So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish
I finally did it. I pulled the trigger and came back home, Thailand and me are done!
Do I feel any animosity toward Thailand and the Thais? Not so much to be honest, we all ultimately have our different reasons for choosing to live in the country and if it was all that bad then many of us would not have stayed as long.
Is it me who changed, or is it Thailand that has changed? Probably a combination is at play here, certainly I have changed and have grown as a person but there is little to no doubt that Thailand has certainly changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse.
What follows is my personal story about why I have chosen to leave the land of smiles. I don’t claim to speak for anyone and I don’t claim to have all the answers.
What is “Home”?
Often it is said that “home is where the heart is” and there is little doubt in my mind that the majority of us on this site have at least a part of our heart in Thailand. But this is merely a romantised notion of home and the facts are that this will never truly be home, deep down we all know this.
To become a Thai citizen is near impossible, the likelihood of any of us attaining this are slim to none at best. Even if we were to become a Thai citizen we would never be seen to be Thai, it would never cross the mind of a Thai that someone of European descent would ever be Thai no matter how long they have stayed in the country and no matter their grasp of the language or culture.
If I had immigrated to virtually any European country, New Zealand, Australia or North America based on the length of time I have been in Thailand I would surely have been a citizen by now. Perhaps even in those countries I would never be seen as a full-blooded national but my citizenship would allow me the same rights and privileges as someone who was born and raised in the country.
Being in my mid-30’s and running out of time to qualify for entry into a first world country (I am South African), it struck me as a now or never time to leave the country.
There have been many magical moments where I have enjoyed a drink while watching the sunset and have been completely captivated by the beauty of Phuket where I spent the majority of my time. It was truly awe-inspiring at times but these moments were few and far between.
Ultimately when you are living in Thailand you need to be making money and work takes precedence. When you finally come to this realization you find yourself just wanting to go home and rest after working 6 days a week and over 9 hours a day.
Saturday nights may be spent having some drinks with your friends but Sunday for me personally was always a rest day, I had no interest in going out at exploring the island after a while as I just did not have the energy.
I came to the realization that I could be based literally anywhere in the world with similar working conditions and be paid a heck of a lot more. I lived in London for a year in my youth, it was a similar situation there as well. It may seem like a big city full of different things to do, but when you live anywhere you develop a routine based around where you live and work and Thailand is no different.
When you are a tourist you have 2 to 3 weeks to really take in your surroundings, work is not a factor and money generally is neither. You are free to explore, and explore you do.
So often we as tourists are sitting on the beach and staring out at the sunset and think “I need to move here, life is perfect”. Through tourist eyes it does seem that way, but once you live in a place it merely becomes “just another place”.
Stuck in a Rut
Back home I was a go-getter! I remember arranging meetings, hustling and always having to be on edge as the competition was fierce. My work colleagues like me all had high level degrees and board meetings would be animated to say the least. Great ideas would come out of brainstorming sessions and the owner would often have consultants and guest speakers in to help us develop.
I have a more than unique perspective I believe, I have lived and worked in Chiang Mai, Phuket, Koh Samui and Bangkok. I have also been an employer, an employee and a consultant.
Possibly the most daunting prospect for a new manager is gaining the respect of the Thai staff. When you are a business owner respect is automatic in my experience. You are “the boss” and even if they snigger behind your back they will do as they are told generally speaking, there are of course cases in which this does not happen.
I think the respect you get as “the boss” is due to the fact they assume you have money as you have purchased a business. When you are “the manager” it will always take a few months for them to warm to you and to respect you, if you are like me and are extremely competent in your field the process can hasten but if they see you have limited knowledge and spend most of your time “on the piss” you will never command the respect that is necessary to move the business in the right direction.
There are two terms you need to familiarize yourself with when you are merely a fellow employee – “Sabai” and “Sanook”. Make sure you don’t go in with a hammer and don’t belittle your team in front of other staff members, it’s a one way ticket to a “go slow”. A go slow is very simply when the staff do the least amount of work possible, enough not to get fired but just enough so the owner takes notice and that is when the complaints about your management style will reach their ear.
“Sanook” is a vital part of the game. I incentivized staff through sales competition, upsell competition and other games that they really enjoyed. I would also ensure that every quarter they were taken for moo-kata (Thai BBQ) and remember this golden rule, always allow them to have their meals together and not separately. I know this is a headache in the service industry but community meals are vital for their mental well-being, and I cannot stress this enough. If you follow these golden rules even a lack of knowledge will get your staff on your side.
But I digress, I often felt that I was losing my edge as the job was frankly easy and although there was need to innovate and try different things if you have a Thai boss or a long term expat- forget about it!
A Thai business owner and this ties into my point regarding consultation work can be the ultimate headache. My experience with Thai business owners was without doubt the hardest experience I had to endure. They simply do not want to listen to any advice as they seem to know everything better. I would often show P&Ls and various performance metrics as evidence that certain things needed to be changed yet they would always refuse.
An old adage in business that has always served me well is – turnover = vanity, profit = sanity but cashflow = reality. In an industry that is so affected by seasonality you would think the message would be clear and that certain cost cutting measures would be put in place? Every low season it was the same, either borrowing money or selling off of assets in order to sustain themselves until the high season hit. I explained time and again that building up a nest egg would not only cover costs during the low season but would also present unique acquisition opportunities during the difficult periods. Yet these business owners are often drawing 400K – 500K a month out of the business to keep their face and sustain what will ultimately be proven to be an unsustainable lifestyle.
I experienced the above in my role as a consultant as well as a manager and with foreign owners as well as Thai. I feared that staying in this environment would limit my professional growth and frankly it was taking its toll on me mentally, it is one of the major reasons why I chose to leave.
I will never be able to own land in Thailand, that is just a fact. Sure I can set up a company and use proxies to get around it, yes there are long term leases for 30 years and yes if I setup a BOI company I can own land through that but I will never have a piece of land with a house and a white picket fence that will ever truly be mine.
Not that I am ready for the 2½ kids and a dog named Rover but it is ultimately something that I may want in the future and something that I will never truly have. Of course putting it in the wife’s name would be an option but that would mean I would have to marry a Thai, perhaps I would want to settle down with another person? These are things I simply do not have to worry about in other countries.
Following on the above, the next reason I chose to leave was due to business opportunities. If you are in IT, tech or manufacturing then I think Thailand can present some unique opportunities. However I am in hospitality and in the current climate it is not likely that I can build a long term and sustainable business without a hefty investment.
Further to this you never really own a business as a foreigner, do you? The 51/49 rule will always be there and although there are ways around this such as the nominee system you are often left vulnerable to the whims of the Thai judicial system should issues arise.
I think back to an Italian friend who rented a hotel and was arrested by immigration for making a cup of coffee behind the counter as he was not “legally” allowed to do this. I think back to a Swedish friend whose Thai delivery driver had called in sick, he was forced to do the delivery himself but was stopped by the police after which he was told what he was doing was illegal and the vehicle was to be impounded unless a heavy “fine” was settled which of course it was. Again, in most Western countries you would be hard-pressed to find someone who had a work permit and visa arrested for making a cup of coffee or driving a vehicle and even if it was the case there would be some form of due process.
The foreigners I have known to have “made it” in Thailand either arrived at the right time (pre-boom) and rode the wave, have a passive overseas income which can support them during tough periods for the business or came here with a lot of money to invest in the right projects and were lucky enough to find the right people to work with them. Think for yourself how many people you have known to have done well in Thailand versus the ones who have lost everything, I think you know the difference is substantial.
The final issue is the exorbitant rentals especially in Phuket. You are hard-pressed to find a suitable location where there is enough foot traffic and should you find an ideal location the rental and the key money mean you have little chance of success particularly as the market is extremely seasonal. Of course it is doable but when I look at my negotiations with landlords in my home country you feel as if you are in a partnership with the landlord rather than it being adversarial in nature such as it is with Thai landlords.
Again the notion of face rears its ugly head as you will often find landlords rather seeing their building being empty than lower the rent to a level that can be a win : win for both parties. Again these are my observations and there will always be those who will have success but what is certain is that it will come at a price and with a high degree of risk associated with it. Which leads me to my next point and something that ties in with my reluctance to living in Thailand.
An aspect that has seen dramatic change in my experience that is undeniable is the change in demographic, particular the rise of China as a key player in the tourism market. This will not change and will long continue.
There are those who will mention that visitors of certain nationalities are still up significantly but is this really the case? In order for me to operate in Thailand and live comfortably I need a Western customer base, it’s simple – I understand this market and can relate to them. A Western market creates Western services and by proxy Western expats.
Like I always do, I did my research and the outcome was plain to see. First we cannot look at growth rates in Thailand as a standalone, we need to benchmark it against global travel trends.
Based on global international tourist arrivals the market has grown by 38% from 2008 – 2018. I then looked at same growth rate comparisons for the primary Western markets and compared the two. The results speak for themselves:
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As you can see there has indeed been a drop in core Western markets during this decade when measured against global tourism trends. The fact is that Thailand is no longer the exotic destination it once was and is no longer a cheap holiday, for Brits in particular sunny Spain which is closer and in some ways cheaper than a place like Phuket holds far more value for their tourism spend.
But Thailand expects to have nearly 80 million tourists by 2030, where will this massive increase in numbers come from if not Western? Again we should look at growth markets and compare them to global travel trends.
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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is heading. The numbers clearly speak for themselves and with cheap flights continually opening and the fact that most of the world’s population is within a 6-hour flight shows clearly that there will indeed be massive growth within the Thai tourism market.
What did concern me however; the difference between the markets in terms of GDP per capita. The Western nations have 64% higher purchasing power than the 4 trending growth markets, basically for every Western customer you would need 3 customers from these emerging markets.
The problem is that as more Chinese, Russian and Indian customers arrive what will invariably happen is that there will be a decline in Western customers who will no longer feel that this is “their” holiday destination.
For every Western visitor who decides to look elsewhere they will need to replace them with 3 from these emerging markets, this puts additional stress on infrastructure and we have seen this in Phuket recently with the island running out of water.
More hotels are being built to accommodate this massive influx of tourists and a massive strain is being put on natural resources throughout the country, when your cost of acquisition is essentially 3 to 1 it is inevitable this will be the case. Further strains on resources will in all likelihood diminish the natural environment and it could very well be a case of paradise lost for many parts of the country unless great care is put into creating a sustainable growth model, but greed will always win ultimately in this country.
Expect within the next decade to see the majority of signs in Mandarin and expect to see a changing profile of expat with far more Chinese long-termers. If you are able to speak Mandarin and are looking for a job, look no further than Thailand – there are many businesses that have this as a prerequisite these days.
For me personally I don’t seek to learn Mandarin and have no real interest in Chinese culture and thus I knew I would become completely obsolete within Thailand in the very long-term and it was yet another factor that made my decision for me.
The Thai and Western relationship, be it intimate or platonic, is one that is far more complex than meets the eye. There are times where you think you have cracked the code and understand the cultural nuances needed to have a fulfilling relationship but more often than not many long term expats concede that there is only one thing that they can know for sure about Thailand, that they know nothing.
I have been in a relationship with a woman for going on 6 years now, but if I had to benchmark my relationship with others in my country or a Western country I would compare it to being a sole proprietor versus being in a partnership. My girlfriend does not work and although her qualifications aren’t near as high as mine I still cannot help but think that she should contribute more, I have made it clear to her that if she was to move to my country I would expect her to find some form of work.
I have at times thought I had Thai friends but most of the time these were very superficial relationships, where they thought they were able to get something out of me rather than a friendship being based on mutual interest. After nearly a decade there I can say that I only truly have one Thai friend and the reason for this friendship was mainly because he is extremely Western.
If you had to see me walk down the road you would assume I had a ton of Thai friends, many people know me and I am happy to engage and talk with them. But these are acquaintances more than friendships. Friendship is where you know someone has your back and I highly doubt if push comes to shove any of these people would ever have my back.
The fact is that we are very low generally speaking on the list of importance to your average Thai. Family will always come before you and you will never be fully seen as a member of the family no matter how much they tell you this is the case. A good friend who fell on financial hard times found this out the hard way, when the money ran out his “Thai family” all of a sudden were not in contact as much.
Again there are cases where this does not happen and may people have found long lasting and fulfilling relationships, this just wasn’t the case for me and if it didn’t happen in just under a decade I find it highly unlikely it will happen any time in the near future.
The visa issues were another major red flag for me – remember I am thinking long term here as well. Having a work permit and visa means you are good to go, but if you plan on staying for the long term and have no path to citizenship one day you will need to qualify for a retirement visa and these are becoming harder to come by.
I have a theory as to why the visa situation has become a particular difficulty now. Perhaps I am wrong but let me explain my rationale and thought process.
Everything in Thailand no matter how significant or insignificant has to do with money and its relationship with power. Protectionism for the business elite in the country is a way of life, take vaping for example. The reason vaping has been banned in Thailand is purely to protect the tobacco barons – nothing to do with health concerns.
I think it is not outside the realm of possibility that the “Thailand Elite” visa program has some very powerful people behind it and perhaps these visa crackdowns are all a way to ensure that foreigners finally give up and buy a package. Whenever there is something confusing about always follow the money and I truly do believe that the current visa problems have a lot to do with this program.
Maybe I need to take off my tin foil hat but is it really outside the realm of possibility? I thought about purchasing an elite program membership and then decided against it, another thing that is not outside the realm of possibility is the Thai government cancelling the program all together and me being stuck with a card I have no use for.
There were a host of reasons as to why I finally chose to pull the trigger and leave but the main reasons are outlined above. Remember this is my unique perspective as a mid 30’s South African male in the hospitality industry, so these thoughts above will likely not apply to many of you who choose to make Thailand your home.
If I had to give advice to any young tourist that wants to make Thailand his home I would tell him to stay as a tourist as that way the magic never dies, to save his money and work to get to a stage where he has enough monthly passive income to move to Thailand without risk being destitute. You will always need an escape plan and god forbid you find yourself in a situation where your health or financial status is in question you will quickly find the smiles turn to frowns and discover that it can be an extremely lonely country.
Will I miss Thailand? Of course I will! But as you get older you realize that a place is nothing but a moment in time, memories that you can hold onto for the rest of your life and Thailand to me was set of very memorable moments and it is now time to build new memories.
I will miss the weather, the ease of living and the few true friendships that were formed during period of hardships. And of course I will miss the food and it is with that I say to Thailand – so long, and thanks for all the fish.