Living and Working in Bangkok Various Information / Miscellaneous
Thailand is a funny country when it comes to getting service from vendors and service providers. I can confidently say that I have received both the very best and the very worst service in my life, right here in Thailand.
Thai people working in the service industry are generally very friendly and helpful. They usually do their best to make sure that you are happy with whatever product or service you are purchasing from them. This can manifest itself in many ways and they will often run around and do all sorts of extra things for you – well beyond what would be considered the call of duty in the West.
When I think of examples of great service I have received, I think back to the staff in my first apartment building. Someone telephoned me but they could not get through to me as I was already on the phone. A member of staff walked up several flights of stairs when the lifts were out of order to specifically deliver to me what was a non-urgent message. In another example, my favourite soi food vendor asked me what my favourite Thai food was. I told him that it was a certain type of noodle – and he was sad that he didn't stock it. He then started stocking that variety of noodle just because I mentioned that I liked it! There are so many examples like this where the Thai people do as much as possible to accommodate customers. Further, vendors are usually extremely friendly and polite and, particularly in the case of female sales staff, more often than not are grateful for the sale. In department stores, the staff are all on a retainer plus commission, so whenever they sell a large price item, there is something in it for them.
I also find that the quality of many seemingly basic services in Thailand to be a lot better than in the West – both the quality of the work and the extras offered. Get a haircut back home and you may end up feeling like a sheep being sheered but in Thailand they are so much more thorough – and I'm talking cheap places here, not fancy salons. Not only do they cut your hair, they'll give you a shave an even clean out your nostrils and ears if you so desire! Go shooting snooker or pool and when the frame has been completed a lovely young lady will run over, quickly set up the balls for the next frame before disappearing back into the shadows. This is her job and you only need tip her a very small amount when you leave. These extras can make living in Thailand that much more comfortable. With such a large population – many of who sadly have but a modest income, there is plenty of labour for these menial tasks. As a foreigner with cash in your pocket you get to take advantage of this – so enjoy it!
Many businesses in Thailand have a lot of staff on hand and it seems to be that in Thailand it is better to employ a lot of people and pay them a small amount rather than employ a smaller number of people and pay them a higher amount. This all contributes to reducing the potential number of unemployed and also means that wherever you go, there is someone to help you or service you. If this situation existed in the west, we would consider that the business was overstaffed. I have got to say that the system works pretty well in Thailand – especially for us impatient Westerners!
However, it's not always plain sailing and sometimes when things go wrong, misunderstandings can occur and frustration can lead the odd farang customer to get annoyed. I once ordered chicken fried rice but when it arrived it clearly wasn't chicken, but pork – and I am not a great fan of pork. I pointed out that I do not eat pork and was told, "sorry, chicken finish already". They knew this even when I ordered the dish but chose not to tell me and simply give me something else! I explained that I was a little disappointed and that I would go elsewhere and get what I wanted. They still tried to charge me for the pork but I refused to pay which somewhat surprised them…
Another example: A friend went to a street vendor and ordered a portion of pineapple and while slicing the pineapple, the vendor cut her hand and some blood went on to the fruit. My friend explained that he didn't want that piece and the vendor looked at him like he was from Mars – what could be wrong with that piece?!
Yet another story! A few years back, a friend booked a flight home and paid a deposit to which he received a print out of the flights and that each leg had been reserved in the computer, as well as the total price. The cost of the ticket was about 34,000 baht and he asked them when he had to pay the balance by, to which he was told within three weeks of travel. He had the money to pay for it there then but as they didn't require it there and then he decided to keep the money in the bank to make a little interest. When he went to collect the ticket and pay it, the cost had gone up to 55,000 baht – even though he had paid a deposit and reserved the ticket at a substantially lower price! The travel agent was polite but just shrugged her shoulders, gave back the deposit and send mai pen rai – literally meaning "no problem" or "never mind"! While it may not have been a problem for her, my friend was now unable to travel when he had planned for. Further, the fact that she said those three magic words really wound him up because it was a big deal to him! What this particular vendor did was try to just smile the problem away and quite often when there is a problem, that is the Thai way of dealing with it. With the Thais, more often than not, this may be accepted but with farangs, it's a hard one to swallow.
When issues like this occur – and believe me, they will – smile and try not get too uptight about it. All of these issues can usually be worked through but sometimes, just sometimes, you might get a nasty shock, like my friend did. Unfortunately, screaming and yelling usually won't get you anywhere and it may just be a case of accepting it and getting on with things. The Asian way of dealing with such problems is quite different from the way Westerners deal with them. Remember to keep your cool! Sometimes though, if things get bad or it is obvious that you are getting inferior or unsatisfactory service because you are a farang, or someone really is trying to cheat you, then you might just have to start making a few noises. So, while it is best to remain calm, there is the occasion when you might need to raise your voice – just choose your battles carefully!
As helpful as Thai people can be, there is a growing number of vendors who become totally unhelpful, and may even become downright ugly, when you make a complaint. Even if you are very polite when you point out the issue and make the complaint, some vendors seem to take it personally and the big smile that they previously had can disappear instantly and be replaced by what can only be described as a seriously ugly look – and perhaps ugly noises too. Again, let them know in uncertain terms what you expect and if they try and jerk you around, don't take no for an answer. This is all sadly symptomatic of the way that many Thai people deal very badly – or are simply unable to deal with – any criticism made of them, or that is perceived to be about them.
It does seem that once a business has your money, they lose all interest in you as a customer. Every effort goes in to servicing the customer before the sale has been made but once the sale has been effected, much less interest is taken in you as a customer. Sadly, not all businesses look at you as a long term customer, but as someone from whom they can make money today, and forget about tomorrow. This attitude seems to be more prevalent in smaller stores and in less upmarket stores. If you are talking about something such as a major electrical or electronic purchase, or something as large as a car, then generally speaking the manufacturer's warranty will apply and any problems will be remedied.
Speaking of tipping, this is not really a Thai custom – thought it does seem to be catching on and becoming more and more common.
The first thing to be aware of when tipping is to check whether a service charge has been included already. If it has, there is absolutely no need to leave a tip. A lot of restaurants, especially those in hotels and the better places, will generally add a surcharge of 10% to your bill which is the service charge. If this is included in the bill, there is absolutely no need to leave a tip at all. This service charge is divvied up amongst the staff, sometimes at the end of the day or end of the shift, but usually at the end of the month. In some of the bigger, better hotels, staff members can earn upwards of 15,000 baht per month, just from the service charge – that is on top of their salary.
An unfortunate trend in Thailand is for the waiter or waitress in a restaurant where you have already been charged a service charge which was included in your bill to bring your change (assuming you paid by cash) on a silver tray with the change in lots of small denominations, making it easy for you to tip. Now this is very thoughtful of the staff – but as you have already paid a tip, this is very cheeky. A lot of people tip again, on top of the "compulsory" tip, and give another 10% or so, which really is unnecessary. In fact I personally think establishments which practice this way are bordering on scamming customers and playing on their ignorance of the local customs.
When Thais tip it is quite different to Westerners. Thais will generally leave the loose change – and that is it. irrespective of how much the bill is for, it is the loose change that is left. I was once told by an older Thai to "leave the small change or a 20 baht note but no more". That is from the words of a Thai, so that is what I do.
Remember that although it is nice to reward great service, if you tip unnecessarily you will just make it more difficult for the next foreigner who goes there. My advice, and indeed my personal philosophy is this – if the service is excellent, I tip – assuming there is no service charge included. If the service is only average (and unfortunately service levels have been dropping in Thailand over the past few years, even in some of the better places) then I do not tip. Where I come from a tip is for excellent service and tipping is not the norm at all. Yes, I know this is different to America, but hey, I am not American. In my experience, a lot of foreigners tip unnecessarily, largely out of ignorance. It is your choice, of course…
Health issues and the emergency services
Far fewer people smoke in Thailand than in the West and smoking among females is not at all popular. The bulk of females who smoke are those from the very upper class and those from the very lower class, basically those folks whose status in society will not be affected by whether they smoke or not. Compared to the West, few middle class Thais smoke, especially females. The cost of tobacco / cigarettes in Thailand is much cheaper than the West, but the range of cigarettes and the quality isn't that good, at least so I am told, for I am not a smoker myself.
Anti-smoking laws were introduced in early 2008 and the prohibit smoking in any bars or restaurants INCLUDING any outdoor areas that are part of the establishment. These laws are backed with heavy penalties, a 20,000 baht fine for any establishment where someone is caught smoking and a 2,000 baht fine for the individual. In a country where the locals often scoff at the laws and where laws are not enforced anywhere near as efficiently or strictly as they are in the West, some establishments still allow smoking. It seems to vary from establishment to establishment. For sure it is much, much harder for smokers these days but there are places which still openly flaunt the law. As crazy as it sounds, despite it being the law that smoking is not allowed, you will likely not get much joy if you are anti-smoking and you complain to a member of staff or even the manager. Thais don't like to rock the boat and while smoking is not admired, the ill effects of passive smoking are not really understood in Thailand as they are in the West.
If you are a smoker, be careful discarding your cigarette butts because if you drop it in the street, especially in Bangkok, you may be subject to a fine of up to 2,000 baht.
Yep, there is a law against littering and you can be fined 2,000 baht for dropping rubbish in a public place! I can't help but feel that it is all a bit of a have as the rubbish officers, the wannabe police, target farangs or other foreigners and I have NEVER seen a Thai get stopped for this, despite the fact that the average Thai is a dreadful litterbug. In fact, this scam of targeting only foreigners got so bad that in some areas, particularly the busiest part of Sukhumvit Road, they used to have signs erected in English stating that it was a $US 50 fine if you were caught littering. Yep, they even went to the trouble of posting the cost of the fine in a Western currency! Basically you should be careful as the eagle eyed "Rubbish Police" who wear a uniform very similar to the regular police are incredibly efficient. People who get caught usually find that the fine is negotiable and end up paying around 500 baht. Of course, a receipt is not part of this deal.
For whatever reason, the hot weather in Bangkok seems to make your hair grow quicker than it does in the West and you find yourself getting your hair cut more often than you would at home. Embarrassingly, some people have a problem with nasal hair – something they may have never experienced in their own country. No big problem really because getting a haircut is inexpensive.
The essential services are a bit of a mixed bag in Thailand. The postal system is fairly well run and while it can be a pain to go and buy stamps over the counter as many post office branches have a haphazard queue system, the staff are usually friendly and efficient and more often than not speak functional English. Standard mail within Thailand is slow and I would suggest that you use EMS which is next day to just about anywhere in the country and the item must be signed for. The standard domestic mail service is VERY cheap and the EMS service is still fairly cheap. I have never had any problems sending international mail out of Thailand – items have always reached their destination but many friends have reported all sorts of problems. One friend sent 11 items out one year and only one reached its destination. It seems that the post office in certain areas is less efficient – or there is a thief on the premises and frankly the latter is more likely. Mail coming in to the country has always been a big problems. For me personally, while most things coming in from overseas have arrived ok, including quite a few packages, a few letters never made it. One is never able to work out where the item may have gone astray and it has to be said that it is just as likely that the apartment building staff pilfered it as the post office staff.
If you have anything important being sent to you, it is probably wise to consider using a service like DHL or Fed Ex so the item can be tracked, if necessary. There have been a lot of letters published in local newspapers and on Thailand online discussion forums over the years about mail going missing in various parts of the country. Frankly, if you are sending anything urgent, you really should use one of the courier services.
The police seem to be fairly efficient in Thailand though I must say that I do not know any farangs who have actually had to go and make a complaint to the regular police – plenty of people have used the tourist police with a lot of success. One must realise that the local police are generally not quite as responsive as police in the West. Calling 111, 999, 911 or whatever the emergency number is in your country may not result in the expeditious dispatch of officers as you expect in the West – unless there really is something nasty going on.
The fire service in Thailand seem fairly efficient though again, I have had little to do with them, nor has anyone else that I know.
Medical, dental and hospitals
Ambulances are operated out of individual hospitals and if you think it likely that you may ever need to be carted off to the local hospital, it pays to have the phone number handy for the ambulance dispatch at your favourite hospital. If you are involved in an accident, it is possible that you will be carted off to the nearest hospital in the back of a pick up truck or in a worst case scenario, in the back of a tuktuk!
In addition to ambulances, there are several different rescue services. They are a real mixed bag but the critical thing is that they seem to have rudimentary medical skills. They will race to the scene of an accident and literally extract the bodies as fast as they can and take them to a hospital where I believe they are paid a commission. Yeah, this all sounds a bit dodgy and I guess it is, but remember we are talking about Thailand here. The funny thing is that these rescue services are vehicles with official looking markings and to the unassuming farang, you could easily believe that they are an official service, and not actually a private company who have expenses to meet, and shareholders expecting a profit. Believe me, you would not want to be hauled out of a wrecked taxi by one of this lot.
Whereas in the West we may have our own "regular" doctor whom we go and see, in Bangkok Westerners just tend to go straight to hospital. This means that while you may see a fully trained physician, it will likely not be the same fellow that you saw the last time.
The majority of Thais actually go to one of the many clinics, but I personally am not a fan of these places. Articles in the Thai press over the years suggest that doctors in some of the clinics are corrupt and while I know next to nothing about healthcare, the articles gave readers every reason to question both the doctors' training and their qualifications.
It has to be said that Thai doctors have an awful habit of dishing out a concoction of drugs for seemingly every patient who comes through the door and it seems that the local feels as though they have not been to see a doctor unless they get that bag with the magic pills! On several occasions, I have been made aware of drugs being wrongly prescribed – drugs that have a completely different purpose to that for which they were prescribed! Unfortunately, this sort of thing does happen in some of the hospitals as well as in the clinics. The bottom line here is that you need to ask the doctor exactly what he is prescribing and why. Don't be afraid to search the internet for info on the drugs that you have been prescribed to see what their purpose is. In my experience, and that of my friends, doctors in Thailand may not always tell you about the side effects of drugs or check for things such as whether or not you have certain pre-existing conditions or even whether you are allergic to penicillin! But don't worry too much because generally the standard of medical care in Bangkok is pretty good, second only in the region to Singapore.
People with a minor complaint or ailment may not even go to one of the hospitals but instead choose to consult the guy in the white coat behind the counter in the many pharmacies all around the city. As is the case in many less developed countries, laws regarding the distribution of drugs either don't exist or are not that really enforced, meaning that you can buy most drugs over the counter including various antibiotics, Valium, Prozac, contraceptive pills, Viagra (original Pfizer 100 mg pill costs 500 baht, generic brand a fraction of that) as well as a huge range of diet pills etc. I am told that many drugs that have been banned, or were never approved by the FDA, are available and commonly prescribed in Bangkok.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions and require a prescription for drugs at home, you will probably find hat you can get those drugs over the counter here. And some are very, very cheap! It therefore pays to be aware of the drugs that you may need. You can ask the advice of the fellow in the white coat in the pharmacy but looking at the cocktails that they like to dish out makes me feel a bit dizzy.
I personally think you are best off going to one of the better hospitals in Bangkok if you have any complaint whatsoever. I would not trust a backstreet clinic or a pharmacist with anything more than a headache.
There are many private hospitals in Bangkok and they are very efficient and cheap compared to the west. Bumrungrad Hospital in Sukhumvit soi 3 is generally acknowledged as the best hospital in the Kingdom but it is also said to be quite a lot dearer than most of the other private hospitals. On the two occasions that I have been to Bumrungrad, I found the staff to be professional and courteous until I got to see the doctor, where my experience was a cold, stony faced physician who while professional, gave me the impression that they wanted to get me out of their office as fast as possible. There's something about the place that makes me feel that it is like a factory and while most people swear by Bumrungrad, I for one feel that there are other hospitals which have a nicer feeling about them – and that is important when you're dealing with medical professionals. An anti Bumrungrad website set up by the aggrieved father of a young American who died while in Bumrungrad. I won't list the site here but it isn't hard to find if you do a search. The site outlined a number of issues which frankly make me nervous about ever walking in the door of what is supposedly the country's best hospital. Even if a fraction of what he says is true then there are some real issues there. Hardly inspiring to hear such claims again a hospital!
There is a huge choice of hospitals in Bangkok – remember, this is a city of 10 million people. I personally prefer the curiously named Bangkok Nursing Home in Soi Convent to Bumrungrad, which is often said to be "the quality of Bumrungrad, but not the price". In my visits there, I have had nothing but positive experiences and it is most definitely "farang friendly". I know a few people who prefer BNH to Bumrungrad and as I say, I count myself in this group.
The simply named Bangkok Hospital also gets very good reviews. In fact the Bangkok Hospital Group is expanding and they have hospitals in a number of centres around the country including Pattaya, Phuket, Rayong and Korat. I have never been so cannot comment from personal experience.
Friends who have been to Phyathai 2 Hospital (there are 3 hospitals in the Phyathai Group) and Bangkok Christian Hospitals have found them both to be fine, probably as good as most hospitals in the West, bar perhaps the very best hospitals Stateside. Bangkok Christian Hospital and St Louis Hospital should both get a special mention for they are centrally located, farang friendly and are much more affordable than some of the other big name hospitals. If you are on a budget but require high quality care, both come highly recommended. I've been to Bangkok Christian a couple of times and know people who have spent a number of days there for minor operations – and no-one has had any complaints.
There is a number of farangs in Bangkok who swear by some of the smaller hospitals, and not the big, well-known places. As you get to know more and more Westerners in Bangkok, ask them where they have been to and where they recommend. For sure, some of the smaller hospitals in suburban Bangkok still have excellent facilities and some may even have doctors who also perform in the bigger hospitals – but have a day or two in the suburbs as well. It seems to be the way that many Thai doctors float around the different hospitals and on certain days they are in one hospital and on other days in another!
While the wealthy Thais frequent the better private hospitals, poorer Thais are forced to go to the government run hospitals and the care is cheap – but not free. I believe they do accept farang patient but from what I hear about some of these places, I don't know if I would want to go to some of them, at least those in the provinces. It is not that the quality of care is bad, but more that there may be long queues for non-urgent stuff. Also, there will inevitably be less English spoken. Remember though, a lot of it comes down to the individual doctor. Average hospitals might have some excellent doctors while likewise, excellent hospitals might have some average doctors. The main point here though is that you need not worry about the quality of medical care in Bangkok for it really is very good.
Where Thai hospitals really do come into their own is for elective surgery. If you've got the money, they can usually schedule you in for work almost straightaway – none of these long waiting lists so common in the West now.
Private Bangkok hospitals are experiencing a surge in demand as patients from Western countries choose to come to Bangkok for their elective surgery. Also, if you want general health tests done, Bangkok hospitals are great for this. What usually happens is that you get a little book and you're sent around the hospital for all sorts of tests from blood work to heart tests to x-rays etc. As you go from department to department, data from each of the tests is recorded in this book and at the end you sit down with a doctor who goes over it all with you and addresses any problem areas or things that you should be aware of. Well worthwhile, especially as one gets older.
I have read numerous times that Thai surgeons specialising in penis re-attachment and sex changes are up there with the best in the world in their chosen field. It is worth noting that in the case of penis re-attachment, bigger most definitely is better. It is said that the bigger it is, the better the chance of it working again once it is re-attached. I bet you've never thought of that before, have you?!
Medical tourism has really taken off in Thailand over the last few years and a lot of Westerners have chosen, and continue to choose to come to Thailand for elective or non-urgent surgery. Plastic surgery is also popular. While most patients are very happy with the service, you do read stories of the odd dis-satisfied customer – and when you're talking about one's health, that's a big deal! I remember seeing a story on TV where a German woman came to Thailand for plastic surgery and the surgeon butchered her face completely – there's no other way to describe it. There have been a number of other such cases that have received plenty of press. It needs to be noted that claims for malpractice against medical practitioners or hospitals are seldom successful in Thailand so do your research carefully when choosing the hospital and the surgeon for this type of procedure.
It has to be said that in recent years the cost of medical care in the best hospitals in Thailand has increased markedly. The better hospitals all seem to charge a lot more than they did say, in 2005. Some of the price increases have been dramatic. It would be fair to see that outpatient care is still reasonably priced, but the cost of operations or actually staying in a hospital have leapt.
There has also been what I would perhaps best term a growing discontentment with the advice offered at some of the so called better hospitals in Thailand. While they are not always the most reliable of sources, reports on various Thailand discussion forums talk of some fairly questionable practices at some of the supposedly best hospitals in Thailand. And there is much talk of recommendation for surgical procedures which it later turns out were unnecessary, or the complaint could have been dealt with in a different way, perhaps simply with medication or other non-surgical therapy. We have to remember that hospitals in Thailand are businesses, and like many things in Thailand over the past few years, that is becoming more and more obvious!
There are pharmacies (drug stores for you North Americans) all over Bangkok but the one that I go to if I need something is called Jaroen Drug Store on Sukhumvit Road, just around the corner from soi 4, past the gas station. The staff are friendly and helpful but can be a little overzealous with what they recommend for you. I only buy what I know I need and I never ask for their recommendations! Remember that while they may recommend some drugs and you may take them seemingly without side effects, drugs do effect your system. Self-medicating really is not a good idea.
Banking and money
One of the first things you'll need to do if you plan on staying for any length of time is to open a bank account. There must be 20 or so different banks in Thailand. The biggest are Siam Commercial Bank and Bangkok Bank – or at least they seem to have the most branches!
Knowing where to open a bank account is a bit of a lottery as the branch may insist that you have a work permit (or in the case of a retiree, a long stay visa) before they will open a new account for you. This is apparently part of a directive from the central Bank of Thailand as part of an effort to curb money laundering through Thai bank accounts held by foreigners. This law is one of those rules and regulations in Thailand that is enforced by some bank branches and not by others. If you have a work permit, it's easy and you should have no problems at all. If you don't have a work permit, just walk around and try a few different banks. While you may be knocked back by a few, you will soon find one that will happily open an account for you. It seems to be that the rules and regulations are enforced differently by different banks, and even by different branches. Get used to it because a lot of things are like this in Thailand!
You could open an account with one of the big international banks operating in Thailand like Citibank, Standard Chartered or HSBC. Be warned however that they have very few branches. These international banks may require a large opening balance to open a local account. I believe, though am not 100% certain, that the HSBC Bank will allow you to open an account, work permit or not, although you need a minimum of 500,000 baht. Needless to say, when you are looking to open a new bank account you should dress well – collared shirt, trousers, be clean shaven etc.
If you are employed in Thailand, you will most likely need to have a bank account at a certain branch of a certain bank so that your salary can be deposited into that account. This bank and branch will be the same as where your employer does their banking so as an example, your account might be with the Sukhumvit branch of Bangkok Bank, or the Silom branch of Siam Commercial Bank – and you will need an account with that bank.
The Thai banks are much of a muchness in my opinion. In the past, many Westerners claimed that the best bank in the Kingdom was the Bank Of Asia, now known as UOB. This bank was a member of the ABN Amro Group and all of the branches seemed to be better presented, have English speaking staff and appeared that little bit more professional than the other banks. This may have been the case in the past but now it seems that most banks are pretty good.
Thais consistently tell me that the best bank is the Thai Kassikornbank (what used to be known as the Thai Farmers Bank) and I believe this recommendation is based on this bank trying to market itself as a bank with superior technology to the other banks.
The interest rates offered on savings accounts in Thai banks are very low, usually around .75% and term deposit rates are currently less than 4%, so it is perhaps imprudent to keep large sums of cash in a Thai bank account. From time to time, some banks may state that it is their policy to refrain from paying interest to accounts in the name of foreigners. Again, this may or may not be enforced at different banks. Banks generally require an account to have a minimum balance of 100 baht.
When you set up the account you will most likely want an ATM card which will cost you anywhere from 150 – 300 baht and then there may be an annual fee of a similar amount. There are different sorts of ATM cards ranging from those that can only be used in Thailand to those with the Cirrus / Plus logo that can be used overseas, to special gold ATM cards that allow up to 100,000 baht to be withdrawn from an ATM machine in one day. Curiously, ATM cards issued by Thai banks do not seem to have an expiry date. The ATMs in Bangkok dish out a maximum 20,000 baht per transaction but sometimes you can just put the card straight back in to the ATM after completing one transaction and do another transaction and withdraw the same amount again! If you have a card issued by a foreign bank, I believe the ATM machine will still be limited to 20,000 per transaction but you may be able to perform more than one such withdrawal per day.
You can elect to open a foreign currency bank account in Thailand but there are certain restrictions on these types of accounts and the conditions vary from bank to bank. Some banks insist that the money be transferred in from overseas whereas others will happily accept the cash in Thailand. Some want a minimum of $US1,000 to start up while others insist on $US5,000. Personally, I don't think there would be a great advantage having a foreign currency account at a Thai bank and think that one would be better off with such an account offshore.
An important factor to bear in mind with Thai banks is that any issue with your account can usually only be dealt with at the branch where your account is held – the branch where you originally opened the account. Even something as seemingly innocuous as getting a replacement bankbook requires a trip to your home branch! Therefore, if you move around a lot, it may pay to open an account at a bank branch either in a central area that is easy to get to or close to where you live or work. At times, one can be forgiven for thinking that the banks go out of their way to make things difficult.
1,000 baht remains a lot of money to many people in Thailand, a few day's earnings for a good percentage of the population. With this in mind, if you pay for something priced at under 100 baht with a 1,000 baht note, at a small store or vendor, that vendor might genuinely not have change. One way to get around this is to make sure you always have small notes on you. An easy way to do that is to withdraw an amount like 9,900 baht or 19,900 baht from an ATM machine, instead of 10,000 baht or 20,000, which will ensure that you have some smaller notes. The "I don't have any change" routine is something that is pulled by a fair few vendors with foreigners, especially by taxi drivers – and often results in the farang just saying forget it, and letting the vendor keep the balance! It is very useful to carry small denomination bank notes in Thailand.
If you have a significant amount of cash, I believe it is prudent to keep its offshore and just use a Thai bank account for money earned in Thailand and for the general convenience of having some cash readily accessible. With most ATMs in Thailand utilizing the international Plus and Cirrus systems, you are able to use almost any ATM machine in Thailand to make a withdrawal from your foreign account – and ATMs can be found on just about every corner in Thailand. Even smaller towns seem to have a bunch of ATM machines these days.
In March 2009 all banks in Thailand introduced a flat rate fee of 150 baht which is levied on all transactions at ATM machines in Thailand using a foreign bank ATM card. So, if for example you make a withdrawal at an ATM in Thailand using your ATM card of your American / British / NZ / whatever overseas bank account, a 150 baht fee is levied by the Thai bank IN ADDITION TO whatever fee might be levied by your bank at home. With this in mind, you're best making larger withdrawals instead of lots of small withdrawals as this is a PER TRANSACTION CHARGE!
I trust the banks in the West a lot more than I do banks in Thailand. There is always a very small chance that something might happen to your account – and you do not want all of your eggs in the one bucket, do you? Over the years there have been a number of stories in the press about how the funds in an account were accessed through unauthorised means and when the person complained to the bank – and was able to prove that it was not them – the funds were NOT refunded to them. Most of these cases concerned Thai nationals but more than a few involved foreign residents. This is the number one reason why I would limit the amount of money I kept in a Thai account. The prevalence of scams where a skimming device is attached to the front of an ATM machine is, I believe, greater in these parts than in the West. Furthermore, it can be a bit of a hassle transferring large amounts of money OUT of Thailand. Imagine if you had a large amount in an account in Thailand and wanted to repatriate it to your own country and faced hassles – or couldn't! There really are many reasons why it is best to keep the bulk of your funds in an account in your homeland.
If changing money in Bangkok, travellers cheques get a better rate than cash by about .75 – 1.25%, depending on the currency. If changing $US, $100 notes get a rate about 2.5% better than a $1 note. All of the big banks seem to give consistently good rates and there is little between them. Some banks and foreign exchange offices can be very picky about banknotes that are in poor condition or have writing on them. Crisp, clean notes are always easily exchanged whereas old, dirty or torn banknotes may be refused.
There are a number of unofficial money changers around town, some of which offer better than those offered by banks. There's a small currency dealer called Siam Exchange on Phyathai Road opposite the Siam Discovery Center which gives good rates. They also change less popular currencies, such as Scottish pounds, South African rand etc that the banks may not accept. Two of the other most popular unofficial money changers (but quite legal, long-running businesses) are Super Rich, which has a number of branches around town, the main one being near Big C, opposite the Central World Plaza. The other is Vasu, which is on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 7/1, next to the Nana skytrain station. All of these money changers give rates that are around .5% – 1% better than the rates offered at banks. If you're changing a large amount of cash, it may be worth venturing to one of these places.
You should note that you will always receive better rates when changing foreign currency into baht if you do the exchange in Thailand than you would in your own country. For example, changing $US100 into Thai baht in the States might get you 3,300 baht whereas in Thailand it might get 3,500 baht, a percentage difference of about 5%! This is the same pretty much the world over and is easily explained. The Thai baht fluctuates a lot and there is a certain risk in holding it, along with varying demand. This means that banks outside of Thailand will never offer the competitive rates offered by banks in Thailand. Even the bank branches at the international airport in Bangkok give good rates, only slightly inferior to what you get downtown. It is the same if you wish to change Thai currency to foreign currency – you are much better off doing it in Thailand than outside the country.
Sending money out of Thailand can be a bit of a pain as the bank may require you to produce a copy of some form of communication from the intended recipient as to why you wish to send money out. Sometimes this is asked for and sometimes it isn't. Like many things in Thailand, it comes down to the way you present yourself, the rapport you have developed with the person you deal with in the bank as well as any relationship you may have with that bank. I understand that there are Central Bank regulations against money laundering which can make the process a bit more difficult than it would be if you were sending money to another country from the West. The last I heard was that any transactions over US$20,000 equivalent coming into or going out of the country were reported. Reported to who I have no idea! Personally, I have not had any problems sending money out and neither have friends so it really is not that difficult. When making such transactions the banks ask to see your work permit. If you're unable to present a valid work permit I am not sure what they would say! Whatever the case, if you do have to transfer money out of Thailand, you may get asked to complete some paperwork – and may even be refused. Obviously, money transferred into Thailand represents no problem!
One guy I know did not want to send money out of the country through a bank, so when he returned to his country he simply used an ATM tied to his Thai account and made maximum withdrawals each day until the account was empty.
Overall, the banking system in Thailand is not too bad. Generally the hours are 9:30 – 3:30 although it varies from branch to branch. In the Siam Square area and in some shopping malls, branches may be open 7 days a week and open until 5:00 PM or even later. Staff generally speak some English but if you have anything complicated you would like to do or have any concerns, it might pay to take a Thai-speaking friend along.
Please remember that Thailand is still a developing country and you don't have to get that far from central Bangkok and the areas popular with Westerners to find that toilets are not always of the flush variety, but rather of the squat variety. Now what is one aspect of Thailand that few Westerners ever get used to! In some of Bangkok's suburban shopping centres the public toilets will be a mix of Western style flush toilets and squat toilets. My advice is to simply wait for a flush toilet. I have never had good experiences in the squatting variety!
If you have a Woolworth's bladder and need to go to the toilet every time you have a drink, you may be in for a shock in Bangkok. There are nowhere near as many public toilets in Thailand as there are in the West and most restaurants, apart from the more expensive establishments, don't have a toilet on the premises. Unlike most Western countries, it is not mandatory for restaurants to have public convenience facilities. Even McDonalds branches don't have toilets!
Shopping malls have toilets but when you finally find them, don't expect to find any toilet paper there – often there may be a toilet paper dispenser selling a few sheets for one baht. In some locations you have to pay to use the toilet at a cost of anywhere from 2 to 5 baht. Occasionally, and it always happens to me when I am absolutely dying to go to the loo, when you finally find the toilet, it is a Thai style squat toilet…!
Finally, Thais generally do not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but discard it into a waste paper basket placed beside the toilet seat. It is quite disconcerting to see this overflowing throughout the day with soiled toilet paper. There is often a sign on the toilet door (usually in Thai) reminding people not to flush the paper down the toilet. Apparently the drainage system is not necessarily designed for paper to be flushed down and the toilets can get blocked up easily. Now that's a shitty problem.
You can still see evidence in Thailand of the Asian financial crisis that actually started in Thailand way back in June 1997 with many vacant, uncompleted buildings, many now sadly condemned. Some of the recommended reforms never happened but the baht is much stronger now (2009) than it has been in a long time. Many huge property developments sit vacant and many of the high flying expat jobs that existed pre-crisis simply disappeared – and that's to say nothing of all of the unfortunate locals who lost their jobs.
So what of the future? One can never tell what is going to happen, nor should one ever be surprised at what happens. The previous government lead by the country's richest man, Taksin Shinawatra, and his Thai Ruk Thai party (the name means Thais love Thailand) implemented all sorts of policies to get the economy moving forward. Former Prime Minister Taksin, a super successful businessman (one of the richest men in the world at one point in time), was described as tying to run the country as if it was a company – and things do seem to be looking up. Who knows where Thailand will be in the future. However, this government does seem to have many nationalistic policies and from my personal point of view it is sad to think that a country with so much potential could potentially be stunted by a nationalistic government that is unable to look beyond the immediate future and at the greater benefit of the country. There remain a lot of barriers for foreigners to invest or purchase property here, exactly the sort of things that will help to develop the economy.
Sadly, asking Thais about the 1997 financial crisis, they often come up with all sorts of Western scapegoats as to why it all happened including blaming Bill Clinton, George Soros – actually just about any American for that matter, the IMF or even the average farang on the street, American or not! It is so frustrating that many Thais think it is inconceivable that the crisis may have been heavily contributed to by certain practices and policies domestically! Up until 2003 there was still evidence of this with some street vendors displaying signs stating that their forced price increases were entirely due to the evil IMF!
Before the financial meltdown in 1997, one US dollar bought 25 baht. Since then the baht crashed, hitting an all time low against the $US of 57 baht to the dollar in January 1998. The Thai baht stabilized and hovered around 40 baht to the $US for quite some time before making its way closer to 33 / 34 as at mid 2008. The majority of local expats I know seem to think that in time, the currency will strengthen, though perhaps not quite to the levels that it was pre-crash. 30 – 35 baht seems to be the consensus of what one US dollar will buy.
Property prices have shot up in Bangkok over the last few years. From 2002 up until the time of writing this paragraph, early 2007, condominiums anywhere near central Bangkok have soared in price. Buildings where units used to go for 45,000 baht per square metre may go for more like 90,000 baht now! The market has leveled off a little though. I always said on this page that 2002 through to 2004 would have been a good time to buy and without wanting to pat myself on the back too much – for I never bought myself – I was right. I do also believe that prices will continue to creep up, though not at the rate that they have over the past few years, quite simply because there will be continued demand for property of all types in Bangkok.
The property market in Thailand doesn't necessarily follow the same principles as property markets in the West. Whereas in the West you can almost bank on the fact that historically, property prices will increase at a rate of approximately 10% per year, in Bangkok that is not necessarily the case. Also, in the West, except in times of major economic problems, you can fully expect to be able to put your property on the market, drop the price of it by about 10% of what it is actually worth – and expect it to sell quickly. Not in Bangkok! The market here is different to the West insomuch that second hand property is not considered to be that desirable. Few people actually want to buy a second hand property and there is not a lot of volume in the market, in terms of the number of sales. You might be sitting on a property valued at X million baht, and might think that if you drop the price by 10 – 15% that it will sell. Unless you are in a highly desirable location or condo building, it is unlikely that the unit will sell particularly quickly.
I have therefore always maintained that a Westerner buying a property in Bangkok should do so on the understanding that they wish to live there – and live there for a long time. And if they wish to sell it, they have to realise that it may take a long time to sell – and / or the price might have to be very heavily discounted. If you haven't got the idea already, I think that renting makes a lot more sense for foreigners in Thailand than buying, unless you are a retiree who is certain of what he wants and has no real plans to sell in the foreseeable future.