THE BUBBLE THAT BURST
By Andrew Biggs
What a jolt to my senses — and mortality — to learn that 20 years have passed since the tom yam kung economic crisis of Thailand. Man that went quickly.
I was right here when it happened. I was witness to the bloated, ostentatious years leading up to it, the crisis itself, and the slow crawl out of the economic recession that followed.
And I can read about it too, day by day, as it unfolded.
I can’t remember who gave it to me, but it was 27 years ago that I received a diary as a New Year’s present. I’m sure that, after committing the cultural faux pas of ripping open the gift wrapping, I cooed and brayed and thanked the giver, all the while thinking how and when I could toss it in the trash.
Nevertheless I began writing in that diary on January 1st, 1990, figuring I’d lose interest in it by mid-January. I didn’t. I kept writing … every day until I got to December 31, 1990, when I bought another one. And another.
Yesterday I found a sturdy stool and climbed upon it to open my very top cupboard doors. I reached inside and found my diary of 1997 and opened it up. Two hours later, I emerged from my time machine bubble with some new insights into the ravages of time.
For example: I had no idea I could put away so much alcohol, sleep so little hours, then get up and go to work. Exactly when did I lose that ability? When did “leaving to go out on the town at 9 pm” get replaced by “happy to be in bed with a good book at 9 pm”?
Got home. Got changed. Went out and met the gang for two bottles of Johnnie Walker at Saxophone Pub. Didn’t pay. Everybody’s talking about Thailand going down the drain. Sounds like a load of rubbish to me.
-- Diary entry of June 1st, 1997.
I was never great at predicting impending doom.
Twenty years ago I was a journalist at the Bangkok Post’s main competitor, editing two of their youth magazines as well as hosting two TV programs and a radio show. And all the time, the Thai government was propping up the Thai baht against evil foreign forces.
You can read about what caused the crash elsewhere; by July foreign currency reserves were severely depleted as the government tried to ward off speculative attacks by hedge funds.
George Soros was the villain at that time; boy did the country hate him back then for doing what every investor and stock exchange player yearns to do; swoop in, make a killing, swoop out, regardless of the debris left behind..
There’s this guy called Soros who’s copping a lot of the blame for what’s going on. Wrote a backgrounder on him for the paper this afternoon. Got drunk on Ratchadapisek; home at 1 am. Wrote some scripts.
-- November 6, 1997 (Wrote some scripts? While drunk? Shame on me!)
Soros would try to make an appearance in Thailand a few years later for a seminar, but the scars of 1997 ran deep and was forced to cancel.
What dominates my diary at that time is the plummeting baht. It had always sat around 25 to 27 Baht to the American dollar. Then, on July 2, 1997, the government announced that the baht would be floated. It didn’t float. It sank.
This morning they floated the dollar. It’s the end of the good times for Thailand. 60 Minutes is in town wanting info from me on the crisis. Went to see Note Udom tonight; saw him after the show.
-- July 2, 1997.
It’s good to see I was more interested in seeing the comedian Note than worrying about my economic future. Or this one:
Princess Di died a few hours ago. How terribly, terribly tragic. Such a vibrant person, full of life, so human compared to the rest of that family. Everything’s topsy turvy in the world; all these formerly rich people are selling stuff out of their car boots in the Makro carpark on Srinakharin.
-- August 8, 1997.
A princess dying and gold necklaces being sold in supermarket carparks; truly a sign of the apocalypse.
Meanwhile the roads emptied out. By October the Bangkok traffic was the best I’d ever seen it, because of the massive number of vehicles being repossessed on a daily basis.
In meetings all day to determine how much money we must lose. We could be out of business within six months. The baht has fallen to 38 Baht and the crooks in power refuse to relinquish their seats. I’m so depressed about work. Got drunk on Sukhumvit tonight. Ended up at Thermae at 3 am.
-- September 4, 1997.
Thermae. I haven’t thought of that place in years. It was a downstairs bar on Sukhumvit between sois 13 and 15 that was allowed to open way past legal opening hours. I was a regular there for a while, though I can’t really remember much about it.
In October I had a 15 per cent pay cut. At least I still had a job. I was forced to lay off all staff on probation in my department. Then I had to lay off regular staff. There were tears as we had to close one of the publications. Then one of my TV shows got the axe. The radio show, too.
I made a keen observation in November:
When I first came here everybody was using the word “NIC” or Newly Industrialized Country. Then it was “globalization.” Now the new word is “IMF”. It’s bailing Thailand out, and Thais are feeling sore about it.
-- November 7, 1999
The IMF (the International Monetary Fund) may have come to Thailand’s rescue but it forced the country to make fundamental changes to fiscal and economic policy. And of course, there was that debt that needed to be paid back.
A few years later IMF would become a very dirty word; a foreign entity that Thailand had to pay huge amounts of money to. Nobody thought to blame the financiers who got us into this mess in the first place. It’s easier to blame the foreigners.
The human toll was the worst. I got to know Siriwat Woravetwuthikun, the real estate mogul who lost a fortune and ended up standing on the streets selling sandwiches. He became a cultural icon of the crisis. “I used to be rich,” he would say. “I used to be broke, too.”
A father of one of my students went temporarily crazy, holing himself up on a high-rise window ledge with a gun threatening to kill himself because of his debts. The friendly man who owned the gas station near my house did top himself. The luxury condos near our office, a grand 30-storey building, halted construction and remains that way to this day.
Things got scary when the Baht plunged to 56 Baht to the US dollar.
This afternoon for the first time in my life I went to the ATM, withdrew as much as I could (50,000 Baht), then wrapped up the money in tin foil and hid it under my bed. Just in case I need to leave the country quickly.
-- December 12, 1997.
How dramatic of me. And how utterly foolish. Imagine me jostling for a position on the slow boat out of Bangkok, amid thousands of fleeing foreigners, clutching wads of worthless Thai Baht wrapped in tin foil.Oh but hey it was a weird and wacky time, dear reader.
And anyway we all survived. I’m still here. Thailand is still here. Even Thermae still exists. Now if I could just find a way to slow the next 20 years down …