Dual pricing (Thai price and farang price) has long been a subject of contention among the expat community. While most holiday makers probably don't realise a dual economy exists, even though they may pay up to a third more than a Thai would on many items in tourist area, the large majority of expats grumble at paying more for goods and services than locals.
And this is totally understandable. I mean, once you’ve lived in a country for five or so years, you’d expect to be treated like a local, right?
It isn’t just street stalls and local shops that operate a dual economy, either. Many museums and national heritage sites stipulate dual pricing on entry, which is never usually more than a hundred Baht’s difference, but enough of a difference to rile some expats.
The reality is that outside of the tourist hotspots, purchases from local markets are generally priced the same, unless you know the owner personally. But when it comes to museums, heritage sites and other attractions, foreigners are usually expected to pay more.
But before we spout off about Thais being racist and how unfair it is, it is important to understand why a dual economy exists, and how it is potentially beneficial to some Thais — even though we might lose out at times.
A Sprinkle of Historical Context
Before we get into why there is a justifiable reason (in the current climate) for dual pricing in some cases, it's important to look at the Thai economy in its historical context.
The first mistake Western critics tend to make is to compare it side by side with that of the UK, or the US. Thailand's capitalist economy as it exists today is very immature, and is a sort of pseudo-capitalist economy that presents itself as such but operates quite differently in many pockets of the country.
In fact, many of the older generation still alive today will have grown up in a rural barter-type economy – indeed, I know my wife's grandmother did. She still talks of swapping goods in her childhood and people lending their skills to each other in exchange for food and household essentials.
Only a 100 odd years ago the majority of the male population in Siam (Thailand) was in the service of court officials, while their wives and daughters may have traded on a small scale in local markets, and only at the end of World War 2 did Thailand's economy truly begin to become globalised.
Also consider that Thailand has not experienced the immigration and subsequent “multi-culturalism” that Europe and the US has. In comparison, Thailand has very few foreigners, and trade laws and the buying of land and housing is still very restrictive for foreign nationals.
Thais still very much do things the Thai way, and in the way they see fit. And yes, for many, this means ‘preference pricing', which, by the way, is not restricted to foreigners; I actually get my fruit cheaper than some Thai people because I am friends with the seller – it isn't just about being a “farang”, you know.
Money Vs. Feelings
Firstly, the fact that the difference between the Thai price and the farang price is usually very small, suggests the grumbling is more about feelings that money; a feeling of being discriminated against, a feeling that no matter how long we’ve been in the country we will always be treated as, and identified as, foreigners (“farang”).
On the face of it, this differential treatment is prejudice, and I’ve even heard some liken it to 50s America and the preferential treatment of whites over blacks. But the reality is it’s nothing like that at all.
The dual economy is born out of simple economics. Nothing more. If you believe that the elimination of dual pricing would promote integration, and give expats more “status” as citizens of the country, you’re living in a liberal's dreamworld.
This might sound harsh, but if you think you’ll ever be anything more than a “farang” to most Thai people then you should go home now to avoid further disappointment. In the same way immigrants are just immigrants to most in your home country, to the average earning Thai, you are just another farang with a fat wallet that allows him/her to live a privileged lifestyle in a poor country.
Thailand is a great place to live, and we’re lucky to be here, but you and I know we’re never going to be considered citizens of the country in any way, even if we went through the hideously long process of obtaining residency. Thailand is historically very insular. This has promoted a unity of deep national pride, patriotism and self-identification with flag and country. Anyone outside of that will always be “a farang”.
No matter how well I understand Thai, no matter how long I’ve had a Thai partner, no matter that my child is half-Thai and no matter how many Thai friends I have, I am, and always will be, a farang. And this is a classification I happily accept as part of being a foreigner living in a foreign country.
So no, I can’t roll up to Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai and say, “Can I pay the Thai price to get in because my wife is Thai?” Or, “Can I pay the Thai price because I’ve poured countless pounds into the Thai economy over the last seven years”. No, because I am not Thai.
An Ethical But Contentious Reason for the “Thai Price”
The reality is that dual pricing has evolved with Thailand; it has a sort of natural existence embedded in the market/bartering culture – as it does in numerous Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. Friends, family and regulars tend to pay less; it's quite simple.
But where entry to attractions and heritage sites is concerned, the pricing is based on economics and not prejudice, as some presume. The average wage is less than 10,000 Baht a month, and most Thais are earning little more than 300-400 Baht a day.
So, let's say I want to take my wife and daughter to a museum on the weekend, and an average earning Thai guy wants to take his family too. If I earn 150,000 Baht a month, and he earns 15,000 Baht, and the entry fee is 300 Baht for adults, he needs to spend more than a day's wages for what should be something every father can easily afford to do for his family.
So no, I don't mind if his and his wife's entry is subsidised by the government and they only pay 100 Baht each to get in.
Who would have a problem with that?
Who would have a problem with paying more than someone else because they earn 10x more, if it meant their family could enjoy the same social outing?
I pay more than the average Thai for entry to certain places and for certain goods because I earn more. I am privileged to be able to afford to live here and consistently enjoy myself in nice hotels and swim in the waters of beautiful beaches, and to visit amazing temples and see wonderful landscapes.
The majority of Thais will never be able to take such a holiday in a foreign land. In fact, the majority of Thais have never visited the beautiful islands and wonderful corners of their own country.
So no, I don’t care that I pay 100 Baht more for entry to a museum, or 50 Baht more for a t-shirt in the market by the beach. As a resident (I don’t have official residency) I am privileged to live in a nice apartment, and to be able to afford to eat in lovely restaurants and enjoy all the city has to offer; again, way above and beyond the means of the average Thai person.
When I say the average Thai, I am referring to the 17 million Thais who earn under ten thousand Baht per month, most of whom, according to a recent bank survey, are in debt to the tune of an average of 150,000 Baht; debt that continues to grow at between 6-20% depending on the mood of the debtor’s loan shark.
Even the lowest paid expat jobs in Thailand massively outweigh the average Thai wage; so why oh why do we continue to grumble and begrudge those with low salaries access to museums and local attractions at a discounted rate?
When we complain how unfair it is that a dual economy exists, we should stop in our self-serving tracks and think for a moment; do we want museums and places of cultural interest to solely be accessible to foreigners and middle/upper class Thais by there being one price for all?
Are we happy to stop the kids of an average earning Thai family going to the places we like to visit just because we feel discriminated against?
Or do we want it the other way around, where everyone pays the “Thai price”. That way, we, along with the Thai middle and upper classes, get to clasp even tighter onto our purse strings, a solution which would no doubt contribute to lowering the wages of those working for state-run museums, national parks and other places of interest.
This isn’t about discrimination. This is about sensible economics. Sure, there are many well-off Thai people who get the Thai price when they can clearly afford more than the average foreigner. But we can’t dismiss 17 million other people on that basis. No, we have to get on with it and stop seeing this as some sort of prejudicial war on foreigners.
Things have levelled out somewhat over the past few years, and vendors often make a point of telling customers (Thais included) that its “one price for all”. But with Thailand’s roots in a barter economy, a deal can usually be struck on most things you buy.
So if you want to avoid paying more than the locals, you should learn to speak Thai and enable yourself to engage with sellers in their native language.
By making a little effort to learn the language, you’ll be able to bridge the gap and integrate into the local community. You’ll be able to strike up a conversation and ask for “Laka con Thai” (Thai price). Otherwise you can expect to be perceived as just another foreigner enjoying the fruits of the country but who arrogantly has no interest in bothering to learn the language.
So let’s stop being so sensitive, and instead be compassionate enough to accept that this isn’t discrimination.
The authorities don't set a Thai price to intentionally segregate us and hurt our feelings. No, it’s about giving those with considerably less money than we have access to museums, national heritage sites, local attractions and occasionally goods that they can't afford.
This enables poorer families to have more freedom; to take the kids out, to enjoy socialising in their local community. It also enables poorer families to save more money. And who knows, one day, just like you and I, they may be able to take out life insurance, perhaps start a pension, send the kids to university, or at the very least enjoy a holiday to the beach in their own country once in a while to the cinema.
But sure, this also means middle-class and wealthy Thais have access at the lower price too. So it's still unfair, right? Indeed. I don't have all the answers.