Some Memories Of The 90s Recession
I have these memories and observations from the ’90s recession and some comment on how life differs now.
The first memory is that while the ’90s recession was a great time for those of us with cash to spend, it was a disastrously difficult time for many Thai people. The very first clue I got of trouble was some things a friend from home said before the recession hit. We were on a road trip in Isaan and while stopped at a traffic lights in the middle of nowhere my visitor looked across at a row of brand new and empty shop houses at the side of the road, ‘who’ she asked ‘is fronting the money for these?’ In another comment, while out for dinner with expat colleagues in Pattaya my friend commented on the indulgence of excess on the adjacent table of Thai diners. Everyone at our table was on a very generous full expat deal, our order was excellent food and beers, the adjacent table of Thai diners had bottles of wine, scotch, and all the most expensive dishes on the menu. This wasn’t a one-off, it was a common sight.
It’s something we forget, and something those who only arrived after the crash never knew, the economic crash was proceeded by wild spending and an excess of conspicuous consumption, before anyone goes saying they had it coming, take a closer look at what was happening in the West up until January of this year.
Then the crash hit and it really was a high time for expats and tourists alike. Half price cars, half price condos and cheap nights out. A friend and I were regular weekend visitors to Bangkok, we had suites at the Rembrandt Hotel for 1200 baht a night, breakfast included – Other hotels switched to charging foreigners in dollars, the Rembrandt announced they pay their staff and for services in Baht, they would charge in Baht, they did not join others ripping off the customers they relied on.
Elsewhere nearly everything closed down. One early Saturday evening I drove at 90 km/ hour between Siam Square and Asoke, and there were no cars on the road. People were getting desperate, after getting cash from an ATM a young woman in a student uniform not much older than my sister asked me if I could help her, it wasn’t a long story, she was selling herself, I took her to a nearby 7/11 filled a basket with sanitary towels, soaps, toothpaste, shampoo (the things every woman needs) paid for it and handed her an extra Bt500, it might have lasted a few days then I guess she’d be back out on the street.
On road trips I noticed pick-up trucks piled high with personal belongings, not just a few, thousands all heading out of Bangkok and the large cities to the villages, Thailand was then blessed with an unusually high distribution of land, ordinary people had a farm to go home to. In the following years much of this land would be sold, or signed off as collateral for loans that were never paid or mortgaged to that rice scam, families who then had land no longer do, for very many there is no farm to go back to.
As the recession bit and the baht showed no signs of recovery, word got out that Thailand was as cheap as chips and the flood of tourists and ‘private expats’ started to arrive. Again, it’s one of those things that people who did not live in Thailand either side of the recession did not experience. Prior to the recession the expat community in Thailand was almost entirely ‘Professional Expats’, those who had been sent to work in Thailand by their government or overseas employer and a very much smaller group of ‘Private or independent expats’, some of whom owned businesses, some were teachers a very small number were retirees. I only knew one expat retiree in Pattaya and he was such an anomaly that he had a thriving ‘cash in hand’ business helping seasonal tourist find places to stay, rent motorbikes etc.
The crash brought a flood of tourists, most looking for cheap ‘fun’ and it was cheap, at Baht76/£ the British flocked to Thailand, replacing Germans to become the dominant foreign population, some settling and setting up their future life here at Baht76/£. Here too was another boom of excess, British expats with cash burning a hole in their pockets, new cars (seemingly always a Fortuna), condos, girls, excess in all things.
They would leave in droves as the baht recovered.
While I am sure they had fun, what they had missed was the party before the crash, Thailand’s baby boomers were out on the town in the early to mid ’90s, outspending expats and outdoing anyone in terms of the excesses of hedonistic fun. There was no better way to describe the fun and excitement of Thailand’s nightlife before the crash than to simply say ‘Bangkok’. There was a circle of ‘must do’ parties, some in private homes, some in pubs or in clubs closed for the night, these parties were talked about getting in was difficult, invites were like diamonds. I wrote a piece that got published in Metro Magazine, a couple of months later I got an invite to the Metro Party and from that more invites came, a door was opened, I was living and working in Rayong but spent every single weekend for the next two years in Bangkok. It was as if the doors had been opened to Aladdin’s cave and I had been given the lamp, I could have any wish I wanted, and I frequently did.
I believe one of the reason for the ‘in-party’ scene in Bangkok at that time was the traffic, the sky-train was under construction as too were many of the highways, the traffic congestion was awful and it wasn’t practical to plan to do more than one thing in a day or an evening, a night out prior to the recession would frequently involve a two-hour taxi drive across town to a location that once there you had a two our taxi drive to get back. Nights out had to be planned and to attend was a commitment.
To my mind one of the biggest changes the crash and its aftermath brought was a change of attitudes amongst Thai people towards foreigners. I think this had two roots, the first was the Thai Government’s scapegoating of the IMF, Soros and foreigners in general for their economic woes (we’ll put aside insider currency trading by people in the Government of the day), the second was the behaviour of the foreigners who came looking for cheap fun, I frequently witnessed what can only be described as disgusting behaviour by this new wave of tourist and expats.
Regardless of why, the recession was a watershed moment in Thai people’s attitudes to foreigners.
There is though one last observation, if not already made. The significant difference between the Thai/Asian recession of the 90s and this Coronavirus recession is the former was visited on Thailand, not on Western visitors to Thailand, The Coronavirus in giving everyone a piece of the action, if anything Thailand with its abundance of food is doing much better than the West.
Good luck and stay safe.