Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 2)

(Click here to read Part 1.)

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Being a tour guide means telling a lot of stories. Sometimes, however, it is the storytellers themselves who share details about their lives.

Ithidej Sarunsiri has been a tour guide in Bangkok since 1998, and it wasn’t exactly the career he had always imagined for himself.

“Life is easy for Thai people,” he says, because the weather stays sunny almost throughout the year. However, in terms of his professional career, life did not always seem so bright.

After working in his father’s business for a few years, he eventually had to look for a new job when the Thai-based company suffered a hard blow during the financial crisis of the year 1997.

Even though becoming a tour guide did not seem like the best option to him back then, there were not many other choices available. So he started his training and began to pray to Buddha to help him get his license.

Now Sarunsiri walks tourists around the most famous sights Bangkok has to offer and explains their history to them. “I keep details like a library,” he says with a laugh as he turns to a giant golden Buddha statue to explain the story behind its creation.

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Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 1)

How Two Financial Turmoils Influenced One Man’s Life

By Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Scores of tourists climb the steep steps to the top of one of Bangkok’s famous temples. In the shade of the great Wat Arun sits a man. He is wearing black trousers and a beige button-down shirt. A slight gust of wind wafts through his short black hair as he shelters his eyes from the hot summer sun that shines almost throughout the whole year in Thailand.

Let Money Be Your Guide 1

Sarunsiri now earns money as a tour guide, showing tourists in Bangkok around temples and other sights. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Life did not seem so bright a few years ago. Ithidej Sarunsiri, who introduces himself to foreigners as Michael, was one of many Thais whose life was turned upside-down when a financial crisis hit his country in 1997.

Back then, he was working in his father’s company, a big leather goods production firm in Thailand. Sarunsiri says that the business received a strong financial blow during that time. That was when he had to start thinking about finding another way to earn a living.
“My father is a one-man show business,” he says.  “I am just like an ‘accessory’ on his head.”

So Sarunsiri had to go and find his fortune elsewhere, and after a while his path led him towards tourism.

In 1997 he started his training for becoming a tour guide. Being a Buddhist, like approximately 94% of the Thai population in 2010, he asked Emerald Buddha, one of the Buddha statues in the Grand Palace, to help him get his license. Because at the time not becoming a tour guide would have meant not having a job.

One year after starting his training he began to work. One of his big advantages in the job was that he enjoys talking; for instance about the Buddhist tradition of sticking gold leaves on Buddha statues.
“I would put them on the mouth,” he says with a grin, because that is where he sees his strength, which he would like Buddha to protect for him.

The next time the world engrossed in a financial crisis, starting in 2008, Sarunsiri again felt the effects on his profession. Tourists from Europe started to decline, while at the same time more people from Asia flocked into Bangkok.

In general, the effects of this second crisis were much less severe for Sarunsiri. “After the financial crisis in 1997 many people lost their jobs, lost their home,” he recalls.

Still, the money he earns from showing visitors around the city is not always enough, so Sarunsiri took a four-year break from being a tour guide in 2008 in order to figure out web marketing.

In the beginning, the online world was still a mystery to him.

“Wow! Hotmail! I have Hotmail! I have job!” is one of the things he used to exclaim in the early stages of his marketing career.

Now he knows that a web presence does not equal a job guarantee.
However, it has helped him to attract more customers and be more successful with his actual profession, so he can be prepared in case another financial crisis comes around.