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Monday, January 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Psst, Wanna Buy A Rolex? Or A Mercedes, Or Plane?

The AP

Sniffing a bargain, the middle-aged woman in a fashionable silk dress squeezes through the crowd to take a closer look at the second-hand ring.

If her bargaining is successful, she can wrap it up and take it home - which is a tad more convenient than the delivery arrangements for the slightly used small plane that is on the block nearby.

Buy a Rolex, slap it on your wrist. For the right price, a late-model Mercedes Benz is yours to drive away.

Pretty upscale, this Bangkok flea market. Welcome to the "Market of the Formerly Rich," a weekend affair where the baubles that sparkled so brightly during Thailand's boom times are being sold off to pay the bills come due.

`Bought too much of everything'

Thailand's bubble economy, built on speculation in real estate and the stock market, made a few people very rich and a lot of people a little rich.

Thailand was the second-biggest market in Asia - after Japan - for Mercedes Benz. The words "Thai tourist" became synonymous for "big spender" in the boutiques and department stores of Europe and the United States. But the Thai currency, the baht, has lost 50 percent of its value over the past six months.

The weekend market was the brainchild of a local Mercedes dealer who had a little time on his hands as the country slipped into recession.

Wasun Panon, who set up the market at his auto showroom, says he recognized that Thais were guilty of overconsumption, and he wanted to campaign for people to stop buying more new things, especially imported goods.

"We have bought too much of everything," Wasun says. "Even if we stop buying things for a year or so, we'll still have plenty to use that's already here inside our country."

Used goods: patriotic, `even chic'

Wasun's sentiments are echoed in the media. A new TV commercial viciously lampoons conspicuous consumers, and calls on Thais to: "Buy fewer imported luxury goods - Boost Thai exports." An old patriotic song plays in the background.

The media's latest heroes are white-collar workers who have successfully coped with downsizing. The real-estate broker turned sandwich maker. The finance executive turned taxi driver. The journalist turned milkman.

Buying used goods, the English-language Bangkok Post recently proclaimed, used to be something shameful for the well-heeled. Now, the newspaper says, the practice is acceptable, "even chic."

Rolex loses its shine

Wasun's market opened Oct. 25 and is one of several flea markets that have sprung up, some in the parking lots of malls seeking to lure back fleeing customers.

Pathana Fakchamroon, 40, manages a tour company, but this weekend she's a saleswoman for a Rolex watch her sister bought in the United States two months ago.

Her asking price for the gold watch, which is decorated with mother of pearl and small diamonds: $12,800. She says the same model usually sells for $16,000.

"The economy is bad. . . . We prefer having money over wearing a Rolex," Pathana said.

Land and houses, antique cars, motorboats, vintage wine and cameras are among the other items offered at knockdown prices.

The star attraction so far has been a French-made five-seat airplane that belonged to a Thai businesswoman. It was purchased by a Singaporean businessman for $110,500 after being on display for only two weeks.

Mercedes Benz automobiles are the marketplace's best sellers, with more than 30 changing hands each weekend.

Pianos also are good movers, with at least 10 sold so far, usually for half their normal local price, $600 to $1,800.

More than 5,000 people have been visiting the market each weekend, and estimated total turnover so far is more than $2 million.

"This is a chance for the rich to get rid of their excess property," Wasun said. "And it is the turn of ordinary people to own what they have wanted for a long time."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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