Thursday, September 13, 2012

By Their Own Rules

I don't know what powers the economy of Thailand, my guess is, (apparently I'm too lazy to Google the answer) it's tourism and farming.  I do know the country is the number 1 exporter of rice in the world.  That being said, I bet they also lead the world in the number of people who could call themselves small, albeit rogue, business owners.

I don't mean small businesses in the American sense of the word.  Thai people don't apply for licences, or get bank loans, In Thailand, it seems just about anyone who can find a few feet of pavement is ready and willing to set up shop and start working.

From Bangkok to Surat Thani, to Champon, to Koh PhaGnan to Chaing Mai it appears every Thai is selling food from a street cart, jumping behind the wheel of a Tuk-Tuk (trucks with modified beds on the back with two rows of bench seating used as a taxi), or peddling cheap pictures, pants and paper toys, at a rotating and never ending cavalcade of street festivals and markets.

If you live here, and have a pair of sandals you do something, anything, except hold out your palm for money.  During our two weeks in Southeast Asia, I can count the number of beggars we saw on one hand.  It seems everyone is doing something.

If someone runs a restaurant, dry cleaner or scooter parts shop, they usually live right in the back of the space used to sell their wares.  You may just need a shirt cleaned or pressed, but at any Thai laundry, at any Thai business for that matter,  you will also find a cheap purses, sandals or trinkets for sale, along with a cooler stocked with Leo, Chang, and Singha beers, cold and ready for a Brit, Frenchman, or German to snatch up and guzzle down.  Thai law forbids selling alcohol before 11 AM, but it turns out the locals take that as a suggestion rather than a rule.

When it comes to transporting their stuff, be it rice, eggs, or auto parts, Thai people are not quick to hire a transportation company.  No matter what needs to move, it will get to to its destination on the top, side, or bottom of one of the millions of scooter that putter across the country.

We saw ancient little mopeds stacked comically, dangerously, and if in the United States, illegally high and heavy with products.  The pilot scoots, slowly with determination down the highway with Tuk-Tuk's and larger pick-up trucks patiently barreling past them on the right.

Despite the countries constant, frenetic motion, it is still a nation stricken with abject, disturbing poverty that seems to rack every province.  As we motor from Bangkok international to our hotel in the city, our mouths were drawn wide open as we zip past hundreds of poorly constructed thatch huts, tied together with branches, wire, and corrugated metal under the highways, where adults and children shuffle down dirt roads.

As we were zipping through the forest canopy outside Chaing Mai, our guide Yai, tells Conner, a young Irish businessman, that shoving tourist along a metal tight rope, earns him about $300 dollars a month. An unliveable wage by American standards, but apparently enough to survive in Thailand.

What is more difficult, is the successful businesses appear to be run by ex-pats.  Granted, according to Thai law, foreigners cannot own more than 49 percent of any given endeavor.  On day one of our trip in Bangkok, we met Sean, a gregarious Irishman who runs a gorgeous pub in the heart of the city.  He introduces us to his Thai wife, who, I assume, is the majority owner of the bar, but likely has little to no input in how it is run.

The French resort owner at the small, 7 room bungalow we stay in on Hin Kong Beach, brags that the 49 percent law is simple to dodge.   He informs us, that all an ambitious Westerner needs to do to own a Thai business, is track down a handful of Thai residents willing to sign a few papers, take a few Baht, and go away, leaving all the profits to the ex-pat owners.

Most people will also tell you that it is a virtual impossibility for foreigners to find jobs in the former Kingdom of Siam, unless of course, you are willing to teach English for a pittance.

"I'm just helping out," says Sara, a Canadian, selling drinks at the Freedom Bar, in downtown Chaing Mai.  "I've only been here three days, I'm just staying at the guest house out back, I don't work here."  Then she locates, without hesitation, the tools, condiments, and glasses necessary to make a Mai Thai and turns to a fellow "tourist" and rattles off detailed, locals only, type directions to another nearby bar or hotel.

Sara is a lot like the Thai people she works next too, aware of the rules, hustling, despite what the rules so if you want a larger at 7 AM, throw a rock, you'll find one.

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