Readers' Submissions

Leaving Phuket



By Megalithic

In an earlier submission, I talked about some of the more memorable situations I’d been in while living in Phuket. Looking back, I think I was quite fortunate to have been there when things weren’t so developed, so commercialized and the locals weren’t so focused on the profit margins. They were great times to be in the recreational diving industry. I lost count of the number of times I dived with whale sharks, manta rays and other exotic marine animals. There was the live-aboard trips to the Similan Islands, cave diving on Phi Phi Islands and the feeling that it was all still a bit of an adventure in a still relatively unknown part of the world.

Ten to fifteen years ago, things were a bit looser than they are today. Bureaucracy hadn’t intruded, to any real extent, into our generally easy going lifestyle. As a scuba instructor, it was still possible to work, without any real fears, without a work permit. Most of us did and the Thai authorities generally took no notice. I think it was because the diving industry was a large source of income to the local economy. Any clampdown would’ve affected Thai owned and operated businesses as well. Many of us had an arrangement with the local immigration service whereby we didn’t need to travel to Malaysia on the six monthly visa run. A phone call would have one of the officers turning up at the dive centre to collect our passports and, a week later; it was back with a visa and all right stamps for a trip to Penang.

But, progress and commercialism are relentless. Somewhere along the way (about the late '90s) there was an idea being floated around that Phuket was going to be the elitist model for the rest of Thailand to aspire to. The next international playground for the wealthy of Asia. Things were changing, bureaucracy was getting tougher and, unfortunately, I was about to become a statistic of it.

People generally always want to remember only the good times, the parties, the friendships and the shared experiences. And so it was with the diving industry in Phuket. But, just like everything else, there’s the other side to the story, the side which is quite often, unpalatable.

In the late nineties I had my own scuba centre. I had a partner; we offered diving courses and ran a daily dive tour boat to the outer islands of Phuket. We were initially quite successful because we were innovative and provided diving services that no one else was doing at the time. If imitation is the highest form of a complement, then so it was with us. Other dive shops started to copy our ideas and guys that I’d trained eventually went off and opened their own businesses, offering diving services that were an exact copy of mine, only at lower rates. Some may call that the cut and thrust of business in Thailand. I call it a severe lack of originality and creativity. Thailand is full of these farangs unfortunately; the only way they survive is by guile and deception.

If you’re in business in Thailand, always be legitimate. To do otherwise, and be caught by the Thai bureaucracy, is a road into the slow spiral of doom.

I walked into my office one afternoon to find my Thai secretary entertaining three very polite and educated Thai ladies from the local tax office. She was sitting there having a friendly conversation with them and explaining, while at the same time showing them, folders of income sheets for the past two to three months. What is it we often hear about “Thai Rak Thai” before farang. With the very odd exception, I’ve actually seen nothing in the past thirteen years, which will convince me otherwise. The game was up; we’d been using a local accountant to submit tax statements which were well under our real incomings. The ladies from the tax office smiled, and politely mentioned that they’d be in touch within three months, as they disappeared out the door with my income sheets. In hindsight, and that’s a wonderful thing in Thailand, I should’ve been more security conscious. Those files should’ve been under lock and key. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. There was nothing I could do but wait. My twenty one year old secretary was unaware of the enormity of the situation. I couldn’t really blame her; she’d been hoodwinked by some very smooth operators.

In Thailand, when you’re wounded and limping, the word goes out and the scavengers gather to finish off the carcass.

Exactly three months later, the same three smiling, polite ladies were back at my office, and it wasn’t good news they were bringing. I was asked to sign a document which was completely written in Thai. I refused, stating that I wanted an English translation. The three smiling ladies quickly lost their smiles and became aggressive. I stood my ground and asked them if they would sign a document they couldn’t read. This seemed to be a concept that they had trouble understanding. There was a stalemate, a potential loss of face. I said that I’d send my driver into the tax office to pick up an English translation when they had one ready. The smiles returned and the ladies’ said they’d be in touch.

The following week we received a phone call from one of the smiling, friendly ladies at the tax office. A document had been prepared in English, please come to pick it up. My driver returned with a one sheet piece of paper in an envelope. I had a very bad feeling. When I opened the envelope, there it was, an estimate for back taxes of 650k baht. I felt sick. That amount, in real world terms, isn’t a lot of money. In Thailand however, if you’re only paying yourself forty thousand baht a month, it equates to a kick in the guts. The driver then informed me he had been told that it could be paid off over a couple of years but there was nothing official on paper telling me that. Something wasn’t right, of that I was sure. I had a fairly good idea that someone at the tax office had just plucked a figure out of the air. Tread warily; everything in Thailand is up for negotiation. I needed to find out who was in charge at the Phuket tax office.

A few days later, following a couple of phone calls by my secretary, a meeting had been arranged with the head man of the tax office. It was agreed that my partner would go to the meeting. He was English, well spoken and educated. This was later to prove a significant tactical blunder. Educated and well spoken he may have been, but he had little understanding of the concept of face and deference to people, in positions of authority, in Thailand. Fifteen minutes into the meeting, the head of the tax department had turned stoned faced. He handed my partner a scrap of paper, with the figure of 650k baht written on it, and waved him away. He was also told that the sum had to be paid within 6 months.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

A few days later, my partner boarded a flight to Singapore. He was going on a visa run. A few hours after flying out from Phuket, he calls me in a bit of a distressed state. He’s been apprehended at Changi Airport, by Singaporean Immigration, and is being detained, and questioned, by Thai Consular officials. It turns out that the both of us have had a block put on our movements out of Thailand. In typical Thai organizational ability, my partner managed to clear immigration in Phuket but was stopped at Singapore, after Thai immigration realized their slip up, and a message was relayed to Singaporean Immigration authorities, ahead of his arrival. After spending five hours being questioned, in an office at Changi Airport, he was refused entry to Singapore, and put on a flight back to Thailand. This is not something out of the STASSI or KGB files, it actually happened.

He eventually made it back to Phuket. The following morning I had my secretary ring the Phuket tax office. She spoke with the head man and once again, the message conveyed was cause for concern. I and my partner had been officially grounded in Thailand. If we tried to leave we would be apprehended at Immigration. However, if we both paid a bond of 25k baht, we were free leave Thailand. It was absurd, we owed the tax office, in their estimation, 650k baht, but if we paid our head man 50k baht, we were allowed to go. You didn’t have to be Einstein to work out what was going on here; our friend at the tax office was hedging his bets. In the worse case scenario he got 50k baht. In the best case scenario, he got 50k baht plus a cut of the 650k. Either way, we were never going to see that 50k baht again. The thing that made it even more obvious about what was going on was that, when we went to pay, it had to be in cash; a bank cheque was unacceptable.

It was time for me to make a realistic assessment of our position and of my personal situation in Thailand.

We were heading into the low season, money would be tight and there was absolutely no way we could pay off what we owed to the tax office in six months. The only option we had was to sell the business. I made an offer to my partner; either he buys me out or we sell up so we can pay off the tax office. To my surprise he quickly agreed to the idea of selling up. It seems that he wasn’t really happy living in Thailand and he wanted to go back to the U.K. From a personal perspective, I was beginning to feel the bite of reality. I’d been in Phuket for six years and had a great life style. Unfortunately, a great life style wasn’t going to feed and educate two young children. It was time for me to make a future for myself; it was time to move on.

I’ve always tried to look for the positive in everything I do, in every situation I find myself in. It’s pointless dwelling on the negatives because it clouds what might be achievable. The problem for us; it was the wrong time of year to be selling a scuba operation. Hope springs eternal though. From out of nowhere came an offer to buy us out.

He was a generous and magnanimous man. He was also very wealthy. He’d bought up, and established, a number of businesses in Patong Beach. After a couple of meetings he agreed to buy us out. It took nearly four months to finalize the deal but, in the end, I was able to clear my debt with the tax office and get on with my life.

It was the new millennium in Phuket and things were changing – not necessarily for the better – in a rapid way. There were more dive shops around than ever. Although the size of the pie wasn’t getting any bigger, the size of the slices was getting smaller. The heady days of the Asian monetary crisis were over and the exchange rate, on the baht, had dropped. Diving instructors were earning less and bureaucracy was starting to tighten its grip. Over a period of two weeks, twenty or so instructors were rounded up, at the shallow water port in Ao Chalong, and taken to the local police lockup. Some had work permits and some didn’t. It didn’t matter; the cost to be bailed out was 50k baht per person. The rumour was that an appearance in court would result in a fine of 50k baht. The bail money was taken in exchange for cancellation of the court appearance. The new Tourist Police Chief had taken his sign on bonus within the first month of his appointment.

Phuket had lost its gloss for me and it was time to go. The year 2001 ended my involvement in the recreational diving industry. I relocated to Pattaya, did some oil industry based courses in the U.K. and went to work offshore. Adversity made me stronger and more determined. Where I once struggled to make 40k baht a month, I now earn more than ten times that amount.

I would like to say that I’ve got no gripes about what occurred. I made a mistake, it was a hard lesson learned and I’ve moved on in life.

The fact is that I love Thailand and I love Thai people, if I didn’t I’d be living somewhere else by now. Corruption in beauracracy happens in all parts of the world, not just Thailand. The average Thai on the street is a good-hearted and good-natured person; far more hospitable and helpful than what you find in most western countries. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a trying situation and a Thai has helped me out, without really expecting anything in return. When I have offered money for their assistance, it’s often met with embarrassment. Look for the negative and you’ll find it in bucket loads, regardless of where you are. Treat people as you’d expect to be treated and it’s surprising how helpful they can be. I remember riding down the highway in Phuket, late one night, and the chain guard, on my motorbike, rattled loose and fouled itself in the rear wheel. It was 10:30 PM and as I was standing there, at the side of the highway wondering what my next move would be, a Thai lad pulls up on his Honda. An elderly Thai woman was a passenger on the bike. He looks at my rear wheel, pulls a tool kit out from under the seat of his bike, and goes to work on the fouled chain guard. Some on the spot panel beating and thirty minutes later, everything is up and running again. When I tried to give his grandmother two hundred baht for the lad's efforts, she was very reluctant to accept. You’ve got to ask yourself, in how many countries in the world would you find people willing to stop and help a total stranger, late at night, for the princely sum of five US dollars. I can’t think of many.

If life’s a learning curve, then I’d certainly learnt a lot during the three years, or so, that I’d been in business in Phuket. I’d also learnt a bit about the downside of being a foreigner in the LOS. Thailand is a great place to live, of that there’s no doubt but as a foreigner you always need to be mindful of your position in this country. Essentially, as a farang, you’ve got no rights. A farang can’t vote, a farang can’t own land, and a farang can only have a forty nine percent shareholding in a business. We, more often than not, have to pay more than the local rate for entry into any kind of recreation or entertainment facility. I don’t mind, I just accept it as the price I have to pay for choosing to live in Thailand. However, and there’s always a however in the LOS, I’d never consider entering into a business again in this country we have a love / hate relationship with. From a personal standpoint, I just think the emotional and physical output, in running a business in the LOS, far exceeds what you get in return. When people ask me if entering into business, in the LOS, is a good idea, I always tell them tread warily. I learnt that to do anything other than the legitimate way is a rocky road which invites attack from the merciless elements that exist in this country. I’ve learnt, and moved on in life since leaving Phuket.


Stickman's thoughts:

Many, many good points. I really enjoyed reading this submission.