My Experience Coming To Thailand
My Circumstances and Decision
Coincidence, sometimes pure, sometimes impure, shapes our lives at different times, but what happened when I came to Thailand, and what unfolded afterwards, was entirely unpredictable.
Surely, you can expect the unexpected if you're on your first trip to Asia. For me, it turned into an unexpectedly major change in my life, into a whole new world.
If you want to skip the weighty decisions and circumstances surrounding my decision to come to Thailand and then to stay, and move on to my experiences here, then skip to the next section, Upon Arrival.
Leading Up To The Decision To Go
It was 1994, and I had been living in the Washington, D.C., metro region since 1985, at the time in Reston, Virginia. Since 1987 when I resigned my last fulltime position, I had worked as a young communications consultant, largely to the U.S. government, and mainly in introducing "information technology" (I.T.) to organizations, and applying the new (at the time) sector of PC clones to communications for various projects. Projects involved people traveling overseas with a portable computer who needed to stay in contact with Washington and others. I also did general computer consulting -- hardware and software -- for eclectic people such as freelance writers and journalists.
In my home, too, I had developed an advanced regional private communications hub with an Internet gateway, in fact one of the first private and publicly accessible ISPs in the Washington, D.C., area, and the first e-mail link to many countries.
This was back before the web existed and up to when it was first coming out, 1987-1994, and before Windows was mainstream (in fact before the Windows version 3 graphical PC interface existed)! My system ran under MS-DOS and in the end under a new unix-like operating system called Linux, and clients ran under MS-DOS.
Less than 1% of the U.S. population had Internet access, which back then was mainly e-mail. The graphical World Wide Web (WWW) did not exist. (Besides email, the rest was usenet, telnet, ftp and gopher.)
Half of my important users were overseas, and I was nailed down to running hubs in Washington D.C. because nobody else could technically operate the system at that time. I was somewhat envious of world travelers. I trained people technically to replace me, but you know how that goes if their heart isn't into it or if they don't have the knack. I took a lot of responsibilities upon myself.
Most of my work was simply getting leadership and top personnel to use e-mail more to communicate with each other continuously, rather than jointly scheduling travel to meetings or total reliance on fax and being able to reach each other on the phone or schedule conference calls which caused delays and inefficiencies (and often much greater expense).
I trained people how to get collaborative work done now from their current location rather than traveling, replaced fax machines with file attachments, organized information, helped people collaborate via "group mail discussions", things like that. That meant first getting them to use a computer instead of hand writing everything, and e-mail was the first application for many of them, word processing the second. Tutoring was often an on-the-spot assignment. I did it all, whatever needed to be done.
The vast majority of Americans had never used email or internet at the time (1990 plus or minus a few years). Such a scenario is laughable now, but things were very different back then, with "What is Internet?" common. It was a very different era, just before I left America.
I had to hire people to write our own most user friendly software in order to maximize success, create our own Internet gateways, etc., because precious little existed back then which worked well and was user friendly enough.
Outside of the USA, things were even more primitive, and a large part of my work grew into working with international aid and relief agencies associated with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations.
For example, before the Somalia hunger problem and a war there, hunger was spreading around parts of Africa due to less rain. I and some associates were helping USAID with communications. We would send satellite imagery to field offices, exchange reports, analyses, news and email. All by modem. The project was called FEWS - Famine Early Warning System. It was way ahead of its time, but most of the credit for that went to other people who conceptualized the project, whereby I was brought in for the difficult I.T. part, such as accommodating for horrendous phone lines in some of the most remote parts of Africa whereby we needed to use special, unique modems.
Other people were amazed that technically it worked so smoothly. It became famous around the world in the development community.
FEWS was an excellent project run by good people, one of the best groups of people I have ever worked for in government circles.
Then came Somalia and other hungry areas. A big new project came in, a major UN-USAID bag of money, but that didn't go to further developing the established networks, nor did it go to developing local indigenous skills. It went to new crony "Beltway Bandit" contractors with connections, and who didn't have the track record or capabilities... and that proved to be the beginning of the end for me in that sector, as greed and secrecy settled in.
On another, entirely separate front, there was a big director in DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka ARPA) who was technically very savvy, and who bypassed his slow Beltway Bandit contractors and came directly to me to help him jump start a project. Understand: I didn't find him, he found me. I had been helping him for a long time without realizing who he was ... until one day he told me ... and hired me.
What a contrast in realms, DARPA vs. USAID.
The DARPA project was a post-Cold War push by President Clinton and Vice President Gore to convert military contractors into private enterprises, as there were plans to cut a lot of defense projects and jobs, yet there were some high tech operations worth salvaging, if we could just change the mindset from government contracting to pure business in those companies ... and my friend was spending a lot of time in the White House.
It became my job to network people in both industry and government -- get them onto the information superhighway and "networking" with each other -- with private e-mail, mailing lists, "group discussions", bulletin boards, announcements, etc.
The top guys were great, the pay was good, and several of my first networking "clients" were dynamic and creative people with good ideas to implement. That was at the top. I started off very enthusiastic.
However, as I moved down the ranks, most of my networking "clients" were typical government deadwood -- stuffy, narrowminded and rather defensive against change or anything which forced them to learn something new and adapt.
The motivation to help technology groups was often more political than technical, for the simple reason that their programs were at the top of the list for getting cut, and a lot of people were about to lose their jobs.
I was supposed to get them networked with both internal (defense) and external (nondefense) industry news sources, companies and people to potentially collaborate with (the private sector was already way ahead of these government contractors in embracing email and information technology), and leaders at the top of our big "group" who were trying to push this program forward.
People needed to be reassigned to new work before their contracts were terminated. They had ARPA, the best networked agency, trying to help them.
Most didn't want the help. They were content to put their heads in the sand and continue their day to day tasks as if somehow tomorrow would work itself out and nothing would change. The whole process of trying to get many of these technology contractors to go commercial was farcical. At each site, there was usually one or two bright guys, hand picked in advance of my arrival, who would familiarize me with their operation, technical sector ... and the realities of their corporate culture, local leaders, and employees. It was far more sociopolitically challenging than it was technical.
I'd travel and arrive with everything free because it was already paid for -- my time, a modem, already-paid-for software, and a nice manual written for novices. I was there to answer questions and enthusiastically push things forward.
Most went along with a minimalist attitude, sometimes even joking in a brush-off way about the ARPA director in Washington (who they didn't know was my friend) as if I was a fellow beltway bandit (which technically I was), quasi buddy-buddy. Some would actually refuse to let me install it and train them on something called "Internet" because it wasn't part of the contract, and they wanted more money in their contract for this new task called "Internet access" BEFORE I could do anything. Even though I'd already flown or driven a long distance there and it was free to them, they didn't want it until they were sent more money for it themselves. To get over that barrier, it sometimes took an hour of phone calls and faxes to turn the previous verbal plans into a permitted action on my part.
However, when you start putting major money into projects in any realm, the Beltway Bandits with connections will do all sorts of things to try to wrest the money back their way, including people wanting to take over my project ... e.g., to replace me and my internet system with a proprietary, non-internet commercial email package of limited functionality ...
... and even with the power and protection of a smart Director, there was another frustration: It was very difficult to get government technology contractors to think like purely private sector companies, or even consider it. They dug in their heels! Many just couldn't believe that things were changing ... despite the clear end of the Cold War ... They would say things like their powerful Congressman would cut a deal somewhere to keep federal money coming into their district ... so they didn't need to expand their horizons.
Frankly, many people in high places in government contracting as well as officialdom don't really care much, in my opinion. Many also just can't see the future.
I found a larger number of caring people in the USAID community, albeit usually not in power or with the highest connections.
Meanwhile, what irked me most was when incompetent attempted copycats, with poor track records, could get contracts at high prices because they had contacts willing to engage in questionable actions with their cronies.
If the USAID contractors had been personally committed to a cause, I would have given away technology and training and been pleased to have helped the world. Instead, they were being discreet and tricky, taking away support of the good guys, and charging far more than others would have while trying to slip in incompetent and careless cronies as workers. What else we could have done with all that money for the world ...
On the surface they would boast their position and stake out their turf, but their systems often didn't work, they didn't care to pro-actively improve things if it was not really required of them, they were far behind the cutting edge whereby it was exasperating to talk shop with disinterested people of position, they were complacent to do the minimum specified in a contract (and sometimes less) to get their posh paycheck and keep their position, and they were minimally engaged with the greater community.
Meanwhile, many people who really cared, who DID keep up with the cutting edge, and who wanted to improve the world were being marginalized.
I really don't like to get into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that I witnessed a lot of corruption, waste, and carelessness. Things like an official hiring the company of their lover, who had not been involved in established successes, couldn't get things running on their own, and didn't care much (except about the money), to say the least. Another sent in his utterly unqualified and inappropriate buddy to fly around the world on adventurous consulting trips in key roles via a contractor company.
When they couldn't get things working, a company hired me briefly to set up everything. When it was working, they ended the contract. I tried to maintain friendly relations but they kept me in the dark about their gravy train project. Several months after I was gone, the network went down due to someone carelessly adding useless new hardware (maybe somebody made a few bucks on that), and they didn't fix it themselves. When the dependent people overseas with other agencies experienced great hardship, the responsible contractor tried to blame me, even though they had cut me out many months before the incident! (With friends like that, who needs enemies?) I heard of this from a contact in Europe and blew the whistle, as was necessary to protect my reputation and set the story straight (otherwise, I would have ignored it). That turned me into a whistle blower, whereby whistleblowers are persona non grata in much of the Beltway Bandit community. They did subsequently hire me briefly to fix their system (a stupid issue, very quick, and amazing incompetency and carelessness on their part), but that was all and I was out.
On the other front, the DARPA director kept asserting his position to keep the Beltway Bandits from swatting me away, but the places he was sending me were intransigent and careless turf bureaucracies with their heels dug in against email and other changes along those lines. The pay was good but the frustration level was high, and I longed to return to purely private sector customers. Government work is often too slow and frustrating.
On the USAID side, it was very sad to see some humanitarian projects fizzle out this way, which had vast adverse effects on the people and countries around the world we were trying to help.
That said, there are some really good people and companies in the USAID mix, and I enjoyed working with most of the ex-Peace Corps volunteers (though some had instead switched to the Beltway Bandit mentality).
I had helped one small entity sneak in and shockingly get awarded a contract which had been routinely renewed a large Beltway Bandit for the previous decades, due to our innovative digitization and networking, and at a more reasonable budget.
But there was also the ugly side. For example, on another aid project, I had been called in to load software onto a shipment of computers going to a poor country, as part of U.S. aid. The computers were failing to run the software (unstable, crashing within 15 minutes, all of them), and I clearly identified the two faulty parts. They were mass produced with the same parts. The cheapest on the market, across the board. (I had to explain to them that not all clones are alike, and price often reflects reliability.) I requested they exchange these two parts, and the supplier initially agreed to do so for a very small amount of money, not significantly affecting their profit margin. However, I perceived that the contractor may subsequently disallowed it. In the words of one guy, they already had someone ready in the other country to "sign off" on the shipment, regardless of its quality, and all that was needed was that the computers would boot up to an MS-DOS prompt if turned on for 1 minute for testing, which they had already achieved. Then the money would be received, and it was not their problem anymore. In no uncertain terms: "We don't care" after that, and the computers didn't actually need to work for the hopeful ultimate recipients.
The owner of that company, who I often dealt with directly, was formerly a deputy undersecretary of a major U.S. government agency, and had a special award from a U.S. President in regard to his company's exceptionally good work and leadership in helping the world.
To make a long story short, I made sure those computers didn't ship out. (There were no heavy duty dramas, since they had not shipped out yet, but it did require some careful discussion and standing firm to get authorization to fix the computers, and it wasn't as if it were a significantly profitable thing for me, indeed, it took my time away from more important things, but I couldn't bare to think of the waste and abuse and impact on the ultimate recipients in the less developed country.)
Things like that really disillusioned me about the government aid system. Blowing the whistle is not something I like to do, and generally don't, as I accept the world for what it is, and that it won't change (unless we change our DNA in the future), so I was inclined to just move on by that point.
I have more important things to do in this world than to add unnecessary risks to myself, or get embroiled in such controversies.
In many cases, for foreign aid contracts, there were opportunities for "technology transfer" for "sustainable development" by training indigenous peoples in technology and supplying infrastructure, but instead the contracts were made to benefit the contractors whereby expensive Americans would keep all the work to themselves and their friends rather than utilize, support and develop those already established in the intended target group or region.
Even if the money stayed with Americans, much of it should have gone to the Peace Corps instead of expensive luxurious contractors.
It was obscene at times. Of course, the contractor reports looked magnificent, but the ground truth was often questionable. It was so often a charade. Mainly image. And money. And greed.
This is why I'm a huge proponent of "trade, not aid", which is what the vast majority of people in the target countries also wanted. For humanitarian things, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are often the best, most cost-effective, and sustainable.
After the above experiences, I thought it would be the last time I would deal with "foreign aid" and USAID ... But that meant the prospects of foreign travel became dim, since all other work was just for locals.
(Notably, the DARPA director had lost a son in Mozambique while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, who died in a traffic accident during a rain on the road to the airport.)
On the DARPA front, even my protection couldn't overcome my frustrations.
For example, I went to Bath, Maine, to connect a shipyard whose defense contract was ending but which had technological operations with commercial potential which had not been tapped. The union would not let me install the Internet kit because I was not part of the union, but they had nobody else able to install it, and they weren't really interested. I left having accomplished NOTHING. Indeed, they went on strike two days later, demanding higher wages and benefits, even though the end of their contract was imminent within a few months. (Despite the end of the Cold War, they could not believe that after 40 years the shipyard would be shut down. They thought their congressman would cut a deal to keep them going.)
There were similar things happening on other projects, which I need not go into, but too often it was much the same kind of story as the above cases. I was really tired of government contracting.
So don't tell me it's not that bad. I've seen it with my own two eyes, full stop. Forget much of the propaganda that comes out in newsletters, and leaders on the pulpit with great stump speeches and speechwriters. The above is actually not as bad as it gets, but is relatively innocuous. It's MUCH worse than that in other realms. I'm not a cynic but an optimist, and a pretty robust one. But the above events pretty much made me feel that I was wasting the precious time of my young, energetic and creative life on organizations full of careless deadwood. Money is not an end to me, it's a means.
As one of my close associates kept telling me, "nobody really gives a sh*t", and sometimes it seemed true about too many people, so I started to believe him in some cases. After too many years of this, I was up for a change. I was totally burned out on government related work.
I had a livable amount of money in the bank by then, because I live very cheaply, and I was thinking of investing in my own next stage Internet ventures (in early 1994) when ...
Diverted to Bangkok
One day I retrieved from my answering machine a series of messages from a frantic woman who worked for a USAID contractor which had used my system in the past, and which was unrelated to the aforementioned corrupt group. I will call her J here. J couldn't log into my system and URGENTLY needed to exchange e-mail with someone in Thailand, having used my system for quite some time. The Asia Regional Office is located in Thailand, so I gave it priority. Gee, I'd hardly ever dealt with Asia in any way.
"Sure, I'll fix you right up!" Logging in and checking the logs, she had been automatically cut off from the system due to excess login time because she had ignored warnings to switch to an offline e-mail read/write program. (All you had to do was download two files and run the one called INSTALL.EXE but she was a computer neophyte, which was common back then.)
Their in-house computer guy couldn't help her because it was for ... her HOME, not her office ... and no, it wasn't for official business after all, though in probing conversation she was also professional and seemed to have a lot of contacts, indeed dangling out some referral prospects, so after some pleading, I said "OK, OK... I'll stop by when I'm in the area ... within a few days". Small chance, I thought at the time, hoping that maybe she would get someone else to help her set up a new account.
I got lots of calls like that from neophytes, and the time of travel round trip usually made it not worth the consultation time, plus they usually found someone to download and run the INSTALL.EXE program within a day or two.
Late that same evening, I was scheduled to set up a Washington Post reporter with e-mail. (Yes, even many of them didn't have e-mail in early 1994, living by fax.) I got to their home in D.C. but nobody was there. Waited, nobody came. This was long before small mobile phones emerged. Not far from J in Arlington, Virginia, I thought, and only 10pm, then saw a phone booth nearby. Hmmm... and made a decision that would unwittingly change my life.
She said she'd adjust to the late schedule, and we agreed I'd stop by. It was a brief visit whereby I set up her offline e-mail package, but there was a chemistry there. She told me that she had worked and lived in Thailand before, spoke the language well there (could even read/write), and was trying to get an assignment back in Bangkok. She was not the typical beltway bandit mentality, and indeed she was a former Peace Corps Volunteer, the kind of person I hold in high esteem.
However, what she did NOT tell me was that she had a serious boyfriend in Thailand. She DID tell me she was working on getting an assignment in Thailand, which was true, but not the complete story.
We spoke again the next day and met, and things took off into a romance and an exposure to an almost unbelievable life of hers, with lots of world travels.
Eventually, from messages on her answering machine, I found out that the aforementioned URGENT communications with Thailand were to a serious boyfriend in Bangkok (an American). She had started losing interest in him after meeting me, but her previously begun strong search for an expat assignment in Bangkok were already producing results, apparently past the point of no return -- she was going to Bangkok anyway, or else everyone who had been pulling their weight for her would be aghast.
I was also kind've coaching her on interviewing, not that she needed it, but it kept me engaged in her process. She had one particular "dream assignment" that she had been discussing with the people in charge, almost too good to be true, and it looked like it would work out. A Director wanted to get someone into the position quickly -- before the end of the fiscal year in September, and an enthusiastic worker, and J fit the bill.
When J went to meet again with the Director to finalize some details (and there was no contract), I tagged along with her with the intention of waiting outside.
The Director was a middle-aged, strong woman of action and a voice of authority. During the course of their discussions, J mentioned in more casual, friendly conversation that her boyfriend (me) sitting outside was a communications consultant and named several of my high profile USAID clients, explaining what I do. The Director came outside with her, quickly discussed some things with me, her eyes lit up and she boomed "I've been looking for someone like that!!" Before long, it was "You're going too!"
Asia was the most backward of all regions when it came to the communications networks of the U.S. government and its contractors. (No, it wasn't Africa, thanks to me. Asia was the only place that seemed to be still running on fax nearly 100%.)
My first reaction was, well, maybe I could go to visit and do some short consultations, but I have a lot of work to do here and am nailed down to my infrastructure and clients in D.C. Go deal with a government bureaucracy and its contractors in a place as culturally different as Asia? I'd be dependent on this small niche.
An associate with another branch of the U.S. government quipped that the USAID people in Bangkok were a bunch of head cases. If I stay in the U.S., then if the bullsh*t became too much, I could always switch clients, as there were many interesting private organizations, individuals and companies who valued my services. Indeed, I often had switched. I am fiercely independent about doing what's right, which is why I'm a consultant. I don't "need" to agree with my paymasters, and can change work anytime. But in Asia, I would be locked in, as I couldn't consult to Asians ...
... Or could I? Western multinationals? Aw, come on, you can't say you can't. Who knows... check it out. There were lots of expat multinationals, too, and it was a far cry from the Washington DC economy. I don't shirk from challenges. It's possible, and only a matter of how adaptable I am. I had a round trip ticket in hand at no cost to me, and a place to stay with free rent. I could always bail out if I didn't like it.
For development of less developed countries, I believed in "Trade, not aid". This is what most non-corrupt people in less developed countries ask for. They don't want U.S. government aid, as it just feeds the banks accounts of -- and strengthens -- corrupt vote-buying politicians and their power base of contractors. What the mainstream people want is access to western markets, and lower trade barriers, especially for farm products. "Trade, not aid." I was eager to get into the purely private sector overseas, and this could be the opportunity I was waiting for, I thought at the time.
I was feeling burned out and up for a change and adventure. You aren't young and single forever, and I had adequate savings in the bank. Maybe I'd turn over my system to my best-trained associates, go consult in Bangkok for awhile, travel around the region, maybe find some interesting work, then either return or else wind up in Australia or New Zealand when it was time to set up a base again. It was an idea to dream upon ... and seriously consider.
The decision was made: just do it. Implement.
They wanted J out there quickly, and despite delays in getting a written contract out of the mill and ready for signatures, the Director's power was reassuring, and we started to shut down our work projects, pack our things for domestic storage, and prepare our moving items without a signed contract.
By the time the important loose ends were tied up, I was so enthusiastically looking forward to it that I almost couldn't wait to get on the plane. We were very early to the airport, relaxed and dreaming. It seemed surreal.
Admittedly, I knew little about Thailand and the region. When J had first said "Thailand" shortly after we met, the first things to come to my mind were Seagate hard disks, Vietnam War air bases, Golden Triangle poppies on mountains, Thai Buddhist temple architecture, long tailed boats and Thai food. I knew practically nothing about the people or culture except they were somewhat dark skinned and had a lot of Asian in their eyes. I did know that reading about a place is no comparison to coming and experiencing the places, and my own modern observations and analysis often differed significantly from what I read.
We had a lot of material produced by USAID and the State Dept. introducing us to Thailand and Bangkok, but it was obvious that it was woefully inadequate. While I've come to expect government services to be less than the minimum acceptable standard of quality, I was still surprised that this is what someone provided to us. On the other hand, it laid the groundwork for me to realize the need for something like ThailandGuru.com
My first glimpse of an Asian city was Taipei, Taiwan when the plane landed for refueling. However, that just doesn't compare to stepping out into the street, the outside air and the open environment. Nationalist China. Nonetheless, it's a noteworthy warmup to Asia.
In Bangkok, going thru passport processing and the airport, I was pleasantly charmed by the intrinsic nature of the Thais. The sanskrit writing was a bit intimidating, and for the first time I felt illiterate. Now was the time to start learning the alphabet. Eventually, I reached my next goal: stepping outside the airport into the open environment. A little warm, slightly musky, but not too unlike my native Arkansas or Virginia.
First order of business was taxiing to our condo, and the metered taxis are very nice ... and amazingly cheap! As we rode down the highway, I was amazed to see so many modern highrise buildings. The road infrastructure was excellent, pretty much as good as anywhere in the world. (Now, in 2003, many westerners say the freeways are better and nicer than in their own country!) I was also struck by how colorful the city was, as Thais like neon signs, fluorescent paints and curvy designs with nice matching colors. The Thai music on the radio was quite charming and relaxing, and the whole ambiance was wonderful.
We had no idea what our apartment/condo looked like, and I had long imagined a cement place rustic by western standards. However, I was starting to get some hope that it was, well, maybe in a modern part of town, hopefully?
It was at the end of a place called Sukhumvit soi 4, Sethiwan Palace, and wow, it looked pretty nice. Guards opened the gate, and I got my first feel for "servants" in Thailand. When we walked into our condo, our breath was taken away. It was nothing like we imagined.
We had a super-modern 8th floor condo with an open view off the terrace facing west towards the city business center right over the expressway. Three large bedrooms, each with its own private bathroom, awesome size. Fully furnished. Large dining room, living room, terrace and kitchen, and a small laundry room on a small side terrace. Still another room for the maid, with separate entrance. There are just two of us, so why do we deserve all this space? Holy moly, we can fill only a fraction of it with our belongings. What an expat package! (I later found out that the rental was $3000/month. We paid nothing, it was covered for us.) All this for just two people? I felt guilty about it. But J was a workhorse, and she was one of a minority of people in USAID who I felt earned and deserved her money and comfort perks. Turn a bedroom into an office, and keep the third for visitors.
We were oohing and aahing and giggling. Unbelievable. After awhile looking off the terrace and out the windows, we headed out, with the grocery store as our only meaningful destination.
It was clear to me that we were in a foreigner center, as we weren't exactly surrounded by Thais. It was as if we were two of countless foreigners surrounded by Thai support people and servants, as all the Thais around us were clearly of the service class. Even as we walked down our soi, there were service people of restaurants and other commercial outlets who were so ... well ... "serving" of customers. Where are some Thais dressed professionally or driving a car?
I didn't know it, but out of all of Bangkok, our soi was on one of only three big Western expat go-go bar complexes, this one called "Nana Plaza", near the mouth of the soi. As we approached it, I heard lots of Western rock music and noticed increasing numbers of open air bars filled with Western male expats with patronizing young Thai women, as well as the sidewalk walking population. J was the only western woman I saw outside our condo complex (and we were young for our condo). Then we passed the entrance to Nana Plaza itself. I looked in and was overwhelmed. I'd never seen anything like it before in my life. I was also embarrassed to be there, standing right in front. J was half laughing and half pulling me along towards the grocery store.
My first question was: "Is this common in Asia? Is this typical for Bangkok?" I was totally amazed.
Then came Sukhumvit Road, filled with traffic and sidewalks crowded with merchants selling to foreigners. J then revealed to me that we had been set up right smack in the middle of a tourist area, but that was good because we had Western restaurants and groceries.
A most pleasant surprise was that the grocery store was like one in the West, though the selection wasn't exactly the same. Nonetheless, lots of familiar western products, fresh and clean meats, and practically everything I wanted. This grocery store clearly catered to the local expat demand, and even seemed to go out of its way to. No problem with groceries here, getting what I want.
On the way back, J suggested we go in and see a go-go bar in Nana Plaza, figuring I was a guy and would be curious, and better to go with her. So, with bags of groceries in hand, we walked into a bar on the ground level, sat down and got a beer. To my amazement, there were a dozen NAKED girls dancing on the stage in front of me, and a dozen girls in only a swimsuit bottom on the stage across the room. Right there, live, and available for any expat to do as they please with, for small money by Western standards. I just sat there and observed the variety of human genitalia and breasts live in front of me. This wasn't some movie or magazine, this was for real, happening right in front of me, real people, real time. And I saw a few guys take girls out of the bar, presumably to their own hotel room or apartment to serve as a sex toy.
As we exited, my ears were ringing from the music, my head was a little buzzed from the beer plus jet lag (it was 11pm Bangkok = 11am Washington), and I was looking down a long sidestreet on the other side of the world.
"Where am I? Is this for real? Or a dream? Well, here I am..."
The next morning, I was waken up by the bright sun, having forgotten to pull the shades on the beautiful city lights the night before. "Good morning, Bangkok!" Never mind catching up on sleep, I was too excited.
We spent a long time drinking coffee on the terrace. So many beautiful skyscrapers, so many under construction, tropical plants, Asian houses and apartment blocks, Asian language billboards looking at all the traffic buzzing by on the roads, driving on the left side, the scattered sidewalk vendors selling food, motorcycle taxis...
J "hit the ground running" workwise, as people took advantage of her willing workhorse nature, and I was left to set up the apartment with all the necessities. That meant going out to department stores. Since I couldn't speak Thai, I carried business cards of Sethiwan Palace to show taxis for the return trip.
Having a supportive spouse is a major benefit for a workhorse person.
In turn, my neighbors were very helpful to me, especially the spouses who were home during the day (all spouses of US government related people at that time). There is no substitute for having someone there to answer your questions, give tips and generally make sure you're not alone in a strange part of the world. The printed guidance literature which I came with, as well as the guide books at the bookstore, were grossly inadequate at helping me get oriented as an expat LIVING in Thailand. (ThailandGuru.com was motivated by these experiences.)
I headed out with gusto. Watching how things are done, I just hopped on buses going up and down Sukhumvit during the day, jumping out when I saw something interesting. At first, if they turned, I got out immediately, backtracked, and took the next one. However, with the eventual aid of a map with bus numbers (duhhh...), I started going all over Bangkok. I figured that if I got lost or went too far out, then I could always catch a taxi back home, with the help of the Sethiwan business card which had a map on the back.
The taxis know enough English to understand the main places to go like the grocery and department stores, and tourist spots. Anywhere else and you should carry dual language sheets of paper. However, taxis remove a lot of the intimate adventure compared to hopping buses and walking, if you can take the heat and daytime vehicle pollution (which has been dramatically reduced since I first arrived). (I walked on the upwind side of the road.)
Your first Thai-style outside eating is a watershed experience. Just start with hot temperature foods to make sure most alien bacteria and stuff are dead, and better not too late in the day because I believe they get their daily food supplies in the morning. It may take awhile for your body to adjust to some harmless local microscopic critters in the tropics.
Since ordinary street Thais and department store employees don't speak English, it's like you're an illiterate deaf mute when shopping, though there's easily enough English to get by in the expat centers. Usually you can get by without pains elsewhere, too. The Thai music helps charm and sooth you.
However, all the initial shopping required to get settled in is a real chore, finding things and not always being able to ask the department store employees for help. I recommend one of the bigger English-Thai dictionaries, not the pocket ones.
J was envious. She was working hard, I was out exploring. J had always been jealous, even before we came. She said "The Thais are going to love you", because I was pretty notorious for being laid back and non-macho for a Western guy, with an easy friendly smile.
One day in the first week, I came back with a bunch of plants. Eventually J and her associates asked me where I got them. "Soi 63 and 71," I replied. Some of them looked at me with wide eyes: "So far!" My reaction: Far? Ha! Before I bought the plants, I went a lot further than that! After awhile, I could tell which of my neighbors were less exploresome and adventurous than others. I felt that hey, I wasn't such a newbie at this after all, not quite on the very bottom rung any more, so maybe I have something to contribute, not just a parasite.
I love to explore the ordinary parts of culture, not just the tourist sights. From all accounts, Bangkok was a safe city, quite unlike Washington, D.C. After so many years here, mostly in the outer suburbs, it continues to be the case. I take reasonable precautions, but it's remarkably safe, especially for a male.
I did people-watching at suburban malls, explored odd parts of town, took the buses to the ends of their routes and then back, rented a motorcycle and wandered, and after sunset ate and drank beer at the "Christmas light restaurants" (as I'd call them) in the more natural settings, just careful to finish before the last bus headed back in, or making sure to have enough cash for a long taxi ride.
The first 4 months I didn't make an effort to speak or understand much Thai. I wasn't sure I'd be here long. In fact, most of the Thais I circulated with were professionals who spoke fluent English. I could get by shopping and in other things without knowing much more than the numbers and pointing to a dictionary.
However, things stopped working out between J and I after 3 months (and it had been a new relationship very shortly before this venture to Asia, indeed, that's how we met), and I started thinking about whether to stay in Thailand or go elsewhere. In my free time, I'd been mixing with some Australians and British I'd met on the street who were in the multinational engineering and construction business and who needed I.T. and general computer consulting help.
After about 3 months, I moved out at the end of December, and stopped my USAID related effort (picking up my last money in February for an Asia communications infrastructure survey). Actually, I moved more than 20 kilometers away to an almost 100% Thai area, where there were precious few foreigners, and nobody knew where I was except by e-mail. Sometimes I wouldn't see another foreigner for days.
That was Bangkapi, specifically the Ramkamhaeng soi 24 area, where I moved into a nice modern studio 12th floor apartment with a fantastic view off a nice terrace. The building was filled with English-speaking students of Assumption Business Administration College, the only suburban English-speaking university. Rent was a laughable $200/month, plus electricity (mainly air conditioning) of approximately $50. I often preferred the 12th floor breeze instead of a/c. It had a swimming pool, weight room, sauna, convenience store and Thai restaurant with room delivery, all on the second floor.
It's not the kind of place I discovered in a day. It was the product of a lot of research and exploring around, and came after going to a lot of other places. Like in business, it came after a lot of patience and perseverance. However, there are a lot of these kinds of places spread around, albeit usually with Thais who don't speak such good English.
Someday, I plan to write some journal articles of my experiences there, and at subsequent places in the region, including houses in nice neighborhoods.
You must learn the language in order to better understand the culture. It's also vital for functionality, and is the key to opening up all kinds of doors.
Thus, learning the Thai language was the next thing on the agenda. It's my fourth language and third alphabet. It started with tapes and I hired daily "tutors" (chosen for their clarity of speech, as well as relaxed pleasantness and good attitude) to accompany me to read my phrase books slowly and clearly (1000 baht per day to accompany me, which was about 4 times the typical Thai daily wage). I started to learn to read common and ordinary signs on the street, and learned the alphabet this way, but I felt that my progress was less than satisfactory.
I got a big jump start when I met a female small businessperson on the street who had a radio quality voice and pronounciation, and a thoughtful demeanor, apparently choosing her words carefully yet in a lovely way. I fell in love. Every sound she spoke I remembered. It's funny how love does those things to you. She was so lovely, pleasant ... and patient. That mutual infatuation lasted a month, but I learned far more in the first two weeks with her than I had learned in the previous 6 months. I went thru multiple phrasebooks. Fortunately, she was less interested in English that I was in Thai, and loved to help me speak Thai, side by side. In fact, I reached a "critical mass", whereby I was functional in Thai society and my rate of learning was accelerating.
Actually, to this day, I still don't know the names of some of the letters of the alphabet, but I know their sounds and can read words with them. To me, it helps if I can graphically visualize the word in my mind. Otherwise, I don't remember it as well.
Once I could speak Thai fairly well, and politely, Thais responded to me with extra charm, and all kinds of doors opened up. Fortunately, I learned mainstream Thai, not the kind of Thai spoken in the tourist sections.
(The relationship with the lady eventually didn't work out, long story, but there had been no great expectations or dramas, it just ran its course for both of us. She was out the door just before sunrise to work, and I seemed to know when she would come back and when she wouldn't... from time to time... that happy smiling face knocking on my door...)
However, once or twice a week I'd go back into the expat areas and socialize with foreigners. The world travellers made for good adventure conversation, but I started gravitating to certain pubs which were watering holes for those in the engineering and construction business.
All those beautiful skyscrapers were going up, and industrial parks were also sprouting along the eastern seaboard. Many of the engineers, project managers, architects and others tended to hang out in certain pubs, and I had gotten to know a few. They were mostly Australians and British. I decided to try to work for these multinational companies as an I.T. and computer consultant. Since I'd also studied mechanical and electrical engineering for 3 years, and had a B.Sc. degree in physics plus some engineering experience, and a lot of self-taught knowledge, I could talk shop with them and help them with engineering software, too.
That was the beginning of my main clientele from 1995 to around the year 2000.
It was very easy to get work from 1995 to 1997, much easier than I'd imagined before I came. However, I.T. was new in Asia, and things have changed dramatically since 1995 whereby it isn't the same. Indeed, it wasn't the same by 2000 and getting difficult to find new work vs. local Thai guys as competitors.
But in 1995, I had far more work than I could do. I outsourced to other expats and Thais. The pay was great. If I woke up in the morning with a clear mind and felt creative, then I could do creative writing and other personal things for several hours, then when creative energy was ebbing I could pick up the phone and call a few project managers to find work to do in the afternoon, almost without fail. In fact, they preferred that I work on the computers and networks at night when I wouldn't interrupt people. I had keys to several places, and would often work until midnite and later. Sometimes, I'd leave in the morning just before staff arrived.
However, that kind of work came to a screeching halt for most expats when the mid-1997 Asia Economic Crash happened. I still provided consulting for that community up until 2002, based on referrals, albeit at a much lower volume, and the pay rate wasn't as good. I was forced to diversify in my work starting in 1997.
The vast majority of my expat associates left Thailand right after the 1997 crash, and there was a constant dropping of stragglers from die-hard companies up until around 1999.
Why I stayed starts with my first wife and daughter. In 1995, I had met a Thai lady who worked for a Thai architecture company, and we got married. Our daughter, Angela, was born in September, 1996.
Basically, my savings had reached their peak in mid-1997 when the crash occurred. The Thai currency, the Baht, was floated in July 1997 and plummeted in value, and with it the value of my savings when converted into foreign currency, though it was the same if spent locally. Within a few months, it became less than half its value in terms of conversion into US dollars.
By this time, construction of practically all the unfinished office and residential buildings in Bangkok had nearly stopped, due to the popping of the speculative property market and the banking crisis. Construction of factories on the Eastern Seaboard subsequently had slowed due to the projected recession in demand. Most expats left, many without their last paycheck and told they must buy their own ticket, contrary to the contract. Leases were broken.
I had recently settled into a new home with my family and thought that a computer consultant could always find work.
During the 1995-99 period, I also did a lot of traveling around Asia. After the crash of 1997, I considered following friends and associates to other countries to do work, and indeed did a little bit of consulting in the Philippines and Singapore. However, my travels only made me appreciate the wonderful elements of Thai culture and Thailand. My wife also much preferred Thailand (especially after seeing the Philippines together).
The first mistake I made in 1997 was underestimating the depth of the recession and how it would affect my business -- that the work available to computer consultants would disappear as much as it did. The second mistake was not curtailing my expat spending habits enough.
Late 1997 and 1998 were spent largely idling. For the first time, I had time to finish writing a book I had started on before coming to Thailand, which was based on work I did before becoming a computer consultant. I self-published it. You can see an on-line version at www.permanent.com It was an important accomplishment in my life.
In late 1998 and 1999, I was getting concerned by the recession for two reasons. First, work had slowed far worse than I expected, and secondly, many clients were not paying on time ... if they were paying at all. Many companies had staff who were several months behind in pay, and continued to work only because there were no alternative jobs. They just hoped they would get paid.
There were a lot of things I learned in 1998-99: Life in a deep recession. Companies who hire you to do work and then don't pay their bills, delaying indefinitely. How to find out about who really can and cannot pay their debts. How to deal with those who can but don't pay their debts. How to avoid such bad situations in the future. Adjusting my rates downward to match some clients' financial strength ... way downwards, sometimes.
With the help of my first wife, I also learned what it's like to live like a Thai, which is very useful in understanding employees, their situations and their values.
However, I have standards and ambitions in life which go way beyond what Thais around me could comprehend.
I was having all kinds of difficulties trying to set up a new business with this first wife. Financial pressures were stressful enough. I questioned whether she could function in the USA, but I didn't want to start over there, and I'm not a quitter, so I decided to pursue my business ideas in Thailand. I needed a lot of Thai assistance but my wife was not able to help much and we argued a lot.
Eventually, I split with my wife, packed up some things and moved back to Bangkok, while she stayed in her home province. I would definitely do much better the next time around, based on what I had learned.
Initially, I did a variety of things. I wanted to quit doing I.T. consulting in Bangkok (at low rates) and focus on other things, but I needed all the money I could get. I also worked by internet, creating a few websites for people overseas.
One of my original goals was to get into exporting services. In 1997-1999, I had helped keep a few western companies alive by promoting export of their services. That had been successful in some cases, using Thai engineers to design parts of buildings in the USA and Australia.
I started using Thai programmers and web designers to create websites for western companies in general, but that turned out to be subsistence pay due to competition with India and elsewhere, where the English comprehension was much better, the pay often less (cheaper to make the websites), and the I.T. community far more developed. Web design was not a good business for me in Thailand.
I came out going back to the engineering companies and project managers I knew for work, and reassessing my skills.
One area of exceptional knowledge for me was property development in Bangkok. After all, I had not only loved exploring all over Bangkok for many years, but I had also known many property developers and their analyses of the best places to build housing estates and highrise condo and apartment buildings, and been to many projects around the city.
I thought there was a niche market in real estate helping foreigners to find quality homes, especially in the suburbs to take advantage of the new expressway infrastructure which was emplaced from 1998 to 2000, a niche market at that time.
My main difficulty was finding *competent*, reliable and loyal Thai help based on commissions, as I had no savings left to guarantee salaries. Thais like fulltime jobs with big companies ...
I had a new Thai partner (who wishes to remain anonymous), a former friend who had switched careers from journalism to running her own small business successfully (despite many tough challenges), and I was impressed with her competency, perseverance, and care for other people. Her relaxed self-confidence and poise made it easy to miss her keen business sense. She didn't show off anything. In many ways, she was quite exceptional. Her father was a teacher and community leader, and I came to appreciate her nature. We talked a lot about joining together, as we each had important strengths that the other one lacked, so we would make a good team.
My friend Sam in New Zealand, who I had met on the internet when he volunteered to do artwork for the PERMANENT website, offered to come to Thailand to help me develop some of my business ideas. He came in 2001. Sam filled in some other key skills gaps.
We were 3 different kinds of people, with different but very complimentary skills sets, and similar personal values and interests.
We founded two companies, Export Quality Services Co., Ltd., and the second being a property company which I gave away to my Thai ex-partner (again, she wishes to remain anonymous) and later replaced it with Prado Property Co., Ltd.
Things picked up very quickly from that point.
However, it's worth rewinding back to 1998-1999 for a moment.
I was no longer a wealthy foreigner in Thailand. By the end of 1999, I'd never been so poor in my life.
I also learned who were my real friends and who were not, e.g., people who I had previously gone out of my way to help or lent money to, but they were not helping me back. Some got big work contracts overseas but did not pay me back, nor did they outsource to me. A few others didn't do little things, like not letting me use their truck to move. That was as ugly as seeing the expats who were blowing big money at go-go bars while not paying Thai staff small money salaries, or myself as a consultant. When times get tough, you start to see who is good and who is not.
One thing I learned is that overall, my core Thai friends and associates were more concerned and reliable friends than most of my remaining expat friends. Some of my Thai friends would call and ask how I'm doing and make sure I was OK, saying they are worried because I was a foreigner in Thailand and work for me was difficult. However, there were both Thais and foreigners who not only fell out of friendship but actually seemed to want to rub in my misfortunes relative to theirs, a relative status and ego thing.
I have no regrets about becoming relatively "poor" for the first time in my life since I left the university in the mid-1980s. In Thailand, you aren't going to starve. There's always work and you don't need to take on really bad clients, though sometimes you do take on clients that you previously wouldn't. It just doesn't pay at Western hourly rates any longer, and you must compensate by either living cheaply more like a Thai ...
... until you can ramp up a company with multiple employees who can produce better profitably. Getting good employees who have the required skills is the challenge. Unlike some companies, in my company I paid myself last. I always paid others and settled my debts first.
In 1999-2001, I had gone thru a few small partnerships with Thai friends. They were profitable enough for them, but not for me, and I eventually moved on, leaving the business to them.
Notably, in 1998, my cash-strapped landlord sold the house I was renting (at an amazingly low cash price, and didn't return our deposit, either, long story, plus valuables went missing), so we moved out on short notice, and I decided that it was time to put our things into "storage" and move back to the U.S.
I moved all our stuff to my first wife's provincial home in the province of Nakhon Pathom, which is just 50 km west of Bangkok. However, this proved well within easy driving distance for freelance consulting, and not a lot different than the suburban Bangkapi/Minburi area in which we previously lived, as regards Bangkok consulting. We lived close to the next big river, the "Ta Jeen" River (translation: "port Chinese", and my half-Chinese first wife's pioneering grandfather had parked his boat there and homesteaded), also known as the Nakhon Chai Sri River. It is a fairly nice, open aired and peaceful place, the Internet connection was OK and it was a nice break from the excessive rent we were paying for a luxurious house in Bangkok. My daughter grew real close to her grandma, grandpa and community, and we started having second thoughts about moving to the U.S., where I would start all over from scratch. I also had my doubts as to whether my first wife would be happy or even functional there.
I got back in contact with some old associates in the U.S. while looking into my options, and indeed got some consultations by referrals in the Washington DC area, for work IN Thailand, mainly web research and some development work, and it was good to touch base with them after 5 years, but it was small scale and they just didn't have much work to give me, especially given new laws against outsourcing overseas by the US government.
There were much better opportunities if I were to move back to the Washington DC area, but the idea of going back and doing the same old things all over again didn't appeal to me. I wanted to move forward in life, not go backwards. I decided to at least set up a base in Thailand, and branch out from there, maybe to India and eastern Europe for offshore labor (see below), maybe Australia as another residence.
I formulated a more diversified new business plan, with two parts, one Thailand and one overseas.
On the overseas front, I started exporting skilled Thai labor by Internet, but I had a difficult time finding Thai people who were as productive and competitive as Indians, Russians, and some eastern Europeans. The language barrier is also stiff. While there are good Thais here, the demand outstrips supply as regards quality.
After awhile, I switched my business model from trying to get Thais to do advanced things, to deciding what Thais *could* do well and building a business around that.
It started with Thai-English language translations for business, and expanded into company setup for foreigners, office setup, and various other support services for foreigners coming to Thailand to work and live. The property side of our business -- finding homes for foreigners -- is what we enjoy the most and as a result has become the biggest part of our business. This is what the staff likes doing the most.
I also should admit that I love well designed houses and highrise flats -- the artistic, engineering, and community aspects. At heart, I am an explorer and a designer.
For customers' advanced needs, I deal with the customers. Nobody else can do that well enough, because as a foreign businessman I understand other foreign businessmens' needs and interests. I am the most highly and diversely skilled, partly based on my experience dealing with hundreds of clients and situations as a consultant since 1987, but also because business requires strong analysis and problem solving ability which is hard to find -- diverse experience, complete solutions, and often creative solutions. I also like meeting business people in the course of this kind of work.
You will see some of our business divisions mentioned on this website, and some even have their own website:
This is what my Thai staff enjoy doing and who I have trained well. Sam and I are still the only foreigners, though I'm quite open to involving some other foreigners in my business as a strategic partner or more.
It's clear to me that I missed the Internet gold rush of the 1990s, which I was uniquely positioned for in 1994. That is my only regret in coming to Thailand, though a huge one. Thailand initially had practically no internet when I arrived, and was very slow to get onto the information superhighway due to government regulations prohibiting internet commercial businesses without a government concession (to their well connected political allies -- corruption, in my opinion), which essentially cut me off from the internet for the most part over a key period. I focused too much on local I.T. consulting because the money was good at that time. Big mistake, losing my own plot.
However, I also got my book and main website, PERMANENT, up and running, something I had neglected to do since 1987. The lack of work after the Asia Economic Crash, particularly in 1997-98, was what resulted in my finishing the book. It's my most important lifetime work, and it may not have gotten done if I had not gotten out of my busy lifestyle in the U.S. and isolated myself in a Thai community with few distractions. That may or may not be true, but the result is there nonetheless, and the book and website have had broad ranging effects.
There is also no substitute for living in a culture very different from your own, in order to see your own country and the world thru the eyes of other kinds of people. That is a very valuable education, priceless, and the only way you can do it is by getting out of your culture, and indeed outside of the expat region of Bangkok for a long time, and learning the language, too.
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