Geoff Richards

Safe as houses

Why the global economic crisis probably won’t hit Isaan

If you're feeling a little nervy about the Global Economic Crisis [another crap brand name but "War on Terror" was even worse], then you should go and work for a private school with a nice long waiting list.

What might MoE cuts do at government schools? Replace native speaker teachers with Filipinos and, in turn, replace Filipinos with local teachers. But the MoE could only enforce such actions at government schools.

What about private schools which have to compete with other private schools? Conceivably, some of them might be forced into the MoE-type scenario.

If families are losing incomes and jobs they might have to resort to sending their children to cheaper government schools. But this could only happen in heavily populated areas where there is an abundance of private schools. And that excludes Isaan.

In the nineteen provinces here, private schools don't have to compete at the same levels as they do in places such as Bangkok or Chiang Mai.

Each province usually has one or two private schools and always with excellent reputations and long waiting lists.

It's how they make their money and it's why wealthier families send their children to them.

"Wealthier" in Isaan usually means families of Thai-Chinese descent and this is where most of the money is.

The Chinese have always been very good at turning a profit from the distribution of essential [food and clothes, etc] and highly desirable commodities [mobile phones and satellite or cable TV, etc].

And most of these families take the education of their children very seriously and if that means having to pay through the nose for native English and Chinese speaker teachers then so be it. But private school rates really aren't that high for your average middle- or upper-income family.

Isaan is already the poorest part of Thailand but the majority of the business here is essential and/or highly desirable. It's staying put.

Agriculture forms almost a quarter of the economy and food never goes out of fashion, especially when we're talking about everyday items such as sticky rice and tomatoes.

Silk and, to a somewhat lesser extent, rubber and raw minerals are also materials that still need to be supplied. Boom or bust.

There's a proliferation of governmental and military jobs in the larger towns and cities. Isaan labour is the cheapest in the country too. If these sectors are hit at all, it will be with fairly soft-landings and they all need to consume essential or highly desirable commodities.

Isaan could even experience a welcome boom if companies outside of the region bring their businesses here because of the low labour costs, but the government would have to invest in some of the shoddy rail networks.

Privately-owned businesses are everywhere and most of them provide essential or highly desirable commodities.

In addition to all of this, there are the many retired foreigners that are having homes built or are renovating existing properties. This trend is set to increase, too.

What is a relatively small pension in Western Europe or North America goes a long way here. Oi! Stop making visa regulations so tough and turning away free money!

Teaching at a private school in Isaan is probably one of the safest careers in the world at the moment. But you've got to be good and have a credible public/social reputation with the locals. Deviants are NOT welcome!

I haven't heard of or seen any established businesses going bust yet either.

I have noticed that TPI isn't freighting as much cement as it was about a year ago though. Maybe they've flooded their own market or Siam Cement Co. has slashed its prices. But why pay extra for something that has to be shipped from outside the region? There are still new construction projects galore here.

Generally, as an economy, Isaan is insulated. Most of what is produced here is consumed here.

One of Isaan's major exports however is skilled and semi-skilled labour, both domestically and internationally. And a lot of the money that these people earn is sent back home.

I really can't see lots of Thai chefs suddenly losing their jobs in places like Western Europe and North American though. Thai restaurants are popular and affordable.

Skilled professionals like electrical engineers may find themselves having to renegotiate their contracts or simply look for lower-salary work elsewhere.

If less money is being sent back home, then mortgage brokers and other lenders are going to have to be realistic. Something is always better than nothing, and they can all make more over the longer-term where interest payments are concerned.

Isaan is the least touristed area of the country so a drop in overall visitor figures to Thailand won't really make an impact on the local economy.

But there's a new tourism market crying out to be made here and it's called cheap golf at excellent courses, fine but affordable four and five star hotels and a unique and most delicious cuisine.

Isaan also has noticeably cool weather for two months of the year and that means that adventurous older couples who have decent private pensions and don't want to sun themselves on a beach are prime targets. And the dip in temperature is always over Christmas and New Years too.

Oh, sweet Isaan. I penned this article while sitting by a beautiful local lake, sipping some of the cheapest beer in the country. 30 Baht for a large bottle of Archa!

Coming from London and being mostly glad to see the back of it, I do wonder about you big city dwellers sometimes.


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