Oct

6

 Thailand has been volatile in recent months, the army having been active in the political sphere. The President has been appearing on state broadcasts, offering a carefully worded assessment and hoping to deliver 'smiles over frowns'. A visit to the south west of the country sees the end of rainy season. Here, tourists and visitors are sacrosanct and there is limited risk. Nonetheless, two British tourists were murdered in recent weeks. In past days, two Burmese labourers volunteered guilt, taking the police for a guided tour of their beach-side activities.

The Burmese are gang labourers in Thailand, constructing much of the real estate. They all work in bright pink or blue T-shirts, although I don't know if this is a cultural phenomenon or a way for their gangmaster to keep track. The truck we are using has an engine double the normal power rating: it will grip the road perfectly with ten Burmese labourers weighting the axle, but, empty, comes close to stalling out in second on hills.

It is a Toyota Hi-Lux, the most popular vehicle on the roads, combining utility and capacity with cool: we could almost be preppy Houstoners, crowded at the traffic lights, save for the peppering of scooters around us mounted by three or four family members. You can get the Hi-Lux on the road for BHT40,000 ($1,250) cash. The Thais are a peaceful and friendly people, but seem to change character behind the wheel. We keep to the speed limit over the hills at night, causing locals to attempt two car overtakes from behind us into blind bends. The road death rate is 4x a typical western country and the injury rate an even higher multiple. That you can get a Hi-Lux on finance is probably key to their prevalence. People live in tin-roof shacks but have a brand new truck parked outside. In dress, transport, and smartphone usage, there is little to split locals from westerners.

Our truck's starter motor is flaky and we had to get a push start in the Big C supermarket car park. Locals hear our failed ignition and magically appear to help. The old guy chastises my timing on the ignition, and pulls me out of the cabin. I unthinkingly comply, despite the fact he is in prime position to drive off with the truck.

Supermarkets are still high margin affairs in Thailand: they merchandise in a way that would make Sam Walton proud. In the UK, you have Aldi eating out Tesco's heart, check-out girls have been exchanged for robot tills, and accounting fraud is the only way to turn a decent profit. Here, supermarkets look like they did twenty-five years ago in the the west: fully serviced and doing Univever and P&G's bidding. Taking back margin into your pocket with own-brand products might seem a financially bright idea, but only if it doesn't reconfigure the chessboard to a losing endgame in the process.

The tourist areas attempt, somewhat successfully, to simultaneously cater to the Magaluf and Marbella crowds. One can exit a 'Dusit' or 'Banyan Tree' five-star oasis onto a club-lined street full of drunks and bar-girls. Many ex-pats come here to find love and the exchange rate seems to be roughly one male, ageing, obese, clapped out westerner to one female nubile with single-digit body fat, naivete, and a desire to transcend circumstances. Or at least enjoy some fake Gucci bags and free drinks in the interim. Westerners can fund their girlfriend's real estate activities, which yield 7% net on construction costs. A full-service maid costs BHT10,000/mo ($325/mo). Non-residents can live on an endless cycle of sixty-day visas as long as they exit for a day at the end of each rotation, but only two hundred permanent residencies are granted per year and have very strict requirements, such as fully fluency in Thai. It is perfect for business people with offshore affairs.

It is interesting to ponder how multi-national franchise applications are controlled and reviewed. Putting a Starbucks and McDonalds next door to each other on the town centre 'walking street' probably seems like a good idea on paper, until you visit and realise it is the nexus of the red-light district and that the neighbours are massage shops and ping-pong shows. Perhaps footfall is the only key criteria.

The mafia is involved in much of business. The recent clearances by the army have tried to stymie corruption and the local mayor has been arrested for activity through his family holding company. It's not clear if violence features, more death by a thousand cuts. To get anything done in the precinct you need wheels greased, otherwise your project or business will stall out waiting for correct permissions. Tax-assessments are entirely subjective and can hit arbitrarily. On the other hand, if you have the right backing, you can build a ten story block right up against your neighbours windows and any complaints will be futile.

Everything has a cash clearing price. Bribes are never requested but can be offered unsolicited. The problem being, therefore, that you need to be a local in order to know the going rate. For example, allegedly BHT10,000 ($325) covers a police shakedown, BHT30,000 ($1,000) will get a passport and visa fixed, and BHT100,000 ($3,250) covers one month's protection money for a concrete truck. Recent anti-corruption activities have tried to curtail such methods. Previously, everyone took and everyone paid, and all was in equilibrium. Now, the police, for example, need to make up income and have taken to breathalysing car passengers and fining them for being drunk. A squeeze in the money supply.


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