Wheeling and dealing at Bangkok's pawn shops
In Bangkok, people are often embarrassed about taking cherished jewelry and other personal treasures to a pawn shop. They also worry whether they can pay back the loan or finance the interest payments so they don't lose their valuable possessions forever.
If their luck runs out, Bangkok's pawn shops put the ill-fated items up for sale.
But anyone seeking to buy something in the shops' somber, cramped chambers must compete with professional dealers and gold shop owners who try to snatch the best pieces first.
How to snag a bargain in a Bangkok pawn shop
Pawn shops are distinguished by double doors -- one at each end of their frontage -- as if they are providing a separate entrance and exit. The double doors are, in theory, to allow people to discreetly enter and exit without having to bump into each other and risk embarrassment, but many people just use whatever door is closer and convenient.
Inside, you will be greeted by vertical metal security bars. You can usually bargain down the sales price.
"For foreigners who like to buy second-hand goods, it is better to buy from pawn shops and not on the street, because here you will get a guarantee that you are buying a genuine item," says Chatchai Treprasertlim, 53, manager of Sen Heng Pawn Shop in Chinatown.
"But we get only a few foreigners buying things here. During the past several months, maybe one or two foreigners came in to buy. They were Japanese and Malaysians. Maybe foreigners are afraid that the things on sale here are fake.
"But in this shop, if people buy something here, they can also come back later and pawn it to us, and we will give them 70 to 80 percent of the price they paid us."
Sen Heng Pawn Shop has a quaint, sepia look indicative of its 50-year-old roots, and usually sells wristwatches, rings and other jewelry, plus Buddhist and royal amulets.
An old, rectangular, brown Seiko watch, for example, sells for about 4,000 baht.
"I paid about 3,500 baht for this watch," Chatchai says. "Usually when I sell things, I add maybe 10 percent or so to the selling price, above what I paid to the person who pawned it."
The shop's showcase selection is sparse because -- like most pawn shops in Bangkok -- professional buyers frequently swoop in.
"Also, not that many people fail to make the interest payments. And sometimes when I get gold, I take it to the gold shop to sell it there, instead of putting it in the window."
"If it is weird, we do not take it"
Unlike pawn shops in some other countries, the selection does not include weird memorabilia, refrigerators, endless kitsch or a variety of believe-it-or-not things.
"No, we just have these normal things. If it is weird, we do not take it. But we do get earrings and bracelets, and sometimes cameras," Chatchai says, with a hopeful tone.
"If the pawned item's owner does not pay the interest for five months, then the item belongs to us and we can put it on sale."
A sign in the window explains that the interest levied on the first 2,000 baht that the shop lends a client is set at 2 percent per month. The interest drops to 1.25 percent on any money above the first 2,000 baht.
While there are both private and government-run pawn shops in Thailand, in Bangkok's the estimated 200 private operations are in the majority.
"The government supports its pawn shops, so the interest payments are lower for customers," Chatchai says. "But people sometimes prefer to come to private pawn shops, like ours, because private shops may offer a higher price for their pawned item."
Loose diamonds and Buddhist baubles
Not every pawn shop sells to the public, so you have to look for a glass display case.
One of the larger selections of jewelry is displayed at Nguan Ha Cheang Pawn Shop on Silom Road.
"Usually a couple of [foreign] people every week come in here and take a look," says 30-year-old Aee, who speaks English and is a relative of the brightly-lit pawn shop's owner.
"They come here to buy silver pieces, gold rings, diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, and sometimes we have loose diamonds for sale, plus small Buddhist amulets wrapped in a protective, gold frame.
"About five years ago, when I first started working here, we had people who brought in a big refrigerator, and people who brought in air conditioners, that kind of stuff. But usually we don't take those kinds of things anymore because it is too big and is very hard to maintain.
"Actually, selling is not our main business. We mostly just loan money for pawned things.
"People tend to come to pawn shops [to buy] because the prices are lower than the prices in the market, maybe 20 percent or 30 percent, or sometimes even half the price."
Nearby, tiny Meng Meng Pawn Shop displays its small collection for sale, which includes two cameras among a handful of watches and rings.
You might not want to schlep across town hoping to chance upon a trove at one specific location, but it could be worthwhile to inspect random pawn shops when strolling.
Sen Heng Pawn Shop: 2 Yaowarat Road, in Chinatown. Open 11 a.m-5 p.m. Closed Sunday and public holidays. +66 (0)2 223 1601.
Nguan Ha Cheang Pawn Shop: Corner of Silom and Charoenkrung roads, near Leard Sin Hospital. Open Sunday-Friday. +66 (0)2 233 1866.
Meng Meng Pawn Shop: 1452-1454 Charoenkrung Road. Open 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. +66 (0)2 233 1570