The Daily Shoestring: living under 5,000 baht a month

While the city of Chiang Mai does not let you forget that poverty exists, its hustle and bustle surely doesn't always remind you of those struggling to get by.

By | Wed 31 Aug 2011

Here’s a recap of my first few days in Chiang Mai.

Early morning Mocha Frappe from Starbucks – because really, who can start their day without that delicious cup of motivation? 150 baht. Songtaew to work: 30 baht. Lunch at an Italian trattoria on Nimmanhaemin, because Thai food seven days a week is just a little too much spice for my life: 180 baht. Quick run into the 7/11 on the corner for a chocolate fix – oh and some more coffee please (it’s already 2 p.m.)! 90 baht. Songtaew home: 30 baht. Dinner at Jerusalem Falafel in the old city: 140 baht. Drink (turned drinks) to end the day on the right note: 350 baht. Songtaew back home – because you should never drink and walk: 30 baht. Sum total for the day…a whopping 900 baht.

You can imagine, that with an intern’s budget, this lifestyle got really tough, really quickly and some serious adjustments needed to be made. It was time, I thought, to live like a Thai.

Now meet Boy, age 21, career street vendor – of some of the yummiest fried meatballs around town I should add. Boy lives behind Chiang Mai University in a one bedroom apartment which he rents for 2,000 baht a month. His monthly expenditure is as follows: utilities, 600 baht on average; gas for his motorbike, two to three thousand baht; topping up his prized mobile phone, three to four hundred baht. Thankfully, Boy doesn’t smoke and rarely drinks unlike most twenty somethings now-a-days (guilty as charged), so his expenses and luxuries end there. Boy lives without a computer or internet at his home, in fact his only electronics are a much needed refrigerator and a pair of speakers for the lonelier times. On a good day he pockets 200 baht – excluding the deducted 500 baht, which he invests every morning in petrol, vegetables and meat; the three main ingredients required to ensure the success of that business day. Of his 200 baht profit, 100 goes to food and 100 goes into his pocket, where it is added to his personal piggy bank. The sum total of Boy’s month…a not-so-whopping 5,000 baht.

When he was just 20 years old, Boy left his home in the rural parts of northern Thailand. There his family occupies the farm land which he spent most of his youth tending to instead of going to school. Eager to escape the confines of the farm, he set off on an adventure into the city to create a life of his own. He purchased a motorbike; his most valued possession he says, which he was able to convert into the mobile vending stand that now defines his entrepreneurship. From 4:30 p.m. during the chaos of rush hour to the wee hours of the morning when late night pub crawlers are stumbling home, Boy waits patiently by the 7/11 where his ‘office’ is located, for customers to whom he can sell fried meatballs for 20 baht a bag. At 21 he is completely independent from his family and is proud to say it. When Citylife asked him what the one thing he dreams of owning one day is, he paused and then with a bright smile responded, “a new cell phone…but not just any cell phone… one that takes pictures.”

While the city of Chiang Mai does not let you forget that poverty exists, its hustle and bustle surely doesn’t always remind you of those struggling to get by. We’ve all ooh’d and aaah’d over the scrumptious bits of local goodies that line the streets, but what those vendors do for a living, or rather the story of how they do it is not what we want when we pay for that rotee with chocolate syrup.

Consider the minimum wage in Chiang Mai, a mere 180 baht per day as of 2011, which multiplied by six for the number of many people’s working days within a week, multiplied by four for the number of weeks in a month, adds up to just over 4,320 baht per month. In that sense, this article is a lavish one. Our look into those who live on 5,000 baht a month, to some, is luxury living. According to National Statistics, however, the average household expenditure in Thailand stands at 14,500 baht a month while the average monthly income in the north is somewhere close to 13,000 baht , meaning that Thais typically spend significantly more than they earn, and they are typically earning more than 5000 baht a month. But what about those who aren’t so typical?

A story like Boy’s is not rare. Meet Ting Man, a 31 year old guitar player living just off Irrigation Canal Road where he shares a two bedroom apartment with three other people (plus one of their wives and a dog). Personal space is a luxury. Ting Man is currently unemployed, he says bravely. Instead, he plays his Thai folk music at night in the pubs that are willing to pay him, mainly in the Santitham area. Sometimes, he even gets on the road for his own version of a tour when he takes gigs in his hometown of Lamphun. On average he earns about 150 to 180 baht an hour, and 6,000 baht in a good month. Like Boy, in search of a dream, Ting Man moved to Chiang Mai from Lamphun in 2000 to turn his love for music into a degree at Chiang Mai Rajabhat University. This dream came at a 200,000 baht expense, which he repays the government little by little each month. Rent for his modest two bedroom home, where he in fact occupies a bed in the foyer rather than a bedroom, is approximately 900 baht per person, and utilities, 200. His most prized possessions are his two guitars, his amplifier and his cell phone (it seems cell phones are vital to everyone everywhere these days). Unlike Boy, and perhaps a little bit more like the rest of us, he does occasionally have a drink and a smoke, but he does not gamble which probably saves him a baht or two. He also reserves the use of his bike for special occasions, like work; for everything else, his legs are sufficient. Every month he spends nearly 3,000 baht on food alone, 500 baht on gas for his bike and he sends money home to his family in Lamphun.

Ting Man admitted that some months, when he makes less than his average 6,000 baht, he relies on help from his three siblings and family in Lamphun, and for that help he is blessed, but his story doesn’t end there. When he was 21 years old he was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident that not only hospitalised him, but also stole the better part of his memory for 10 years. It is only now, at age 31, that he is beginning to piece his life back together. His optimism shines through and he feels blessed to be alive. Like Boy, he is unmarried and without kids and his biggest dream is to visit Austria, where he believes “the heart of music and the arts lives.” I can only hope that one day he lives out that dream, in my humble opinion, he deserves it.

Boy and Ting Man were two of the only people we met that were willing to share their stories, but with 9.6% of Thailand’s population living below the poverty line, these men are only two of thousands who live on this daily shoestring. For some, 5,000 baht feeds not only them, but their wives, kids and family pets, because limited funds shouldn’t deny anyone the joys of a family, should it? And for them, I was relieved to hear the government is standing by.

According to the Chief of Chiang Mai’s Provinical Social Development and Human Security office, Mayuree Yoktree, the local government of each province has an allocated budget and social welfare programmes in place that support those who find it difficult to support themselves. Their efforts extend beyond the needs of the elderly, the disabled and abused children, to include men like Ting Man and Boy who are struggling to change their lives in a respectable manner. Three times a year, residents of Chiang Mai are allowed to request financial assistance of up to 2,000 baht from their local government; they can also go to their local sub district for similar help. But these funds aren’t for everyone; there is an interview process to filter out those in want from those in need. Although the government does allocate part of its annual budget to these services, in true Thai tradition, they believe that helping those in need to help themselves is a better route to go and for that reason they often refer them to counsellors where they can get more long lasting help. That being said, it is still comforting to know that for those 10,000 persons who seek financial help from the government annually, the service is there.

So if you’ve ever bought some bamee pad off the side of the street and wondered to yourself how 10 baht per bowl is enough for that lovely Thai lady to survive, there’s one answer. For others though, surviving on 5,000 baht a month means saving and planning for the next day and like most other things, that’s easier said than done, but I’m working on it.

Stacey De Souza, 22, from Trinidad and Tobago is an intern at Citylife.