"Just get yourself over here. Ok, the flights are expensive but once you're here, you just won't believe how cheap this place is"
For a long time, this was my standard response to anyone who asked my opinion on whether Thailand made a good choice as a holiday destination. These days if people ask me the same question, I tend to go very quiet and start cleaning my glasses - anything to avoid giving a straight answer.
As sterling plummets to below 50 baht to the pound, dragging the US dollar down with it, I wouldn't be alone in stating the obvious. Thailand is not quite the travel bargain it once was. But the truth is I haven't subscribed to the ‘Amazing Thailand' myth for quite some time.
I have recently become something of a one-man crusade against the outrageous food prices charged by the British theme pubs in Bangkok. I'm not yet at the stage where I'm chaining myself to the railings outside Government House but I think it's high time more folks became aware of just how much we ‘ex-pat Bangkokians' are being ripped off.
Looking for a mid-week venue to hold an ajarn.com function. I happened upon a website for a theme pub in the Sukhumwit Road area. Actually it was a recommendation from a few of the pub's regular drinkers. I was looking for an informal bar or restaurant that was centrally located and offered plenty of space for teachers to stand around and enjoy a chat. Quite a few thought that this particular establishment fitted the bill. But it was most certainly a British theme pub.
I didn't look at much of the website in all honesty. I would feel uncomfortable asking teachers to spend an evening in a joint that charged 280 baht for a gammon steak, a pineapple ring and a fried egg. That's almost six pounds. That's almost nine dollars for a meal that students rustle up when they live in a house and share a cooker with six other students. The gammon steak and pineapple ring combo is the last culinary bastion for those who are desperate for their end of month paycheck or those who are simply useless in a kitchen.
How does one justify charging such an ungodly amount of money for a meal that's so embarrassingly easy to make? Someone offered me the excuse that it's an ‘unusual' meal for Thailand. Oh please - don't insult my intelligence. Unusual in what way? Prices of restaurant dishes are determined by the availability of the ingredients and the complexity of putting the dish together. You'll be telling me next that a microwaved baked potato with a spoonful of baked beans is worth five bucks.
Did you know that the British theme pubs in Tokyo - supposedly one of the most expensive cities in the world - are cheaper than the theme pubs here? I was outside a British pub in the fashionable Shinjuku district just a few months ago. The Rose and Crown, The Dog and Doublet, I forget what the pub was called - but I couldn't believe that the menu prices were lower than what we pay for the same traditional British fare here in Bangkok.
I'm off to England next week where at least I can indulge in some affordable dining out. The Wetherspoons pub chain might be a bit ‘hit and miss' depending on which branch you go into, but their lunchtime specials for 1.99 (that's less than a hundred baht) are sure to include gammon and pineapple. You may find yourself in an inner city branch complete with flashing fruit machines and overflowing ashtrays, but they know how to fill a plate at very reasonable cost.
With such a favorable baht to pound exchange rate, there has never been a better time to holiday in England - even though the opportunity to escape Songkran should alone be reason enough.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on Bangkok's British pubs. Let's turn our attentions to the Thai travel industry and more specifically the cost of plane tickets.
I always fly to the UK with Emirates Airlines wherever possible, mainly because they are one of the few airlines who fly into my hometown of Birmingham. The cheapest seat I could get for this coming trip back home was a shade under 50,000 baht. Thai Airlines, who fly direct to London, are asking in the region of 48,000. Tapping figures into a calculator, that's virtually a thousand pounds! How is that my brother, who came to visit me in Thailand last month, paid almost half that price to fly in the other direction with Thai International? I'm yet to find a Thai travel agent who can furnish me with a decent answer but it's not for want of trying.
I'm not coming at these price differentials from the angle of an expert economist. I'm just an average Joe consumer who looks at the prices on menus and clothes tags and wonders what's wrong with this picture.
Going back to my brother's recent visit, I met him off the first early morning flight at Swampy Bum airport and even though he was clearly jetlagged and had spent ten hours in economy sitting next to a chatty couple from Yorkshire, I asked him what he fancied doing on his very first morning in Bangkok. Concerned that he hadn't brought enough summer wear (it was five degrees when he left London) he asked if we could go to a shopping mall so he could pick up some new threads.
"What are you after exactly?'
"I was thinking of maybe some polo shirts. What would a nice polo shirt cost here?"
"I guess about three or four hundred baht provided you steer clear of the designer labels"
"That's not bad. That's about eight pounds. A decent polo shirt would cost double that in the UK"
We dumped his suitcase back at the house, had a quick bite to eat and then caught a taxi to Central Bang Na. This was not The Emporium or Siam Paragon or one of the glitzier, up-market shopping malls. This was good old middle-of-the-road Central Bang Na.
We walked around the menswear department and fingered every polo shirt on display. We didn't see a single price tag lower than what he would have paid back in England. My brother eventually turned to me and said "it's not as cheap as I thought it would be" And I had to agree. I was even more disappointed than he was. He'd only been on Thai soil for a matter of hours and already I had let him down. I just didn't realize that decent clothes were so damn expensive. Even in the lower-end retail clothing stores such as AtoZ and Body Glove, the clothes were hardly what you would call a bargain.
Plane tickets, meals in Bangkok's British pubs and polo shirts - they are just three components of what is becoming an increasingly disturbing bigger picture. What's the real cost of living in Thailand these days?
Of course much of this analysis - casual as it may be - could be used to support my argument that a 35,000 baht salary is not enough for a teacher to survive on in Bangkok. Not if you buy polo shirts, eat at the Rose and Crown and like to take the occasional trip home.