Playing the Numbers Game

There are a number of reasons why knowing Thai language is beneficial to foreign visitors; a better understanding of Thai society and culture is the most obvious one. However, there are other little benefits as well. For instance, the only way you can be an active participant in Thailand’s “numbers game” is if you know Thai numerals well, and can read basic Thai.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about? This game, which can be an endless source of fun, mild amusement, annoyance, alienation and embarrassment is more frequently referred to as the notorious two-tiered price system.

The basics
The game, in its basic form, is very simple. There are two teams: Darkey and Whitey (sorry, but political correctness is not part of the rules). The objective of the game is for team Darkey to fleece members of team Whitey as much as possible, as sneakily as possible. Darkey members have to come up with a variety of ingenious methods to disguise their intention.

That’s quite easy most of the time, since the majority of Whitey members are oblivious of, or couldn’t care less about playing the game, since they are just short-time players. The real veteran players are the ones who love Thailand and are somewhat familiar with its langauge and culture. This small group of core playas tries everyting they can, with their limited means, to trick the Darkey system, and to even the playing field as much as possible. Rules: anything goes, short of killing members of the opposite team. 🙂

Now that you know da playas and da rulez, let’s look at the game itself.
Richard and Gor covered the basics with excellent examples, explanations and a list of Thai numbers on Check that out first; I will just supplement it with experiences and some comments of my own.

Game replay
This picture is the ticket booth at the entrance to San Kamphaneg Hot Springs that I’ve visited with a friend last Sunday. (There are more pictures of this trip on the photoalbum for this site.) Even intermediate Whitey playas will immediately get suspicious when they see the prices in Arabic and Thai numbers. Then, after working out the meaning of the Thai numbers, they can figure they are being cheated.

There are few options one can take after this. One could either turn back in disgust, trying to negotiate/trick one’s way in, or just fork out the extra cash. Considering the small scale of the price, and the distance we traveled to get here, we decided to do the latter. However, later we found out that this incident was just an indication of worse things to come. If you take a look at the sign above offering foot massage, you can see the same thing (work out the Thai numbers), except now we entered the realm of three-figure numbers. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like having my feet – and my wallet! – massaged there.

At the Chiang Mai Zoo, the situation is the same, but there we were able to get in on local prices – my Thai friend asked for the ticket. Other times, when a large group of us (two Farang, four Thai) planned to charter a red songtaew for a daytrip to Doi Suthep, our Thai friends asked us to stay behind, while they are negotiating the fare. The reason: the mere presence of Whitey will awaken Darkey greed, no matter how many Thais they also have to cheat that way. At the end, the charter costed a total of 1100Bt for the six of us. A simple one-way trip up the mountain for a single Whitey is 500Bt, as I found out earlier when I tried to go up there by myself.

Temple Games
Orange robes have also joined Team Darkey lately. When we got to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the famous temple on the mountain during the above-mentioned trip, the first sign greeting us at the top of the long staircase was “FOREIGNER – THIS WAY” pointing to the right of the main entrance. There, at a small booth (‘FOREIGNER – PAY HERE), we, the two Whitey members had to buy our way into the temple. Selling popcorn and fries would have completed the illusion of going to a circus. Other visitors, including Asian foreigners, could get in for free, like the locals. I’ve yet to see the Notre Dame de Paris or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome charge extra to their dark-skinned visitors.

The Southern version
But nothing could outdo the avarice of the South Darkeys. Since it is a very popular tourist destination, 10-50times ripoffs are commonplace – again, from my own experience, when peddlers told me about the “good deal” of buying 500Bt-postcards. This was also the place where I witnessed the most ingenious way of Darkey disguise. A general store had various goods displayed, with the standard grocery price sticker saying Thank You, with the printed price below. Each item also carried a similar sticker with a series of short numbers, presumably a barcode of some sort. Nothing wrong with it, right? Well, as it turns out to be, two Thai teachers, who were friends of mine and were travelling with the school group, pointed out to me that the last number in the lower right corner on the second sticker is the actual local price. I thought they were joking. Upon closer inspection however, I noticed that the “Thank you”-price always happened to be the exact multiple of the number on the second sticker. Strange for a barcode…

The true test came when we got to the cashier. I already believed my friends, so I took their offer to put my wares in their basket (I payed them later, of course). I watched with a smirk as the cashier ringed up the “barcode” number.

And if you think that was funny, wait, there is more: I told my experiences to the Thai sitting next to me on the tour bus, who displayed the same disbelief I had just a few minutes ago. He payed the “Thank you” sticker price for his stuff! I directed him to the two friends who helped me. He finally believed it, but he was flabbergasted. Ironic, isn’t it? Darkey greed goes so far in disguise, they trick Thais as well.

Disguising the double standard in Thai numerals, writing prices out in Thai letters, having a double set of menus at restaurants – and now this. I wonder what gave rise to such dishonest practices in the land where honesty and meritmaking are so essential?

Whenever this happens and I’m with Thai friends, they are embarrassed beyond description, for the lowly behavior of their fellow nationals. I know I would feel the same way if my own country treated my foreign friends this way. Money is not the main issue here, though for expats living on Thai terms, it can also mean a significant burden on the long run.

Treating us this way simply creates a feeling of alienation and exploitation. No matter how long I’ll live here, how well I will know Thai culture and language, how much I will help the country – to these people I will remain no more than a walking ATM, due to the color of my skin.

(pro- and contra arguments about this issue are listed in a Gors World story. If you have one that’s not listed there, please let us know by leaving a comment to this blog.)

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