Month: August 2014

Five Years In Thailand

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Five years ago, I was unemployed with few prospects. The US economy was in the dumper. My children were grown and had moved away and I’d recently ended a long term relationship.

I sat home, feeling a little sorry for myself. What the hell was I going to do? After some soul searching, I decided to roll the dice and cash out. Sell the house and everything I owned, say goodbye to friends and family, and retire…somewhere.

Looking back, it was the right thing to do at the right time. It was the perfect storm of circumstances. No job, children gone, no relationship, what was keeping me there? The roots ran deep in my hometown. It was where I raised my kids. I did a lot of youth coaching. I knew a lot people. I couldn’t walk down the street without running into friends.

It was a hard decision. Maybe, the hardest I’ve ever made. Retire and move half way around the world? Very few people could make that same decision and it’s a shame. It shouldn’t be that tough. Stay where you are and struggle or go for a life in paradise? I think we’re just afraid of change. I’ve learned something in these last few years. Change is good…very good.

I owned my home for 15 years and with appreciation, had significant equity. I needed every penny I could get out of it. I baked cookies every time someone came to see it and it sold in a few weeks.

Now the hard part, getting rid of 25 years of accumulated “stuff”. I never thought of myself as a pack rat, but there was a load of stuff. Furniture, clothes, office equipment, tools, appliances, all had to go. Let the garage sales begin! I’m a musician so cherished guitars and keyboards went on Craig’s List and eBay. What I couldn’t sell, I gave away or tossed and I tossed a lot.

I promised myself that I would never accumulate “stuff” again. It’s a plan, but difficult to stick to. Every time I move now, I’m amazed at how much more “stuff” I’ve acquired. When I buy something I ask, “Do I really need this?” Still, stuff accumulates. A car, motorbikes, musical instruments, TVs, furniture, clothes, computers, I agonized over buying a blender! It was a good move. I start every day with a mango smoothie, now.

The “stuff” cleansing process took months, but I did it. The day after the sale of the house was completed, I left on a one way ticket to Phuket, Thailand. I had all my belongings with me in a suitcase and a guitar. Looking back five years later, moving to Thailand was the best decision I’ve ever made.

What have I learned in these last five years? I’ve learned that the United States is not the center of the universe. I’m still a news junky, but I care more about what’s happening here around me. Thailand has its own brand of interesting crazy politics.

I’ve learned to love the unique Thai culture. I’ve traveled all over Thailand and it is amazing. I live in a Muslim beach community. I’m married to a Thai woman. I’m part of her family, the farang. Families are very close here. They take care of each other. They make sure you’re fed.

The most important thing I’ve learned is to lower my expectations. I think it’s the key to happiness, here in the Land of Smiles. Things happen here at a frustrating pace, everything on “Thai time”. If a repairman says he’ll be here Tuesday at 10 am, Thursday afternoon is good enough. I consider getting anything done an achievement. The key to happiness here in paradise? Remember, lower your expectations.

I’m a very happy man. A beautiful Thai wife, many friends, a quiet life beside a beautiful tropical beach. I can’t imagine a better life.

Lower your expectations a little and join me in paradise.

Thai Girls and the Game

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The game is the adult entertainment industry. Social life often revolves around the bar scene here in the Land of Smiles. It’s where one goes to meet friends, hoist a few and maybe find some companionship. Every bar has its bargirls. They serve drinks and will be happy to spend time talking with you. Buy them a drink and chat her up, instant companionship. They’re in the game. Girls make money having customers buy them drinks. The price of the drink is split between the bar and the girl.

One may decide to take the girl home, if she agrees. You’ll need to pay a bar fine of $15 to the bar and then pay the girl between $30 and $60 ($45 average) for an intimate frolic. The amount may vary with the girl and whether it will be for a short time (a couple of hours) or long time (for the night).

This is part of life in LOS. It’s meant to spice up life, not be the center of it. Some of the girls are sweet and looking for a life partner and some are black hearted thieves. Some of the most beautiful ones aren’t even woman, but ladyboys (or katoys, as they are known in Thai).

Unfortunately, the stories are all to frequent of men losing their minds and everything else to one of these girls. Thai girls play the game harder than you can even imagine. If you’re going to walk the bargirl plank, have your eyes wide open.

New Zealand Phil’s take on the game: Most of these girls become bargirls because they want more money, not because they cannot live back in the village on what they can earn, because millions of girls do, but because having more money and better things in life is what they want. In knowing perhaps 100 bargirls working here, I only know two who have had to work because they are absolutely destitute or had lost the farm because of debts.

Consider the life of a factory worker in Thailand. The average job in Thailand pays about 10,000 baht a month ($300). She works six days a week, 12 hours a day. If needed, she’s required to work that seventh day and she’s paid overtime. That’s between 72 hours and 84 hours a week for under $400 a month. Is it any wonder that it’s a dream of so many girls to find a rich farang to take care of her?

Girls who were working 12 hours for $10 a day are now drinking, playing bar games and chatting up farangs who will take them back to their hotel room for $50. They do that 20 times a month they make $1000 a month. That’s an unheard amount for a poor Thai girl. That’s as much as a Thai Doctor makes!

Phil continues: Becoming a bar girl is not seen as something which is totally wrong, but is seen as acceptable if indeed it brings money back to the family. In addition, because of the lax moral attitudes of Thai society, families in the villages turn a blind eye to the occupation of these girls when they return home. Money rules in Thailand. A few girls return home rich or maybe even with a farang who builds them a house and gives them a car. The poor farm girl is now the wealthiest person in the village. This encourages other girls to give the bar scene a try. Many girls return broke and mentally damaged. Thais are generally willing to overlook those involved in the game as long as things are done with discretion. Prostitution in Thailand, while widespread, only employs a tiny percentage of Thai women. This is a conservative society, but sexual mores are much different than the West.

It’s no secret that many Western guys marry Thai women who were once employed as bargirls or the term we don’t like to use, prostitutes. Sometimes the relationships work, more often than not, they don’t. “You can take the girl out of the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of the girl,” is a well known saying. A lot of Western men become smitten with bargirls. They’re beautiful, easy to meet, sweet and willing to treat a man like a king. Men fall for them and a relationship develops. The problem is, the relationship is always going to be about the money. Girls in the game have long ago forgot what a relationship is suppose to be about. Bargirls are often professional liars and can easily manipulate the poor, unsuspecting, doe eyed farangs. Ideally a bargirl is looking for sponsorship; men who will send them money regularly to maintain a relationship. This is, of course, insane and men are stupid, but a new potential victim arrives every day.

The vast majority of Thai women work outside the nightlife industry and would be aghast at the thought of being involved in it or going to bed with a man for money. In my opinion, stay away from a relationship with someone in the game. There are so many beautiful Thai women who would love a relationship with a Westerner. You can have a favorite bargirl, in fact buy them all drinks! They’re great fun to talk and joke with, but think long and hard about moving one in. There is a saying, “You don’t pay them to come home with you, you pay them to leave.”

How often have I heard heard, “She’s different?” Take the advice of many who still lick their deep wounds, SHE’S NOT DIFFERENT.

Thailand Beliefs – Buddhism, Islam, Superstition and Ghosts

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Thailand is 95% Buddhist and the rest are mostly Muslims. There are more Muslims in South Thailand. Kamala Beach, where I live, is a mostly Muslim village. I’m surrounded by Muslims. They’re sober, quiet and very nice people; never an issue except the loud calls to prayer six times a day.

There is often random violence in the southern border areas by militant Muslims bent on a separatist movement. They want to be part of Malaysia. Malaysia doesn’t want any part of them. It’s been going on for a long time and living here in Phuket, we’re untouched by it. Conflict between Buddhists and Muslims is nonexistent throughout the rest of Thailand.

Buddhism is not an evangelistic religion, so there is no pressure to convert people. It is more a belief system based around improving yourself rather than trying to change other people. The Buddha is not worshiped as a god. Buddhism does not involve belief in a supreme being and this is why many classify it as an atheist belief system. The purpose of kneeling in front of the Buddha in Thailand temples is to remind people of the Buddha’s teachings and to show respect for their teacher.

Buddhism originated in India over two and a half thousand years ago. As it moved to different countries it took on slightly different forms. The branches of Buddhism tend to be more about differences in emphasis rather than differences in belief and it never leads to conflict. It would be very difficult to describe Thai Buddhism succinctly. Theravada Buddhism is the flavor here. Many scholars argue that the actual religion of most Thai people is not Theravada Buddhism, but “ghost” worship.

Most Thais believe in ghosts or what they call phi. Before there was any mention of the Buddha in Thailand, there was phi. There are many types of phi, some only are popular in certain regions. One surprising thing is that most Thai ghosts are female. Some of the phi that are part of most Thai communities include:
1) Phi Am which causes pain to internal organs
2) Phi Krasi which likes to eat entrails and is associated with dirty floors and the night
3) Phi Ka which possess women and can be warded off with the gifts of eggs
4) Phi Phrai who are the spirits of women who have died in childbirth and who enchant men
5) Phi Pop which are extremely violent female ghosts which devour men and haunt whole villages
6) Phi Tai Ha which spreads malaria
7) Phi Nangtani which is benevolent and feeds monks.

When a Thai baby is born and people come to see the new little darling, they will invariably remark, “Ugly baby”. They do this because if phi hears that there is a new beautiful baby, they will possess the child. The Thais are a very superstitious lot.

All this phi craziness can be very trying for the logical western man (farang). Simply accept it and don’t waste your breath trying to talk a Thai out of their belief in ghosts. It’s like trying to talk a born again Christian out of Jesus.

Every year a rumor gets started that there is going to be another tsunami on a certain day and it spreads like wildfire. Everybody hears the rumor. I explained to my beautiful, intelligent wife that it’s impossible to predict a Tsunami. She remains wary. You have to be able to predict an earthquake for one thing and no one has ever done that. I point out that a tsunami like the one in 2004 happens maybe, once every hundred years. Thais have left Phuket in droves in the past fearful of the tsunami. They leave many businesses shorthanded for staff. Throw logic out the window when you arrive here. Thais are a superstitious lot.

I’ve attended many Buddhist services. There are many similarities with a Christian service, all very ritualistic. Shaven headed monks draped in orange sarongs lead the service. People worshiping together is a heartening experience. For the farang…boring. Thai chanting gets that way after a while. I go because my wife wants me to go. She’ll cook food, buy some drinks or other small gifts and place them on a tray and present them as an offering during the service. The crowd is mostly women. There is young and old, but it seems to be a middle aged crowd. Everyone is kneeling on mats, I’m sitting in a chair off to the side with old basketball knees. My wife is so beautiful as she prays to Buddha. I take in the vibrant colors and the humanity. I discreetly take out my phone and check football scores.

Buddhism is about self-improvement. Buddhism doesn’t worship a god. I can hang with Buddhism. If you’re of a spiritual bent, Buddhism offers fascinating possibilities for self-awareness. Buddhists should understand the difference between reality and self-delusion. One should understand the nature of cause and effect, how actions now will have implications not only in the short term, but in the long term. One should understand that desire and attachment create weakness. Finally, one should practice respect for others if one hopes to gain others’ respect. Despite being agnostic, I have great respect for the teachings of Buddha. He once said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason.” You’re not going to hear that kind of thing coming from another religion, certainly not Christianity. Google “Buddha quotes” and you’ll find a treasure trove of inspirational thoughts.

Rebirth (reincarnation) has always been an important tenet in Buddhism. Thais think of death differently than Western people. The sea that surges, falls, and resurges, is the life that is born, dies, and is reborn again. No heaven, no hell…hey, Imagine.

The temperament of the people and the culture of Thailand are wrapped together through Buddhism. “Buddha will provide” is instilled in the psyche of the people. Thais live their lives differently because of Buddhism. It makes Thailand a very different and special place. One can debate whether it’s better, but it’s certainly different.

The Thailand Retirement Budget

Money

There isn’t one budget for expats because everyone is different. Let’s looks at the costs of the major expenditures in everyone’s budget: housing, food, utilities, transportation, medical and entertainment expenses. Phuket, where I live, and Bangkok are the most expensive areas to live in Thailand. Every expense across the board is probably 20% higher than living in Northern Thailand. These are estimates of budget costs in Phuket.

Housing
Let’s assume you’re renting. Non-Thais can’t own land here, so most expats rent.

You can rent a spacious villa with a sea view for $1500 a month and up. You can live like a millionaire for $2500 a month with a big house and pool. Renting a nice little two bedroom house, you’re probably looking in the $400 range. It depends on what area you want to live. On the beach, it’s going to be more, maybe a lot more.

If you’re single, don’t cook and only need a room, prices start in the $250 a month range. I know many people who live comfortably just renting a room. They eat at inexpensive food stalls and don’t want anything bigger. Lifestyle and pocketbook decisions are the determining factor here.

Food
Food in Thailand is delicious and inexpensive, if you eat Thai food. My favorite food at a little Thai restaurant is duck curry over rice, $1.60. Noodle soup with chicken is $1. If I go down to the pub and have a burger with fries it’s $5. A pizza is $8. If you’re eating Thai food at the average restaurant, you’re paying half the cost of farang food. It isn’t hard to find western food, but it’s generally not as good as what you would expect to receive at home. Anything that’s imported is significantly higher. I’ve found adequate Italian restaurants. Local beef isn’t very good. If you want a good steak, you buy imported beef and it’s expensive. I don’t eat that much beef anymore.

I eat mostly fresh Thai food prepared at home. We go to the open air markets a couple times a week. This would be similar to a farmers market with different stalls for meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. There are also supermarkets just like in the West. You can also buy in bulk at stores similar to Costco. All the staples are available, but the quality that I see at home, isn’t there. I really miss heirloom tomatoes, for example. Tomatoes are tasteless. I’ve never had sweet corn here. Bread leaves a lot to be desired. Thais don’t eat much bread. You can get a loaf of bread anywhere, but you have to find a farang bakery to get good bread. We bake our own. I have to search for peanut butter. A can of pork and beans is 25% higher. Cheese is a sad story. Wine is a sadder story.

Utilities
I pay about $15 a month for electricity. The biggest expense on utilities comes from air conditioning. Everyone uses fans. If I had the air conditioner on all the time I wouldn’t be surprised if the bill was $125 a month. Thailand is warm, humid and downright hot often. I’ve gotten used to it. Some homes need to be air conditioned. It all depends upon location and personal preferences. My water bill is $7 a month. Internet runs around $25 a month. Many places will include it in the rent. I buy the cheapest cable TV connection because I don’t watch much TV, but my girl does. We get all the Thai channels and a couple of English channels for $10 a month. The most expensive cable options that include HBO, Sports and movie channels is $55 a month.

A new Honda Click motorbike is $1700. You can pick up a used one for half that amount. The Click is probably the most popular motorbike here. It has an automatic transmission and is perfect for around town use. Everyone drives a motorbike. They get about 100 mpg. Maintenance and repair are negligible. I don’t put on a lot of miles, so I spend less than $20 a month on gas. You definitely don’t need to own a car. Less than half of my friends own cars. Expect similar costs to the west if you do own a car, although repairs are much less because labor costs are low.

Entertainment
The wild card in any budget is the entertainment expense. From the occasional happy hour beer to a different girl every night, it’s a personal decision. Thailand can be great fun with too may places to blow money. Movie theaters have ticket prices similar to the US. There are golf courses all over Thailand. A round of golf is about the same as the West. There is cart racing, fishing, lawn bowling, surfing, snorkeling, mountain biking, bungee jumping and shooting ranges. I can’t think of any entertainment that you can’t find here and it’s usually cheap. There are countless outdoor recreational activities.

The entertainment budget is a personal thing. Women and booze are the variables for most. A bottle of beer in a bar is in the $2 range. A lot of the socializing happens at the local pub.

Medical
A good medical insurance policy will cost about $1500 for a year for someone 60 years old. This will cover any hospital stay and treatment. Any outpatient doctor visits you’ll pay for. A doctor’s visit will cost about $25. That was my deductible on my $500 a month health insurance policy in the US. The most important difference in the West vs. Thailand is the role of the pharmacist. Many drugs are available over the counter in Thailand. The pharmacist plays an important role here by diagnosing common ailments and prescribing medication. This eliminates half the trips to the doctor. Many of the drugs are generic and inexpensive. A prescription for amoxicillin is $4. Pain medication is controlled and you’re probably going to have to go to a hospital and see a doctor to get it.

There is a range of quality on the hospitals in Thailand. Private hospitals and the doctors are generally very good. Expect a semi private room and nursing care like the West. If you’re in a public hospital after an accident, you’ll end up in an open public ward with the locals. Family members will be sleeping beside the patient and taking care of them. It looks pretty chaotic to me but the healthcare is acceptable, if that’s the way you have to go. It is cheap compared to hospital costs in the US. People often come here for cosmetic surgery and combine it with a vacation.

Summarizing budget costs
No one’s budget is going to be the same because of individual lifestyles, but here goes:

Low Budget – $1000 a month
This would be living in a room or a sharing a small apartment ($300). Eating mostly street cart food or in low cost Thai restaurants ($100), no insurance, internet connection and utilities ($35), gas for a motorbike ($15), miscellaneous expenses ($100). That’s $550 before the all-important entertainment expense. Depending upon how much you drink and how many girlfriends you have that puts you well under $1000 a month. Many live the low budget life style here.

Medium Budget – $1800 a month
Someone on a medium budget is living in a two bedroom house ($500). Eats at a restaurant a couple times a week, but prepares food at home. This retiree pays monthly medical insurance ($125), utilities ($50) and gas for a motorbike ($20). This guy has a girlfriend. He doesn’t want her to work so he gives her $400 a month. A Thai girl is going to keep house and make meals. With a trip to the pub a couple of times a week and the increase in food expense, you could expect your budget to be in the $1800 a month range.

High Budget – $2500 a month
This is a budget for someone who lives at a luxury condo with a pool or rents a larger house ($1000 a month). He has a car and motorbike with all those expenses. This would be all the expenses of the medium budget with a more expensive house and a car. This is a very comfortable life style and similar to what you might expect in the US for three times this amount.

Thailand is a great value for the expat retiree. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The Silver Kamala Beach Walk

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One night, four years ago, I walked into Ban Rim Klong, a restaurant along the main drag in Kamala for the first time. I was sitting there having a drink, chatting up the girls, when an enormous golden retriever walked up and said hello. I had left a couple of beloved golden retrievers behind in America when I split up with a girlfriend and still missed those dogs. I asked if anyone was walking him. They said the owner, Allen, was currently in the UK. I said I’d be back in the morning to take him for a walk. We walked the beach every day for the next three years. He was Allen’s dog, but he was my bud.

Every day, I’d come by, whenever it was low tide. It was important to both of us. He loved to go for a walk. He’d wait for me and freak out when he saw me, barking and dancing around, come on let’s go! Let’s go! Nee up, I would yell at him, shut up in Thai. Didn’t do any good. He was a poorly disciplined dog, a mind of his own.

We never knew how old he was. Silver was a stray when Allen found him. Apparently, a German couple had taken off and left Silver behind. Who knows how long he was on the streets. He learned some bad habits, like trying to kill every other dog that crossed his path, although he liked small dogs and people. He was big and slow so other dogs would just run away from him.

Last year Silver started to age to the point where I couldn’t take him for long walks anymore. Then last spring he just wore out and passed. Being at the beach everyday with Silver many of the tourists got to know us. They would stop me and ask where the dog was and I would have to share the bad news.

I was sitting next to Allen having a drink the other night. I told him, I still miss that big stupid dog. A tear fell down his cheek. Yeah, we both miss him.