Thais, Money, and Farangs
No, this is not another bargirl story. It is a collection of anecdotes that I experienced during my stays in Thailand, most notably the most recent one, highlighting some of the ideas Thais have about money and farangs. They don’t claim universal
validity, even though I do believe that they showcase typical behavior. But let’s begin.
For Thais, the family is very important. If one of them has a problem, some other will help him out. Financially or otherwise. That’s what we are always made to believe, isn’t it? So I was outright baffled to learn that a person borrowing money from a family member is expected to pay 5% interest. Per month!
I once told my Thai girlfriend that one of her nieces, all 17 years of her, was actually quite pretty. She replied that this girl would get married as soon as she had finished school, for 200,000 baht plus 5 baht of gold. But if I wanted her, I could get her. I’d only have to pay 300,000 baht.
Wow. So it seems that they sell their daughter to the highest bidder, irrespective of any previously made arrangements. What’s more, the fact that my girlfriend could immediately come up with a concrete figure indicates to me that the family had already talked over the possibility to marry this girl off. They must have noticed that she had caught my eye.
What makes me wonder: How would my girlfriend have reacted if I had shown genuine interest? Maybe she gets a commission that she values more than being with me?
We are spending the evening at the home of an uncle of my girlfriend’s, Isaan-style. Everyone is sitting on the ground, eating, talking, watching TV. Neighbours are popping in and out randomly.
Actually, I like them and get along well with them. Unlike most of the friends and relatives of my girlfriend’s, they speak Thai and have seen more of the world than just their hometown. So we are having some real conversation.
At some time, the head of the family asks me: “Say, wouldn’t you have a friend who could marry my daughter? Age is not really important. Because, you see, my son is smart enough to go to university, but we don’t have the money for that.”
Said daughter, a mere 16 years old and rather pretty by Thai standards, hears all that and smiles. Actually, I think, she might not even be that reluctant to marry a farang, no matter how old or ugly. It would certainly take a big burden from her and help her mastering her most important duty: Bringing in money for the family.
On occasions like these I like to point out that my own parents first mortgaged, and eventually sold, their home in order to be able to pay for a university education for their three children. The answer is always the same: “Thais would never do that.”
Well, up to you, guys. Everyone has their own priorities. But please don’t expect some farang to pitch in for you.
A neighbour once takes me aside and tells me: “You have to buy gold for your girlfriend. If you don’t, everyone will believe that she has no money.” Great, I think, then at least nobody will try to borrow from her. But I am too polite to tell her that, so I just smile.
Of course, my girlfriend likes gold. All Thais do. She has told me that several times, and to state that she would not disagree if I finally decided to buy her some would be the understatement of the year. But I am not going to do that. For one, I am an engineer. To me, gold is a great material for coating electrical contacts, but out of place and outright ugly if used as jewellery. (Still, I must admit that the yellowish Thai gold looks much better than the brass-like stuff that is used in our countries.) Also, while the Thais have their very own culture, so do I. And in my culture, people who are wearing gold and / or are openly displaying their real or pretended wealth are frowned upon. Worse yet, a youngish, pretty Asian woman laden with gold would immediately be taken for someone working in the entertainment sector – which, I might stress, is not the background of my girlfriend.
Well, to be honest, I could live with all that. While all true, these are only excuses I come up with to veil my real motivation for not giving her gold: I don’t want to buy her anything expensive that she could easily sell again if pressed to do so by her family.
But there is a solution. I manage to get her interested in watches and buy her a nice Swiss watch as a birthday present. So she has something to show off at home (“Believe it or not, he doesn’t mind spending 55,000 baht for a watch, but I just cannot get him to buy me gold”) and I can be sure that she will not be able to sell it in Thailand for anything remotely near its value. So there should be no pressure to do it. It looks much nicer on her, too, than any golden bracelet ever could.
We have rented a car in Khon Kaen, to be returned in Chiang Rai a week later. So we set off on our route to the North. But something seems to bother my girlfriend. After a while, she comes forward with it. She reproaches me with being unable to deal with money adequately. I have just spent 10,000 baht for the rental car. What a stupid thing to do. It would be much better to buy a car instead of wasting so much money.
I look at her, amazed, because normally she is not stupid at all. But she seems to mean it. So I ask her: “What do you think would be the price of the car we just rented?”
“About 600,000 baht, right?”
About right. So let’s assume we could use the car for 15 years. This makes 40,000 baht per year. Also, if I spend the money on a car, I cannot earn interest on it. Let’s put that at only 5% and let’s forget about compound interest, then we have another 30,000 baht per year. In addition there is the cost for insurance, maintenance, repairs etc. Let’s put this at another 30,000 baht. So the total cost would be 100,000 baht per year. Which means: I will not even think about buying a car unless I know I will need it for at least 3 months per year.
She does not respond.
On our route, we stop at a waterfall. Once gotten over the outrageous entry fee, tiered in true Thai style (human being 20 baht, vehicle 50 baht, walking ATM 200 baht), it is actually a pleasant place. We spend a couple of hours there, hiking, swimming, watching Thai families enjoying themselves.
Back in the car, she addresses me: “You know, I wish I had a car. (– Sigh. We just talked about that, didn’t we? –) My parents have never been to a place like this. If I had a car, I could show it to them.”
“Well, dear, I can understand that. My parents have never been to a place like that either (which is true; they haven’t seen much more of the world than the average Isaan rice farmer). But apart from the fact that neither you nor your parents can drive, I don’t see your problem. This waterfall is just off a major road frequented by public buses. They could easily come here in the morning, stay for a few hours and be back in the evening. And the bus tickets would probably be cheaper than the petrol for a car.”
“But then it would be their money. And besides, when travelling on a bus, they would have to buy food here instead of bringing their own, which would further drive up the cost.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t get you. When you and I are travelling on public transportation, we carry all our stuff for a couple of weeks. Why should it be a problem to bring just a bag of food?”
“You are farang. Thais don’t do that.”
I believe I have heard this phrase before, haven’t I? It seems the urge to see this waterfall is not that big after all…
We make another stop in Payao, a pleasant small city between Phitsanulok and Chiang Rai. It has a nice promenade along the lake shore where we are sitting and watching the fish farms and the fishermen. It is hot. An ice cream vendor pedals past and gets our attention as well as our business.
Now something funny happens. An old man who has been working at the fish farm comes running over. He also would like to have some ice cream, and couldn’t the farang …? Yes, farang can.
A family (father, mother, daughter) on a motorcycle stops buy. They all feel a strong desire for ice cream, too. Couldn’t the farang …? Yes, farang can. If only to not disappoint my girlfriend. But am I wrong in believing that they would never have asked me if I had been Thai?
We want to spend a few days on the beach. Now my girlfriend knows that I do not particularly care for those package-tourist ghettos that look alike all over the world. I have never been to Phuket, Pattaya, or Ko Samui, and never intend going there in my life. If I want to be among farangs, speak a farang language and eat overpriced farang food, why should I squeeze myself into one of those winged aluminium tubes for hours on end in the first place? There are many options much closer to my home which are more attractive than Thailand could ever hope to be.
My girlfriend knows all that. So she tells me: “But I want to go to a place where there are not so many Thai people.” What? Did I really just hear one of those notoriously chauvinistic Thais utter this sentence? She explains: “I like to wear a bikini. But if there are Thais around, I won’t wear it.” Farangs don’t matter, or so it seems.
As a compromise (I was thinking of Trang, she of Phuket), we decide to go to Krabi. Interestingly enough, almost all farangs cluster at the most unattractive beach, Ao Nang, where there is a lot of traffic, noise, and no shade. We go elsewhere and have kilometers of sand and shade trees all to ourselves.
(This happened just before the Tsunami hit. We went back to my country and the following morning we heard in the news what we had just escaped from.)
On some occasion – I don’t remember the context – my girlfriend tells me that she once was dancing in a discotheque when she stepped on something. It turned out to be a mobile phone that someone apparently had dropped. She pocketed it and later sold it for 3,500 baht, SIM card and all.
She looks at me proudly when relating this story and must have been surprised to see me gasping in disbelief. “Why didn’t you give the phone to one of the discotheque employees, so they could make an announcement and return it to its rightful owner?” Because this is what 99% of the people in my civilized home country would have done.
Now the disbelief is on her side, and she tells me another story. Her daughter had once found a wallet that contained 300 baht and a photograph. She knew the man depicted in this photograph, and she knew that he worked somewhere at the market. So she walked to the marked – about 3 km from her home one-way, quite a feat for a small girl – found the man and returned the wallet to him.
“And now, what do you expect happened next?”
“Well, if I had been that man, I would have thanked her very much and given her one of the three 100-baht-notes.”
What really happened was somewhat different. The man apparently neither said a word of thanks, nor did he offer the little girl even 5 baht for a scoop of ice cream. Worse yet, all the other people around were shaking their heads about the girl’s stupidity.
“Now what do you think would have happened if I had given that phone to one of the employees?”
“He would have kept it and sold it himself?”
Although she never had a high income, my girlfriend somehow managed to get several credit cards. That’s fine; after all, I also have some of them. I don’t use them a lot, but sometimes they are really handy. But one day I found out that, unlike me, she does not usually pay back all the debt immediately but only a small part thereof at a time, paying hefty interest on the remaining amount. Month after month. A credit card issuer’s dream come true.
I told her that this is extremely stupid behaviour from which only the credit card companies profit. She did not seem to care much. After all, it was only a few hundred baht every month what she paid in interest. So I pointed out to her that these “only a few hundred baht” added up to several thousand baht per year and accumulated to almost the price of a house in the course of a lifetime.
That brought the message home. Not even did she pay back her debt at the next possible occasion, she even cut all her credit cards in half and sent them back to the issuer.
Conclusion 1: The reason that so many Thais are, in our eyes, financially illiterate, might simply be that nobody has bothered to explain these matters and their pitfalls to them.
Conclusion 2: Farangs will always remain strange animals for the Thai to which their standards of human beings just do not apply. But then, who cares? Most things in life are more important than what an average Thai thinks about me.
Farang + money + poor Thai girlfriend = disaster! This is one mathematical formula that is worth remembering.