Citylife Article Archive:
Swiss in the City
Swiss Lanna Society
Nestled in the north of Thailand’s many valleys, and perched atop its numerous mountains, reside an astonishing number of Swiss people. By general reckoning, the numbers of expatriates registered in any embassy or consulate is about half of the actual number of those in residence, or seasonal residence. There are, incredibly, 600 registered Swiss expatriates in the north of Thailand. So, double that.
“We Swiss like the mountains,” explains Andy Mannhart, President of the recently inaugurated Swiss Lanna Society.
The Swiss Lanna Society has, since its inception in April at the Swiss-managed Imperial Mae Ping hotel, 120 members, “many Swiss people like to live simple, quiet lives in the mountains, they are not club or association people, but there are many others who enjoy the activities of the club.” The vast majority of the association’s members are retired and, overwhelmingly, Swiss German. There being only a handful of Swiss French and at present no Swiss Italians.
“Life is good here,” continued Mannhart, “infrastructure is good, the prices are still reasonable and we can afford to live a quality of life here that many of us can only dream of in Switzerland, where, behind every corner there is a policeman. Here people leave you alone as long as you don’t wrong them; it makes life very comfortable.”
The association organises a monthly meeting whereby a Swiss resident, or visitor, will be invited to give a talk. A less formal social evening is also held weekly, on Wednesdays, at Why Not? Restaurant on Nimmanhaemin Soi 11 and there are emerging groups for golf, mini-golf or tennis.
“While the majority of our members are male,” adds Mannhart, “we do have a large number of women as well. In fact, I just met two ladies who are new arrivals, neither had ever travelled before, but they just decided to pack up and move here. They don’t speak Thai or English, but somehow they manage and are having a great time. Our association assists them.”
Andy Mannhart has lived in Chiang Mai for four years with his wife Veronica, whose idea it was initially to set up the association. He had worked in the hotel supplies industry all his life, selling kitchen utensils to five star hotels all over Asia and when it came to retire, Thailand and especially Chiang Mai, was the natural choice. Together with Thai friends they have purchased land and have built houses to sell to fellow Swiss retirees.
“Forming the Swiss Lanna Society just adds to the quality of life,” ended Mannhart. “We wanted to have a social kind of network among Swiss people where we can meet once in a while, talk our language and have some good times together. One of my neighbours isn’t interested in joining; he says he has enough Swiss friends. Many other Swiss people simply live too far away in the mountains, but they all know about our association, so whenever they want to get involved, they know they can have this support system.”
So Citylife went hunting for some fascinating Swiss residents in Chiang Mai.
A Dream Weaver
Daniel Siegfried, 34, was an early achiever, having entered the family business of banking during a study-work programme while still at school in Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 15. While his life-course appeared fixed, he couldn’t quite shake the passion he felt a few years earlier when he worked on a school project about children’s rights in Africa.
Family expectations prevailed, however and by 19 he was working for UBS bank in Hong Kong. Siegfried spent the following years working up the corporate ladder, finding himself in Singapore, Zurich, Seoul and Singapore. And while success was in ample supply, satisfaction was lacking.
“I didn’t like to see how my friends were living in a golden cage,” said Siegfried, at the modern purpose-built Child’s Dream Foundation offices, of which he is co-founder. “I was making a lot of money at the time, but I also made a point of travelling extensively and keeping my feet firmly on the ground. After nine years of banking, I retired from the industry at the age of 25 and came to Chiang Mai to volunteer at the School for Life.”
“I have always related to children,” adds Siegfried, “and after a few months, I decided that I was ready to commit to helping them. I saw how children had to fight to receive an education while feeling obligated to care for their families. This conflict often created so much pressure that children leave their families, become exploited, or turn to drugs. Initially we, my friend and co-founder started off by using our banking network to find funds to support organisations working with children in the Golden Triangle area – Chiang Rai and northern Chiang Mai. These children had substance abuse, health problems, were orphans or street kids and we began by building boarding houses, toilets, water systems, offering basic health and education.”
“Child’s Dream Foundation was formed in 2003 and while it was very hard, my background in project management came in handy. By 2005 we were questioning our sustainability, and began to look at the root causes of children’s problems. That is when we realised that it came down to lack of education. We then started to conduct structured interviews to get more information and we found that most of these street children were migrant kids from Burma, Laos, and many hill tribes, so that is when we decided to expand. We now work in Burma, Laos and Cambodia. We mainly work with the ministries of education and find communities where there are no schools at all, or simple shacks for schools. These are very hard areas to access, but they are the areas which need us the most.”
Child’s Dream Foundation opens its books to the public, with all accounts officially audited and presented online. They also do their own risk assessments when embarking upon a new project, and tend to appoint one community leader to act as foreman to each project, purchasing their own building materials and overseeing all construction and implementation themselves.
To date, Child’s Dream Foundation has created 150 projects, with dozens of gilded gold certificates huddled together on shelves lining their office walls, thank yous from communities and governments. Theirs is not a build-and-leave organisation, in fact, each project, however remote, is visited at least twice per year by the foundation’s 30 dedicated staff.
At this moment, Child’s Dream is building 10 schools in Laos, three boarding houses and one nursery in Thailand and one school in Cambodia, among numerous other ongoing projects in the region.
“We are always checking to make sure that what we are doing is effective and sustainable,” adds Siegfried. “Regular evaluation has shown that we are on the right track. In fact there are many areas where school enrollment was 50% prior to our arrival and over 90% after. This is a sure sign of success. In Thailand, for instance, we build many boarding houses in the mountains so children who live too far to walk to school can board Mondays to Fridays. We also take a very holistic approach and offer higher education scholarships as well as vocational training to school graduates. The good news is that after all these years we are seeing these scholarship recipients returning to their villages to contribute.”
“We have thought about expanding, but have decided that we are happy at our size. We receive around 5 million US dollars donations per year, amazingly over 50% of which comes from Asian donors, and we are able to keep our overheads and admin costs to a very low 7%, never climbing higher than 10%.”
Daniel Siegfried’s own dream, sparked by a childhood project on African children’s rights, has led him to dedicate his life to fulfilling the dreams of so many children on the other side of the world from where his own dreams began.
A Sabai Man
Matthias Froelich is the official web master of the Swiss Lanna Society, updating its online presence at www.swiss-lanna-society.com. He is also founder and owner of the famous Baan Sabai Spas in Samui and here in Chiang Mai.
He arrived on Koh Samui in 1991 as manager of the Amari Palm Reef Hotel and after a few years working in the hotel, restaurant as well as property sectors, in 1996 he transformed his Ayutthaya-styled home into the Ban Sabai Big Buddha Wellness Spa. Today the popular wellness spa in Samui has a branch in Chiang Mai, Ban Sabai Village with the vast majority of its clientele coming through the businesses’ web sites. Ban Sabai was a pioneer of the spa and wellness centres which are still raging with popularity today. “Training the staff in the days when there were hardly any spas was very hard as we had to start from scratch,” said Froelich of his early years. “We also had to explain that we didn’t offer erotic massages!”
Froelich’s wife studied at Chiang Mai University and had always had a soft spot for our city, and so they opened the Chiang Mai branch in 2003. “We simply want to offer high quality services from spa experiences to yoga, weight loss and detox programmes in a casual and easy going way. Privacy and comfort are very important to our guests and while we offer all modern amenities, we like to keep things low key and friendly.”
“I am not really an association person,” says Froelich, “I have many friends who are Thai and expats, but prefer individual contacts to group activities. Unlike Marc [Dumur] who is very active in associations. He asked me to get involved and so I am happy to do the web site, I think it is very nice that the Swiss people have this social network as support.”
Marc Dumur is a well known name in Chiang Mai. In the days before the Chedis and Shangri-las, Mandarin Orientals and Le Meridiens, Marc Dumur was the general manager of Chiang Mai’s then-most iconic hotel, the Amari Rincome. For seven years he dragged the old Rincome into the modern age, making its La Gritta Sunday brunches the most popular in the city and adding professionalism to outdoor catering. Dumur is also known in social circles, having been involved with many non-profit activities, from tirelessly raising funds for annual FERC galas (Foundation for the Education of Rural Children), to manning food and beverage for the Chiang Mai Cricket Sixes, being involved in the Chiang Mai West Rotary to running his own serviced apartment, Frangipani.
A man with many hats, Dumur has just gained himself another one, as of May this year, he is now the Honorary Swiss Consul for Chiang Mai.
Dumur was born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland. He claims to have been a below-average student and started life working as a waiter before receiving an opportunity to work in a hotel in Amsterdam. After three years in The Netherlands he returned to Zurich to work for the airport Hilton. “For three years I watched people I worked with moving to Africa, South America and Asia, and I decided that that was what I wanted too,” says Dumur, who applied for a job in Thailand and Mexico. “A few months later I got a call from the Siam Lodge Group (today’s Amari) and was offered the assistant resident manager at the airport hotel. It was a pretty easy transition as the size and scope of the job was similar to the Hilton’s. At the time the Amari only had that one hotel in Bangkok and when they decided to open up the Amari Boulevard a year later they asked me if I wanted to oversee its construction and become GM.” Dumur jumped at the opportunity and in 1989 opened the 130 room hotel where he worked for five years. “It kept expanding and I was asked to oversee other projects like guesthouses and restaurants, so within five years I was managing over 400 rooms and was getting overstretched, so I resigned before I got in too much over my head.”
During that time he was asked to come to Chiang Mai to manage the Amari Rincome hotel for six weeks while the GM went on leave and that is where he met his wife, then front office manager, Luxami, who he convinced to move with him to Bangkok. “Even though we all did it, it was against company policy to date within the company, so Luxami quit and began working at the Oriental Hotel.” Following a fairy tale wedding in Switzerland and Chiang Mai, with friends flying back and forth to both destinations over six months, the Dumurs decided to move to Had Yai where he accepted a job with Six Senses, running the 400 room JB hotel.
After a few years he received a phone call from the Amari group offering him position as GM at the Amari Rincome and the couple decided to accept, they hopped into their old Beetle and drove up from Had Yai and arrived at the Amari Rincome where Dumur worked as GM for seven years.
Dumur and Luxami dreamed of owning their own business and finally made the plunge, building Frangipani on a small plot of land behind Wat Chiang Man in the old city, a nine-room serviced apartment. Over the years Dumur has worked for the Buranupakorn family, opening their hotel, Rati Lanna as well as working for Intco, owners of The Legend Resort and Spa, Chiang Rai, where he currently divides his time.
“It was interesting working for the Buranupakorn family,” says Dumur. “Being a politician, Boonlert has to make so many decisions all the time on a wide variety of subjects and while he is decent and easy to work with, he is surrounded by ‘advisors’ and ‘experts’ and therein lies the problem. My philosophy of working in Thailand is to stay on good terms with everyone, don’t shut any doors, so I decided it was best to leave on good terms, than wait for problems.”
Dumur says that there are 7000 registered Swiss nationals living in Thailand (Switzerland has a population of 7 million, so this is a significant number, and its largest community in Asia). And echoing embassy – and consulate – norm, it is presumed that actual numbers of residents are generally double those actually registered, so there could be as many as 14,000 Swiss living in Thailand.
“The majority of Swiss residents are retired, they don’t or can’t travel much,” said Dumur. “At the age of 65 the Swiss state pension fund kicks in and you are entitled to a minimum of 65,000 baht per month per couple. In order to be eligible, you need to present yourself once a year to the embassy to prove that you are still alive. The Swiss Embassy, seeing that there were 600 registered in Chiang Mai, wanted to help make this process easier, that is why they sought to open an honorary consulate.”
“65,000 baht per month per couple, while not enough to live on in Switzerland, can offer quite a good quality of life here in Thailand,” adds Dumur, “that is why so many choose to live here, and you add company pensions on top of that and the Swiss here have it good. The other issue which we have yet to resolve is that the Thai immigration, unlike most in the world, demands you put 800,000 baht in your bank account or prove that you earn 65,000 baht per month. Before, the Swiss used to go to Hagan Dirkson, the German Honorary Consul, for the stamp, but it wasn’t really his responsibility, so we have to do it now. The problem is that the Swiss government won’t pay for the translation of the document into Thai and the Swiss citizens don’t want to pay for it themselves, so we are in a bit of a bind. We really need to find some fund to cover this translation expense.”
Dumur is a practical sort. When asked why he accepted the honorary – unpaid – post, he explained that it would help put his business on the map and it would also help him to generate donations for his various charities and foundations.
One perk of the job is an annual visit to Switzerland when all consuls from around the world are invited to meet the president as well as ambassadors. While the annual trip offers up some glamour, most of Dumur’s responsibilities evolve around stamping documents and paperwork. “If any residents need me, it is best to call me to make an appointment, at 082 762 0050.”