Thai telco tangled

03 Aug 2015

I travel a lot – mostly for business. And nowadays, OTT services are more important to me than whatever phone number I'm using. The phone number may change, but my OTT IDs do not, easing internal mobile comms.

I carry a wallet-card stuffed with SIM cards from carriers in various countries. I swap them out on airplanes and flip my comm-device out of “Airplane Mode” as soon as it's allowed. Often, I don't maintain a SIM – I buy one (at the airport if possible), use it, and toss it.

But I tried to maintain a Thai SIM card, and while you'd think that wouldn't be difficult in a relatively developed ASEAN country, it proved troublesome. I'll not name the operator involved except to say they are a major one from which I expected...well, better than I got.

I last visited Thailand in January and purchased a pre-paid SIM then. Messages from the operator appeared in Thai, which I can't read. I was told that for the messages to appear in English, I had to register the SIM – a process which seems similar to purchasing a SIM card in Singapore.

Immediately after purchase, I tried to register the SIM on two separate occasions, with two separate employees, at the main branch of this operator in Bangkok's MBK shopping center. I showed my passport when they said I needed to register it for the English messages. No one seemed to how any idea to accomplish this.

I left frustrated, but glad that my SIM was working. I added value using the time-honored method of scratch-cards and extended the validity of the SIM into early 2016 – with a balance of over 850 baht.

Value scrapped
Upon arrival in Bangkok for my July trip, I was perplexed by a message from the operator: while written in Thai, I could decipher the words “2.00 baht” meaning my value had somehow been erased. While I could still receive and send WhatsApp messages, no SMS could be sent. Nor could a call be made. Far from ideal when stuck in one of Bangkok's infamous traffic jams with friends waiting for me to contact them for evening plans.

Aha, I thought, I have one scratch-card left: a 100-baht (US$2.9) card – valid until 12/31/2015. The traffic was slow enough that I could show the Thai message to the friendly taxi-driver, who told me which numbers to press so I could input the serial number/PIN and add value.

Wrong. More messages in Thai appeared, none indicating that value had been added – I was still stuck with 2.00 baht. Traffic was moving now, the taxi-driver didn't understand why it didn't work and needed to drive anyway. I swapped in my Hong Kong SIM so I could perform essential comms – the Thai telco that erased my 850 baht left me no option.

Return to MBK
Just after 10:00 the next morning I was at the main branch of the telco at MBK (I was number 2 in their queueing system). I showed the SMSs listing the value to the friendly clerk, she said I'd been using the Internet. I said I had not as I lived in Hong Kong and had not used the SIM whatsoever.

Once that sunk in, she used another mobile to call a superior and explain the situation, then handed me the phone. The woman on the line spoke fluent English and explained that I'd signed up for a plan that, apparently, drains the value from the SIM even if it's not used.

So my 850 baht has vanished, I said. Yes, she said, then tried to sell me other plans, pitching their connectivity speeds. I said I don't care about the speed, I want the SIM to retain its value. Nothing much was accomplished so I hung up.

Next, I handed the scratch-card to the clerk and asked her to input the value thereupon. She was delighted with this simple task...until it failed (again). Back to the mobile phone, more instruction from afar. I sat down and watched other customers do their business and leave – the queue-number was in double-digits by the time she motioned for me to take the mobile once more.

This employee was male, again fluent. He explained that the 100 baht scratch-card was now invalid as they had “changed to a new network” but promised that he would reimburse this value “via SMS.” I assumed this would be the case, and thanked him.

Then he told me that I had to register my SIM. I said I'd tried to do that in January, with no success, but would do so now. As I had my passport in my pocket prepared to finally register the SIM, I handed it to my now-familiar clerk who seemed afraid to touch it.

I handed her the phone for explanation. Once she learned what it is that she was supposed to do, she relaxed, and walked me over to the front where a special SIM-registering-employee simply took a mobile-phone pic of my passport page. Registered.

Let's establish comms, shall we?
After all this, I asked my clerk if I could now possibly add value to the SIM so I could use it. She was quite happy to take 200 baht and do so, with a confirmation SMS in English. I thanked her and left, knowing I had enough baht on the SIM to cover this particular trip. Which it did.

My current account status says my value is good until February 2016. Which to me carries the credibility-value of Donald Trump's hair. And most of the SMS messages I received while in Bangkok were, again, in Thai.

Oh, and that 100 baht I was promised for the scratch-card I purchased? Never happened.

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