Samui Wining & Dining
ALL THAT GLISTERS
A look at how gold is very much a part of daily life in Thailand.

A look at how gold is very much a part of daily life in Thailand.“All that glisters is not gold . . .” William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice; Act II - Scene VII.

          

When I first came to Thailand, I wasn’t interested in gold. I knew nothing much about it. So my awareness of Thai gold was fragmented. It was formed from bits and pieces of rumour and gossip picked up in bars and via the internet. And that’s where the 400 year-old quotation from the Bard of Avon comes in – as far as I was concerned, in my ignorance, I had the impression that Thai gold was far too glittery and the wrong colour to be much good. Gold jewellery was put together with old-fashioned and inferior technology. And the whole business was a minefield of schemes and scams to fleece foreigners, and not to be trusted. Oh boy, was I ever wrong!

          

Yes, as in every big city all over the world, there are some who seek to prey on the weak or uninformed. Gem scams in Thailand (and unfortunately therefore also gold, by implication) are legendary, tarred by the same brush as is usually applied to the jet ski ‘mafia’. But I read the other day that far more people are ripped-off, and for far more money, by the extortionate currency conversion rates of reputable institutions like Western Union or Amazon. So it all boils down to the instinct to trust something familiar, as opposed to the suspicions of being a stranger in a strange land, especially when you can’t speak the language or read the small print. However, unlike gemstones (which are still something of a grey area when it comes to ‘bargains’), Thailand’s gold industry has an excellent worldwide reputation, and is probably more unified, regulated and scrutinised than is the nation’s general banking system.

          

Thailand’s gold business has been in existence for more than a thousand years. In the past, there were extensive gold mines in Thailand, and the gold trade was believed to be the first contact that Thailand ever had with the outside world. Indeed the word ‘Siam’ actually means ‘gold’ in Sanskrit. And if you’ve ever thought that the name of Bangkok’s international airport was a bit of a tongue twister, I can tell you that ‘Suvarnabhumi’ translates as ‘golden land’. If all of this is giving you the impression that gold is very much part of the culture and the lives of Thai people – this is true. It is! And for more than one reason.A look at how gold is very much a part of daily life in Thailand.

          

For instance, gold is even threaded through the nation’s religion. In sacred writings, The Buddha is described as having a skin of gold. A golden complexion is the eleventh of the 32 characteristics of The Buddha. And you’ll find that many Buddha images in Thailand are made of gold, with gold leaf frequently being stuck onto images as part of religious rituals. The largest Buddha image anywhere in the world is the Golden Buddha, housed in Bangkok’s Wat Trimitr. It is made of pure gold and weighs over five tons, making it worth around $70 million just for the gold content alone, without even considering its incalculable antique worth. Try planning to steal that one!

          

But back to Thai gold today. The impressions and misgivings that I voiced at the beginning are entirely rooted in my western thinking. You see, in the West, it is rare to come across pure gold. One hundred percent pure gold is deemed to be ’24-carat’. In this form, it is quite soft. And so western nations have traditionally always tempered it to make it more durable by adding an alloy of silver and bronze, reducing its gold content to the 75% of 18-carat gold. This also dulls the naturally buttery lustre of pure gold. To western eyes, the 98-99% pureness of Thai gold looks unreal – more like yellow brass than gold. But this is the real thing! This is what pure gold really looks like.

          

When it comes to my other misgiving – being cheated somehow – then, really, with gold in Thailand this is most unlikely to happen. Except for the . . . ‘buy a Rolex from a man in a pub’ syndrome. Certainly, there’s one born every minute, but shopping at an accredited and reputable gold shop is probably one of the safest purchases you can make over here. Every shop in Thailand is subject to random spot checks and has to adhere to the gold price set by the Thai Gold Traders Association.Page100-4 But just one thing: something that you’ll hear a lot in connection with all this is the word ‘baht’. A ‘one baht chain’ isn’t going to cost you one baht! In this context, ‘baht’ is a measure of weight. A baht unit is equal to 15.244 grams in raw bullion form (a little less than half an ounce), or 15.16 grams when it sold as jewellery. (Smaller items are measured in ‘salung’, where one salung is a quarter baht, or 3.81 grams.)

          

The gold price in Thailand does not fluctuate much, unlike the world gold market, because it only can change in multiples of 50 baht and, in this event, gold shops are required to immediately change their display prices when a new price is announced. To be sure of any purchases you might make, enquire as to whether the shop is a member of the Gold Traders Association. And some of the longest-established and reputable of these are to be found in Bangkok’s Yaowarat district.

          

On a day-to-day basis, there’s a much more practical reason that the Thai people love their gold. It’s instantly saleable, and for only between 1-5% less than its purchase price. This means you can ‘bank’ your cash in the form of gold attached to your wrist and neck – thus additionally displaying your social standing –or even keep it under the floorboards. And in hard times lose very little time or money by cashing it in (unlike trying to sell your motorbike). Leaving me only to say that, in Thailand, all that ‘glisters’ is, in fact, 98% pure gold!

          

 Rob De Wet


 


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