“In a year, I spent 1.5 million baht [HK$365,000] on booze and girls … believe me, I had fun,” says Steve, an Englishman from Manchester who will soon be celebrating his 60th birthday on Jomtien Beach, near Pattaya, in Thailand. The birthday bash will not be a lavish affair, however, and he hasn’t had much choice in the location; it’s where he has been living for the past few years.
Steve, who like most of the men interviewed for this article has requested that his family name not be published, is one of a growing number of Westerners who have found themselves down and out in Thailand. Many came with their life savings, intending to invest in a small business to finance a comfortable retirement in the Land of Smiles. Drawn into a lifestyle of endless parties, sex and alcohol, however, they gradually lost everything they had.
Today they survive on the streets, their visas having expired, relying on the generosity of locals.
“I had come here before several times for holidays, and I loved it,” says Steve, “so I quit my job, my family, and came with this money to make an investment for my old days and live here.”
Marvelling at the freedom he found in this “Disneyland for old men” – where alcohol, drugs and pretty girls are all readily available – Steve started spending more than he could afford.
“I could pick up two, three girls on the same day … Every go-go girl in the city knew me, I felt like a movie star,” he says.
A decent hotel room in Pattaya costs about HK$15,000 a month while HK$400 will buy you a bottle of whiskey or vodka in a nightclub, or a girl for the night. Prices are cheap by European standards.
After a few months, Steve forgot why he came to Thailand, he says. His money dwindled rapidly, making an investment less and less likely, which drove him further into drink, to forget.
“When I think about it, I left my wife, a beautiful, fine woman … I was intoxicated.”
When recalling his grown-up daughter and son back in Britain, Steve cries. He hasn’t talked to them since he arrived in Thailand, almost four years ago.
According to the Issarachon charity foundation, Thailand’s streets are home to 200 foreigners, including German, Dutch, American, Danish, Japanese and Russian nationals. At least 30 of them live in Pattaya and its surroundings. In a city famous for sex tourism and general debauchery, Pattaya’s homeless foreigners can easily be mistaken for tourists, some of whom overindulge and sleep in the street, having temporarily forgotten the name of their hotel or lost the ability to get there.
Tony, 44, is from the Netherlands. He says he was a successful trader but can’t remember in which year he lost everything. Gavin, a Scot, is hiding in dark backstreets, afraid of the police. Alex, from Denmark, swears he has a brain tumour and is hoping his embassy will repatriate him for health reasons. The several homeless Russians we encounter, who can barely speak English, seem to be in the most worrying state of isolation.
All of these men are in their 40s, 50s or 60s and, for the most part, seem well-educated and well-travelled.
Homeless foreigners survive on largesse. Those in Pattaya share their space on the beach road with “the girls”, prostitutes of a cheaper kind than those found in the go-go bars. Over time, friendship and a sense of community seem to have developed between the two groups. Some of the girls give the homeless farangs food.
Some Western residents, Christian Americans mostly, help out with a banknote or two. Rich Thais, although often very involved in charity work, tend not to.
“Thais are used to seeing white foreigners as rich people,” explains Sunanta Kaewmuangphet, a social worker who has been doing field work in the streets of Pattaya for years. “They can’t believe they are really on the streets. That’s why [Western street-sleepers] do not get much help.”
Of course, Thailand being a Buddhist country, there is always the temple option. Temples are open to everybody, their monks providing food and shelter. Some foreigners stay for a few months in a temple – and, in rare cases, end up joining the monkhood – but they remain a minority because “you have to live by their rules, you know”, says Steve, meaning no alcohol, a step most homeless are not ready to take.
“We drink to forget what our lives are like; if we can’t even drink, then that’s really too hard,” he says.
Those lives, whether they belong to Thai or foreign street-sleepers, are plagued by fights and robbery.
“Insects bites are our biggest problem,” says Sylvester, 61, an American from New York, revealing legs covered in infected wounds.
For this reason, many prefer to sleep in the backstreets rather than on the beach.
“Actually, the most difficult thing about street life is not to lose your mind,” says Sylvester, who has become something of a father figure for Pattaya’s other homeless Westerners, with his neat, peaceful lifestyle and remarkable psychological balance.
He was a soldier and first set foot in Pattaya in 1972, during the Vietnam war, when the then fishing village was a burgeoning entertainment station for the United States military, under the R&R (rest and recreation) programme, which is credited with having launched the massive sex industry in the region.
“When I came, there was nothing; a few houses, fishermen, no more. I saw the city coming out from the ground,” he says.
After spending a few years with the US Marines as a mechanic, Sylvester settled in Thailand with a local girlfriend.
They had a small street restaurant, a house, a car.
But in Thailand, it isn’t easy under the law for a foreigner to own property. As a result, most male expats who buy land or a house here put it in the name of a wife or girlfriend. When a romance ends, many of them find the door closed and the locks changed.
Sylvester claims that is what happened to him, a tale repeated by many of the homeless Westerners we meet.
However, according to Lin, a homeless Thai woman living on the beach, there is another side to consider: “These stories about Thai women stealing their property, most of them are revenge cases. These foreigners, they come here, they settle down with a lady, but they think they can still treat her as a prostitute, going to go-go bars every night and spending all their money on other women. Of course, after a while, the wife seeks revenge.”
“Awareness about property laws would be a great help,” says Sunanta, who claims there are ways in which foreigners can own Thai property. “Foreigners have the idea that whatever they do, the judge will always take the Thai person’s side. But that is not the truth.”
To a certain extent, these men are also victims of the economic crisis in the West. Pattaya is home to more than 30,000 retired foreigners, mostly from Europe, Australia and the US. They could barely survive on the pensions they receive in their home countries, but here that money can pay for a house, a car and services: a maid, a nurse, dental care – not to mention those of a sexual nature.
Pensions are not without limits, though, even in Thailand.
“In the first week of the month, when I get my pension, I can afford a room, food and drinks for me and my friends,” explains Gavin. “But the last week I usually spend in the street.”
Gavin is what social workers call an “in and out”: some hotels in Pattaya cater specially to this impoverished customer base. For about HK$70 a night, proprietors will ask no questions and, most crucially, demand no passport. Thailand’s welfare authorities consider these foreigners as being outside their scope of responsibility.
“We are financed by Thai taxpayers; it wouldn’t be fair to help foreigners with this money,” says Muy Rungnapha, manager of a state-funded shelter for homeless people in Chonburi, a neighbouring city.
Ironically, Steve used to be a bus driver for refugees in Manchester.
“Afghans, Pakistanis, many nationalities, we would provide shelters for them, even a daily allocation. But here we have no help at all from the Thai government.”
Technically, these foreigners are illegal immigrants but unofficially, on humanitarian grounds, Thai social workers do provide food and let some of them sleep at shelters on rainy nights. However, “it has to remain occasional because it should be their embassies’ responsibility, really”, says Muy.
Recently, after local press reports pointed out the problem, approaches have been discreetly made by embassies.
“The British consul called me the other day,” says Steve, “asked me if they should call my family. I hung up on them. They didn’t care for years, when I begged, and now they want to help?” Alex, who may or may not have a brain tumour, got his wish last month and was repatriated by the Danish embassy.
Officials keep silent on the topic because, according to a staff member of the French embassy who wishes to remain anonymous, “If the information gets public that we can help impoverished citizens, thousands of tourists could come to Thailand with not enough money to go back home and then rely on the embassy to pay for their return ticket.”
In order to bring the situation under control, the Thai government is working on a draft law that will require there to be a minimum amount in the bank account of anyone wishing to obtain a tourist visa and raise the minimum income needed to obtain a retiree visa, which today is set at about 65,000 baht a month. But the law has many opponents, with local governors and entrepreneurs stressing the huge amount of income generated for the country by international tourism, which stands at about 7 per cent of GDP.
As the authorities try to work out what to do with these unwanted visitors, the latter play an endless game of hideand- seek with the Thai police. Once in a while they get caught and are sent to jail for a couple of weeks while officers try to fine them for overstaying. But given the general indifference of the embassies, who will pay? In the end, homeless Westerners are released and end up on the streets again.
Even if they were to get the money from their embassy or family, many of Thailand’s homeless farangs appear reluctant to leave.
“Go back to America? And do what?” asks Sylvester.
With few prospects and no help from family or friends back home, their situation might be even tougher should they return.
Sylvester says he is waiting for his military pension, which is supposed to kick in next year. In the meantime, he will stay in his street corner.
“All in all, it is much better to be homeless here than in the States. People are nice and you’re never cold.”
TONY, FROM THE Netherlands, is 44 and is squatting in an abandoned colonial-style house in Pattaya.
"I never let anybody see my secret place," he says proudly, as he shows us around. "At night, ladyboys come here with their customers, in the backyard, and go about their business … but I don't mind them, they don't mind me. They never come this side of the house."
A Catholic church group has been helping Tony and he is trying to reconnect with his ex-wife and two children, who live in Bangkok.
"This time I feel that I can make it right, I can get myself out of here," he says, assuring us he owns properties in Thailand and that it is only a matter of time before he will be rich again.