This month, Bizarre Thailand guest columnist Alasdair McLeod explores the brewing Bitcoin economy of Bangkok, and goes on a search for the city’s only Bitcoin ATM machine
On the island of Koh Kret, tucked away in a loop on the winding Chao Phraya river, Bangkok’s only Bitcoin ATM (or Bitcoin Teller Machine) serves an irregular flow of cryptocurrency customers who also come to enjoy the craft beers on offer at Chit Beer, the island’s infamous microbrew pub. Interestingly, at a time when the government has plans to ramp up surveillance on Bitcoin, to stamp out money-laundering by criminal networks, a thriving alternative economy is emerging.
The owner of Chit Beer—Wichit Saiklao, better known by his nickname ‘Chit’—is an enthusiast for alternative currencies, and he brings his own disruptive personal vision to the economic landscape of Thailand. He was at the vanguard of the craft beer revolution when he brought some of the first ones to the country in 2010. Back then he was helping to break the grip that the big beer monopolies had on the local beverage market, and his more recent decision to start using Bitcoin promises to shake up the traditional banking system in a similar way.
“The new model is to just go ahead and do it, instead of asking for the approval of the centralized power structures,” Chit explains. “Just say ‘Sorry, I forgot to ask permission’. Uber, Airbnb, craft beers, and Bitcoin are all based on this new approach. Decentralization is the link between my brewing business and Bitcoin.”
While the global Bitcoin market has surged and collapsed on a regular basis, dragging the entire cryptocurrency market along for the ride, a burgeoning local Bitcoin market has stealthily put down roots in Bangkok. Although there have been others in the past, the BTM at Chit Beer is currently the only one in the city (the tracking website Coin ATM Radar indicates there is also an active BTM in Chiang Mai). Bitcoin miners and traders, whether tourists or locally based, may both require these service points to convert their holdings into Thai baht.
Meanwhile, in the city and much further down the river from Chit Beer, a group of Bitcoin enthusiasts meet on Monday evenings for their ‘Satoshi Square’ social event at the The Clubhouse Sports Bar & Grill on Sukhumvit Soi 23. Anyone with an interest is welcome to join in and discuss the latest crypto-trends. Such regular meetings suggest that the interest is only continuing to grow.
Steve Ho, an expat who formerly worked as an engineer, participates in the currency revolution by trading on the erratic moves in both Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. After researching the field he started trading in it, as the idea of a cutting-edge technology with new investors buying in to the concept appealed to him.
“I’m not a gambler, but this was pure speculation,” admits Steve. “I more than doubled my money and then cashed out my original investment before the market went pear-shaped at the end of 2017. That’s why I’m not concerned about the risks as I’m playing with the profits I’ve made. I’m going to let it ride and see what happens. I spent many years working as an engineer where every facet of each project was planned out in incredible detail. The wild crypto-frontier appealed to me as a way of indulging long suppressed impulses for experiencing extreme uncertainty and volatility.”
He remains, however, not at all concerned that by using cryptocurrencies he might be seen as using the tools of organized crime.
“I’ve not even thought about doing anything dodgy,” he adds. “I haven’t done anything wrong and I haven’t considered using Bitcoin for making illegal purchases. A cashless society is the way things are going anyway.”
Steve trades Ripple, Bitcoin, Everex, Ethereum, and Pandacoin, but longer term he expects that only a few major players will remain to dominate—as happened in the social media landscape.
“It may be that a new player will enter the market and incorporate the existing cryptocurrencies,” he remarks. “It could even be a fiat-crypto hybrid currency that dominates. The loophole is that cryptocurrencies are not backed by anything. For example, North Korea could develop a crypto-system backed by lobsters the way that Western currencies used to be backed by gold. Anything could happen! It’s an exciting time. Any government could initiate such a project and influence the financial system, and there are signs that some countries are taking steps in this direction. Corporations are beginning to invest as well.”
Steve also has some sage advice for investors and entrepreneurs looking to make a profit in the bizarre world of crypto-economy.
“If you’ve got a gut feeling, go for it. Change is happening so fast that it’s difficult to anticipate the most lucrative areas, but anything ahead of the mainstream that combines new technologies is a good bet. Make sure you’re an early investor ahead of the crowd piling in.”