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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 11:20 GMT
Hard lessons in expat paradise
Brits Abroad
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Railay beach, Thailand
Frances Khetrat's commute to work beats that of most Brits
Thailand: For Britons it's a friendly Asian holiday paradise. But the reality of moving lock, stock and barrel to the other side of the world has been a lot harder for some of the tens of thousands of expats.

To the holidaymakers visiting Frances Khetrat's bar on a picturesque Thai beach, it must seem as if she has the perfect life.

Every day she takes a wooden long-tail boat across the sea, to a sandy bay overlooked by imposing limestone cliffs.

"I often think how lucky I am, when I remember all the people stuck on the tube while I'm surrounded by crystal-clear water and beautiful scenery," she says.

But Frances readily admits that her life is not as idyllic as people might imagine.

Frances and her husband
Even if I wanted to, I can't leave Thailand until I've paid off the loans - I had a baby last year and I would have loved to go back to have him in England, but I couldn't afford it
Frances Khetrat, expat in Thailand

"A lot of tourists say I'm living a dream life, but they don't know the half of it," she says. "It's very different being here all the time than just being here on holiday."

Frances is one of an estimated 41,000 Britons currently living in Thailand, according to research by the IPPR think tank.

Many of these ex-pats first came to the so-called Land of Smiles as tourists, and fell in love with the beautiful scenery, friendly locals and relaxed way of life - not to mention the cheap beer and year-round sun.

Frances initially came to visit a friend. But she soon decided to relocate permanently, setting up a clothes shop and bar on the picturesque peninsula of Railay.

Meeting the local man who was later to become her husband cemented her decision to stay.

Bureaucracy and disaster

She faced challenges from the start.

"I had a bit of tension [when I arrived] with local people, and I had to make sure I wasn't doing things they wanted to do," she says.

"You get penalised a lot for being a foreigner. I've had to do things in a much more official way than Thai-owned businesses - and I had lots of visits from people checking I had the right permits and licenses, which is often quite complicated to get right."

Map of Thailand showing Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Samui and Bangkok
Thailand: 41,000, including Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Samui
Vietnam: 3,800
Singapore: 45,000
Indonesia: 11,000
Source: IPPR, Totals estimates only.

Then came the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. The natural disaster devastated the beach resorts on Thailand's western coastline, killing 5,400 people, half of whom were foreigners. Railay was spared but nearby Phi Phi island suffered large numbers of casualties.

After the water had receded and the dead were counted, the living began to rebuild. But foreign investors like Frances found that the safety mechanisms Westerners take for granted back home do not exist in Thailand.

She had opened up her bar on 21st December 2004 - five days before the tsunami hit.

While the bar escaped unscathed, few tourists came to the region for months afterwards, almost wiping out her earnings for the high season.

Frances saw no prospect of compensation. To make matters worse, she faced losing the building she had constructed because she couldn't pay rent to her landlord - foreigners cannot buy land in Thailand. She was forced to take out large loans and is still paying them back.

"Even if I wanted to, I can't leave Thailand until I've paid off the loans," she says.

"I had a baby last year and I would have loved to go back to have him in England, but I couldn't afford it."

Learning the language

Billy Brunsdon has faced other problems. He manages the Bull's Head - a traditional English pub in the heart of Bangkok. He has had to learn how to work under Thailand's often obscure rules and regulations.

Billy Brunsdon in his pub's 'tuk-tuk'
If I won the lottery tomorrow I'd still live here
Billy Brunsdon
Like Frances, he has made an effort to get to know local people and learn their language and cultural traditions, factors he says are essential to running a successful business.

"I think some people who come here are quite naive," says Billy. "I've seen lots of people get into problems because they think they can just set things up with no local help."

"You need to gain people's trust, and that takes time. When I'd been there for a while and learned the lingo, I got so much more respect from my staff."

Another factor that people on a fortnight's beach holiday might not fully appreciate is that moving to a cheaper nation comes at a price. Billy's first job in Thailand was as a DJ earning 100 Baht ($2.50) a night. Unless a foreigner earns a Western salary in certain specific jobs, expats live the same life as Thais themselves - not in an air-conditioned tourist hotel.


But there seems to be no shortage in the number of Britons willing to swap the rain-soaked UK for sun-drenched Thailand.

Gary Glitter
Gary Glitter: Convicted of sex offences in Vietnam
Many are professionals - especially teachers. Some are retirees, living in a level of luxury they would be unable to afford back home, having cashed up in Britain to see a modest sum worth a lot more on the other side of the world.

Others live near the beaches, working in bars, hotels and dive shops and renewing their tourist visas every few months - although this is something the authorities have recently started to crack down on.

Thailand also has a reputation for attracting another type of foreigner - the so-called sex-pats who frequent the red light districts of Bangkok and beach resorts such as Pattaya. It's an image that plays strongly in Western media - not least because of the saga of former British pop-star Gary Glitter who moved to south-east Asia after his jailing on child pornography charges.

"People look at me negatively sometimes when they find out I live in Thailand," says Billy. "They assume certain things that aren't true, but I've learnt to live with that."

But living with a media stereotype doesn't outweigh the weather, culture and easy lifestyle, he says.

"If you'd told me at 18 that I'd live in Thailand, I'd have laughed at you. But when I got here, I just loved it. If I won the lottery tomorrow I'd still live here."

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