A View of Life in Phuket

Living in a place like Phuket is similar to living in a place like Dubai.  Phuket, like Dubai, is primarily a holiday resort and holiday resorts are not normal places.  If you come here on holiday you will have a whale of a time, and you’ll visit the excellent but cheap restaurants, lie on the beach enjoying almost perfect weather, enjoy the numerous bars and the, erm, ever so friendly staff, and really kick back and enjoy the laid-back lifestyle which tourists assume is the same for everybody.  Seriously, it is a great place for a holiday.

But living here?  Well, that’s pretty damned good too.  If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have bought a place here.  But when tourists tell me how lucky I am and how great it must be to live here, I do offer a word of caution: it isn’t half as good as it would first appear, and if you do live here you have to keep your feet on the ground.

So what do I mean by that?  Well, same as I did when I realised it in Dubai.  Most people who you see out in Patong, the town where I live and the main tourist area of Phuket, are indeed tourists.  They are extremely positive, very happy, carefree, outgoing, and very sociable.  Of course they are, they’re tourists, and that is exactly how they should be.  In fact, it is pretty good fun meeting a small group of tourists and joining  them on a night out, because they are genuinely out to have fun.  More than a few times I’ve hooked up with a bunch of Australians in a bar while watching rugby or cricket and joined them on a tour of the bars once the match has finished.  But the tourists leave, and more arrive.  You can quite happily maintain a lifestyle of drinking and partying and a positive outlook on everything you see for 1-2 weeks of a holiday, and as Dubai showed me, you can keep it up for about 6-12 months if you live in such a place.

But if you step back and look around you realise the place is a minefield if you don’t tread carefully.  First and foremost, again like Dubai, there is not much to do but sit in a bar and drink or sit on a beach – and drink.  Fine on holiday, not so good as a permament, or semi-permanent, lifestyle choice.  Drinking through lack of anything else to do is probably the biggest killer of expats worldwide, the oil towns are great examples, and so are the expat towns of Thailand of which Patong is one.  So if you live here you have to exercise considerable discipline in staying out of the bars: buy an armful of knocked-off DVDs, buy a Playstation 3, pick up the blogging, even converse with your wife!  But you have to do something, anything, which keeps you out of the bars at least 4 nights per week.  Personally, I make sure I only go out when I am meeting somebody or there is a match on, and cap it at 2-3 nights a week of which only one of them will be a big ‘un.  I’ve seen the guys who are in the bars every day from midday onwards, and it isn’t  a pretty sight.  The bars are their lives, and I reckon there’s more to life than that.

Secondly, there is the culture gap.  The Thais are great people, generally pretty friendly, always smiling.  True, they are usually more friendly and smiling more broadly when they are trying to extract money from you, but at least they are not dishonest in their intentions.  They are in no way sleazy, which is great for the girls who visit here.  Thai men pay scant attention to western women in a sexual way, and unlike the resorts of Turkey, Egypt, and Dubai western women can walk about pretty much unmolested, unremarked, and in relative safety.  Unless they look like they’re in need of a new, fake designer handbag in which case they’ll be mobbed.  But, there is a culture gap.  Thais are not like westerners and we are not like them. We can find a common ground, and some (although few) manage to cross over into the other’s world completely, but misunderstandings are common.  Living in Thailand can be as frustrating as living anywhere else when faced with bureaucracy, petty corruption, and myriad local customs which are hard to remember let alone follow.  Of course, this makes life much more exciting and if I didn’t like it I would have stayed in the UK, but it should be understood that month after month immersed in a foreign, unfamiliar culture does have its downsides and can be very tiring and frustrating at times.  Tourists are unlikely to see this on a fortnight’s holiday.

Lastly, you need to be a little suspect of the type of people you meet here.  Dubai was known as a place full of transients where some wide-boy would turn up with a bright new idea, rip off anyone who was dim enough to fall for it, and disappear as quickly as he’d arrived.  Nobody in Dubai expected to be there very long with the result that nobody trusted anybody (there were numerous accounts of people having lent money to  a fellow expat who had pleaded “temporary” cashflow problems and promptly left without repaying the debt), and sadly when you did meet somebody decent they were gone within a few months.  Thailand is slightly different.  I get the impression that whereas Dubai was a place you pass through, an expat town in Thailand is the end of the road for many.

Now, firstly, don’t get me wrong: I have met some pretty decent fellows living in Phuket, people who have a legitimate reason to be here, a steady job, an ordinary life, and nothing to indicate a past they may be running from.  So it is important to establish that not everyone falls into the category I am about to describe.

A few decades ago, Brits who had problems at home – be they financial, business deals gone sour, falling the wrong side of the law, or marriage problems – would flee to Spain where they believed they could live a life in the sun free of the mess they had left behind.  With the advent of cheap flying and the European Union, Spain became a little too close to home and Thailand – particularly Pattaya – seems now to be the place where dodgy Brits come to escape whatever they are running from at home.  Pattaya is probably the worst place for it, but Patong has its fair share too.  Far too many people – almost always Brits, but occasionally Australians – seem unable to explain what they are actually doing here.  They mumble about vague “businesses” which are always in the process of being set up, and are usually something to do with “the internet”.  To be fair, a mate of mine here is a genuine website designer and seemingly a good one by all accounts, but the number of people who claim to be “web developers”  makes it surprising that Google hasn’t relocated its headquarters to Thailand.  Another favourite are those who are “into property”.  Development?  No.  Commercial leasing?  No.  Renting?  No.  Being paid a cash-in-hand commission for flogging apartments or timeshares on behalf of somebody else? Yes.  See here.  Another common answer is “My mate/relative owns a bar, and I help him with that”, presumably by sitting in it and guzzling half the liquid inventory each night.

You can spot these folk a mile off.  You can’t spend 7 years as an expat Brit and not be able to spot which of your fellow countrymen are on the hustle.  I met one chap a couple of months ago, who was “into property”.  For over an hour he would not shut up about how great life was here, how much money he was making, how well he fitted in, how well he knew everyone, and how he had just sold four apartments that very afternoon.  But before the night was over he was asking for money to get his car fixed.  Almost all of them are on tourist visas.  None of them has a proper job.  All of them without exception have a Thai girlfriend who moved in about a week after they first met, who is always, always, different from any other.  Much smarter, this one. Yeah, not like the others.

So, as a public service, here’s how to spot a chancer in Patong:

1.  Ask them what they do.  If the answer is anything other than a clear, precise, and unambiguous statement indentifying a valid occupation,  then they’re a chancer who is doing odd jobs for cash.  Answers such as “This and that” or “I have a few irons in the fire” means they are probably unemployed and scrounging money off somebody to get by.

2.  Do they go on about how great life is in Thailand, more than is necessary?  Do they exaggerate how great their own life is?  They’re trying to convince themselves, not you.  Chancer.

3.  Do they take pains to emphasise they are not a tourist and come out with phrases like “I’m almost a local, me”?  Some people who have been here a couple of months, learn five words of Thai, hook up with a local girl and accompany her to a food stall a couple of times suddenly think they’ve crossed some formidable cultural barrier which affords them a different status to any other expat.  Unfortunately, almost every expat here has done exactly the same thing.  Those special places he knows where “expats don’t know it, only Thais go there”?  Any idiot can walk in, and there are a million of them.  Chancer, who wouldn’t know cultural acceptance if it came up and bit him on the arse.

4.  Ask them how long they’ll stay here, what their long term plans are.  Anyone legitimate will give you a clear and sensible answer.  A chancer will say things like “I’ll see how things work out”, things which are never identified, and “Why would I ever want to leave here?”, sweeping his arm around to indicate the inside of a grubby bar full of fat, tattooed, drunken expats with a smattering of haggard looking local women standing idly around.

5.  Try to determine what he did back in the UK and what remains of his life there.  In all likelihood, between snippets of conversation and poorly-veiled allusions, you’ll be able to piece together a trail of baggage running back to when he first hit adulthood.  They’ll be at least one ex-wife who cleaned him out in the divorce and a couple of kids he never sees and maybe an ex-Thai wife who fleeced him, taking the little house he paid for, the scooter, and the kid he thinks he fathered.  The time between the Thai wife leaving him and his present girlfriend (the one with the designer handbag) moving in was about two weeks, but he’s learned his lesson, oh yes.  Never again.  Chancer.

6.  Is he permanently bashed up from umpteen motorbike accidents, limping about in the bars on a bandaged ankle or sporting huge road-rash scabs down his arms and legs?  A lot of people come off scooters here, and the sensible ones learn to ride the things slowly and defensively.  One or two accidents might be unavoidable, more than that indicates somebody is riding about drunk too often.  And the chancers love to ride scooters around blind drunk, it saves them paying for a tuk-tuk.

And that is how you spot a chancer in Thailand.

Now, there exists an excellent book by Steven Leather called Private Dancer, and it is available for free download here (minus the epilogue).  It is the story of a British expat who falls in love with a Thai prostitute in Bangkok, and unlike similar stories told from personal experience this is a work of fiction written by a professional and established writer which is so accurate in its depiction that it is a must read for anybody spending time in Thailand.  Easy to read, entertaining, and informative I can highly recommend it, and some of the observations made are as acute as can be found anywhere.  One which particularly caught my attention was the description of a certain type of expat who comes to live in Thailand:

[A] group who tend to marry Thai girls are expats who say they live here. You’ll meet them all the time in the bars of Bangkok and Pattaya. They sit there with a thick gold chain around their thick neck and a mobile phone clipped to their belt and talk about Thailand being their home. But when you get to know them, you discover that the bulk of them are actually long-term sex tourists, working at jobs that do little more than cover their living (and screwing) costs. English teachers, bar owners, website designers, scuba instructors. Anyone serious about any of those professions wouldn’t be working in Thailand. A teacher of English as a foreign language can earn several times a Thai salary working in the States or Europe. Website designers abroad make a good living, here it’s thirty or forty thousand baht a month at best. Magazine subeditors here earn a fifth of the salary they’d get back in the States. Freelance journalists have to live like paupers to survive. These men aren’t here for the money, they’re here for the sex.

Unfortunately, some of them are not only here for the sex.  Many former criminals, gangsters, and football hooligans from the UK have moved to Thailand to escape either the law or retribution from other criminals, although most of these head for Pattaya rather than Phuket (the former being much cheaper and the bars and women more plentiful).  Occasionally you hear stories of a property deal gone bad and somebody getting bashed up at the hands of some thug who has a record of organised crime in the UK, and my advice to British police wishing to apprehend somebody who has fled the country is to jump on the next plane to Pattaya, hang around a few bars, and wait for your man to walk in.  Pattaya has a reputation of being a dangerous place where a lot of expats meet a sticky end, and the term “flying farang” was coined for those who leaped or were pushed out of high-rise buildings.  But as a friend of mine, who has recently bought an apartment in Patong, pointed out, the type of people who are turning up in Pattaya are often on the run from the law, criminals, business deals gone wrong, or problems they cannot deal with at home.  Suicides and murders are always going to be high in the place where the UK’s chancers, sex-pests, con-artists, and criminals come to live out their days, and it is not necessarily a reflection of the danger an ordinary tourist or expat would face in Pattaya.

But Patong is not Pattaya, and it is far more quiet and respectable hence the premium of property and living here.  But there are enough stories of expats getting killed or stabbed either by Thais or other expats to keep you on your toes, although in almost all cases – with the exception of a few standard robberies gone wrong – these are not mere attacks on innocents.  Now our condominium block is generally full of respectable people, about half of whom are owners and the rest renting.  I’ve met pretty much all of them, and I think we’re pretty lucky in whom we have as neighbours.  One of the renters who moved in a month or so back is a huge Mancunion with a tribal tattoo stretching from his neck to the wrist of one arm.  I spoke to him a few times, he seemed pleasant enough albeit not typical of who we get in our condominium, although I could never figure out what he was actually doing here and why.  But I’ll come back to him in a minute.

A couple of months ago I met another big Mancunion in a popular bar in Patong’s Bangla Road, a chap from Wythenshawe who appeared to be either under the influence of drugs or so addled by past use that he couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds.  Another who couldn’t seem to account for his presence in Thailand, he sported an enormous, ugly scar across his face which was, apparently, the result of a “business” disagreement he had with some Thais.  That he was trouble was obvious enough, and this was confirmed when I heard he had ripped off some Australian tourists in a drug deal a bit later.  A little more later I heard he had bashed a tourist’s head into a wall.  Anyway, one of the times I saw this chap in the bar he had with him a young, slim Welshman from a rough-arse town in the valleys, who was bashed up from a motorbike accident, was boasting of how he had got in a fight with some Frenchmen the previous day, and looked like somebody who would be pretty handy in a boxing ring.  He too seemed to have trouble concentrating on anything for more than a few seconds, and apparently he is living here because his father owns a couple of bars.

At some point I heard from the Mancunion with the tattoo who lives in my block that he’d met the Mancunion with the scarred face and shared a few beers, but he didn’t indicate they were friends as such.  This morning I heard that the police and the local mafia were banging on the door of the tattooed Mancunion’s apartment, which appears to be deserted, because he had apparently slashed the throat of the young Welshman from ear to ear, putting him in hospital in a serious condition.

Still, the weather’s nice.

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3 Responses to A View of Life in Phuket

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  2. BearBait says:

    ” First and foremost, again like Dubai, there is not much to do but sit in a bar and drink or sit on a beach and drink. Fine on holiday, not so good as a permament, or semi-permanent, lifestyle choice. ” But a lifestyle choice worth dipping into and trying to perfect – at least for the Oily masses in Lounge 8….

  3. Pingback: White Sun of the Desert » More Shite Music Played Loud

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