Bangkok Computer Expo Swept Up by Digital Gold Rush

Two men wearing Bitcoin shirts stroll through the Commart expo in Bangkok on Thursday

BANGKOK — Thousands flocked to a computer expo over the weekend to snatch up components to mine online money.

The craze, which led to a nationwide shortage of key computer hardware followed a spike of interest in cryptocurrency – digital money unregulated by any central bank or federal reserve. The most famous among them is Bitcoin, which currently trades at about 92,000 baht per unit, nearly three times its value just three months ago.

Veerachai Morprapaipan, whose store sold components for mining such money at the expo, said he lost count of the customers and people who visited his booth at Queen Sirikit Convention Center to inquire about Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency.

“There were so many customers. I still get questions even today,” Veerachai, who runs TH Miner, said by phone on Monday.

Held every three to four months, Commart expo usually attracts gamers and computer geeks who look to buy or upgrade their rigs at a discounted price. But at the latest Commart, which ran Thursday to Sunday, many of those geeks turned into prospectors who clamored to buy digital “shovels” for a digital gold mine.

Veerachai Morprapaipan poses for a photo Thursday with a set of computer components designed to “mine” cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.

Said “shovel” is a component called a Graphic Processing Unit, or GPU. It’s the part that powers video cards which make videogames run with such spectacular graphics and texture details. It can also be used to increase computers’ capacities to generate cryptocurrency.

To sum it up in the simplest of terms, the more GPUs a computer has, the faster it can mine the cryptocurrency – and the more money a user can make – which led to the GPU buying rampage at Commart.

“I’m buying as many pieces as I can get my hands on,” Niratcha Sukyu said as she waited in line to buy GPUs with scores of other modern-day prospectors.

Another man in the line, who only gave his name as Nont, said he was hoping to buy GPUs to experiment with cryptocurrency mining, having heard about it from a friend.

“A friend I know told me about it so I came today to buy equipment and give it a try,” said Nont, 27.

One miner, who identified himself only as Karat, said he first got into the business of mining cryptocurrency in 2014, when one Bitcoin traded for 15,000 baht. He said he eventually quit because of the low return and sold what he had mined. At its peak in May, one Bitcoin was valued at about 99,000 to 100,000 baht.

“The best kind of insight is hindsight,” Karat said with a laugh. He said he’s back in the game, and he visited Commart to buy more GPUs for his operation.

Bitcoin and Blockchain 

To “mine” cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin involves being part of a blockchain, a network of individuals who process and store information on financial transactions, a sort of distributed ledger.

It’s similar to banking without a bank: instead of going through the bank, investors send and receive money online via blockchains, and instead of bank clerks making sure the amount in one’s accounts and transactions are correct, thousands of users do that for the investor.

Blockchains also reward information processors in Bitcoin or other types of cryptocurrency. So the colloquial “mining” is really about a race to beat other peers in the blockchain. The information is encrypted as a mathematical question that only fast, efficient computers can crack – increasing the need to equip as many GPUs as possible.

Crowd of shoppers at Commart expo in Bangkok on Thursday

“You have to compete with the whole world,” said GPU vendor Veerachai.

Bitcoin remains the household name of cryptocurrency, but it’s not the only one. Others are also popular among currency miners, such as Ethereum, Litecoin, Zcash and Ripple. In fact, nearly every Thai cryptocurrency enthusiast interviewed for this story said they don’t mine Bitcoin anymore because of its extremely low yield.

However, many who mine those other types of cryptocurrency – known collectively as “altcoins” or alternative coins – usually trade them for Bitcoin anyway due to its tendency to rapidly rise in value.

Some geeks have been mining cryptocurrency for years now, but computer vendors and buyers at Commart said it appeared to become notably more popular over the past two or three months – one person suspected the trend went mainstream because of the WannaCry ransomware attack in May, which required Bitcoin as payment to unlock infected computers.

Currency Unstable, Buyers Unfazed

And supply simply can’t keep up with the surge in demand according to a number of vendors, including Somyot Chaowalit, owner of a major computer hardware distributor Jib. He said nearly all the high-grade GPUs are sold out.

“The trend is going very strong,” Somyot said as he visited his booth at Commart. “We only ship in 10,000 units of GPUs per month … but people who mine Bitcoin need about six GPUs per computer.”

To cope with the demand, Jib resorted to selling only 30 GPUs per day during the Commart expo. Demand was such that buyers were randomly drawn in a lotto. Other vendors, such as Advice, only sell GPUs if buyers agree to purchase the whole computer rig – and not just the processing device.

Veerachai’s booth is perhaps the most drastic, selling a set of GPUs and other devices designed for mining cryptocurrency by an auction. One rig sold for 109,000 baht on Thursday.

Promotional models, or “pretties,” pose with GPUs at Thursday’s Commart expo in Bangkok.

But even the very people who profit from the cryptocurrency fad can’t help feeling worried.

In spite of huge demand, Somyot said his firm is not increasing the quota of GPUs for sale because he feared the bubble might burst and disappointed miners would flood the market by selling their devices.

“If there was a crash, there would be big problems,” Somyot said. “This is why manufacturers are holding back.”

Cryptocurrency is indeed a fluctuating business. Bitcoin value hovered between 94,000 and 92,000 baht in recent days. Another popular currency, Ethereum, peaked at 13,000 baht mid-June but its value has been steadily tumbling throughout last week, down to about 9,100 baht as of Monday evening.

Yet many prospectors are unfazed. Those interviewed for this story said they could always switch to other currencies if major ones such as Bitcoin and Ethereum somehow crashed.

“I’m going to keep mining until a new currency emerges,” said Janin Kijrithee, who brought his mother to the Thursday’s event just to add her name in the draw and increase his odds of buying GPUs. It worked.

“I’m not worried that it could come down. I will keep going forward,” added the 37-year-old IT professional.