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 make one feel discriminated against.
However, 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
The first mistake Western critics tend to make is to compare the evolution of Thailand's economy side-by-side with that of the UK or US, for example.
Thailand's capitalist economy as it exists today is very immature, and is often referred to as a 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, 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 one hundred 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 for one get my fruit cheaper than other local Thais because I am friends with the seller. This is a friendship built over around five years. That's how things still work here. Communities are very much localised, even in a big city like Bangkok.
Money Vs. Feelings
The fact that the difference between the “Thai price” and the “farang price” is usually quite small — certainly for entry to heritage sites and museums — suggests the grumbling is more about feelings that money.
This is understandable. It is 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 alt-left 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, 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”.
I point to the words of the Thai national anthem: The land of Thailand belongs to all the Thais, Their sovereignty has always long endured.
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 accept as part of being a foreigner living in a foreign country.
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.
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An Ethical But Contentious Reason for the “Thai Price”
The reality is that dual pricing has evolved with Thailand; its existence is a natural one that evolved from the market/bartering culture — as it has done in numerous Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. Friends, family and regulars tend to pay less. It's quite simple.
The same is true in some countries of Europe. Ever been to Italy? Go to the market with a local and I guarantee you will get that handbag much, much cheaper! See Greece for reference too.
Where entry to attractions and heritage sites is concerned, it has to be considered that the pricing is based on economics and not prejudice. 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 an outing that every father can easily afford for his family.
In short, I don't mind if his and his wife's entry is subsidised by the government and that they only pay 100 Baht each to get in.
Who would have a problem with that?
Who would have a problem with paying a little more than someone else because they earn 10x more, if it meant their family could enjoy the same social outing?
If I am asked to pay more than the average Thai for entry to certain places because I earn more then I don't mind — if that little bit more is kept at a reasonable ratio.
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 I don’t mind that I pay 100 Baht more for entry to a museum, or 50 Baht more for a t-shirt at 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 should we continue to grumble and begrudge those with very 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 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.
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But What About Foreigners Who Earn Low Wages & Rich Thais Who Get Thai Price?
The big problem with the above is that there are lots of well-off Thai people who get the Thai price when they can clearly afford to pay more than the average foreigner.
But then we can’t dismiss 17 million other people on that basis, can we?
So there has to be a better way.
In a country with such huge inequality, there are sectors of society who do need a discounted rate on goods and service.
Most families can't even afford a trip to the cinema, or a take-away pizza. There is no social welfare system to speak of — no food stamps, no child benefit. Though there is a good 30-Baht health scheme.
It is also problematic for those foreign nationals who earn very little too. I was shocked to see that some of the agencies on my job board were offering such low wages to Filipino teachers. They too, like most Thais, would struggle to live on such wages in Thailand.
So that begs the question: Could this whole dual pricing thing be solved with a simple card scheme?
For example: If you earn under x, you get a card that entitles you to y at a discounted rate. y being entry to national parks, museums and other places of entertainment run by private companies that could sign up to the scheme too.
Thoughts Going Forward…
I have never bought into the notion that dual pricing is a prejudicial war on foreigners. It is something that has been evolved and become outdated. In rural communities and market trading circles it has historical roots in the barter economy — as it does in many other countries.
Things have levelled out somewhat over the past few years, though, and vendors often make a point of telling customers (Thais included) that it's “same price” for all.
But where market shopping in tourist areas is concerned, a deal can usually be struck outside of the given price on most things. And would we want that aspect of tiered pricing to disappear? Many tourists enjoy this aspect of holidaying in Thailand.
In the immediate term, if you live in Thailand and want to avoid paying more than the locals, you should definitely learn to speak Thai so that you can 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 more with the local community. You’ll be able to strike up a conversation and ask for “Laka con Thai” (Thai price).
Think how you feel about foreigners who don't bother to learn the language in your home country. If you live in Thailand but speak no Thai, how can you expect to be perceived as anything else other than “just another foreigner” enjoying the fruits of the country but with no interest in learning the language?
Back to the main point of disgruntlement though: Prices have been creeping up for foreigners over the past few years, with entry to some historical sites at least 2-3 times the Thai price. This has to stop; simply because it creates ill-feeling, and because not all foreigners earn 2-3 times that of the average earning Thai.
I suggest that the authorities get rid of dual pricing and look at creating a scheme where access to museums, national heritage sites, local attractions and some other goods and services are provided cheaper to those below a certain income threshold.
This will enable poorer families, both Thai and foreign, to have more freedom; to take the kids out to events and activities on the weekend.
It would also enable poorer families to save more money. And who knows, one day they may be able to start a pension, send the kids to university, or at the very least enjoy a holiday to the beach in their own country, or a trip to the cinema once in a while.
Updated: September 2017.