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There’s a dual-pricing system in Thailand – is this simple economics, or simply discrimination?

There’s a dual-pricing system in Thailand – is this simple economics, or simply discrimination?I remember when I first went to Egypt. My wife’s cousin had married an Egyptian girl, and her folks had invited us over. They were lovely people, well-educated and with white collar jobs – but we were surprised at how small and shabby their apartment was. Of course, the thing at the top of our list was to see the King Tut exhibit at the Cairo Museum. But even though the family had lived in Cairo all their lives, they didn’t know where the museum was, or how to get to it. And when we finally made it, the admission prices clearly showed that foreigners were being charged five times more money to get in than the locals!


We were fresh off the boat and we were instinctively expecting everything to be the same as we’d always been used to. It took us a while to realise that nations are different – and some more so than others. In fact everything, everywhere, had two sets of prices attached, from street food to air travel, and this was a policy, set right across the board, by the government, with two scales of charges established, printed and published for everything.


The reasoning, of course, is straightforward and is a close parallel to Thailand in more ways than one. Like Egypt, Thailand is a nation which is comparatively much less prosperous than most Western countries. For example, the average wage in Germany is 4,300 baht a day in Thai money (2014 figures). But, the average wage for a Thai person is slightly less than 500 baht a day (as of January 2015). And so it would seem both rational and fair that visitors to Thailand, coming from more affluent countries, should be charged more for the privilege than their Thai counterparts.


But this is where the arguments begin. Is it accurate or fair to assume that every single ‘farang’ (foreigner) can be lumped in the same boat and viewed accordingly? What about Westerners who live and work here, are legally employed by Thai companies and pay tax every month? Or the many foreign teachers, nearly all of whom are on exactly the same pay-scales as their Thai counterparts? It’s recently been publicly admitted by the Thai government that the collecting of income tax for the millions of self-employed Thai workers is a bit of a muddle, and the majority of these manage to avoid paying any tax at all. But all foreigners are scrupulously inspected, need a work permit, and are taxed on a minimum earnings scale of 50,000 baht a month,There’s a dual-pricing system in Thailand – is this simple economics, or simply discrimination? whether they earn as much as this or not. Is this reasonable?


The fact of the matter is, much like my distant in-laws in Egypt, the vast majority of Thai people are too busy working or raising families to go around visiting palaces or golden temples. Most family members also don’t know where such places are, exactly. But the basis of dual pricing goes deeper than merely economics. Thailand is culturally and historically very insular. This has led to a national unity and a deep sense of national pride and patriotism. And, hard though it sounds, anyone outside of this will always be a farang, no matter what his or her personal circumstances might be.


And why not? Think back to your own country and the situation with immigrants. On the whole, all immigrants tend to be lumped together for conversational purposes, isn’t that so? And it’s the same in Thailand. It doesn’t matter that you might have a Thai wife and children and have been living here for 20 years, or how many Thai friends you have. When you’re sitting in conversation with them and your name comes up, they won’t refer to you by name. It’ll be, “ . . . the farang said this,” or, “. . . the farang did that”. But here’s the point: it’s normal! To understand the Thai nation and its people is to know that there’s no malice or rejection in this, it’s just the way things are, and always have been.


And then, look carefully at those places, like national parks, where a dual-pricing system is in place. In terms of percentages it might sound outrageous that the foreigner’s price is 300% more than a Thai national. But, come on! In reality it’s not a huge difference. And, really, this kind of idealistic quibble is less to do with money and more about a lingering feeling of being discriminated against. But what’s the alternative? It makes no sense to raise all the prices to the ‘foreigner’ level, thus deterring the Thai people from being able to access historical sites of their own heritage. And it’s equally unrealistic to lower everything down to just a few baht a head, down to the Thai pricing level.


And so to the final aspect, often voiced by farangs living here – it’s not consistent. Foreigners are being overcharged a lot more by some merchants than others. Some places, restaurants in particular, have no dual prices. (Well, not obviously, anyway – although the overall pricing of the entire menu depends on the area and the mix of tourists, or not! Move one kilometre away and you might find all the food is half the price!) The Egyptian Government spent very many years rationalising a comprehensive 2-tier price system based on different types of goods and services, subdivided into dozens of sub-categories. It’s publicised and out on show for all to see. It’s mandatory, and vendors are fined for overcharging.


And so the question remains – is it fair? It’s certainly the Thai way, and it’s hard to put the case that prices should be the same for all. Is it acceptable to find so much variation in farang prices? How do you feel when the Thai girl in front of you has just bargained a T-shirt down to 120 baht but the stall-holder won’t give you the same shirt for less than 300? Or a builder quotes you 50,000 baht more for a garage than he did for your Thai friend? Should it all be rationalised nationally or is it just the way things are? So many questions! Can you come up with the answers?


 Rob De Wet


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