Expatriating to Asia is a dream for many, but the gritty realities of life (and death) here can be a bit of an eye opener. For expats, living and working in Southeast Asia can be a fascinating experience one, however, that comes with a few pitfalls which can affect foreigners and locals alike. Michael Batson pulls back the veil to look at fatal outcomes and death by misadventures along the Southeast Asia expat trail.
There are thousands of expats who move to Southeast Asia and never look back. From the outside, this may conjure images of gently swaying palm trees, white sand beaches and mango smoothies. In reality, life as an expat in Asia may not turn out to be all that you’d hoped for. It is a life with few rules and lots of leeway, but the price to pay is often dire: serious degradation of health and finances in many cases, and early unnecessary deaths is another.
If you are anticipating a move then you need to be clear of what you are going to do once there, and how you are going to live. There are some key things to consider: are you going to work; how are you going to fill in your time; do you have health insurance, will you have a partner and ultimately, where are you going to be buried? Many expats don’t fully consider some or all of these, which can lead to problems later.
Largely, there are no hard and fast rules about how things will turn out for many expats. Those with savings and perhaps an income from pensions can live a comfortable life where the cost of living is, in most instances, considerably cheaper than back home. Certainly, for those prepared to make an effort to understand the local people and their culture it can be a rewarding experience. But many expats remain ignorant by choice, preferring the company of their own kind, and never move away from the familiar; the food, company and conversation. Though, if you said to them why leave home in the first place they’d invariably give you a whole list of reasons why. For many it’s simple – they just want life cheaper, the weather warmer and ready access to things largely beyond them at home; attention, status, sex.
Expat stings, dupes and cons
One of the major pitfalls for expat men, and for some women also, is sex and relationships, so you may want to consider some ground rules. The expat will be paying for everything so suddenly your expenses have doubled. In many cases you will also be indirectly paying for your adopted extended family. One American was asked to pay the gambling debts of his Thai father-in-law, which were fairly substantial. No sooner had he done this the father-in-law went out and racked up more, which the expat also paid. His Thai wife also had expensive tastes, which he allowed, until he went broke and she left him. The lesson is there’s a line between generosity and stupidity, so work out what it’s going to be.
There are also a myriad of scams too numerous to mention here. But one example, another American expat of retirement age was in a steady relationship with a Thai. Every weekend they’d go to her family for lunch. The whole family would be there including the woman’s nephew and her brother. After four years the expat was tipped off: the brother was the woman’s husband and the nephew their son. The whole family had been in on it and had been milking him for money the whole time.
Among the long-term circles in the expat ghettoes peppered around the region there are liars, misfits, mercenaries, opportunists, English teachers and missionaries. Some are here out of genuine love of the place. They’ve come here for everything that’s different, for what you don’t or can’t get at home. Many, after a few years, wouldn’t want to return home. They’ve been bitten by the bug and would find adjusting to life back home just too difficult.
Others are here for an assortment of reasons, some entirely legitimate and others rather less savory, if not to say downright illegal. There are plenty of cowboys here, pretending to be something they’re not. That is part of the attraction; you can reinvent yourself to an extent.
The Price of Expatriation: Early Death?
Big Doug the Kiwi lived in Cambodia for years, moving here right after the civil war, back in the 1990s. Back then life for all was basic and dangerous, not that it’s all rosy now. Years of civil war and violent turmoil have also left the country awash with high-powered weaponry. Where ever you are it still pays to travel a well-worn path as unexploded ordnance, courtesy of the world’s largest arms manufacturers and the US air force, litter the countryside.
Doug used to run the Rebel Guesthouse in Koh Kong City. I’ve stayed there. His business card featured the images from the movie ‘Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man’ – fitting, as it’s a bit like the Wild West out there. It can seem like the back of beyond. Journalists are threatened and land rights campaigners murdered. Often the police are complicit in crimes. Private gunslingers are hired by palm oil magnates to run off small land holders. The jungled mountains were one of the last vestiges of control by the Khmer Rouge. There were working elephants used in the hills. It’s the main town of the poorest province in Cambodia. Outside town there’s the chicken farm. It’s not a farm and there aren’t any chickens. Instead poor families sell their girls to the madam. It’s the local brothel and they have the bill of sale. Today there’s the gaudy casino and the Thai military run cross-border smuggling operations involving just about everything. In town they use three currencies; Thai baht, Cambodian riel and US dollars.
Big Doug was a morbidly obese diabetic. One day a kid on a motorbike clipped Doug’s shin, cutting him to the bone. The kid’s family ponied up a bit of compensation, brokered by the cops for a fee.
Doug’s wound festered. Health care in Cambodia is in the backwaters [reword], so he made regular trips to Thailand to see doctors. He kept the dressings clean, but the tropical heat doesn’t let up. When I returned to Cambodia, I was told that Doug had died from blood poisoning – the wound never healed.
One day I was sat next to a South African nurse on a bus to Battambang. We started talking about life in Asia and travel in general recounting where we’d been and what were favourites. As we trundled across the sunbaked plains, we discussed the idea that expats make a decision (subconsciously or otherwise) to trade the lifestyle of Southeast Asia for a shorter time on the planet.
For some, perhaps trading a few years of life in exchange for living in exotic Southeast Asia is preferable to living back home in the west, in a country you no longer enjoy.
Many accept the trade-off.
Expats gone feral
Some describe a hierarchy of expats living in Southeast Asia. At the top there are the expat long-timers been there for years. In places like Cambodia this would be those who came with the UN right after the civil war years and never left, or left and then came back, having been “bitten by the bug”. Next came the professional expats living on Western salaries. Then in descending order come the TEFLers, those teaching English as a foreign language. Then there are the “Voluntourists” working for the myriad of NGOs and community groups. Following these are the Backpackers. Lastly, came the Sexpats followed by the Deadpats. These last two are a poor reflection on Westerners and probably confirms for many locals the negative image of foreigners.
In other parts of Southeast Asia, like Pattaya in Thailand, anthropologists and some sociologists might even find the range of expats fascinating, psychologists too. The place is like a human zoo. Expats cover the whole realm of human kind. Their faded tattoos, usually of some banal subject matter, stain their withered limbs. Their inter-group conversations, usually confined to their regional groupings of origin, criticize all that is lacking in Thailand, and what they invariably miss about the home country, which makes you wonder why they are here at all. With their tattoos and ashen skin, lack of grace and poor demeanour, one is reminded of prison inmates recently released or football hooligans, or both. Hence their collective nickname “lifers” or as a mate says of them “the jailbreak crew.”
Health risks of the Asia Expat Lifestyle
Living in large Asian cities like Bangkok and Jakarta can take at least 10 years off of your life. Air quality is appalling. Many succumb to suicide, cancer, motorbike accidents, and diabetes. Few expats who die are older than 65 and most are much younger, some in their thirties.
Suicides are common. Usually these are expat males caught up in a financial wrangle with a local woman or her family. More than a few expats have been burned that way, some losing their life savings. Some wind up living on the streets in places like Pattaya. Others jump off of high rises, or drive headlong into a dump truck at high speed.
In places like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, many expats adopt unhealthy lifestyles: too much alcohol, poor eating habits and a lack of exercise.
Many do not fill their time constructively. It’s not uncommon to see sexpats and potential deadpats in bars before lunch, usually in the company of farm girls driven to the bright city lights. To paraphrase a French doctor working in Cambodia in the 1980s, “If you stay a long time working in tropical areas with its long nights you face two possibilities; you get to become an alcoholic, or you get to start reading books (and become a readaholic)”.
Then there is the traffic. Southeast Asians die on the roads in their thousands every year, and they take many foreigners with them. Some accidents involve motorbikes but most involve scooters. Drivers are reckless and if involved in an accident invariably flee the scene. This includes bus and train drivers, even airline pilots.
Almost 2,000 people die on Cambodian roads every year. Of these 70% are motorcyclists and 13% pedestrians. Of the thirty or so bus companies in Cambodia only one did not have a fatal accident last year. Travel by road at night should be avoided. Bus drivers rarely adjust their daily routine if driving by night, meaning your driver quite possibly has already been up all day before beginning work. Workplace exploitation can also mean drivers working back-to back shifts causing more fatigue and increasing the risk of accidents. Worse, victims of road accidents will be robbed of valuables while they bleed out. When asked by a Khmer colleague if this was the case in my country, I said it wasn’t. After giving this consideration, she replied “oh, that’s good.”
Thai minibus drivers like to speed. Preferably this should be done as close as possible to the vehicles in front or to the side, hopefully while being distracted while on the phone (texting is good) or changing a CD, and best of all when visibility is poor, such as at night during some tropical downpour, which should act as no deterrence at all to speeds in excess of 100kph.
I once saw four separate accidents in Vietnam in a single day on the main road between the city of Quang Nam and the tourist mecca of Hoi An, all involving motorcycles. From seeing the victims, I’d say fatalities were almost certain in two of the accidents. Hardly reassuring as I was a pillion passenger myself at the time, and the last part of the journey was completed at night.
Dire Expat Misadventures in Southeast Asia
Pharmacies in Cambodia are usually clustered together. One starts up and others follow suit. Self-medication is the rule. There’s no such thing as a controlled substance, which leads to all sorts of shenanigans. Morphine and heroin are widely available and cheap. People with a predilection for substance abuse can wind up in all sorts of trouble. For weeks I had a morphine addict masquerading as an English teacher staying in my hotel.
According to Khmer440, at least 95 expats have died in the first 9 months of 2015. Some were murders. Some were overdoses. Some were killed by a combination of car crash and shoddy medical treatment. Official reports on deaths of expats, rare though they are, will mention disease, accident and suicide, but not murder.
Many people go to Southeast Asia unaware of the pitfalls of falling foul of the local judiciary. Prison is one place you would want to avoid. The food is poor and conditions primitive. There’s no hygiene and gross overcrowding. Trials may only last a matter of hours. Likely as not there’s no forensics, no cross-examination. Witnesses are often paid vast sums by local standards to testify. The judiciary is rarely independent, and the police corrupt. Personally, I find there is a certain assumption amongst tourists and expats when travelling abroad, to many places, that they are somewhat immune with a foreign passport. The reality can be much different. As a foreigner you can be exceedingly vulnerable in many instances.
Take the case of one expat, Graham Cleghorn. He and his Khmer wife owned a prawn farm near the Cambodian tourist hub of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for the temples of Angkor. His land was coveted by a well-connected Khmer but Cleghorn refused to sell. Soon after he was accused of having sex with underage girls a charge he vehemently denied. His trial was a sham, his sentence – 20 years. He served 11 years in Prey Sar Prison near Phnom Penh before being released.
You also need be aware that the local elites go about with absolute impunity. There’s no accountability for the actions of high ranking military and government figures. Criticising the royal family in Thailand will get you 15 years imprisonment under that country’s strict lese majeste laws; laws that are extended to any form of criticism of the country’s ruling junta.
Death by suicide in Cambodia
Plenty do commit suicide knowing discretion is likely – such cases are rarely investigated, a result of local police incompetence and indifference.
How does an expat get to such a point? Some may have burned their bridges back home, leaving them with no way out.
For example, the Finnish owner of Suomi Guesthouse on Street 172, Timo Jokinen (Phnom Penh’s main backpacker street), who was found dead in his room with his rent in arrears.
Cambodia has long been known for its cheap heroin. Backpackers on the party circuit often buy heroin thinking it is cocaine. Two were found awhile back in the Angkor International near Kandal Market before the place was renovated. You hear on the urban grapevine of other incidents.
Morphine is another favourite, or combinations with various sedatives available over the counter. But all up alcohol would be the biggest killer of young and old. Some by accident others after years of abuse. Booze may be a slow burner, but it’s still suicide.
Not having regular contacts means bodies can go undiscovered in hotels for several days, making a grisly find for staff. Expats ride bikes drunk with little protection, and have no road sense in a country with little formal road sense. In Cambodia there are no give-way rules at intersections and traffic lights mere objects of curiosity. When I first lived there cars, both left and right hand drive vehicles would drive on both sides of the road going in the same direction.
Bodies, the victims of foul play sometimes turn up in Tonle Sap – hands bound with wire their throats cut. One sexpat TEFLer with a reputation for not paying taxi girls was discovered dumped in a drain. He hadn’t been seen around town in his usual haunts but no one reported anything to the police, they’d be little point in any case as no investigation would be undertaken. Embassies are reluctant to get involved until it’s taken up officially, and even then the extent of their powers are limited.
I once saw a dead man, a local, on a footpath in Phnom Penh. People gathered around and stared. I’m unsure how long he lay there before being collected to who knows where.
An Irishman told me about an American who fell to his death from an apartment building. His body was in the street all morning because no one knew who he was or who to call. Eventually someone called the embassy.
A Frenchman killed himself, and his Khmer wife was understandably distraught. The Frenchman was a heroin addict and dealer. The police were closing in, and he hadn’t the money to buy them off, or to leave the country.
Expats who found their dreams
There are scattered stories of expats who struck gold in the bar business like Chad from Seattle who took a lease on Rory’s Guesthouse and Bar on Street 178 in Phnom Penh, or the Mancunian at the Rusty Keyhole in Kampot, the “best pork ribs in Cambodia” and the excellent Bokor Mountian Lodge owned by Eric, a Kiwi. The Rising Sun near Phnom Penh’s riverside is owned by an Australian ex-soldier. A French ex-special forces owns a boutique hotel in the Philippines run by his Khmer girlfriend while he’s working in Iraq, and so on. Not only have they carved a good business but they’re equitable employers.
There are even some stories where the expats cashed out successfully and lived happily ever after. However, the reality is that most bars do not make any money, and guesthouses are a dime-a-dozen. Owners come and go and next week there’s another expat behind the counter and the bar has a new theme, looking for another group of regulars.
Some other expats have succeeded in business ventures outside the hospitality trade like Sciaroni and Associates, lawyers based in Cambodia but with offices across Southeast Asia, and the South African who runs companies in Phnom Penh specialising in HR and business research with contracts with the World Bank. Still more are moving there with multinationals or intra-governmental agencies, and live very well. Some opt to stay even when offered positions in other countries.
Choosing to live in one of the most fascinating parts of the world has many benefits, and can be rewarding for all kinds of reasons. Living in Southeast Asia can be both fascinating and absorbing. Even the mundane is alluring, and at times, it can be photogenic. Ordinary things you wouldn’t be interested in at home, can take on a whole new dimension. Just watching people go about doing ordinary everyday things can be fascinating. There’s much to admire like the people, food, culture, street life, and the sheer energy of the place. There are the sights, sounds, climate, the pace of life, history and a whole range of other things including its mystique, to captivate you.
After several years living in Asia expats often find returning home an impossible option, even if they may think they want to. They’re just too used to the lifestyle in their adopted land. If you do return, people will likely only be mildly interested in your time away. Others won’t understand the attraction of why you’d want to live there. They say things like “why do you want to go there?” or “I thought you’d already “done” Asia.” Some may even be secretly jealous and resent your lifestyle choice. You went to Asia, they have kids and a mortgage. As they say once you’ve travelled you’re never quite the same again. Part of you will want what’s over there and when you there you will miss things about being back home.
If you choose to move here, it would behoove you to have a clear exit plan in place. Much sure you have enough money to get you home. It would be pay you not to burn all your bridges. Have health insurance. Asia is not a place to get sick unless you can pay. There’s no social security system in place. Asians have pensions, they call them families; expats need be more self-reliant. Have a contact network in Asia and if possible, at home as well. You may wish to set a monetary figure, at which you bail. But for others there will be no return and that’s fine as long as you can live with your decision. At the end of the day you will have to.