Fluctuating Farang Fortunes
The economic turmoil of recent years is just one of many factors which has contributed to the economic advantage Westerners in Thailand once enjoyed declining. Fluctuating exchange rates, zero interest rates, salary freezes and the collapse of pension schemes have seen some foreigners' spending power weaken. Many Thais don't consider all foreigners to be rich in the same way they used to.
Expat society is every bit as stratified along financial lines as Thai society. From foreign executives in Bangkok earning million dollar plus annual salaries to Western retirees in far flung provinces living on less than 10,000 baht a month, it's hard to generalise about the finances of foreigners resident in Thailand.
In the years following the Asian economic meltdown, English teachers in Bangkok felt rich compared to locals as unemployment soared and many local salaries went in to decline. Teachers made more than most Thais, even some Thai professionals, yet they were the poor cousins of expat society.
Less than a generation ago, a monthly salary of 30,000 baht could go a long way for a single guy, affording a comfortable condo with plenty left to go out regularly, to drink and eat well – so long as you didn't frequent fancy places – not that there were so many back then. And a 30K baht per month salary didn't put women off at all; it was in fact more than enough to attract many. At that time office girls often started on less than 10,000 baht per month, and even university professors could start on as little as 6,700 baht per month.
At the other end of the scale, those on expat packages made 10, 20 or in rare cases, maybe even 100 times what teachers earned. The range of salaries was huge.
The economy was in the toilet, companies closed and many expats moved back home as their position was axed. In the period following the Asian economic crisis the foreign resident populace was said to fall.
Expat society was less diverse, both in terms of nationalities represented (there were few Eastern Europeans, for example) and it often felt like there were only so many types of jobs performed by Caucasians. The real expats were in senior management roles, often sent from the main branch in their homeland. There were IT professionals, diplomats and there were teachers. There were plenty of other professions, of course, but they were much fewer in number than today.
And then there were retirees. The late '90s and early '00s saw a weak Thai baht which caused many to retire (too) early. Their monthly budget was often 2 or 3 times what a teacher earned; a couple of thousand dollars a month spending allowance was around 80,000 baht. With a bottle of beer 70 or 80 baht, a pub dinner 250 baht or so and no such thing as a 100 baht coffee (Starbucks had not set up on Thai soil), single retirees had a sweet life.
Everything changed. It always does.
There could be as many as 10 times as many foreigners resident in Bangkok today, and the profile of those who have money and those who don't has changed.
With starting salaries at some language institutes little changed from the late '90s, teaching in the capital can be a suckers game if you are employed at a language mill.
With more international schools and major growth in EP programs (where the local Thai curriculum is taught in English by native English-speaking teachers), some foreign teachers earn the equivalent of $2,000 – $3,000 or more per month – plenty to live on in Bangkok if you are single; enough if you have a family and are willing to go local. Career teachers can make $5,000 per month in Bangkok and some make even more. Teachers are not necessarily the poor cousins of expat society any more.
At the other end of the scale, there are fewer traditional expat packages offered – but there are THOUSANDS of expats in Bangkok earning several thousand dollars or more per month, the rough equivalent of what they would earn in their homeland – an annual 6-figure dollar salary – and often with a hardship allowance on top for good measure.
But not all Bangkok expats are on full expat package. Many are local hires, meaning a less attractive package than if they had been recruited / placed from abroad, but still usually with a quite liveable salary of 150,000+ baht per month.
It is in the mid-range of salaries for Westerners in Bangkok where there has been an explosion of expats – those in the 100,000 – 200,000 baht per month range – enough to have a great time and still be able to put something aside for a rainy day. In this income bracket you have everyone from the higher earning teachers to the lower earning expats to many of the digital nomads.
Digital nomads are an interesting case study and no group has a wider range of monthly income. The digital nomad's monthly income runs the full gamut from almost nothing to well in to 5 figures US dollars per month.
There is one group of foreigners which has increased dramatically in number, but whose spending power seems to have gone the other way. Retirees.
Many retirees, particularly those who retired a decade or more ago, don't have anything like the same spending power they once did. When a dollar bought 40 baht and the pound 70, they lived large. But a combination of unfavourable exchange rate movements, inflation in the farang neighbourhoods running well above the national average and zero interest rates in the West has seen their spending power diminish. Some have no more than half what they used to, in baht terms. Some have burned through chunks of their savings. And when you don't plan on working ever again, that's a worry. There's an argument that in some cases, retirees are the new English teachers.
While income levels of foreigners in Thailand have bounced around, for the Thais it is all good news. Near zero unemployment has seen huge pressure on salaries and where many Thais used to struggle to earn anything more than survival level, today many earn a liveable salary.
The other half's sister is university-educated but barely speaks a word of English – which can lull the ignorant in to thinking she isn't bright. Au contraire, still in her 20s she earns 120,000 baht a month. To put that in perspective, she takes home around $US 4,000 per month. That probably gives her similar spending power to someone earning the equivalent of $US100,000 in the West.
A friend in a multinational tells me that a number of the executive secretaries at his company make 6 figures per month, and plenty of other local stuff – not professionals like engineers or lawyers or specialists – just senior admin staff and managers also earn around that amount.
A friend at an NGO says the accountant is paid 80,000 baht per month. Many Thais in middle management roles earn closer to 6 figures per month than 4.
There is much evidence of the increased earnings of many Thais, at least in the capital. Many of the better restaurants are full of Thais, where once it was mostly white faces. The days of foreigners making up 2/3 of the customer base in name restaurants is the distant past.
The average Thai working in downtown Bangkok is doing so much better these days. Everyone has a fancy phone, many have a car and there is a stampede to the sales office when a new condo development is announced.
Desirable Thai women may have higher expectations about the earning power of their other half – and why shouldn't they when many can make more than the foreigners who are keen to date them earn.
It is my observation that many foreigners, particularly long-termers, have lost perspective with how little they earn in Thailand, especially if they are not in a professional role.
Long-term Bangkok expats on low incomes or surviving on limited savings need to wake up to the reality that while, yes, you can live cheap in Thailand, spending 50,000 baht a month does not make you a man about town. That's but Bangkok middle class level today – and minimum wage level in some countries in the West.
Recent arrivals have higher salary expectations than some long-termers who are living in the past and who still think 1,000 baht is a fair fare for a hooker and 250 baht for a burger and fries is 220 baht more than you would pay for fried rice.
A Scandinavian friend with 20+ years in Bangkok was recently in his homeland for a couple of job interviews. When asked about his current salary, the interviewer said, “It sounds like you are working for free!”
It used to be that the average expat had more money than all but the wealthiest Thais. It used to be that tables in the best restaurants were filled with foreigners and it used to be that foreigners nary looked at the menu in bars or restaurants when ordering. But everything has changed and today Bangkok is home to many foreigners who balk at the idea of paying 150 baht for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, while the Thais happily queue up.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken standing on the Asoke bridge over the Saen Saeb Canal looking north toward the intersection with Petchaburi Road. This week's photo is way too easy!
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Exporting the charm.
I was just finishing a run yesterday, looking really dishevelled outside my flat in an east-coast UK town. In the late November chill, I was doing a couple of warm-down drills when I saw two 30-something Asian ladies tottering towards me in the distance. Getting closer, I could make out faces, and thought 'they are both Thai'. As I passed, one of them gave me a really obvious glad-eye. As this never happens to me, I thought I must have imagined it. I jogged back past them to the end of the street, turned round and came back towards them doing a final drill. As I got close to them again – there it was again – the most obvious glad-eye that would make a Nana ladyboy blush! Do they ever quit?!
Peak employment coming.
You wrote about bar owners queuing up to exit the industry. I'd hesitate to predict the final demise of such a long-standing and lucrative earner, so I'll simply give you one statistic. Apparently, next year will be peak year of the Thai population in terms of absolute numbers in the workforce; in other words, from 2016 the country will see a decline in numbers of people potentially economically productive. Without getting too technical, this is highly significant and impacts directly on the bar industry, since the pool of potential gogo dancers will begin to shrink as wages and competition increase in rival industries. This is quite apart from other factors such as changes in diet leading to heavyweightism, the consequences of mass Internet tourism, inflation, the rise of alternative, cheaper and more user-friendly destinations and so on. In summary, I would say that those bar owners seeking to make an early departure from their business are probably in the right of it, though there will likely always be demand for niche products in the market.
Have a contingency plan.
In most first-world countries, there's infrastructure which comes to the aid of people in trouble – even if you're suspected of criminal wrongdoing, you'll be given medical treatment. Thinking-adjustment must be applied to Thailand, as it's not the case in the Kingdom. Bangkok residents I know take care to befriend Thais with whatever level of influence, and carry their business cards. If you've treated them respectfully and can communicate that you're in some sort of trouble, yes, they are predisposed to help. Remember: the cops aren't your friends, the security guards in your building probably chat more (in passa Lao) with your girlfriends than they do with you (and those smart salutes mean nothing), and a farang in trouble – especially involving women / alcohol – may be considered guilty before anything else. Carry a copy of your insurance card. Keep a cool heart. And never get violent in public!
Entertainment at The Grand Millennium.
A fairly young guy entered The Grand Millennium in the afternoon looking like shit, as if he had skipped the hotel bed and slept in the gutter for a week. Screaming, totally pissed off, with him followed a couple of cops. Clearly they had stopped the fellow near the Asoke intersection and now wanted to make sure he really was a guest. The reception staff were utterly embarrassed, and quite a lot of people in the lobby watched the entertaining event.
Crime on the up.
Crime across the board is headed up IMHO. The Udon Thani attack is both symbolic and predictive. Are foreigners an easier target now because the political and financial gap between the haves and have-nots is widening? Are the checks of foreigners in Asoke a symptom of an evolving mindset towards non-Thais? Does the horrendous manner in which the Koh Tao murders were handled set the bar of justice so low that others can't help but take notice? You do a service by asking the question – a question I suspect expats and visitors alike have been reluctant and uncomfortable – up until now – to consider.
Good cabbie experience.
Just a thumbs up for a Bangkok taxi driver as they in general do not get a lot of good press. I took a cab from Lad Prao to an office on Rama 9 and sitting in the back, balancing my phone on my knee and getting my wallet out to pay, I did not see my phone fall on to the floor. I was with my girlfriend at the time and about 2 minutes later I realised my phone was still in the taxi. After the initial panic, she called my phone, and after what seemed hours the cabbie answered the phone. At the end of the conversation, my girlfriend said he was coming back. Standing on Rama 9, again for what seemed like ages but was in fact only 15 minutes, he duly pulled up and handed me my phone. How relieved was I? I handed him 500 baht and thanked him. It just goes to show there are some honest cabbies out there.
Rain on someone's paradise.
All this talk of Phuket being a laid-back island paradise is all well and good but I will let you in on one of Amazing Thailand's best kept secrets – Phuket is the wettest part of the country. If you Google Thailand rainfall, Ranong (300 km north) also comes in as the wettest province, along with Ko Samui and Songkhla near the top. Phuket has the highest number of days of rainfall, about double what Pattaya gets. There I was wondering why when I went to Bangkok / Pattaya it never seemed to rain as much as during the Phuket monsoon season of April – November but I never got around to investigating it further. Korat pops up as the driest place. So it looks like a case of Pattaya, here we come. The 10 baht taxi fares and cheaper draft beer will also be appreciated!
Jazz fans like Stickman.
I have to tell you that there are five separate tables here at CheckInn99 at our jazz session with laptops and iPhones all with Stickman Weekly open. Very amusing! When you go you are going to leave them with broken hearts.
Girl Of The Week
Nina, gogo dancer, The Strip, Patpong soi 2
Engaging, disciplined, and passionate, Nina struck me as different
– and nothing like your average Bangkok gogo bar dancer.
Nina trains hard, has a flat stomach and really gives it everything.
If I was ever to be a naughty boy, Nina would be my choice…
…and that is about the highest praise I can give any industry lady!
Hot Lips in Nana Plaza – for much of the last 2 decades known as Fantasia – has been sold and will become Candyland 2 from tomorrow, December 1st. Popular boss Steve, who no-one really knows whether he is an Aussie or a Brit, will stay on as manager and the venue's very popular buy-1-get-1-free happy hour from 7 – 10 PM will continue. Better yet, that same happy hour will be offered from 7 – 10 PM at the original Candyland (in the space which was once G Spot) as well.
A new sign hanging out on the balcony has gone up at Nana Plaza as Wild thing changes name to Bubbles. Rebranding with a name change is one thing, but what that bar desperately needs is an injection of girls.
Rumours from multiple sources have it that Safari in Patpong soi 1 will change hands and be taken over by a foreigner from the January 1st.
The week before last the boys in brown were all over K+S Bar at the entrance of Nana Plaza. On Friday of last week a huge number of policemen including many senior officers filled the ground floor of the plaza, and this week cops converged on Golden Bar, the popular bar out front of Nana Hotel, with an estimated score of officers bundling up the popular manager. What was that all about? Every single night there are coppers in the plaza, some nights in uniform, some nights not. The presence of large numbers of uniformed officers in Soi Nana in recent weeks does nothing for the blood pressure of those who work in the plaza and those who visit.
There is a new twist to the police stop and checks that are a regular occurrence just east of the Asoke intersection. Some folks have been stopped near the start of soi 23 have and asked to take a stroll to the toilets in the nearby gas station forecourt where they have to submit to a piss test to check for the presence of illegal substances in their system.
The stopping and searching of foreigners in and around Asoke is at unprecedented levels. I see it with my own eyes in the area and many readers have relayed their experiences. One foreign restaurant manager hears reports daily from customers and relays these. The cops who perform these checks do so in a very specific area and are unintentionally driving some away from that area. Their actions have caused such angst that some are saying that they will forego visiting Soi Cowboy – which is just a hundred metres or so from where many of the checks take place – and visit Soi Nana instead.
The busiest section of Sukhumvit Road is starting to feel like it is under intense police scrutiny as Wednesday saw officials in a different coloured uniform – green – i.e. army all over sois 22, 24 and 33. These sois are known for, amongst other things, the concentration of massage shops where services aren't limited to a therapeutic rubdown. Many of these massage houses were ordered closed for the night, but reopened the next day when it was business as usual. Errant speculation had it that this was the end of all such establishments on Sukhumvit Road, which of course it was not. It was obviously a planned operation where specific establishments in a specific neighbourhood were targeted and seems to be as much about the army letting a certain branch of another government department in the news this week for all the wrong reasons know who is boss.
The next Playskool disco night will take place on Sunday of next week, December 7th. There'll be music from your youth, the PlaySkool girls will be dressed up all funky, there'll be white line shots and bottles of Chang, Leo and Singha will be priced at just 100 baht all night long. Playskool is on the ground floor of Nana Plaza. It should be a fun night.
The girls of PlaySkool are looking forward to disco night, Sunday of next week.
The booths in a certain Patpong bar are currently out of commission but if you have an itch that absolutely must be scratched, carpet has been laid down in the men's room where you will also find a pillow. Romantic it might not be, but functional it is.
At the rear of New York Gardens, Insanity is struggling, as are all late-night venues. The crackdown on venues operating late continues and while some venues might manage to stay open through until 3 AM, those venues which had built up a late night following are hurting.
I have yet to hear a single report from anyone who has overstayed their visa being barred from re-entering the country, as was mooted a few months back as being the new policy. A reader who overstayed recently said he was questioned as to why they had overstayed and he had to complete a form which included completing an explanation for why he had overstayed. He was grilled about what he does in Thailand and the Immigration officer called his wife to verify what he said. He was also subject to an extra set of photos being taken of him, in addition to those taken when one enters or exits the country. Whether the form and the photos is something new, I don't know.
Word from a couple of friends who regularly travel around the region and who each hold an ED visa (the visa those who study Thai can apply for; and the visa seen by many as the easiest option for those who wish to stay in Thailand long-term) is that each time they fly in to the country the Immigration officer asks them questions in Thai to check their competency of the language – and presumably to check that they really are studying. It should be noted that this questioning has taken place on arrival in both Bangkok as well as the smaller, regional international airport they fly in to, which suggests it is policy and not just one officer on a crusade. There have been many reports from ED visa holder who face similar questioning when entering the country / when applying for an extension at a branch of the Immigration Department in-country. It was inevitable that this was going to happen and it looks like those who have an ED visa are probably going to have to go to school to study, which is hardly an imposition, is it?
Following on from the opening piece a couple of weeks ago about the difficulties in Thai / Farang relationships, feedback from readers around the world has been consistent – and that is that the failure rate in Thai / Western couples appears to be significantly higher amongst couples residing in Thailand than those in the West.
The Mexican buffet at Bourbon Street (Tuesday, 6:00 PM onwards, 325++ baht) is better than ever with the spinach salad, chilli and peach cobbler worth the price of admission, let alone all the other outstanding dishes. If you like Mexican, or simply crave a good feed at a great price, hit Bourbon Street on a Tuesday night.
You hear more comments these days about how the Thais – like many around the world – are getting bigger. What I have not heard comment on, however, is worsening complexions. There are many well in to adulthood who have awful complexions which I guess is due to increased consumption of fast food and generally eating more than one should.
One of the things that bothers me about dual pricing is the duplicity involved, with the local Thai price often written in Thai numerals – which is unusual as Thais have long used Roman numerals. Dual pricing may not be uncommon at tourist attractions and at national parks, but it is not common in restaurants. There is, however, at least one seafood restaurant in downtown Bangkok which practices dual pricing. It's karma at work that this seafood restaurant in busy Sukhumvit with dual pricing looks like it won't be in business much longer.
Quote of the week comes from a conversation overheard by Pattaya Gary between two sexpats in Angeles City where one guy declared his new girl was different to which the other guy said, "How is she different….does she have three breasts?"
Reader's story of the week comes from Deepcaster, "Ray".
The UK's Guardian is scathing of the situation on Ko Tao
and the investigation in to the two murdered Brits.
A Pole steals a high-powered bike in Pattaya but is quickly caught by Pattaya's finest.
A warning about purchasing property in Thailand after some put their life savings into Thai dream homes and now face eviction.
A Brit is drugged, robbed and found in woodland behind a school in Central Pattaya.
An American arrested in Bangkok faces charges for rape in both Thailand and America.
Ask Sunbelt Asia Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
Question 1: I have a couple of questions about work permits / visas. What comes first, the job offer or the work permit? When / if you get your work permit, are you tied to the place / employer you got it for, or can you then move to another job?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds:In order to obtain the necessary non-B visa and work permit, you must first have a job offer and acceptance. Your employer will later need to show proof that his company holds the necessary requirements to hire a foreigner for a work permit. This would be 2 million baht in registered capital and 4 Thai employees for each work permit for the company. The work permit is tied to the employer but it is possible to work for two employers – but the initial employer must first give written permission. With the application for the work permit in place, you can then apply for a non-B visa at a consulate or embassy outside of Thailand.
If you change employers, your work permit must be returned to the employer or directly to the Labor Department. If you obtain a non-B visa based on your work permit and employer then once you leave the job your visa would be terminated when your employment was terminated. Sunbelt Asia has extensive experience in assisting foreigners in obtaining the necessary documentation from their employers for both the visa and for applying for work permits with the Labour Department.
Question 2: Regarding the many reports of police stop-and-searches, it's getting outrageous. One downtown police district is having a field day targeting Western males. I rode my bike back from Silom to lower Sukhumvit on Friday and went through FIVE separate checkpoints. It's downright oppressive these days. Today, however, was a different story. A guy I know was randomly stopped by police while on a motorcycle taxi. He was searched and found not to be carrying anything illegal. However, they insisted on a pee test (at 4 PM in the afternoon) where he tested positive for marijuana. The fact is that he DID smoke marijuana – but in Holland yesterday where he wasn't committing any crime. He had to settle the matter as he was told that if he didn't he would be blacklisted from Thailand. So I'd like to know what the rules are regarding stop-and-searches and pee tests? I've heard many and various stories, some from Thai people who profess to know the law, many from jaded farangs. Do we have any rights? Can we refuse? Under what circumstances are police permitted to search us? Are drugs in the system sufficient to convict someone? Or does someone need to be in possession to be convicted? I know it's a messy question, but it seems relevant these days.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: If the police have set up correctly labeled gates and barriers with clear signs stating Seize / Stops and there are high ranking enough officers then the police have the right to conduct searches and tests on anyone, including Thai nationals. If you refuse a search or test at such a legal barrier then you run the risk of being charged with obstruction.
However, if the barrier is unofficial, i.e. not clearly signed or lacking in the correct ranking officer, then you can refuse to be searched or tested. In either case, it is in your best interest to contact friends or family to witness the situation before anything proceeds. The sign will be in Thai language and will state that you must stop, usually it is a large lighted sign. The lowest ranking officer that must be at the stop is Police Sub-Lieutenant.
It is hard to say how the high season which officially starts tomorrow is shaping up with all sorts of mixed messages. The last couple of weeks have been busy around the expat bar areas, while this weekend the naughty bars were relatively quiet, Friday feeling more like a Tuesday. Many say they are visiting for the first time in 18+ months after avoiding the country last high season, while others have indicated that they have been put off for whatever reason and won't be visiting this high season. Late-night venues largely don't operate at this time and even once popular spots like Gulliver's seem to be struggling, with the area at the back of the bar where all the pool tables are in darkness some days. British pubs like the Robin Hood and the Royal Oak are packed nightly and Chinatown seems to get more visitors than ever. Bars and restaurants on Khao San Road, on the other hand, aren't doing anywhere near as well as previous years. Who knows how this year's high season will work out.
Your Bangkok commentator,