Siam in-between: A case of Thai expat’s disease

We met Laurent while he was working behind the bar of our favorite tennis club. For years he entertained us with amusing tales about life in Isaan, Thailand’s North-Eastern region. His stories would cast such an enticing net that eventually we would be drawn to Siam ourselves. A taste of paradise can slowly turn into a lethal dose of poison. This is the story of a severe case of Thai expat’s disease, as I like to call it.

Walking street, Pattaya

He was a colorful fella and great friend, Laurent. About three nights a week he would be waiting for us after every training session, cold drinks in hand. Then, suddenly he would vanish for months, almost years on end, to reappear just as abruptly. Laurent, or KC (as he preferred to be called in Asia), lost his heart to Thailand. He had discovered the Land of Smiles in his twenties and spent several months there after a difficult period in his life.

For hours we would listen to the adventures from his younger years. The man had lived the life of a rockstar, it seemed. After particularly wild exploits in his thirties, in his early forties he had met a girl and had discovered the joys of country living. His depiction of a simple life in the sunshine, stress-free and living besides his loving girlfriend between the rice fields, sounded like a fairy tale. Trips to neighboring countries now and then, slightly rekindling his old love of exotic adventure, added to the mystique.

Laurent’s employer allowed him to take unpaid leaves of absence, which enabled the extended periods abroad. He would simply return when funds had dried up, pick up his job where he left it and take every opportunity to earn something extra. Hence the night time job at the tennis club. He did not have a place of his own and lived at his father’s house, to keep expenses at a minimum.

In spite of his bubbling personality, he did have a dark streak, though. In discussions he would get overly annoyed and any difference of opinion would get him angry. Not just a little. It would border on rage, especially if he had been in Belgium for a while. We would blame it on yearnings for his little house in the rice fields and leave it at that.

One particular night, I distinctively remember rum-and-cokes and a few dares being thrown in all kinds of directions, we finally called Laurent’s bluff. At first he laughed our statement away, but when we confirmed the purchase of two tickets he realized we were serious. On his upcoming stint in Thailand, my best mate and I would visit him.

Our plane landed a few months later at Suvarnabhumi airport, after sunset. Laurent has arranged for a car to pick us up and take us to Pattaya, where he would be waiting. The darkness of night just allowed for a limited first glimpse of Thailand during the ride. A long highway with long stretches of seemingly the exact same store being repeated over and over again. Then suddenly absolute chaos, a maze of small streets, bars in pink hues, haphazardly placed light commercials and finally a dark alleyway. And KC, as we would be urged to call him over the next weeks, sitting on a patio sipping coffee. Wearing a singlet revealing his elaborate asian-style tattoos, he looked like a pacha with Yakuza affiliations. We could not have been in better spirits.

The trip quickly became a blur of exotic islands, hard partying, motorcycle trips, elaborate meals and laughter. A lot of laughter. Never laughed so hard in my entire life. One could argue that we were the definition of three-week millionaires. If I could relive moments from my past, these three weeks would be on my short list.

Back home, I would immediately book another ticket to return six months later, when I would join him up state in Isaan. For six weeks we crossed Thailand’s North-Eastern region by minivan. We visited remote villages, where white-skinned people were still an attraction. We drank Lao Khao with village chiefs, ate fried mealworms at local festivities, watched boat races and I got to meet his girlfriend and her family. She was just as dashing as her family was kind and welcoming. Laurent, now a self-proclaimed Buddhist, had met Dao while staying at a temple. When she had to return home on urgent family business, he had offered her his precious silver ring as a token of his promise to follow her later. How romantic was that, right?

Something had changed in Laurent, though. While he had gained even more traditional Thai tattoos and had started wearing Buddhist and animist amulets, I noticed that he had developed bitterness towards everything Thai. He blamed his girlfriend, whom he forbade to work, that she did not provide an income. He often openly and loudly made derogatory comments to local people. Spending a lot of time together, it became apparent the Laurent was just as unhappy abroad, as he was at home. The simple life had shifted into self-imposed austerity and exile, constant travel a chore, at least in his perception.

To my personal satisfaction, I was able to lift his spirits and we spent our last two weeks together celebrating Thai new year. Different cities celebrate Songkran at slightly different dates and we followed the festivities. We were like brothers on tour.

As a final hurray, our last stop was Pattaya. There, Laurent’s dark streak would reveal its true colors. The first glimpse came one night when we left Marine Disco. Admittedly, we were horsing around on the escalators at the exit. The security guards made a valid remark, as I would have if I was in their position. When Laurent did not quit, they physically went up to him and persuaded him to leave. Doing so, they briefly flicked the top of his head. My friend went absolutely ballistic, trying to provoke a fight. It took me great effort to defuse the situation and had to man-handle him for about three quarters of the length of Walking Street to stop him from returning. As he had taught me earlier, a fight has to be avoided at all cost in Thailand. Foreigners will always end up at the losing end of an altercation. He did thank me later.

The ultimate conflict came on my very last night. We went for drinks with a group of his friends and were chatting the night away playing pool, when I suddenly noticed that I was on the receiving end of a wide range of dirty looks and gestures. Laurent had clearly taken offense to something I had done. When one of the girls in our group handed me back my cellphone, Laurent ordered me outside … we had to go. Figuring he was looking out for my best interest, I obliged. A few meters into our stroll to the hotel, Laurent asked me if he should still consider me a friend. “Absolutely, mate!” I cried out in a singsongy voice, slightly on a Sangsom haze. He wanted to know if friends ask each other’s girl’s phone numbers. Oblivious to the dramatic tone that was building, I declared in a euphoric voice that no one touches my brother’s woman. His face turned red. Then why did I ask that girl’s number, he wanted to know. His response got him so worked up, that I naturally assumed he was joking. Wanting to play along, I added fuel to the fire. I will spare you the details, let’s just say that I added typical male banter and testosterone-driven jokes. Normally such talk isn’t my style, but you have to take into account where we were and what our surroundings looked like. Every 10 feet we walked, at least one woman would cry out what attractive male specimens we were. Laurent exploded and disappeared into a soi.

When I woke up the next morning, I realized what had happened. The girl who KC had seen typing on my phone, was passing me the address of a hotel she recommended. Even though nothing wrong had happened, nor would I have made a faux-pas should I have asked for her number, something had snapped in Laurent. We said our goodbyes and did not speak for several months.

Early the next year, Laurent reappeared behind the bar at the tennis club. He was no longer the same man. Every expense, chore, rainy day, or slight setback triggered a tirade against life in Belgium. His daytime job was hell, and he seriously slacked off working behind the bar.

Taking him out became embarrassing, as he had brought home the habit of making derogatory comments out loud and in public, especially against women. It felt like he was auditioning for the part of Aldo Maccione in a Thai-themed sarcastic remake of Plus beau que moi tu meurs.

When he announced that he had proposed to Dao, who would move to Belgium after the marriage, we were relieved. That would bring back the old Laurent, we figured. No one was invited to the wedding in Thailand but by sheer coincidence I was in Bangkok, just days after. He asked to meet up on Sukhumvit, where I met a broken man and his bride, who clearly did not understand what was happening and looked terrified. “I’ve made a big mistake” were the first words he uttered.

Turns out that he’d had a severe case of cold feet, but had felt obliged to go ahead with the wedding. Undecided if he’d made the right decision, doubt was killing him. Underwhelmed by the cheap and practical ceremony, his wife had not been excited, which made things worse. To add insult to injury, he had come to consider the agency he had hired to do the paperwork, as a scam. Over several hours I was able to calm both newly-weds down.

Back in Belgium, he started the procedure to bring Dao over. A long and tedious process, especially for his closest friends who had to endure daily complaints about how the administration was trying to keep him apart from his Big Love, ruining his life. Eventually, all went down without a hitch and Dao was allowed to move to Belgium within the standard 6 months. Once again, friends and family breathed a sigh of relief. In vain, sadly.

To start their married life, Laurent had bought a trailer on a remote camping site, convinced that it would grant them a cheap residence in green surroundings. Married life did not bring stability. Fights over grocery bills, long commutes to work and interaction with the local Thai community ultimately led to an early divorce. Even though she did not ask for anything in the settlement, he found a new reason to act like a broken man.

Laurent lives out his days, sleeping in a trailer and traveling to Thailand twice a year. Dao found a good job, lives in a beautiful two-story apartment and spends her holidays on Mallorca.

Turns out that a taste of paradise can slowly turn poisonous. If anyone discovers an antidote, please tell. I’d love to have my friend back.

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Big thanks to Phil Ross for helping me out with some fact checking. Whenever in the vicinity of Walking Street, do visit Le Pub for a nice glass of wine or a quick bite.

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