Saturday, May 7, 2016

7-Eleven Thailand: A Home Away from Home

When I think of 7-Elevens in Canada, a few different images rise up in my mind. A grubby shop with over-priced chocolate bars, Wonder Bread, a large drinks cooler with glass doors, a few Slurpee machines, and a magazine rack. A decade or 15 years ago, you might have seen a few video games stuck in the corner. Funny, "video game" doesn't instantly paint the picture it used to. By video games, I mean the big stand-up ones in the cabinets that had the joysticks and buttons.

Years ago when I was about 13, a friend and I spent an afternoon hammering nickels into the approximate size of quarters. Of course, the next step was to see if the slugs worked on video games and vending machines. A 7-Eleven down the road from where I lived had a couple of those video games and we spent one afternoon feeding those bashed nickels into the coin slots while furtively looking around to make sure that no one had caught on to our little scam. They worked like a charm. When the first bashed-smooth slug dropped in with a satisfyingly appropriate sound and triggered a credit on the machine, we looked at each other with sneering pride.

Besides the most common goods on offer, most 7-Elevens in Canada at that time had a turbaned proprietor behind the counter and maybe one other employee working at any given time. Wait, that's not fair. The owner didn’t always have a turban although almost inevitably he was from the Indian subcontinent. It's impossible to make a blanket statement about the disposition of those enterprising individuals. Some of them were the nicest people you could meet while others were sullen or borderline hostile. And that's not really surprising.

Because 7-Elevens in Canada are also known for a couple of other things. First, armed hold-ups. Open 24 hours a day, with cash on the premises, few employees present, and almost always well situated for a quick getaway by car, they are obvious targets. Second, they present a perfect location for young punks to loiter and raise havoc. Many 7-Elevens in Canada are stand-alone establishments, often located in the corner of a parking lot of a shopping mall. Plenty of parking spaces, with four walls to lean against, spray graffiti onto, and generally take over as a place to meet, plan mayhem, and load up on junk food and cigarettes. So, yes, owners and employees of 7-Elevens in Canada do put up with their fair share of crap.

In short, Canadian 7-Eleven can be found in numerous locations throughout some of the country's biggest cities. It offers a convenient place to pick up overpriced junk-food, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. Walking into a 7-Eleven and conducting your transaction can often be a seedy, unpleasant experience during which you may come into contact with assorted scumbags purchasing goods or casing the joint with the intention of pulling off an armed robbery at a later time.

The 7-Eleven experience in Thailand is vastly different.

7-Elevens in Thailand are ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. Near my current home in Bangkok, there are seven 7-Elevens within walking distance. I once worked at a university in Thailand that had no fewer than 10 7-Elevens on its campus. Yes, 10. This is not an exaggeration. Ten individual 7-Eleven stores on the same university campus. There might not be that many in an entire medium-sized city in Canada.

Most 7-Elevens in Thailand are not of the stand-alone variety though there are many of those as well. Most of are located on the ground floor of large office buildings or in long one, two, or three-storey shop-houses. Many of them are tiny: one that I occasionally frequent does not have enough space for more than four people to stand inside at the same time without being cramped. Others are extremely large and have their own pharmacies and post offices and 20 or more staff working in them at a time.

Thai 7-Elevens offer many products and services. I can top up my mobile phone at any 7-Eleven. I simply tell the clerk which service I want and for what amount and then I type in my number into a small terminal, pay the fee and within seconds the transaction is complete. Similarly, I can pay all my household bills, such as internet and electricity, at any 7-Eleven. I can pay for airline tickets for one of the largest internal airline companies in Thailand. I make the booking online, take a booking number to my local 7-Eleven, and with a small fee included (about the equivalent of 80 cents), pay for the ticket. I'm then provided with a printout that suffices for checking in at the airport.

7-Eleven sign
The usual products are available: a wide range of salted snacks including many US brand potato chips, chocolate bars, cakes, bread, canned goods, milk, cold drinks, and ice cream. Unlike in Canada, where alcohol can only be bought in government-run liquor stores or authorized beer vendors, 7-Elevens in Thailand offer a wide range of alcoholic beverages: beer and alco-pops in the fridges, and hard liquor behind the cashier—Thai and imported, with Smirnoff and Baccardi the most popular foreign brands—and wine (Jacob's Creek seems quite popular). The iconic Slurpees and Big Gulps are there too.

Pre-packaged sandwiches and other 7-Eleven-brand food provide a consistent and surprisingly good-tasting choice for when you are strapped for time or don't want to risk having your guts shredded at a local restaurant. The croissant ham and cheese sandwiches are a personal favourite, and new entries in recent months have included the pizza croissant sandwich and the sausage and cheese sandwich (in reality, "hot dog" better describes what Thais consider sausages).

Speaking of hot dogs, you can get a reasonably good one at 7-Eleven, though you should take a close look at the ones on display on those heated rollers before ordering. Better to get them to nuke a fresh one and then put it in a preheated bun. Update: unfortunately, hotdog buns are no longer available at 7-Elevens in Thailand, likely due to the fact that most Thais prefer their hot dogs sliced into small pieces and placed in a bag, from which they can skewer each piece with a sharpened wooden stick. Other options in the packaged but perishable range include fried chicken, sushi and pork burgers. Many of these I don’t buy, but turnover is such that you can usually find something reasonably fresh or at least with an expiry date that is still a few days away.

A related line of food is the frozen range, again 7-Eleven brand and with many varieties. The best thing about these meals is that you know you will get the same thing every time. The taste ranges from surprisingly good to bland, with portion sizes somewhat disappointing on occasion.

Many 7-Elevens now have their own little coffee bars that provide reasonably priced, freshly brewed cups. Some of the bigger locations also have their own line of pastries (usually baked elsewhere and trucked in, though some now have their own small bakeries onsite) that are available self-serve style with a pair of tongs and a tray.

The price (often the cheapest available for numerous items), locations (i.e., everywhere), selection, relative freshness and consistency make 7-Elevens quite appealing for the expat in Thailand. They are always a good place to break a 1000-baht note as well. I often slip in and buy a 12-baht KitKat just so that I can get a fistful of hundred-baht notes. A 7-Eleven clerk will never balk at this. The entire chain probably pulls in a couple million baht a day just on the small purchases made by people who want to break 1000-baht notes.

Besides all those benefits, there are other reasons for heading down to the local 7-Eleven. It's a nice air-conditioned respite from the brutal heat of the midday sun in Bangkok. And once you are in there, you will not be slyly watched by employees. At a good-sized 7-Eleven, there could be as many as 20 employees wandering around. Add in a dozen or more security cameras, and you really are free to wander unmolested. But more than that, there is simply a pleasant disconnect that you are afforded by employees at 7-Elevens in Thailand. In fact, I often spend a good 10 or 15 minutes pacing up and down the aisles at the local branch. I may not have even purchased something. I've been a pacer for many years. It's kind of like an active form of meditation. I've never been bothered or even given a second look while doing this at a 7-Eleven in Thailand. You would be physically thrown out, or a staff member might even call the police to intervene if you tried this in Canada.

OK, to be fair, I generally engage in my pacing routine at 7-Elevens where I am already known. But I have on occasion chanced on a previously unknown 7-Eleven in Thailand and just had a good relaxing pace for 10 minutes or so before leaving. Once in a rare while I stop and start juggling three or four dry-food items for kicks.

But probably the best aspect of 7-Elevens in Thailand is the people who work there. They are extremely friendly and are perfect for practicing your Thai with. Many young female university students work part-time at 7-Eleven and they are always willing to speak Thai with a foreigner. Even after I have finished paying for my items, I will often linger around the front counter and discuss various topics with the staff.

This love letter to 7-Elevens in Thailand likely won't sit well with those wanting to go native. It just doesn't seem right to praise a western franchise in a developing country, especially one that, to date, has more than 8000 locations in Thailand, half of them in Bangkok. But after more than a decade in Thailand, I don't give a good freak-damn whether other foreigners deem my opinions on my adopted country appropriate or not. Sure, there are plenty of enjoyable, non-corporate, traditional experiences to be had, but more often than not, I'll stride by the street restaurant pitched up outside a major 7-Eleven and carry on into the air-conditioned comfort where I can have an ice-cold drink, pace the aisles for 10 minutes and then have an impromptu Thai lesson with the staff.


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