Sawasdee-Krap! Greetings from Bangkok.
It’s been a while since we’ve been back in Bangkok. We used to make annual pilgrimage to the capital of Thailand. We were always drawn by the great food and the cheap massages. But for various reasons, we have not been back for nearly seven years.
So what’s changed?
The food is still fantastic and generally good value for money. The foot massages were super good and only costs about 25% of what you would expect to pay in Hong Kong.
(1) Imported goods were very expensive
While local food and services still offered very good value, the same cannot be said for goods, especially imported products.
I’m not much of a shopper but for some of the items that I was comparing, they were more expensive in Bangkok than in Hong Kong. For instance:
- Starbucks Grande Black Coffee – THB 120 or HK$30. This is the same as Hong Kong.
- Bridgestone Golf Balls – Even with a buy two get one free offer, each box of 12 balls works out to about HK$225, $25 more than what one box costs in Hong Kong.
- Hatchimal Surprise – This costs THB3,995 (or HK$999) at the Toys R Us in Bangkok, some 66% more than the HK$599.50 retail price at the Toys R Us in Hong Kong.
At first I thought this must be due to currency effect and how weak the USD has been. True enough, the USD has weakened from previously commanding THB36 to USD to currently THB31.3 but compared to 2011 when we last visited Bangkok, the currency is just about the same.
So, chalk one up to goods just being more expensive.
(2) Technology boosting transparency
Another key change since 2011 is the advent of the smart phone and apps. In addition to great food, Bangkok is also known for its traffic jams. Most travel sites would tell you that although there are plenty of metered taxi’s around, you should be prepared to bargain as taxi drivers often try to negotiate a flat rate on account of the traffic.
For us, we were subjected to this flat fare once. On our way to dinner, we hailed a taxi and as expected the driver said “Bad traffic, I take you there for a flat rate of THB200.” We said “Too expensive, meter please.”. He said traffic very bad, how about THB150. Translating this back in my head, THB is about HK$37.50. Not wanting to waste time haggling and potentially having to flag down another cab, we said fine.
While traffic is usually bad in Bangkok, this time there was none. After 10 minutes, we got to our destination. After sitting down and ordering food, we opened up our Uber App. Sure enough, the Uber fare would have been only about THB80, so we paid nearly double for our trip. On our way back to the hotel, we expected to have to negotiate again but to our surprise, the taxi just stuck to the metered fare. I guess, with the popularity of the ride hailing apps and the increased transparency around fares, the days of negotiated fares should gradually become a thing of the past.
(3) Floating market – Still confusing and not very transparent
Another instance where we had to negotiate the fare was our trip to the floating market. Despite the proliferation of information on the internet, we got quite a bit of conflicting information. At first, we had wanted to go to the Amphara Floating Market but we were told by our concierge that the Amphara market was only open at night on the weekends. Instead, he suggested we go to the Damnoen Saduak Floating market which is open daily from 6-11am. Taking his advice, we hired a taxi for the day and headed out.
After about an hour, we arrived at something which looked like a rest stop. Here we were offered three private long boats, one for THB2,000 (1 hour), THB3,000 (1.5 hr) and THB4,000 (2 hrs). Ahead of the trip, we had read many reviews. There were the horror stories of tourists being asked to pay Euro 50 per person to go on the boat but there were also locals who say that the boats should costs about THB1,000. We asked the operator about the THB1,000 boats but of course he said the prices are now all mandated by the government and all boats costs the same and there are no THB1,000 boats.
I wasn’t entirely sold on this idea. Once we went into the floating market, I think we did see these THB1,000 boats at the main market. But here, the trade-off is the lines. As you can see from the picture below, the pier was crazy packed.
So, I guess, the extra 100% premium (THB2,000 Vs. THB1000) was to bypass the lines.
(4) Rebate – How to differentiate
Despite being a tourist trap, the floating market was still a fun trip. We tried to steer clear of the souvenirs and focused on food. We tried Mango Sticky Rice (THB100), Tom Yum Soup (THB350), boat noodles (forgot how much) and a plate of Thai Fried Rice (THB140).
What was interesting was the rebate system. When we ordered our Fried Rice and Tom Yum Soup, the cook gave our boat driver a big bottle of water. When we bought our beer and soda, our boat captain got some taro cakes.
I guess with competition among the various stall owners and little means to differentiate their offering, it comes down to rebates. But instead of monetary compensation, the rebate is in the form of goods/barter. At the end of our holiday, the consensus was that the plate of fried rice from the floating market was the tastiest dish from the whole trip.
(5) Billboards and Bubbles
Last but not least are the billboards. Whenever I travel in China, I like to pay attention to the billboards. Sometimes, the billboards are dominated by property projects, other times the latest cars. Sometimes they would be promoting the latest app or dot-com. I have a theory that the billboards show you where the latest bubbles/fads are.
This time, on our way home, the billboards along the airport highway were dominated by property posters. Some of the billboards were advertising the latest high-rise condos, some were for townhouse communities.
Given the prevalence of Property Billboards, I was seeing Bubbles everywhere. But, when I looked at the data, the evidence is mixed.
According to the House Price Index from the Bank of Thailand, Thai condominium prices have gone up 81% since December 2008. Townhouse and single-detached house prices have gone up less, only rising 45% and 34% respectively. Arguably, the faster rise for condominium prices likely reflect their city-centre exposure in Bangkok while Townhouse and single-detached houses were probably more reflective of price trends in the suburbs and countryside.
To put the 81% in context, during the same period, HK has gone up by over 160%, Vancouver +110%, Sydney +106% and London +91%. To call Bangkok property a bubble would be for the pot to call the kettle black. That said, this 81% does look very high if you compare it to Tokyo’s 27% rise and Singapore’s 18% rise over the same period.
One thing that hasn’t changed – The Whopper
While prices in Bangkok may have gone up, there is one part of my routine that will hopefully remain constant. I always try to finish my trip to Bangkok by having a Whopper at Burger King. Although the price has gone up a lot, to me, the taste is still priceless.