Living the Thai way

Just recently, Richard wrote a blog on the average monthly wage of Thais in a variety of occupations. As you could expect, the numbers are way below Western standards, even for professionals. Actually, did you know that 10% of Thailand’s population lives below poverty line, according to a 2004 CIA estimate? The general Farang reaction to that blog was fascination mixed with respect.

I don’t see anything extraordinary or respectable effort about how one could live on such rock-bottom salaries. It’s everyday reality for the majority of Thai people, as it is for me.

This undue fascination and respect could perhaps stem from the fact that most Farang don’t have first-hand experience about what it’s like to live on Thai wages.

smiling Thai worker

Happiness without UBC and Swiss cheese

1. Down to the basics
There are a few basic principles that make such lifestyle possible. First is doing away with most things that are not immediate necessities. I think this is where most Farang would find difficulty, thus respecting those who can do it. I could write pages about the American-inspired stuff that had to go to the wayside in order for me to live the way I do now.

How about a game? Share your idea of “basic necessities” that you think would be essential for you to live here for a year. Then let’s see how many of those can we, average local folks, do without. Chances are, you’d be off. ๐Ÿ™‚

2. Burst that Farang bubble!
Another essential feature of low-budget life in LoS is to become an integral part of the Thai social network. Undoubtedly, that’d be challenging for Average Joe who just got off Phuket Air.

For the record, I spent three months in Chiang Mai without speaking with any Farang; none live in the apartment that I do, perhaps not even in the entire area. Furthermore, I work solely with Thai people; the only Farang I’ve seen at work was a researcher from the UK who worked in our lab during his brief visit.

All for one, One for all
You probably saw or heard that Thais help each other out to a greater extent and more frequently than folks in the West. The low wages could very well be an important reason. Folks who have to live on low budget achieve more when they do it together.
There are no general rules of how to share; you just help out whenever you can, and accept the help in return, during “low tide”.

Another nice thing is that, outside Farang-influenced Bangkok, poverty is not stygmatized. It’s treated simply as a temporary inconvenience rather than a grave sin. The West has much to learn in this aspect. ๐Ÿ˜‰

By now, many readers could probably ask the question: if I were given, say, a million bucks, would I still maintain this kind of lifestyle? The answer is ‘yes and no’. I wouldn’t damn myself to eternal poverty just to “go native”, as some would mistakenly think; however, I would still live and work amongst the average Thai people, in a way that’s consistent with local customs and culture.

9 responses to “Living the Thai way

  1. Did a virtually impossible job there of staying in Chiang Mai and not befriending any Farang. I mean there are just stacks-a them up there.

    One ‘proper’ complaint i have of a lot of the Farang coming here to live and work is that when they are here, they eat at Farang restaurants, stay at fancy over-priced apartments, drink at tourist-orientated pubs thus tourist prices then turn round and complain about their low salaries not being enough to live on!

    Of course we may not need to ‘go-native’ but if you really want to have a good life here you really ought to follow the middle way.

    Backpackers also have a heck of a bad habit of only eating at their guesthouses spending all their time on a beach, hit the bars of Khao night after night etc… Then go home and tell everyone that theyve ‘seen Thailand’.

    When in fact they would more know about Thailand by just reading thai-blogs instead.

  2. I have seen poverty in Thailand where people live in home made, shelters, made of 4 poles and a tin roof, they possibly derive there income from begging or going through peoples garbage looking for food. The Ironic thing is, most Thai people don’t realize, there are many homeless people in the USA and most western countries, that live on the street but don’t even have a tin shed shelter, don’t have any family, don’t have any friends and make there living scrapping through garbage to find food.
    Poverty is every where in the world, it may just be more prevalent in Thailand than in the west.
    I for one would not find it hard to live on the street and search through garbage for food if I had to, not that this would be my life style choice, but I’m quiet capable of doing so. There are advantages to living on the street, some people in Australia where I live, have been given the opportunity to move off the street and they refuse to leave as they enjoy the life style of the street, they enjoy the social interaction, they enjoy the fact they do not have the stress of a mortgage, they enjoy the fact they have no responsibilities.
    Now what gets me, why do so many people complain about other people and them selves who live in poverty, I’m quiet capable of going with out any luxuries and living in poverty, I have deliberately lived in poverty my self, so as to save money to get out of poverty, it is not that hard, so long as you can find enough food and water, that’s all you need, be proud of poverty I have been.

  3. Hmm,

    I think the poverty experienced by the truly poor in Thailand is something of which westerners here would have no experience whatsoever. Sorry Siamjai – but as an international student who was fortunate enough to spend your university years studying abroad, I doubt very seriously that your resources or connections are all that destitute.

    From the sounds of it this thrifty lifestyle you’ve choosen to adopt is something in the way of an experiment, whereas for others it’s an inescapable fact of life.

    I agree with what Stevesuphan wrote about taking the middle road – and I think that’s what most reasonable westerners do – but let’s not stretch the line of credibility too much by saying that we’re hacking it like the country’s poor.

    Bruce

  4. I wonder if comparing proverty in Thailand to living on the street in a westren industrialised nation is a balanced view point. Being homeless and living on the street in a westren city is a far cry from being born in the mountains or Issan country. How about Laos, Cambodia, Maynamar, North Korea, or Sub Sahara Africa? I, though never poor, grew up in an area with what we cosisder poor families and the standard of proverty is much higher here. There are also many services and organizations available to help people here that I feel are not in many of these other places.

  5. Its not bad thing being poor in Thailand. Its difficult. There are many extreme in most countries. Do you think that a poor Farang would utilize his money to buy a Big Mac and fries?

    There are countless stories, my aunt would tell me about my mother. She would ride her old bike from house to house in her own village when she was younger to get her dinner. The old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. That was my mother. Yes, many farang live extravagant lives. Though I have seen my cousins in Thailand spend a lot of money on skin “whitener” in the many malls of Bangkok. At another place, I have seen a dunhill money clip for $250 American dollars. If there is not a market for that, there would not be a store. Extravagant lifestyles do not end at the farang.

  6. I guess where I think the difficult part for Thais is is not so much in the day-to-day living, but rather when more challenging situations come up. For instance:

    – What if there was a major disaster (say, fatal bird flu epidemic) ? I’d imagine if all went wrong you (like the rest of us) would be able to leave back to US/Europe rather easily but that’s simply not an option for the majority of Thais.
    – What about (god forbid) if you developed a serious illness or were involved in a serious accident ? If you’ve got credit cards or health insurance that’s again above the majority of the population. Treatment afforded to Thais under the 30B scheme is pretty absymal according to first person accounts I’ve heard, and the ‘pragan sangkom’ scheme is a bit better but not much.
    – Could you raise a child/children under those wages ? Many Thais have to put up with giving their children insufficent or inadequate education due to being unable to afford it.

    Lets not forget also that there’s an overwhelming cultural imperative to support the family, so some of that limited salary is likely going to help support their parents or other family members also. What I meant when I said I respected them is the ones that manage to do that while working the long hours under difficult conditions, without resorting to crime, prostitution etc…

    Personally I think it’s lifestyle choices rather than income level that determine how well integrated into society you can be, after all there are plenty of middle-income Thais nowadays too.

    > By now, many readers could probably ask the question: if I were given, say, a million bucks, would I still maintain this kind of lifestyle?

    What do you think the average Thai would do ? I’d dare to suggest they’d probably still eat the 20B somtam but I very much doubt the majority would still put up with the housing, health and education condititons that they currently have to. I think the majority would spend it on getting themselves and their family in better conditions as soon as possible.

  7. Thanks for the informative and interesting comments. Sorry for getting back a bit late, life is still kinda busy around here. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Did a virtually impossible job there of staying in Chiang Mai and not befriending any Farang. I mean there are just stacks-a them up there.

    Yeah, no kidding. However, I’m surprised that it was so difficult for you, Steve. I mean most of ’em are clustered in one spot, and that is the eastern area of the moat and the surroundings (Thapae Rd, Night Bazar). When I skate through that place, it feels like Khao San. Of course, if the Farang ghetto is on the east, I live on the west, near the Uni. Like I said, very few Farang there. My unique purpose here in Thailand makes it easier to keep a distance from unwanted Farang company with little effort.

    a lot of the Farang coming here to live and work is that when they are here, they eat at Farang restaurants, stay at fancy over-priced apartments, drink at tourist-orientated pubs thus tourist prices then turn round and complain about their low salaries not being enough to live on!

    Really? It’s surprising. I always assumed that the ones eating at Farang restaurants are tourists, or at least, short-time visitors. Locals should know better not to do that if they are on budget. If they then complain about the difficulty of life, som nam naa. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I agree with you on backpackers too. Sometimes, when I come across one on the internet, it’s difficult to decide whether to laugh at, or be sarcastic about their “truly Thai” experiences. :/

    Bruce, your reply just made me realize how little these blogs show of my life. Gaps, omitted details, impersonal accounts – these blogs leave lots of blank spaces, which you attempted to fill in – rather unsuccessfully, I would say. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s really my fault; if I were you, I’d probably make the same assumptions, based on what little is up there that make up the online entity of SiamJai.

    Perhaps I should update my info on the front page too. It’s a bit outdated – quite a bit, actually. ๐Ÿ˜€

    For now, let it suffice to say that I have very limited input in the choice of lifestyle here. It is definitely not an experiment, but rather a necessity.

    You seem to group all westerners together, saying how “we” are doing things, with the middle way and all that. I disagree; I think that the lifestyles that Farang in Thailand practice are too diverse to classify it so easily, although I acknowledge that there is a mainstream. I don’t fall into it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    the poverty experienced by the truly poor in Thailand is something of which westerners here would have no experience whatsoever.

    Why not? ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Being homeless and living on the street in a westren city is a far cry from being born in the mountains or Issan country.

    Sure it is, Pat. There is a huge difference, mostly of the social infrastructure, a social net, if you will. Many western countries have such a system put in place, to take care of the needy. This is sometimes abused, like I’ve seen it in Europe and the US. The Thai equivalent is, well… not equivalent, as Mike also pointed it out earlier.

    I always felt that comparing Western poverty and that of Thailand is something better left for those qualified to analyze that, and they probably wrote books about it, so who are we to say? ๐Ÿ™‚ Apples to oranges, as far as I’m concerned.

    I have seen a dunhill money clip for $250 American dollars. If there is not a market for that, there would not be a store. Extravagant lifestyles do not end at the farang.

    Yes, that’s true! I’ve seen some really crazy, Hollywood-style spending here, which could give a new definition to “developing country”. Or perhaps it’s not that new after all. After Marcos, what’s new? :/

  9. What if there was a major disaster (say, fatal bird flu epidemic) ? I’d imagine if all went wrong you (like the rest of us) would be able to leave back to US/Europe rather easily but that’s simply not an option for the majority of Thais.

    I think this is more like a “long distance worker vs. home worker” rather than a “Farang vs. Thai” issue, Mike. Sure, I could go leave this area back to some other place that I’ve previously been to – much like the guest worker Thais did when the tsunami struck the South. Left without jobs and infrastructure, they just went back to their families in the other provinces. So this is not something that would make my situation “less Thai” than that of a long-distance Thai worker.

    Also, going back to Europe, why would that automatically put me to a better position? EU countries are all over the economic scale, and it just happens that my country is on the low side. In fact, it has a smaller economy than that of Thailand!

    If you’ve got credit cards or health insurance that’s again above the majority of the population.

    So then I’m in line with the majority of the population – or perhaps below, because no state agency would lift a finger for a Farang in trouble. The plans that you mentioned may be abysmal, but they are better than nothing. My only option would be to sue if I develop a lethal disease from the labs. But by then, there wouldn’t be any reason… :/

    Could you raise a child/children under those wages? Many Thais have to put up with giving their children insufficent or inadequate education due to being unable to afford it.

    I’m sorry but I can’t sympathise with folks who just **** around while they can barely feed themselves. Shy the Thai may be, but the basics of family planning have already trickled down even lower than elementary education. Did you hear about Mechai?

    But I digress. I know people whose parents were simple farmers who waited until they have a nest egg that supports children – and they didn’t make a dozen of ’em. These children are now attending public universities, making their parents proud, and provide them with a more comfortable lifestyle.

    What do you think the average Thai would do ?

    That’s an interesting question! I don’t know. From what I’ve seen, media displays the Farang lifestyle with a certain glamour, and the Thais who can afford it will imitate it. So I doubt the somtam. But sure, they would help their families and themselves.

    Take care, Mike. ๐Ÿ™‚