Thailand’s True National Treasure
There ought to be a statue. Maybe a Commemorative Coin. At the very least, a postage stamp.
The collective ‘They’ are the true National Treasures of Thailand, the group that did more to make Thailand the economic success story it is today than any other group or entity, and they deserve proper recognition.
Who is this ‘They’?
Without bargirls—the term deserves capitalization, so it’s Bargirls—Thailand today would be somewhere between Laos and Vietnam. Its per capita GDP, rather than $6361, might be around $1500.
Silly, you might say. Bargirls? How are they responsible for the hundred-fold growth in the Thai economy over the last sixty years?
Growth requires a catalyst, and it is arguable that the Bargirl was that catalyst.
A hundred years ago Thailand was, at best, the epitome of the Mysterious Orient, a land with a culture, look, and customs so different from the West that it was enchanting. Thailand might have been attractive back then, but it was no economic powerhouse. Mystery doesn’t build factories nor provide jobs.
Yes, Thailand had a certain appeal to artists and loners, and it did draw interest from the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and others. It earlier had had a famous association but that was not chronicled until decades later in Margaret Landon’s book “Anna and the King Of Siam” and later immortalized by Rogers and Hammerstein (and Yul Brenner), but even this tale merely built on the Mysterious Orient meme. It did not result in much more than a few curious tourists. It made more money for Broadway and Hollywood than Thailand. Growth was not yet occurring.
Everything began to change, albeit slightly, during the second World War, when parts of Thailand came under control of the Japanese Imperial Army. Japan was eventually thwarted, and post-War saw the arrival at the US Legation of one Jim Thompson, a former OSS operative and son of a textile baron. (There are strange eddies and currents in history that converge, and Thompson served at the Legation with Kenneth Landon, husband of Margaret Landon of “Anna and the King of Siam” fame.) Westerners—mostly men—were beginning to call the place ‘home’ and giving it international attention.
An early investor in the Oriental Hotel, which saw its name associated with Greene, Maugham, Conrad and Noel Coward, Jim Thompson saw his future in textiles and the revitalization of the Thai silk industry.
As famous as that has become, Thompson’s original goal was merely to build a cottage industry that both saved a part of Thai culture and provided a modest living for Thai women. It wasn’t enough of a catalyst to turbocharge Thailand’s GDP.
The big boost, upon which Thailand’s current place in the world was built, came with the Vietnam War. Thailand served as an R&R point for American and allied soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, and also as a base for US troops attempting to stand in the way of the so-called “Domino Theory” of creeping communism. Indeed, Thailand did face that threat, and had not the US and Thai military cooperated, communism might have taken control of the land. Granted, communism is a failed ideology that would have ended eventually, as it has in Russia, Vietnam and China, but Thailand could have suffered through a new unpleasant decades if not for the US-Thai cooperation. Surviving former Thai military types know this, and they remain grateful.
Soldiers being mostly young and virile men, grunts took their R&Rs looking for a little companionship. While Thailand, similar to virtually every country since humans left Oldavai Gorge, had practitioners of the “World’s Oldest Profession”, the arrival of tens of thousands of affection-starved soldiers presented entirely new opportunities. The Naughty Boy industry thus took hold in places like Patpong or massage parlors along Petchburi Road.
Not only was Thailand itself exotic and the epitome of the Mysterious Orient, Thai women had an immediate and riveting appeal to shell-shocked and homesick soldiers. A reputation developed, both of Thailand and particularly of lovely Thai women.
Thailand might have kept only that reputation as a place where a young man could be naughty, but a combination of truth and lies let it become something more. The truth part is that Thai culture is enchanting and appealing, and definitely worth experiencing. The lie part is—well, here’s an analogy: I only buy Playboy for the articles.
Rather than just tell tales of carnal pursuits, soldiers on R&R also began to tell tales of beautiful temples, sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and fabulous cuisine. That might not have been their favorite part of Thailand, but it did play a role and resonate with the curious and those with wanderlust, as opposed to erotic lust.
The Thai tourism industry was thus born, and here’s a catch phrase never used, but certainly implied: “Come for the Bargirls; stay for the temples and food.”
Still, this wasn’t enough, though the Bargirl was the impetus behind the tourist charge. In the early 1960s, Thailand had a GDP (adjusted) of two and three quarter billion dollars and a per capita GDP of around $570, hardly an economic juggernaut.
Enter the nascent concept of ‘Globalization’. Companies successful in their home country began to look for footholds far from home to further boost their brand, gain access to new markets, reduce labor costs, and slash shipping costs to existing markets. Southeast Asia had both large and growing populations as well as ocean access.
Now imagine an executive in corporate development, sent to find a new base for company operations. Such a man would likely test out Thailand. He would spend his days meeting with government officials, gathering market intelligence, studying infrastructure, negotiating for tax relief, and putting together a proposal for senior administration back home. His days would be all business. At night he probably wanted some relief.
The Naughty Boy industry catering to non-Thais was there because of the Vietnam conflict. The visiting executive, like young soldiers before him, hit the bars. The Bargirls won him over.
When he put together his report to Headquarters, he could not help but be favorably influenced by what he had experienced at night in places like Patpong. He also knew his colleagues would be as smitten with it as himself. He could make a very convincing argument that Thailand, rather than Malaysia or Indonesia or some other regional land, would be the place to build the new factory.
BOOM ! GDP starts to skyrocket.
Manufacturers were the first to go global, but soon the world’s portfolio managers decided that there must be opportunities outside of the Dow Jones or FTSE or Nikkei. While still a tiny stock market, Thailand presented an opportunity. Investment banks began to send off analysts looking for new worlds to conquer, usually very junior analysts, whose importance was commensurate with the size of the emerging market.
These young folks, most often males, came to Thailand. Like the manufacturing executives before them, they worked hard all day and wanted to play hard at night. These analysts found Patpong, and like most red-blooded males, they, too, were smitten by the charms of comely Thai Bargirls.
When the analysts wrote up their reports, their nighttime experience could not help but find its way into the degree to which they presented Thailand as a glowing emerging market opportunity. Investment banks followed up by establishing subsidiaries and filling them with Western staff, a good portion of whom spent their own nights sampling the nightlife that was becoming more prevalent, with new zones opening in Nana and Soi Cowboy. They also told their friends, who would fly in from Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore financial markets. Favorable investment results led to yet more investment and more growth.
One could plot a chart overlaying the size of the Bargirl Industry with Thailand’s GDP and the correlation would be extremely strong. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but one would be hard pressed to isolate any other factor that correlates so closely with Thai GDP growth. One might debate which one led the other, but the growth did not begin until the nightlife industry catering to foreigners took off. That suggests causation, not just parallel or ancillary growth.
From 1960 to 2018, Thai GDP grew (in constant dollars) by 183 times to half a trillion dollars, a staggering growth curve. Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy grew at a similar pace. While a good portion of overall GDP growth can be explained by population growth, the per capita GDP growth tells a similar robust story, as it jumped 11 times by 2018 from its 1960 level.
That growth resulted from a combination of tourism and foreign investment, but growth in both depended to an enormous extent on the appeal of the Bargirl and the favorable impression that made on decision makers who eventually set up factories or diversified their portfolios into The Land of Smiles.
Current leadership may want to distance itself from the reputation Thailand has long enjoyed as a place where boys can be naughty or even find true love, but it should be fair and acknowledge the fact that a lot less economic growth and standard of living increase would have happened if not for the eternal and international appeal of beautiful, charming and exotic Thai women.
Thais are an industrious people, and they are rightfully proud of what the nation has accomplished over the last fifty years, but the country needed a spark or a catalyst to let Thais be Thais, which is to say give Thailand a place on the world’s economic stage.
That catalyst was the Bargirl, a true National Treasure. She may be less important today than a few decades ago, and certainly she is a much smaller part of the draw and the economy of the country, but her historical position is undeniable. Give her her proper due and respect.
How about a statue?