The Disparities of Rural Thailand?

Well dressed little Thai girl in fron of gift shop

Martyn over at Beyond the Mango Juice wrote an excellent post entitled Red Red Whine about rural Thai’s and just what little amount of money they actually live on in Thailand. He ended the post with a challenge for anyone living in Thailand to try and live on 170 baht a day. The post has really opened up a great discussion in the comments section that got me to thinking.

Obviously as a westerner any of us would find it hard to get by on any more than the basic necessities out of 170 baht a day. We would basically be able to eat and drink water. Self sustaining but not much more and with no overhead for emergencies or shelter we would most definitely be living in card board boxes. But, here’s the thing, as I pointed out most rural Thai’s own their own land, grow their own food,  have at least a motorcycle, have TV’s, DVD players, etc.  Now this isn’t representative of all rural Thai’s but I would say it isn’t far off the mark. Obviously some regions are poorer than others.

Martyn’s post and the many great comments it received really had me wondering how the Thai’s I have seen in Rural Thailand do it? While they aren’t living by Western standards they are doing much better than the Western poor I have seen my whole life. At least one comment brought up the girls working in the sex industry sending money home, and yes, that definitely plays a role in rural Thailand but with less than 4% of all Thai women working in the sex industry that can’t account for what I’ve seen.

I can only speak to the rural Thailand I have seen in Nakhon Phanom, That Phanom and Mukdahan. Mukdahan is a very poor province and the town is very small. The people there Don’t have a lot but they do have homes, a farm, shop or some sort of business and generally make enough to take care of the necessities. A fair many cars and motorcycles are owned in Mukdahan and of course every Thai owns a cell phone. I have also seen quite a few old computers, stereos, karaoke machines and the like at many Thai homes I’ve visited.

Nakhon Phanom though is quite another matter. A large city in comparison to Mukdahan and a much better standard of living for the most part. Many Westerners would still see the majority of people here as poor, but maybe they aren’t looking closely enough. Walk through the cities center on any given day and you will see what I mean. While, as a city, it lags far behind Bangkok,  for the most part these poor people who depend on farming, fishing and flowers as their main export seem to have everything you could need as a Westerner.

I went through my pictures of a stroll I took through town one day and I knew I had a few examples but I was shocked as I looked deeper at just how much business is done in Nakhon Phanom. Appliance stores, cell phone shops, new car dealerships and on and on. I wasn’t shocked that they had them because obviously I had seen them …I was shocked that there were so many of the same type of stores. Several of each kind on many blocks. Two things I made note of while there last trip were not one but two high end bicycle shops and two high end camera stores.

Now, it should be said that the majority of these things are imported from Korea and China and while they may not be the name brands most westerners are familiar with, these cheaper alternatives are still very good and not at all cheap by Thai standards.  These brands are cheaper but then again the average rural Thai doesn’t have much money to spend as Martyn pointed out in his post.

Thai trash can made of recycled tiresThere is also something else apparent throughout Thailand that many Westerners don’t catch onto quickly, repair shops. Where we used to have a repair shops for just about everything, as Westerners we have turned into a disposable society where the Thai’s haven’t. Perhaps they are lagging a little behind the times but I think they are just that much more frugal than us. What can’t be repaired becomes something else such as old tires being made into trash cans where we just fill up garbage dumps with them.

There is no doubt that Nakhon Phanom is in rural Thailand,  and as Martyn pointed out in his post the average rural Thai doesn’t make much more than 170-200 baht a day ( Province dependent ). So, as the discussion has worn on I keep coming back to Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom. Mukdahan in contrast to Nakhon Phanom has very stark differences for towns no more than 15 minutes apart by car. And while I think we all agree that the average rural Thai makes very little in daily wages a rural city like Nakhon Phanom belies this fact. The question for me now becomes just how are rural Thai’s in Nakhon Phanom coming up with enough money to support so many varied higher end businesses?

The following are some pictures from my walk one day in Nakhon Phanom and are representative of the town. I didn’t post many multiples of any one business but wanted to give you an idea of whats on offer in a rural Thai city. The first picture is a necessity and might give a clue.

It may also be good to keep in mind that many bigger purchases can be paid for on time plans. Also don’t be fooled by what you see, while Nakhon Phanom is a larger city the majority of the province is farm land with many poor villages and most of the big shops are at the center of the city with the rest of the city being houses, apartments and Wats.

Either way you cut it there are variables at play in rural Thailand. Head over to Martyn’s post at Beyond the Mango Juice and join in on the discussion and if you live in Thailand see if you can take him up on his 170 baht challenge, it could be very interesting if a few people took him up on this. I don’t think I could do it but then again I couldn’t live on a middle class Thai’s salary for a month in Thailand.

Nakhon Phanom Pawn shop Nakhon Phanome tire and rim store One of many cell phone shops

Appliance store in rural thailand Bridgestone tire shop Another appliance and electronics store

City center closer to the Mekong city center in Mukdahan Computer and karaoke set up in rural thailand

Cool car high end bike shop high end camera and copier shop

Honda showroom Lots of new pickups in rural Thailand Many gold shops to be found

many new cars and motorcy Many new pickups in Mukdahan Many new trucks in Issan

Many new trucks in Issan (1) Many new trucks in Issan (2) Many new trucks in Issan (4)

Mazda showroom More electronics Nakhon Phanom garden and tractor shop

Nakhon Phanom city center Okay not everyone has a pickup One of many electronic stores in Nakon Phanom

One of many many shoe stores tuk tuk showroom Small electronics and appliance shop

two motorcy showrooms across from one another yet another cell phone shop


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9 Responses to The Disparities of Rural Thailand?
  1. Martyn
    March 30, 2010 | 3:35 am

    Talen I didn’t know just under 4% of all Thai women worked in the sex industry, that’s a mind blowing fact. The women of the Isaan region must contribute one hell of a lot to that figure. I would put their percentage at least double that, which makes a minimum of 8 out of every 100. That’s a lot of earning power of which a large part gets sent back to their families from wherever they work.

    One big major asset a lot of Thai women have, even some of the poorer ones, is gold. In times of trouble you pawn your gold and some never take it back. Isaan has one hell of a lot of gold bracelets and chains that one day will be turned into mobile phones, TV’s, stereos and motorbikes.
    And lying on your back and thinking of Thailand in Bangkok and Pattaya hotel rooms probably pays for many parents monthly payments on their brand new pick ups.

    I guess I don’t know the answer to your question but hopefully I’ve given you about 8% of it. In my honest opinion probably a little more.

    Thanks for the link love and the good write up. An excellent post from yourself and one I’m sure will fuel a lot of good open debate. Hopefully I’ve started the ball rolling.
    .-= Martyn´s last blog ..Under the Mango Tree – The Killing Fields =-.

  2. Talen
    March 30, 2010 | 4:05 am

    Martyn, That is a mind blowing number but something more to keep in mind is the fact that only about 1/4 of the Thai females in the industry work the falang trade. Also keep in mind that of the 64 million or so Thai’s the majority live in rural Thailand.

    While that definitely plays into the money of rural Thailand, and in some cases immensely there are even more variables at play there.

    Especially with the economic downturn there are a lot of girls just scraping by in Pattaya and Bangkok. Sure, they live together with at least a few other girls and their daily spend isn’t much…but it’s not like it used to be.

    Gold is another factor and many girls have gotten their far share from smitten falang. I would bet the pawn shops and gold shops see a good amount of traffic every month in rural Thailand.

    With the observations in your post and what we’ve talked about here I think we are getting a good idea of where and how a good part of things are being payed for in rural Thailand but it still seems to be only part of the picture.

  3. ChuckWow
    March 30, 2010 | 3:02 pm

    Please note that my comments below are based on my experiences with my wife’s family and time spent in her home town in Nakhon Sawan. Your mileage may vary.

    Interesting picture “Nakhon-Phanom-Pawn-shop.jpg” Except for gold shops which offer pretty much the same service I don’t remember seeing an actual pawn shop before.

    “It may also be good to keep in mind that many bigger purchases can be paid for on time plans.” Although this is changing, many Thai people do not have the luxury of using a credit card for purchases. Homes, land, and vehicles can be paid for on a payment plan (If you qualify) but most household goods are purchased using the good old fashioned lay-away system. In short, if you don’t have the cash you have to wait to get the stuff. Due to our culture of instant gratification this is a concept I think most Americans, myself included, have a hard time dealing with.

    “Many Westerners would still see the majority of people here as poor, but maybe they aren’t looking closely enough.” Reminds me of a friend who came with me on one of my early visits to Thailand. Going down Pattaya Tai during our taxi ride from the airport, he said “Boy, this sure looks like a poor area”. We hadn’t even reached our destination and already he was disparaging what is actually a fairly affluent city due to the influx of falang money. Pretty well pissed me off and put a shadow over the rest of our visit. Damn Americans !

    • Talen
      March 31, 2010 | 3:48 am

      Great comment Chuck. Those damned Americans always seem to rufle some feathers :)

      I thought the pawn shop was extremely interesting also…never saw one before in Thailand until I got to Nakhon Phanom where I saw two….hence the pic.

  4. Bifftastic
    March 30, 2010 | 9:40 pm

    A very interesting article. From my own, limited, experience in a small village just outside Chiang Saen right up north near the Laos/Myanmar border, the cash flow is kinda small. When my girlfriend goes to the market every day she will spend 300 baht at most for the evening meal which will feed five adults and four children.

    In the house, there’s no furniture other than beds and wardrobes, but there are three cell phones, one computer (it’s a bit old and knackered but it must have been new at some point!) and two TV’s. A fridge and a cooker complete the collection of technology inside the house. There’s a ‘shared’ motorbike which, I believe, is owned by her father-in-law but used and maintained by quite a few people in the soi and her motorbike which she reluctantly lends to a select few (mainly her sister). As far as income is concerned, the family grow tobacco once a year and corn twice a year, younger sister works in a small factory making clothes and bags and all sorts of odd things (200 ears for some kind of strange looking soft toy for example!) and the missus does the same but from home so she can look after the kids (hers and her sisters) pi sao organises all the farming work and pays quite a few people depending on the season, and the money comes in when the crops come in. The income from the factory is about 5,000 baht a month, add around 3,000 from the home work and eldest son has a job in Chiang Saen working for a company selling cookers and gas appliances, not sure how much he gets but it can’t be much, maybe 6,000? He brought home a new TV when I was there, he paid 2,000 baht down on it and 1,500 a month till the 6,000 baht was paid off. The motorbike was 7,000 baht deposit and 1,5000 a month for three years (I think).

    So, whilst not individually cash-rich by any means they all help each other, if the money runs out they nip down the river (Mae Nam Kong is 50 metres from the door) and catch some fish, they’ll eat small birds too and the stray dogs in the soi need to keep on their toes too!

    Electric bill for a month was 500 baht and pi sao was complaining that it had doubled since the arrival of the sewing machine, other than that the septic tank gets emptied twice a year for 1,200 baht a go and that’s it, no more expenses. All the ‘luxuries’ like the motorbike and the TV are expenses taken on by individuals that have monthly income, so all they need to buy is food.

    In Chiang Saen there are electrical retailers selling fridges,washing machines, TV’s, aircon units, DVD players etc. two motorbike showrooms.
    So some people are obviously a bit more flush in terms of disposable income.

    People can look dirt poor but have cell phones, motorbikes, own land, houses and have family that pool their resources and look after each other.
    In the west, especially in the cities, we need cash to be flowing every day to get by, but in the rural Thailand that I have seen, it’s food and help that flow more readily, the cash seems to stutter and arrive in spurts. The people I know seem to get more from each others company than they do from spending money or obtaining things.

    Home and family bind everything together.
    .-= Bifftastic´s last blog ..The Thai Family, gender roles, perception and reality =-.

    • Talen
      March 31, 2010 | 3:52 am

      Bifftastic, welcome to my blog thanks for such a great comment.

      Sounds like everyone has a job and does well with your girls family. I know in my girls case it’s a bit harder. Her brothers work occasionally when they can find labor jobs and they get about 200 baht a day. The rest of the family is always working on the family farm which makes it hard for them to work outside of that.

      The cash definitely stutters in with my girls family but there is always food on the table.

  5. Martyn
    March 31, 2010 | 3:55 am

    Talen I think Bifftastic’s comment gives some great background to the common side of Thai village life. A family pulling together through the good and bad times. His description of the bare essentials of the family home reminds me of Wi’s mama’s old place. The bare necessities of life.

    The breakdown of the family monthly HP payments also fills in a bit more of the black hole in your quest to find out who and whom help sustain the many businesses in Nakhon Phanom. Keep searching because the truth is out there.
    .-= Martyn´s last blog ..Under the Mango Tree – The Killing Fields =-.

  6. Lawrence
    March 31, 2010 | 1:43 pm

    Thanks for such an interesting post, Talen. It has certainly generated some comments worth reading and thinking about. I agree with what has been said so far but would add a couple more things.
    Firstly, while ‘poverty’ is relative, the almost mythological poverty of Isan is fuelled by the patronising attitudes of the Bangkok Thai, which have been accepted as factual even by the people of Isan. And Thai television soaps and commercials reinforce this. All the 36 villages of Phana have electricity, piped water and almost everybody has a lavatory. People are well dressed. And there are no natural disasters on the scale of Bangladesh or China, for example. People have access to markets to buy and sell and share transport where necessary.
    Secondly, money comes back to Isan from workers in all sorts of industries: taxi drivers, factory workers, domestics, and so on; and there are still a lot of Isan people working abroad, in the middle east, Korea and so on.
    Thirdly, most people in rural Isan still own a bit of land and can also work on land owned by people who can no longer farm it themselves (absent, old age, working full-time as a teacher or whatever).In this case they get to keep a proportion of the crop, and can work several farms.
    Fourthly, many farmers who don’t go off to Bangkok also have other skills and can earn cash in the dry season. Hoo Don has written about charcoal production. But also barbers, handymen, builders labourers, jewellery setters, etc etc.
    Having said that, of course everybody needs more cash. But the rural economy of Isan is complex and on the whole it works. Or so it seems to me.
    .-= Lawrence´s last blog ..Little-known Thai Tourist Destination =-.

  7. ChuckWow
    March 31, 2010 | 2:31 pm

    Now, of course, cell phones are de rigueur in Thailand, but, two of Bifftastic’s statements (“In the house, there’s no furniture other than beds and wardrobes, but there are three cell phones,…” and “People can look dirt poor but have cell phones,…” ) remind me of a comment I heard many times when cell phones were just starting to become popular – “She no money for eat but money for hand phone !”.