A Thai charity has revealed that a growing number of Westerners — around 200 at present — are sleeping rough on the streets of the Southeast Asian nation, in areas from Chiang Mai to Phuket, many doing so as a result of alcoholism, drug use or having spent all their money on local women.
“We are starting to see more and more homeless foreigners, many of whom have separated from their Thai wives and now have no money,” said Natee Saravari, secretary-general of the Issarachon Foundation. “They walk or sit in shopping malls during the daytime and scavenge through garbage for food at night.”
The disclosure has to be put in the context of homelessness in Thailand in general. An estimated 30,000 homeless Thai nationals share the same streets, as well as an indeterminate number of Lao, Burmese and Cambodians. However, the conspicuousness of homeless Westerners — an extraordinary sight to Thais who generally presume that Western residents are relatively affluent — makes them an eye-catching subject for local media.
One man who is unsurprised by these developments is Paul Garrigan. The 44-year-old Irishman spent five years “drinking himself to death” in Thailand before quitting in 2006 and has since written a book about his experiences. “Some people come to Thailand and they already have a drink or drug problem but they have it under control in their own country,” he tells TIME, “but then the restrictions have gone and that addiction can blossom.”
In addition, romantic complications, typically with “bar girls,” can prove wretchedly pivotal. On Aug. 25, the Bangkok Post published an interview with a 61-year-old American living on the streets of Pattaya, a seaside town with an infamous sex industry just south of Bangkok. Originally from North Carolina, Sylvester fell for a local bar girl in 2009 and spent all his savings buying a car and a truck in her name. Two years later, she left him penniless. “On the beach, I have friends who are homeless Thais,” he said. “We share food, cigarettes and some alcoholic drinks.”
A wealth of books has been written about the folly of tangling with bar girls but pitiful stories abound. “It’s the inability of the foreign guy to separate the truth from what they are being told,” says Rhys Bonney, a visa consultant based in the northern city of Chiang Mai, who is currently dealing with several clients in a similar financial situation to Sylvester.
Foreigners seeking a little companionship become easy prey, Bonney says. Unfamiliar with Thai bureaucracy, they get pressured into buying cars in their girlfriend’s name. “The reality is that there’s no difficulty to do it in their own [name],” he explains. Next they buy a house in her name with the proviso that they will share everything equally, but no legal documents are signed to that effect. “And when they’ve paid the money the girlfriend can just kick them out,” Bonney adds.
Once that happens, the absence of any social safety net means escaping the streets can be very problematic. “If I was homeless in Thailand, I would probably still be on the streets,” adds Garrigan.
Some help is available, however. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok “is definitely one of the busier posts out there” says spokesman Walter Braunohler, who, while unable to provide precise figures, tells TIME repatriation requests from destitute Americans is “more than a trickle.” Sending somebody home costs around $2,000, the majority spent on airfare but also on temporary lodging, meals, medical treatment and immigration fines. Friends and family back home are sounded out for a loan, but should none be forthcoming the government will stump up the cost to be repaid upon return. Other embassies work on a similar basis.
Ultimately though, while the sight of homeless Westerners is saddening, it must be remembered that far greater ills exist on Thailand’s mean streets. Alezandra Russell runs the charity Urban Light, which helps young male sex workers in Northern Thailand, many of them illegal immigrants fleeing Burma’s bloody civil conflicts.
“You will not find in any report the teen boy who sleeps in the flower market and is approached by a pimp every night,” she says, “or the boy who works in the red light district from a hill-tribe village and speaks only his native language.”
One person living without a home is a travesty, but at least Westerners in Thailand can be counted. For many of Thailand’s most vulnerable, says Russell, “There are no numbers.”