Do Westerners get charged more for things than locals? Do they cheat us because we’re rich and stupid? Do they short-change us? Do they inflate their prices for the slightly larger, paler customer, reserving the discounts for his somewhat smaller, browner equivalent?
Discuss. Then have another beer and discuss again.
The topic can provide nutritious conversational fodder between bottles of ice-cold San Miguel Light. The theory is quite reasonable: you would perhaps expect such practice to be commonplace. But the experience is otherwise. Actually, the old codgers admit, it doesn’t happen that often.
‘Funnily enough, it doesn’t. Another San Mig, please. Manao krap.’
When I send Mrs Pobaan, a brownish and somewhat diminutive person, into a place of business to check the price I have just been quoted, she invariably comes out with the same figure. What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for my little goose, if you will excuse the romantic flimflam.
Mathematical skills not being very finely honed in these parts, you’re as likely to be long-changed as you are to be slipped too few banknotes. The codgers shake their heads in wonderment and take another swig.
I am surprised by how often I am offered a discount on a purchase even after I have agreed the higher price. In our local pet shop, the chap always rounds up the change he gives me. Perhaps I look as if my need is greater than his.
In Pattaya, the street vendor, the market-stall holder and the shop keeper are fair-minded, honest folk who play clean. They may be at the narrower end of the economic wedge, but they want to improve their lot by honest means.
That agreed, the codgers then turn their attention to a practice that Westerners here hate with a universal passion: official dual pricing. Enter one of Thailand’s magnificent national parks, or queue for tickets for what’s known as a ‘visitor attraction’, and you will often find that there are two prices for admission. The price for foreigners can be ten times that for locals. At national park ticket offices they try to conceal this fact by quoting the local price in Thai numerals—figures which are rarely used in other contexts—which foreigners are not meant to understand. You want to keep the lambs calm as they queue for the slaughter.
Expats hate this duality; many Pattaya residents of my acqaintance refuse to go to venues which espouse the practice, on principle. To the Pobaan mind, if the asset in question belongs to the nation—eg, a national park—then there is an argument for offering a discount to a Thai national. After all, he does own the place.
But this argument cannot be made to apply to commercial enterprises such as privately-owned parks and gardens, where dual pricing, the codgers agree, is much closer to racism. Whites ฿300; browns ฿40, simple as that. Some places allow foreign residents in at the local price, on presentation of a local driving licence for example. In these cases the practice is not racist so much as ripping off the tourists. And who cares about them?
A recent experience reminds me that the other glaring example of sharp practice in Thailand is provided by our private hospitals. While you are safe from exploitation by people at the leaner end of the economic scale, at the richer end you are likely to lose your shirt. Hospitals here are the killing fields of financial exploitation. Enter one of those glass-walled medical atria and you are unlikely to leave until your wallet has been anaesthetised, slit open and emptied before being neatly sewn up as you are delivered in a wheelchair back to your car.
Kuhn Pobaan, as regular disciples of this column will be aware, is the very picture of health, but I have had recourse, in the last few years, to yield once or twice to the surgeon’s knife. We’re not talking triple bypasses here; not even roundabouts.
For the first one, I attended Hospital 1 (I won’t name it in case they sue me for libel), a well known Pattaya establishment. Having agreed the price for the op, I was given an invoice which showed a considerably higher figure.
‘Extras,’ I was told.
I quickly exited Hospital 1 and had the operation done at Hospital 2. I’m not being taken for a mug. Fast-forward a couple of years and we get to last week, when again I need some minor medical attention. I go back to Hospital 2 and agree a price for the intervention with the doctor.
‘Does that include extras?’ I enquire, being now an experienced patient.
‘Yes, everything; maximum price,’ the smiling physician replies.
We agree a time for the surgery. I am escorted to the cashier’s window. The bill comes to considerably more than the agreed sum.
‘Extras,’ the fierce cashier informs me.
I get on the phone to the doctor. ‘You said no extras,’ I complain.
‘Oh, that’s the hospital for you,’ he explains.
I walk out. It’s the principle of the thing. Who likes being cheated by a bunch of rich medics, desperate to pocket your cash and depart for the golf course?
Does anyone know a good hospital where, as at a squid stall in the market or a pork barbecue on the street, they won’t try to rip me off?