Will Thailand’s cashless ambition cost Chatuchak Market its appeal?

woman shops in chatuchak

Thailand’s world-famous Chatuchak Market will be going cashless by June 2018. Source: Shutterstock

E-PAYMENT systems are growing in popularity due to their convenience and efficiency.

As such, governments are implementing cashless systems to keep up with the digital boom, a move that will affect both locals and tourists.

Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, has gone through quite a few changes in recent years. From eliminating street food vendors to maintain cleanliness, safety and order, to now transitioning into a cashless society.

In Bangkok, Thailand’s capital and the country’s most populous city, the bustling Chatuchak Market (otherwise known as JJ Market) is expected to go cashless by June. The weekends-only market is spread across 11ha in the north-end of the city and houses more than 8,000 stalls in 27 different sections.

An estimated over 200,000 people visit every week, drawn to its labyrinth of alleys packed with stalls and vendors touting innumerable varieties of kitschy little trinkets, designer knock-offs and virtually every souvenir imaginable. There’s even a saying that if you can’t find what you need in Chatuchak Market, you’re not likely to find it anywhere else in Thailand.

In fact, visiting the market and figuring out the best haggling technique to score a good bargain (usually a mix of frenetic finger-pointing and hand gestures) has become a quintessentially Thai experience for travelers, and appears on many must-visit lists.

That may well change, however, with the market’s impending tech upgrade.

State Railway of Thailand (SRT) Director for Land Development Dr Siripong Preutthipan explained that the cashless system would allow visitors to pay for their items with a single card or by Quick Response (QR) codes on their phone.

This increase in reliance on technology would also encourage the use of the Chatuchak Guide mobile app, which lists the stalls according to category and stall ratings, making it easier for shoppers to navigate the market.

The upgrades don’t stop there, of course. Chatuchak Market will also be going “Full 4.0” with automated parking lots and possibly even air-conditioned toilets. The automated parking lots, which are capable of accommodating 100 cars per lot, will be available by the end of the year.

According to Bangkok Post, the SRT will be investing more than THB100 million (US$3.2 million) on the upgraded facilities.

Tag a friend who's on their way to #chatuchak this weekend!

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Wither the Chatuchak charm?

Some netizens and Thai Visa forumers (which consists of mostly expats) are questioning the need for the upgrades, particularly the cashless system, and how the modernization will affect the experience.

As aforementioned, part of the Chatuchak Market experience is bargaining and haggling with vendors to get the best deals before fishing notes out from wads of baht to make a purchase.

In fact, multiple articles and opinions, ranging from “5 Tips for Bargaining in Thai Markets” to the more cautionary “do NOT haggle fiercely” have been written about shopping at Chatuchak Market. To pay via a single card or a QR code may take the excitement and satisfaction out of the process.

There’s also the issue of buying the card (assuming that it’s a reloadable pay card), ensuring that it has enough credit, and potentially subjecting oneself to chaotic queues to cash in the card at the end of a shopping spree.

Will it cut back on the ‘farang price’ practice?

Dual pricing, on the other hand, has been a longstanding debate and a subject of contention among the expat community. It’s a practice where travelers and expats are subject to a dual economy, paying up to a third more than a Thai would on many goods and services.

“How do they set up QR codes with local and farang prices? Will they have two QR symbols on the label?” Thai Visa forum admin lonewolf99 wrote.

Diving deeper into the conversation, it appears that there’s also concern over the SRT potentially using the system to know everybody’s turnover so that they can charge the vendor a fixed percentage of the take or charge them for rent in line with their takings.

For most of its history, Chatuchak Market was managed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). According to TODAY, a dispute over rent between the SRT and BMA prompted SRT to take back control of the market in 2012. Vendors used to pay monthly rents of just THB600 to THB800 (US$16 to US$26) but since the SRT took over, rental costs have been raised by over 300 percent.

Dr Siripong Preutthipan revealed that the SRT currently charges THB3,157 (US$100) a month, per lot.

Many shops in the hard-to-access middle zones of the weekend market are shuttered and display ‘For Lease’ signs. Source: Bangkok Post