Last month Melbourne was named the most liveable city in the world (Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Liveabilty Survey). Adelaide and Sydney were also in the top ten. In spite of all this, around 5% of those from down under live up over elsewhere. In fact, Mike Walther, Australian Honorary Consul in Chiang Mai, reckons there are at least double the 1,000 registered Australians in Chiang Mai.
Australians are no longer cork-hat twirling, barbecue-huddling, flip flop-dragging sports addicts…well, some are…but today’s Australia is global, varied and resistant to stereotypes. We have tried to reflect this modern Australia in the selection of expats to be featured this month.
The Honorary Consul
Mike Walther, Australian Honorary Consul in Chiang Mai, is no stranger to foreign lands. Walther, who has lived here for 30 years, and his Chiang Mai wife, jointly run two successful businesses in the contracting and upmarket interior design industries. Walther has voluntarily held the position of Honorary Australian Consul for the last eight years, after being nominated by his friend the Australian Foreign Minister at the time. Even though he is beyond traditional retirement age, at 78 years old, Walther still works full time, loving it and believing in keeping mentally and physically fit.
I met Walther in his consular office which piggybacks on his wife’s family business in construction. An Aussie flag and a small consul plaque hung from the shop front which was adorned with ceramic decorations, plush tiled pavements and gaudy religious garden statues…
“The average age for Australian expats here is mid sixties, most are retirees,” he explains. “We had a backpacker who was found on Loi Kroh Road recently, he was walking down the street naked. He’d been drugged and robbed of everything including his clothes. The police didn’t want to arrest him. It was harder to get him out of the psychiatric hospital than putting him in. I had to get doctors to sign all kinds of forms, and by the time you get people out of that place, some of them go half mad anyway.”
Born in the mid 1930s in Norwich, UK, Walter moved to Uganda after boarding school, where his father was living as a colonial judge. Walter worked in Uganda as a refrigeration mechanic and although his father wished for him to study law he decided to join the army. During his time in the army he gained a degree in architecture, from then-Rhodesia. “It’s funny I have a degree from a country that doesn’t even exist anymore.”
“When the balloon went up in Rhodesia we left, all my family was moving to either the UK or Canada. After living in warm climates I refused to move to either place. I took the ‘Ten Pound’ passage to Australia.” After a two month journey across the ocean Walter’s ‘Australiaisation’ began and he continued to live in Perth for the next 20 years, building up his own construction company.
After heading various projects in Thailand and Asia with his company, Walter eventually relocated to Thailand where he has lived happily ever since.
Jinda Charoen Konsong
236 Chian Mai-Doi Saket Road (Highway 118), Sansai
053 492 480, 081 837 7750
Aussie on the Beat
I met Laurie Simmons at his award-winning guesthouse on Tha Pae. He had just returned from the police station, setting the scene nicely for our interview with the city’s only Australian tourist police volunteer. Simmons welcomed us into a spacious office previously used as the hub of his lucrative e-bay business. Born and bred in Sydney, Simmons worked for the Australian police for 24 years.
“In the late seventies the Australian government was into multiculturalism. I was sent to learn Thai. Back then I didn’t even like pepper on my food!” Simmons developed a passion for a language in a country he had never even been to. “I impressed the commanders with my language ability and got into helping on human trafficking cases.”
After working in Thailand for a number of international cases and marrying a Thai lady, Simmons eventually relocated to Chiang Mai for early retirement, though there was no golf, smoking pipe and cosy slippers for this young pensioner. Helping out with a couple of incidents with the local bobbies quickly became a regular 30 to 50+ hour week assisting the tourist police.
“I’ve been to every type of incident, from lost passports, domestic rows to road accidents, suicides, murders and narcotics. There are many things which are simply a miscommunication.”
“I was once called out to diffuse a situation where an unfaithful expat had a revengeful knife hanging out of his back. Another time a man phoned us, he was hiding in the shed. All you could hear was the ‘pinging’ sounds of bullets his jealous wife was shooting at him from outside.”
He told me about another incident where a naive tourist had criticised some elephant mahouts for using the elephants to make money on the streets. The tourist ended up getting slashed with a machete, whilst the three mahouts escaped the scene by elephant; the reflector lights clipped to the elephant tails swinging side to side as the large mammals trundled up Loi Kroh. Speedy getaway, it was not!
“Everyone asks me what I get out of this,” explains Simmons. “Recently there was a very violent incident; my friend wondered why on earth I would want to be involved with such danger whilst not even getting paid. But for me it’s not about the money. I have a decent pension and businesses. For me it’s about giving something back to the local community. Yes it can be risky, and not everyone can do it. It takes a certain person to deal with dead bodies and drunk people.”
Entrepreneur Mother Earth
Marike van Breugel sat with me overlooking the verdant Citylife garden. Being surrounded by nature was a fitting place to interview van Breugel who was wearing a white linen dress and had piercing icy blue eyes. Van Breugel has lived in Thailand for the last ten years after leaving her non-profit market company, she now runs her own business producing and selling hand-made massage, spa and body care products, exporting from Thailand to Australia. She has also just opened up a new shop on Moon Muang Soi 6. Van Breugel prides her company Arun Thai on being pioneers in making truly natural, organic and fair-trade products. “Many companies here mark their products with ‘organic’ and other sellable labels.
But they don’t really understand what it means. From the beginning I wanted to do it properly and legally. I am now comfortably supporting myself, daughter and five Thai workers.”
She began by selling fresh juice and natural products to tourists, and soon started making her own products and worked with local crafts people.
Like many Aussie expats interviewed, van Breugel was not born in Australia, she arrived down under from Holland, on a wave of assisted-passages intended to develop the Australian population. Van Breugel’s mother was a Dutch-German jew and her father a Dutch Indonesian, neither of the young couple felt at home in The Netherlands after living under sufferance during the Nazi occupation and wished to begin a new life in Australia.
“I was seven when we moved to Melbourne. I grew up in Australia and I am Australian. Back then, being an immigrant was horrible. There wasn’t any support. We didn’t speak English. At school my teacher said to me if I want to go to the toilet I must say it in English. I wet my pants three times before I worked out how to say it right. That was the extent of assimilation when I was young.” Though now van Breugel tells me it is a totally different story in a very cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and accepting Australia.
Van Breugel tells me she is a very happy single mum and business woman. “Chiang Mai is an amazing place, the expats that stick around are the type of people who don’t feel the need to ‘fit in’, as you can’t really anyway. They are the square pegs in the round holes.”
Knocking Them Dead
Teresa Khongtham is a familiar face at Citylife’s Garden Fair. Teresa and her Thai husband, Nok, have lived in Chiang Mai for the past nine years creating beautiful beaded jewellery, accessories, fashion ware, greeting cards and any number of creative gifts and goodies and can often be seen at the city’s many fairs and markets. Having been brought up in the hospitality business in Australia’s Victoria, Teresa knew from an early age that she had a yearn to travel. She spent nine years travelling around the world, living in London for half that time, before she came to Koh Lanta for a holiday and fell in love with the bartender – Nok.
So, what is an Australian hospitality expert with itchy feet going to do with a creative Thai bartender? The two put their thinking caps on, moved to Bangkok and decided to unleash Nok’s creative juices while Teresa would act as the entrepreneurial business partner. Over the years their market business began to flourish and today they export jewellery to Australia as well as run a shop in town (opposite Wat Chedi Luang) called Nok ‘Em Ded Designs. “We have had our fair shares of issues with the cross cultural marriage and business partnership, and working together and living together is often hard. But we try to give each other space and our working relationship is excellent. I contribute to his creativity while respecting his talent and he takes an interest in the business side of things while allowing me to do what I do best.”
When Teresa and Nok arrived in Chiang Mai by train nine years ago for a short holiday, they immediately fell in love, found a house, returned to Bangkok to pack up and have been happily living here ever since. Today they work from their home in Lamphun, “We have eight rai of land and after volunteering at Care for Dogs, I have now adopted eight dogs, which keeps us busy!” Their love of animals has also led to the formation of their new venture, Modern Pets, stylish and fun pet houses and beds.
“Nok has a flair for colour and is not afraid to try new things,” said Teresa. “He is experimental and has a vision that is really funky, contemporary and offbeat. Being a go getter, and believing in him, I really enjoy marketing his creations.” Teresa and Nok seem pretty settled in Chiang Mai and plan to be here for the long haul. Perhaps her itchy feet have found some roots.