to LA, Tawn received a call from his cousin Paul – who it should be noted had not been around for our dinner with his parents – who said that he and his Thai wife Nicha would be in San Francisco for the weekend and wanted to meet us for dinner.


We met up with Paul and Nicha at Timo’s, a now-defunct Spanish tapas restaurant in the Mission district, and they greeted us like long lost friends.  I guess that Khun Ouraiwan had thoroughly briefed them as they had extensive background on us!  In either case, it was really nice that they were so welcoming.


Paul and Nicha moved to Bangkok about a year and a half ago and we had lunch with them on a previous visit.  When Tawn saw them last shortly before I moved here, he promised that we’d call and see them regularly.  Last week while having lunch at Central Food Loft, we ran into Paul and there was no excuses to be made.  So we made plans for lunch on Saturday.


Thanks for bearing with the back story.


So we met on Saturday at Baan Kanita, a fancy Thai restaurant on Thanon Sathorn near the Banyan Tree and Sukothai hotels.  As it was Songkran weekend, the restaurant was largely empty and we enjoyed very attentive service.  The food was great.  And it was fun to get reconnected with Paul and Nicha.  Paul’s working as a VP at Central Department Stores and Nicha (who goes by the nickname Neung – Thai for “one”) is working with Standard Chartered Bank.


I’ve told Tawn that it is especially important to me that we stay in touch with Paul and Nicha as they are really the only connection we have as a couple to Tawn’s family.  And, I think as we move into the future, we’ll need those connections.


 

Songkran Comes to An End


For the first time since I arrived more than five months ago, I crossed the Chao Praya river (not counting the trips to Wat Arun which is just on the opposite bank) and entered Thonburi, the “other side” of Bangkok.  How to describe it?  In many ways, it is analogous to the relationship between Manhattan and the boroughs.  They’re both part of New York, but some people would be inclined to think of Manhattan as the “real” New York while the boroughs are just where the extra New Yorkers live.


Part of this perception of Thonburi is that there is really no good transit linking the sides, yet.  Only congested bridges and, if you can get to the waterfront, ferries.  Because of that, people on the Bangkok side of the river don’t have much reason to cross to the Thonburi side.  Plus, most of the “to do” things are on the Bangkok side of the river.


Some of this will likely change in the next year as when the SkyTrain was built, the elevated tracks were built across the Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge – named for the neighborhood, not the Prime Minister) and for several kilometers on the Thonburi side.  Stations were not built and the rails were not laid, but the rest of the infrastructure has been in place for six years.  Finally, late last year the Bangkok governor secured financing to complete that extension and it looks like five or six new stations will be open by the end of 2006.  As we drove past the tracks, work on the stations is already underway, so the estimate seems reasonable.


So my trip across the bridge was a chance to see how the real locals live.  One of the first things I noticed was that there were many more people out celebrating Songkran along the roadside, but that it was being done in a much more festive and much less violent spirit than on the Bangkok side.


What I mean by that is, what I saw over in Bangkok was people by the roadside who seemed to be trying to soak people who weren’t wet and maybe didn’t want to be wet.  On the Thonburi side, there were many, many more people of all ages who had set up shop by the side of the road, partying, splashing water on others – and when nobody came by for a while, on themselves. 


There were many more pickup trucks loaded with revelers on the Thonburi side, too.  And at each of the roadside encampments they would slow down and water would be splashed back and forth, then everyone would cheer and wave at each other, flashing the peace sign, and the truck would continue down the road.


To give you some idea of what we saw, here’s a 50-second video clip:

The real purpose of heading to Thonburi had nothing to do with hunting out the differences in Songkran festivities.  Instead, Tawn had arranged for us to spend a night at the Marriott Spa and Resort which is just on the south side of the city on the bank of the Chao Phraya river.  The hotels, even the really high-end ones, provide special promotional rates to locals especially on weekends, over holidays, and during the off season.  A night at the Marriott, which is one of their nicest resorts and would normally cost about US$ 200, was only $84 for the two of us including breakfast and 20% off dinner at any of the hotel’s restaurants.


The hotel is very nice, indeed.  It features three main buildings wrapped around a khlong (canal) and a central pool area.  There are palm trees and lush foliage and lots of riverfront footage.  Two restaurants overlook the river as does one bar and the central pool area.  The interiors of the buildings are done in a modern Thai style with lots of antiques and silk upholstery.  Our river-view room overlooked the pool.


We checked in mid-afternoon and enjoyed a stroll around the gardens.  The sky was overcast and threatening rain and as the storm front approached the winds picked up, breaking the heat, so we sat at the Riverside Terrace and had pre-dinner drinks.  Pink Europeans and bronzed Japanese booked on the sunset dinner cruise crowded beneath the covered walkway waiting to dart through the raindrops and down the pier to the good ship Manora Song.


After changing for dinner we proceeded downstairs to Trader Vic’s – the local branch of the tiki tiki dinner chain that originated in Oakland, California in 1932.  We had reservations for an outdoor table.  Even though the rain had stopped and the table was under the terrace, the wind was still very strong so we changed to an inside table right next to the window.  The restaurant was not yet busy but filled considerably as our dinner went on. 


Trader Vic is known for, among other things, creating the Mai Tai cocktail.  It popularized Polynesian food or, more accurately, the Americanized version of Polynesian and South Pacific food.  Taking it for what it is – namely, not authentic – the food is still really good and is very fun.  I started with a chevice-style fresh salmon salad, Tawn with a crab soup.  Then for a main course, Tawn had a fried duck and I had a jerk chicken.  All were tasty and a slightly sweet Riesling complimented the spicy richness of both the duck and chicken.


Dessert included a show-stopper: Crêpes Suzette prepared en flambe table side.  The accompanying Grand Marnier soufflé had no flash in the pan but was very tasty nonetheless.  


 


Dinner was relaxed, the pace leisurely as the attentive staff allowed us to have a long dinner spent mostly reminiscing about the trips we’ve taken and the memorable meals we’ve eaten along the way.  After dinner we took a stroll along the riverfront, digesting and seeing just a big of the Thai cultural show that is provided to diners in the family restaurant.


Sunday morning was a lazy one for us; we barely made it down to the breakfast buffet before its 10:30 closing.  The selection was wide and the quality good, especially the fresh fruit.  The restaurant was crowded and full of family and families, all having a good time.  The coffee was strong and we both had a second cup to fuel our final day of the long weekend.


After stopping for an hour long foot massage at the oddly western shopping arcade in the front of the hotel (with McDonald’s, KFC and the Pizza Company just in case any of the guests felt homesick) and then packed out bags and checked out.


From the riverfront of the hotel, we could see an unusual looking temple further down the river.  It looked more like a series of open pavilions.  Curious, as we left the hotel we continued down the left bank making a pair of u-turns after overshooting the rather obscure entrance to the temple.  The entrance was just an ornate gate set against an ordinary  residential neighborhood.  A small one-lane driveway snaked through the shops and houses until it spilled into a larger courtyard surrounded by temple buildings.


Everywhere around the temple there were elementary age novice monks.  Tawn explained that this was the equivalent of a summer camp, Songkran marking the beginning of Thailand schools’ summer vacation.  Sunday was visiting day and parents were seeing their children, mothers resisting the urge to hug their sons in respect of the Buddhist provisions not allowing monks and women to touch.


Unlike most temples, the main building was a nondescript three-story concrete block with offices and rooms inside and a steep staircase climbing up the side.  On the tiled rooftop were four different pavilions, the ones we had seen from the hotel.  Each contained various Buddha statues all overlooking a wide bend in the Chao Phraya. 


A dozen novices were on the rooftop mostly staying in the shade, playing, running, practicing kickboxing moves on each other and behaving in a generally non-monastic manner. 


  


Even with the breeze, the tile floor of the roof was incredibly hot and I descended, sweaty, ready to get back into the shade.  In a tent by the main building the signs of completed daily chores were stacked neatly: upturned aluminum dishes and saffron wrapped alms bowls had been washed and were drying in the afternoon heat.  A middle-age monk carted large bags of donated rice across the courtyard, each step a meditation.


   


We returned to the comfort of the air conditioned car and headed back on the road, crossing over Saphan Taksin and once again into the city.  Traffic was getting heavier, the millions of people who had left the city for the weekend slowly and reluctantly returning.


The long Songkran weekend came to a cool end, temperatures dropping Sunday evening into the balmy and comfortable mid 80s.  Having done all our housecleaning before heading to the hotel, we had an evening free and so spent it watching Failure to Launch, which was a bit better than I had feared.