The Price of Being Farang
Perhaps alienation is what we seek, hanging out here in bizarreland where your girlfriend of five years still refers to you as ‘farang’ when talking to her friends and family. Word on Wise Street is, you’re never gonna fit in, ask any old codger who’s been here long enough to wax wistful about the good old days on the Kampaengdin Road. But who cares really, we didn’t come here for church and chips. Fit in? Don’t even think about it, and anyway, what’s so bad about being an outsider, we can be invisible in the worst of times, incandescent during the best, we can pretend we don’t understand, drive through police check points and can stand tall when others are down on their knees in obeisance, and apparently, we can get an extra pillow in jail!
What’s so bad about being a farang?
Not counting the nouveau – très – riche retirees who quote Theroux in wine bars or the hyper-sensitive newbies whose hearts’ bleed at the sight of a pariah dog, what seems to bother most people is the tiered pricing system. The songtaew driver studies your inflections and proboscis for a second and then tells you it’s going to be 50 baht from Nimmanhaemin to Central; the sign on the wall in Thai tells you it’s thirty for your chicken with cashew nuts and she asks you for sixty, the reason, she says is, ‘Because your farang”; entrance to a weary waterfall is an overwhelming 400 baht – compared to the 80 baht Thais have to pay – while the Great Zoo, Panda Pound and Aquarium Robbery costs so much you had to tell your kids that feeding fish at Wat Umong was more fun; and there are nightclubs, massage parlours, hotels, temples, boat rides, bike shops and God knows what else where prices – not so much inflated, but inflatable – flex at the sight of your wealthy white mug.*
Who are the farang anyway? If such a rule is put in place where certain ethnicities pay more, then who defines who is who? Are Chinese or Burmese immigrants exempt from the farang tax? Japanese, Egyptian, Mongolian, and then there are the thousands of wealthy Asian diaspora holidaying in Thailand. The reasoning for double pricing is? Perhaps it’s innocuous, possibly even laudable: an ethnological based socialism, bridging the socio-economic divide under the paradigm that white folks are loaded and yellow folks are poor.
Even though those with work permits or retirement or marriage visas can enter some government run places for the Thai price, those without the necessary documents pay the special farang price. It has been said that we are charged more because we don’t pay tax, though one would think that 100-400 baht adult fentrance fee for a national park – often unkempt – is a very high tax, especially if a large family does a lot of sightseeing. A family of six on a recent two week trip to Chiang Mai explained to Citylife that they couldn’t afford the zoo or the burn-a-hole-in-your-pocket parks and so made do with the cheap but bountiful – 20 baht – Huay Tung Tao.
Some might say that when the prices – especially at national parks – are in Thai numerical script, that it may be an incidental admission of guilt, others may not be so cynical. We called the Office of Forest Conservation, Area 16 (Chiang Mai and Lampang areas) to find out. They were reticent on the topic of tiered pricing, informing us that rules were issued from above. In an attempt to contact the national parks in Bangkok we became entangled in a two week game of pass-the-buck, being passed from one office to another office until we went round full circle, getting to know a lot of secretaries. We eventually found one of the directors at the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department in Bangkok who told us she could only state her own opinion, and so she opined that we write a letter to the director, although the director had already passed us on to someone else. “The extra money goes to manage the national park,” she said, rankled at having to address us, “there are three categories, for westerners, it’s either 100, 200 or 400 for westerners but most parks in Chiang Mai are 200.” When asked about the disproportionate amount of tax for a one time visit to a park she had no answer other than those are the prices that were agreed upon, the higher the price the more money needed to fund the park. She also mentioned that they don’t want too many visitors to the parks as high numbers would damage the area and if foreigners were put off by the price then it wasn’t a problem. “We have to limit the amount of people visiting the park,” she added, and according to her, the conundrum of just who was farang was not an issue, “Maybe the park employees can guess where the person is from, sometimes they cannot, only if they are Thai they pay the Thai price,” maintaining that even if the spoken Thais lived abroad they would still pay the Thai price.
She mentioned that in total there are around 15,000,000 Thai visitors to national parks in one year compared to 1,500,000 foreign visitors. As foreigners pay five times more than Thais for entrance fees the national parks receive a net total from farang that is exactly half that of Thais. In response to the question of where the money goes exactly, she replied that it went straight back to the park. She mentioned nothing about the money being channeled through income tax funds. As visitors don’t pay income tax _ it’s unforeseeable they ever will – this she said, is the reason they pay the extra bucks.
A Chiang Mai lawyer told Citylife recently, “It’s illegal according to Thai law; there is an act to protect the consumer that states that prices have to be fair.” The lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous on this ‘sensitive topic’, explained that the two-tier pricing had little to do with tax purposes rather more a felicitous consequence of the belief that all farang are rich, saying that businesses evade the law by requesting special permission from government ministries. “It’s not illegal to charge you extra if there are no fixed prices,” said the lawyer, and added, “where there are fixed prices it must be fair and equal for all consumers.” He repeated again, quite potently, that public and private businesses were sub-navigating constitutional Thai law.
The Consumer Protection Board in Bangkok stated that there aren’t any laws forbidding businesses to charge more based on ethnicity although the consumer protection act of 1979, section 4 states: ‘The consumer has the following rights of protection: the right to a fair contract.’ “It all depends how you interpret the law,” said the lawyer. The question is: what is fair?
Section 10 of the Consumer Act states: ‘The Board shall have the following powers and duties: to issue or publicise information concerning goods or services which may cause damage to or be prejudicial to the rights of the consumers …”
Is tiered pricing prejudicial? If the government, large private companies, hotels and whoever else discriminates against foreigners, is it not likely this will send out a message to the rest of the small business community and society in general perpetuating the myth that all foreigners are rich and, in matters of economy, are pigs to the slaughter. This not only affects tourists but foreign residents alike.
Shelling Out to See Fish
The director of Chiang Mai Zoo, Tanaphat Phongphamorn, explained to Citylife
that Thais pay tax and visitors don’t, “they come to travel, they have to pay more because Thais pay taxes.” He added that Thais pay taxes all year and visitors are here only a short time, “this is why the foreigners pay a lot of tax for one visit.” He also added that foreigners who live here legally with resident or work visas should bring the necessary documentation to the zoo and they will pay the Thai price, though those of you attempting to inveigle the cashier for the low price may find yourself surprised when they do a background check on your name, “if we find out anyone is working here illegally we will report them.”
“We can’t do an anything about the physical appearance; if they look Thai they will get in for the Thai price,” he said, admitting the tier system was not always effective. In a light hearted interview Tanaphat laughed when asked if he thought it would be fair if the UK were to implement pricing standards for certain goods and services where there are discrepancies for Caucasians and Asians, “We have to follow the rules of the country,” he eventually replied. He admitted that the extra cost was only very partially a corollary to the belief that farang have a lot of money and was taciturn when asked if the zoo and other large company’s policies might encourage people to take advantage of the unwitting foreigners.
TAT declined an interview, touting the hackneyed banner of ‘sensitive issue’, although they explained that they had received many complaints from people on such pricing standards, though they had to cooperate with the Ministry of Sports and Tourism and their business progeny. Even the city’s mayor was unwilling to speak out on this topic, feeling it was not something she wanted to broach at the moment.
Whether you think it’s venal subterfuge, socialism, or racial discrimination, it’s all academic, rough discourse for the pub, you might even be thankful they’ve created the monster for you to whine about. Put up with or get out seems a fair enough conclusion. You know it’s a sensitive issue, don’t bother throwing a tantrum in front of the new aquarium, go down the road to Wat Umong, they have some nice carp and the pellets are cheap as chips.
*Apologies to anyone of a darker descent, you are not included for sake of alliteration.