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A Tale of Two Thailands





In every country there is a disparity between the wealthiest members of society and the poorest. The gap between the two ends of the economic spectrum here in Thailand is enormous. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s spent any time here that the old adage that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is a day to day reality. The gulf between the two groups is one that’s the size of the Grand Canyon. That fact was brought home to me once again this past December.

Living in Lampang, I rarely have an opportunity to come down to Bangkok. In December I made the long trek to see a chiropractor. (Believe it or not, there is not a single chiropractor in Chiang Mai. If there are any chiropractors reading this, the field is wide open there!) My morning appointment took less than an hour, so I had the rest of the day to wander around Bangkok. I wanted to do some holiday shopping for my family, so I decided to check out the Emporium. I have never been to any of the mega shopping centers in Bangkok before, and so I was completely blown away by what I saw there.

Now I should say right off the bat that I am an enthusiastic consumer. Back when I lived in Farangland, I loved to shop, and I could afford to do so. While hardly rich, I had my share of “stuff”, including electronics, nice clothes, kitchen equipment etc. I tended to buy the best that I could afford.

Since moving to Thailand I have had to moderate my spending habits. I simply don’t have the income I once had. We did build a nice home, which set me back over 3,000,000 baht but what the hell, this was the last home I was ever going to own. We put a lot of money and care into our kitchen, since we enjoy cooking. This is my family’s “resort”. We pretty much stay at home. We rarely eat out, except for a bowl of noodles here and there. Aside from necessities, we really don’t do any non-necessary shopping. If for any reason I am tempted to “fall off the wagon” my darling Thai wife is always there keep me in line by uttering her favorite mantra, “we can’t afford that”! So I am reduced to that time honored tradition of window shopping. I can honestly say that while I do enjoy checking everything out, I don’t lust after everything anymore.

Perhaps my three years in Thailand have changed me more than I knew, but my experience wandering around the Emporium was not a particularly pleasant one. Although I was surrounded with floor after floor of “stuff”, I actually found myself being repelled by this bountiful cornucopia. The store itself was festively decorated for Christmas. Everything glittered and glowed, but for me it was suddenly the most inappropriate display of conspicuous consumption I had ever seen. I found myself thinking, who the hell can possibly afford all this designer crap. It felt wrong to see handbags that cost more than the average working Thai earned in a month. Certainly the attractive staff working there couldn’t afford this stuff in a million years.

So who was actually shopping here? Of course there were affluent Farangs. After all, not all of us have to teach English! Many Farangs working in Bangkok earn some serious money. Do I resent this? Not in the least. If you’re smart enough and talented enough to have a lucrative career in Thailand, hey, more power to you!

And then of course there are the hi-so Thais, who here in a land where the average agricultural worker, toiling like a dog, earns a couple of hundred baht a day, have plenty of money to burn. This is where I begin to feel decidedly uneasy. As with the above mentioned farangs, those with intelligence and talent certainly deserve the monetary fruits of their labors. There is however a sizable number of incompetent Thais, who have gained their wealth, not through hard work, but through nepotism, corruption, and even less unsavory means. As we all know, wealth does not necessarily bestow good taste on those who possess it. As I strolled around, I saw dozens of overdressed, over made up, over bejeweled women spending obscene amounts of money on extravagant baubles. It seemed they were playing the popular Thai game of seeing who can show off the most ostentatious display of wealth, preferably while embarrassing social rivals who are one step behind in acquiring material tokens. While I am the farthest thing from a bomb-throwing, radical, the sight of these rich bitches on a shopping spree inspired visions of cutting the whole lot down with an AK-47 while screaming “long live the revolution”!

Fast forward several weeks to the tiny village of Nongki in Buriram where my wife and I are visiting her family. Not much shining, glittery, wealth on display here. The folks who live in this rural community barely have two baht to rub together. Life here is stripped down to the most basic necessities: Shelter, food, and clothing. These are the people who put the rice on the table of the hi-sos I saw shopping in the Emporium. The worlds these two groups inhabit are so far apart, they might as well be living on different planet. But they do inhabit the very same country. I wonder what each group thinks about the other. I can only imagine what these poor farmers would think if they were able to wander through a place like the Emporium. Equally bizarre is the vision of the dames of Thai high society down on the farm. It would make a great movie! Sort of a re-make of the old Eddie Murphy film Trading Places, but on a grander scale.

Thai society of course is not just made up of the super rich and the dirt poor. There is a large middle class, which is doing pretty well. It’s just that the gap between rich and poor is so glaring here. I do not even pretend that I know how this gap should be narrowed. Hopefully, even though education in Thailand is woefully inadequate, it will someday help to raise the standard of living for all Thais. Hopefully someday there will be a stable, honest and effective government which will spur real economic advances. I’m not holding my breath though. In the meantime, I’d be better off doing my window shopping at Big C. It would definitely get me less riled up!

Stickman's thoughts:

Shopping in Bangkok has improved markedly in the last decade – and especially at the top end of the market. There are many really flash shopping centres and if Emporium impressed you, Siam Paragon will blow you away. As far as the disparity in wealth goes, being a less developed country, the gap is always going to be much greater than it is in the West.