The Farang Effect
Tourists wanted, Expats go home?
Contrary to what many hear and believe, Thailand wasn't discovered by hoards of lonely american soldiers on the first plane from Saigon. Since the first Dutch explorers and traders landed on Siam's (old name for Thailand) shores over four hundred years ago the Thai people have been seeing the white skinned farang come and go. Its a land that has enthralled and enchanted, puzzled and perplexed, shocked and outraged many who visited and here. The collective term for a foreigner of European descent is 'farang.' Which, is thought to come from the word 'farangset' (meaning foreign frenchman). Sometimes pronounced 'falang' it is often remarked (by some thais and westerners) that it can be indirectly racist. It could also be just a handy way of categorising foreign visitors. From my colleagues and my own experiences in the country so far we can see justification to some of the above.
The discovery of Thailand by the backpacking crowd in the late 70s to the late 90s saw a miniscule growth in the tourist scene. This was belied by the fantastic experiences and freshness encountered. Almost all villages were astonished to see a white faced foreigner and even the most jaded traveler expressed respect for the thai way and hospitality. However in the aftermath of the 1997 stock market crash there were some thais who lay the blame at the foreign investors active in Thailand. Indeed many repeat visitors and expats alike have noticed a marked difference in thai attitudes and mentality since those fateful weeks and months.
The year 1999 perhaps marked the high water mark of many things good, and the start of other things undesirable. The sudden surge in power by the TRT (Thai Rak Thai) party saw the governments nationalistic mentality begin to make an impression. Fostering the belief that the Thai people are more important than all others and rejected other views. Certainly the TV and media has played a part. An independent review of the worlds media freedom has consistently stated that Thailand's is ranked poorly and remains at oppressive levels.
The changing face of Thailand as a whole that has seen an undeniable 'materialistic' outlook. The daily diet of TV soap operas that feature rich hi-so families and friends while showing few 'ordinary' thai people is a telling sign and could be setting a trend that ordinary thai folk yearn for. Everywhere mobile phones are in action providing an unwelcome reminded of the westernised factor. How does all this tie in with farang you may ask? Well an unfortunate trait that is wholly evident in many thai folk is the rationale that all white foreigners are wealthy. Added that the conning of the rich but foolish is condoned by many and you can have a narrow minded mentality of greed and con-artistry that is ever present.
If you are a tourist 'two weeker' with a sack of cash to spend the local reception and attitude can change with it, compared to say, a residing farang expat. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Koh Samui, Koh Phuket and even some of the smaller ones are now practically dominated by the relentless hordes of samsonite toting tourists. Certainly it was clearly noticed that by 2001 onwards the changing face of Thailand's tourism and thai attitudes in general was 'on the turn.' This was / is clearly seen at the big tourist islands, here budget accommodation is nearly impossible to find, bad news for the backpacker who is more used to roughing it. The flip side of the coin is that the price of living goes up, but living becomes more westernised, amenities and luxury goods are easily available.
As more and more cash in on chasing the tourist dollar it seems the expat is only wanted if he has the big coin to go with it.
The recent immigration changes have seen many repeat visitors and residents shocked. What was once a jovial formality of sending passports through the mail to be stamped changed to a visa run in the late 1990s. Now the visa run is almost a thing of the past now the 90 day rule has come into effect as many farang move on to pastures anew.
The wise expat now has to consider his options carefully as Thailand enters a new age. An age that has the weighted balance in favour of the two weeker tourist, it may drop to favour this more or it may change to the 'good old days' of the perpetual wanderer. Let's hope it's the latter!
This section is hosted by our resident columnist Johnny B. who has been living in Thailand for seven years now and currently is based out of Bangkok.