There are several types of expats in Thailand, the corporate employees in Bangkok and the already wealthy who come to live a life that’s even grander then they could afford from wherever they came. They exist in a world of TV reality, sequestered in gated compounds of luxury villas, served by live in maids, chauffeured around the city to well covered events in Mercedes. In a country with a staggering rate of poverty they vacation at exclusive resorts on privately owned islands, these are the expats the government loves.
Then there are the pensioned retirees; hordes of aged men from Europe, England, Australia and America come to live their days out measuring their retirements glass by glass of cheap beer. They are often married to Thai women from poor backgrounds and set up in their home villages elevating the entire extended family to a level of modest upper middle class. The expats that butter the government’s bread.
But there’s another much smaller group, foreigners who live in the land of smiles by their wits. A clever, cunning group who figure out ways to make ends meet in spite of the xenophobic labor laws. I don’t mean long term tourists or back packers who fall into the edutainment industry for a term, or even a year, nor those who come for three months a year spent in a time share playing golf. I mean people who are here twelve months a year; year after year, who have driver’s licenses, who speak the language. These are people who don’t want to wait until they’re in their mid sixties to live life on their own terms and are somehow making it happen. Some are shysters for sure; in real estate, or bogus investment companies or any of a thousand other age old scams but others are entrepreneurs, inventors, dreamers, digital nomads, gamblers, pie-in-the-skiers and after ten years I count myself one of them. The ones the government hates.
I didn’t have a scheme when I came here; I didn’t plan on coming here at all. Six months after watching the world trade center burn against the perfect blue of a September sky from the grand street park in Brooklyn I went to Malaysia. I had no motive going there outside of touring the country starting with a thirty day trek through Taman Negera National Park, the country’s largest wild life preserve. When I emerged after a month in the park I went to the sea side to recover from the trip, I had lost a fair amount of weight and was covered with tiny festering wounds and bites.
It was a cheap place where you made your own food, there was no pool or amenities but it sat on the river which flowed into the sea just a couple hundred meters away. It was here that I met up with a friend from Brooklyn who told me she thought something odd was happening in my building and maybe I should make some phone calls to find out what was going on. I couldn’t be bothered right away, I was relaxing but once I did my return was immediate.
What had been happening in my building wasn’t just odd it was highly illegal. I had been in the building for five years but never met the landlord because he was doing time in a penitentiary for racketeering. He was paroled while I was gone, which may have been an oversight since the first thing he did in the free world was to commit fifteen class A felonies by forcibly evicting all tenants, old ladies and young hipsters alike. By the time I arrived my apartment had been remolded and re-rented at four times the rent I had been paying, everything I owned, from my antique Scandinavian steam bent birch chair to a fresh change of underwear had been trashed.
As a group we took the landlord to NYC housing court where we spent a lot of time being laughed at. My upstairs neighbor who had lived in the building since the mid fifties died during the process of trying to get the landlord to make an appearance. After the first round I decided the case was going nowhere, the law had no interest in us, and it was clear the landlord had paid off the right people.
My decision was to flee, to start over in New York with a backpack full of hot weather clothing in the year 2002 seemed a doomed prospect so I booked a flight to Bangkok and left my job with $1,400 in my pocket and the promise of a bench to sleep on when I arrived.
The first year in Thailand, my orientation wasn’t normal. Instead of heading to Sukhumvit Road where the older expats while their days drinking beer and ogling young girls, or wallowing into the mass of back packers around Kao Sarn Road I settled in an old style stilt house directly across from Chitlrada Palace, the opulent home of the king in Bangkok, with a 33 year old Thai who had spent much of his life in Australia.
Pops was a surfer and a cook who immigrated to Sydney at fifteen to live with his sister after his parents were killed in a car crash. He could speak Thai and English but couldn’t speak either very well, his Thai being that of a subservient school boy and his English picked up and pinned together between kitchens and beaches. I don’t know why he was in Thailand, he had no money and no ambition and though he did nothing but smoke cigarettes’ and watch an old TV fade in and out between channels he seemed to get bigger and more muscular every day.
I had to work and found a job, seemingly a dream job, right away teaching art history to advanced arts and design students at a very good university. The grand ideas I had fell apart very quickly as I learned that my job was going to be more about helping rich kids write application letters to foreign university then imparting any aesthetic wisdom, no one wanted to look at the pretty pictures. So after spending all day lying about students I didn’t know I would return to our stilted hovel where Pops would be laid out smoking and asking, “ Can you pay this bill mite, she’s late already, yeah?”
Pops was no help assimilating to living in Thailand, the house was in a low income Thai neighborhood. Markets and food shops a long walk away and no other foreigners about so that I was an oddity to be committed on constantly. There was no international anything and Pops refused to teach me Thai, help me find food I could eat or locate myself in the city, the only good turn he ever did me was to introduce Pun and I.
Pun was a rich girl who had attended NYU, loved art and western guys and we fell in together right away. She quickly got me out of the University and into a position at a mining company her family owned, and out of Pops and into a cheap apartment. My job was to edit and write investment material for the companies’ potash mines in Thailand. At the time I didn’t know what Potash was, which was fine because other than going to clubs and parties and hanging out in Puns condo on the eighteenth floor of the All Seasons Tower my job was occasionally to be a young Caucasian face at various meetings; in Japan I was a geologist, in Burma a chemist.
Eventually I got out of Bangkok and headed south to help design a family retreat for Pun in the tiny beach town of Bon Sapon. This was my second year in Thailand and I still didn’t speak more than fifty words of Thai, I didn’t have to in Bangkok.
Now suddenly I was in a town of about five thousand people, supposedly directing a crew of men illiterate in their own language. It was a joke, but it wasn’t expected to be anything else. Pun had to get rid of me as she was getting married and didn’t want her perspective groom to know about me. It was arranged and out in the open, I didn’t mind, I hated Bangkok and I loved Bon Sapon, I loved the sea and being surrounded by the jungle and having a motorcycle to cruise around the small roads at break neck speeds with no helmet and no shirt, and I liked being away from all the other foreigners it made me feel like I was doing something special. The crew and I got along great since I didn’t ask them to do anything, we all lazed about, occasionally clearing some trees but mostly dozing and drinking beer in the afternoon and they taught me all the time. They taught me Thai; both the language and the culture.
This lasted for about six months until Puns father stopped the money flow, my salary as, well whatever I was, and the crews as well. The project we had never started was put on hold and we all moved on. By this time I had an idea for a business, but I needed money to start it.
On my many temporary visa trips to Burma I had found a wealth of crafts and antiques for sale at prices that seemed to low to sustain life. I had picked the town to run it from, knew the places to buy and had an importer in New York who wanted to do business. But I needed money for stock, staff and licenses, so I sold the only thing in the world I had of any value. My one possession the felonious landlord back in New York hadn’t destroyed or sold was a drawing I had stored with a friend by a famous Austrian artist and with some finagling I sold it to gallery for about $25,000.
On this nut I set up in Kanchanaburi, home of the famous death railway and the fictional bridge over the river Kwai. It was an ideal location, close enough to Bangkok for overnight visits, with a enough of a international culture of tourists and ex-pats to get most of the foreign goodies I had craved in the south but not big enough to make the place a haven for touts and crooked merchants.
I spent a lot of time travelling the small border towns of Thailand and Burma making deals with little shops and families of artisans to make or transport Lacquer wear, textiles, carved wood objects, jewelry and finely made knifes. Along the way I picked up antiques and honed my language skills out of necessity.
I ran this business for three years, vetting products, dealing with shipping nightmares and paying bribes to officials on both sides of the border until I had an offer to buy me out lock stock and barrel from a young woman in New York. I didn’t have much to sell, a web site, a list of contacts and an export number, but she was offering more money than I had ever had at one time so I did it.
After the sale I continued to deal in antiques on various internet sites, I had done a lot of research while I ran my export business and found that there was almost nothing out there on the vast web about carved catapult handles and nat figures from Burma. I also work as copywriter and editor and advisor on foreign etiquette for several local businessmen.
I still live in Kanchanburi and almost a decade since I arrived in Bangkok with a few pairs of shorts in a backpack and just over a grand in my pocket I’m still single. I’ve been everywhere in Thailand and most everywhere in the surrounding four countries. I rent a two bedroom house closed in by fruit trees and scrub jungle on a small piece of land about eight kilometers outside of the town proper that runs to $100.00 U.S. a month- water, electric and DSL included. Over the years I’ve gotten used to spiders the size of Frisbees leaping down from the ceiling, scorpions in my bed and snakes coiled in the corner of my bathroom. I’ve written three novels, countless short stories and even make money occasionally with a travel piece. I haven’t out grown riding my motorcycle at breakneck speeds up in the mountains but I wear a helmet these days. I spend a lot of time kayaking the Kwai Rivers and reading in my hammock. No one would call this luxury, money is always a concern, but freedom it is and I’ve done it on an average yearly income of no more than $10,000.
About the author: J. McMahon Esq. is an expat living along the Salween mountain range on the banks of the river Kwai where he spends his conscious time writing, brewing bath tub toddy, riding his ancient café bike through the hills and dealing with his retired racing buffalo.
His first novel The Black Gentlemen of Trong Suan is available at theblackgentlemen.com
Other links and resources for Thailand
Medical Tourism In Thailand