‘One job isn’t enough’ as global crisis inflicts personal pain in Bangkok

From left, tour guide-turned-GrabBike rider Chawalit Saejung, Stranger Bar owner Chakgai Jermkwan and translator Pipat Wattanamongkolsiri.
From left, tour guide-turned-GrabBike rider Chawalit Saejung, Stranger Bar owner Chakgai Jermkwan and translator Pipat Wattanamongkolsiri.

Among dozens of arrivals passing through final screening recently at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Pat wheeled her luggage and sighed.

 “This will be my last job, and I don’t know when I will have work like this again,” she said.

The 57-year-old tour guide had just finished a one-week gig in Russia, showing Thai tourists attractions in Murmansk and Moscow, just days before Russia barred entry to all travelers. 

“I’m old already. I’ll be reading through piles of books in my room as I quarantine myself for 14 days. Guess I will be staying home for a long, long time,” Pat said as we said goodbye and wished each other luck.

Her fate is shared by many Thais who have lost jobs or seen their income plummet since the coronavirus hit the kingdom in January. Since then, three months have passed, and people from all walks of life and backgrounds are being forced to adapt to support themselves as well as those who depend on them, whether family or staff. 

And as of today, there’s no end in sight.

Chakgai Jermkwan
Chakgai Jermkwan

After managing to build the popularity of drag destination Stranger Bar for eight years  into a Silom Road institution, Chakgai Jermkwan, 34, for the first time faces an uncertain future since the bar closed March 17 and will stay so until, at a minimum, the end of April. 

“I didn’t see this coming,” said Chakgai, who on stage goes by the queen moniker M Stranger Fox. “Before the government ordered entertainment venues to shut down, I already noticed fewer and fewer customers, like a 50% to 80% decrease.”

While Chakgai said he’s got some savings and is not struggling financially at the moment, he’s most worried for his employees – the drag queens and bartenders – who have to pay monthly bills. 

“Sure, the government has a stimulus package to help them. It’s better than nothing,” Chakgai said. “But what’s scary is none of us know how long this will continue.”

If weeks turn into months, the temporarily closures ordered by the government, Chakgai worries, could end up becoming permanent.

“If the pandemic goes on for months, my bar could go out of business,” Chakgai said.

Chawalit Saejung
Chawalit Saejung

Chawalit Saejung, 38, had to shift from his main occupation as a tour guide to driving a Grab Bike to ferry passengers around and deliver food. 

Just weeks ago, Chawalit was still working full time as a tour guide and assistant marketing manager at his tour agency. His duties included taking Thai tourists abroad to other Asian nations such as China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. 

A trip to Taiwan in early February became his last, before coronavirus infection numbers in Thailand started to soar, motivating most Thai travelers to cancel travel plans and bookings. 

“They called me to cancel their trips. Although some countries didn’t close the borders, fear incited them not to go,” Chawalit said. “It was so chaotic. Some airlines didn’t agree to refund the flights, and it’s my company which had to pay out of our own pocket.”

Earlier this month, Chawalit applied to work for Grab, the Singapore-based ride-sharing and delivery company whose service is available in Bangkok and parts of Thailand. 

“The application process was quick and simple, and I didn’t have to invest much since I have a motorbike already. Plus, I see money coming into my bank account almost every day,” Chawalit said.

On Monday, Chawalit zipped through Bangkok from 9:30am to 7pm picking up and dropping off passengers and delivering food to people’s doorsteps. He made about 15 trips. 

Please keep drivers alive with contact-free delivery, Foodpanda and Grab ask

“My colleagues [at the travel agency] turned to driving taxis or selling bua loi [rice balls in coconut milk],” Chawalit said. “In this kind of situation, one job is never enough.”

While Thailand is known as a top destination for Chinese tourists, undoubtedly many professionals who work with Chinese investors and travelers – such as event organizers, tour guides and translators – are hugely affected.

Pipat Wattanamongkolsiri
Pipat Wattanamongkolsiri

 

Pipat Wattanamongkolsiri, 27, is a Chinese-Thai translator and interpreter who usually works at events and conferences. He said that he started to feel the coronavirus impact in January. Many scheduled events at large venues such as Muang Thong Thani or BITEC Bang Na were canceled or indefinitely postponed. 

“The company couldn’t pay in full to translators, and I was hugely affected too,” Pipat said. “My major income, like 80% of it, is gone.”

Staying at home for weeks and killing time creating gaming and business communities via Facebook pages, Pipat said Saturday will be the time he teaches Chinese to college students using remote-conferencing service Zoom.

“I tried to find other ways I can still make money,” he said. “I have to turn this crisis into opportunity.”

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