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OPINION: Living the Bangkok life upcountry is possible – at a price

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Even a lifestyle outside the capital is getting more expensive as the world shrinks fast thanks to globalisation.

Anyone looking for a detached house in Bangkok is looking at a price tag of at least 3 million baht (US$84,700). And that money will only get you a place in the suburbs, not downtown, which is reserved for condominiums whose units are being sold at over 200,000 baht per square metre.

As a result, many sacrifice centrality for a more affordable home in Bangkok’s outer reaches. Others, though, find the long commute into the city centre too costly and time-consuming, so give up the dream of homeownership in favour of renting downtown.

When a friend of mine graduated in engineering from Khon Kaen University, he opted to find a job in the northeast province, knowing he couldn’t endure the daily traffic snarl back in his native Bangkok.

His friends pointed out he could easily double his salary in the capital, but he had other concerns. “I know what will come with the better pay – terrible traffic and higher daily expenses. Living in Bangkok is expensive, with leisure options everywhere. In the end, I might not be able to save any money.”

That was nearly 30 years ago. Today, he remains convinced he made the right decision. He bought a house there for 800,000 baht and started a family. It takes him less than 30 minutes to get to work, saving him travel-related stress, and the local lifestyle is easy on the wallet.

Yet that dream of the good life is getting harder to attain. As the world grows ever smaller, consumers in once-isolated Khon Kaen increasingly hunger for the sophisticated lifestyle of their Bangkokian counterparts. Chic restaurants and after-work hangouts have mushroomed to meet the demand.

My friend paid about 50 times his salary for his home. That price has now doubled, with many house hunters looking for a pad for 2 million baht or less. Khon Kaen, like several key provincial cities, is now a playground for leading developers from Bangkok. As newcomers, they must seek out suitable plots, which brings competition and drives up the price of land. They have also brought new development models and designs, but they come at a price.

Typically, a new project in this category offers houses starting at 3 million baht. For someone who earns 30,000 baht a month, that’s 100 times their income.
The daily cost of living in Khon Kaen city can also be high.

We all know that what Bangkokians consume comes mainly from other provinces. Most of the vegetables come from Nakhon Pathom. Meat is supplied by farms upcountry. Transport costs add to the final price in shops and restaurants, and there’s also a mark-up for “select” produce from specialist suppliers. That helps explain the relatively high prices Bangkok diners have to pay.

Yet dining at a chic restaurant in Khon Kaen city nowadays can be just as costly, as the “foreign” ingredients also have be imported from elsewhere in the country. The sea crabs that go into the popular crab-meat fried rice can’t be found in the Isaan heartland. And while average incomes in Khon Kaen are lower than in the capital, the city dwellers have to pay the same price for booze, most of which is produced in Bangkok.

One reason Bangkokians tend to earn more is that employers usually factor in the extra expense of living in the capital. The bonus comes when they travel to the provinces, where they naturally feel richer. Instead of heading for chic restaurants, which are plentiful at home, they typically seek out authentic local flavours, which tend to cost less than they would pay in Bangkok.

Yet when travelling overseas, it is natural that “sophisticated” Bangkokians suddenly feel poor. Accustomed to paying 15 baht for a half-litre bottle of Coca-Cola, it comes a shock when the price tag in Europe is 2.99 euros (about 130 baht) for just 330ml. Used to paying less than 3,000 baht at a plush resort, they discover that an adequate hotel costs upward of 4,000 baht in the west. Meanwhile the price of a spaghetti dish at a fancy restaurant shoots up from 200 baht here, to more than 10 euros for a modest version of the same over there. Even visiting a toilet in a European mall often costs money.

Of course, it’s no wonder that Europeans feel richer when they land in Thailand. Many think nothing of paying 10,000-baht-plus per night for a room, which has encouraged a burgeoning of posh boutique hotels that are out of reach for the average Thai.

It’s hardly worth mentioning how Khon Kaen residents feel when they travel overseas.

The world is shrinking fast, allowing a freer flow of goods, services – and lifestyles. With that flow comes a levelling in daily living costs that takes no heed of different income levels in different places. Yet while the pressures of consumerism encourage us to spend beyond our means, it is up to us to decide whether to live “poor today and rich tomorrow”, or spend now and let the future take care of itself.

US$1 = 35.29 baht

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