Report from Tomorrow - Vol 27
1USD = S$1.77 (S$1 = 0.58USD)
Prices (42 baht = 1USD)
It was just one year ago that the Asian monetary crisis began, when the Thai baht crashed, falling from 25/USD to 40-45/USD. The state of the economy was on everyone's mind and we heard countless references to it.
Bangkok was certainly crowded and busy, but upon closer observation, there were lots and lots of store fronts closed. Our guide said it looked like Christmas when all the shops were closed - except this is a permanent state.
We saw lots of buildings under construction - but work on them had clearly been stopped. In fact there was zero private construction going on. I only saw two government construction projects working - a bridge and some street repairs. Work on the overpasses for the major roads to bypass downtown were idle.
Cars are pretty expensive in general in Thailand. They have a high import duty imposed, but once that is paid, there is no incentive to remove them from the road (as in S'pore) which means there are lots of old cars and trucks on the road. Gas is very cheap for Asia (12 baht/liter which is about one USD per gallon). So once you get a vehicle, it's cheap to run it.
I don't know how much people in general make at their jobs, but I did read in the newspaper that the minimum wage was 165 baht/day.
So with the economy having such trouble and the baht so cheap compared to everywhere else, prices were amazing. As I mentioned before, Thailand (Bangkok) is at the bottom of the clothing chain and there were countless shops/stalls offering name brand shirts. Of course, you were expected to bargain in every case. Discounts of 15% seemed pretty standard.
The quality varied as you might expect, but to give you an idea, I bought 3 sports shirts (Tommy Hilfiger, Timberline, Armani) and paid between 150-200 baht each. Gretchen had found dresses in S'pore S$7 ($4 USD), but was able to beat even those prices (100 baht, $2+USD). We ended up getting a 180 baht duffle bag to carry our new acquisitions home in.
Food prices were equally inexpensive. At times the cost of the non-alcoholic drinks was almost as much as the food. We ate in a nice Thai restaurant downtown Bangkok for 600 baht for the three of us, but in the fancy hotels, the meals were more like 400 baht apiece.
The most amazing prices we saw were in Chiang Rai at the RimKok Hotel where we stayed. This was a 4 star hotel (whatever that means) where we ate twice. A simple vegetable/rice meal was 50 baht. The last night in Chiang Rai, we were tiring of Asian food, and so we ordered Western food. I had the most expensive thing on the menu (French Pepper steak) for 180 baht. I can't imagine the prices in town - they must have been giving it away.
Taxi rides seemed pretty consistent - about 60 baht for the vehicle (not apiece) for a couple km ride. Our longest ride must have been 5-6 km and cost 120 baht.
Contrast to S'pore
I suspect what we saw in Thailand is a fairly typical snapshot of much of Asia in general. Certainly it reminded me of what we've seen of Malaysia. Malaysia and Thailand are certainly more prosperous than nearby Mynamar or VietNam. The comparison of these worlds to Singapore is simply stunning. S'pore is by comparison, a vastly more affluent society.
The comparison is not about the individuals, as I'm sure there are plenty of rich people in Bangkok, but of the basic quality of life. The city buildings here in S'pore are all much newer and in better repair. The streets here are as good (or better actually) than any city in the US - compared to the generally poor condition of Bangkok streets.
It's not that there were not nice streets or buildings or stores in Bangkok, but they are islands among streets and buildings in varying states of decay. In Bangkok the rebuilt areas might be a 5% of the entire view, where in S'pore the run down areas are 5% of the total. It's like moving between the ghetto of Harlem and Wall Street (or what I think they look like).
Today's economic situation aside, it is clear the average S'porean is vastly better off than his counterpart in Thailand. When I think of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia compared to S'pore - all of these countries started from the same relative state after World War II and the Communist insurgencies of the 1950s and early 1960s. By about 1965 or so, they all started from the same relative point. They all participated in the "Asian Miracle" and had economies that grew at 7-10% per year for many years.
Thinking of their common history and visiting these places today forces me to conclude the S'porean government has done a far far better economic job for it's people than the other countries. In fact the difference is so great, that it makes joint efforts difficult. There's been discussion of trying to form some sort of common economic currency (like the Euro), but S'pore is in so much better shape, they cannot agree.
This brings to a close this series of reports on Thailand. It was such a positive experience that given half a chance, I'm sure we'll return (3 day trip with hotel + airfare to Bangkok is only S$258 from S'pore). Please feel free to share this with anyone you think would be interested.