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Why Indians love Bangkok: Cheap... LEDs!

For lots of single men who fill the cheap flights from Indian ports to Bangkok, the anticipation of the city is as ticklish as that of the man in a Tata sky ad. It’s as much a sin city as it is a fun city.

A standard package of loud Indian men who often convert their departure halls at the Suvarnabhoomi international airport in Bangkok into mofussil bus stands have these: beaches; snakes, crocodiles and elephants; shopping complexes and markets; and Pattaya and massage parlours. Of course, massage could also mean sex off the shelf.

Over the years since the key Indian cities started connecting with Bangkok, if you listened in closely you could hear whispered words of received pleasure or expressions of accomplishment.

But of late, I am seeing a new trend, a new element of pleasure among the Indian pack's budget itineraries.

Sexy LEDs. Yes, super flat, super light and high definition LED TVs.

Indians wheeling massive LEDs are a common sight at the Suvarnabhoomi airport in Bangkok: Firstpost

Every itinerary of the package-tours that bring scores of men, and some families, now includes a popular TV shop to pick up an LED TV. The most common destination is the electronic district, Pantip Plaza. Racks of LED TVs of various sizes and makes disappear in no time. And most of them go to India.

Take a look at the Suvarnabhoomi airport in the evening, when a number of flights leave for Indian cities. You will often run into an outsize LED TV on a trolly, sometimes as big as 64 inches with an Indian pushing it. Then you see LED TVs everywhere, with Indians behind the trolley. Of course you see an occasional Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi or a Bhutanese, but even to an untrained eye, they are like statistical outliers. It is almost entirely Indians who are gorging on LEDs.

At about 7 p.m. one can see them crowding outside the customs counter for certifying their products for VAT refund. The only exception will be a Russian or a Bollywood B-grader or a Punjabi aunt taking out her Prada bag. Most of the others are Indians and their big LEDs.

I asked the shopkeeper in Pantip Plaza who his customers were.
He said mostly Indians.

And how many TVs does he sell in a day?
Close to 50.

This is just one shop. There are so many such shops around the city. So much so, that the shop at Pantip now employs Burmese Nepali salesmen who can speak both Hindi and English. One cannot miss this exception in all Thai (except the tailoring shops) sales squad in the capital.

The scene at the TV shops and the Suvarnabhoomi airport indicate organised trade rather than household-purchases. The pan-chewing traders mostly come from Kolkata, from where flights to Bangkok are both cheap and plentiful. And they usually carry more than one TV. Many of them are couriers for a per flight fee a few times every week. Of course, couriers from other cities also do it. Family vacationists and heavily bangled honeymooners also shop for LEDs.

But why such a craze for LEDs among the Indians? The Chinese or the Russians, who come in equally higher numbers, don’t do it. Is it the HD broadcast, the aesthetics or something else?

The massive price difference.

A super flat LED TV is at least 40 per cent cheaper in Bangkok than in India. In India, it is still a luxury, but at Bangkok prices, it falls within the middle class budget. For up to 32 inch TVs, there is no customs duty because in Indian rupees, the prices convert to around Rs. 20, 000.

The prices cross the duty limit at 40 inches and above. If you buy the bigger tv, the premium is higher because big sizes of the current generation are substantially more expensive and hard to get in India, particularly in smaller cities. If one doesn’t mind new generation plasma, which is as thin and as good looking as the LEDs, the prices are lower. That explains why one sees a lot of massive 64 inch TVs being carried to India.

Another reason is weight. An average 40 inch LED weighs less than 15 kg, it is flat and very easy to handle. The airports in India are now so used to them that they don’t let them move around in the carousel, but keep them aside for the convenience of the carriers.

I have grown up watching refrigerators, air conditioners and stereos being wheeled out of Indian airports after slow clearance processes when they were sheer luxuries in India. You may still see them in Dhaka and Colombo.

Importing household electronics has become so old fashioned in India that except for some niche products smuggled in with the connivance of customs officials, we had almost stopped seeing them.

Now there is this surge in the import of LEDs. These are the LEDs that are available in the grey markets of India at at least 10-15 less than in regular shops.

What is perplexing is why a consumerist, industrial India is permitting this? Is it too small in terms of foreign exchange or trade loss? Or it is because customs gain some hard-to-come cash? Or is it a big racket that the customs choose to ignore?

Innocuous, but big customs rackets involving high end electronics, expensive liquor or similar contraband get busted on and off. Doesn't something smell a little fishy?