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Transient Coinage

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TRANSIENT COINAGE

By Andrew Biggs

Okay, so it’s bye bye to the two baht coins.

Nice to have seen you guys again. Take care and we’ll check you next time you’re in town, which, according to my calculations, should be January 2020.

The news that the government was phasing out two baht coins didn’t surprise me. You see, the two baht coin is the Brigadoon of the currency world in Thailand. I’ve lived here 23 years and it has surfaced on three different occasions.

On average that means every 7.6 (recurring) years they magically appear and become part of our lives. Then they vanish.

I kind of feel sorry for the coin. It’s the equivalent of the buck-toothed, chinless middle sister in an otherwise attractive family; the kid who is clever enough but you just can’t get past the unpalatable exterior. You’d rather she stay in her room reading Charlotte Bronte while you play with her more attractive siblings by the pool.

Thais dislike the coin so much they take to scrawling a big ugly “2” on each side of it in thick black magic marker pen. You never see them do that with a one or five baht coin. Perhaps that’s why they have never taken to it -– the two baht coin is a five-baht wannabe.

Or maybe it’s because in Thailand, coins are in a perpetual state of change, just like the impermanence of life my local abbot at Wat Samut Prakan likes to go on about on those occasions I visit.

One of his shticks is “impermanence” and that is a word that roundly typifies coins in Thailand. The other word is “cyclical”; those two baht coins are starting to resemble a Cher Farewell Tour.

And “variety”. When I first arrived in Thailand in 1989 there were five different one Baht coins. Put down your coffee and Danish and think about that, dear reader. Receiving change was a fun exercise to see which one Baht coin landed in your hand.

There was a big clunky one, a middle sized one, a commemorative one, a mini one … what a feeling it was to plunge one’s hand deep down into one’s trouser pocket. Just the sound reminded me of Christmas.

I actually had a mini-collection of those five different one baht coins on the counter of my modest Khlong Toey room before they disappeared along with a very disappointing short-term visitor early one morning. An American friend at the time claimed there were actually six different coins and that’s the problem with Americans as I see it. Why the need to exaggerate when there are already as many as FIVE?

The party was over in the early 1990s when somebody high up in the Treasury attempted to streamline Thai coins, bless their hearts. We were left with just one kind of one baht coin, but at the same time we got another coin in place of the confusion.

We used to have a ten baht note here in Thailand; it was a brown banknote and quite ubiquitous upon my arrival in 1989. I guess Thailand just wasn’t big enough for the ten Baht note and me; one of us had to go.

The 10 baht coin was a hit from the word go; the two baht coin must have been smarting something fierce over that.

The problem was the politicians. We had a few dud prime ministers in a row back in the mid 1990s and one of them decided it would be a good idea for the ten baht note to make a comeback.

Nobody exactly knew why, but in 1995 the funky brown ten baht banknote was back. It was like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive song which was still huge at the time in Samut Prakan discos as we all asked: What on earth are you doing back here?

This return was a national scandal for a very long time in Thai politics -- about three days. At the time I was sick and had to sit through a no-confidence debate launched by the opposition on TV. The highlight was the opposition claiming the return of the ten baht coin was nothing but an exercise in corruption and bad decision making.

In response, the then prime minister picked up a sack of the popular ten baht coins that happened to be on his desk. “Look how heavy this is!” he cried. “Much heavier than a set of banknotes. We don’t want to burden the Thai people!” Indeed he didn’t; he resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal soon after; a year later the baht collapsed in the tom yam kung financial crisis.

My favorite controversy over Thai money was a big story from 1990. A Chinese Thai lady met some foreigners who sold her a counterfeit printing machine. You fed in blank pieces of paper and out came real-life American dollars.

The woman unzipped her mattress and paid the foreigners a fortune for the machine. Well, as P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, though it could be as rapid as every 15 seconds in Chinatown. Furious she’d been conned, the woman called the police, as you do when your attempts to become a criminal are thwarted by criminals.

“I paid good money for this machine and was duped,” she told the cops and the media. “Let this be a lesson for anybody purchasing equipment.”

Buyer beware, that’s all I can say. One hopes the lady found alternative revenue sources that weren’t so tainted with evil foreigners, like robbing banks or swiping gold chains from the back of a motorcycle.

Not so controversial was the introduction of the one thousand baht note in the early 1990s. The problem was that its color resembled a faded ten baht note and caused me to purchase the most expensive garland ever.

I was at the Viphawadee-Suthisarn intersection when a little girl selling garlands came up to my window. I asked for two of them and she asked for 30 Baht.

In the darkness I handed over a 20 Baht and a 10 Baht note. The traffic lights changed and I was gone … along with the 1,000 Baht note I’d had in my wallet, as I discovered later. I had handed it over inadvertently in place of a ten baht note, pricing that pretty little garland at 1,020 Baht.

Now that the two baht coin has gone, I wonder what is next in store for us.

I notice the 50 Baht note has changed again. That’s a banknote I kind of feel sorry for. Sometimes it’s plastic, then it’s back to paper, then the color changes a little. It’s the Nicole Kidman of the currency world, undergoing extensive readjustment, never really looking quite right and ending up nothing like it used to look.

Perhaps we’ll get a 5,000 or 10,000 Baht note – wouldn’t that be the ultimate status symbol to waft about?

Whatever it is, we’ll keep you posted, two baht coins. Goodbye. Go and wash all that magic marker off your sides and take a 7.6 year break.

And don’t despair. As long as we have hungry politicians with grandiose ideas, you’ll always be welcome back. At least you’ll come in handy as a tip for my hired help as they perform their duties in 7.6 years’ time.

(Editor’s Note: This column was written in 2012 and yes, the 2 baht coins did make a return.)



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