Sunday 22nd July, 2007

Thailand... a world apart
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The river Chao Phraya in Bangkok, Thailand is a total hub of commercial activity. The activities range from ferry, water taxi, dinner cruises, barges, to long tail boats. From my hotel window I could see virtually thousands of persons crossing the river everyday.

The Thai people seemingly love to live in and around the water in houses sitting on stilts. We took the long-tail boat up the canals to visit the floating market, to get a better understanding of what form commerce takes for the average Thai villager, and to see what it must mean to live on the water.

Donned in orange life jackets, and sitting flat bottomed in the narrow boat, two to a seat, and oh so close to the water, the experience was sometimes scary as the water was murky.

The villagers advertised live cobra shows, and could be seen up to their chests in the dark muddy water, fishing for food, washing their hands, and preparing meals.

In the floating market, you could get a hot lunch of fried plantain, fish and green bananas from off any number of boats, and bargain for Thai silk, a jade Buddha, or teak elephants.

It’s a different culture, far removed from the ways of the west. Here the Thai people barter and bargain for a living and probably work until they die, on the side of the water. Never a thought about long-term hospital care, pension plans or bank accounts.

One US dollar exchanges for about 3300 Thai Bahts, and the Tuk Tuk, or local transport contraption in town, determines fare according to the customer. It was so difficult to establish an average price for anything.

We paid 150 Bahts for a five-minute drive back to the hotel in the Tuk Tuk, one evening, but we saw four school girls bargain with the Tuk Tuk driver to take them home for a mere five Bahts, the next evening.

The local market near one of the Temple ruins, not far from the summer Palace of the King Rama IX, was teeming with local vendors selling fish in every conceivable form, from fresh to salted to smoked. The Roti pancake was a colourful novelty that none of us felt comfortable to taste in that environment, but this was where the locals shopped.

There was also an abundance of exotic fruit: mangosteen, lychee, rambutan, dragon fruit, longan—a lychee-like fruit. Fruit and fish are cheap, and the Thai people are slim.

The economy suffered a massive recession in 1997 with the devaluation of the Thai Baht. Thousands lost their jobs, many financial companies and banks closed their doors and the suicide rate was very high, but the focus shifted to tourism, and the economy is now a bustle.

In fact, Thailand is now ranked as a newly industrialised country, and the ISO bill boards along the highway shout out 9001 certified for miles upon miles. The IMF was largely instrumental in the recovery.

The simpler lifestyle we are witness to, is really the reflection of the middle class reverting to a simplicity. Important too was the social order campaign that feverishly suppressed illegal drugs, adult shows, and revealing clothing, enforced by a regime determined to recover.

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