The founder of Bangkok’s Build On Bitcoin Space discusses Southeast Asia’s Bitcoin-only community and renewable mining in Thailand.
In this conversation, Piccolo from the Build On Bitcoin Space in Bangkok, Thailand joined me to chat about Bitcoin adoption in Southeast Asia, where the culture and language differ greatly from those of the many westerners likely reading this article. However, Thais “get” Bitcoin — and there is a growing Bitcoin-only community there that might surprise you.
Beyond that, we dove into how Piccolo runs a weekly Bitcoin meetup and monthly workshops in Bangkok and his background in the tech startup industry in Asia. We also talked about Bitcoin mining in Thailand using plant waste.
Thanks for joining me! Before we get into questions about the Build On Bitcoin Space and Bitcoin in Thailand, can we hear a bit about your background?
I was born in Thailand but I spent most of my life in Southern California. My career started with a job in industrial manufacturing after completing my undergraduate degree in biochemistry from UCLA. I didn’t want to go to medical school, after hearing from my friends that their lives were rather miserable. So I ended up selling electronic connectors for wire poles in Vietnam.
Out of pure chance, I took the GMAT, because I was told that getting an MBA was good for career changes. Good for people who want to be in business but don’t quite know what profession was right for them. The fiat world is all about testing, and I got a good enough score so I ended up at Northwestern’s Kellogg MBA program. My internship at Morgan Stanley during my MBA kickstarted my finance and fintech career. I got a full-time offer and joined Morgan Stanley in New York doing investment banking and corporate finance, involving mostly mergers, acquisitions, capital restructurings, IPOs, etc. After three years with Morgan Stanley, I got laid off along with 75% of my associate class due to the dot-com bubble and the first real estate bubble.
I was in Hong Kong at the time, and decided to start a boutique advisory firm with some ex-colleagues and friends, doing investment banking work and undercutting the bigger firms by localizing our services in Southeast Asia. After almost a decade and a half of doing that, I retired — but I was unable to sleep. There was a whisper in my head that I needed to do this fintech thing. I wanted to cut out the middleman and build a platform that matches business owners and borrowers with individual investors.
But I had to get regulatory approval in Thailand to do that, so I ended up spending two-and-a-half years pushing through a new law called the Crowdfunding Act. If I knew that I had to grovel at the feet of regulators for like two-and-a-half years just to get permission to help my customers, I wouldn’t have done it! But now we’re here, and that company is called PeerPower. The core business is a crowdfunding platform, but once I discovered Bitcoin, that started to evolve.
We raised our last funding round in 2021, and our lead investor agreed with our strategy to allocate some of the funding to Bitcoin mining with the purpose of finding bridges between the Bitcoin standard world and the current dying fiat world over time.
Tell me more about the Build On Bitcoin (BOB) Space. Where did it start, and where are you at now?
BOB Space came out of the diversification effort with PeerPower. Part of it is mining, and another part is financial infrastructure around Bitcoin. There need to be real builders on this monetary network. So BOB is a forum to connect with other builders, where we can help them out in certain ways, say, with connections to UI and UX pros.
Part of it was also to have a regular place where Bitcoin-only folks can hangout regularly. We have a weekly meetup every Wednesday night, and hold monthly technical workshops. Those workshops are aimed at people who may want to build, but don’t know where to start, and they aren’t quite at the level that they can contribute alongside the more experienced builders that come around. That’s a bridge we want to build.
I want to go beyond NGU and all that shit. It’s got to be about what the heck are you building, and why should people care about it? Why should Bitcoiners care about it?
And why did you get a physical space immediately, rather than trying to do this as a meetup?
Well, this space came about because the PeerPower business needed something like a mining lab. In our mining business, I do basic maintenance, repairs and testing. And after COVID, the PeerPower employees can all work from home, so we have a lot more space to host events and coworking. It already feels like a co-working space with PeerPower people coming in and out.
So we decided to keep PeerPower on the second floor and the first floor is all dedicated to BOB projects and developers who want to come, build, hang out and spread knowledge.
What does the event calendar look like right now?
Coming up is mining month at BOB in April. We’ll go from the 10,000-foot view of mining down to like, three inches. I will open up some of our used miners and let people see what’s inside, mess around with the actual components.
One week will be an insights week, where we go through different dashboards and what miners glean from them. Then we might have some special guests; some of the fairly big miners here or the energy projects that serve up electricity to miners.
SovereignSk8, who helps run programming here, is coming up with the May and June agendas. I believe those will be open source and node running months. We want to keep running with these monthly themes — so far, we’re only about three months in but we are gaining momentum.
What ideas are you thinking about for the future of BOB?
Well, something we’re very excited about is launching the BOB Residency Program.
This is something that SovereignSk8 and I have been discussing since the end of last year. It’s inspired by Chaincode Labs, but we’re going to do it here in Bangkok over three months with experienced developers who already have projects. We aim to provide that little extra something to make a Bitcoin developer’s project take off.
For those of you reading this who are actively building Bitcoin projects but need a little extra help, and might want to hang out in Thailand for a couple months with other developers, check it out. This will develop itself into some other programs we’re working on with the node runner community here in Thailand, and some test projects for merchant Lightning adoption.
It needs to be grassroots here — we can’t be shouting from the rooftops and advertising a lot of this because Thai regulators are not particularly friendly to Bitcoin. So we’re taking it one step at a time and focusing on building the infrastructure for adoption.
So what about Bitcoin in Thailand? What is the attitude toward Bitcoin among Thais?
Clear division, where a majority are sort of outright shitcoiners or closet shitcoiners. Percentage wise, just based on my interactions at events, it’s maybe like 85% to 90% shitcoin, crypto and Web 3 bros, and then about 10% to 15% really strong, hardcore, Bitcoin-only people.
Unfortunately, pump and dump becomes respectable work here. All the big guys are doing it, and there’s a culture of hero worship, so people follow what they’re doing. And among foreigners, there are a lot of people attracted to moving to Thailand for the low cost of living, compared to their home countries. They’re looking for a quick and easy buck — which is all they need to live here easily. Bitcoin takes proof of work, so they’re not interested.
Tell me more about the node runner community here in Thailand. There’s a Discord group with around 6,000 people in it, right?
Well, that group is called Local Bitcoin Thailand. It was started by Khun Decha, who might be running the largest node in Thailand as far as the Lightning capacity on it. Might be one of the leading in Southeast Asia. So, he started that to basically learn and connect with other node runners. He was configuring his node, taking it from Tor to clearnet, taking it from Umbrel, to the command line, to a Raspberry Pi and all that type of stuff. As he’s doing that, he’s discovering how Lightning can help merchants accept payments faster, improving the finality of settlement.
As an aside, generally speaking, the businesses here in Thailand that are interested in Lightning are hybrid businesses. The proprietors are often from somewhere other than Thailand and married a Thai, so there is a need for this uncensorable money. Because those foreigners, in that cultural setup, become second-class citizens when push comes to shove. I don’t know if you ever picked up on that. So, naturally they are attracted to a form of money that allows them to hold their own private keys, so to speak — one that the government or anyone else cannot debase or control.
That’s part of the driving force behind more node runners, I think. Then, products like Umbrel made it so easy to use, so that helped. There’s also a curiosity among smaller merchants about Lightning that I think is driving more attention to that group of node runners in Thailand. Even though Thailand has a very fast, QR-based payment system called PromptPay, there are other issues. Let me walk you through it:
Take a sticky rice and pork BBQ stall on the corner somewhere. It’s a good business, but it’s generally not in the formal tax system. They will pay taxes to the local deputy who comes to collect their “fees” every few weeks. When they see a lot of cash moving through your PromptPay, that deputy can squeeze a bit more out of you. PromptPay is your CBDC wallet, essentially — the government and financial intermediaries can see every movement of money in and out.
Those savvy people who have had run-ins with banks and central authority know gold and money under the mattress come with big risks. So, Bitcoin is a clear solution. It doesn’t go through the surveilled system, and it’s not subject to physical risks in the same way.
What do you feel is holding back merchants from using Lightning in Thailand right now? Is it just understanding how it works? Is it need? Is it regulations?
Probably the second and the third ones. As far as need, we have PromptPay — free and instant transfers across the banking system. So that convenience is there and makes Lightning less attractive for speed and finality. However, PromptPay is also your onboarding wallet into the digital baht, which is a Thai CBDC likely coming out in 2024.
Regulation is the other big blocker. The Bank of Thailand has sent several signals over the past couple of years in both academic research papers and statements warning against using cryptocurrency. They mention Bitcoin by name, too.
They will say something like, “Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, where the monetary policies cannot be controlled, are not good for our country’s economic stability.” Similar to the statements from other central banks around the world about how we need to keep our trust-based banking system. Same narrative, just different language.
For the Thai language speakers out there, what are the good resources to learn about Bitcoin? Although many Thais can conversationally speak English fairly well, you get into complex topics and having it in Thai really helps. I know “The Bitcoin Standard” is available in Thai now, right?
That node runner group on Discord, the Local Bitcoin Thailand group, is a great place to start for Thais. Then there’s Khun Piriya with CDC Talk, his weekly Bitcoin talk show ongoing for years. The team behind that YouTube show started a Bitcoin-only content and media company late last year called Right Shift. They are also key organizers for a Bitcoin conference coming up in July here in Thailand.
Most of the other guys are Bitcoin affinity scammers. So, I would say stick to like Right Shift, Piriya and the Thai node runners. That’s about it. Each has a sizable audience; they are not pumping out amateur content.
Let’s pivot to the mining operation you’ve set up near the city of Korat. How did you start that and what’s running there now?
When I mentioned my lending business, PeerPower, was getting into the mining business, this was our first venture at the end of 2021. One of PeerPower’s clients runs a biogas factory out there which uses the waste from tapioca plants, puts it in a plastic-lined pit and harvests the methane coming off the decomposing plants. That methane gets cleaned and piped into a generator that runs miners. In total, the plant produces 4.5 megawatts. And that’s constant for 10 months out of the year.
During the dry season, that output drops to about 50% to 70%. But they manage to keep constant output to the miners by pulling from solar panels onsite as well as the grid when needed. On my side as the consumer, I have a power purchase agreement, so my costs are set.
Why I was able to get the electricity is an interesting story. As the tapioca farms around expanded, the biogas plants output expanded. However, they needed to get a new connection license with the Thai power authority to sell that electricity. They attempted to get that every year for the past six years, but even within power generation and selling excess electricity, there’s still corruption. So, things that should take a year or two to accomplish will take them six, seven, eight years.
But I had a container of miners ready to go, as well as another medium-scale miner on site. So we’re basically the battery absorbing the biogas plant’s power while they’re waiting to sell it to the grid.
So two things: Who says Bitcoin power isn’t clean? False. This operation is run on biogas, plant waste that would otherwise emit methane. That’s one.
And two: Who says it’s stealing power from the grid? False. This biogas plant wants to sell power to the grid. It’s there and ready. But, essentially, the business cannot come to an agreement with the toll collectors on the toll. So, he’s selling to the miners instead. This is another form of stranded energy. And we’re getting that energy for a 35% to 40% discount on what the grid will sell to us. We made that deal to mine with their energy in under a week.
Amazing. Before we wrap up, are there any other announcements you want to share?
Just to mention the BOB Residency Program again. We just opened up for applications, so if you’re a developer who wants to jam with other Bitcoiners in Thailand, please reach out. We have a sanctuary for the orange pilled. The residency will be an IRL space where you can learn so much more than you can virtually. There are many kinds of over-the-shoulder interactions you miss out on when you’re not all together in the same physical space. So that’s why we’re doing the residency.
Amazing, thank you Piccolo! Looking forward to seeing you soon.
This is a guest post by Captain Sidd. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.